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Tokyo City Escapes

Cherry blossoms in the spring, elegant gardens and shrines, views of Mt. Fuji in the distance, Tokyo offers an unusual connection with nature in the midst of one of the most bustling metropolises in the world. The entire city buzzes with an eclectic energy that keeps it at the cutting edge of fashion, food and trends.

With the Olympics coming to town in 2020, the city is doing even more to invest in Englishlanguage training, improving an already-clean and capable infrastructure, and investing in green energy solutions. Nearly one million trees are set to be planted along roadsides in the lead-up to the event, making the city even more connected to the natural world.

To truly see Tokyo at its best, it’s worth exploring its many distinct neighbourhoods. From swanky Ginza to the youth-driven Harajuku, each district is a distinct entity full of its own personality and surprises—the understated and elegant lives comfortably alongside showy, quirky, pop cultureinfluenced style. The accessible Yamanote Line in particular connects all the central districts and important stations, making travel between them easy.
 

An inner beauty in buildings

Tokyo’s architecture may be more known for leaning toward the practical than the profound, since houses and high-rises have to be earthquake proof. But often times a bland exterior can give way to exquisite surprises within. The New York Grill, for one, located on the 52nd floor of Park Hyatt Tokyo has some of the best views of the city—the floor-to-ceiling windows offer the view made famous in the restaurant’s appearance in the Sofia Coppola-directed Lost in Translation. The American-style steakhouse offers various cuts of Black Angus and Kobe steak and more than 1,800 wines.

The imposing gothic architecture of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government gives way to some of the best views of the city on its 45th floor. On a clear day, it’s easy to see Mount Fuji and nearly all of Tokyo. Even on a foggy or smoggy day, you’ll still see the Shinjuku skyscraper district. Skytree may be the tallest structure in Japan at 634 metres, but many still prefer visiting the classic Tokyo Tower which is more centrally located. After experiencing Tokyo’s heights, get grounded in one of the city’s many gardens. Start at Ueno Park, an oasis with 800 cherry trees and 8000 other varieties of trees. The park is also home to many museums, including the Tokyo National Museum with its permanent collection of Japanese artefacts like kimono, samurai armour and woodblock prints.

The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is the city’s most beautiful green space—separated into a French formal garden, an English landscape garden and a traditional Japanese garden. Sports and toys are prohibited, so it’s the perfect place to find a little tranquillity in the middle of the metropolis.

Film buffs should check out the Ghibli Museum, located within Inokashira Park, Mitaka. The museum pays tribute to animator Hayao Miyazaki, with stills from his famous films, and life-size replicas of favourite characters like Cat Bus from My Neighbor Totoro.

For a unique collection, fly over to the Tokyo Kite Museum in Nihonbashi to see parts of the 3000-plus piece collection of traditional bamboo-framed kites from Japan and China and the intricate paper inking progress that leads to the beautiful creations.

Pulse on the trends

From the hottest designer stores, to youth-fashion focused boutiques, to artisan craft shops, Tokyo has a range of shopping options across its various neighbourhoods. It’s ambitious to cover them all in a day, thus many choose to break it up into parts, covering the Western (Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku) side one day, and the rest another.
 

 
An easy walk from the popular Meiji Shrine, the pedestrian-only Takeshita Dori in Harajuku has trendy shops and boutiques, and is a known place for companies to test-market new designs and ideas. Milk is a mainstay for the popular Lolita fashion, featuring frilly frocks with a Victorian spin.

Just south, Omotesando can’t be missed for its classic and refined beauty. Known as the “Champs-Elysées of Japan,” the tree-lined shopping district is famous for its designer brands that dot the street. The architecture in this neighbourhood is also some of the best in the world. In Aoyama, just past Omotesando, The Prada flagship store
shimmers with its six-story glass crystal architecture by Swiss firm Herzon & de Meuron. Flagship stores of Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Alexander McQueen also make this neighbourhood a must-see for both the fashion-forward architecturally inclined.

