Tokyo – the capital of Japan – is a vast city of incredible contrasts. Within its daily functioning are examples of both the decidedly chaotic as well as ordered rhythms of the highest echelons; simultaneously it showcases living concepts so futuristic they appear almost science fiction-like right alongside the traditional and ancient.
This is the city where centuries-old customs and roots continue to have a place in society. You can still sit on tatami floor-mats in restaurants in the old way, attend a traditional tea ceremony, watch sumo wrestlers and wander living temples and shrines. In fact, old Japan is everywhere here – sometimes it is something small and easily missed like a stone lantern hanging in a gateway, sometimes it is something vast like the Imperial Palace.
However, Tokyo is also the city where shiny skyscrapers of epic heights soar ever upwards; where single shops are so large they occupy eight floors and where store shelves are filled to bursting with space-age technology; where the manga and anime cultures reign supreme and where you can enjoy a meal as robots perform dance routines for you. Among its state-of-the-art elements is a vast mass-transit system which runs with the precision of clockwork despite handling eight million passengers every day.
All of these apparently opposing opposites exist side by side in Tokyo.
And all of this added together makes it a destination to fascinate even the most widely-traveled tourist while also having the ability to enchant the hardest to impress. Expect to be stimulated and stirred, beguiled and enchanted and even at times bewildered because more than anything Tokyo is about expecting the unexpected.
A Word on Getting Around
As already mentioned Tokyo is large and incredibly spaced out. Overall, its sheer size presents rather more as a collection of urban centers than one single metropolis. This means taking in its major sights is not really all achievable on foot. Where possible in the following itinerary everything has been set out logically to keep the travelling between attractions to a minimum so you can maximize your time here and fit plenty in.
Luckily, to keep your day as straightforward as possible, Tokyo has an incredible public transport network system which is highly regular and unbelievably efficient. This is dominated by its trains – running both above and below ground; almost anywhere you need to go will have a train station very nearby.
A Morning in Tokyo
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Your day ahead is going to be filled with plenty of hustle and bustle amid the buzz and bright lights of Tokyo. So, what better way to get you ready for this adventure than to surround yourself with the tranquility and green space of what is arguably the city’s loveliest park – the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.
Once a 17th century nobleman’s residence and later a recreational retreat of the imperial family, these vast gardens offer endless beauty and serenity. They also give an immediate introduction into traditional Japanese culture. The Japanese garden here – one of three themed sections – showcases the harmonious elements which were typically found and played such an important element in the gardens of the country long ago. The walking trails lined with plants and grasses are set around ponds linked by a stream traversed with bridges and feature a traditional stilted double-story tea pavilion. This picturesque structure – known as the Taiwan Pavilion and which you can enter – was constructed to mark the wedding of Emperor Showa in 1927. The multitude of huge trees which surround this space mask all but the city’s highest skyscrapers. Couple this with the fact that the only sounds to be heard are that of the park’s birds and it is incredibly easy to forget you are amid one of the planet’s most densely populated cities.
The other two themed gardens are French Formal, which in the right season is a sea of roses, and the English Landscape which features sweeping lawns and cherry blossom trees. Also within this green retreat is the ‘Mother and Child Forest’ and a huge hothouse filled with tropical plants and blooms. Here you can meander past banana trees hung with ripening fruit and pause on the bridge for a scenic view of the park across the water which will take your breath away.
Created as a public park in 1949, Shinjuku Gyoen is a lovely space in any season but truly comes into its own during autumn when it is a forest of bronze, reds and golds or in November when huge temporary pavilions exhibit kaleidoscope creations of chrysanthemums. The ultimate display however which makes all others appear almost dull by comparison is that of cherry blossom time or ‘hanami’ which typically falls around March/April. This is when the hundreds of flowering trees of the park spring to life covering both themselves and the ground as far as the eye can see in a carpet of pink.
To make sure you don’t miss any of the highlights pick up a free map in English on entering the park.
While Shinjuki Gyoen is one of the city’s largest parks and considered by many as its best it is by no means its only one; Tokyo’s green spaces in fact number more than 50, in sizes ranging from compact to huge. The waterside-set Hama Rikyu gardens – another former feudal lord’s private retreat – are one of the ferry route stops and therefore easy to reach. One of the highlights here includes a tidal pond over which juts a traditionally-styled tearoom pavilion.
