AT FIRST blush, Tokyo is a city of indisputably panoramic proportions.
I'M AN APEMAN: Cheeky schoolchildren mimicking the famous 'hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil' monkeys at Tosho-gu shrine in Nikko, which is listed as a World Heritage site
Stand at the famous junction of Shibuya (next to the Hachiko statue) and you'll be faced with a tsunami of pedestrians, a dense forest of skyscrapers clothed in winking neon signs and a sound wall of video screens blasting pop music and advertising slogans relentlessly.
It's an awesome symphony of sight and sound that can also be an intimidating assault on your senses, overwhelming and intoxicating all at once.
From its towering shopping emporiums to its stately shrines, this epic side of Tokyo will easily shock and awe even the most sophisticated traveller.
Tokyo's less showy side, however, is another matter altogether. Its idiosyncratic sidelanes and niche establishments encourage the foraging instinct, the addictive desire to seek out more nooks and crannies where unusual things reside.
A good case in point is Shinjuku. In the 1930s, the area was frequented by bohemian types like artists and writers. Today, however, its main avenues are typical Tokyo, full of cutesy pachinko arcades and loitering crowds trawling the restaurants and shopping centres.
But saunter into the infamous Kabuki- cho area and the mood changes. Historically, it's been the centre of prostitution since the 19th century and the area retains its red-light flavour. Touts may accost you with suggestive smiles and the buildings are decorated with pictures of nubile manga girls and photos of equally nubile real- life ones. It's not really seedy, and quite safe, and a stroll through the area offers a glimpse of a more raunchy Tokyo.
The city is also a good base for day trips, like the one we took to Nikko, via a two-hour train ride. This mellow little town is a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
If you're up to it, stroll down the town's main avenue, Sugi Namiki, which is dotted with interesting curio shops selling everything from antique typewriters to knicknacks like a whole orchestra of violin-playing straw grasshoppers.
NOW AND ZEN: A visitor takes a quick respite in the tranquil surroundings of Shoyo-en, a garden at Nikko.
It's a 20-minute walk to the Scared Bridge, originally built in 1636 and rebuilt in 1907. From there, cross the street and enter the wooded area that is home to the Unesco World Heritage sights of Rinnoji Temple and Tosho-gu Shrine.
The latter is home to a Sacred Stable, decorated with lively carvings of prancing monkeys, and in which a breathtakingly beautiful pure white horse is housed. The animal plays a part in the shrine's ceremonial events and also endures the stares and cameras of visiting tourists for four hours a day.
The Rinnoji Temple compound also houses a pretty little garden called Shoyo-en, a compact version of the larger manicured gardens in Tokyo that skilfully creates an artfully artless vista of elegance at every twist of the garden path.
Do try Nikko's local speciality, a thin tofu skin called yuba. It is used as an ingredient in appetisers, side-dishes and desserts and goes down smooth like an elegant shiver.
TAKE ME HOME: An assortment of synthetic food including a sushi clock sold at Kappabashi
We also tried a local freshwater fish - the sashimi is served together with the fish head, which twitched in a most disconcerting way, but could not detract from the firm fresh deliciousness of the sashimi.
After returning to Tokyo in the afternoon, we set out for Kappabashi, a fascinating street in the Asakusa neighbourhood that caters to restaurant proprietors.
Shops there sell waiter and chef costumes, menu covers and cooker cutters in cute shapes like dainty maple leaves.
Most interesting are the handful of shops selling the plastic food that you commonly see displayed outside Japanese restaurants. These have become something of a cult tourist destination, and you can buy mobile phone charms, keychains and fridge magnets of fake sushi, steaming bowls of ramen and delectable sashimi.
It's not cheap though - one magnet costs between 800 and 1,200 yen (S$9.95 to S$14.95) and a full-blown replica of a sashimi box set can easily set you back 10,000 yen. But even if you're just browsing, it's quite a kick to see drawers full of plastic tuna and shelves filled with sundaes and steaks.
Vintage prints that can be found in the stores in the Jimbo-cho area
Asakusa's most prominent avenue is Nakamise-dori, where there are souvenirs galore. For more interesting stores, however, venture into the small lanes behind either side of the main avenue. Here you can find things like Kurodaya, a paper shop that's been around since 1856 and sells exquisitely pretty wrapping paper and postcards.
At night, we venture out to the Ginza neighbourhood, a yuppie favourite filled with hip restaurants and hopping bars. If you want to catch a glimpse of old Tokyo, however, wander around the Yuraku-cho area, where old-school yakitori restaurants still cater to Japanese salarymen, who drink beer perched on simple stools, under the glow of red lanterns.
It's a glimpse of a 1950s-type Tokyo street scene that is enchanting to behold, but a little harder to penetrate, since these places don't come with any menus at all. You can simply point to whatever other people are having.
