Weird to think it now, but the last time the Olympics came to Tokyo, in 1964, there wasn’t much of a Tokyo to speak of. Skyscrapers had yet to start scraping skies (precisely one existed and it was just 72 metres tall) and only 25 per cent of homes had flush toilets. Yet the Games heralded a transformation that was barely believable: within five years Tokyo had 10,000 new buildings, subway lines, an airport monorail, five-star hotels and, in the Shinkansen bullet trains, the fastest mass-transport system on earth. Japan as we know it was born.
Over a half-century later, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are once again set to transform Japan. However, while this land of singing toilets and robot restaurants no longer needs to be brought up to date, it does need to open up.
Wander around Tokyo and you will realise how un-cosmopolitan it is. Westerners stand out. You can wave at each other.
But that’s now changing – and Japan is trying to change. Last year, prime minister Shinzo Abe relaxed Japan’s strict immigration laws to permit entry to 345,000 foreign workers over the next five years. Almost four per cent of Tokyo’s residents are now foreign, compared to just two-and-a-half per cent a decade ago. Previously, even simple navigation was tricky – station signs were only in Japanese script, so it wasn’t unheard of for tourists to take a bullet train to the wrong end of the country – but now the Roman alphabet is dominant. Last year, tourism rose to record levels. And with the 2020 Games – along with the new direct flight that launched last year from London to Osaka – it finally looks set to spike.
It’s easy to focus on Tokyo’s tourist highlights – the sushi, the skyline – but the best reason to go is simply the Japanese people. Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world and yet the locals are also easily the most polite. Stand at a level crossing and, even if there are no cars all the way to the horizon, the Japanese will still refuse to cross until told. I heard a car horn on my fourth day in Tokyo and it genuinely shocked me. I realised it was the first one I’d heard all trip. Crime is virtually nonexistent.
Even for the things that require local knowledge – to book at Jiro, the three Michelin-star restaurant considered to serve the best sushi in the world, you must be a Japanese speaker or no dice – every high-end hotel is now full of English-speaking staff who’ll do it for you. I stayed at the glorious Mandarin Oriental Tokyo and the concierge there came this close (though it did save me from blowing hundreds for a meal that is apparently over in half an hour; Jiro tells you when to eat each bite).
It also can’t be emphasised enough how clean Japan is. No one drops rubbish and the only litter-pickers I saw carried handbag-size refuse totes for the occasional receipt that had been taken by the wind. Every inch feels steam cleaned – even the subway and subway carriages. It’s probably because of this that Tokyo is so subterranean. Tube stations aren’t merely stations, they are vast, gleaming, labyrinthine malls. It is a metropolis where you can get away from the city by going underneath it.
Then there are the national quirks. The way every public information sound seems ripped from a Nintendo game (the crossing lights tweet at you). The obsession with perfectly formed fruit (it’s sold for fortunes in high-end department stores). The brilliant tiny bars that consist of only that: a bar, eight seats and a bartender that simply closes the door when they’re full (you make friends quickly). The obsession with Manga and the deeply weird Manga pornography featuring tentacles that… you don’t want to know.
And travelling around Japan could not be easier. The bullet train network now spreads across the entire island. What’s more, the trains are so reliable it’s common for Japanese businessmen to waltz up to the platform with seconds to spare, safe in the knowledge the train will be there to meet their stride. A few months before my visit, a train left a Tokyo platform 25 seconds early. The rail operator was forced to issue a public apology. They called it “truly inexcusable”. They launched an internal investigation. Heads rolled. It was the most Japanese thing imaginable.
Mandarin Oriental, 2 Chome-1-1 Nihonbashimuromachi, Chuo City, Tokyo. 0081 3 3270 8800. From £460 per room per night. Mandarinoriental.com/tokyo