From geek culture and neon-lit madness to chic shopping and leafy pockets of seclusion, Tokyo has something for everyone.
by Duncan Forgan.
Tokyo’s Akihabara district isn’t a place for the noise and neon averse. The spiritual home of otaku (geek) culture, this enclave to the northeast of the city center conforms to preconceptions of Japan’s capital as a place of constant sensory overload. Garish, hyperactive emporiums sell every electronic gadget a tech-lover could ever crave. They sit cheek by jowl with book and comic stores packed with bespectacled teens browsing new and vintage manga and anime. Meanwhile, multi-level complexes resound to computerized cacophony as gamers immerse themselves in alternate realities. Loudest of all are the area’s string of parlors specializing in pachinko, Japan’s vertical version of pinball. There’s some kind of pounding Japanese techno concoction in the background, but the most potent sound emanates from the rows of machines, where rapt aficionados seem oblivious to the deafening noise of millions of small metal balls cascading through forests of pins.
A five-minute hop away on the metro, a different Tokyo awaits. Heading north from Ueno Station, the buzz of the city gives way to the vast green expanse of Ueno Park. Couples unwind by the park’s many lakes and elderly gentlemen peruse newspapers on shaded benches. The park is considered by many to be Japan’s premier spot for arts and culture. The Tokyo National Museum is here, and so too is the National Museum of Western Art, which is housed in a building by Le Corbusier. Nature abounds here also. Egrets and cormorants flit between thick stands of gingko. The cherry tree count, meanwhile, comes in at around 1,000 making this one of Japan’s most evocative spots during the spring cherry blossom season, a fact commemorated in verse by Matsuo Basho, the celebrated poet.
Contrasts are inevitable in a city of Tokyo’s sheer size, but Ueno and Akihabara are far from the only contrasting near-neighbors in the city. Glitzy Ginza, with its super deluxe shops and exclusive ryotei (introduction-only restaurants), is a stone’s throw from the commercial center of Shinbashi, where armies of salarymen in identikit suits find post-work respite by downing gallons of sake and participating in raucous karaoke sessions. Meanwhile, over in Shinjuku, the sleaze of Kabukicho, the city’s most notorious red-light district, is offset by the beauty of the verdant Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, a mere 15-minute walk away.
Visually too the city is something of a jumble. Often labeled “the most beautiful ugly city in the world,” Tokyo has little in the way of architectural consistency. However, amidst the soaring shards of steel and glass are contemporary masterpieces such as St. Mary’s Cathedral designed by the great Kenzo Tange and the crystalline Prada flagship store in Omotesando, the city’s current hive of high-end fashion. There’s plenty of charm to be found in among all the modernism too. The gargantuan Meiji, Tokyo’s most famous Shinto shrine, snares most of the tourist traffic, and deservedly so. Other secondary temples—some located yards from the city’s most futuristic edifices—are equally evocative however. Old-school neighborhoods such as Yanaka, meanwhile, with their vibrant markets, low-rise wooden architecture, traditional shops and narrow twisting lanes offer a tantalizing window back to the Edo period.
Tokyo is rightfully regarded as a world leader in fashion, and shopping opportunities are multifold. Ginza and Omotesando are known as high fashion Meccas and feature a multitude of flagship stores with Japanese brands such as Comme Des Garçcons and Issey Miyake located alongside the likes of Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton. More down-market, but just as visually enthralling, is Harajuku, Japan’s center of youth culture and fashion. Here, throngs of (mostly) young girls use the crowded streets as a catwalk for outlandish and often provocative outfits, inspired by everything from manga and anime to Western musical subcultures such as hip-hop and glam rock.
In Tokyo, there’s always something going on at street level. However, the city also rewards when viewed from an elevated perspective. At an impressive 634 meters, the Tokyo Skytree in the Sumida area of the city is the tallest structure in Japan, and the views over the metropolis and out toward Mount Fuji are as stupendous as you might expect.