The free-to-enter East Gardens of the Imperial Palace which make up part of the inner complex are another tranquil oasis of ponds and walkways. What’s more, the numbers admitted into this walled area at any one time are strictly limited which means a peaceful stroll is guaranteed.
Morning Coffee in Tokyo
It will become quickly evident to any Tokyo visitor that this city incorporates a fair helping of the bizarre which can be beautiful but also oddly quirky and even a shade unsettling. This element of Tokyo culture is nowhere more evident than in its eating and drinking aspect with themed cafes something of a big thing. Most famous of all in this regard are the cat cafes where the chance to cuddle and pet the resident cats comes along with your cappuccino. Lesser known but also located in the city are other possibilities for animal lovers which include hedgehog, owl and even snake cafes while the creative can head to a knitting or stationery cafe. While these unique places are understandably tourist magnets we have kept the choices here somewhat more conventional and chosen them for their proximity to the stops on your itinerary to make life easier.
If you’d like to swap a sound track of singing birds after your garden time for some gentle jazz head to the Dug Jazz Cafe and Bar which is just a short walk away. After making your way down a narrow stairway from Yasukuni-dori street you will arrive in an inviting den of exposed brick, honey-colored wood and warm lighting which definitely qualifies as a hidden gem. This cozy cafe is also a must for Haruki Murakami fans; it had a cameo role in the novel ‘Norwegian Wood’ when the book’s narrator Toru Watanabe heads there for a drink.
If your tastes run more to classical music and your morning break is unthinkable without the inclusion of high-end quality coffee L’Ambre is one great option. The interior is nostalgically elegant with old dark wood, aging brick features, high ceilings, gold trimmings and red velvet seating which together give an atmosphere of a European gentleman’s lounge. As lovely as the surroundings are here however what pulls in the customers is L’Ambre’s reputation for serving coffee which is not just excellent but also ground-breakingly different. The very old and highly coffee-passionate owner has been working with coffee for more than 70 years and continues to roast his own beans after putting some of them through decades of aging. Having served coffee to the Tokyo crowd from this very spot since 1948, he also designed the cups you drink from – ceramic and exceptionally thin – which he feels enhances the coffee drinking experience. The food also receives great reviews if breakfast feels like a long time ago with the cinnamon toast option considered a perfect coffee accompaniment.
With its firmly established coffee culture Tokyo isn’t short on options for those who take their coffee seriously but a couple of other options in this category in the Shinjuku area are All Seasons and Tajimaya Coffee who roast in-house.
For all those who found it difficult to tear themselves away from the blooms of Shinjuki Gyoen and prefer tea or alternative morning refreshment such as home-made ginger ale or rose and mint soda to coffee Aoyama Flower Market Tea House is an ideal solution. Located within the vicinity of the next stop on your morning’s Tokyo exploration – the Meiji Shrine – this astonishingly lovely cafe will surround you in a riot of flowers. Within greenhouse-like surroundings this plant and bloom-packed cafe is actually tucked away behind the flower market itself and serves snacks and meals too. Traditional and herbal teas come in a multitude of forms here with teapots filled with fruits, petals and flower-heads to continue the flowery theme.
The Meiji Shrine
Religion still plays a strong role in modern Japanese culture, with Shintoism – the country’s original spiritual belief system – and Buddhism the two principle religions. Consequently, temples and shrines are liberally scattered around the city. Your Tokyo day includes the city’s two most famous religious sites – Meiji and Sensoji – which present two very different experiences and not only because one is a Shinto shrine and the other a Buddhist complex.
Completely surrounded by the forest of Yoyogi Park, the Meiji Shrine has an isolated feel which infuses it with tranquility, giving the site an unmistakably sacred air. This is also a great place to come for all those who want an authentic experience in which they won’t be just simply observing but participating. With a warmly welcoming and inclusive atmosphere the site actively encourages its foreign visitors to take part in various small rituals traditional in Shinto shrines, offering a series of instructions throughout to demystify the processes for those unfamiliar with how it all works.
