Alex Benasuli dives head first kamikaze style into the Japanese capital, and emerges a total convert to this most exciting and mind-bending of metropoles. Whilst everyone knows that TOKYO is a modern and sophisticated city, complete with some of the best eating and shopping in the world, it is the side streets and residential neighbourhoods teeming with hidden gems that steal his heart.
The views over Tokyo from up above never get old. From the top of the Tokyo Skytree, or one of the many other soaring skyscrapers around town, the scale of the city truly staggers. As far the eye can see, an urban sprawl like no other spreads from Tokyo Bay in the east to the mountains in the west, encompassing a greater metropolitan area of a whopping 36 million people and an economy bigger than Russia. Seemingly infinite clusters of downtowns are visible over incredible distances. And on a clear day, nothing can really prepare you for when snow-capped Mount Fuji deigns to make an appearance, looming over the Japanese capital like a powerful and watchful deity. It is only in the shadow of Mount Fuji that the perspective of this great mega city begins to offer some sense.
At sunset, Mount Fuji is illuminated like one of the sublime screen paintings for which Japan is famous for, making for a spectacular, if not spiritual, vision. However, it is the night time view from up top that gives the real clues as to how to approach this mammoth city. Major arteries of brightly lit thoroughfares convene in multiple urban hubs. Emanating out from these main avenues and city centres is an irregularly formed concentric web of parallel side streets, that increasingly darken and narrow into smaller roads, paths and alleyways. With that understanding (not to mention with the help of Google Maps!), one can quickly discover an off-the-beaten track Tokyo, in addition to the bright lights and big city elements that the world’s most populous metropolis is so well known for.
Like sliding doors that give way to serene inner sanctums, Tokyo like no other city can be a journey from urban density to residential stillness, from commercial activity to intimate charm, and from the seemingly obvious to the virtually undecipherable, all in a matter of moments, and unlocking Tokyo’s mysteries and its myriad of attractions is both highly stimulating and deeply satisfying. Whether a first-time visitor or a seasoned Tokyophile, spending time in this dazzling and cutting-edge capital is a real treat for the senses.
On the ground, Tokyo’s scope can seem daunting. Most foreigners initially focus on Ginza, the city’s longstanding posh district, littered with upscale shopping, entertainment and art galleries. Ginza real estate prices are some of the most expensive on the planet and it shows. The world’s leading luxury brands all have massive flagship stores here that don’t fail to impress. Chuo Dori, Ginza’s main avenue, is like a cross between Fifth Avenue and the Champs-Elysées, with more than generous dashes of neon and bling. A centre of Tokyo wealth since the 1600s (gin in Japanese means ‘silver’ and za ‘guild’), Ginza emerged as a high-end retail mecca in the 1920s and was rebuilt in the 1950s following WW2. In fact, despite the showiness, there is a Mad Men, mid-century modern sensibility still to be found in Ginza, particularly in its side streets and off the main drags.
Though some of Tokyo’s best restaurants and much of the city’s exclusive shopping is to be found here, there is also a decidedly decadent side to Ginza. When night falls, open doors reveal dimly lit bijou sized cocktail and whisky bars full of Japanese business men, their kimono-clad companions and a smattering of foreigners. This discreet yet lively action is just as likely to take place below ground and on the second and third floors as it does on street level.
Most of the time signage is hard to decipher or nonexistent. This secretive and in-the-know manner of going out in Tokyo is reminiscent of speakeasies. While it can be a little off-putting to the uninitiated, there is also something very seductive and sexy about it. And the numerous art galleries and Kabuki-za (the national Kabuki theatre) add enough culture to allow Ginza to take its place as one of the planet’s most elegant yet enjoyable luxury commercial districts.
When one accepts that peeling back the layers of Tokyo’s identity and urban charms can take days and weeks if not multiple lifetimes, then some real exploratory fun can be had. Despite its reputation as a disciplined city focused on the highest standards of refinement in fashion, the arts, modern architecture and technology, Tokyo is also incredibly creative, with a free-spirited side and a strong individualistic streak.
Thirty minutes by taxi from Ginza, or a handful of metro strops away, lies Harajuku. Though the more gritty and counter culture days of Harajuku as the centre of Tokyo’s youth scene have gone more upmarket, it remains one of Tokyo’s most exciting and eclectic neighbourhoods in terms of fashion, food, culture and people watching.
Bounded on one side by verdant Yoyogi Park and Tokyo’s most important Shinto shrine, Meiji Jingu, and connected to affluent Aoyama on the other via tree-lined central boulevard Omotesandō, Harajuku is a bustling, eclectic hive of commercial and residential activity that defines modern, easygoing Tokyo like no other.
While classic Harajuku girls still abound, with their signature interpretations of a fashion look that straddles school girl, Hello Kitty and goth in the pursuit of Kawai or “cuteness”, Harajuku has grown up. The recent arrival of the big box luxury stores has transformed Omotesandō, especially towards the eastern end, into a more relaxed yet no less luxurious rival to Ginza.
However, it is the tangle of side streets on either side of Omotesandō where the more creative spirit of Harajuku is alive and well. Here, better known niche international brands coexist cheek-to-cheek with local labels, individual ateliers and some excellent vintage stores. Trendy noodle shops, bistros and cafés abound. Showcasing craftsmanship and creativity in boutiques that run the gamut from sprawling but more likely to the intensely intimate thrives in Tokyo. Nowhere is this more evident than Harajuku, so exploring and experiencing this colourful retail hub is a must.
