Only in Japan

From serene shrines to ultra-modern fashion and gaming to cuisine that favors the bold, there’s no place like Tokyo.

By: 

Sarah Louise Cook

Published date: 

Apr. 1, 2017

Japan can conjure up images of futuristic bullet trains and skyscrapers packed with hard-working, suited-up salarymen as easily as it can colorful geishas and traditional martial arts. In Tokyo, Eastern reflection and perfectionism meet Western consumerism and convenience in a paradoxical fusion. It’s welcoming but aloof - a quiet but buzzing metropolis that embraces the cutting-edge while revering the ancient.

Almost 40 million people live in greater Tokyo, but thanks to a culture where punctuality is paramount, the transport system is superb. The subway is by far the easiest way to hop between the hundreds of distinct and vibrant neighborhoods that make up the 24-hour city, but a stroll above ground reveals the juxtapositions that make Tokyo a fascinating place.

Asakusa, to the west of the city, is home to Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. Senso-ji dates back to 645 AD and lies in the shadow of the futuristic Skytree tower. Burning incense and the smell of traditional treats offered by street vendors are reminders of a bygone age. In Edo times, when samurai still served feudal lords, Asakusa was outside the city limits and home to theaters and colorful nightlife. For a guided tour with a difference, take a jinrikisha – a rickshaw pulled by a runner.

Meiji Jingu, in Harajuku, is a more serene experience. A tree-lined walk winds its way beneath traditional torii gates to the Shinto shrine. Visitors write their hopes and dreams on wooden boards and hang them up for inclusion in the daily prayers. And the lucky few might catch sight of some of Tokyo’s most affluent bridal parties parading through in wedding kimonos.

A stone’s throw from this oasis of calm are two of Tokyo’s major shopping districts - Omotesando and Harajuku. While Tokyoites revere their history, they also love to celebrate the new. Omotesando’s main street is lined with designer stores and Western brands. Next door, in Harajuku, younger crowds are drawn to fashion that’s more off-the-wall than off-the-catwalk.

It’s here that the latest food trends are set. A café with a line snaking down the street is more likely to be selling the latest food craze (waffles, pancakes and recently even humble popcorn) than offering the best lunch in town.

The quieter suburb of Shimokitazawa, however, is a vintage treasure trove. The area has grown to specialize in thrift stores and coffee shops. The most acclaimed, Bear Pond Espresso, offers a lovingly crafted brew in a minimalist wooden setting. Stay Happy Café is a more comfortable lunch spot; there are even a couple of hammocks in its loft-style seating area. 

Tokyo hasn’t been immune to the hipster revolution, but most trendy cafes will offer European-style dishes with a Japanese twist. In truth, fish egg pasta and mayonnaise-smothered seaweed pizza are probably best avoided. Thankfully, it’s genuinely difficult to find bad-quality authentic Japanese food.

For the adventurous hungry tourist, ducking through the doorway curtains of a non-English speaking bar and trying to work out where shoes should go, how to order, and what’s actually on the menu, is all part of the fun.

Many eateries specialize in just one dish. Gottsui in Roppongi serves up okonomiyaki (a delicious and glorious cross between a pancake and omelette) while the Gindako takoyaki chain offers deep-fried balls of batter and octopus tentacles. They go well with beer, honestly.

Gonpachi in Roppongi is tourist-friendly but retains a period feel, with high ceilings, wooden benches, and staff who holler a greeting at every new entrant. Its claim to fame of having inspired a scene in Kill Bill (not a comment on its chefs’ knife skills) has ensured it has a steady stream of overseas diners.

Among budget-friendly dinner options are cheap and cheerful izakaya chains, such as Za Watami, and 100-yen (about 90 cents) sushi conveyors. At Genki Sushi, plates are delivered by a miniature train. But fine dining is also readily available – Tokyo boasts more Michelin-starred chefs than any city in the world.

Tokyo does love a hammed-up themed dining experience, too. Ninja restaurants, the horror-themed Lock Up, and numerous Alice in Wonderland cafes are all worth a trip for their quirky menus, fantastical décor and memorable serving styles. The Robot Restaurant, in Shinjuku, is perhaps a misnomer. The energetic giant robots and bikini-clad dancers certainly put on a uniquely Japanese spectacle, but the sad bento box provided is one of those rare examples of disappointing Japanese cuisine.

After dinner, there’s only one thing to do. Karaoke dominates Tokyo nightlife, with most venues offering all-you-can-drink (nomihoudai) as part of the hourly booth rental package. What starts as a hesitant turn on the mic can quickly become an all-night singathon with a price tag as heavy as the headache the next morning.

It would be a shame not to see Tokyo from above. The city sprawls from the sea almost to the mountains, with Mount Fuji sitting majestically to the west. Skytree offers views from 1,500 feet, and its opening in 2012 made the orange and white Tokyo Tower suddenly seem dated. Roppongi Hills is more central and has an outdoor deck offering stunning sunset views of Fuji on a clear day. Meanwhile the catchily named Tokyo Government Metropolitan Building’s observation floor, in Shinjuku, is free to enter – if you can find the way in.

Tokyo summers aren’t for the faint-hearted as the mercury can hit the high 90s or top 100 for seemingly weeks on end. The real vacation mood-killer, however, is the humidity, which is often more than 90 percent. No trip outside is complete without a 100-yen shop sweat towel.

Cherry blossom season, usually in March, is when Tokyo puts on its best dress. The eagerly anticipated explosions of white-pink flowers are genuinely stunning. The most impressive viewing spots are along the Imperial Palace moat. Locals enjoy the tradition of hanami – literally “viewing the flowers.” A more appropriate translation, however, would be “sitting under the trees drinking beer.” When the blooms are at their peak, nearly every blade of grass in favorite picnic spots, such as Yoyogi Park, is covered by a blanket.

For the gaming and anime culture that draws so many to Japan, Akihabara is the big draw. Full of arcades, manga stores and maid cafes, it’s Tokyo’s lively electronics hub.

It’s those contradictions – cherry blossom-filled parks, then arcades and manga – that help make Tokyo so irresistible. Temples nestle alongside skyscrapers, neon billboards blare out J-pop from above tiny wooden bars, and towering outdoor escalators lead to centuries-old shrines.

And always, there is so much more to see, do – and eat.