Tokyo E Yokoso
Resource’s Christian Tate blows the budget on a trip to the Far East and finds that Japan’s capital city offers everything he expected – and so much more besides…
It’s long been an ambition of mine to take a trip to Tokyo; I’ve had a strange fascination with Japan since I was a young boy, which has grown into something of an obsession with all things Japanese. Whether it was the design, technology, cinema, culture or food of the Far East that first inspired me I can’t say. But the little frisson of excitement I felt when turning a corner to find the Tokyo Tower stretching up before me leads me to suspect that it may have had something to do with Godzilla, who, for the uninitiated, snapped the tower in half on one of his infamous rampages.
Thinking about that, it becomes clear what piqued my interest in Japan: the books and comics I read, the films and TV shows I watched, all reinforced an impression of an alien environment; a futuristic technological territory where monsters and robots roamed, where strange food was farmed from the sea and millions and millions of people lived in tiny rooms in tall towers. The sheer alien-ness of it all is what attracted me – and that’s what has also made it seem unreachable.
There’s a trepidation we all feel when we are realising our dreams and ambitions – that they won’t live up to our expectations, that we will be disappointed when we finally acheive that goal – and it was with such trepidation that I set out for Japan. A fortunate series of events eventually led me to take my trip to Tokyo – helped further that my favourite airline flew direct. I love Virgin Atlantic and would happily fly everywhere I could in Upper Class if I (or, more importantly, Resource’s budgets) could stretch to it. I decided that I could manage to take a few days out of my hectic schedule and booked myself into Premium Economy (those budgets again!) for a 10-day trip in late September, hoping to catch the tail-end of some of the heat, but not the humidity, of summer.
Touching down at Narita Airport was a treat in itself – not that the flight wasn’t heavenly; the 12 hours seemed to, er, fly by – with a tremendous view of Mount Fuji rising up out of the mist in the distance and the gleaming towers of Tokyo twinkling seemingly just in front. In reality, Fuji is a fair trek from Tokyo, and it’s unusual at this time of year to get a peek at the peak through the perpetual cloud cover that surrounds it, but I guess I was lucky as it was the first and last time I would see it on my trip.
My first hotel was the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku (pictured above), made famous as the setting for Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansen’s flirtations in Sofia Coppola’s film, Lost In Translation. After a shower and a short sleep (I was determined not to let jet-lag get the better of me) I ventured out onto the streets. Shinjuku is predominately a business area, the enourmous train station there is flanked by skyscrapers and high-rise developments (Park Hyatt being one of the highest) squeezing every last square metre out of the available, covetable space. During the day it is much like any other business district, but as the sun begins to set, a transformation takes place – the streets fill up with identically-clad black-tied businessmen as the working day ends. Little bars and clubs in the tiny side streets open their doors for the habitual after-office drink which is a tradition – or, perhaps, more of an obligation for some Japanese workers. I’d been told that many of these small pubs will not admit ‘Gaijen’ – foreigners – and I’ll admit that I was in no state, having not slept for nearly 24 hours, to chance what little Japanese I had learnt by paying a visit to one on the off-chance. I retired to the New York Bar and Grill, at the top of the Park Hyatt, for a Martini or two instead. The view was sensational – a million or more twinkling red lights seemed to stretch onwards forever. It may have been the effects of one too many Martinis on my ailing body clock, but when I tucked myself into bed that night I had to pinch myself to make sure that I wasn’t already dreaming – I really was there and I was as far from disappointed as I could be.
Subsequent days saw me tackling Tokyo’s notoriously complicated tube system with aplomb, putting my smattering of Japanese phrases to good use and working through my carefully planned itinerary to cram in as much as I possibly could in the short time I had to explore everything that this enormous metropolis had to offer. The experience was initially overwhelming – the city is huge, and travelling alone can be daunting, but the Japanese are incredilbly friendly, polite and very helpful, and Tokyo is a very clean and almost crime-free city, I certainly felt safe making my own way around, even when I ventured off the beaten track.
My choice of hotels took me to three very different and distinct areas of the city: Shinjuku and Omotesando with their soaring skyscrapers and boulevards of boutiques and designer stores, respectively; Shiodome at the edge of the bay with the amazing fish market; and Ginza, like one long Bond Street on an unimaginable scale with high-end department stores and a Louis Vuitton on every street corner (I may be exaggerating slightly!).
I shopped, I ate, I saw the sights and I shopped some more, and Tokyo really was everything I expected it to be – and a lot more besides. It is a very alien environment. Just being unable to decipher the labels in a store is an unnerving experience, but I have to say that having been made so welcome, I really began to feel at home after a few days. I left the city already planning my next trip: there was so much more to do (and to buy!). I felt that I had only touched the surface of Tokyo and I regretted abandoning plans to take a trip out of town – there’s a whole other country waiting for me to explore. Next time, I may even be brave enough to book myself into a capsule hotel for a night or too, but I don’t think I’m ready to abandon the luxuries of the likes of Park Hyatt, Conrad Tokyo and the Seiyo Ginzo hotels just yet!
SHOPPING & SIGHTSEEING:
1. Omotesando and Harajuku
Tokyo has a notorious reputation for being one of the most expensive cities in the world, but if, like me, you live in London, you’ll find that prices are pretty reasonable and I can safely say that I bagged myself a bargain or two – even in the designer boutiques on the boulevards of Omotesando. Here you’ll find architects’ Herzog and de Muron’s famous geometric Prada store, the fabulous Dior store, the amazing Tod’s boutique along with every other major label you can think of.
