Big City, Little Worlds

I recently spent a day skipping around Tokyo, including a lunch break in uber-chic Shibuya, before ending up at a mountaintop beer garden as the city lights blinked on.
Tokyo is how the little places you stumble upon turn into little worlds.

A class in Taiko: Japan’s traditional drum

One of my favorite things about Tokyo is how the little places you stumble upon turn into little worlds.

That’s what happened when I showed up for a class in taiko, or traditional Japanese drum, at Miyauchi-sensei’s school. It doesn’t look like much from outside, but halfway up the elevator, you start to hear the heavy drumbeats. It’s a wonder the sound doesn’t reach the street.

Playing taiko isn’t like sitting down to a drum kit. His class starts with a demonstration by his regular students. Their strikes bounce off the drumheads as they dance around their taiko. It’s only when they reach the climax that you realize you’re hearing the drumbeats just as much as you’re feeling them in the air.

Then, it’s my turn. Miyauchi-sensei says where and when to hit the taiko, but it takes at least a few measures to get used to the way the bachi drumsticks fly off the head. Miyauchi-sensei shows what’s maybe the biggest difference between a drum kit and taiko – a hit to the frame of the drum. If you strike it just right, it gives off a sharp sound I recognize from every samurai movie I’ve seen.

By the end of the class, Miyauchi-sensei has me playing an entire piece with heavy beats, strikes to the frame and an Instagrammable pose to finish.

Watching the city go by with tapas and beer in Shibuya

An hour and a half of taiko is more than enough to work up an appetite, and iconic Shibuya has more than enough options to choose from. Next to the station and the famously crowded crosswalk, Shibuya Stream has a trendy collection of shops and restaurants. I found a spot with a view of the sidewalk and a menu of Japanese- and French-inspired tapas, not to mention cold beer and cocktails.

At my little table, I’ve got a view into another little world. In a city of tens of millions, the people-watching in Shibuya is world-class. It’s the slice of Tokyo where everyone from hipster students, 20-something couples and the simply young-at-heart gather to see and be seen.

I’m knocking back tapas and beers and I’m not sure whether the crowd or the food deserves my attention. There’s only so much you can manage to eat, see, drink and do in a city the size of Tokyo. The best part might be that it still leaves you wanting more.

A sunset view of Tokyo from the top of Mt. Takao

To cap off the day, I grab a train bound for the city limits that passes right by Tokyo Stadium, home of the opening match of the Rugby World Cup™. If there’s one thing no one tells you about Tokyo, it’s that there’s so much more than skyscrapers and crowds. On Tokyo’s western limits, Mt. Takao is a haven of greenery, wildlife and one mountaintop beer garden.

As soon as I step off the train from the center of Tokyo, the fresh air hits me. It’s still Tokyo, but I’ve found another world. Mt. Takao has several hiking trails that will get you to the summit in about 90 minutes, but I take the cable car for the sunset view.

Here’s something I’ve learned about Tokyo: you’re always better off getting as many different looks of it as possible. Outside Miyauchi-sensei’s school, I was amazed at what I found inside. On the streets of Shibuya’s restaurants, I watched the crowds pass by.

Now, at the top of the tallest mountain this close to the city center, I could really get an idea for just how massive Tokyo actually is. Even from 600 meters up, the horizon is still a line of high-rises and blinking lights.

While you’re here, take a little time to explore those high-rises and peer behind those blinking lights. Trust me. You’ll find what I did.

A hundred little places. A million little worlds.