The Meiji Shrine was built in honor of and named for the 19th century emperor to whom it is dedicated. Emperor Meiji’s name has gone down in history as being that of the Japanese ruler who not only opened the country to the Western world but moved it into a new phase by incorporating certain Western elements. His wife – Empress Shoken – was also forward-thinking and responsible for social welfare advancements and an advocate for the education of women.
The forest which surrounds the temple is a living example of the esteem in which this imperial ruler and his empress were held; each of the 100,000 trees here was donated by Japanese citizens from all over the country as a way of honoring the name of Emperor Meiji after his death in 1912.
The majority of Shinto shrines are entered by way of a gateway known as a torii which symbolizes transitioning from the everyday world into the sacred. Meiji’s torii is a massive 12m (40ft) structure made of ancient wood which the faithful will bow to before passing through. Once past this point the serenity of this site quickly descends as the urban sounds of Tokyo’s traffic and people gradually disappear. You can, if you wish, do as the locals do before entering the shrine proper by a ritual cleansing of hands and mouth at a central station. From here you will pass through another gateway – a virtual twin of the previous torii gate – and into the shrine grounds themselves. The cypress wood constructed and copper-roofed main hall is simplistic and unadorned with painted colors although sometimes hung with hundreds of small wooden wishing plaques known as ’ema’. If you want to make your own wish to the gods you can buy one of the plaques to write on and hang yourself on a prayer wall.
Also within the grounds are the Treasure Museum and Annex – two separate buildings which exhibit personal belongings and other items of interest regarding Emperor Meiji and his wife which includes an imperial coach. Entrance to the shrine is free but if you want to explore the Inner Gardens which include a well that the emperor himself visited there is a small fee to pay.
If you happen to be visiting at a weekend it is not uncommon to see a priest-led Shinto wedding procession passing though – a traditional sight not to be missed.
An Iconic Aside – the Shibuya Crossing
There can’t be many places in the world where pedestrian crossings make it onto a list of must-see sights but the Shibuya Crossing is no ordinary intersection. In reality Shibuya is actually an entire Tokyo ward but the name is most often used to refer to a heaving area known for its non-stop shopping opportunities along with its plethora of restaurants and nightlife spots.
Surrounded by flashing neon and giant video screens, this spot outside Shibuya Station is an exceptionally busy junction where when one light turns red they all turn red. This is the point at which vast swarms of pedestrians surge onto the crossings, creating a few moments of organized chaos which is quite a sight to see. If you want a view from above of this spectacle (it is considered to be one of the busiest intersections in the world) then head to the upstairs of Tsutaya’s Starbucks.
The Metropolitan Government Tower – A View from the Clouds
If you are a fan of bird’s eye views from dizzying heights you are somewhat spoiled for choice in Tokyo. There are not just a large helping of soaring skyscrapers and structures but also the added bonus that many come with observation decks. However, while visiting some of these can be an expensive experience the 243m high Government Tower – Tokyo’s tallest building at its time of completion in the 90s – is completely free. What’s more, unlike some of its counterparts, this option seems to be consistently free of waiting lines and without restricted time once you gain your high-rise view.
The Metropolitan Government Tower is actually two twin towers and both offer a 360 degree view, 202m (45th floor) observation deck. Such a lofty vantage point not only gives you spectacular views of Tokyo so you can count off the famous landmarks such as the Meiji Shrine and the Tokyo Skytree but on the clearest of days allows to you to see Mount Fuji in the distance.
Lunch in Tokyo
Tokyo is a foodie’s heaven – widely recognized in knowledgeable circles as a leading world hot-spot for quality dining and food choices. This does of course mean finding somewhere serving great lunches is really not going to be that hard. However, as mentioned previously, Tokyo is very spread out so to keep things simple and not lose any precious time in transit the options listed here are all within easy striking distance from the Government Tower (your last stop on the morning itinerary) or the start of your afternoon around Ueno Park.
