Tokyo Olympics 2020: take in the quirk and intrigue of the Japanese capital

THE WEIRD AND WONDERFUL: Take in the Robot Restaurant show in Shinjuku. Picture: Supplied
THE WEIRD AND WONDERFUL: Take in the Robot Restaurant show in Shinjuku. Picture: Supplied

The focus might be on sport in 2020, but the Olympics will put the Japanese way of life in the spotlight. Grant Jones uncovers the quirky but always interesting neighbourhoods of Tokyo.

The beauty of Tokyo is that despite being a megacity, it is actually a megatropolis of neighbourhoods, each with their own individual character, attractions and secrets which are revealed only after diving down the rabbit hole.

Getting lost is one of the great joys of touring - and in Tokyo there's the added joy of knowing that you are never too far from a train station if you decide to head back to your hotel.

Tokyo is a generally safe city with plenty to do at all times of the day and night, as long as you know where to look. So, on your mark and get ready for a marathon experience.

Once settled into your starting position, it's time to explore, experience - and eat. Looking past all the neon, and after confronting the hordes at the world's busiest pedestrian intersection, Shibuya has numerous izakaya (casual bar-restaurants) where you can indulge in grilled chicken skewers and salty squid while chugging beers.

With any luck you'll stumble upon one of the tachinomi (standing bars), like the quirky Bar Piano found deep in Nonbei Yokocho (aka Drunkards' Alley). There is also a lively music scene with tiny venues, such as the Ruby Room and 7th Floor, dotted throughout the maze of streets around the station.

If more mainstream is your thing then the neighbourhood of Roppongi is your destination. Chic bars sit elbow to elbow with izakaya - and strip joints for local salarymen and visiting sailors.

For shopaholics, Shinjuku offers the lot, from pricey electronics to 100-yen shops. But swing by Robot Restaurant, with its popular-culture shows, if only just to take a seat out front for that Instagram moment.

If fashion and flares are for you, then head to Harajuku where you are just as likely to encounter anime-style girls dressed in cute pink concoctions as you are to find a hidden gem in the racks and racks of second-hand '60s, '70s and '80s clothing at stores such as Kinji. Chill out a little and have some frozen bizarre fun with a street-stall dessert known as unchi-kun - an emoji-poo-shaped soft serve ice cream that is all the rage.

Tokyo is also otaku (geek) heaven for anime, manga and video gamers, who head to Akihabara. If retro is the go, then in Ikebukuro, a suburb on the edge of Tokyo, you'll find Super Potato, which sells '90s Super Nintendo consoles, Power Gloves, Sega Mega Drives and Atari 2600s.

For those who want to make a pilgrimage, head to Asakusa via local rail to Senso-ji Buddhist temple, or take a river cruise up the Sumida to pass by the Asahi Flame sculpture (aka the "golden poo") atop the Asahi Beer Hall. "Number twos" are something of a Tokyo obsession.

While Senso-ji is the main attraction, there are also market and street-food stalls lining Nakamise-dori. Also nearby is Hanayashiki, Japan's oldest (1853) amusement park, where you can chance your luck on ancient rides, or indulge in ninja, kimono and tea ceremony experiences.

Feeling peckish? Ramen is ridiculously cheap and you can get a great bowl for about $10 around most train stations. Just look for the places the locals go - you'll see queues but it's usually worth the wait.

And if you find sushi train a little bit lame, look out for restaurants serving torisashi (raw chicken) or basashi (horse meat). The chicken restaurants - often distinguished by a poster proclaiming the origin of the birds - use every part of the animal, from raw breast meat to cartilage and liver.

If pufferfish are your thing then choose a restaurant that specialises in fugu, such as Torafugutei.

Talking of seafood, while the old Tsukiji wholesale market and its famous tuna auctions have moved, it is still worth heading to the jogai, the outside fish market, for a lesson in sushi-making or to enjoy the creamy goodness of uni (sea urchin) in a black squid ink steamed bun.

Need to work off some of that seafood? While most travellers will have missed sumo season (January, May and September in Tokyo), you can go on the hunt for sumo wrestlers and their dojos before visiting the Sumo Museum near Ryogoku station. Or you can face off with a real sumo at a replica turn-of-the-19th-century sumo ring at nearby Edo Noren.

And if you make it through all of these destinations, then you deserve a medal.

Event: The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are on 24 July to 9 August. There are a total of 82 Olympic venues around Japan, and two stadium zones within Tokyo. The Heritage Zone houses several iconic venues used at the Tokyo 1964 Games and the Tokyo Bay Zone, which is the city's model for innovative urban development. The most spectacular of the new venues is the National Stadium, built on the site of the 1964 venue and home to athletics and football events. See tokyo2020.org.

Packages: CoSport is an official partner of the Australian Olympic Team through to 2032. Packages range from Premier to Sport Specific with limited ticketing available to events. See cosport.com.

Fly: Starting from about $1200 return (ex-Syd/Melb), there are direct flights in July to Haneda or Narita with ANA, Japan Airlines and Qantas, and flights via Brisbane with Virgin Australia.

Transport: If you are attending Olympic events outside Tokyo, buy a Japan Rail Pass (japan-rail-pass.com.au) before you go. It is valid on some local railway and bus lines, as well as bullet trains. Tour Tokyo via bicycle (bicycletourstokyo.com) or dress up in a onesie for a go-kart tour (tokyokart.com).

Stay: During the Olympics, it is estimated Tokyo will be short 14,000 hotel rooms. Japanese-style rooms with beds on tatami mats or Western-style rooms are usually both on offer. Most rooms in royokan (travellers' inns) are small, but facilities are usually clean and hosts very welcoming. Stay around hubs such as Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku or Roppongi as they are on main rail lines and have many attractions. Mainstream hotels, such as the Hilton Tokyo, appear to be fully booked for the Olympic period. Bunk in with a family via Airbnb or book basic accommodation via Sakura House.

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