Tokyo’s corridors of cool
Tokyo, a heaving metropolis, where every action is performed with the panache of an art form, is full of surprises
I went to Japan in search of my Ikigai, a Japanese concept about finding a sense of purpose. People who know me, tell me I have an aesthetic affinity to Japan. Even before I went there, I discovered the seven aesthetic principles that guide life in Japan: Kanso, simplicity and the elimination of clutter; Fukinsei, or asymmetry; Shizen, naturalness; Yūgen, subtlety; Datsuzoku, or breaking from the routine; Seijaku, or stillness; and finally Shibui, or austerity. I felt an immediate connection.
I also realized that juxtaposition is the juggernaut that ploughs through the very fabric of Japan. What else can possibly explain the harmonious coexistence between haiku and anime, love hotels and ryokans, maid cafés and chashitsus (tea salons). The Asakusa and Akihabara neighbourhoods?
Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo once said, “I work in three shades of black." Tokyo, I discovered, works in many more.
Contrast also lies at the heart of haiku. And its most famous practitioner was Matsuo Bashō, who once wrote, The ancient pond/ A frog leaps in/ The sound of the water.
Oddly enough, this haiku also says it all about the Aman Tokyo.
The Otemachi district in Tokyo is the business aorta of the city. It heaves. The Otemachi Tower is the femur of finance. Its top six floors make up the Aman Tokyo. It has sweeping 360-degree views of the city. You can sense the stochasticity of the streets while soaking in the solitude of the Aman. The lobby is one massive quadrangle. And tucked away in its four corners are the bar, a restaurant, a library and a smoking room. The food is simply presented and simply stupendous. Without any of the unnecessary atmosphere that has eclipsed fine food. The meat cuts are perfect. The cut fruit and vegetables are a piece of art themselves. And the dazzling array of daikon (radish) is astonishing.
The rooms at the Aman are vast yet spartan. They are urban sanctuaries inspired by traditional Japanese residences. Wood and washi paper meet Wi-Fi and hip technology. The splendid bathrooms are complete with the traditional Furo soaking tub, accompanied by a container of bath salts and a green apple that is to be soaked in the water as well. I was curious about the green apple. With a little research, I discovered that adding green apple to the bath is great for blood circulation. Indeed, the Aman is full of such thoughtful touches. Little commas of civility in a punctuation of panache.
Given that we had a lot to do and very little time to do it in, my wife conducted a vast online search for a guide. The guide had to be young so that he could usher us into the various corridors of cool that we wished to walk through. Yet someone comfortable with the heft of history. Kim was just that. We had allocated our hours painstakingly. On our very first afternoon, he took us on a whirlwind tour of the usual suspects: Shibuya Crossing, with the mandatory usfie with Hachiko, the loyal dog. We rushed through the hipster hustle of Harajuku and studiously avoided the otaku and electronics-infested Akihabara. A stop at the Dover Street Market Ginza was mandatory given that our teenage sons had clearly indicated the need for clothes by Off-White, Gosha Rubchinskiy and Vetements. We also paid our respects at the shrine called Uniqlo, spread over nine floors.
But Ginza’s jewel is the Ginza Six mall. It is the spine of style. And a cult of cool. This is where the avant garde takes guard. Think brands like Briefing. Perfumes by Cire Trudon, Acca Kappa, Soph and Attachment. And right up on the sixth floor is perhaps the coolest Indian restaurant in Tokyo—Tamarind. Subtly seasoned samosas, terrific tandoori chicken and some masterful mango lassi as well.
Now, when it comes to food, I must confess that I am a philistine. I have never had sushi and I wasn’t about to start eating it in Tokyo. Kim decided to take us to places where the locals eat. I have never ever stood in a queue for my meal. But the queue at Ichiran, which touts itself as the leading name in the research of Tonkotsu ramen, had no tourists, only locals. Once you make your way through the queue, you punch a couple of buttons on a vending machine. You are then handed over a piece of paper where you circle your combination of ingredients. There is an automatic booth availability LED board that shows up which booth is free. At Ichiran, you sit in a booth all by yourself. Your guests sit on their own as well. These Flavour Concentration Booths, I was told, put one in “a parasympathetic nerve mode" that relaxes and helps in the better absorption of flavours.
The natural pork bone soup is suitably skimmed so as to draw out the full flavour of the pork. Their Dashi recipe is a state secret, with only four cooks knowing how to make it. But what they are proudest of is their Hiden No Tare, a spicy red sauce made with 30 ingredients and aged for several days. Greater fastidiousness follows. The spicy red sauce’s placement is critical. It has to be smack in the centre of the soup. I suppose the entire world is getting centred, so why not sauce.
One of the primary reasons why we visited Japan in November was to see the colourful foliage. That is the time of the year when the tsubakis, momos and sumire come into full bloom. November is also the time to walk down Icho Namiki Avenue and watch the ginkgo tree leaves morph into a magnificent yellow.
We devoted a day to parks. The Imperial Palace East Garden is spread over 52 acres of acute beauty. It is here that you will find the remains of The Edo Castle’s moats, gates and bridges. But what steals one’s heart is The Ninomaru Garden, with 260 trees from every prefecture of Japan. It has an ethereal zen-like character to it. But more than The Imperial Palace Garden, we were looking forward to Yoyogi Park, a natural park where red maples and glorious gingko trees tango with joy. There is a large lake as well. It is forested tranquillity.
Art was the other area of focus for us. I have been a lifelong devotee of Tadao Ando. And we were blessed to see Tadao Ando: Endeavors, a massive exhibition at The National Art Center that traced the footprints of this formidable architect. He is one of the few architects who has built a practice focused on environmental restoration and post-disaster reconstruction. For us, the moment of art nirvana was when we stood before Church Of The Light, his most poignant and poetic work. Every art lover has his or her moment of artistic emancipation. This was ours.
As expected of Tokyo, not far from The National Art Center, the Mori Arts Center Gallery was showing The Doraemon Exhibition Tokyo 2017. A complete contrast to Ando. This was a collaboration between the absolutely adorable Doraemon and 28 contemporary artists, including giants such as Takashi Murakami and Mika Ninagawa.
No visit to Tokyo is complete without a visit to the seriously serene Meiji Shrine, where one can partake in typical Shinto activities such as writing out one’s wish on an ema (a small wooden plaque). Sensō-ji is Tokyo’s oldest temple. It is directly behind the Asakusa Shrine, which also has the Chingo-do, the Tanuki temple. Tanuki are traditional Japanese raccoon dogs that are thought to bring good luck.
Weary after all our visits and walks, I submitted myself to the spa at the Aman. I was given some kuromoji oil to inhale and exhale. I was then massaged by a “Grounding Oil" that was a melange of four essences: amber, sandalwood, rose and jasmine.
It was a fitting end to a fine time.
Author Tim Ferriss once said that a trip to Japan “rebuilds your life".
In my case, it changed it. I stand on the left of an escalator. And I bathe with bath salts every day.
It stays with you, long after you leave.
The writer was a guest of the Aman Tokyo.