Ben Hills

The fireburst in the night sky freezes Tokyo like a flash-camera at a crime scene: the kilometres-long traffic jam on the Shuto Expressway through the heart of the city; the graceful span of the Rainbow Bridge; the hulking skyscrapers of Shinjuku. The giant fire-flower, as the Japanese call them, descends slowly in a waterfall of pink and purple before another barrage of rockets launched from barges on the bay paints the sky with even more dazzling images: Smiley faces, a monster dragonfly, the interlocked Olympic rings.

The greatest fireworks show on earth is under way – 12,000 rockets, some the size of beer kegs, hurled aloft in 80 minutes. It’s the most spectacular display of the ancient art of fireworks, against the backdrop of the world’s most modern city.

In a rooftop garden a crowd of partygoers – women in bright yukatas, young trendies in designer denim, old folk mopping their faces with cotton hand-towels – put down their beer cans and plates of octopus balls to applaud the spectacle.

It is a hot August night and we are on the 43rd floor of an apartment block in Roppongi Hills, the city’s newest and most architecturally stunning landmark; a world away from the sleazy back alleys of Roppongi with their all-you-can-drink bars and soft-core strip joints, and a short walk from where I lived when I was based here a decade ago.

The transformation is jaw-dropping. After spending more than 18 years coaxing, cajoling and paying off hundreds of residents, the mega-developer Minoru Mori bulldozed 11 hectares of gerrybuilt postwar slums and erected an ultra-modern $3 billion city in the sky where 5000 people live and work and tens of thousands more come to play.

The biggest private development in Japanese history opened a year ago and has become a tourist destination in its own right, with platoons of headset-wearing guides escorting boggling tourist groups from the countryside.

Crowds queue for the lifts to the 53rd floor Mori modern art gallery (currently featuring a tribute to that billion-dollar graphic design icon, Hello Kitty); others throng hot designer stores like Issey Miyake; lip-smacking gourmets breast the counter of superchef Joël Robuchon’s only restaurant outside Paris; a new beer is launched under the legs of a five-metre-tall bronze spider called Maman; families picnic beside a lake ringed with cherry trees and stocked with 10,000 medeka, descendants of a fish launched into space by Japan’s first astronaut, Dr Chiaki Mukai … or so the sign says.

It’s all happening.

It is here, thanks to some obliging in-laws-to-be, that I have been staying for a week, enjoying life, literally, at the top. The apartments are available to medium-stay visitors (see below). They’re a cheaper option than Tokyo’s pricey Western-style hotels and afford a great behind-the-scenes insight into the city’s way of life that you won’t get by crossing sights off your travel guide.

A decade of deflation has made Japan a far more affordable destination than it was during the roaring ’80s, when sushi wrapped in gold leaf and $10 cups of coffee became the symbols of excess. And thanks to deregulation of what used to be called “the golden route”, you can now fly there and back for under $1000 and (admittedly spartan) accommodation can be found for as little as $40 a night.

Staying in Roppongi Hills gives you a preview of how we may all be living in a decade or two if populations continue expanding relentlessly. Within a 100-kilometre radius of here, further than you can see through the haze of photochemical smog, live 30 million people.

The apartment has half a dozen key-pads to control such necessities as heating, air-conditioning, fans, TV (100 channels, including one devoted exclusively to vintage samurai movies), hi-fi, etc. There are two water supplies (one for drinking, one for the rest), an intercom screen linked to the bilingual concierge, and a repository for your takeaway containers – not cardboard pizza boxes but beautifully lacquered containers in which your friendly local ryotei will deliver your dinner … perhaps a summer special of broiled eel on a bed of rice, sprinkled with mountain ash seasoning.

In the serviced apartments, designed by the British style guru Terence Conran and dubbed “The Hedonist,” “The Spiritualist” and “The Humanist”, the lavatory lids open automatically as you approach and the bidet options include everything except powdering your bottom.

The Mori people promise a thorough briefing before they let tenants loose. Just as well. On my first day I went for a luxurious soak in the bath and pushed the wrong button. Within seconds the concierge was on the line to check on my welfare.

