Tokyo is one of the few destinations in the world that has an all-year round appeal. I found myself making yet another trip to one of my favourite countries, a nation that combines a rich cultural and artistic heritage with a technological prowess and strong work ethos. Little wonder, they have earned the title of being world leaders, something they wear lightly and humbly, again in line with their national character.
Choosing to stay in the heart of town was a good decision. The Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho, a Luxury Collection Hotel, the newest Starwood property in Japan is located in the Chiyoda Ward neighbourhood in Tokyo, 1 km from the National Diet Building and the Japan Imperial Palace. Other landmarks such as the Shimizudani Park and Benkei Canal are also within walking distance.
Interestingly, as is the case with most of the hotels in Japan, Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho too is housed within a large building. So while the outside façade gives the name of the hotel, the hotel itself is confined to the 30th to 36th floor of the Tokyo Garden Terrace Tower. Its functional and efficient reception leads you to a well planned set of interiors that have 250 guest rooms, each with a magnificent view of the city. The 35th floor is where most of the action is with a signature bar, specialty restaurants, indoor pool, fitness centre, spa, conference rooms and a business centre.
The concierge desk was my main reference point in getting the maximum out of the two days that I had at my disposal in the capital city of Japan. A meticulous plan was etched out and reservations made so I could get a flavour of the traditional and modern side of the city. While I relied mostly on cabs, the metro is barely a five minute walk from the hotel. I was fortunate to have the hotel help me embark on an interesting, hand picked city tour.
Sumo wrestlers in action
The image of Sumo rikishi, or wrestlers, was deeply entrenched in my mind, fascinated with the well built bodies that had the most innocent and non-threatening facial expressions. There was no way I was going to leave Japan without seeing a sumo wrestler. With luck on my side, I found out that the annual Grand Sumo Tournament is held in the month of September. I had a good ringside seat thanks to the hotel. The stadium was packed and I was told that the sumo competitions begin in the morning and continue through the day, with most “encounters” lasting a few seconds or maximum a minute or two. People keep coming and leaving and the atmosphere in and around the ring changes as favourites enter the ring and audience reaction to them indicates to novices like me, who the potential winners could be.
There is a certain reverence with which the locals view their national sport of sumo wrestling. It is said that it originated in ancient times as a performance to entertain Shinto deities. Many rituals with religious background, such as the symbolic purification of the ring with salt continue to be followed today. Traditionally, it is only the men who practice the sport but unlike most such sports around the world like boxing, bull fighting and bull running, sumo wrestling has something very endearing about it.
Although it is competitive, it is not menacing or even violent. The expression of the wrestlers is benign most of the time and when you leave the stadium, you carry with you, visuals of the grace and power that the sport exudes.
A most fascinating fish experience
After the controlled confines of the stadium to the busy and unhindered activity at what is touted as the world’s largest and busiest fish market at Tusjiji, was an eye opener. I knew Japan was the land that gave us Sushi but was pleasantly surprised to see the immense variety of fish that came from the ocean and which the Japanese have mastered the art of cooking, be it steamed, poached, fried, sautéed or even raw.
The best hour to head here is 5am, the pre dawn hour when the live tuna auctions are held. One has to check online if general public is allowed on the specific day you may wish to visit. Limited seats are available and one has to register to get a good seat at the fish information centre, inside the Kachidoki Gate off Harumi Street.
I wound up my quick visit with an indulgence of freshly made sushi at one of the many counters that were set up around the market. Head out to the outer market where there are narrow streets selling a wide variety of fresh seafood and other specialty items, such as real wasabi. Authentic bowls and sashimi knives can be bought here as souvenirs.
A trip to Tokyo cannot be complete without spending a few hours walking around the glitzy entertainment district of Ginza that has the most classy outlets for dining, shopping, art and leisure. Open seven days a week, the ideal time would be to get in the afternoon and see the streets pick up momentum as dusk falls.
Apart from housing flagship stores of international designer brands such as MCM, Michael Kors, Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton, the streets are dotted with affordable fashion chains such as Uniqlo, Zara and Abercrombie & Fitch. Since I wanted to check out the local luxury brands I took a quick peek into the Matsuya store that showcases exotic designs in clothes, jewellery and household accessories.
A slice of Hollywood’s Kill Bill action
As evening descended, I could see the city gearing up for its night life. Ginza district with its many restaurants and bars comes alive with karaoke music as young people throng to demonstrate their musical abilities. While week days are quieter, it is weekends that sees almost all watering holes in the city overflowing with young people. I head out to try the culinary delicacies dished out at Gonpachi aka the Kill Bill Restaurant that is located in the Nishi Azabu district of Tokyo. It acquired instant stardom post the shooting of the famous fight scene in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill”.
The restaurant is a bit of a maze but has the most amazing atmosphere with lanterns, reasonably priced food and excellent service. I was told that their fried shrimp dumplings were good. I opted for Kushimono which was skewered lotus root, mushrooms, green pepper, okra and vegetables such as gingko nuts served on sticks with deep fried potatoes topped with a dessert of pumpkin and coconut ice cream.
Next day was busy, relaxing in the hotel, lounging in the Sky Gallery Lounge Levita and relishing small meals at the all-day dining Oasis Garden followed by relaxing massages at the Washoku Souten, Kioi Spa! As I head out to the airport to fly back home, I realise that I have been most fortunate to survive my Japan visit in the month of September, when historically it is the typhoon season throughout the country. No doubt, the weather is excellent since it is mild summer with intermittent bouts of rain. The polite, courteous ways of the Japanese and their devotion to work is something to emulate. You really can never get enough of Japan and every visit provides a different experience and leaves you yearning for more. Whether it is Tokyo or one of the cities that dot the Japanese landscape, from Kyoto to Kobe and Hiroshima and Sapparo, you are bound to return with memories for a lifetime; and if you travel during the heavenly Cherry Blossom season, even more so!
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