Nothing can prepare you for Tokyo. From the moment you step off the plane, you enter a colourful and ultramodern world full of bizarre gadgets and cute cartoonish mascots, but one that is steeped in tradition and precision.
Everything you’ve read about Tokyo is true; from the ultrarealistic plastic models of food outside restaurants enticing in diners, to the futuristic toilets that play sound effects to hide your bodily functions. It’s a bonkers city, but one that’s easy to fall in love with.
As the world’s most populous metropolitan area, you’ll be sharing your stay with nearly 40 million other people, but Tokyoites are some of the kindest and most helpful people you will ever meet.
Plus, hiding among the skyscrapers and neon are stunning temples and teahouses that offer little pockets of calm for you to recharge your batteries before you venture out once more into the sprawling metropolis.
Where to Stay
Space is a premium in Tokyo, so finding somewhere large enough to swing a lucky cat in can be difficult, but, wherever you choose to stay you can be guaranteed a healthy dose of ‘omotenashi’ – the Japanese spirit of hospitality. No request is too small in Japanese hotels and little in-room touches like pyjamas, slippers and tea sets compensate and make for memorable stays.
Hotel Gracery Shinjuku
Mere metres away from Tokyo nightspot Golden Gai, Hotel Gracery Shinjuku dazzles with scenic views of the city and facilities that combine the best of what both the East and the West have to offer.
Self check-in machines make your arrival a breeze and rooms are more spacious here than what is the norm elsewhere in Tokyo, complete with all the features you’d expect from a high-end hotel.
If all the noodles and rice are getting a bit too much for you, Hotel Gracery offers home baked pizzas in its Bonsalute Kabuki restaurant, or, after a busy day sightseeing, you can relax over a coffee and a sweet treat at Café Terrace Bonjour.
The hotel is overlooked by a life-size Godzilla statue on its eighth floor (this is Japan, after all), so you can sleep soundly knowing that the world’s most famous giant reptile has your back.
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Make sure you spend at least one night in one of Tokyo’s space-saving capsule hotels. You might feel like you’re sleeping in a space no bigger than a washing machine drum, but they are comfortable and contain everything you need for a good night’s rest. The Anshin Oyado chain is a bit more luxurious than most and all its three properties in Tokyo are a two minute walk to the nearest station.
Charming suburb Yanaka has plenty of ryokans – traditional Japanese inns – and for those who are not too keen on the idea of communal bathing, Swanoya Ryokan offers private baths.
Shibuya Grandbell Hotel
A stunning boutique hotel with stylish, artistic touches in each room and a great breakfast.
Places to Eat
Tokyo is the ultimate foodie paradise, with cuisine to suit every palate and budget, from the truly weird (grilled salamander or pig testicles , anyone?) to comfort staples such as Japanese curry rice, ramen (noodle soup) and, of course, sushi. We were in Tokyo for five days and barely scratched the surface of what the metropolis has to offer, but found that from street eats to Michelin-starred restaurants, the quality of the food was always excellent.
Served from a glorified shed, this street stall might not look like much, but its delicious tako-yaki (grilled octopus dumplings) are worth making the trek into Meguro. Bizarrely, it’s located directly opposite the Meguro Parasitological Museum, which is worth a visit, if only to have another quirky story to tell when you get back home.
After splashing the cash in the Roppongi Hills shopping and entertainment complex, stop in for a bite to eat in this Edo-style izakaya (Japanese gastropub). The sushi and tempura are fantastic and don’t worry if you get a sense of déjà vu here – Gonpachi inspired the setting for the bloody fight sequence between Uma Thurman’s The Bride and The Crazy 88’s in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’.
It’s a fact that wherever you try sushi in Tokyo, it will taste a hundred times better than what we eat in the UK. However, for a truly memorable experience, head to Kyubey, where your sushi will be made – and served – piece by piece.
Tokyo have adopted French-style bakeries and given them a Japanese twist, with breads shaped like cartoon characters and savoury doughnuts filled with curry sauce. The Little Mermaid branch inside Osaki railway station offers over 80 varieties of freshly baked goodies and makes for a great lunch stop.
Tonkatsu (crumbed port cutlet) doesn’t come much better than at Maisen in Harajuku, served with mountains of shredded cabbage and sticky rice in a former World War II public bathhouse.
In fairness, you don’t really come to this Shinjuku institution for the food; the star attractions here are the bikini-clad dancers and cavalcade of dancing robots that seemingly transport you into a real life Daft Punk video. No words can truly describe a night of camp cabaret at the Robot Restaurant.
What to Do
Experience Tokyo at its bombastic best by joining the throngs of people crossing Shibuya Crossing, one of the world’s busiest intersections, as neon signs and giant video screens blare out around you. Don’t forget to stop in one of the area’s purikuras, photo booths that airbrush away your blemishes and make you look like an anime version of yourself.
The Japanese national pastime is clearly shopping and there’s nowhere better to flex your credit cards than in Harajuku. Global designer brands line Omotesando, Tokyo’s Champs-Élysées, while the latest teen fashions can be found along eccentric Takeshita Street. Failing that, most areas of Tokyo have at least one Bullring-sized shopping centre for you to spend your yen in.
Let out your inner ‘otaku’ (geek) in Akihabara, Tokyo’s epicentre of all things anime and manga. Here you can experience the cosplay delights of a maid café or take in an AKB48 concert – imagine the Spice Girls, but with 130 rotating members who perform daily for cheering fans.
Reconnect with your spiritual side at Senso-ji, a lively Buddhist temple filled with the smells of incense and paper fortunes. Ensure you make time to visit one of Tokyo’s charming public gardens too. Hamarikyu Gardens was our favourite and after a relaxing stroll, we enjoyed a cup of powdered matcha green tea and all its antioxidant goodness in its traditional teahouse.
For a greater appreciation of Japan’s history, head to Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park and explore a seemingly endless collection of samurai swords, woodblock prints and beautiful kimonos.
Getting around is a breeze and Tokyo’s public transport system is a masterclass in efficiency. The Yamanote Line circles the city like the Birmingham number 11 bus route on rails. Along with the Chuo Line that cuts through the centre of Tokyo, all the major tourist sites are easily accessible by rail, with trains arriving and departing every couple of minutes.
Travel Facts and Tips
- Tokyo is a great city to visit at any time of the year, but if you want to experience Japan’s cherry blossom, book your visit for March or April.
- Direct flights from London to Tokyo take 11 hours, 30 minutes, but Air France, Emirates, KLM, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines and Swiss all offer great connections from Birmingham Airport via their hubs, for example.
- Tokyo is gearing up to host the Olympic Games in 2020.
- In 2015, The Economist named Tokyo as the world’s safest city.
- Looking for a quirky gift to bring back home? The Japanese love their KitKats but offer a bizarre range of flavours including green tea, wasabi and sake.
- Bring a small notebook with you. Most tourist attractions have a stamp at their exit and it gets strangely addictive trying to collect as many as you can as you go from place to place.
- Public displays of affection are a taboo in Japanese culture, so save anything more than holding hands for your hotel room.
This blog post originally appeared in ‘Style Birmingham’ Issue 52.