It was only then I learned that all modern Japanese bathrooms have emergency buttons beside the bath and in the loo – favourite places, apparently, for citizens of the world’s oldest society (one in four is over 65) to collapse.

The oldies won’t be parted from their pets, either, so Mr Mori came up with some unique solutions. The apartment buildings have dedicated entrances for people with pets (papillon terriers are the hottest new accessory) and a pet room where their paws must be washed before they are escorted to the pet elevator. That freezer chest in the corner is where you deposit any droppings you’ve brought home in a plastic bag.

And fear not in the event of an earthquake. The buildings are mounted on gigantic shock-absorbers guaranteed to withstand a quake as devastating as the one that flattened Kobe in 1995. Each building has its own power generator, emergency well for water, even a stockpile of food.

You could easily spend a week having fun in the spas, bars, bistros, galleries and 24-hour cinema complex without leaving the Roppongi Hills complex. But that would be a shame. There’s a whole lot more of Tokyo out there, and it’s really not hard to get around.

Forget driving. Even though the building has an extraordinary stacking system for cars (mainly BMWs, and the odd soft-top Rolls and Hummer), which are delivered automatically as you wait in a sort of departure lounge, it’s far simpler to ride in style on the best subway system in the world. Tokyo’s is spotless, air-conditioned, has signs in English, and trains run so frequently that in peak-hour one arrives before you can walk the length of the platform.

Unlike, say, the capitals of Europe, Tokyo does not have a mass of ancient art and architecture. Hardly surprising given it has been obliterated three times in the past couple of centuries – by fire, earthquake, and General Curtis LeMay’s napalm bombs.

By all means visit the famous monuments of the guide books: the Imperial Palace, Meiji Jingu Shrine, the Tokyo National Museum and so on. Or take a look at something a little off the beaten track like Zojoji temple, home of the black Amita Buddha and built by the Japanese Napoleon, Tokugawa Ieyasu. The beautiful Zojoji park used to be the officially designated spot where my partner and I were supposed to go looking for each other in the event of an earthquake. During summer you can relax with a lunch-box under a red parasol among the azalia bushes; at midnight on New Year’s Eve, you can pound rice with Shinto priests to make ceremonial mochi (rice cakes) in a wooden mortar while you wait your turn in the snow to ring in the New Year on a giant bronze bell.

For my money, the best things about Tokyo are activities like this; the chance encounters, the sheer pace of the place. If you want history, try Kyoto with its picture-book cherry blossoms, temples and geishas. Better still is the more ancient and much less touristy capital of Nara.

Here, just walking down the street, peering into window displays, you get simultaneous glimpses of the past and the future. A young woman in a summer kimono emailing someone on her 3G phone; tomorrow’s car styles (retro, boxy numbers like the Nissan Cube and the Honda That’s); shudder at the latest teeny-bopper fashion (white contact lens that makes eyes look as if they have no irises); the hottest electronic gizmos (XM satellite radio).

And tune yourself in to the seasons. Tokyo is four different cities, depending on the time of year. The dog days of August mean boisterous beer gardens on city rooftops, snacks of eel and octopus balls (always served with Worcestershire sauce and mayonnaise), and colourful bon-odori festivals.

And baseball. It’s Japan’s sporting religion, and if you want a fun night head to Jingu stadium, where the league’s perennial underdogs, the Yakult Swallows, are based. They are the Rabbitohs of Japanese baseball – proud of the fact that, unlike their rich rivals, the Yomiuri Giants, their stadium has no roof. To celebrate a run, the fans in the bleachers unfurl green plastic umbrellas and thrust them to the skies while uttering disconcerting cries of “Banzai!”

Attendants ply you with steamed soy beans and chicken yakitori as you sit under the warm summer stars, and young women staggering along with kegs on their backs pour cardboard tankards of foaming Ebisu draught. To make it a perfect night, Iwamura hits a home run at the bottom of the fifth to give the Swallows victory over the front-running Chunichi Dragons. Banzai!

