Tokyo has long been one of the most exciting cities on the planet, and while globalisation is smoothing off some of the rough edges and adding touches of familarity, there are still few places like the Japanese capital. You’ll still be blown away by the neon and buzz of Shinjuku and Shibuya, while those seeking the weirdness of a different culture will regularly find just that — from automatic toilet seats that greet you, to food that looks and tastes like nothing you’ve encountered before.
Nowhere so big is so safe and friendly and no other city has such a diversity of culture to offer, both old and new. It’s a sprawling place that is far too huge to cover in just a few days, so here are some pointers to get you started.
Getting there | Qatar Airways
Qatar Airways flies to Tokyo via Doha, leaving Dubai from the Al Maktoum International Airport. Given that passengers are fairly new to this airport, our 11:35pm flight was the only one until 6:25 the following morning, so there were no queues anywhere. We’ve never had such a peaceful departure. The business class lounge in Doha is one of the most impressive anywhere (and they have free-play Avengers pinball machines) while the nine-hour flight to Japan is all fine food, flat beds and warm pyjamas. Try to book the isolated pair of seats at the back of business for extra privacy. qatarairways.com for details.
Getting about | Tokyo Metro
It’s a huge city, so use the Metro, which is not only reliable but also a good way to see little pockets of Tokyo you probably won’t visit – as a lot of the Metro is overground. Get a day (or week) pass and if you’re not sure, ask the staff who are helpful and polite, as are the passengers who you’ll see queuing on platforms at the point where train doors align. Some Metro stops, notably Tokyo Central, have huge shopping and dining complexes within them where you can buy anything from a rumraisin- flavoured Kit-Kat to a Moomins pocket square. Yes, we bought both of those things.
Nightlife | The Golden Gai
More like an old Japanese shanty town, these alleyways just off the main drag in Shinjuku are the best place in the city to get a dose of old Tokyo. There are over 200 tiny bars, some with just room for three or four people. It’s best to arrive after 9pm and look out for cover prices posted on the door, typically between 300 and 1,000 yen. At times you’ll feel like you’re in an old martial arts film, but the Golden Gai is full of genuine surprises like the place we found selling Palestinian Taybeh and playing old country and western music.
Eat | Michelin starred
There are 267 places to eat in Tokyo that are Michelin starred — more than anywhere else — with 12 having the full three stars. The adventurous diner may wish to get a booking at three-starred Usukifugu Yamadaya, which is famous for serving the blowfish fugu that carries enough toxin to kill 30 people. It has to be prepared correctly (by licensed chefs) or it’s sayonara for you. And yes, this was in an episode of The Simpsons. The other places with three stars that you may want to research and book before flying are Azabu Yukimura, Esaki, Ishikawa, Kanda, Makimura, Ryugin, Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten, Sushi Saito and Sushi Yoshitake while the last two with the full quota are the French restaurants Joël Robuchon and Quintessence.
Buy | Japan-Exclusive trainers
While the Internet may have taken some of the mystery out of Japan-only releases, there are still rare trainers to be found. Even the big Nike store has some you won’t be able to buy with anything but yen. If you plan to go shopping, Shibuya is the area, and a long pre-trip Google should help you map out a plan. Here are four places to get you started on your quest for trainer-snob bragging rights.
Nike Harajuku (1-13-12 Jingumae Shibuya-ku)
Undefeated Tokyo (1F P-2 Bldg. 4-32-8 Jingumae Shibuya-ku)
Kicks Lab (4-32-5 Jingumae Shibuya-ku)
Chapter World (3-22-7 Jingumae Shibuya-ku)
See | Harajuku culture
The best place to see Japanese teen culture is on Sundays in the Harajuku district. Around the metro station and in the adjacent Yoyogi Park, various tribes and sub-cultures gather to pose and hang out. From 50s-style rockabillies to strange cosplay Gothic Lolitas you’ll get to see a whole load of unabashed weird and wonderful.
Wander | Cat Street
The pedestrian street runs for half a mile from Shibuya to Harajuku and is where you’ll find the best boutique and independent shops in the city. Far less hectic and crowded than other parts of Tokyo, this is a pleasant walk, even at weekends. Many of the flagship stores of Japanese fashion brands are here as well as goods you won’t find anywhere else. For example, it’s home to the R.Newbold shop — an off shoot of Paul Smith that ceased operating years ago everywhere bar Japan. Its current range has Umbro collaborations and a Madchester revival collection. Sorted.
Relax | Cat Cafe
Because apartments in the city are so small, many locals can’t have pets, so they visit cat cafes to relax and pet animals for an hour or two. It’s a weirdly calming experience to be sat with 20 very polite Japanese cats and a nice break from the madness of the city outside. Cat Cafe Calico near Shinjuku station is a good one to go for.
Play | Pachinko Parlours
A weird cross between bagatelle and pinball, pachinko involves buying a small crate of ball bearings and dropping them into a machine to rack up a score. That’s pretty much it, but on our visit some after-work businessmen had over Dhs300-worth of balls ready to feed in and things got weirdly intense. For the country that gave us Nintendo, this is a strange lo-fi pleasure.
Avoid | Tsukiji Fish Market
Every guide book recommends this place but it’s underwhelming. Hey, if you want to get up at 4.30am to register for one of the limited spaces just to queue up to see a lot of fishermen shouting about tuna then great. Others may prefer to have a lazy breakfast in the hotel as a more relaxed and fragrant start to the day.
Where to Stay | Shangri-La Hotel
The idea that you pay a fortune for a tiny capsule hotel is a myth best left in the Eighties. Tokyo is full of world-class hotels and the Shangri-La opened an incredible place here in 2009. It’s already been voted the number one luxury hotel in the world and the five-star luxury property is right above the main Tokyo Central Metro station, where hotel staff will meet you right off the train from the airport and escort you up. That level of care and attention carries on until you leave. It’s in a great location for exploring the city and make sure you get a premier city view room for stunning vistas out over a city that stretches out to the horizon in every direction. For more, see shangri-la.com
In the hotel…
If you’re looking for a Japanese meal that will make you re-evaluate the esteem you heap upon Zuma and Okku then this is fine place to see how it’s done in-country. High-end but accessible and with a big bow in the direction of tradition, dishes include sautéd eggplant wrapped in thin slices of Wagyu and foie gras egg custard with truffle sauce. Your best bet, however, is the chef’s set menu.
THE LOUNGE BAR While there are quite a few high-rise lounge bars in the city, this one up on the 28th floor is one of the better options. The views make you feel like you’re in Blade Runner, while the drinks are great. And unlike many of the bars in the city, even the not-so-great ones, this place doesn’t charge you to get in.
Further Afield | Bullet Train to Kyoto
Not only do you get to ride the famous Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train at speeds up to 320kph, you also get to see a part of Japan that is markedly diff erent from the capital. Kyoto is over 450km distant, but on this train that’s just 3hs 15mins away. We recommend staying overnight and booking yourself into a traditional ryokan (Japanese style inn) then wandering among the temples and Arashiyama bamboo grove and Gion District with still-working Geisha women.