Welcome to MI6 Headquarters

This is the world's most visited unofficial James Bond 007 website with daily updates, news & analysis of all things 007 and an extensive encyclopaedia. Tap into Ian Fleming's spy from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig with our expert online coverage and a rich, colour print magazine dedicated to spies.

Learn More About MI6 & James Bond →

Retracing Ian Fleming`s footsteps in Tokyo

13-Apr-2008 • Literary

Ben Macintyre, author of a new Fleming book, heads to Japan for a flavour of Bond's taste for the high life - reports The Times.

In 1959, Ian Fleming was given a licence to travel. Fleming had written seven James Bond novels, each better-selling than the last, when he was approached by one of his colleagues at The Sunday Times with a plum journalistic assignment: would he like to take a five-week, all-expenses-paid trip around the world, to visit the globe's most thrilling cities?

And so the creator of James Bond set off: to Hong Kong, Macau and Tokyo, then Honolulu, and home via Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago and New York.

Along the way, he gathered material for his novels like a voracious travelling magpie: the people and places Fleming experienced on his Thrilling Cities tour in 1959 would become a popular newspaper series and a bestselling guidebook, while also furnishing much of the backdrop and research for the five Bond novels and seven short stories that would follow.

Half a century later, I set off in his footsteps to Japan, the high point of his odyssey - to compare Fleming's experience of Tokyo with the modern city, to trace the Far Eastern roots of James Bond, and to drink a dry Martini, shaken not stirred, at the coolest Tokyo bar I could find.

Fleming travelled in a very particular way. He was not remotely interested in conventional sightseeing or culture. Instead, his requirements were entertainment, comfort and colour. He wanted to experience casinos, restaurants and nightclubs, the high life, nightlife, and low life, the glamour and, of course, the girls.

The author was clear about what he wanted to do. “With only three days in Japan, I decided to be totally ruthless,” he wrote. “No politicians, museums, temples, Imperial palaces or tea ceremonies... I wanted to explore Ginza, have the most luxurious Japanese bath, spend an evening with geishas, take a day trip into the country, eat large quantities of raw fish, for which I have a weakness, and ascertain whether saké was truly alcoholic or not.”

This, then, was my itinerary.

Fleming arrived in Tokyo loaded down with baggage, a portable typewriter and plenty of prejudices. “I was full of reservations about Japan,” he admitted. “Before and during the war they had been bad enemies.”

Fleming's local guide to Tokyo was Richard Hughes, The Sunday Times's Far East correspondent, an ebullient, hard-drinking Australian and part-time spy for MI6. Hughes had booked Fleming into a small Japanese inn. A “dainty willow-pattern birdcage”, Fleming called it, with “an odd-looking hole-in-the-floor contraption” as a loo.

Modern Tokyo is in a state of constant renewal, and the inn is long gone. Instead, I checked in to the mighty Conrad Hotel, 37 floors over the Shiodome area, with extraordinary views over the Tokyo Bay skyline. Fleming, with his love of gadgetry, would certainly have approved of the loo in this hotel: a fantastically complex contraption with a heated seat and dire warnings about the dangers of lingering too long.

After this, it was time to fulfil Fleming's dictum by consuming a large quantity of the finest sushi. Where Fleming was shepherded by Hughes, I had an equally superb guide in Leo Lewis, the brilliant Japanese-speaking business correspondent of The Times in Tokyo.

Lewis plunged into the backstreets behind Tsukiji fish market, finally coming to a stop before Kachidoki Sushidai Bekkan. We sat at the clean counter and a small, wizened fish-magician took over. “Just let him do whatever he wants,” Lewis advised.

I have eaten quite a lot of sushi in my time. I have even eaten the fugu fish, whose deadly poison is used by Rosa Klebb in an attempt to kill Bond in From Russia with Love. But I have never eaten sushi as fresh and delicious and unidentifiable as we ate on this occasion, each dish a perfect little concoction.

Fleming's description of Tokyo as “a veritable paradise for gourmets” is even truer today: eight Tokyo restaurants now have three Michelin stars. Fleming helped to introduce a British audience - taste buds blunted from wartime rationing - to the delights of raw fish.

After lunch, I waddled along to Ginza, the most exclusive and expensive shopping area in Tokyo. Today Ginza is a gleaming citadel of high-tech commerce, offering a mind-bending selection of department stores. James Bond seldom shops, but Fleming was an avid shopper. Ginza, he said, is “one of the great pleasure streets of the world”. It still is, as my credit card bill can attest.

That night Fleming decided to test the alcoholic properties of saké, “rather too enthusiastically”. In You Only Live Twice, Bond also goes on a rice wine bender, sucking down a total of 35 sakés, more than he consumes of any other single drink in the whole of the rest of the Bond series: he only drinks 19 vodka Martinis, the cocktail that is now his signature.

Fleming was insistent that he wanted to spend “a night out with the geishas”, the traditional female entertainers whose skills include classical music and dance. Hughes recruited a Japanese journalist, Toreo “Tiger” Saito. The local guides were repaid when Fleming immortalised them in You Only Live Twice. Hughes became the model for “Dikko” Henderson, the Australian spy stationed in Japan; Saito, a “chunky, reserved man who looked like a fighter”, would become the fictional Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese secret service.

They spent the evening in a private room being entertained by three geishas who danced, served tea, spoke no English, and laughed obligingly at every word he said. Lewis warned me that reproducing this experience in modern Tokyo would not be easy, since traditional geishas are rare outside Kyoto. Instead, we settled for Loft 101, a bunny bar in Roppongi district. In place of silk kimonos, the hostesses wore fluffy rabbit ears: the conversation was flirty only in the most cartoonish way.

Attempting to chat with a charming young woman named Nao, I surmounted the linguistic barrier by playing “rock, paper, scissors”, and comparing animal noises (Japanese mice, by the way, go “chuu chuu”, while a pig says “buu-buu”). Like Fleming, I discovered that I had become incredibly amusing. When, at Nao's request, I put on her pink rabbit ears, I feared she might burst a blood vessel.

Sometime well after midnight, in Fleming's words, “the elephantine Westerners, exuding saké and beautiful thoughts, were borne happily into the night”.

The next morning, following Fleming's trail, I set off by train into the foothills of Mount Fuji, for a Japanese bath at one of the traditional inns, and lunch at the ancient Hotel Fujiya. This was a Kaiseki banquet, the traditional multicourse meal reflecting the seasons, blending gastronomy and art. I counted at least 90 different ingredients: cauliflower tofu, saké-steamed shrimp, young bamboo, and a small yellow flower that looked like a snapdragon. “You have eaten the flower display,” my companion said.

Fleming hurtled back to the city by “the most beautiful train I have ever travelled in”. I followed him in a modern bullet train, still astonishingly beautiful, but much, much faster.

Back in Tokyo, on my last night, I sat looking out over the bay, as Fleming did half a century ago, and sipping, as he did, a weapons-grade vodka Martini.

The creator of James Bond fell in love with Japan, and would return three years later; he was enchanted by the delicacy, the politeness, the astonishingly delicious food. He had arrived full of preconceptions, but he left shaken, stirred, several pounds heavier, and with the makings of a plot to send Bond on one of his most exotic foreign adventures yet.

Discuss this news here...

Open in a new window/tab