Exploring Tokyo like a silent cat
“Yes,” a millisecond later. “But I haven’t given you dates.”
“I don’t care.”
And so it was that I came to see the new Land Rover Defender deliver the William Webb Ellis Cup to World Rugby champions, South Africa.
When the Springboks beat Wales in their nerve-racking semi-final to book a place against England, I knew that the couple of days in Tokyo would be extraordinarily special.
The rugby apart, it’s not every day that you get to drive the Jaguar I Pace around the Japanese capital at night or get behind the wheel of a Land Rover Discovery to drive the Chuo Expressway, and stop at the top of the pass with Mount Fuji in all its splendour in the background.
Before that though we had a day to ourselves which required that I venture into the city to see if I could find any Japanese anime souvenirs for my son, who like so many youngsters loves the Japanese animation that’s sweeping the world.
The receptionist at the Strings InterContinental Hotel was most helpful, googling the best place and handing me a map of Tokyo’s incredible train network, and explaining where I needed to swop trains after starting at the Shinagawa station across the road.
I had taken a walk around the area earlier to familiarise myself with my surroundings and seen the mass of people streaming from one of Tokyo’s major stations as they went to to work, so it’s fair to say I don’t think that Japanese commuters suffer from claustrophobia.
It seems like perpetual motion as people embark and disembark in a very orderly and hauntingly quiet fashion, either with earphones in or on their phones.
Explaining where I needed to be to the woman behind the counter, she listened patiently, explained what I needed to do in English and issued me my tickets.
All signage is in Japanese and English, so it was easy enough to get to the right platform and stand quietly between the demarcated lines.
Apart from the incredibly structured and orderly way the Japanese go about their daily business, what struck me was the complete lack of any waste, including paper and plastic of any nature on the streets, made even more impressive because I didn’t see one dustbin either.
But we were there to drive (and watch the final!) and a gleaming red Jaguar I Pace was waiting for us downstairs.
The electric I Pace is the ideal vehicle for a city such as Tokyo, with its crazy traffic almost 24 hours a day. It stalks the streets silently like a cat and with a range of up to 470km between charges would be good for about three days, depending on how much you drive.
We spent about 90 minutes behind the wheel, all of it in the city and used just under a quarter of the charge.
As an executive drive, the I Pace fits right into the image of a well-dressed Japanese businessperson. With sleek eye-catching lines and a luxury interior it has none of the awful bling that many of the other cars had that we encountered in our time there.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get the full feel of the 696Nm in the traffic because I reckon trying to explain that to a traffic officer would probably have been done behind bars.
As it was we were nervous enough stopping to take pictures with the Tokyo Tower in the background.
A visit to Tokyo is unlike any city you might visit on your travels; it’s totally foreign in almost every way. The language, the culture, the music, the mass of people and constant activity is almost a sensory overload. They do, however, drive on the left side of the road, so there’s that.
Japanese food though is not as foreign thanks to the enormous appetite for people’s need to try new things culinary, and also aided by the proliferation of television cooking shows.
So what do you do when you’re there? Go eat some shabu-shabu of course. I know, it was the first time I’d heard it as well, probably because like most South Africans if it doesn’t involve slabs of meat and starch it doesn’t really count as food.
Shabu-shabu is thinly sliced meat (think carpaccio) and a variety of vegetables boiled in a hotpot dish, dipped in a sauce and then eaten.
Shabu-shabu is the name given to it because of the sound it makes when it’s stirred.
Initial apprehension turned to a taste sensation and because you’re eating small portions, as you make your own food while spending a lot of time talking and laughing with the table guests, time flies and your stomach soon sends a message that it’s now had enough.
Much healthier than a large steak and chips I reckon.
Over dinner we were told that our destination the next day, Mount Fuji, had been covered in cloud for almost the entire duration of the Rugby World Cup and that the previous rotation of journalists had to settle for constant rain.
As the Japanese rugby gods smiled on the Springboks, so too did the blue sky and sunshine gods when we jumped into the Land Rover Discoveries and headed out of the capital.
Like Tokyo’s rail system, the road network is also a bit of a marvel and probably an engineer’s dream job. It’s an intricate and layered labyrinth of tar and concrete designed to get millions of people around and out of the city, and does so with typical Japanese efficiency.
Once we had passed the thousands of apartment buildings, Japan’s picture-postcard snow-covered mountain showed herself in all her glory.
It’s a she because legend has it that she’s a bit coy so she covers herself for most of the year, and only when she spies a handsome man will she drop her pose. Bully for me then.
After a bit of a disagreement with the car’s Satnav system that saw us drive on and repeatedly around super-narrow rural roads, past rice paddies (the Japanese leave no ground unused) we ended up at the Hakone Shrine and the red gate of peace.
Dating back to the year 757 the shrine was used by many military commanders to pray before battles and also travellers looking for a blessed and safe trip. Thousands of tourists now visit each with their own prayer. Impressive too are the enormous fern trees that surround the shrine, adding to the peaceful atmosphere with the lake in the background.
From there straight to the top of the Chuo Expressway where Mount Fuji smiled in all her glory for a photo session with the Discoveries and the obligatory selfies.
The Discovery has been around for a while now and it remains a premium SUV with a proper 4x4 system that will get you to difficult-to-reach places in super comfort. I find the seating and comfortable driving position probably the best in any current vehicle on the market.
But we were on tar and as comfortable as the Discovery is playing in the dirt, it’s equally adept on the black stuff and never wavered around the sharp bends and curves, both on the way up and down to the lunch spot.
With no further protests from the Satnav and the mountain ever-present in the background we stopped at Hoshinoya Fuji for the last night before the big game.
Hoshinoya Fuji is described as glamping. Trust me it’s not. It’s just glamorous. There’s not a piece of canvas in sight, instead luxury concrete cabins or “pods” have been built into the mountain forest, each with a spectacular view of Lake Kawaguchi and Mount Fuji.
Wherever you are in your cabin the view is ever-present, and it would be a miserable person indeed that would tire of it.
Dinner was another self-cooking experience as our host explained the various ways to make soup, cook meat and vegetables, all with venison.
It’s a spiritual food journey with the venison and vegetables signifying sustenance that comes from the forest.
Each course is served with a different wine which didn’t come from the forest, but matured oak barrels and of course what’s a meal in Japan without finishing with a good shot or two of sake while ragging the Aussies, Kiwis and English Land Rover hosts before the final.
Before heading off to sleep I opened the curtains so that the first thing I would see was whether the mountain had become all coy again. She hadn’t.
It was going to be a good day.