“The city that never sleeps” is a hackneyed phrase uttered about metropolises from London to New York, but the Japanese capital of Tokyo is perhaps the finest embodiment of the cliché. To test this out, Martin Zatko and his friends decided to spend a full 24 hours finding great things to do in Tokyo: a day split three ways, lassoing together the city’s past, present and future.
The day starts early... very early. Our first target is the famed tuna auction at Tsukiji, for which queuing starts at around 3am; rather than waking up far from the action at 1.30am and wasting money on a costly taxi ride in, we opt to head to an izakaya (bar) nearby. These drinking dens are Japan’s equivalent to the English pub, but with better food – I grab a bunch of deep-fried kushiage sticks, with quail eggs and bacon-wrapped cheese lurking beneath the golden breadcrumbs. They go well with shōchū, a strong local drink that comes in various guises: a bit of a shōchū snob, I favour mine made with sweet potato, served on the rocks, and preferably sourced from the southern prefecture of Kagoshima.
After this boozy prelude, the tuna auction itself admittedly passes by in a bit of a blur – various numbers are shouted around the place, with giant, silvery fish arrowed in the direction of the largest ones. From here, it’s over to the small sushi bars nearby to wolf down a super-fresh platter; the price is a good four-times higher than I’m used to paying, but the salmon, tuna, shrimp and cuttlefish are utterly divine – one of those meals in which nobody says a word.
From the market, it’s over to the nearby island of Odaiba. I first head to the Venus Fort mall, to wake myself with coffee under a faux Italian dawn, painted lovingly onto the ceilings. Thus energised, I visit the adjacent Toyota showroom for a buzz around in an electric concept car (no licence required), then to bash the hell out of various arcade machines at the delightfully mad gaming centre next door. My favourites are Dance Evolution and the bowling skittles set on a giant pool table.
Finally, after all this, it’s noon. To get to Asakusa from Odaiba, we take the Himiko ferry, a silver, spacecraft-like vessel designed by prominent manga cartoonist Danny Choo. The view on the way up the Sumida-gawa river is quite wonderful, especially over ice-cream. On the right as we pull into Asakusa is the Tokyo Skytree, now the world’s second-tallest structure; and the Asahi Beer Hall, topped by a sculpture affectionately known to locals at the kin no unko (golden turd).
It’s time for a trip west to the magnificent Sensō-ji temple, accessed under a giant lantern that weighs almost a ton. We stroll around the grounds until the 2pm ceremony, during which drums echo through the hall into the courtyard as priests chant sutras beneath the altar. We follow this up with a dip in the neighbouring onsen (hot springs); it’s only when a couple of nervous Westerners come in that I realise how blasé Asia has made me about baring all in public. Such nudity always seems to make me hungry, so the next stop is a standing noodle bar for some delicious soba noodles, served on bamboo mats with a soy-and-wasabi dipping sauce.
To complete the afternoon, it’s over to nearby Akihabara. Just west of the station, the “maid café” girls are coming out for business. Dressed to the nines in a range of spectacular costumes, they attempt to drag every passing person back to their café; I usually plump for the one with the best patter. Maid cafés are funny places: most customers are local guys who don’t really get to talk to girls, while the girls themselves are adept at getting their patrons to join in with little chants and cartoon actions. All in all, they’re a fascinating peek into the stage-act psyche of modern Tokyo.
Lastly, we go to Shinjuku for a night out. Many Westerners have seen footage of Tokyoites getting pushed onto subway trains by uniformed attendants; this actually happens at very few stations and at rush hour only, but this is Shinjuku, the busiest station in the world, and it’s 6pm. We tumble out of the sardine-packed train with everyone else, then turn to watch the oshiya pushing waiting customers on. There’s just enough time to catch the best sunset views in the city by racing up to the observatory atop the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – as usual, mist and pollution obscure distant Mount Fuji, but it’s still a joy to see this gigantic city switching on its lights. Back on the ground, it’s pure cliché: a mad neon jungle, with staggered signboards flashing away into the distance.
It’s now 8pm, and time for a performance at the wild and wonderful Robot Restaurant. The place has almost nothing to do with food: it’s all about the various performing robots – and, I’ll admit, the dozens of scantily-clad dancing girls. My own favourite is Disco Stu (possibly not his real name), a rollerblading, robot-costumed dancing dude with a rainbow afro-wig. After the show, a robot butler serves us cocktails in the upstairs bar.
Laughing my head off at the crazy robot show has made me even more tired – at this point, alcohol is the only remedy. Luckily, we’re just a short walk from Golden Gai, a nightlife district crammed with what must be hundreds of shoebox-sized bars. You have to get lucky, since these places are only as enjoyable as the few other people who can fit inside them, but we’ve struck gold with a few hilarious local businessmen – the Japanese are hugely conservative up to a point, but that point seems to be around four tumblers of sake. We end up drinking most of the bottle I’d intended to leave behind the bar for another day, and the garrulous businessmen encourage me to down the remainder before leaving. Finally, we stagger over to a nearby karaoke bar, to make use of their wonderfully affordable drink-and-sing-all-you-can specials. After belting out Barbie Girl (a long-ingrained habit), and Yatta! (the best Japanese song ever made), it’s finally time to hit the hay, more convinced than ever that Tokyo is my favourite city on earth.
Top image: Shinjuku, Golden Gai, Tokyo, Japan © Shutterstock
Explore more of Japan with the Rough Guide to Japan. Book hostels for your trip, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.