following yonder shuriken

To say the people of Tokyo are keen on shopping is an understatement; at times I did wonder if the city had begun as a shopping centre which burst its banks and grew so big that people ended up living there. From the tiny tech shops of Akiba, through the bijou department stores of Shibuya, to the sprawling malls at Ueno Station, whose lower shops spread into the subway system like roots, you can always find someone selling you something.

But there are shopping districts and shopping districts, and Ginza is the latter. It’s a rogues’ gallery of the Big Brand Names, the sort of place where luxury boutiques and “flagship stores” (whatever the hell that means) pop up like measles. There’s so much money there the English slogans actually make sense. Crass architectural bling predominates; the place was completely flattened in the war, and has been left with none of the (comparative) restraint that unbombed pre-war buildings impose on, say, Oxford Street or Fifth Avenue (the Wako building, about the only building there that predates the USAAF turning Tokyo to dust and ash, is admittedly splendid). The shops are adorned with very expensive-looking, elaborate facades; they’re generally tall buildings crammed into very small plots, so underneath the surface detail are all boring space-maximising cuboids, but, like everyone on the streets, they’re really well dressed.

We explored the Sony store, a cornucopia of merchandise and cool future technonsense; there was very little in the way of 3D kit (good; good riddance) but plenty of other fun toys, with plasma screens you could hide a 4×4 behind, a camera with incredibly impressive wobble compensation set on a mechanically shaken platform, and giant rainbow walls of smartphones with ridiculous two-word colour names.

Some time before coming out to Japan, I had made an effort to be a good boyfriend and find an appropriately Nice and Romantic joint to treat my fair lady; some quiet, classy little candles’n’flowers sort of thing, you know. Through hitting up various Japan-savvy friends (I seem to have loads of them these days) and earnestly googling things, I found something called “Sweets Paradise”: an all-you-can-eat dessert buffet. The first review online said “90 MINUTES OF CAKE!!!!!!!”. It seemed perfect. And according to Fran’s phone, there was a Sweets Paradise in Ginza.

The phone lied; we went to its coordinates, but there was no cake.* So we found a train to Shinjuku, an area we wanted to visit anyway, and after spending ages trying to escape the World’s Busiest Station ™’s labyrinthine and totally unintuitive interior, popped out of an exit directly across from a sign saying SWEETS PARADISE. After a brief queue, we put 1400 yen a head in the ticket machine and were granted unlimited access (for 70 minutes; 90 must have been another branch) to a basement diner-y place full of overly well-dressed young Japanese women (with unreasonably good figures, given the setting), bustling staff in dungarees, kitschy, tasteless diner décor, and kitschy-but-totally-not-tasteless cake. Unlimited cake (and unlimited pasta, potato wedges and popcorn in between plates of cake). Seventy minutes later, we pretty much couldn’t move. Yum.

After which we Did Shinjuku, which is for all meaningful purposes the heart of Tokyo. It was very interesting – and very Japanese – but there’s only so much you can say about that sort of area: endless shops and shopping centres, dense city blocks riven by tiny alleys stuffed with arcades and curio shops and glowing vending machines, giant, glittering skyscrapers, the odd building that was actually genuinely imaginative and attractive, all lost in seas of people and swishing eight-lane freeways. It was a bright, dry, blustery day, and didn’t feel like Christmas at all. As we headed back to the station, the sun was going down, and the lights of the city were beginning to wink on.

Christmas dinner was at a place called Ninja Akasaka – a restaurant which was advertised as being ridiculously, shamelessly gimmicky and over the top. We went there. IT WAS. The entrance was practically concealed, just a square doorway in the side of another building; that led to a small wood-panelled room, and after the receptionist checking our reservation was satisfied, she shouted out a command and a ninja popped out of a hidden door and, opening another hidden door, led us along a narrow winding passage, summoned a drawbridge with ninja magic and took us across it to a dark model ninja village to our table. I say “table” – it was a little hut for two with sliding doors, set against an imitation rock wall, in which a hole led to a cave through which a misty, mysterious stream flowed. Staff in ninja costumes ghosted through the alleys and the bamboo walkways overhead, connecting another level of ninja huts full of customers. I had no idea how big the place was.

Everything was incredibly silly, but played absolutely straight. Our starter was shuriken (throwing star) crackers with shuriken-shaped pieces of pate; after that, our ninja waitress Kasumi set bowls of salad before us, and then presented each of us a box with mist seeping out – opening the box, which was full of dry ice smoke, yielded an eggshell which that looked like an egg, felt like an egg, but when cracked turned out to contain the other half of the salad, jelly and shrimp and some other tasty seafoody stuff. Then the master ninja came to give us a magic show – just coins and cards, nothing elaborate, but very nicely executed and cheerful. There followed some of the most delicious steak I’ve ever eaten, a cheesecake shaped like a frog, and REAL ENGLISH TEA for dessert.

A good Christmas.

*If you’re inferring a Portal reference here, go to hell.

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