Magic in Tokyo


So Tokyo.

In the largest urban area in the world, 38 million people run riot in a pop culture explosion, and everyone dresses absolutely, utterly, fantastic.  With my backpack and jeans, I felt like I crashed a wedding, but instead, I had just arrived in Tokyo.

As the airport bus made its way over snaking bridge highways into the city, I peered into the square windows of endless office buildings.   Every floor was full of desks, and every desk was full of people. Uniforms of black suits and ties looked mandatory. Even with its bizarre, techno-fantasy sub-cultures, with haircuts that ascend to works of art, the Japanese are distinctly homogenous.  Everyone I met seemed to loved baseball, vending machines, gadgets, toilets with buttons, and soy sauce.

Instead of Bill Murray advertising Suntory Whiskey (as he did in the movie Lost in Translation) I saw billboards plastered with an airbrushed, distinguished Richard Gere peddling a hotel chain.    Taxi drivers wore white gloves, opened the door for me, and turned off the meter if they got lost.   People donned surgical masks because they have colds, and don’t want others to get their germs.  For the bustling, busiest city on earth, it is bewildering to discover how considerate everyone is.    No garbage, no horns, no rough-shouldering, low crime.   Nobody makes eye contact, except for foreigners, who kept looking at me like I’d stumbled into a restaurant above my station.      Politeness, calm, order, Tokyo offers every modern convenience you can think of, and all the ones you can’t.

Subway Spaghetti

After an earthquake practically destroyed the city in 1923, the rebuilt Tokyo was practically destroyed again by US bombers in WW2.  Modern Tokyo spawned forth with little planning and direction, as buildings sprung up wherever there was space, although this time, most were equipped to deal with another earthquake.   As such, the Tokyo skyline is full of random skyscrapers, and you’re just as likely to find a Vivian Westwood boutique in an alley as a garbage dump.   This makes exploring the city so much fun; from the intensely crowded boulevards to the narrow streets that cut behind the buildings, you can stumble across anything. Galleries, restaurants, gadget shops, boutiques, hair-stylists, markets, “men’s clubs” – all carefully designed, well-lit, modern and addicted to neon signage.

The Harajuku Girls and Me

Tokyo’s subway system is famously labyrinthine, and at rush hour it felt like all 26 million people were trying to get on the same train. Conductors physically cram people into the carriage before the train pulls off. I decided to visit the famous Harajuku girls, who come in from the suburbs dressed in their finest gothic-S&M-punkware. Unabashed creative expression was everywhere; leather-clad dancing Elvis’s, teenage bands at Yoyogi Park, pom-pom schoolgirls, not to mention the thousands of themed karaoke bars.   Even the ubiquitous vending machines looked like colorful forms of public art. Tradition is still on display at beautiful temples around the city, the oldest being the Sensoji Temple, built in 628. The Emperor’s Palace meanwhile, is a green lung breathing zen tranquility into the urban mayhem that surrounds it.

The Dancing Elvis’s

Buildings have floors of bars, restaurants and private clubs, many off-limits to geijins, as foreigners are called. I discovered one linen closet called the Joker Bar, in which the bar staff performed magic tricks for a tiny rotating clientele.  The cover charge was only slightly more than a ticket to see David Copperfield in Vegas.  With space at a premium, Tokyo doesn’t come cheap. And good luck with asking for help in English. You would think the language barrier would be low in such a cosmopolitan city, but I found most signs, menus, and people, to be strictly Japanese.

Magic at the Joker Bar

While they have adopted many customs of the west and are clearly fascinated with American culture in particular, the Japanese have added their quirks and beliefs to create a modern, stylish world unlike any other. Next visit however, I’ll make sure to dress for the occasion.

8 Bucket List Waterfalls

Something inside us resonates when we see a large body of water falling through the air. Some appreciate the velocity, volume and sheer power on display. Others marvel at the mystic beauty and striking diversity of nature’s water show. And what compares to the revitalizing sensation of swimming beneath a natural shower, or being soaked by its mist?   One cannot claim to know the world’s best waterfalls, for that is as personal as defining nature itself. These, however, are my personal favourite bucket list waterfalls.  

Iguazu Falls

Spanning 2.5 miles on the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, Iguazu Falls is the famed gathering of 275 waterfalls, surrounded by lush tropical jungle.   I visited the national park that surrounds it twice, once from the nearby Brazilian town of (Foz de Iguacu) and once from the Argentinean Puerto Iguazu.   Both offer riveting views. Metal walkways allow you to walk over swamp and river to access the most spectacular viewing points, and it is even possible to hop aboard a boat and get soaked near the mouth of the biggest water mass, the Devil’s Throat. Natural beauty, exotic bird life, and sheer scale make Iguazu Falls a must for visitors to South America.