While many of the culinary offerings in Tokyo might be totally brand new experiences for you there are few who are not familiar with sushi – arguably one of the greatest gifts Japan has introduced to the world. And if you are a sushi fan then of course the offerings you will find in Japan and Tokyo are globally as good as it gets and it would be unthinkable to leave the city without sampling it. While options here are numerous beyond count one sushi spot which makes it consistently into ‘best of Tokyo’ lists and even ‘best of’ world lists is the Ginza branch of Kyubey which has been putting smiles on the faces of the sushi-passionate since 1935. This warren-like four-floored icon offers eating spaces ranging from counter seats from which you can watch your dish being prepared to intimate private rooms for two with traditional floor matting to sit on and low tables. If you are happy to leave the choice in the hands of the knowledgeable chefs Kyubey offers a set lunch menu.
It would be impossible to discuss Tokyo’s sushi options without mentioning the Tsukiji Fish Market. Unlike the other lunch choices here this one would entail taking transport as it is located in the Chuo ward but many feel it is worth the effort. As the largest fish market in the world Tsukiji is something of a tourist attraction in its own right but it also happens to be a go-to spot for sushi fans. Here you will find an almost bewildering number of stall vendors and pint-sized restaurants all trying to tempt in the customers with their sensational creations which of course, thanks to the location, feature fish and seafood at its very freshest.
From beginnings which were nothing more than a small food hut serving dishes of the much-beloved delicacy known as unagi (freshwater eels), the name Izuei today is something of a national institution with branches countrywide. Izuei Umekawa-tei – Izuei’s pond-side Ueno Park branch – is its original and unagi connoisseurs consider this restaurant one of the best to be found anywhere. This is perhaps little wonder as it has been running here for more than 200 years – plenty of time to perfect its culinary art. If you would like to try this delicacy for yourself make your way to Ueno Park (where your afternoon will start) and opt for one of the set lunch options with a variety of side dishes as accompaniment. Should you be feeling extravagant you can order a dish of white eel – said to be the choicest part with a price tag to match its reputation.
Head to the lovely Innsyoutei if you’re an appreciator of venues which combine the ultimately picturesque with great food; located in Ueno Park where your afternoon explorations will begin it couldn’t be more conveniently situated either. Dating from the 19th century, this wooden-fronted restaurant retains in places something of its original features and where renovations have been carried out they incorporate aged timbers to elegantly blend. Over its two floors you can choose to dine at a long communal table or settle onto floor cushions at low tables for something more traditional. The airy upstairs with its expansive windows offers lovely park and tree views which makes it incredibly popular during cherry blossom season. There are some set lunch options here to make life easy and which incorporate a wide selection of delicacies to try.
An Afternoon in Tokyo
Sated with sushi, unagi or beautiful views and hopefully refreshed you can now start making your way to the start of your afternoon’s entertainment. While the wonderful Tokyo National Museum has been chosen here there are in fact several museums clustered together which means if another venue appeals more you can substitute that instead. Or you can even mix and match a couple of choices for some diversity. Ueno Park’s other choices besides the National Museum are the National Museum of Nature and Science, the Shitamachi Museum and the National Museum for Western Art.
The Tokyo National Museum
Dating from 1872, this highly rated museum is the country’s most extensive as well as being one of its oldest. Amassed together here are a fine array of art pieces, ancient archaeological relics, scrolls from ages long past (the oldest dating from the 7th century) and artifacts sourced from both Japan and other Asian cultures. So large is this collection of over 100,000 objects that it in fact represents almost 40% of Japan’s significant artworks, many of which are designated national treasures.
The National Museum, made up of multiple buildings, is considered a must-do for all those with an interest in history and culture. As you wander the halls here you might find anything from Samurai swords and armor to silk kimonos and exquisite pottery to fragile calligraphy art works. Unlike many other local museums this one has English translations throughout to enhance your learning and experience. Make sure you grab a museum map at the entrance so you can plan out your visit as, realistically, there is no way you are going to be able to see everything.
