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Looney tuna

Severe jetlag on my first day means I find myself with predawn hours to fill, and so I make my way to the Tsukiji fish market, the biggest and busiest of its kind in the world where more than 2000 tonnes of seafood are sold every day. It’s supposed to be moving to a new site in 2014, with the city authorities gagging to cash in on the vast area of lucrative inner-city real estate it takes up, so I’m keen to catch it before it heads out of town.

Arriving at 4am, I’m in time to sign up for the daily tuna auctions, which kick off just after 5am, with viewing access limited to just 120 tourists a day. The auction itself is an eye-opening experience, especially considering the sleep-deprived, frazzled look of those around me.

Stood in a huge warehouse, before us lie row after row of giant blue fin tuna, frozen in formation like an armoury of torpedoes being prepared for war. The bells clang and the auctioneer’s garbled shouting gets underway, interrupted now and then by the nod and a wink of a buyer, followed by the quick exchange of tens of thousands of yen, before the process is repeated for the next batch of prized sashimi-in-waiting.

After an hour or so, I wander off into the giant maze of 1000-plus stalls that make up the market, every now and then jumping sideways to avoid a high-speed forklift, or stopping, boggle-eyed, for a closer look at some of the sea monsters on display. Eventually, I find my way to the restaurant area, eager to sample some of the ultra-fresh goods for breakfast. Needless to say, I doubt I’ll ever enjoy better sushi as long as I live.

High in the sky

Emerging into daylight, accompanied by a fishy new aroma unlikely to gain me many friends, I hop back on the subway. (Luckily for me, train station signs in central Tokyo are in English as well as Japanese.) 

I’m hurrying to the Tokyo Skytree, aware it’s only a matter of time before the next jetlag slump hits. Standing 634m high, the Skytree is the world’s tallest broadcasting tower and has an observation deck looking out over the Kanto area towards Mt Fuji in the distance.

It’s the perfect place to appreciate the scale of the region and its 35 million people – without being disturbed by any of that number. In fact, it’s so peaceful up here, I decide there’s no better time or place for a sky-high power-nap, and succumb to the wave of sleepiness that’s come over me.

Feeling suitably refreshed, I head back onto the streets to do what I seem to spend the best part of my week doing – wandering aimlessly among Tokyo’s central suburbs such as Ginza, Shibuya and Omotesando. The city feels endless, on a scale unlike any other metropolis you can experience. In fact, there is no obvious centre. Instead there are numerous districts, all containing a maze of streets packed with urbanites and lined with skyscrapers that rise up in a flurry of neon advertisements and massive TV screens. 

There’s a noticeable lack of old buildings – surprising at first, until you realise the city has been almost totally rebuilt twice in the past century, once after a massive earthquake in 1923 and again after extensive World War II bombing in 1945. Luckily, the earthquake and nuclear crisis suffered by Japan in 2011 left the capital largely unscathed. 

Alien encounters

Exiting each subway can feel like entering an entirely new world and, to my Western eyes, everything seems alien. From the out-there fashions on the street to the hi-tech toys in the shops, even the smallest and most everyday things are subtly different and undeniably Japanese. It’s a place where the everyday mundanities, from crossing the road to going to the toilet (no, really), become bizarre, warped experiences. 

Indeed, Tokyo’s tourist board claims the Shibuya intersection is the world’s most famous road crossing, which seems like one desperately lame boast until you’ve plodded across it yourself. There you wait, among the many hundreds of pedestrians at the giant crossroads, wondering if the lights will ever change, when suddenly the carnage descends and the army charges at you from every side, all while cartoons play out on the side of buildings and music and lights assault you from each direction. 

And the toilets? Well, clearly aware that most locals are deeply uncomfortable with sharing the audible results of their straining and splashing, many of Tokyo’s public toilets come complete with a hi-tech interactive menu, letting you mask your deadly deeds with all manner of sounds, smells and sprays. How extremely civilised.


Big trip to Tokyo: Japan's capital is 'as exciting, overwhelming and surreal as it gets'
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