It’s brighter at night than in the day. The neon umbrella of Shinjuku pulses with electricity as we navigate through Kabuki-cho. Dinner theatre at Robot Restaurant is an Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-Transformers fantasy. Sexy mallet-wielding girls in tight shorts and bikinis beat up giant cattle-riding pandas. Gorillas flying on fire-shooting butterflies attack massive robots and more cute girls on smoke-breathing dragons. Two opposing bands of Barbarella clones perform taiko from Christmas-lit drums, smiling and laughing as they kill each other with laser beams. Ah, Tokyo. I’m like a euphoric pachinko ball bouncing between your cosmic stimuli.
Midnight. We stumble through Golden Gai’s rough-hewn labyrinthine alleys of miniature watering holes. Saturday, it’s Ginza, for shopping high-end brands; sampling goodies from the immaculate underground “food garden;” and sipping espresso at one of the many bistro tables that line the centre of the street. Sunday we pass through Harajuku where everything is “kawaii,” and teaming youth, decked out in the most eccentric collages of textiles, make-up and accessories colourize the scene. I order 3-D latte art with a foaming Hello Kitty protruding from my cup, sit back and people-watch.
Craving sushi, I head to the mecca of raw fish, the Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest wholesale fish market in the world. The action starts at 4am, and thousands of tonnes of seafood pass through here every day. Trolleys whip around every turn ready to make sashimi out of me if I don’t jump out of their way. Having booked a Tsukiji Cooking class, a guide leads me to the best vendors to purchase tuna, salmon and octopus. Upstairs at the cooking school we don aprons, slice fish and learn to make rolls, maki, miso soup and seaweed salad. I’m quite pleased with myself as I grate fresh wasabi and devour my own sushi platter. Tokyo is also where I find the best wagyu from across Japan. The Grand Hyatt Hotel in rapidly modernizing Roppongi Hills boasts a wagyu tasting menu to compare Kobe, Matsuzaka, Aka and Shiraoi beef. These brands are the most robust and juicy. I’m in heaven. Time for a nightcap. Swirling a cognac in the whisky tasting room and walk-in humidor, I step out to the lounge where a jazz singer scats, and the clangorous crowd socializes with the air of an F. Scott Fitzgerald book. Like so many foreigners looking-in with voyeuristic intrigue at this city that never sleeps and always offers more around every corner, I admire, even envy their sophistication to optimize enjoyment in every detail.
While Tokyo tilts toward the future like a bullet train, Kyoto is the seat of a thousand years of arts and culture. At the Shunko-in Temple I join a Zen meditation class and learn how to incorporate the practice into my daily life. Seated on tatami with the sweet perfume of incense, the vice-abbot slides wooden doors open to reveal a beautiful garden. There is no centre to it, he says, because the aim of meditation is to centre one’s self.
Over dinner at The Grill within the Kyoto Hyatt Regency, I sit before an open kitchen to enjoy local Kyoto produce paired with local wine. For wagyu lovers, Japanese beef prepared Argentine style is the best of both worlds. Here, luscious sirloin of marbled Kyoto beef is wood fire grilled for a smoky charcoal essence. All the grilled mountain vegetables are local too. This is the height of Japanese farm-to-table.
Kyoto is home to an endless number of ancient temples and shrines, but it seems that tourists always go to the same few. Lamenting to the general manager about being clothes-lined by throngs of selfie sticks, I discover that if you’re lucky enough to be staying at the Kyoto Hyatt Regency, and want an exclusive experience, the concierge will customize itineraries and make things happen. Indeed, the Hyatt Regency arranges everything I want to do.
Tofukuji Temple, uniquely located within a ravine, is a former burial ground for several emperors. As the sun comes up over the temple complex, I’m alone in the woods with singing birds and a trickling stream, ensconced in the dreamscape of autumn leaves. Within the same neighbourhood, a consortium of artisans is renowned for their ornate Kyoto-style pottery. Under the tutelage of a local potter, I knead clay and shape my own matcha bowl. The Nana-jo Kanshundo teashop crafts its own wagashi (sweet confectionery), and offers instruction. Following tea service on the balcony, we mould sweet adzuki bean paste. Pinching and rolling it in my hands, I try to replicate a chrysanthemum, an abstract mountain and an autumn leaf. Rich and sweet, they pair naturally with frothy matcha.
Japan is a land of contrasts from the new capital to the ancient one. We’re enriched by all of it.