You would be mad not to try one traditional Japanese kaiseki meal – a banquet of up to a dozen courses, seasonally and regionally themed. But be warned that, with a flask or two of daiginjo-shu (the finest grade of sake), it will set you back as much as, say, dinner at Sydney’s esteemed Tetsuya’s.

You could, as an English teacher I once knew claimed he did, lunch for free by sampling the giveaways in the food basements of the great Ginza department stores. Just for fun I tried this. I enjoyed a balanced meal of chocolate caviar, pickled apricot, some tiny sausages of smoked cheese, kimchi and a piece of eel washed down with samples of the new season’s sake, but gave up after accidentally biting into a plastic replica of a stuffed squid, to the annoyance of the shop assistant.

Much more fun to go looking for a friendly little izakaya, a cheap-and-cheerful cafe/bar, somewhere like Omoide Yokocho (“Memory Lane”) near Shinjuku station. Or Manpuku (“Full Tummy”), a great little traditional dive under the railway arches not far from Tokyo station where you can listen to ’50s rock ‘n’ roll in a bar decorated with retro samurai movie posters and snack on angler-fish liver and kingfish sashimi.

If Roppongi Hills is our future, Manpuku is Old Japan. But, like everything else in this dynamic city, all is not as it seems. As we leave, the waitress tells us Manpuku has been operating for just seven years.

Destination: Tokyo

Where to stay

Roppongi Hills is the newest, smartest and most expensive serviced apartment building in Tokyo with rents ranging from $8450 to $16,900 a month. Details and bookings at Mori Living.

Other companies have cheaper one-bedroom, Western-style serviced apartments known as “monthly mansions” and “weekly mansions” (don’t take it literally) in convenient locations such as Minami Azabu, Ebisu and Akasaka, ranging from $600 to $1500 a week. The website is worth checking.

Some tour companies have remarkable accommodation deals. Sachi Tours, with Nippon Travel Agency, offers Western-style hotel rooms in Tokyo from $110 a person a night, and traditional ryokans in Kyoto from $165 a twin. The cheapest accommodation I could find in Tokyo was a basic (but English-speaking) traditional inn called Taito Ryokan in the back streets of downtown Asakusa with Japanese-style tatami rooms and a shared bathroom for $42 a person a night. See

Getting there

Several airlines offer economy Tokyo return flights for $1000 or less – Air Niugini was the cheapest last week at $918. See travel agents for details. Sachi Tours in Sydney (phone 9338 2345) had a bargain six-night package including accommodation and a Japan Rail pass for $2255.

Tips for first-timers

Carry lots of yen. Japan’s exchange and credit systems are primitive. Even in Tokyo most shops and restaurants don’t take credit cards (especially “foreign” cards), there are no foreign exchange bureaus, and even banks may tell you they will have to photocopy your Australian currency and fax it to head office for verification before exchanging it. The good news is you won’t be robbed.

Most “foreign” mobile phones don’t work, either. However, for about $8 a day you can rent a serviceable one at Narita airport.

Use the subway, and buy a 1000 yen ($14) “Passnet,” which gives you half a dozen rides without the inconvenience of looking up the fare and fumbling for change.

Look for cheap and cheerful eating and drinking around railway stations, or anywhere with lanterns hanging out.

Take slip-on shoes, or you will be forever hopping around in doorways trying to undo your laces.

Don’t try to open or close cab doors – the driver does that.

Take business cards, and observe the ritual when exchanging them.

Don’t, whatever you do, bathe in any bath. You wash first, rinse all the suds off, then hop in for a relaxing soak.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 4 September 2004
Edition: First
Section: Travel
Sub section:
Page: 1
Word count: 2183
Geographic area: Japan
Photographs: by Ben Hills
1. Bright lights … hunt around the side streets of Tokyo’s famous Shibuya Crossing, for cheap and cheerful bars and restaurants
2. A giant spider sculpture helps launch a new beer at Roppongi Hills;
3. Harajuku’s teenagers show off the latest fashions.
4. What’s old is new … electric rickshaws are Tokyo’s newest transport option
5. plastic replicas of lunch-time specials in Ginza.
Photos: by Ben Hills
Map: Japan