The metropolis of Tokyo is made up of many different moving parts, with many prefectures offering unique experiences – from towering skyscrapers, peaceful gardens, shrines and shopping malls showcasing every imaginable global brand, and everything in between. This wonderful contradiction of a city is a magnet for all. In one area you can experience old-world Japan; turn a corner and you can see a slick modern helicopter landing on a skyrise. In between these worlds lies the contradiction where you can be quiet and contemplative, busy and loud, catching the subway or walking around the backstreets, experiencing what has gone before that is still defining present-day Tokyo.
Understanding contemporary Tokyo lies in finding the essence of ancient Japanese culture. Through that lens you get a little closer in appreciating the core of modern-day Japanese society, where Buddhist and Shinto beliefs are at the core, encouraging all to be kind, compassionate and to practise a simplicity and reflection in life. Even when flying Japan Airlines, passengers are asked to be quiet and respectful of others. So on one hand you have the speed and efficiency of trains, technology and extraordinary sky-high buildings and, on the other, beautiful inner-city gardens providing a sanctuary for peace and contemplation. For me, and for many travellers, a city like Tokyo where the old meets the new in the world of art and design is incredibly exciting.
Hoshino Resorts was first established as a Japanese ryokan (inn) in 1914 and is now run by 4th-generation family member Yoshiharu Hoshino. It has now grown to over 50 hotels and ryokan both in and outside of Japan. The deep-rooted ‘omotenahi’ – meaning to wholeheartedly look after guests – is a term that represents Japanese hospitality, centering around care rather than expectation: HOSHINOYA Tokyo is a superb example of this.
A short walk from the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Station, the 17-floor HOSHINOYA Tokyo is situated in the city’s business area. As soon as you walk into the ryokan’s entrance hall, with its paired-back muted colour palette and traditional tatami flooring, you don’t realise at first but one entire wall is cleverly designed with cupboards to hold guests’ shoes and belongings. You automatically begin to relax as you take off your shoes within this oasis, which has been designed with tradition in mind and every modern convenience on offer.
Designed by Rie Azuma of Azuma Architect & Associates, it was an ambitious project building a ryokan right in the middle of Tokyo. Every walkable surface is layered with soft tatami matting and rooms and public areas have furnishings that encourage a floor-level style of relaxation as is traditional in Japan.
I stayed in a Kiku Room, a south-facing corner room where sunlight pours through the paper window screens, with Japanese-style futons and sofas wide and long enough to lie on. The top floor of the HOSHINOYA Tokyo has two onsen bath halls separated for men and women, with both indoor and outdoor pools connected by a cave-like tunnel.
While the onsen hot spring water is high in saline – which makes your skin soft and relaxes the body – it is the outdoor onsen with an open-roof chamber with soaring walls framing the sky above, bringing a cool breeze down into the pool, that is a great start and end to busy days in Tokyo.
The sky-high morning Kenjutsu Practice is held rooftop on the 33rd floor on a neighbouring building, the same location where helicopters land. The 360-degree view across the Tokyo skyline is extraordinary, while guests practise original training routines that combine the movement of swordsmanship and deep breathing in the early morning air. This well- known martial arts practice was developed during the Edo period. Using the muscles of my entire body, I make large movements with the wooden sword and focus on deep breathing; this is a very different start to my usual early mornings.
There is a tranquillity to HOSHINOYA Tokyo’s Tea Ceremony, where while participating you learn the significance behind each step, and custom tasting maccha tea as it is meticulously prepared with a tea bowl and bamboo whisk.
The ritual around the ceremony and details like the motifs on the confectionery served with the tea, or even the aromas produced by the tea when poured, offers guests an opportunity to gain a deeper appreciation of Japanese hospitality.
Tokyo is everything you imagine and more when it comes to dining. The most difficult part is choosing what to eat as there is so much on offer, and you can always discover new tastes and flavours and unique ingredients – all at different prices. Classic dishes, versions of what you are used to ordering at home, like sushi and sashimi, ramen, gyoza, tempura, donburi and yakitori, are all popular and served with rice or miso soup.
I had sushi for dinner in the downtown Tsukiji area, home of the famous fish market, in a modern restaurant that sat 12 people, which seemed to be filled with couples on date night. As we sat around the counter that looked directly into the theatre of the chefs making fresh sushi, there were many options of fresh sushi and everything was made in front of us: we choose a local sake to wash it down. Delicious!
