Ian Fleming’s Thrilling Cities: Tokyo

Article by Graham M. Thomas

Thrilling CitiesIs there a more thrilling city than Tokyo? Today it would certainly come near the top of many people’s bucket list and, from a personal perspective, it comes top of mine. After all I lived there for five years and although home is now in south-western Japan, a visit to Tokyo is still a treat.

The strange thing is that Ian Fleming, when writing about his visit to Tokyo, somehow contrived to make it sound deadly dull whereas even in the late 1950s it was once again emerging as one of the world’s great cities.

He had flown from Hong Kong where he clearly did find exotic adventure. Having lived in Hong Kong, I would say his experiences and descriptions chime more readily with the essence and soul of the place whereas in Tokyo he seems to have not fallen into the rhythm of the city. In part this was because he held a dislike of the Japanese because of their wartime behaviours. In part it maybe that it was very much a foreign and unfamiliar city whereas Hong Kong was still a British colony.

Richard Hughes and Ian Fleming

Richard Hughes and Ian Fleming

Fleming and his traveling companion in Asia, the journalist Richard Hughes (right), arrived at Haneda Airport on a BOAC Comet. This was Tokyo’s only airport up until the opening of Narita in the late 1960s. Haneda then stopped serving international flights and became a domestic hub only. In the 21 century this has changed and Haneda has once again started accepting international airlines and flights.

Fleming’s description of the airport is sparse. Not that this matters in terms of comparison as there is absolutely nothing left of the old airport and terminal building. In fact Fleming would find it unrecognisable.

In fact most of Tokyo would be largely unfamiliar but that’s what Tokyo is all about: constant change and improvement. The Japanese have little sentimental attachment to old buildings. In any case the need to rebuild is in part because buildings must be made ever more earthquake proof and, in a country that relies on nuclear power or imported coal and gas, ever more energy efficient.

When Fleming took a taxi into central Tokyo there was no expressway to whisk him into the city – the expressways programme only started a few years later in preparation for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Perhaps his immediate impression of Tokyo having endless and depressing suburbs was also coloured by his dislike of the Japanese. Drab featureless concrete buildings lined the road, interspersed with factories, dusty wasteland, and junkyards piled with rusting iron and old cars. In fact like London, signs of wartime damage were still prevalent at the time.

Nowadays, the wasteland and junkyards have gone but the factories and featureless buildings remain until central Tokyo is reached. However whereas taxis were cheap in the late 1950s they are now astronomically expensive for long journeys and most travellers would now take the train or monorail into central Tokyo – unless their expense account had deep pockets.


An issue that Fleming immediately encountered was the lack of hotel space suitable for Westerners. This was a major problem in the late 50s because as Japan’s economy grew, the influx of foreign visitors – mainly businessmen, conference attendees and, yes, some tourists – meant that what few hotels catered for overseas visitors were more often than not full. (That said, this had been identified as an issue by the Government and a hotel building programme had already started but rooms were still sparse. Hence Fleming had to stay in a Japanese inn and endure sleeping on a futon on the floor.)

While he does not explicitly name the hotel in his commentary, it does feature in the notes at the end of the chapter. It was the Fukudaya Inn, not far from Shibuya and still in business today. In fact, the inn had opened in Tokyo during the early years of the 20 century; had burned down in the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, had suffered serious damage from the fire bombing of Tokyo in the Second World War and was then rebuilt again.

Photo: SnapJapan.com

Photo: SnapJapan.com

Fleming described how it took an hour by taxi to reach the hotel, driving through the suburbs, then darkened side-streets where they had to stop every so often to ask for directions, and then finally bumping along a rutted and dark lane before arriving at a building that reminded him of a villa and surrounded by dwarf pines and shrubs. They had landed at Haneda at 1am and so they did not reach the hotel until well after 2am but they were met by ‘two, wide-awake, bowing woman in full traditional dress.’

