72 hours in Tokyo
Welcome to Tokyo, a multisensory roller-coaster that always tantalises, thrills — and touches your heart.
ARONIA DE TAKAZAWA
Only two words describe this decade-old hidden gourmet gem — iconic and exclusive. Chef Yoshiaki Takazawa invents seasonal dishes, playfully fusing Japanese and French culinary ideas. His wife Akiko matches these with a personalised fine dining service, for no more than 10 diners per sitting. With no fixed menu, the experimental creations range from Japanese deer tartare and Okinawa pork pate to snapping turtle soup with purple asparagus. With a 100 day waiting period for a table and a plum spot on San Pellegrino’s list of the ‘Best 50 restaurants in Asia for 2015’, a reservation here is a prize catch.
SUKIYABASHI JIRO HONTEN
This button-sized Tokyo establishment was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s choice when he wanted to treat Barack Obama to some fishy delights. Owner Iro Ono is the oldest living Michelin three-star chef, adding more reverence to his famed 20-course omakase menu. Discount the chef’s impudence when he pushes you to finish your $300 dinner in less than 30 minutes. Its Ginza outpost is reputed for being the very acme of sushi snobbery.
THE LOBBY, PENINSULA HOTEL
The classic Peninsula Afternoon Tea’s well-endowed tower of goodies, with impeccable service, is legendary. Fresh salmon bavarois lathered with pink pepper, corn and sour cream compete with fromage mousse and pink grape fruit tarts, all rounded off with their signature Peninsula Tokyo blend tea. You can add champagne to your set too.
TEMPURA TEN ICHI
This second generation salon of authentic Japanese tempura has been a popular spot since the 1930s.Cooked in front of the diner and served directly from wok to plate, each piece is incredibly light, batter-fried at the perfect temperature. The set lunch is cheaper and easier to get a reservation for, during the week. An assortment of prawn legs, mushroom,asparagus and sea eel and vegetables melts in your mouth, just after each piece is dipped in tentsuyu sauce.
THE MEIJI SHRINE AND HARAJUKU
A sunrise walk is worth the effort at this Shinto shrine, dedicated to the late 19th-century emperor who introduced Japan to the rest of the world. It is fuss-free compared to some of the other famous temple sites, like Asakusa’s Senso-ji. Walk through its large tori gates for your prayer, or write your wish on paper and tie it to the prayer wall. A few minutes’ walk will lead you to the forever young Harajuku neighbourhood. As the epicentre of borderline bizarre fashion, Harajuku is full of cosplay Lolita girls, strutting their elaborate finery everySundaynear Takeshita Dori Street. Keep your camera handy, because these girls love being photographed.
THE ROOFTOP OF THE TOKYO METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT BUILDING
There’s no better way to get an idea of Tokyo’s scale than with a bird’s eye view from hundreds of feet above its streets. Why endure the long queues and fat entry fees to the city’s two most famous observation towers, Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree, when you can go to the free observation deck at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building complex? There are two towers, both of which are located 45 stories above the bustling Shinjuku district; the South tower observatory has a better view of Mt. Fuji and a restaurant that is open for dinner. This is the one stop to see all of Tokyo in 60 minutes flat.
THE TSUKIJI FISH MARKET AND KABUKIZA THEATRE
The Tsukiji Fish Market appears in literally every guide book about Tokyo, and you can see it free of cost. Fill your jet-lagged hours with a pre-dawn visit for its tuna auction, followed by a breakfast of fresh sushi. Tourists jam thecordoned periphery of the cold, damp hangar, watching potential buyers pounce on their tuna, with histrionics and high voltage action, almost like a reality show. For a less hectic cultural fix, not too far away is the Kabukiza Theatre, famed for its dance and drama performances. With matinees starting at11 am, it’s worth investing a calm morning for a performance that’s a slice from the Edo era.
SUMO WRESTLING TOURNAMENTS
Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan is where all the action is, with three major tournaments per year in January, May and September. A ceremonial rikishi parade makes way for a stretching and stomping, before two massive bodies throw themselves against each other. Tangle, toss and throw is the method, with the winners enjoying demi-god status. If you’re lucky, you might get a selfie with a contestant.
GOLDEN GAI STREETS
Tokyo has perhaps the most unique bar neighbourhood in Asia, tucked inside the Shinjuku neighbourhood —three winding alleys with over 200 bars. Graffiti covers several of them; kinky themes dominate some, while others can accommodate just six drinkers at a time. One of the more popular ones is the Albatross Bar, with chatty staff and strong cocktails. Carrot Bar is another favourite, for its friendly vibe and laidback J-rock soundtracks. What I loved most about Golden Gai was that it felt like I had stumbled upon my very own secret bar, no matter which one I visited.