When a break from the urban bustle of Harajuku or Tokyo is needed, a visit to nearby Meiji Jingū beckons. Tokyo was basically destroyed twice in the past century – the first time in 1923 as a result of the Great Tokyo Fire, and again when the city was bombed in March 1945. Accordingly, most of Tokyo’s architectural past has been wiped out. Though rebuilt after the war, Meiji Jingū retains a deeply spiritual atmosphere and is one of the most important historical shrines in Tokyo.
The woods that surround Meiji Jingū are surprisingly dense, especially considering its location in the middle of a mega city. Sheltered pathways – shaded from the canopy of soaring trees – offer a moment of relaxation and respite from the urban mélange. The shrine’s oversized classic Torii gates and massive wooden temple complex provide a pertinent reminder of the strong traditions upon which Japan and its capital are built.
Shintoism, along with Buddhism, co-exist as the dominant religious traditions in Japan. Shintoism celebrates, amongst other things, the spirit that is found in everything, including man and animal kind, nature and even objects. This respect for nature and the spirit world is a fundamental characteristic of the Japanese psyche, that is directly reflected in its emphasis on detail and design. Even amidst the most urban jungle areas of the city there will be a front garden, or perhaps a single tree or hedge, whose meticulous care can be interpreted as a spiritual offering or celebration of the divine. In fact, it is because of the overwhelming urban nature of Tokyo, that the city’s green spaces appear so precious.
On the other side of Harajuku from Meiji Jingū is the gem that is the Nezu Museum, which is an excellent place to further appreciate the country’s artistic traditions, and escape into nature from Tokyo’s streets. With its gorgeous entrance of reddish wood, black stone and a bamboo forest, its modern architecture and historical Japanese fine arts collection, Nezu Museum is an ideal reflection of Tokyo, which is inherently a modern city with subtle yet important nods to the past. The real treasure at the Nezu is its extensive Japanese back garden, replete with water features, moss-covered paths and stone shrines, and filled with trees and shrubs that transform into riots of colour in the spring and autumn. As a visitor to Tokyo, once you know what to look out for in terms of pockets of beauty and calm, you will quite literally notice them everywhere.
Tokyo’s other historic and spiritual heart, is the Sensō-ji temple, located across town and a world away in Asakusa. Originally built in the 7th-century and rebuilt many times, this Buddhist temple is Tokyo’s oldest. Whereas Meiji Jingū is nature filled and contemplative, Sensō-ji is incorporated slap bang in the centre of town and has a more crowded and commercial feel. This yields its own charms and is perhaps more reflective of 21st-century Tokyo that moves and shakes.
From the outer gate to the inner gate of Sensō-ji temple complex, 200-metre Nakamise-dori is a shopping street of low-rise stalls that is reminiscent of what Tokyo must have looked like 100 years ago. It’s an excellent place to buy souvenirs (of tremendously varying quality and price points) and eat local food in traditional surroundings.
As one of the most visited sites in Japan and spiritual centres in the world, you definitely won’t have Sensō-ji to yourself, but there are pockets of calm within the complex to allow for some relative peace. The ponds filled with red carp, five-storey pagoda and incense wafting around massive temple buildings will almost certainly transport you to another world. The temple’s local neighbourhood of Asakusa is more local and down to earth than Ginza, Harajuku and others, and a good place to experience a more real Tokyo. Nearby, you will also find Kappabashi-dori which has become the go-to street for Japanese kitchen knives and ceramics.
If you visit Tokyo expecting to see Blade Runner-like neon-lit futuristic urban canyons, you won’t be disappointed. The areas around Shinjuku and Shibuya (two major transportation and commercial hubs) make New York’s Times Square look tame. Shinjuku and Shibuya are also home to two of the busiest train stations in the world, while famed Shibuya Crossing, with its rushing rivers of pedestrians heading in a myriad of directions, is also said to be the world’s busiest. Whether in the thick of it at street level or observing from the second floor of Shibuya station or a nearby café, nothing captures modern, busy Tokyo more than Shibuya Crossing.
Meanwhile, Shinjuku is an interesting mix of upscale department stores and downright seedy watering holes, offering a real diversity and an opportunity to let one’s hair down. Love it or hate it, Golden Gai (“Golden District”) is an area of Shinjuku comprising narrow roads and alleyways where salary men, expats and tourists mingle in tiny neon-lit bars which often accommodate no more than four or five people at a time. If you are open for an adventure and a taste for the bizarre, and don’t much care how the night will end up, an evening in Golden Gai could be a match.
Beyond Shibuya, within walking distance or a short taxi ride away, the charming and über cool neighbourhoods of Daikanyama and Nakameguro emerge. Long established as the haunt of the affluent creative classes, and popular with expats, Daikanyama has only recently come onto the tourist radar. It is an area filled with smart boutiques, trendy restaurants and bustling cafés, comparable to Le Marais in Paris or New York’s West Village, except hardly anyone has ever heard of it.
Daikanyama T-Site is the de facto hub of the area. This upscale bookstore, lounge and gift shop has won global design awards and is an excellent place to watch the boho-chic locals and just imagine, for a few moments, what living in Tokyo might be like. As is typical for the capital, once you leave the main streets the scale of the city immediately becomes more intimate: the roads narrow, twist and turn; vehicles are replaced by bicycles, and retail offerings get cozier and quirkier.
Just a stone’s throw from Daikanyama, a few streets away and down a hill towards Meguro River (which is really more of a canal), is the even more bohemian Nakameguro, one of Tokyo’s hippest neighbourhoods. Both sides of the canal are filled with artisanal bakeries, coffee shops and low key but fashionable shops. During spring, the cherry tree-lined canal bursts into bloom, making it one of the favourite places for locals to witness this quintessential of Japanese experiences. At night, the area becomes quite lively, as its many bars and pubs fill with regulars and tourists in-the-know. The canal as Nakameguro’s defining feature, along with its low key, creative vibe, reminds one of Amsterdam. Neighbourhoods like Daikanyama and Nakameguro, and many more like them, offer a charming and inviting alternative to the Tokyo of the usual leisure and business visitor haunts.