It’s only a 30-minute walk to “Scramble Crossing,” the heart of the famous youth-focused Shibuya district. To get a pulse on the latest trends, step inside Shibuya 109 (known affectionately as “Ichi maru kyu” translated as “one, zero, nine”), the favourite complex for fashionforward Japanese teenagers with its more than 100 boutiques across nine floors. Dog lovers can’t miss the Hachiko statue, a loyal Akita who waited at Shibuya station for his master long after the master passed away. The status is a favourite meeting point as well.

On the other side of town, near Tokyo Station, the brand new Kitte Marunouchi shopping centre was renovated from an old post office. It has a number of specialty shops, like Hacoa with beautiful word design goods, and restaurants like Gyunta, famous for its Okonomiyaki, a Japanese savoury pancake with various ingredients.

Food for thought

Consistently ranked as one of the world’s top cities for food, Tokyo brings its eye for trends to the table. With more than 160,000 restaurants, there’s no shortage of something to fit one’s taste. From sushi to soba, the best ingredients take centre stage in historic and beautiful settings.

Foodies often make a first stop at the Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest and busiest fish market in the world. Go early—the coveted tuna auctions start at 5am and the activity simmers down by 9am—but you can enjoy an ultra-fresh sushi breakfast at the restaurant area just inside the main gate off Shin-ohashi Street. Sushi Dai and Daiwa-Zushi have some of the best.

The world’s most famous sushi restaurant, Sushi Sukiyabashi Jiro, has been featured in films like “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” but the three-star Michelin restaurant is tough to reserve, and tough to order in English. Chef Jiro’s younger son’s branch in Roppongi Hills has the traditional style at a more accessible location.
 

 

Before sushi became a worldwide sensation, Tokyo was known for specializing in soba—traditional buckwheat noodles. Kanda Yabu Soba is one of the oldest and well-known noodle houses. Though the original burned down a few years ago, the restaurant has rebuilt and serves up specialties like the kaki soba, with oysters and seaweed in a hot broth.

Tea is also an art form in Tokyo. Try it in true style at Ippodo Marunouchi, where samples of matcha are served in an espresso cup alongside delicate Japanese pastries. Take home a tin of matcha and the accompanying brochure for tips on how to make it—especially the ice brewing method, which provides superior flavour and thickness as the cold brew slows the extraction of caffeine and the associated bitterness.

Don’t miss Narisawa, one of the top 10 restaurants in the world; the French-trained chef takes local Japanese ingredients like fugu, irabu sea snake, and taro and prepares them in creative ways that highlight nature. The restaurant is most famous for its “Bread of the Forest,” which is prepared at the table and rises under candlelight.

Urban sanctuaries under the stars

Just like Tokyo itself, the city’s best hotels fuse modern amenities with natural beauty. Many of the top spots have gardens, art galleries, and high-end restaurants that might make it hard to leave the luxurious confines of the hotel grounds.

Situated on a hill covered with flowers, Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo stays true to its name, meaning “villa on a mountain of camellias.” Their garden has 120 cherry blossom trees, 1,000 camellia trees, and more, and many of the guest rooms and suites have views of the verdant greenery. Book the View Bath Suite to soak up the scenery from an oversized tub, with floor-to-ceiling views of the garden. Guests can also enjoy dining in the garden at Kinsui, an authentic “ryotei” Japanese kaiseki restaurant with private rooms. The hotel also has the largest hotel spa in Tokyo, with an all-weather pool and an “onsen,” a Japanese hot spring.

For convenience and luxury, the Four Seasons is located right next to the train station downtown, making it easy to get to even if you don’t have a car for the day. The Ritz Carlton sits atop Midtown Tower—one of the city’s tallest buildings—and has some of the city’s best views. The hotel also hosts a 200-year-old Kokushouan teahouse at the Michelin-starred Hinokizaka, taken from its original location and rebuilt on the hotel’s 45th floor, available for private dining reservations only.

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