Although gloriously random in many ways, one aspect in which Tokyo achieves near perfect consistency is in its dining options. In fact, such is the near uniform brilliance of the food here you could be forgiven for assuming that the authorities had threatened severe punishments on substandard cooks. There doesn’t seem to be any. In 2010, Tokyo surpassed Paris as the city with the most Michelin-starred rated venues and upscale dining can encompass everything from lavish kaiseki (multi-course) dinners to simple—but often prohibitively expensive—Japanese favorites such as sashimi and yakitori. You don’t have to max out your credit cards to eat like a shogun, however. Impeccably fresh and inexpensive sushi and sashimi can be found everywhere—most famously at the Tsukiji early-morning fish market—while bowls of deliciously creamy, salty ramen are the city’s go-to fast food. Many of the city’s best restaurants, meanwhile, also offer lunch deals at a fraction of the price of their evening sittings.
Tokyo’s nightlife scene is just as vibrant. Bars and venues are everywhere and range from casual izakayas (drinking restaurants) and laid-back venues where music-obsessed proprietors take time out from mixing cocktails to select items from vast collections of vinyl to cutting-edge design bars and super-clubs.
One of the most charismatic spots is Golden Gai in Shinjuku. A network of tiny alleys, connected by even narrower passageways, Golden Gai plays host to more than 200 shanty-style bars, many with room for around six patrons or fewer. While foreigners are not allowed in some of the bars—their size can make language barriers seem even more obvious—most are friendly and welcoming. Many of the bars are geared toward the affinities of their owners and customers, and themes vary from British punk rock to horse racing and Chinese board games. Obsessive, anarchic, and completely one of a kind, Tokyo is a city that revels in such unlikely juxtapositions.
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Located among the skyscrapers of Shiodome, overlooking Tokyo Bay and within easy striking distance of Ginza and Tsujiki, the Conrad is an excellent luxury choice. Rooms are very spacious and there are two Michelin-starred restaurants in-house.
A trip to Tsukiji, Tokyo’s giant morning fish market, is an essential pitstop for visiting foodies. A sushi breakfast is de rigeur, and the seafood at Sushi Dai is justifiably famous for its amazing freshness and equally astounding value.
Nicknamed “Shonben Yokocho” (piss alley) by the locals, this tiny side street near Shinjuku station is packed with small yakitori stalls where delicious sticks of meat, seafood, and vegetables are served up 24-hours a day.
This thoroughfare at Tokyo Station is devoted to the Chinese-derived, umami-laden, bowls of egg noodles in broth. With some of the city’s most vaunted ramen alchemists such as Rokurinsha represented, it is a one-stop shop for the noodle obsessed.
Studio Ghibli Museum
Known as the “Disney of the East,” Studio Ghibli is famous for creating the best-quality anime (Japanese-style animation) around. This fantastic museum is where fans from around the world come to pay homage to the genre.
Arguably the most famous intersection on the planet, this Shibuya landmark is one of the best people-watching spots in town. The preferred vantage point is from the Starbucks in the Tsutaya building on the crossing’s north side, which is one of the coffee chain’s most lucrative outlets.
Inner City Onsen
There’s no need to venture out of Tokyo to bathe in natural hot springs. The capital has a diverse range of onsen from old-school public baths to giant complexes such as Oedo Onsen Monogatari, the city’s most famous source of geothermal goodness.
Currently the second-highest building in the world after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, this 634-meter structure was completed in February 2012. The upper observation deck at 450 meters offers panoramic views over the city and on to Mount Fuji, 100 kilometers in the distance.
Metropolitan City Hall
Kenzo Tage’s city hall building in Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s most imposing structures. It also has one of the best free vistas in the city at a pair of observation decks 252 meters high.
New York Bar
The most sophisticated view in the city can be found in the Park Hyatt’s sumptuous cocktail bar, where the character played by actor Bill Murray famously spent large portions of the film “Lost in Translation” sipping whisky.