Tokyo – a metropolis of dreams. It exists in a haze of past and future, quiet and super busy, organised and chaotic. The super-mega-troprolis is home to more than 35 million people: The biggest city in the history of the world. Put that into context for the UK. We have an overall population of 66.8 million. Which would be half of the UK population is living in Tokyo metropolitan area.
Despite a huge population, and what you see on TV – it never feels insanely busy except at the world famous touristy spots or the super-peak time on the subway/train. Outside of this – it often feels like it exists *just* for you.
Warrens of streets and alleyways – one leading onto another, never ending, but at the same time you are hoping that it doesn’t end either. Each area has a creative and beautiful type of lampost/light shade. The city exists in layers. Like a complex photoshop file. There’s basements with basements, shops with lifts that takes you to secret bars, there’s the odd door way that leads you to something you would have never guessed. Streets lead into shopping centres, shopping centres lead into arcades, arcades turn into parks, parks turn into temples, temples into houses, house into garages, garages into the best ramen you’ve ever had.
You could just walk one street in the centre of Tokyo of half a mile for half a day and you’d likely never find everything there, or expect to find the stuff that you do.
There’s a store for everything. If you can’t find it in Tokyo, then it doesn’t exist.
Here I can get the amazing Hawaiian drinks we drank for super cheap in Maui but are basically unavailable anywhere else on any mainlands. I can find any stationary available anywhere in the world here, but so much I can’t ever find in the UK. There’s shops dedicated to just the soul beauty of the pencil or a place that only sells lucky cats. There’s stores dedicated to the selling of things you need to make your own temple, small tiny spaces covered floor to wall & even ceiling with any kind of electrical lead/wire/bits & bobs you can imagine. Anything you want – Portuguese tarts, New Zealand s’more cookies, British pub food, worlds best burger, worlds best ramen, worlds best chocolate – Tokyo has got your back. And this is even before we get to the stuff that really matters – places dedicated to making paper, places securing 1000s years of tradition and passing it on, the way that everyone cares for the city – you could drop your sandwich on the floor in the middle of the street & it looks so clean you’d probably pick it back up and continue to eat it.
I don’t think I have ever seen a pothole in any of the roads of Tokyo. I’m not sure I can say that for anywhere else I have visited.
It’s in Tokyo that I realise that I am a person who waits. There’s a lot of queuing. More lining up than here at home in the UK. Lining up for ramen, lining up for the train, queuing up for a shop. Every few minutes, the noren curtain hanging in front of a door would twitch, discharging bodies into the Tokyo dusk, and we would steadily shuffle forward.
I am not really a person who usually likes to wait for things (thus my clutch onto Amazon Prime despite knowing how unethical it is). At home, if a friend suggests a meal at one of those tremendously cool restaurants that doesn’t take reservations, I’ll agree only if we eat geriatrically early or owlishly late. I politely reject any brunch plans that involve putting our names on a list and then hovering on the sidewalk for two hours.
It’s impatience, I suppose, but also a sort of brutal rationality: On one hand, there’s the value of my time, and on the other, there’s the value of whatever’s at the end of the line. The latter never really seemed worth that much of the former.
Public space is scaled so much better—old, human-sized spaces that also control flow and speed,” Dixon notes. In Japanese cities, people are accustomed to walking everywhere, and public transportation trumps car culture; in Tokyo, half of all trips are made on rail or bus, and a quarter on foot. Drivers are used to sharing the road and yielding to pedestrians and cyclists.
But here we were, H, R & me at that moment, 14th,15th & 16th in line waiting for a highly rated Ramen place – down a nondescript alley, just around d the corner from a super expensive department store in Shinjinku. Surrounded front and back by locals, part of a neat queue that snaked out the small restaurant’s entrance to the curb, where it broke for the tarmac only to pick up again around the corner onto a busier street. Every few minutes, the noren curtain hanging in front of the door would twitch, discharging bodies into the Tokyo late morning rain, and we would steadily shuffle forward.
We were there to eat 1 of the best Tokyo Style Shoyu Ramen, the specialty of the tiny restaurant after walking in the rain through Shinjuku Gyoen. The place is presided by a few wiry ramen masters who are all rocking a blond, boy-band coif, who dances around behind the counter, boiling and draining and plating their food with the percussive flamboyance of a flair bartender. Shoyu is a type of ramen made with chicken stock and shoyu is mixed with dashi to produce the unique Tokyo style Ramen. Tokyo Ramen is usually served with Chashu, Kamaboko, half an Egg, and is topped with chopped leek and preserved bamboo shoots.
Once it was our turn at the door, we make our orders on an old machine that’s all in Japanese and has pictures of Ramen but you can’t see really what type of meat. Being tourists, but eager to YOLO and not look foolish – we all select whatever R is ordering because he knows his food-stuff. We leave the door and wait until 3 seats become free and our order gets made fresh.
Queuing is a big deal in Japan, a physical exercise of the principles of discipline and etiquette that are drilled into every schoolchild and reinforced for every adult.