The Edo-Tokyo Museum
If the Tokyo sun is shining and you would prefer to be outside to enjoy it, located just 4 km from the National Museum and right next to Ryogoku subway station is the open-air Edo-Tokyo Museum. Incredibly laid out and offering a lesson in Japanese history in the most enjoyable way possible, the Edo-Tokyo is a collection of building reconstructions which range in dates from the Edo age (1603 – 1868) to the present day. As you stroll in and out of the life-size exhibits peppered with scale models and relics you will take a journey through the ages. Tokyo’s living timeline museum’s exhibits lead you from tiny beginnings, through Emperor Meiji’s transformation years, onto the large-scale destructions of World War II and into the city’s present age of sky-scraper architecture with other interesting periods in the mix as well.
For an even more in-depth understanding you can take advantage of the guided tour which is included in your entry price.
If you would prefer to visit one of the other museums in the Ueno cluster they are: –
This is a huge museum of beautifully displayed exhibits from the natural world including some incredible fossils. Along with the nature aspect the museum also showcases innovation and technology to satisfy the ‘science’ aspect of its title.
This museum is the country’s only nationally-owned gallery of its type, featuring as it does Western style art works. Its collection of paintings, drawings and prints includes pieces by Rubens, Manet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Picasso and Cezanne while the Le Corbusier-designed building itself is World Heritage-listed.
The Shitamachi Museum
Essentially a folk history attraction, this museum is dedicated to the ‘Shitamachi’ culture which is basically that of Tokyo’s ordinary everyday people such as fishermen, traders and craft workers during the Edo era. The first floor comprises life-size building replicas displaying genuine time period objects while the second floor contains an eclectic mix of objects relevant to the era.
The Sensoji Temple and Asakusa Shrine
Along with the Meiji Shrine which you visited this morning, the Sensoji Temple is considered to be Tokyo’s most important religious site. It also happens to be its oldest, dating as it does from the 7th century. However, this highly colorful Buddhist temple whose grounds also include the Shinto Asakusa Shrine couldn’t offer more of a contrast to the calm and oasis-like Meiji site. Once you pass the outer Kaminarimon or Thunder Gate you will pass along a 200 meter strip of wonderful and multi-colored chaos filled with bustle. Lined on either side with stores, souvenir stalls and food vendors, the Nakamise-dori arcade today may appear to be nothing other than a way of getting tourists to part with their money. However, this shop-filled arcade has been doing what it does now for around two centuries – selling its wares to arriving pilgrims – although of course the goods for sale have changed a little over the years.
Although much of what you might encounter in the 100 or so shops is blatantly touristy there are also some real gems ranging from handicrafts to beautiful scrolls and with plenty of tasty traditional food treats to tempt you.
Once you have negotiated the Nakamise-dori you will arrive at the Treasure House Gate which gives entrance to the actual temple. This is where you will find Senoji’s main hall or Kannon Hondo and the picturesque five-tiered pagoda. All but destroyed during bombing raids of WWII, most of what you see here today dates from the 20th century although reconstructed according to original designs.
This temple gets busy. With around 30 million visitors arriving here every year it is unlikely you will have this site to yourself although if you head to the area behind the temple you can take a stroll in relative and sometimes quite surprising quiet.
Architectural detailing and ornate additions which require closer inspection to really appreciate their intricacy and beauty are everywhere. The impressive 11.7m Thunder Gate features a huge-scale lantern and statues of wind and thunder gods. The inner two-story Treasure House Gate soars to a height of 22.7m and is home to two exceptionally fierce and muscle-bound Nio, each more than 5m tall. Such statues are traditionally found acting as guardians at the gates of the country’s temples.
In front of the main hall you will be unable to miss the giant cauldron-like pot emanating smoke. If you want to do things the Japanese way you can waft and pat smoke onto yourself from this huge incense burner to bring luck.
Sensoji is also known for its fortune telling. The Sensoji way of knowing what lies ahead entails shaking a little container of sticks with your selected stick leading you to a written fortune on a shelf which is translated into both Japanese and English. Should you be unfortunate enough to get a ‘bad’ prediction you can tie your fortune onto a tree and thus convert anything negative into positive.
As such a significant Tokyo religious site, Sensoji is also the venue for many of the city’s annual festivals. In the rather more bizarre category of these is the Crying Baby Festival where parents hand over their children to sumo wrestlers. The babies which cry the loudest are believed to be those which will grow up the strongest.
