A unique mix of the ultra-modern and the traditional, the world’s most populated metropolis is home to more than 37 million people, according to the United Nations. Tokyo is a city that combines cherry blossoms and shrines with neon-lit skyscrapers and futuristic robot theatre. Beer-dispensing vending machines, heated toilet seats and streets of anime-themed shops are all part of the fun.
Toss aside that pre-packaged California roll and taste sushi that is so fresh it is almost still swimming. Tokyo restaurants settle for only the freshest fish, which is hauled off boats, filleted and sold daily at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, a five-minute stroll from Tsukiji Station. Try a bowl of maguro don (tuna on rice) at any bar in Tsukiji’s outer market for freshness that redefines Australian sushi (about 900 yen or A$10).
For a pricier meal, head to three-Michelin-starred Sukiyabashi Jiro (tasting menu is 30,000 yen or A$350), where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took US President Barack Obama to dine during Obama’s April 2014 visit to the city. Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any city in the world, but you can also find delicious cuisine in many red lantern–lit izakaya (pubs) serving yakiniku (barbequed meats), tempura (deep-fried vegetables and prawns), nabe (hot pots) and don (rice bowls) for less than A$10 including rice and miso soup. Try cook-your-own okonomiyaki – a Japanese savoury pancake made from flour, egg, cabbage and any other ingredients you choose (in Japanese, okono means “how you like”).
Finally, hop off the metro at Tokyo Station and follow the signs to Ramen Street in the underground shopping plaza of First Avenue Tokyo Station. This is the best place to try Japan’s take on Chinese noodle soup, topped with delicious slow-cooked pork that could fall apart with a hard stare (about $A12 for a bowl). Don’t be intimidated by the lines – locals slurp these noodles down quick and you’ll be seated before you can say oishii (yum).
First-time visitors will be entertained by the futuristic vending machines that dot Tokyo’s streets. For about 100 yen ($A1.20), you can buy hot beverages in cans that increase in temperature the more you shake them. A red price label means hot, while blue signifies a cold drink, so take care when preparing to quench your thirst with an iced tea. Beers are another surprise that pop out of vending machines for just a few hundred yen (equivalent to about A$3 per stubby).
If you prefer to drink indoors for around the same price, duck into one of the tiny bars in the Golden Gai, an area outside the western exit of Shinjuku Station that inspired the sci-fi scenery of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. More than 200 bars are housed in six narrow alleys that are no more than a couple of metres wide. It’s a nostalgic part of old Tokyo that has miraculously survived earthquakes, war and gentrification.
For a terrific view of the city, head to New York Grill on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt hotel, where Bill Murray met Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation. Drinks are pricey (A$20 for a cocktail) but the sunset views are priceless. Just make sure you leave before 8pm (or 7pm on Sundays) if you want to avoid the 2,000 yen (A$20) cover charge.
The five-star Capitol Hotel Tokyu is a luxurious base from which to explore the city, and is well located in central Tokyo, above a subway station with four metro lines. Designed by Kengo Kuma, the architect who designed the 2020 Olympic Stadium, the hotel’s suites feature floor-to-ceiling windows with great views of the city. Half of them overlook the Japanese Prime Minister’s office – marked by a helipad on the roof.
A modern fitness centre, lap pool, spa and three gourmet restaurants make it easy to spend a large portion of your Tokyo visit within the hotel, but a stroll across the road to the buzzing restaurant district of Akasaka is well worth the effort. Rooms start at 70,000 yen (A$820) per night.Occupying the top 14 floors of the 52-storey Shinjuku Park Tower, the Park Hyatt is a favourite for sophisticated travellers.
The building soars above the neon lights of Shinjuku – the Tokyo equivalent of New York’s Times Square – and you can see Mount Fuji from the rooms on a clear day. Each guest room is a lavish blend of marble, granite, glass and free Nespresso coffee and will set you back about 90,000 yen (A$1,050) per night.