Because of the address system in Japan (or lack of a system) going to an unknown place almost invariable still requires the need to ask for directions – plus ca change. But rutted lanes? No lanes, rutted or otherwise in Tokyo now.

At the door he had no choice but to remove his shoes and wear a pair of ill-fitting slippers. Today? All shoes need to be removed before entering someone’s home or a Japanese inn; and the slippers that are provided are always too small for a Western male’s foot.

To his chintzy English tastes everything in the inn looked too foreign and too delicate. ‘I hate small, finicky breakable things,’ he wrote. He failed to even understand the form of a Japanese flower arrangement describing it as a spindly branch encrusted with flowers sticking out of a tall rough pottery vase and whatever the message was in their arrangement, he recalled it was hidden from him. Tatami mats he described morbidly as looking like funeral cards. Perhaps he was just in a belligerent mood.


Photo: Trip Advisor

Yet his description of his room would be very familiar to anyone who has stayed in Japan – even in the 21 century: in the centre of the room lay the thin futon over which was draped a silk eiderdown. The pillow was hard and small. Next to the bed stood a small teapot, a glass with a wooden cover, a small lacquer box containing toothpicks, and a bed light. He did not mention the presence of an ash tray but of course there would have been one, or maybe two in those days. However he did note the pen and ink that was made available, the charcoal fire that could be laid in a pot, and the lack of storage space.

So somethings have not changed.

His agenda was packed and, as he only had three days in Tokyo, Fleming had instructed, ‘there would be no politicians, museums, temples, Imperial Palaces or Noh plays, let alone tea ceremonies.’ The final itinerary had been put together by Hughes and his friend Torao ‘Tiger’ Saito, a well-respected senior journalist with the Asahi Shimbun and who was also responsible for editing the much admired annual English-language almanack called, This is Japan.

His first engagement was a gossipy lunch at the Imperial Hotel with fellow author Somerset Maugham, who likewise was visiting Japan. At the time this was the grande dame of Japanese hotels and while it is still thriving, its position has been usurped by a handful of others not least because it is now faded and rather old-fashioned. In which restaurant they had lunch Fleming does not say and as there are many (and they have changed over the years) it is now impossible to identify. It might have been as simple as the Cafe Terrace, or perhaps one called the Phoenix. It is seems likely though that they did not eat in one of the three Japan restaurants.

But the big difference is that today’s hotel is a completely different structure. When they took lunch, it was in a building designed by the celebrated American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. By the mid 1960s this had been torn down to be replaced by a more modern and up-to-date structure. (And one that is particularly undistinguished.)

After lunch, Fleming insisted that they all visit the Kodokan Judo Institute, the headquarters of the global Judo sport. Not only did they see regular training sessions but also a mock fight between girls. Both Fleming and Maugham were fascinated and delighted by what they witnessed and Fleming described it at length in his article. Today it is still possible to just turn-up and watch in exactly the same way that they did. However, the building is not the same one. Yes it has been torn down and replaced.

He, Saito and Hughes ate dinner in the Ginza, consuming what he admitted were vast quantities of sashimi and hot sake. As all visitors find, Fleming discovered that all the daytime ugliness of Tokyo had disappeared in the darkness to be replaced by a cityscape of sizzling neon colours. Fleming does not name the restaurant for some reason but of course eating vast quantities of sashimi in Tokyo is not difficult. Perhaps if he were doing this today, he would be taken to one of the Michelin-starred restaurants. This is not difficult either as Tokyo has more three-starred restaurants than any other city. However, it is less likely that he would drink hot sake (as did Bond) because the best sake is now nearly always consumed when cold.


The next day, Fleming and Hughes needed the soothing pleasures of a Tokyo sento to sweat out their hangovers. He called it the Tokyo Onsen – a place that is not identifiable by that name – and it was not an onsen (which uses water piped from deep volcanic springs) but a bath house using heated water from the main supply. All we know is that it was a large drab building. Unlike my comments above, finding a sento is now not so easy. In those days very few Japanese homes had their own bath and people used bathhouses. This has all changed and many have now closed, although there is still a good selection of traditional ones scattered across the city.