If after exiting Sensoji you find yourself with a little extra time on your hands before you head off for some sundowner drinks the area has some interesting sights.
The Tokyo Skytree
While you are in the vicinity you might want to take the time to tick off another iconic Tokyo landmark from your sight-seeing list – the Tokyo Skytree. Although you can actually see this mighty skyscraper from Sensoji if you want a closer look of the second tallest structure in the world it is only a short walk away. And if craning your neck to take in its 634 meters of height is not enough then head to the glass-floored observation deck for unforgettable views of Tokyo.
As you are already in the Asakusa area after your exploration of the Sensoji Temple you might like to take a wander through this historical district. Today it is decidedly charming but it was once the location of brothels and a haunt for after-dark pleasure-seekers. Its meandering alleys are full of arts and crafts shops, Japanese bars and traditional inns known as ryoken where little has changed in centuries.
An Alternative Afternoon of Shopping in Tokyo
While the city’s museums and Sensoji Temple are considered by many to be a perfect way to fill an afternoon it would be impossible to mention Tokyo without talking about its shopping. Known the world over for its wealth of opportunities for the retail-addicted, the city is filled to bursting with stores of every kind – from back-alley handicraft vendors to state-of-the-art malls filled with 21st century gadgets. For many coming here without fitting in at least some shopping time is unthinkable.
While almost anywhere in the city offers a plethora of buying opportunities the various districts tend to be known for specific things. The following is a quick run-down of the best known or most interesting of these so you can direct your steps in that direction if you have something specific in mind, whether you are looking for vintage treasures, souvenirs of the nowhere-else-in-the-world kind, high-end fashion or the latest electronic gadget.
Akihabara – This central buzzing district of Tokyo is not just the main hub for electronics retailers but so packed with possibilities it can actually be almost overwhelming. While sellers range from booth vendors to hyper-stores such as Yodobashi (which it is often claimed is the most extensive electronics shop on the planet) the goods all tend to be of the cutting edge variety. Unless you pride yourself on keeping bang-up-to-date with the latest world innovations you will probably come across all kinds of technology you didn’t even know existed.
Asakusa – For Japanese curios, a good selection of souvenirs and vintage collectibles the historical district of Asakusa is a good option. This area’s maze of weaving narrow lanes also adds a degree of charm to your retail activities with plenty of surprising and intriguing finds to be had.
Ginza – If you want a full-on experience of shopping Toyko-style this is the place to head. Representing to Tokyo what Fifth Avenue is to New York, Ginza is not just shopping heaven but an area filled with art galleries, theatres and Michelin-recognized restaurants. Souvenir hunters can find kimonos, scrolls and chopsticks while those looking for luxury goods can head to stores such as Dior and Cartier. There are whole shops dedicated to everything from buttons to Hello Kitty with the whole a hotchpotch of glittering malls and designer boutiques interspersed with small independent craft-sellers.
Harajuku and Aoyama – Jutting up against each other these two districts are known for their broad, tree-lined aspect and in shopping terms for their wealth of cutting-edge fashion outlets catering to Japan’s trendiest. However, Aoyama is also where the fashion-conscience wealthy shop while its multitude of second-hand stores are also full of unusual gems which are of much interest to overseas visitors such as vintage kimonos or traditional ceramics of yesteryear. There is a particular concentration of such quirky stores in the labyrinth of narrow streets around Omote-sando.
Kuramae – Having had something of a facelift since its days of simply being an area of bleak warehouses, Kuramae today is the haunt of up-and-coming artisans. The stores are boutique-like or arts-centered and the goods one-offs in many cases.
Shibuya – Home to the famous and wonderfully chaotic Shibuya Crossing, the brightly neon-lit Shibuya is another of the city’s busiest districts and most famous shopping streets with enough retail action to satisfy even the most shopping-addicted. While best known for its vast complexes such as Shibuya 109, malls and multi-story department stores there are also some smaller outlets to explore.
