It’s a different universe when your feet touch the ground in Tokyo, Japan. The land of the rising sun has a lot more blooming like futuristic skyscrapers, robots, vending machines, high tech toilets, bullet trains and thousands of little wonders waiting to be unwrapped. Sushi, sashimi, yakitori, mochi rice desserts, matcha ice-cream, sweet potato cake even Baumkuchen are perfectly assembled, decorated, wrapped and decorated again. There is such beauty in small little details when you stop and really take notice.
To acclimatise, the first thing to do is go to the New York Bar in The Grand Hyatt near Shinjuku and where Lost In Translation was partially filmed. Have a cocktail, listen to the jazz music and take in the spectacular night sky before you get pulled into the currents that have you going from shop to restaurant and back again well into the early hours of the morning.
The trains in Tokyo are all numbered for their stops but if you think that makes it easy to work out where to get off then that would be all to easy. The city is enormous and sometimes you feel like you are in a blade runner film with all the secret squirrel holes there are to get around. It is one of the safest places on the planet and the Japanese are extremely hospitable and welcoming to visitors. If you do get lost you can always ask for some friendly help and gestures and hand signals work wonders if you can’t speak Japanese. Not being able to understand the language is a nice reprieve from information overload and instead focusing on your other senses like smell and sight add to the experience. The Japanese are not the best communicators and spend a lot of time thinking and appreciating beautiful things around them. That is also what makes their country so unique.
There is a definite divide of the old and new in Tokyo. There is a rich cultural history that you can see in the old town in Asakusa and new in Shinjuku, which is by far the most crowded and chaotic. In-between there are so many gorgeous quiet streets filled with designer stores, especially in Ometesando. To get the best cup of coffee wind your way towards Ometesando Coffee (4-15-3 Jingumae, Shibuya) and within an old farm like building is a real treasure. The barista is dressed in a lab coat heating milk and working the espresso machine to produce full bodied coffee. There are also little sweet treats you can get to enjoy with your coffee that are delicious. The presentation is luxurious with miniature bonsai trees and straw mats.
Visiting the tusukiji fish market is one of those experiences leaves you changed. Getting up at 3am to be one of the 120 visitors allowed to see the tuna auction is a nice behind the scenes look at how the food lands on your plate. There are people everywhere and forklift trucks dashing around at high speed. Have a wonder through the stores and pick one a few lanes to the right when you are walking out of the auction and join a line of either Daiwa or Sushi Dai. You will be waiting over an hour for a converted spot in a sushi and sashimi restaurant but you will have a better quality fish and variety to make up for the time. The locals are friendly and while conversation breaks down quickly without common words its fun to get amongst the action.
The old town is very different from the modern city and there are temples and shrines dotting most corners along with great shopping for chopsticks, rice bowls, fans, ornaments and other things unique to Japan. Having everything perfectly clean is actually high on the priority list and having brushes of all textures and sizes is easy to find. Its almost inspiring to be that clean in the first place.
The oldest buddhist temple Sensō-ji (Kannon) Temple is in Asakusa in the far north of Tokyo and over half an hour from the glorious shopping in Shinjuku’s malls in the train station. Both parts of the city are a huge contrast and equally entertaining. Like most cultural activities in Japan visiting temples and shrines is quite fun. There are girls dressed up in their kimonos and pots with incense burning along with fountains. The smoke from the burners is believed to have healing properties and before joining inside the temple to get your fortune or throw coins to make a wish you need to purify your hands by pouring water over them with a ladle. Don’t drink the water unless you really know what you are doing.
The food is the most remarkable part of visiting Tokyo and a reason to keep coming back each year. Partly because it is healthy, delicious, unique and presented so beautifully in several little pots and plates. Its so enjoyable trying new dishes and finding things that you might not otherwise try and like. Even so the portions are plentiful and small so if you don’t like it then there will be something else you will.
Everything is so perfect in Japan, even the seemingly dull streets are decorated in colourful flowers or lanterns at night.
If you are short on time then don’t discount the local supermarket. The convenience foods are very cheap, fresh and delicious. In keeping with tradition everything is perfectly presented and of a much higher quality than what most average supermarkets will have on their shelves. There are also lots of unusual vegetables, nuts, herbs and flowers to give you even more to try. The Japanese also typically have fermented greens with their means and that has some health benefits like a glowing immune system, which could aways come in handy. Have a look around and try a few more things, its half the fun in visiting Tokyo.
Aman for supreme luxury in the centre of the action ($1200 pn)
Andaz for exquisite views and beautifully appointed rooms ($700 pn)
The Capital Hotel was a favourite of the Beetles and doses’t disappoint ($900 pn)
Claska is a little out of the beaten track but has many homeware stores and casual dining on its doorstep. There is a rooftop that has a view of the city and is styled well even though it is in an old building ($300 pn)
The Gate Hotel is in the old part of Toko but has views of the skytree and is close to the train station. The rooms are small but finished well and you have everything you need ($250 pn)
If in doubt pick a hotel near Shinjuku as it is a central location close to great shopping, restaurants and the translation to get around easily.
The shopping in Japan is out of this world and visit Ginza, Shinjuku and Ometesando as your first stops
Tokyo National Museum for beautiful kimonos, samurai swords, jewels and palaces
Tsukiji Fish Markets for unforgettable sashimi and sushi
Sensō-ji 金龍山浅草 in Asakusa for Tokyo’s largest ancient Buddhist temple
Meiji Shrine 明治神宮, is set in a forrest with a huge intricately decorated shrine and is also near Harajuku where you could possibly see the girls who dress bizarrely as their favourite comic
Shibuya for the busiest part of Tokyo to catch some of the chaos in full force
Esquisse for fine dining with a slightly earthy feel
Sushi Sora has a view that will have you begging for more
Kanda has the freshest sushi, mountain vegetables and no menu but with only seven seats and three Michelin stars you will be in for a treat
Kojyu has sashimi being assembled in front that is presented exquisitely
Have a break from sushi at Cicada with mediterranean dishes in your new favourite part of Tokyo
Tea House has wall to wall blooms and tea as expansive as the wine, ladies in Tokyo know how to lunch
Tokyo has over 200 Michelin starred restaurants and its no surprise that the food and dining experiences are out of this world. You can’t really go wrong with where you eat and even the most unexpected places have great food like the train stations. The convenience foods are fresh and healthy so if you are too busy dashing around you will never be at a loss for something worth trying.
Tokyo’s train network is enormous and there are several rail companies so you may need more than one ticket to get where you want to go quickly. Make sure to have some good walking shoes although most of the local ladies do manage in heels.
The train is also an easy and fast way to get into Tokyo from the airpot where taxi’s are expensive.
BEST TIME TO GO
The fall and spring have temperates that are not extreme and the whole city is covered in cherry blossoms come out in March or April depending on the weather. July is also great as Mount Fuji is open for climbing and there are many festivals