Take a walk off the main avenue and experience the strange sensation of wandering through almost suburban streets, and sometimes alleyways, lined with high-end designer stores. At the westerly end of the avenue is the area known as Harajuku, the stores become funkier and more teen-orientated and if you go right to the end to Yoyogi Park you may catch a glimpse of the famous Harajuku girls, dressed up in their frills and frippery like Victorian porcelain dolls. Stop off for lunch at Kyushu Jangara Ramen – a tiny ramen restaurant that seats about 10 – the queue will make the location obvious, but it goes down fast (like the noodles) and is well worth the wait for such authentic fayre.
Ginza Dori (also known as Chuo Dori) is Tokyo’s main shopping street which seems to stretch for miles and is lined with many, many more designer shops and boutiques – the main drag is closed to traffic on weekends, which makes shopping a delight. With less space to work with than on Omotesando, architects here have nevertheless produced some stunning buildings for the big labels. The Chanel store with its moving night-time display, is a wonder in itself, and Hermès’s tall, thin glass brick-clad creation around the corner is also amazing after dark.
Here you’ll also find the main branches of the big stores – such as Matsuya Ginza and Tokyo’s oldest department store, Mitsukoshi – many of these have a whole floor dedicated to restaurants which stays open long after closing time, and a top tip is to visit the basement food halls just before they shut, where you can pick up a bento box, tempura or sushi to takeaway at bargain prices.
At the south-easterly end of Ginza you’ll find the Tsukiji Fish Market – the big attraction here being the tuna auctions that take place from about five in the morning. If, like me, you’d rather spend an evening at the hotel bar than tuck yourself in early to get up at such an ungodly hour, then don’t worry, there’s still plenty to see right up until at least 11 o’clock, so you can have your lie-in. The market is vast, with warren-like aisles spreading off the main central auction area – over 50,000 people do business here in the mornings, so be prepared to be bewildered by the sights and sounds – and smells. Before you leave, grab a bite to eat at one of the many sushi bars near the entrance – obviously incredibly fresh.
The huge Roppongi Hills development with the soaring Mori Tower – Tokyo’s tallest building – is a recent addition to what was once a less than salubrious area; its strip joints, karaoke clubs, bars and nightclubs attract a foreign crowd in the evenings and shopping-wise there’s little here of interest compared to Omotesando or Ginza, but it’s worth a visit to see the fabulous view from the top of the tower which really makes you appreciate the sheer size of the city. You’ll also spot Tokyo Tower from up here, which was designed as a replica of the Eiffel Tower and is actually 13 feet taller, even though it looks much smaller against the backdrop of high-rises.
4. Ueno and Electric Town
North of Ginza you’ll find the more sedate area of Ueno, but if you’re travelling from the centre aim for a few blocks down and you’ll come across Electric Town, an eye-popping neon-lit area where you can grab an electronic bargain at one of the many stores, visit a ‘cos-play’ café where the waitresses dress as 19th century European maids, or just gaze in wonder at the bright lights.
Moving north through the food markets and clothes shops which jostle for space in the side streets, you’ll come to Ueno Koen, the city’s first public park, where you’ll find the Tokyo Zoo, Le Corbusier’s National Museum of Western Art, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and the Tokyo National Museum, as well as some of the city’s oldest surviving shrines and temples. The National Museum is well worth a visit if you’re craving some cultural activity, and the Toshugu Shrine at the centre of Ueno Koen is an oasis of tranquility away from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis.
The Hyatt Of Luxury
A tourist attraction in its own right, Resource spends a night or two at the Park Hyatt Tokyo to see if anything really has got lost in translation
Even without the ultimate marketing tool that was Sofia Coppola’s film, Lost In Translation, the Park Hyatt would still deserve its reputation as one of the coolest places to stay in Tokyo. The hotel occupies the top 14 floors of one of the tallest buildings in the city, with three glass and steel pyramids marking the lobby, the swimming pool and gym, and the top-floor New York Bar and Grill respectively (pictured above). Just stepping out of the lift into the huge light-filled atrium of the 41st floor lobby is a thrill, with truly stunning views across the metropolis and out to Mount Fuji (when not shrouded in clouds) to the west.
Despite its grand art-filled open spaces, large library, spa and wealth of amenities and services the hotel is actually, unexpectedly, quite an intimate affair – there are just 177 rooms, which by Asian standards is quite small – and it certainly feels like a home-from-home (albeit an exceptionally luxurious one). The rooms here are among the largest that Tokyo has to offer, and the facilities are top of the range, with the décor being modern, yet still there is a cosy homeliness about the place that really makes you feel welcome.
Although my arrival is a bit of a blur, I have to say that what first struck me (after that view) was the phenomenal level of service here. Perhaps it is the fact that there is no tipping in Japan that makes you feel that you are being particularly well-served, rather than fleeced for a quick buck by a neverending stream of eager staff members, or perhaps it is just that the Japanese are simply very, very good at making you feel welcome.
A couple of nights at the Hyatt is certainly not long enough to appreciate all that the hotel has to offer, but I did manage to take a dip in the amazing 47th-floor pool, and make it up to the top-floor bar for a few cocktails – and if breakfast at La Girondole restaurant is anything to go by, I imagine dinner there is a treat as well. Park Hyatt offers five restaurants with cuisine ranging from American (yes, apparently there is such a thing), through to traditional Japanese – and it’s a good job too as there is little of interest on offer on the streets outside. The location is probably the best and worst thing about Park Hyatt – it’s hardly isolated, but it’s really not that central. The area is great for business, but bad for leisure travellers. But anywhere else and that view just wouldn’t be the same.
Park Hyatt Tokyo, 3712 Nishi-Shinjuku,
Shinjuku-ku, tokyo 163-1055. Tel +81 3 5322 1234