Shinjuku – The district of Shinjuku is very big which means its streets of flashing neon and constantly active mega-screens are home to some of the city’s most iconic department stores, often several stories high and known to stock anything and everything under one roof. Although not as concentrated as in Akihabara there are also lots of electronic choices here while the area closest to the train station is ringed by malls.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in Tokyo
As mentioned earlier Tokyo in dining terms is a global hub for the discerning but it is also a hot-spot for those in search of something decidedly different including the downright bizarre. The same is also true of its drinking venues with themed bars a true Tokyo feature. One example which falls into the latter category of wonderfully different is Vowz located in Shinjuku where your drinks (carrying names such as ‘Enslavement to Love and Lusts’) are served by Buddhist monks who, while acting as bartender, are also there to guide you on your Buddhist path and lead you in chants. Or you can sip blood-red cocktails adorned with skulls in the crypt-like Vampire Cafe surrounded by coffins and spooky lighting.
For those who would like a taste of the traditional along with their pre-dinner drinks head to an izakaya. These old-style Japanese pubs are everywhere in Tokyo but if you finished your afternoon at Sensoji you couldn’t be better placed. The lovely Asakusa area is home to a plethora of these traditional izakaya which generally serve beer and sake along with typical Japanese light-bites, delicacies and snacks. Hop from one to the other until you find your own personal version of perfect atmosphere and surroundings.
If you are rather more of a cocktail fan you are going to be spoiled for choice because the city has something of a global reputation for making an art form of mixing. Tokyo is liberally sprinkled with what are known as ‘Master’s Bars’ where servers and blenders are both artisans of many years standing and experts in the field of bar-tending. If you thought being served a drink was a simple affair which differed little across the board wait until you experience what it is to be a customer in one of these establishments. While these cocktail shrines are numerous one such example is Omori’s Tenderly run by Yuko Miyazaki, a pupil of the highly venerated and multi award-winning Takao Mori.
Should you be one of those people who consider no travel is truly idyllic without excellent cuisine in the mix you really couldn’t have arrived in a better spot than Tokyo. This city, which has more Michelin-starred establishments than those of London and Paris combined, is nothing less than a dazzling gem in the crown of the world’s best dining destinations.
Along with its multitude of extreme high-end dining establishments Tokyo is also a Mecca for those who would like to dine in a way they have never done before and are unlikely ever to do again. At the unsettlingly far end of the city’s rather more unconventional choices are such things as the Kabukicho Restaurant where you can watch android show girls performing while you dine or Alcatraz ER where you will be led to your table in handcuffs to ‘enjoy’ your meal in a cell reminiscent of a bygone-age mental institution. However, not all the more off-beat choices are so disturbing. There are also such delights as Alice in a Labyrinth which will appeal to both fine-diners and Lewis Carroll fans or the Ninja Akasaka where your dining venue is a secret hideaway and your waiters are expert ninjas who both serve you your food and entertain you with their fantastical stunts.
Otherwise, just as with its shopping, Tokyo has certain areas in which dining choices are more densely clustered such as Michelin restaurant-rich Ginza, the vast bright hubs of Shibuya and Shinjuku – this latter with plenty of high-rise restaurants for stunning views – or the fashionable areas of Roppongi and Akasaka.
One dining option for the romantically inclined in Tokyo is a dinner cruise. The after-dark glorious vistas of the city’s glittering lights reflecting in the waters of the river as you pass beneath bridges are quite a sight to behold while the dining choices range from casual through to gourmet experiences. One such in this latter category is Symphony Tokyo Bay Cruises where you can choose between Italian and French cuisine or an all-you-can-eat luxury buffet. The dishes come courtesy of renowned chefs while the surroundings are atmospherically elegant.
There are also several options for dinner cruises on board a yakatabune – a type of low-lying traditional boat which used to run up and down Tokyo’s Sumida River before the advent of high-rise bridges, hence the low profile. Typically the food choices here are not so high-end although there are exceptions such as with the Harumiya cruise restaurant which offers Japanese cuisine.
If you have come to Tokyo determined to get a taste of Japan’s culture as well as its food you couldn’t do better than direct yours footsteps towards Yushima’s Echikatsu. From the moment you arrive at the old gates here it starts to become clear that this restaurant, which has been in the same family for six generations, offers an oasis of serenity. By the time you have walked through the lantern-lit Japanese gardens with its koi pond and been led to your private tatami-mat room for two – simple yet elegant – you will be left in no doubt that you have arrived somewhere special. The high-end cuisine here centers around sukiyaki and shabushabu (Japanese hot-pot) choices to enhance further the overall air of authentic and traditional.