From sushi to yakitori I tick all my favourite Japanese foods and flavours off dining across Tokyo. Yoshito Inomata, restaurant owner and head chef, has seven restaurants across
Tokyo specialising in yakitori. We dined in his Toriyoshi Nishi Azabu, just moments from Roppongi. As you walk downstairs and pull back the curtain to shouts of welcome, we waited a while to be seated in this very popular restaurant. I sat and drank my favourite Japanese beer: Tokyo brewed craft beer. It was wonderful ordering small plates of deliciousness watching the chef turn meat on small sticks on the BBQ in front of me. The hot coals and seasoning filled the air with tasty cooking smells as we considered what next to order.
Dining at the 3-star Michelin restaurant, Kanda in Tokyo was a real treat, and like nothing I have experienced before. This is special- occasion dining on a completely other level – one that you need to book months in advance – and I cannot recommend it enough. The restaurant is set on the corner in a quiet residential area of Moto-Azabu. The owner, chef Hiroyuki Kanda, has held 3 Michelin stars for 16 years and in 2021 also won the Mentor Chef Award. “Much of my advice centres on achieving a goal,” he said. “Time is limited. If you don’t have a goal, you’ll end up falling into a mundane routine.” The beef came from Kanda-san’s home province of Tokushima on the island of Shikoku.
The restaurant is simply designed and every detail has been carefully considered as he tells the kitchen staff to put themselves in the customer’s shoes; he wants his employees to feel comfortable building each other up. Value is placed on relationships so that the team can work in an open environment. “Eating and preparing delicious food is a very precarious balancing act,” he said. “If you are distracted even a little bit, it will fall over. Concentration, stamina and energy are important.” Many courses are served and everything was so considered and the attention to detail was perfect as each dish celebrated the art of Japanese cooking at its best.
Kanda-san says you can’t get away with mediocre food, and the first dish certainly set the pace. It was the most beautiful soup, and my dining companion said, “I will tell you what it is once you finish it.” It was sweet, a gorgeous green colour with white (almost like pasta) balls floating in the bowl. Each mouthful was just divine. It turns out I had just had my first bowl of fish testicle soup. Each dish was served on handmade curated dishes and bowls that had been made exclusively for the restaurant. I will never forget this experience.
Going from a 3-star Michelin restaurant to underground soba noodle joints (like the lunch I had in Otemachi Grand Cube basement), there are many more affordable restaurants for lunch or dinner in malls beneath this busy metropolis, where sushi and noodle restaurants are popular with the locals.
Ginza Six calls itself Tokyo’s shopping destination. Located in the heart of Ginza, this is a next-level retail complex with something for everyone: art, fashion, books, food and a beautiful roof top garden. I visited the Tsutaya bookstore; it was so great to be back in a large book store again. There are so many different streets, areas and malls to choose from in Tokyo, you will not be disappointed with the range of shopping available.
I visited Cat Street in Harajuku, which was a real mix of international designer brands and quirky local shops. Tokyo Midtown in Roppongi has a great mix of shops, hotel and art gallery spaces. It sits alongside the 21_21 Design Sight Museum, which was designed by architect Tadao Ando and founded by the award-winning fashion designer Issey Miyake. It currently shows the Christo and Jeanne-Claude ‘L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped’ exhibition. It was fascinating learning about how they wrapped Paris’s most famous landmark.
The Nezu Museum and garden is dedicated to a vast collection of over 7,400 works of Japanese and East Asian art, where traditional art forms and modern Japanese architecture, and a landscape garden come together into one harmonious complex.
The picturesque Japanese garden is famous for traditional tea houses, and just having a moment to sit and watch the autumn leaves trickle down onto the pathways alongside ponds filled with orange carp was very special.
From sitting contemplating the peacefulness of one of Tokyo’s pretty gardens, to visiting the P61 teamLab Planets TOKYO in Toyosu, is a sensory overload, where you walk through water and a garden, becoming one with the flowers. There are four massive exhibition spaces and two gardens. By walking through these big immersive artworks, the boundary between the body and the artwork dissolves, as you explore barefoot.
This experience is popular with tourists and locals and you should book to speed up access and miss the long entrance queues. Visually, this exhibition is a must-visit. I don’t want to give too much away of what you will see and experience, but I still think about the hanging orchids, as well as splashing around rooms of water. You will think about this for days and months after you visit.
Japanese traditional art is also alive and well in Tokyo. A visit to SCAI The Bathhouse, in Yanaka, features artists as well as historical masterpieces from the gallery’s collection. Further along the road you must call into Allan West’s gallery studio and see his beautiful traditional Japanese painting technique called ‘nihonga’. Originally hailing from the US, West came to Japan in 1982 to study art from master Kayama Matazo at Tokyo University of the Arts. His screens and canvases depict the most beautiful layers of paint, showcasing flowers, birds and traditional Japanese forms.
You can’t help but lose yourself in Tokyo, where in one day you can speed up, slow down and experience pockets of old-world Japan and a very modern metropolis. A must-visit city, Tokyo has it all.