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Once a fishing village called Edo, Tokyo has become one of the biggest cities in the world since it took the mantle of official Japanese capital from Kyoto in 1869. Today, central Tokyo is home to almost 14 million souls, with more than 37 million people living in the greater Tokyo area. It’s everything you expect—high-speed trains, blinking neon, blaring karaoke rooms, and crowds whirling through packed streets at a dizzying pace. But it’s also full of surprises: the call of a nightingale across a placid pond; a California chef exploring flavors of rural Japan; the deft hand of a monk calligraphing a temple’s name as a keepsake for you to take home. This is a city one returns to again and again, only to experience it differently each time.
Traditional Japanese strolling garden Koishikawa Korakuen is a sliver of idyll in the heart of the city. This walled garden is surrounded by skyscrapers and the adjacent Tokyo Dome, but inside it’s shaded with gradients of green and blue, and wrapped around a central pond that reflects and extends the serene scenery. In one corner, a dragonfly buzzes over the lotus leaves, in another, a gnarled tree rises from an impeccably manicured lawn, stately and alone. In spring, delicate pink cherry blossoms stretch over the grass, while June chauffeurs in the brilliant blues of hydrangea. At the park’s edge, a tea house serves simple lunches of soba and tempura, Japanese sweets, and matcha.
Buddhism has been one of Japan’s main religions for over a thousand years, and Sensoji, in the Asakusa neighborhood, is Tokyo’s oldest temple. Founded in 645, the temple attracts 30 million visitors per year. Enter the temple precinct at Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), and proceed along Nakamise, the traditional shopping street leading to the temple. The narrow path is filled with vendors selling snacks, trinkets, and religious paraphernalia–a great place to pick up some souvenirs (such as a calligraphy record of your visit drawn by temple staff), and don’t forget to try the freshly made senbei, or rice crackers.
To have a panoramic look at the expanse of Tokyo, stretching on what feels like endlessly, is to know that you’re only scratching the surface of what you can do in the city—this time. What better place to view it than Shibuya, the long-time favorite, famous for Shibuya Scramble crossing, the Hachiko statue, the enormous screens playing J-pop videos, the endless shops, restaurants, bars, clubs, karaoke rooms, and throngs and throngs of people. Visitors of yore have perched in the Starbucks above the crossing, trying to get the best shot, but the Shibuya Sky observatory, opened in 2019, offers 360º views of the city as well as Shibuya below. Grab a drink in the cafe and stay awhile to take it all in.
At Isana Sushi, down-to-earth Chef Onuki chooses his fish daily at the Toyosu market, buying only the freshest, peak-season catch, many of which come straight from Tokyo Bay. The sushi is then prepared edo-mae style at his intimate Nishi-Azabu location. Courses are omakase (chef’s choice), and might feature horse mackerel, sea urchin, or ark shell. There’s an optional sake pairing, which includes six cups of nihonshu from around Japan to best accompany each bite.
Locale is a pint-sized restaurant on a Meguro side street with an expansive vision. Chef Katy Cole uses Japanese ingredients sourced from small farms to create California-style cuisine, with a focus on organic vegetables and a neighborhood vibe. Offerings include Fukudome pork with peach and moroheiya, or kuruma ebi (tiger prawns) with potato and wakame. You’ll find small plates with thoughtful touches, like dukkha on the avocado tartine, a housemade biscuit under the eggs commodore, for dinner and brunch.
Newly opened in the Toranomon neighborhood, The Blue Room and Lobby Bar at the Edition Hotel Toranomon offers upscale service from breakfast to cocktails. Sample a wagyu beef katsu sandwich, hamachi tartare, and mizuna salad at lunch in The Blue Room, or lounge around with scones and savories at the Lobby Bar’s afternoon tea among the dozens of potted ferns and cozy sofas. At night, enjoy the sparkling 31st story views accompanied by a Roku gin and Japanese pear cocktail, or a pour of Hibiki 21 whisky on the rocks.
Sumo wrestling is so visceral you can almost feel the sweat flying (unless you’re lucky/rich enough to get front-row seats, in which case bring a towel). Sumo is a combination of sport and pageantry, with the psychological aspect of wrestlers glaring and stomping as important as the brief bouts of tussling. If you’re in town for one of the sumo seasons, held in Tokyo’s Ryogoku arena in January, May, and September, the grand tournaments are a worthwhile outing. In addition to the wrestling between giants in the stadium, strolling around the neighborhood may net some wrestler sightings, and many restaurants serving chanko nabe—high calorie sumo wrestler’s stew—can be found nearby.
For an insider’s look at the markets and department store food floors of Tokyo, check out market tours from Yukari Sakamoto, author of Food Sake Tokyo. Sakamoto is a chef, shochu sommelier, and former depachika (department store food floor) worker, and leads the tours along with her husband Shinji, also a trained chef and seafood specialist. Visit fish and produce markets, sample wares at food stalls, and learn about ingredients and Japanese cooking techniques. Sakamoto can help you pick out kitchen tools or teach you about the finer points of sake and soy sauce.
As soon as the lights go at Teamlab Borderless, a 10,000 square meter white space is utterly transformed by hundreds of computers and projectors. The digital art museum features an ever-changing, ever-moving interactive light and art show. Equally fun for kids and adults, everyone will enjoy exploring the visually stunning maze that is by turns dazzling, strange, and mesmerizing. You can easily spend an afternoon here. Come armed with plenty of storage space on your phone or camera for all the selfies you’ll inevitably take.
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