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7. October 2021
Japan's capital is a high-paced metropolis with a zen-like soul, where yesterday and today blends seamlessly to make a one-of-a-kind destination, overflowing with surprises at every step of the way.
From an obscure fishing village to seat of the military Shogun rulers and then finally the nation's official capital to world's largest city - with a population of 38 million - Tokyo's timeline has been nothing short of remarkable.
Set against the backdrop of cherry blossoms, gardens and bamboo groves, the city is a study in unexpected contrasts from the word 'go'. Time-honoured heritage thrives undisturbed in ancient shrines, pachinko parlours and Matcha tea houses, while futuristic vision shines through sky-high structures, capsule hotels and tech-tuned robot restaurants. Juggling the contrasting twin personas of Japan's capital city can be chaotic but intriguing for the first-timer. You never quite know what lies ahead, but therein lies the appeal.
Kick-start your adventure with a taste of timelessness in the older neighbourhoods. First, pick the warren of atmospheric streets in Asakusa, considered the heart of Tokyo's Shitamachi. Follow the retro charm of tea houses, kabuki theatres and kimono stores till you arrive at the city's most famous temple, the 7th-century Senso-ji Temple. Visions of those bright-red gates and swirling incense smoke will stay with you for long after.
The magic continues at the quaint neighbourhood of Yanaka, which used to be home to some of the country's most famous writers and artists. The area is still known for speciality stores for stationery, pottery and jewellery. Distractions along the way include the shrines of Ueno Tōshō-gū, Ueno Tōshō-gū and Kiyomizu Kannon-dō. Linger and immerse in the ambience before you move on.
If food markets fascinate you, consider a trail through the Tsukiji Fish Market, a great place to sample street food like yakitori skewers, tamagoyaki and sushi in a lively, aromatic vibe.
Then switch gears to walk through the pages of history at the Imperial Palace Gardens. Two of the most impressive features here are the Edo period style gardens and the treasures of the Museum of Imperial Collections.
Let your love for tranquil scenery guide you deep into the oasis of Shinjuku Gyoen Garden, Tokyo's answer to Central Park. In the nearby Yoyogi Park, pass families dressed up in traditional kimonos on your way to the Meiji Jingu shrine, dedicated to modern Japan's first emperor and empress.
That done, you're ready to embrace the sizzling pace of the city. Follow the human stream at bustling Shinjuku, emblematic of modern Tokyo with its profusion of steel and glass skyscrapers and glowing signs. Remember to keep your eyes peeled for the honeycombed Mode Gakuen building - a statement piece of architecture in its own right.
Head to Shibuya Crossing, the world's busiest crosswalk, for a colourful photo-op from the Shibuya Scramble Square tower above Shibuya Station. Alternatively, climb 230 metres up from street level to the Shibuya Sky rooftop observatory for an equally sensational vista.
Then disappear into the lively and fashion-forward streets of Harajuku where you will encounter a sensory overload of psychedelic boutiques, quirky cafes and kitschy photo booths called Purikura.
Dip into Tokyo's contemporary sub-cultures like manga comics and anime cartoons at the neon-lit Electric Town, Akihabara.
Finally, gawp at the 21st-century skyline from the observation deck of the 2,080-foot (630 metres) tall Tokyo SkyTree.
If that doesn't cut it deep enough, top it up with a luxurious sunset helicopter cruise over the city.
- Ginza: A mecca for compulsive shoppers, this is the most extensive shopping area in the country. Expect to find everything from international designer brands like Michael Kors, Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton, mega department stores like Mitsukoshi, Hankyu and Seibu, high-street fashion stores and craft boutiques.
- Omotesando Hills: The city's second-largest upscale shopping neighbourhood is no less prestigious than the Champs-Élysées of Paris. Browse for luxury finds at the flagship stores of designer labels like Hugo Boss, Alexander McQueen, Issey Miyake, Dolce & Gabbana and Jimmy Choo.
- Roppongi Hills: There are over 200 stores to blow up your money in this exclusive shopping complex, including labels in the league of Giorgio Armani and La Perla. You can take a break from shopping at art galleries, nine cinemas and several fine dining restaurants.
- Shinjuku: It is humanly impossible to scourge through every store in this gigantic shopping district, so stay selective. The station's south exit is best for chic malls and department stores like Takashimaya and Tokyu Hands. You can find the Isetan department store and Bicqlo near the East exit. That done, consider hitting the back streets for speciality shops.
Museums & the arts
- Ghibli Museum: Seek out this quirky museum devoted to the famous Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli, housed in an Italian mansion within thick green forestry. Must-do's include browsing in the Tri Hawks reading room and watching an animated short film screening.
- The National Art Center: One of the country's most prominent contemporary art museums takes up a gigantic 150,700 square feet. There are four rotating exhibitions on display throughout the year. More culture on your mind? Then consider adding on a trip to the nearby Mori Art Museum or the Suntory Museum.
- Nezu Museum: The minimalist design of this museum located in the leafy surroundings of the Aoyama district sets the tone for what lies inside. Lap up the displays of East Asian and Japanese sculpture, ceramics, and calligraphy. Bookmark the 7,400-piece private collection of Nezu Kaichirō, the president of Japan's Tobu Railway.