AGEHA NITE CLUB
Ageha has, at any given point of time, more than 1000 revellers tripping to its well-curated EDM playlist. From iconic spin masters to theme nights, sexy performers to a steady supply of Tokyo’s most stunning party animals, this pleasure dome has three dance floors, designed to dazzle just about anyone. Things start to crescendo around midnight, so arrive earlier if you want to make it in, and don’t be afraid to use their shuttle service to and from Shibuya station, to save you very expensive cab ride.
The party hub of Roppongi has loads of sing-along bars. At Lovenet, you can sing in the tub when you book the Aqua Suite, a private room complete with a bubbling jacuzzi. Other fantasy options include the ethereal Heaven room and the exotic archways and pillow-laden Morocco Suite. A regular at this karaoke staple told me that a songbook favourite with salaried men and their hostesses is Bon Jovi’s “It’s my life”.
With over 100 different sake pours to boast about and a name that means “red devil”, this watering hole should be taken seriously. Located in the slightly distant Sangenjaya, it’s worth the boozy pilgrimage. Akaoni has two serving sizes: a larger ochoko 150 ml size and a half serving. After three rounds of their limited edition juyondai and nihonshus (which may not even be on the menu), this unpretentious sake house becomes heaven, and its sommelier your new god.
THE FIRST CABIN HOTEL
This is just the right place for the uninitiated to lose their capsule hotel virginity. Inspired by airline cabins, the First Cabin chain of capsule hotels have personal booths, available in both ‘business class’ and ‘first class’ versions, with the luxury and space that you will enjoy on a long-haul flight. Its Tsukiji Market branch is a clear favourite, for its contemporary and comfortable cabins, a well stocked lobby bar and staff that will never let you down.
Smack in the middle of the city, perched atop the gleaming Otemachi Tower, this urban retreat is a short walk from the financial epicentre.The largest Aman hotel, with 84 rooms, its Kerry Hill design meets Japan’s design lineage. The rooms are a modern, minimalist salutation to traditional ryokans, complete with flamed hewn stone and decadent hinoki wood, tatami mats and large, paper-lined screens. Don’t forget to find time for their addictive, 90-minute stone onsen soak, loaded with sake koji paste and Japanese sea salts, followed by a body wrap with citrusyuzu, pine oils and Japanese ginger. All of this with a view of Mt Fuji, on a clear day.Zen doesn’t get sexier!
THE PALACE HOTEL
This is a living lesson in impeccable Japanese hospitality. From a lavish choice of ten restaurants and bars, my taste buds would vote for Tatsumi, a tiny tempura bar offering sakura and seaweed salt tastings, tucked in an exclusive alcove from the mother restaurant of Wadakura. Opulence is its central theme, and the pastel rooms are much sought after for their attention to detail. Grab a south-facing room for the best views of the Imperial palace, as well as a view of the Tokyo tower. Oh, and they have the best concierge in all of Japan.
THE AKIHABARA NEIGHBOURHOOD
Check out multi-storeyed gizmo dens like Yodabashi and Bic Camera. The bargains and ahead of the curve technology on offer here are almost baffling, including robots that can do just about anything.
THE OMATESANDO NEIGHBOURHOOD
This tree-lined boulevard has the glitziest retail outposts, with 100 plus uber cool brands. Across the street is an illustrious heritage hotspot, the Oriental Bazaar store, an almost 100-year old establishment that houses art, antiques, raku pottery, scriptures and sculptures.
THE SHIBUYA NEIGHBOURHOOD
Don’t miss the DOOB3D store, which takes less than a second (inside their high tech “Dooblicator” scanner) to create a perfect figurine of yourself.
TO HANG OUT
This is the best place to buy gifts for the one you love. Crafted by acclaimed chef Hideo Yokota, its signature plated dessert is called “The Pearl” — a passion fruit parfait, with an assortment of aloe-vera and alphonso mangoes, dotted with goji berries and white jelly fungus around a blancmange.
CAFE AIN SOPH. JOURNEY
Discreetly located next to Shinjuku station, the uniquely named café uses its vegan philosophy to attract throughbred carnivores, too. Endless glasses of organic French and Austrian wine find company in vegetable wine find company in vegetable cheese, while herbivore versions of a paella or nutty dry curry with mushroom Hayashi rice have plenty of takers. The superstar of the menu is a set of buttery yet dairy-free pancakes, flavoured with agave syrup, and a scoop of homemade soy ice cream.
MAID CAFÉS ALL OVER AKIHABARA
These cosplay-themed cafés are in the Akihabara district, Tokyo’s gizmo central. Customers, largely local regulars, are fawned over embarrassingly, teased or even ignored, depending on the café’s theme and the maid’s mood. Be warned that food is secondary here. Rice and omelettes with your name scribbled on them with ketchup are popular, or try bean curd and green tea puddings. Check out Cure Maid Café, the original one on the block, the foreigner-friendly Popopure Café or the school girl fantasy-inspired Cos Cha Café.