There comes a point when visiting Tokyo when it is best to accept that you will never fully get it. There is simply just too much ground to cover. When that moment comes, allow yourself to be sucked into the side streets, hidden passageways and sliding doors of this compelling city. Explore the bright lights but also the quieter neighbourhoods to discover a depth and richness that seemingly has no end. Ribbons of over and under passes suddenly become bike lanes. Skyscrapers give way to low rise street scapes. Tiny, carefully tended gardens emerge out of the concrete jungle. Michelin-starred restaurants abound but so does scrumptious street food.
Tokyo’s incredible urban tapestry, where in the blink of an eye you can go from forward thinking, busy and brash to traditional, peaceful and measured; where there is always something new to discover and uncover; and where refinement and luxury are equally paired with simplicity and humility, makes the city one of the planet’s most captivaling capitals.
PARK HYATT TOKYO
Located in a quiet corner of west Shinjuku district, with its neon-amplified boulevards, department stores and anything goes side streets, the hotel is just a 15-minute walk from Yoyogi Park and Meiji Jingū, the latter home to some of Tokyo’s most verdant green spaces, which are perfect for morning runs. The eclectic to elegant shopping district of Harajuku, and its tree-lined main avenue Omotesandō, are on the other side of the park. Depending on traffic, Ginza and Roppongi are a 15-30-minute taxi ride away. From Haneda Airport, a limousine bus service conveniently drops-off guests directly in front of the hotel’s main entrance.
Park Hyatt Tokyo is a masterclass in warmly and efficiently delivering the highest standards of service in a timeless setting. Sometimes one knows instinctively, during the first few moments of checking into a hotel, that a rather special experience is about to unfold. Such was the case for me at Park Hyatt Tokyo.
Situated on the 39th to 52nd floors of stunning 52-storey glass Shinjuku Park Tower – which was designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Kenzo Tange and completed in 1994 with no expense spared – Park Hyatt Tokyo is a seamless succession of one attentive hospitality moment after another, from arrival to departure.
A team of staff greet guests at street level, ushering them into a ground floor foyer lined with rich woods, white panelled walls and grey marble. A striking bronze sculptural centrepiece, of a fish seemingly taking flight from the sea, completes what is essentially just a launch pad of what is to come upstairs. A deli and pastry shop offer a wide range of enticing hotel-made items.
Stepping out of the elevator almost forty floors later is to enter another world, akin to an elevated oasis of absolute hospitality refinement. Park Hyatt was Tokyo’s first skyscraper hotel, but such is the quality of the hotel’s ageless décor and furnishings, that it is still a firm favourite amongst discerning, design-savvy globe-trotters almost 25 years later, with room rates some of the highest in the city. The hotel is also famous for its leading role in Sophia Coppola’s hit indie film Lost in Translation.
The 41st floor Peak Lounge and bar is 180 degrees of soaring ceilings, a bamboo forest and walls of glass that reveal Tokyo in all its majesty. To say that the views are jaw-dropping is an understatement. If there is a Japanese equivalent to Mount Olympus, then this is it. The hotel’s sprawling, double height all-day dining restaurant, Girandole, is also located on this level, lined with a collage of black and white photographs depicting European café life. Yet, beyond Park Hyatt Tokyo’s 41st floor food and beverage venues, the mood is more inviting and warm. Darker tones and soft lighting accent strategically placed art. Chic soft furnishings abound. And around every corner is another opportunity to luxuriate in the amazing views.
The formal reception process takes place discreetly, in a long corridor of angled bookcases punctuated by individual tables and luxe seating. Guests are then escorted to their rooms where the check-in process is completed. Textured sea green wallpaper, thick matching carpeting, whimsically themed abstract artwork and wide hallways are like passageways of bliss that connect the hotel’s public spaces to guest rooms.
Fashioned by renowned Hong Kong-based international designer John Morford, who is responsible for some of Asia’s most iconic hotel interiors, Park Hyatt Tokyo’s 177 guest rooms, including 23 suites, are all havens of restrained luxury. It’s hard to believe that they were debuted in 1994. Neutral furnishings and paper-style lanterns are dominated by oversized windows offering sensational views across Tokyo. As with all Park Hyatt properties worldwide, the emphasis throughout is on comfort rather than gimmicks or unnecessary frivolity. Original artworks hang on the walls and a small selection of hardcover books can be found above the minibar.
The focal point of every bedroom is the beautiful 2,000-year-old water elm headboard from Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Beds are naturally made with top quality Egyptian cotton bedding. Bathrooms are an exercise in indulgence, lined with vast expanses of green marble and granite, complete with deep soaking tubs, 15-inch TVs and Aesop products. Spacious 60-sqm corner King Bed View rooms are not only dual aspect thanks to more windows, but also offer a bath tub with a stunning view well worth soaking in.
Park Hyatt Tokyo’s range of deluxe facilities and refined bars and restaurants make its somewhat immersive world both indulgent and fun. 52nd floor New York Bar is a moody, lively and sexy watering hole, consistently rated as one of the best bars on the planet, complete with unbeatable views. A nightly jazz singer, expertly crafted cocktails and a mix of individual and communal seating combine to make the venue spin every night. Adjacent New York Grill, with its open kitchen and American-inspired menu, featuring a wide selection of prime Japanese and imported beef, market fresh seafood and rotisserie-roasted poultry, make it a popular destination eatery year-round. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows throughout the 52nd floor provide those dining and drinking on Park Hyatt Tokyo’s highest level with breathtaking views of the Japanese capital.