The first place to come alive in Tokyo each morning is the hectic Tsukiji Fish Market. It’s free to visit, and you can watch restaurant owners clamouring for the freshest catch of almost every type of seafood imaginable, including huge tuna, which are sold at raucous auctions from 5am each morning. Entry to the tuna auctions is on a first-come, first-served basis, and numbers are limited to 120 visitors each morning – so you’ll need to line up by 4.30am. If you prefer to sleep in, you can still see all kinds of fish, octopus, crustaceans and even fugu (poisonous blowfish that are a delicacy in Japan) being sliced and iced until about 9.30am. Afterwards, if you can stomach it, you can join the locals for a fresh sushi breakfast.
For a more relaxing activity, stroll through the huge torii gate – the largest in Japan – and around the serene gardens at the Meiji Jingu shrine. It is impossible to not feel humbled by the 20-metre-tall oaks and Japanese cypress trees that blanket this quiet sanctuary in the centre of such a busy city. Stop by the Samurai Museum that opened in September last year in Shinjuku to experience Edo (the former name for Tokyo) history, view a samurai sword show and try on 30-kilogram pieces of armour. Contrast this with a taste of Japanese “geek” culture at the hilarious Robot Restaurant, also in Shinjuku.
The food at this “restaurant” is really an afterthought (eat before you go), with the main attraction being an exotic show of neon-lit robots fighting women in spiky gold spandex to the beat of pounding Japanese rave music. Book through JapanICan for a discounted rate of 5500 yen and prepare for a bizarre night.
The 634-metre Tokyo Skytree is the second tallest building in the world after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. While this claim to fame is a slight misnomer, as the main observation deck is just 350 metres high, the tower offers views of the city’s east as well as a walk over a terrifying glass deck for about 1,500 yen (A$18). However, for an even more impressive night view of central Tokyo, including the incredible neon-lit Skytree, head to the observation deck in Roppongi Hills Mori Tower for the same price.
As a free alternative, the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (also known as Tocho) has two 202-metre-high observation decks with views north and south
of the city.
Mitzukoshi is Japan’s answer to the English chain Harrods – a 17th-century kimono shop that was forced to modernise when department stores became popular in the 1900s. Its flagship store is in the central Tokyo suburb of Nihonbashi, where 16 floors offer merchandise from well-known designer brands. But shoppers be warned – even prices for non-designer items are far steeper in Tokyo than other cities around the world (including Sydney).
The best bargains can be found in Mitzukoshi’s two-storey basement food hall, which features a world of fresh sushi, salads, stir-fries and anpan (Japanese pastries filled with sweetened beans). Ginza and Shibuya are the main shopping suburbs in Tokyo, with names such as Ralph Lauren, Coach, Chanel, Hugo Boss and Dior crowding the tree-lined avenue of Omotesando in Shibuya. Even if you aren’t buying, it’s a lovely place to walk around, particularly at sunset when the Prada building lights up from within its diamond-shaped glass panes. Japanese designer Issey Miyake sells the popular “Pleats Please” range from his store across the road, as well as the coveted Bao Bao bag for about A$900.
The only rock-bottom giveaways in Tokyo are reserved for electronics and can be found in the Akihabara district, where the streets crawl with cheap laptops, phones, camera accessories and other gadgets. A 32 GB micro SD card that can cost A$80 in Australia sells for the equivalent of A$7 here.
Ann Cheung, an Associate in the Tokyo office of DLA Piper, offers these tips for visitors to Tokyo.
“The Yomiuri Giants are the most (in)famous baseball team in Japan, and they play their home games at the Tokyo Dome. Whether you are a baseball fan or not, attending a Giants game is a good way to experience the amazing devotion and discipline of Japanese fans at a sporting event.
“There are many themed restaurants in Tokyo and the Ninja Restaurant is my favourite. Ninjas escort you through winding wooden corridors and staircases that resemble the interior of an ancient Japanese castle. Other ninjas sneak up with drinks, food and magic tricks. Make a reservation in advance and order the Zeitaku (luxury) course.
“Tokyo also has some great craft beer establishments and my friends and I enjoy the Devil Craft, the Goodbeer Faucets and the Taproom.”