While Ecikatsu might qualify as a hidden gem the Park Hyatt’s New York Grill most definitely doesn’t. Achieving even greater fame since appearing in scenes of the 2003 movie ‘Lost in Translation’, the New York Grill has always been a highly popular dining venue thanks to a sparkling reputation for satisfying discerning diners with its fusion of Western and Japanese dishes. However, its location on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Hotel which offers panoramic and breath-taking views of Tokyo by night through vast windows has no doubt played no small part in making this restaurant so sought after.
An Evening in Tokyo
Whether you earlier opted for floor-seated traditional Japanese dining, dinner-cruising Tokyo’s river and bay or become one of the high-flyer diners at the New York Grill you will now have the rest of the Tokyo evening to enjoy. Like most large cities Tokyo has a wealth of options ranging from scenic night strolls to laid-on entertainment; here is a top pick list.
Tokyo Night Views
While the multi-colored flashing neon and giant video screens projecting constantly changing images are always an impressive Tokyo sight the whole becomes something else entirely after-dark. Factor in the millions of lights from official buildings and private residences alike, the interior-lit windows of skyscrapers or the antennae on soaring towers and the flood-lit elements of shrines and temples and it isn’t hard to see why this city has such an unbelievable night-time magic. Simply wandering the streets of places such as Shinjuku or Shibuya can be entertainment enough for many. Or, for night views without the chaos of such locations, stroll the Odaiba waterfront where the spectacularly-lit Rainbow Bridge will be laid before you in all its glory. The lantern-lit temple grounds of Sensoji are another highly atmospheric after-dark sight.
However, while ground level views are unquestionably impressive there is little doubt that high-rise vantage points which take in vast swathes of the night-lit city and beyond are on an entirely different scale. And Tokyo offers not just one but several options of this kind. The highest of all is the glass-floored observation deck of the Tokyo Skytree but there are plenty of other observation decks too such as the Eiffel Tower-like Tokyo Tower (there are two decks here of different heights) and the Sunshine 60, each of which attracts an admission charge. However, there are also free versions such as the Metropolitan Government Building with its twin platforms, the Caretta Shiodome and the Ebisu Garden Place Tower. Some of these places have bars so you can linger for a while with drink in hand if you are so inclined.
If you are looking for something rather more culturally traditional sumo is as Japanese as it comes.
As integrated into the hearts of its people as sushi, sake or tea, sumo has a history which trails back centuries. Its element of hefty combatants is something most are aware of however sumo – the country’s national sport – is so much more than just an eastern form of wrestling. The whole is infused with ancient traditions and rituals which makes it quite a spectacle for foreign visitors.
Not surprisingly, as the nation’s capital, Tokyo is home to Ryogoku Kokugikan – the national hall of the sport. While the multi-day grand tournaments which take place in January, May and September are the highlight of the national sumo calendar it is possible to see sumo bouts year round here. The building also contains the Sumo Museum which although small gives a great insight into sumo’s roots and traditions.
If your Tokyo day has left you feeling a little spent and footsore a pampering hot spring experience can provide a perfect evening antidote. Thanks to its volcanically active nature Japan has hundreds of natural hot springs or onsen and Tokyo has an array of choices all of its own, many of them open all night long. Said to be full of healing properties, these geothermal soaking spots range from basic public baths to grand sprawling leisure complexes. The most well-known and the largest of this latter version is Oedo Onsen Monogatari but there are many more.
One of the most scenic of the larger-scale choices is Niwa no Yu set in Japanese gardens and offering Jacuzzis and saunas along with the thermal hot spring pools. Another choice for those in search of the beautiful can check out Saya no Yudokoro complete with Zen gardens and a bath open to the sky surrounded by thick greenery.
For a range of facilities you couldn’t get through in a week head to Spa LaQua located within the Tokyo City Dome with its open-air soaking points and massage baths.
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