The hotel’s exquisite 40th floor contemporary Japanese restaurant, Kozue, offers seasonally-inspired set, à la carte and traditional multi-course Japanese kaiseki dinner options, complete with a range of blowfish dishes and a second-to-none sake selection. Kimono clad servers and Mount Fuji views are merely the icing on the cake at Kozue.
Such is Kenzo Tange’s design, that Park Hyatt Tokyo actually occupies the rooftops of three adjacent towers, of differing levels, like the sails of a tall ship. These include the hotel’s fitness rooms, pool and spa at 47th floor Club on the Park. A veritable urban oasis, boasting stunning views in all directions via walls of glass topped with soaring cathedral-like ceilings, make working out here a highly attractive prospect.
Park Hyatt properties generally deliver the highest standards of service and attentiveness, which discerning travellers have come to expect from the American chain’s premium brand. If anything, these already high standards are elevated at Park Hyatt Tokyo, where everything from the concierge team to in-room dining and reception staff are all so efficient, discreet and flawless, one imagines that they have been individually trained by a Japanese hospitality master.
ANDAZ TOKYO TORANOMON HILLS
Hyatt’s chic and youthful contemporary hotel brand, Andaz, is known globally in travelling circles for executing visually unique and captivating design themes, inspired by its host cities, and ensuring that the guest experience is informal, social and funky whilst delivery high levels of service and luxury.
Located a short taxi ride from Ginza, Tokyo’s Andaz occupies the top floors of sleek Nihon Sekkei-designed Toranomon Hills, a modern complex of offices, shops and residential apartments located in the Toranomon district of Minato ward. The National Art Center, Tokyo Tower, Mori Art Museum and the beautiful Mohri Garden at Roppongi Hills are all close by. The Andaz is very much Toranomon Hills’s crowning jewel, occupying the highest part of the complex and thus commanding arresting city vistas.
Hip, designer and luxurious hotels abound on our planet. However, it is rare that a property executes well all three qualities at once. In the 21st century hotel world, Andaz does this with little competition. Arriving at any Andaz hotel is like stepping into a fantastical vision of the city you’re visiting, conceived as an act of creative brilliance and delivered with tremendous attention to detail. Andaz Tokyo is no exception, delivering an utterly unique Japanese hospitality experience in inimitable fashion.
On arrival, guests are whisked from street level directly to the 51st floor. Here a celestial hospitality temple on a grand scale – Andaz Lounge – enriched by dramatic installations and countless design details, is framed by some of the city’s best panoramas. Floor-to-soaring-ceiling walnut walls, broken up by mirrors, intricate lattice work and sliding panels, are the backbones of what is a stunning set of main floor public spaces, tinted with generous accents of basalt and bronze dotted throughout.
Andaz typically dispenses with the conventions of a traditional hotel lobby/reception, instead furnishing its stylishly attired welcome hosts with hi-tech mini tablets, so that check-in can happen anyplace convenient, from the arrival lounge to guest rooms.
In Japan, tradition and modernity work in tandem to produce a unique aesthetic based on simplicity, geometric lines, natural materials and attention to detail, all the while maintaining overall flow and harmony. The guest rooms at Andaz Tokyo are a perfect interpretation of this quintessential Japanese design aesthetic. Coming out of the elevators, one is greeted by hallways of floor-to-ceiling Japanese shoji-style white wall panels, lit from below to create the sense of a catwalk-style runway. This minimalist but entrancing look is pumped up a little inside the hotel’s 160 rooms and 8 suites.
Deep, dark and grainy wood panels and matching brown stone foyers resemble a cozy cocoon. Although all lines and angles are clean, the generous use of natural materials adds richness and lushness. Rooms feature expanses of Hokkaido wood and smooth white walls, offset by carpets of matcha green tea, red leather chairs and headboards and shaggy rugs adding dashes of colour and fun. Whilst ‘vintage Bond’ aptly sums up the décor of Andaz Tokyo’s guest rooms, hands down their en suite bathrooms are the pièce de résistance. Resembling bijou personal spas, these warm wooden enclaves pay homage to Japan’s love of bathing by way of deep circular baths, accompanied by products that change seasonally to showcase different combinations of herbs and florals.
Given that all guests rooms are located on floors 47-50 of Toranomon Hills, pretty much everyone is guaranteed sensational views. Pick a room on the south for vistas of Tokyo Tower or the north for Tokyo Skytree. During late afternoons and sunset, the dramatically bright red-lit Tokyo Tower really appears to be ablaze.
As is standard in all Andaz properties globally, non-alcoholic beverages and minibar snacks are free, and rooms are also equipped with handheld devices enabled for local calls and Google Maps that guests are encouraged to take with them when leaving the hotel. In a pricey city like Tokyo, these are welcome perks.
Occupying roughly half of the hotel’s 51st floor, The Tavern Grill & Lounge is very much Andaz Tokyo’s beating heart. An entire side of the venue is spanned by full height windows, providing patrons with unobstructed city sight lines as far as the eye can see, creating a feeling of floating on top of the world. The most incredible array of light installations hang from the ceilings, like giant ribbons and star constellations. All day dining is on one side of the venue, while the lounge and bar occupy the centre and opposite side. The daily breakfast buffet is lavish by international standards, complete with separate Japanese and Western food stations alongside the usual bakery and juice offerings. A curated range of simple yet beautiful Japanese ceramics are used throughout the venue, deftly showcasing one of the nation’s oldest crafts and art forms.