A bewildering array of souvenirs from Asakusa
Alternatively, you can try an izakaya like the nearby Tofuro, where you can get the same type of yakitori for a slightly more expensive price but with pictures of the food to point to and faux-traditional booths to lounge in.
The next day, it's time to tackle the famous Tsukiji fish market. The wholesale market is splendidly chaotic, full of whirling carts and frozen tuna carcasses being chopped up. It is also, apparently, off limits to tourists, which we find out only after wandering around inside for an hour.
The most rewarding part of the experience was tasting the results of all that seafood slaughter. Try sushi joints at the market like the excellent Sushizanmai, which serves a particularly delectable fatty tuna sushi that almost melts in your mouth.
POIGNANT PORTRAITS: A visitor offers respects to fallen soldiers at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The displays at the Yushukan, a museum dedicated to documenting Japan's military history, provoke disconcerting responses.
The most fascinating part of this Tokyo visit was undoubtedly the visit to Yasukuni Shrine.
Founded in 1869, it often makes the news when China protests against the Japanese prime minister's visits to the shrine.
Don't miss the Yushukan in the shrine compound, a museum dedicated to documenting Japan's military history, from the samurai tradition to its involvement in World War II.
The displays provoke disconcerting responses. The old patriotic songs that play during certain video displays make your hair stand; the section featuring the doll-brides sent by families of deceased soldiers to the shrine is unbearably poignant.
The adjacent areas of Akihabara and Jimbo-cho are the ultimate niche neighbourhoods.
The first is known for a wide variety of electronic gadgets and even non-gadget geeks can gawk at the sleek mobile phones and snazzy cameras on display.
Jimbo-cho is a treasure trove for bibliophiles and athletic types. Walk down Yasukuni-dori, beginning at the Surugadai- shita intersection. In one direction are speciality sports stores, selling everything from cool backpacks to surfboards.
In the other direction is a stretch of second- hand and speciality bookstores that will make bibliophiles swoon and salivate.
Book Brothers, for instance, has a great selection of second-hand art books, and its discount pile alone is a treasure trove of old illustrated children's books in pristine condition. In bigger stores like the famous Isseido, you can find leather- bound vintage editions of Western classics as well as more contemporary editions.
The atmosphere is hushed, like a sacred sanctuary, and customers don't so much flip through the selections as reverentially caress their spines.
ELECTRIC DREAMS: Go to Akihabara in Tokyo to get the latest electronic, computer and anime products, including new and used items. It is also a centre of the gaming, manga and animation culture.
More affordable English books can be found at Shibuya's Tower Record store, which not only 'naturally' has a wide range of music but also houses a great book section that offers rare finds like Penguin deluxe editions.
A day after coming back, I strolled into a downtown CD store, feeling a vague urge to continue indulging in the pop-cultural hunting-gathering impulse that had been stoked by Tokyo.
The shelves in the store were filled with generic Top 40 hits and musty evergreens. It hits me then that Tokyo, for all its alienating grandeur, is also immensely comforting in the way it satisfies your esoteric interests.
Locate the right nook of the city, where your fellow hunter-gatherers congregate, and you'll never feel alone.
5 things to do
1 Do be brazen.
Even if a restaurant looks very 'insider' with no English menus to speak of (or, sometimes, no menus at all), the staff are usually polite to a fault and will tolerate your efforts at miming and pointing to other people's food in a bid to order.
2 Do be frivolous.
There's something interesting at almost every corner, so don't make a beeline from one sight to the next without being aware of your surroundings and miss the kawaii bottles in the vending machines and the mocha-tanned, bleached-blonde teens busy dreaming up the next world-conquering fashion trend.
TUNA IN FOR THE LATEST: Fishmongers at the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo hacking up giant tunas that will eventually find their way to sushi restaurants.
3 Do wander down dark alleys.
The best shops, from bars to fashion outlets tend to lie away from the main avenues and reside in inconspicuous corners.
4 Do indulge in your obssessive-compulsive tendencies.
From rare records to custom-made sports gear, Tokyo caters to almost every niche hobby with a staggering amount of style and detail.
5 Do pinch your pennies.
Even though it's a notoriously expensive city, Tokyo can actually be more enjoyable if you're watching your budget.
Even the most ordinary, cheap food stand is likely to provide excellent food and some of the most iconic Tokyo experiences, like wandering the Tsukiji fish market, are completely free of charge.
1 Don't underestimate the time it will take to get from one destination to the next.
Tokyo rewards the meticulous planner who studies the complicated subway lines with care and doesn't try to stuff too many sights into a day.
A somewhat leisurely pace is a good antidote for the frenzy of this city.
2Don't forget your manners.
From keeping to your left on escalators to queuing up neatly as you prepare to board a train, civic-mindedness is a hallmark of this city. Nobody will snap at you if you put your shopping bags on an empty seat in a crowded train, but you know they're judging you on the inside.