© Philharmonia Orchestra / Sam Burstin
Japan from the air
We were quite sorry to be leaving Sapporo, with its fantastic hall, great beer and frankly awesome snow. But Tokyo is a city like no other, and as we took off for the capital, on a surprisingly large plane, I began to reminisce about previous visits.
A few years ago we had stayed at the Tokyo Dome, a big baseball stadium complex with a nice hotel and a rollercoaster that whizzed over, around and through the building. I am unashamed to admit that I am completely, utterly petrified of rollercoasters. They would be the first things to go into Room 101, followed by snakes and the first page of Strauss's Don Juan. However, after some serious peer pressure from some colleagues who had clearly made peace with their maker, and the presence of a bunch of local school kids whose nonchalance bordered on boredom, I agreed to ride my first coaster. The mitigating factors were: it was short (it lasted about 90 seconds), it didn't go upside down, and it was Japanese, which meant it was certain to be well made and ultra-reliable.
Having bought a ticket, I retreated, quivering, to the loo to rid myself of all ballast, and to make a will to camera in case the inevitable happened. We then joined an ever-lengthening queue of cute, nerveless children, and my prayers for a last-minute cancellation due to a leaf on the rail went unanswered.
It was absolutely, blood-chillingly horrific. I was so frightened the tears froze in my ducts. The photo they took halfway through the ride is a classic; three happy, carefree faces of my colleagues looking like dogs hanging out a car window on a motorway, and one white, visibly sickened visage belonging to yours truly. When the hellish contraption finally came to a grinding halt, I stumbled off it and declared that my roller days were well, truly and irreversibly over. But imagine the further horror that was heaped on my fragile soul when I opened a London newspaper a few months later to read that a man had died falling from the very machine I had grudgingly entrusted my life to! Never, ever again.
What I was slightly keener to experience on this visit was the Robot Restaurant This first night in Tokyo was our only free night of the tour, and Gwen had found this place online and booked for a group of us to go. Opened last year at a cost of tens of millions of pounds, this basement extravaganza of moving metal, nightmarish neon and lascivious-looking girls promised to be the weirdest, wackiest evening ever, and it quite frankly was.
We entered on the ground floor into a room so bright and blingy it'd make Liberace look beige. It was ¥4000 (about £30), and you chose a bento box for dinner, either A or B. When you go - because you must - choose A. Seriously. Our group of 12 couldn't tell much difference from the pictures they waved at us, so we went for a 50/50 split. The A's won...
A few minutes later we walked down several narrow flights of stairs, each more brightly and garishly decorated than the last, and finally arrived in a room about 30m by 10m. A central runway was flanked by three rows of seats, each raised on a long plinth. Once fully seated, bento-ed and beer-ed, the action started.
A bunch of drumming girls came out along the runway and whacked drums along to a pre-recorded soundtrack. It was a little like a Japanese Rite of Spring. After a quick costume change (even skimpier) the girls came back as majorettes, complete with cymbals and trumpets. They danced around pretending to blow them. I considered asking them if they'd like to replace our Philharmonia trumpet section; what they lacked in musical talent they more than made up for in certain other regards. Then Act Three began, and it got really crazy. Robotic dinosaurs fought sword-wielding Transformers, and giant pandas clashed with armadillo-riding cave girls. It was utterly bonkers, and quite brilliant. My favourite was the poor armadillo - once the mayhem and music finally stopped, signalling the end of battle, the girls just hopped off him and wandered off, leaving him to slowly judder his was back along the runway. The poor thing sounded like an electric toothbrush that needed a charge.
An hour later we resurfaced, somewhat dazed and confused, into the night air, brains awash with noise and colour. Quite extraordinary, and worth every yen! As half the group were starving, having chosen bento B, we found a lovely sushi place for a nibble, before walking back to the hotel. An unforgettable Tokyo evening, and thankfully not a rollercoaster in sight.