In the evenings, the tavern’s menu taps into the culinary concept of yukimuro, a 200-year-old technique of snow-aging food, employed in the wintry region of Niigata, which involves preserving food under snow to enhance its flavours and textures. The signature dish of 25-day Hokkaido snow-aged sirloin, served with snow-aged garlic mash and homemade sauces, is an absolute must if dining at The Tavern Grill.
After dinner, move across to the Tavern Lounge for a relaxed digestif to a backdrop of live music, or head upstairs to the hotel’s buzzing Rooftop Bar, which is very much part of the city’s hip nightlife scene. Here, on the 52nd floor, visitors and residents alike enjoy spectacular night views of Tokyo Bay and Odaiba, in a sophisticated semi-open-air environment, whilst sipping innovative cocktails crafted by a bevy of experienced mixologists using local seasonal ingredients. Also on the 52nd floor, just behind the bar, skilled chefs serve an authentic Omakase experience at intimate eight-seat restaurant SUSHI. And for those who want to grab a quick meal, ground floor BeBu Café & Bar serves an excellent classic burger accompanied by a good range of modern Japanese beers. BeBu’s happy hour is also popular and fun for a pre-dinner aperitif before heading out on the town.
Andaz Tokyo’s AO Spa & Club on the 37th floor may not be at the top of the hotel, but its white, minimalist décor and apothecary theme gives the space a distinctly heavenly feel. A full range of personalised treatments, based on combining Japan’s purest ingredients and seasonal herbs and fruits with the latest spa techniques, ensure that guests emerge this urban retreat utterly rejuvenated. And the spa’s elegantly designed centrepiece 20-metre pool is the perfect place to relax after a hectic day on Tokyo’s streets.
Globally acclaimed New York-based designer Tony Chi has created a sumptuous palace-in-the-sky in Andaz Tokyo, combining the best of Japanese design influences with sufficient cute and grand embellishments to keep even a well-travelled guest entranced for days. However, it is the relaxed vibe of the Andaz brand, complemented by high Japanese service levels and a warm welcoming spirit that make Andaz Tokyo standout. If you’re looking for a contemporary design-led hotel juxtaposed with some fun, be sure to stay at Andaz Tokyo when visiting the Japanese capital.
In a city of superlatives, it makes sense that Tokyo is home to one of the world’s tallest towers, surpassed only by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Completed in 2012 and standing at a height of 634 metres, upon completion, Tokyo Skytree immediately became one of Japan’s (and indeed Asia’s0 most recognisable landmarks. To say that Tokyo Skytree soars above the capital would be an understatement. Think the Eiffel Tower on steroids. Its red lattice work emerging ever higher Japanese temple style is identifiable from across town. Choose a clear day with good visibility for your visit and the rewards will be immeasurable. The unfathomable scale of one of the largest cities in the world, with skyscrapers and urban sprawl as far as the eye can see, really reveals itself from the tower’s two observation decks, one of which is glass-bottomed, thus offering another jaw-dropping (and for some terrifying) view of the Japanese capital. And nothing can really describe the feeling of gazing upon snow-capped Mount Fuji from the top of Tokyo Skytree.
TOKYO NATIONAL MUSEUM
Arguably Japan’s most important cultural institution, Tokyo National Museum showcases the very best of Japanese art and crafts. Exquisite ceramics, Samurai swords, kimonos and woodblock prints compete with Buddhist art and Japanese prehistoric artifacts to tell the history of Japanese civilisation via art. It is a sprawling museum. The showcase Honkan Japanese Gallery can be covered in a few hours, or a whole day can be spent immersing oneself in the full spectrum of Japanese and wider Asian art on display. The permanent collections are augmented by regularly scheduled temporary exhibitions, almost always of the highest calibre. The gift shop and garden terrace restaurant (the latter managed by esteemed Okura Hotel) are excellent. The museum also has an immaculately presented Japanese garden, complete with a number of traditional teahouses transplanted from various parts of the country. The garden and teahouses are only open twice yearly, for a few weeks in Spring during cherry blossom season and again in Autumn when maple trees turn brilliant shades of orange and ginkgo trees turn yellow.
Although not an old temple, Tokyo’s most important Shinto shrine oozes atmosphere and reverence and seeing Meiji Jingū allows visitors to connect two of the most important facets of Japanese tradition and culture. The shrine celebrates the Emperor Meiji who ruled from 1868-1912 and is credited with transforming feudal Japan into a modern state. Meanwhile, Shinto is the traditional religion of Japan that places emphasis on nature and the spirit world. The approach to the main shrine is a pure delight – a long winding path amidst woods and a series of gigantic wooden torii (Japan’s classic gates). The grounds are sprawling and include 120,000 trees collected from all parts of Japan, making Meiji Jingū an ideal place to escape from Tokyo’s concrete jungle, and an interesting alternative to the youth fashion culture of Harajuku, the area in which the shrine is located. Of the surrounding grounds, only Meiji Jingu Gyoen (the inner gardens) are open to the public and are particularly spectacular in June when the irises are in bloom.
If you prefer your museum experiences to be more intimate and serene then head to excellently curated Nezu Museum. Located in Minato districts, not far from Omotesandō, a visit to Nezu Museum can be slotted into most Tokyo itineraries. Walking the museum’s enchanting black stone entrance path, bordered by a wall of live bamboo on one side and canes on the other, is to be transported into another world (pictured). The museum contains a world-renowned private collection of Japanese, Chinese and Korean art and antiquities. While the permanent collection – including lacquer ware, textiles, hanging scrolls and ceramics – is breathtaking, the building itself, designed by acclaimed Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, is also stunning, and one of best examples of modern Japanese design in the city. The museum’s garden is widely regarded as one of the country’s hidden gems. Decorative and fine arts are intrinsic parts of Japanese culture and Nezu Museum embodies this, inside and out. NEZUCAFÉ, situated in a glass box within the garden, is an excellent place to take a coffee break during a busy day of sightseeing.