Victoria Falls

When I visited Africa’s biggest tourist attraction, I was armed with a fantastic tip.   Cross the border from Zimbabwe into Zambia, and not only is a ticket to the national park a fraction of the price, but in dry season you can be guided to stable rock pools that sit right on the edge as the mighty Zambezi River crashes into the gorge below.   Like the bedazzled English explorer Stanley Livingston, who named this mile-long drop after Queen Victoria, I swam to the very edge of the Devil’s pool with tourists on the opposing Zimbabwe side watching in shock.   Without seeing the protective rocks, it looked like I was about to go barrelling over.   For more thrills, Victoria Falls also offers one of the world’s highest bungee jumps, excellent river rafting, and microlight flights.

Credit: Franciso Becero/Flickr CC

Angel Falls

With its 979m drop, Venezuela’s Angel Falls holds the title of the world’s highest waterfall.   Located in the Canaima National Park, such is its height that the water turns to mist before hitting the ground.   Remote and difficult to access, it is still one of Venezuela’s most popular tourist attractions, and a mecca for BASE jumpers, who leap off the edge with a parachute.  Angel Falls was named after an American aviator named Jimmy Angel who accidentally discovered them in 1933. Four years later, he returned and crash landed his plane on the top, returning to civilization with tales of high adventure. His somewhat appropriate surname was subsequently given to this spectacular natural attraction.

Misolha Falls

There are several wonderful waterfalls located in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Agua Azul has numerous rocky cascades, where on weekends you’ll find families having a picnic in the surrounding park, with kids swimming in the shallow rock pools.   Misol-ha, further up the road towards Palenque, has a photo-happy 35m drop into clear, sparkling water, perfect for a swim.   The surrounding jungle offers an explorer’s ambiance, and a slippery path leads to a cave behind the waterfall itself.   While not the biggest or most popular falls on my list, here I found the serene opportunity to truly enjoying a waterfall in its natural glory.

Niagara Falls

Tourists have been flocking to North America’s most powerful and striking waterfall since the 1850’s, and this year some 28 million people will visit the Canadian/US border holiday town. Casinos, resorts and theme park attractions have cascaded around the Falls (in contrast to tranquil Iguazu), but there’s no denying the sheer power and beauty of Niagara, along with its value as a source of hydroelectric energy. The Canadian side’s Horseshoe Falls has also attracted daredevils since the early 1900’s, many of whom have climbed into a barrel and gone over the edge. If Superman really existed, he might have been able to rescue them, as he did for Lois Lane, tumbling over the falls in the 1978 hit movie.

Waterfall at Gadur Chatti, Rishikesh

Rishikesh is a town on the holy Ganges River, home to dozens of ashrams, temples, and yoga schools.   Here the Beatles tripped out, and thousands of tourists descend annually searching for enlightenment, peace, and inner joy.   Locals will no doubt tell you about the waterfalls, located about 4km up the road from Laxman Jhula, towards the tiny village of Gadur Chatti. Taking a small path into the jungle, a short hike brings you to a series of waterfalls and wispy cascades, fed by the pure, icy waters of the Himalayas. With only a handful of visitors a day, it’s easy to find bliss with a natural shower in the forest. In a region famous for its meditation and spirituality, temples do not need four walls and a roof.

Credit: Lorena/Flickr CC

Nachi Falls

A forest of cedar and cypress surrounds Japan’s Mount Nachi, and cutting through them are dozens of waterfalls. Located in the Yoshino-Kumano National Park and with a height of over 130m, Nachi Falls is one of three “divine” waterfalls in the country. Colourful wooden pagodas and temples surround the airborne stream, and together with the surrounding forest, it’s easy to see how Nachi Falls earned its sacred status.

Credit: Rich Charles/FlickrCC

Tugela Falls

South Africa’s Tugela Falls is the world’s second highest waterfall, falling 947m through the Drakensberg Mountains. Unlike Angel Falls however, it is far easier to access and can even be viewed from a major highway.   In keeping with the excellent hiking in the region, a series of chain ladders allow you to climb to the summit of Mont-Aux-Sources, the source of the Tugela Falls. My father has some sort of cosmic connection to the Drakensberg, so we’d often head to the Amphitheatre, a spectacular mountain escarpment, from which we could hike and boulder our way above various cascades, with Tugela Falls the ultimate payoff.