When, at last, we are waved over to a pair of seats, we watch these amazing chefs – ramen masters – prepare our dishes and they ask if we want a bib. I’m the only one who obliges but. I’m glad for it as we are all bent hungrily over our bowls, slurping the soup everywhere. Like a child & their favourite dish. Every part of me feels warmed up, and extra alive – electrified. I put my hands gently around and over the bowl. Feel the warmth and heat from the ramen. As we slurp down delicious food, we are semi-eavesdropping on the still-waiting people pressed into the narrow space behind us. “This guy is supposed to be the real deal,” an American man says to his wife.
If there’s one thing that you learn about the Japanese as a people is that they are incredibly dedicated, humble, serious, and deeply respectful, and honour driven. While it may seem like “just a noodle shop”, there’s an unspoken code of conduct that every local knows but for us as foreigners may not be as intuitive or obvious.
Consider this, most of these “rules” show that the culture is deeply rooted in the idea that as a customer, it is an honour to be able to eat the food a ramen master since we’re not able to make it ourselves and therefore respect is part of the tribute that you pay. This is craft that most chefs spend a lifetime to perfect and usually without any thought of seeking fame or fortune.
Take a second to let that sink in. This is very different from other cultures right?
I’m not a super plan-ahead kind of traveler, but Tokyo is a plan-ahead kind of city. So if you don’t book ahead, you have to queue up for hours before.
People line up, without apparent impatience, not only at ramen restaurants and store cash registers, but to board subway trains, nab a taxi at a stand, and enter elevators. After the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake—an event so tectonically powerful that it shifted the entire main island of Japan eight feet eastward and spat up a towering tsunami that ravaged the country’s northeast—the world watched in awe as millions of affected Japanese refrained almost entirely from looting, and instead waited in calm, orderly lines to receive supplies, sometimes for 12 hours or more. Next to that, how can my aversion to a queue mean anything at all?
One night R, H and I walked miles from Shibuya through it’s cool neighbourhood Shimokitazawa – it’s style is more hip and grungy than the polished global cool of Shibuya and it’s super quirky cutisy vibes of Haraujuku.
We walked up purple neon hills, seeing the city sky line happen below us, alongside train tracks and through dark tunnels. As always, Tokyo is always eerily quite, but it’s safe. We walked past Japanese baseball stores, off the beaten track pizza places, cool bars, record stores, and more weird shops. We walked until we got to a hood called Ebisu. Where I think had the best burger – and certainly the most delicious Japanese fried chicken.
We walked across all of central Tokyo neighbourhoods. I achieved my goal of seeing the place – with my own eyes.
But it took us time and Tokyo makes you a person who waits.
In the dim light of sunrise, we get up super early – an hour before to get train tickets for Mount Fuji. The time we wanted was already sold out.
We lined up for all kinds of foods and drinks and much more in between.
At the end of all those waits was, invariably, magnificence: The most jewel-like sashimi. The lightest pork cutlets. The richest, deepest, most exquisite ramen broth I’ve ever had.
There’s a phrase in Japanese for places like this⎯gyouretsu no dekiru mise: “restaurants that have very long lines.” The lines are often self-fulfilling prophecies: The wait isn’t part of the cost, as I’d always considered it; to a Japanese person, it’s part of the value. When presented with two vendors selling effectively identical products, the Japanese choose whichever one has the longer line in front of it. Making it through a long line is a praiseworthy feat of endurance, and long queues for one thing or another are always in the news.
As I committed myself ever more deeply to my new practice of patience, I wish I was shooting on film. I was missing my 40-year-old camera , which has no LCD screen with instant preview—instead I had opted to try and do moving film this time. Except it drained my battery and I had forgotten my plug adaptor. So Just like 35mm, each frame became precious, which means you need to make it worth it. You need to wait for the shot.
That’s what I was doing when the strangest, most wondrous, most ineffably Tokyo part of my time there happened. I was sitting on the stone parapet of a bridge over a canal in Nakameguro, a crushingly lovely neighborhood on Tokyo’s southwest side, waiting for the sunset colours to hit through. It was almost surreally pink.
I would be leaving Tokyo the next day, and I was on my last charged battery.
Tokyo is a magical place. I knew this going in, as I’d been before and was now hooked on it, looking for my next high. Every great city is magical, a unique alchemy of climate and culture, of the past and the future. But in Tokyo I found a magic of extremes. It’s a fast, crowded, chaotic place, surging and staccato—until it’s not. You’ll turn a corner onto a side street, or the minute hand on your watch will tick over the hour, and suddenly all that urgent density falls away. The city is a pattern of movement and stillness, sounds and silences.
What I found, as I let myself relax into being a person who waits, is that even if you’re standing near roaring traffic—or in a subway station during the crush of rush hour, or in the riot of a department store—inside the act of waiting, there’s a form of quiet. As my days in Tokyo passed by, I felt myself undergo an almost physical change: In the scurrying chaos of a dense megacity, my restlessness retreated, my breath slowed. I could feel something else emerging inside me, a blanket unrolling over a rumpled bed, a calmness that was neither contentment nor boredom.