Imagine New York’s Times Square and London’s Piccadilly Circus combined and magnified and you still won’t come close to fathoming the scale of Shibuya Crossing, reputed to be the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world. Nothing screams modern Tokyo and celebrates the rat race of urban commuting more than Shibuya Crossing, also known as the “Scramble”. The end of the work day and dusk are when the intersection is at its busiest and the neon lights begin to dazzle. A second-floor Starbucks close-by provides an optimal (but usally crowded) vantage point. The crossing can also be viewed from the second-floor windows of adjoining Shibuya train station. Whilst the visual experience is mad, there is order in the chaos and an unexpected beauty in the crowds of people waiting and feverishly crossing Shibuya from a myriad of directions. At exit 8 of Shibuya Station you will find the bronze statue of famous dog Hachiko, who lived during the 1920s and would everyday return to Shibuya Station to wait for his owner, Professor Ueno, to come home from work, even after his owner died.
To the west of central Tokyo, the neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa offers a more down to earth and bohemian alternative to affluent Ginza and Aoyama, and the better-known shopping and entertainment districts of Shibuya and Harajuku. Also known as Shimokita, the area is a centre for hipster Tokyo, a poster child for urban modern cool and the traditional haunt of artists, musicians and other creative types. Narrow streets of low-rise buildings abound with indie music venues, vintage shops and inviting coffee shops, and it’s an excellent place to sample casual tapas-style izakaya cuisine in a typical Japanese pub. Though Shimokita’s origins are quintessentially hippie, the neighbourhood is evolving into one of the most desirable areas for young Tokyo-ites to live, especially in the northern part which is more mellow and laid back. The south of Shimokita is altogether more boisterous. The almost car free and semi-pedestrianised streets adds to the neighbourhood’s appeal. If you fancy discovering a more laid back, alternative and earthy Tokyo, a little off the tourist trail, check out Shimokita.
Depending on the viewpoint, Narisawa is either amongst the 50 best restaurants in Asia or the world. So whichever way you look at it, Narisawa is close to the top of culinary Tokyo, a city that has more Michelin stars than any other. Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa is known as a pioneer in the world of contemporary Japanese cooking. Not afraid to change the rules and make last minute additions to or omissions from the menu if the ingredients are not fresh enough, Narisawa’s passion lies in sustainable gastronomy and conscientious cooking. Long before farm to table was a thing, Narisawa prided itself on organic meats, the freshest seafood and produce only from closely curated sources. The cuisine is creative, and draws inspiration from the forest, mountains and remote seas and bays that make up the Japanese archipelago. Two Michelin stars and limited seating of roughly twenty ensures that advance booking of weeks but more like months is a must.
SUSHI BAR YASUDA
If you dream of eating the best sushi in Japan in a relaxed setting with the master chef preparing your food in full view, then this your place. Chef Naomichi Yasuda, founder, owner and sushi chef behind the revered Sushi Yasuda in New York, left the Big Apple in 2011 after two decades of serving the city’s demanding gourmands, and moved back to Japan to open a bijou restaurant in South Aoyama – one of Tokyo’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. Still known as the cowboy of the Tokyo sushi world, a world that can be overly bound by traditions and seriousness, reservations are essential to dine at Yasuda’s Tokyo venue, and you will probably need to book months in advance. As is typical, the menu choice is either omakase (chef’s choice) or an assortment of sushi. In Japan, every few months brings a new season, with seafood and menus changing accordingly. But, for true sushi connoisseurs, the key is not only the fish but the rice. Yasuda prides himself on serving his sushi with the most meticulously sourced and prepared rice.
Located in upscale Roppongi Hills and therefore convenient to the Mori Art Museum, the 57 story Mori Tower observation deck and a multitude of high-end stores, Tempura Mikawa is a 22-seat tempura house discreetly located on the second floor of a residential building behind an unmarked sliding wooden door. A mural of blue birds on a gold background covers an entire wall and dominates the intimate space, which is made up of mostly counter seats and a few tables in the back. There is also a private tatami room. The elegant, understated yet warm and inviting décor makes you feel like you’ve just stepped back in time into a secret culinary world. The tempura, among the best in Tokyo, is fresh and refined (which in the world of tempura means light and not oily) and the menu is based on the fish and vegetables that were local to the Edo area a century ago and before, adding some authority to the dining experience. Welcoming, helpful and jovial staff make customers want to return again and again. Reservations essential.
3-4-7 Nihonbashi Kayabacho, Tokyo 103-0025. Tel 03-3423-8100
Kamachiku is a beautiful and charming restaurant specializing in udon noodles near enough to Ueno Park and the museums to make it the perfect place for a well-deserved lunch break when hunger sets in after a long morning of culture! Set in a lovingly restored century-old red brick warehouse with a modern glass box extension, this restaurant scores as high on design as it does for the food. Add its landscaped Japanese courtyard garden by the entrance and the package is complete. There are basically two main items on the menu – hot udon pulled from the pot with dipping sauces, and cold udon topped with shredded seaweed. An assortment of izakaya (tapas-like small dishes) are also on offer. You will not leave hungry. Although Kamachiku has already achieved a Bib Gourmand classification, rumour has it that will be the first udon restaurant in Tokyo to earn a Michelin star. Lunch or early dinner are the best times to visit in order to best appreciate the garden.