- Edo-Tokyo Museum: Journey through the feudal era of the past to the 21st-century metropolis. Fascinating finds include architectural models of historic neighbourhoods, lost landmarks, original woodblock prints and maps. You can even take a capsule course on kabuki theatre or ukiyo-e (woodblock printing).
- The Mori Art Museum: Eye-candy appeal is writ all over this modern museum which occupies two floors in one of the tallest buildings in the city. Stoke your passion for art with thought-provoking artworks by masters like Ai Weiwei and Dinh Q. Lê. The 360-degree panorama is a bonus.
- Baseball: Book an exciting day to see the Tokyo Yakult Swallows Baseball game at Tokyo Dome, the largest baseball stadium in Japan. The energy is so infectious that it is easy to flow along with the cheerful chanting, banner-waving and drum beating.
- Sumo: Attend a grand tournament at the Ryogoku Kokugikan, where 11,000 enthusiastic fans can sit under a green, pavilion-style roof. The most-wanted Tamari seats surround the ring but are equally hard to land, so root for the next best option…the expensive box seats with tatami mats and red cushions.
- Soccer: Assemble at a J. League match while in Tokyo for more fanfare and a carnival mood. Nothing like a Nagoya Grampus Eight game when sports is on your mind.
- Martial arts: Japanese martial arts has a classic charm of its own, and the ideal place to enjoy it is in Tokyo Budokan, an arena reserved only for martial arts. If you are lucky, you may catch a martial arts tournament in Tokyo Budokan. But even if you don't, there are always professionals at work, practising various kendo, judo, karate and archery here. Get inspired to master some of those moves.
- Golf: Golf is the holy grail of sports in Japan. The country boasts half the courses in Asia. Golfing in Japan is an experience – and a whole day should be spent taking in the local customs. Expect much food, bathing and very keen ball-spotters/caddies.
- Nihonryori Ryugin: Iconic Michelin 3-star restaurant takes you on a culinary journey through Japan with the freshest of locally sourced ingredients from across the country. If you are looking for the ultimate "Nihon ryori" (Japanese cuisine) with avant-garde cooking techniques, this is your destination.
- Kondo: This Michelin 2-star tempura restaurant leading Tokyo gastronomy from the front goes back to the early 1990s. Expect creative takes on classic dishes using seafood and seasonal vegetables. The thinly stripped and lightly fried carrots will challenge your thoughts on ordering vegetarian.
- Yakitori Omino: Reserve your cravings for outstanding yakitori at this Michelin 1-star restaurant near the Tokyo Sky Tree. Rare cuts include hatsumoto, parts where the heart connects to the arteries, and gullet. Order the much-coveted Date chicken or liver and chochin skewers for a gourmet treat like never before.
- Ginza Ukai-Tei: The best Teppanyaki in town is known for its grilled food, but it will surpass your expectations with the marbled Kobe beef steak. Go all out with the seafood. The scallops and crab's legs baked in sea salt should not be missed.
- L'Effervescence: Stunning presentation and impeccable flavours of this Japanese French fusion restaurant make it a favourite with locals and visitors alike. Think surprise combinations like limoncello baba & banana with white rum ice cream and black soybeans.
Push your inner limits with a Samurai and Ninja training class conducted by a professional martial arts teacher. Discipline your body and mind with carefully practised etiquette, breathing techniques, Zen meditation and graceful moves that go back to ancient history. Dive into Japanese culture using swords, shrunken and stick ninja.
Keepsakes are forever, so forget the mundane and the commonplace. An excellent choice for a pick-up in Tokyo is a high-quality Sensu, a folding fan made of wood and Japanese paper. Look for a special handcrafted one painted in gold and silver, which is more decorative than utilitarian.
Stay glued to the windows of the Shinkansen all the way to Hakone. Prep for eye-popping Mt. Fuji views, pay tribute to the Hakone Jinja Shinto shrine and dip into the natural hot springs of Owakudani Valley. Head by cable car up Mount Komagatake to marvel at a lava dome. Hikers will enjoy the natural wonderland of hot springs, lakes and volcanic islands in the Hakone National Park. How about an indulgent Onsen overlooking the vast Sengokuhara plains?
Nightlife / Hidden gem
Tokyo's nightlife is legendary, and you can never have enough bar-hopping, but if you must choose one bar, make it Virtu. Art and science come together in tantalising mixology with seasonal specials like the Christmas eggnog spiked with Remy Martin 1738. Order the signature Takara to taste a fusion of Japanese whisky, chartreuse and the brandy-like Denki Bran, a 19th-century Tokyo invention.
Tokyo has two major airports – Narita International Airport (NRT) and Haneda Airport (HND). From Narita, a cab to the centre of Tokyo is 90 minutes plus – it is a 70-kilometre journey. In the fast train, it’s just 40 minutes. Haneda is just 15 kilometres away. Taxis and Uber are readily available, though they are pretty expensive.
The extensive network of Tokyo's subway is ideal as a means of local transport. Whenever possible, make it a point to walk through the neighbourhoods to be part of the city's sights, sounds, and aromas.
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