The one that Fleming went to was probably one that had a dual purpose and likely set up for Westerners as Fleming paid 15 shillings and was pampered by a girl who told him her name was Baby, who he described as a smaller version of Bridget Bardot dressed in the shortest and tightest of white shorts and a white bra, and the prettiest girl he saw during the whole of his stay. His session took place in a private room where he was told to undress before he took a Turkish bath, followed by a scrub down and a shampoo, a soak in hot water for ten minutes, and then finally a deep massage. However nothing untoward occurred at least not with Fleming.

In a traditional Japanese sento there is certainly no Baby to pamper the visitor however, for the visitor who would like such pleasures then their best bet is to head for the various nightlife districts with a Japanese friend.

By now, Fleming had decided that he understood how people viewed sex in the Far East: simply stated a delightful pastime unconnected with sin.

The Ginza, 1964

The Ginza, 1964

He then strolled through the busy Ginza, walking the streets, window shopping and finally buying a woodblock print of a man being beheaded – he noted that Tokyo was already the most expensive city in the world and this was confirmed by the prices he saw.

Today, Ginza remains one of the premier shopping districts in Tokyo but there are equals elsewhere such as Omotosando. However, for the visitor and particularly one with only a few days, Ginza is as good and as expensive as it was then. The streets will still be busy, some of the shop names will be the same (particularly the department stores) and if you want a woodblock print they are sold at department stores as well as a number of galleries in Ginza.

It was here too that he was approach by pimps who offered a rich palette of pleasures, all to be discovered down nearby side streets. He was overwhelmed by them: ten for every one that he would find in Paris, he wrote. Hughes said it was the same everywhere and with everything: too many pimps, too many whores, too many taxi drivers, too many shop assistants, too many people flocking to Tokyo desperate to make a living.

Pimps in Ginza? They have long gone. However they exist elsewhere not least in the night district of Roppongi, which does cater for Westerners. However, it should be noted that as it was then prostitution per se is illegal in Japan but there are loopholes, and many other types of entertainment are on offer.

On the second night they dined in a private room in a restaurant hard by the Shinbashi Bridge. Entertained by geisha, they ate fish including an eel soup that Fleming thoroughly enjoyed.screen-shot-2016-12-16-at-09-46-08

Again Fleming does not identify the restaurant and there are many that specialise in unagi (I should note that in Japan it is usual for restaurants to specialise in certain dishes and styles unlike in the west where they are a bit more generalised.) There are also a number of unagi that have a long history in Tokyo and are rightly famous. As for geisha? First lets dispel a myth. They are not courtesans or prostitutes but high class entertainers. Nowadays their numbers are reduced and to experience their art, a visitor will need a Japanese friend with very deep pockets, although that was the case even when Fleming was in Tokyo. No doubt the evening was organised by Tiger Saito.

Afterwards Fleming insisted on another drink and they found a legion of small colourful bars in the crowded lantern-hung lanes. Even today, Shinbashi is still a place where it is easy to find hundreds of small bars and restaurants. A place much favoured by salarymen on a night-out, Fleming would like find it little different.

And that was Fleming’s visit. The next day he left Tokyo for an overnight stay in the countryside but then returned and flew out to Honolulu on a Japan Airlines DC-6.

Incidental Intelligence

graham-thomasGraham M. Thomas is the author of Fleming, Bond, and Connery in Japan.: The Japanese Story of ‘You Only Live Twice’ and An Odyssey Through Japan: Hokkaido to Kyushu.

The trip starts in Otaru famous for its fish and ends in the southernmost point of Kyushu where James Bond’s You Only Live Twice was filmed. On the way we discover little known aspects of Japan as well as the story behind You Only Live Twice, including the visits made by Ian Fleming to research the novel.

Download this book on free on iTunes and Google Play.

More by Graham M. Thomas: Bondo-San in Japan: Interview with Graham M. Thomas

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