Tokyo equally excels at non-Japanese cuisine. Quintessence is a three Michelin-starred establishment focusing on contemporary French cuisine. It has a reputation for serving some of the best French food outside of France. Chef Shuzo Kishida adds lighter seasoning and focusses more on the natural flavours of the ingredients, relative to traditional French cooking. The menu changes seasonally and even day-to-day dependent upon the freshness of what is available. The restaurant’s devotion to perfection in the sourcing of ingredients, the slow cooking process, food presentation and the service could only happen in Japan. A set tasting menu offers seven courses at lunch and thirteen at dinner. And whilst this is proper fine dining where the food is the star, the atmosphere is professional and polished without being stiff. Quintessence is about indulging in truly inventive yet flawless cuisine produced by a chef at the top of his game. Reservations are available two months in advance.
This casual bistro turns out delicious and hearty fare a stone’s throw from the weekend fashion parade and daily bustle that is Harajuku, Head chef and owner Yuki Noda trained at Paris’ venerable Le Taillevent before opening Kiki in 2011. His goal was to serve great food in a relaxed setting with accessible prices that would appeal to a younger clientele. Unabashedly, Noda sticks to French bistro classics fused with some Japanese elements. Think fig temours and wagyu steak frites followed by passion fruit tiramisu. The food is fussy enough to warrant a visit but casual enough to feel like a neighborhood gem. What’s standout about Kiki is its refreshingly normality. The setting is warm and friendly while offering good value for money, and it’s a cool place to decamp after a half day of shopping and people watching in Harajuku, Japan’s frenetic capital of youth culture and fashion.
NEW YORK BAR
Forever immortalized in the movie Lost in Translation, New York Bar, which sits on the 52nd floor of Park Hyatt Tokyo, is consistently ranked as one of the world’s best rooftop bars. Dark wood, walnut floors and ebony chairs set the stage in the sultry space which is elegant and classy. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide a show-stopping backdrop of the bright lights and big city theatricality of Shinjuku skyline at night. In a nod to its namesake, there are two murals that add massive splashes of colour – one of Radio City Music Hall and the other of Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room. The bar excels at classic cocktails and boasts some of the city’s best mixologists as well as the largest selection of American wines in Japan. Interesting concoction “L.I.T.” (Lost in Translation) is the bar’s signature cocktail, and comprises sake, sakura liqueur, cranberry juice and peach schnapps. There is nightly live entertainment, usually jazz, and food can be ordered from adjacent New York Grill. Cosmopolitan and chic, New York Bar is a true Tokyo classic.
This intimate (read tiny) watering hole is an island of calm amidst the bustle of glitzy Roppongi district. The bar counter is carved out of a 500-year old Mizunara oak tree. Apart from this, there is barely any decoration. Yamamoto, the white jacketed owner/bartender serves the eight patrons himself. This is a cocktail bar on another level. Omakase – the style of ordering food whereby the chef chooses for you – is widely accepted as the norm in sushi and tempura restaurants. Here is reinterpreted in a cocktail bar. At Yamamoto, you decide whether you want four or six drinks and then the bartender decides what to make based on fruits and herbs in season. Prunes and pears from the northern island of Hokaido, chestnuts from Ibaraki and physalis from the mountains of Nagano were some of the ingredients used when The Cultured Traveller visited. Drinks are served in exquisite custom-made glassware. Whilst the glass sizes are much smaller than a normal bar, after four or six cocktails you will not want more. If you’re a cocktail junky this unique experience is not to be missed Reservations are essential.
SAKE SCENE MASUFUKU
It would be a crime to visit Tokyo and not investigate the world of sake. Opened in 2016 down a narrow alleyway in Minato-ku, this chic watering hole has set the bar for a contemporary and stylish sake experience. The norm for Tokyo bars and restaurants is a discreet, almost invisible entrance. Not at Sake Scene, which boasts an oversized square window jutting out onto the sidewalk. Owner and hostess Yukari Yanaba greets guests wearing a kimono and practices the best omotenashi – the Japanese art of hospitality. Every detail of the pared back Japanese interior of whites, creams and wood tones, from the light fixtures to the sake cups, has been carefully thought through. A French, Japanese and pan Asian-inspired à la carte and set food menu accompanies the sake, which is sourced from smaller producers all over Japan. The 60 odd varieties are displayed like trophies behind the bar. Advance booking is essential.
Although the scene is slowly changing, trendy and hip boutique hotels are practically non-existent in the Japanese capital. Located in the heart of vibrant and cosmopolitan Shibuya, Trunk is not only Tokyo’s coolest boutique hotel, but also a local community hub for creative types and urban trendsetters, and its bar/lounge is an inviting and buzzy space that seamlessly flows from day to nighttime. It is the perfect place to have a coffee, hold an informal meeting, meet friends pre-dinner, catch up on emails or simply watch the world go by. Post work unwind with some drinks and watch the place move up a notch and get a little crazy. Trunk regularly hosts parties and DJs spin. The cocktails are great, the furniture is über comfortable and the crowd is dynamic. The adjacent Kitchen which serves health conscious Japanese and Western dishes is equally inviting. Need we say more?
Higashiya is an elegant and upscale tea house and confectioners located on Ginza’s main avenue. It is the ideal place to decamp to after hours of ginbura, which specifically means roaming the streets of Ginza. Higashiya offers a modern and classy interpretation of the Japanese tea ceremony, with an extensive menu offering many options and combinations to sample teas. The tea salon seats 40 and also serves alcohol should you fancy partaking of something stronger. Higashiya’s confectionary is renowned throughout the city for its taste and exquisite presentation. In addition to tea and sweets, a gorgeous selection of tableware products is available to purchase. A Tokyo institution and veritable masterclass in the Japanese take on afternoon tea, Higashiya is worth visit for the design alone, which is calm, warm and harmonious whilst being sleek and modern.
