From its frenetic urban pulse to the calm of cloaked shrines, Tokyo showcases contrast like no other destination.
Omotesando is often referred to as the Champs-Élysées, demonstrating the Japanese obsession with all things French - from its tree-lined avenues reminiscent of Paris, to the quaint bakeries wafting freshly baked pastries.
Dizzyingly neon on one end of the spectrum and flawlessly placid on the other, Tokyo is city of extremes. Whether seeking refuge in the tranquillity of its meticulously manicured gardens, people-watching in weird and wonderful Harajuku or devouring a buttery piece of tuna sashimi in a humble local eatery, the city encapsulates sensory overload – in the very best possible way.
A great way to experience Tokyo’s many facets is to explore its shopping districts. Perhaps the most famous, Ginza suits purists for international luxury brands, while Omotesando is often referred to as the Champs-Élysées, demonstrating the Japanese obsession with all things French - from its tree-lined avenues reminiscent of Paris, to the quaint bakeries wafting freshly baked pastries. The throng of on-trend flagship stores serves as an architectural focal point, showcasing functional works of art.
Equally pleasing to the eye is picturesque Daikanyama, favoured by locals, particularly young couples and ladies-who-lunch, who frequent the trendy cafés. In stark contrast to the skyscrapers and crowds of touristy retail havens, the laidback vibe of the independent outlets and surrounding neighbourhood suit bohemian types after a weathered, vintage find.
For an even more low-key browsing experience, Marunouchi can be compared to New York’s Fifth Avenue for its preppy chic labels and epicurean treats, with gourmet deli windows lined with dainty, pastel macaroons. Despite its location in the heart of the financial district, perusing the range of coveted goods here is a surprisingly unruffled experience, much like the pristinely suited executives clocking in.
The city’s oldest Buddhist temple in Asakusa, Sensoji, encapsulates quintessential Tokyo imagery with its colossal red lanterns and towering pagodas. Built in honour of the goddess of Kannon, highlights include the temple’s iconic Kaminarimon Thunder Gate and Nakamise street, lined with touristy buys, such as paper fans, traditional yukatas and irresistible local nibbles.
Less well known, but perhaps even more breath taking, is the idyllic Meiji Shrine, shrouded in a sprawling expanse of evergreen forest. Dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, the tranquil Shinto sacred place is shaded with Japanese cypress trees, providing an arresting backdrop for traditional wedding ceremonies. The mystical verdure provides the ultimate sanctuary from downtown clamour.
In stark contrast to the leafy serenity is adrenaline-fuelled Shibuya. Famously portrayed in Lost in Translation, the world’s most congested crossing makes you feel like a canned sardine, on the cusp of being engulfed by the swarming crowd. Overlooking the mad scramble is one of the world’s busiest Starbucks outlets, an ideal spot for watching the ebb and flow of people as the traffic lights change.
The most stunning glimpse of the Tokyo skyline can be savoured at the Mori Art Museum Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills, offering a stunning 360° perspective from 250 metres above sea level. In addition to the art gallery’s impressive exhibitions, the Sky Aquarium alone makes a trip worthwhile. Like a living museum, marine inhabitants are framed with high-tech lighting, shadow effects, superimposed shadows and changing colours – a true testament to the Japanese fixation with aesthetic appeal.
The country’s obsession with palatable pleasures is evidenced by the Tsukiji fish market tuna auctions, the world’s largest of its kind. Taking place at 5am each morning, there’s nothing quite like the bite of standing in freezing conditions with a pungent whiff of seafood to wake you up. As the fast and furious bidding kicks off, it’s impossible not to be mesmerised by the animated bartering and verbal acrobatics of the spectacle, as wholesalers transform their meticulous inspection into fascinating reality entertainment.
Evidenced by the plethora of edible delights, food is serious business in Tokyo. Part of the beauty of its highly evolved culinary scene is that many eateries dedicate themselves solely to one specialty, striving for absolute perfection. Many a memorable meal was devoured amidst the glittering lights of nightlife district Roppongi.
Perhaps most unforgettable was Inakaya, one of the best robatayakis in town. The chefs are perched ceremoniously in the middle of heaped mounds of fresh vegetables, seafood and meat. Simply point to the produce that takes your fancy, which is promptly grilled and returned on an eight-inch paddle. Despite the fanfare, showmanship and photos documenting Hollywood celebrity visits, the quality ingredients speak for themselves, requiring minimal seasoning. You may also wish to lessen the shock of the inevitably mammoth bill with yet another shot of sake.
Eating well needn’t break the bank, however. Rediscover the simplicity of soba noodles at Nagasaka Sarashina in Azabu-Juban, where the sarashina variety, made from the redefined core of the buckwheat kernel, is the house special. Mix the sweet and spicy dipping sauces to taste, and finish with a side of tempura. A quick stop at the recently opened Ritatino ice-cream shop around the corner is the perfect conclusion to a humble, yet heavenly, dinner. Opened by a famous pastry chef from Kobe, the homemade specialty is served at -6 °C, which is near melting point for a uniquely velvety consistency, similar to gelato.
After an exhausting day of exploration, there is no better place to unwind than the splendid Shangri-La Hotel, Tokyo, which boasts lavish rooms with striking city views. Plush surroundings and Asian hospitality are the perfect treat after being on your toes all day. As you sink into the ridiculously comfortable bed, it’s hard to feel anything but satisfied, anticipating the adventures tomorrow will bring.
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Inspiring, I want to visit as soon as possible!