Mere moments but a world away from the bustle and chaos of Shibuya, Chatei Hatou is a true refuge. Serving meticulously prepared slow drip coffee in a deeply calm and nourishing setting, this is a place to leave modern, busy Tokyo behind and surrender to the slow lane for an hour or two. And “slow” is the operative word, because it often takes up to ten minutes to prepare and serve one good cup of coffee. Upon ordering, aged coffee beans are grinded, and the process of slowly adding hot water to the dry coffee which sits on a cloth filter begins, results in a perfect cup unfolding like a flower bud coming into bloom. To watch this all taking place is mesmerising and verging on meditation. Classical music and earthy wood textures complete the relaxed scene. The The Japanese can make an art form out of pretty much anything. At Chatei Hatou that art form is coffee. Avoid weekend afternoons which are busier and a tad less serene!
1 Chome-15-19 Shibuya, Shibuya, Tokyo.
Supported by the Ministry of Economy, Aoyama Square is a showroom and retail store that showcases a wide range of traditional craft items that changes seasonally and is updated when new producers are added. It’s a great place to find beautifully made items at different price points ranging from pottery to textiles to lacquerware. Edo cut glass sake glasses are beautiful and easy transport. Guest artisans also appear on a regular basis to demonstrate and explain the intricacies of their work. To be represented at Aoyama Square, vendors’ products must be mostly by hand using traditional materials. Another requirement is that merchandise be for practical, everyday use – so think bowls, trays, utensils and soft furnishings. Whilst not necessarily the place to find bargains, a visit to Aoyama Square is an excellent choice to purchase quality gifts and souvenirs.
Washi is Japanese fine handmade paper, often decorated by hand or exquisitely printed. Itoya is a nine-storey, century-old Ginza institution that retails all things stationary related. Greetings cards, notebooks, wrapping paper, compact storage boxes, fountain pens, pencils, agendas and paints are all to be found at Itoya. This is Japanese fine attention to detail, simplicity and beauty at its best. Though Itoya has outposts all over Tokyo and one in Osaka, head to the Ginza flagship for a full indoctrination into this beguiling world. But restrict yourself to a fixed amount of time in the store because once inside it’s not easy to leave. An excellent onsite café, Stylo, plus a number of English-speaking staff add to Itoya’s enduring appeal.
COMME DES GARÇONS- AOYAMA
Long before fashion, art and pop culture became a thing, founder of Comme des Garçons, Rei Kawabuko, and head designer Junya Watanabe, hurtled fashion towards the 21st century with a gender transcending and post-modern sensibility that is provocative yet at the same eminently wearable. Monochrome and minimalist designs share the stage with riots of color and fantasy. Over decades, the brand has achieved near cult status and is known for collaborations. Entire collections often sell-out within weeks. Comme des Garçons’ flagship store in Aoyama (Tokyo’s elite fashion district) is not dissimilar to a set of futuristic space capsules in which the clothes are displayed like art. Even if luxury shopping is not in your budget, a visit to Aoyama, with one architectural and design marvel after another, showcasing all the luxury brands, is eye-catching, inspiring and a lovely way to spend a few hours.
The Japanese love to shop and Tokyo has some of the most impressive department stores on the planet. Isetan is perhaps the highest end of Japan’s larger store formats, akin to New York’s Bergdorf Goodman and London’s Harrods, and is known for being fashion forward and sophisticated. The Shinjuku flagship boasts an excellent selection of Japanese and Western designers. Crucially for Western shoppers, Isetan stocks larger sizes and has staff that speak English. Also known for is seasonally changing window displays, a visit to Isetan is a visual feast in every way. The depachika (or food bazaar) in the basement is alone worthy of seeing. Including sections for Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Western prepared foods, the variety and displays are overwhelmingly beautiful. You’ll think you’re in food heaven. Sunset tea and treats at Isetan Shinjuku’s roof garden is a divine experience.
To call Daikanyama T-Site a book store would be like calling Apple a computer company. The ‘T’ in T-Site refers to Tsutaya, Japan’s leading book, music and movie retail giant. Spanning three architecturally award-winning low-rise buildings in increasingly fashionable Daikanyama neighbourhood, this veritable campus is a temple dedicated to books, magazines, DVDs, music and much more. The selection is combed from around the world and includes rare and vintage examples. Add to this a specialist camera shop, a pet store and a retail bicycle outlet and Daikanyama T-Site reveals itself as an eclectic destination for Tokyo’s trendsetting sophisticates. Patrons are encouraged to linger in the various lounge spaces and dive into a recently purchased or borrowed publication. Cocktails are even served in the inviting Anjin Lounge upstairs.
If you or someone you know wants to channel their inner teenage girl, head to Faline in Harajuku, the heart of youth culture and street fashion. This iconic Tokyo boutique may be pint sized but it packs a lot of punch. Beloved by locals, Faline has styled the likes of Bjork, Katy Perry and Paloma Faith. Kawaii is a Japanese term which refers to cartoon character-like cuteness. Harajuku and Faline are kawaii embodied. Faline refers to Bambi’s doe-eyed love interest from the Disney film. Aw, how cute! But cuteness is only one aspect of the Harajuku look. Getting noticed is the other. So, dive head first into this genie bottle of pinkness, and allow Faline’s owner Baby Mama to accessorise you. Then join the kawaii parade on Takeshita-dori – Harajuku’s main kawaii fashion area. You’re sure to be noticed there!