Tokyo Travel Guide
A tranquil nation constantly on the brink of disaster, Japan is a country that breathes duality and its spiralling capital is no different. Both chaotic and calm; dizzying and grounding, in Tokyo there is space for quiet reflection and wild antics in equal share. Carefully balanced in nature and in asphalt, you’re never far from either a cherry blossom branch or a Muji. Lush forests surrounding the city’s shrines run parallel to fashion-forward shopping streets and, behind futuristic skyscrapers packed with weary workers, Mount Fuji glimmers on the horizon. After office hours, salarymen stumble quietly from subway stations, hinting briefly at an underlying dissonance in the national spirit before the day’s fresh fish is once more delivered and the Land of the Rising Sun wakes up to another blue sky. In a country renowned for its strict social rules, somewhat surprisingly, Japan is one of the leaders of gay rights in Asia. Tokyo, as its global representative, offers a thriving LGBT community which locals accept with characteristic humility.
The best hotels in Tokyo
Summer also has its unique surprises, including Tokyo’s official LGBTQ film festival Rainbow Reel Tokyo
Things to do in Tokyo
In addition to myriad renowned galleries and museums featuring traditional oriental art and history, some of the best places to visit in Tokyo are related to global concepts of modernity and humanity. Newly opened in the summer of 2018 as the world’s first digital art museum, TeamLab Borderless, based in the Digital Art Museum in Odaiba area, has fast become one of the hottest places to visit in Tokyo for originality as well as sheer Instagram-worthiness. In a huge space made for multiple exhibitions, TeamLab Borderless combines unique interactive art with edgy technology to create immersive sensual installations of reflected light and projected sound.
A binary non-conforming museum if ever there was one, The National Art Center, modelling itself on the German Kuntsthalle concept, is a so-called ‘empty museum’ hosting only temporary exhibits sponsored and curated by outside organisations year round. Summer also has its unique surprises, including Tokyo’s official LGBTQ film festival Rainbow Reel Tokyo, a July affair heralding the new era of sexual minorities since 1992, the festival screens various international movies themed around gender and sexuality, aiming at contributing to global LGBTQ culture and inclusion.
While the sights and sounds of the city bombard you from every angle, Japanese culture would be nothing without calm reflection. Flower arranging at the Ikebana Workshop is a perfect answer of where to go in Japan to find serenity, allowing you to learn this unique Japanese art form in a relaxed atmosphere. Having awoken your inner zen spirit, you’ll want to dress for the occasion. Luckily, the Studio Geisha Café can provide such a service, allowing visitors a full geisha transformation. However, you’ll have slid off your silky robes for this next one. A renowned activity in Japan; head to Toshinaen Niwa No Yu to receive a definitive onsen experience. Featuring outdoor Jacuzzis surrounded by pruned gardens and gender-segregated onsen said to help ease muscle pain and joint stiffness, visitors can spend hours here enjoying the steam, slow pace and on-site restaurant.
What to see in Tokyo
Want to know where to go in Tokyo for unrivalled natural spaces? Considered the most beautiful park in Tokyo, the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is also a famed spot to enjoy a picnic during hanami Cherry Blossom season. A vast space of over 120 acres, Shinjuku Gyeon is a solace for city slickers to wander around its four main gardens; English Landscape, French Formal, Japanese Traditional and Haha to Ko no Mori – ‘the Mother and Child Forest’. Turning up the tempo over at Yoyogi Park in Harajuku are the rockabilly dancers who put on a high-energy show outside the park’s main entrance every Sunday. Ages of dancers range from teenage to geriatric who showcases an interesting array of costumes, almost making you wonder why rockabilly isn’t more of a thing.
While ultra-fashionable fellas will make a beeline to Daikanyama or Ebisu neighbourhoods, Naka-Meguro is a more laid-back alternative. Packed with tiny bars and restaurants spilling out onto quiet backstreets, Naka-Meguro is best combined with a casual stroll along the Megurogawa canal, itself lined with quiet cafés, and stylish boutiques. In spring, the canal route is particularly magical, both water and path becoming shrouded in the fallen pink blossoms of overhanging cherry trees. The area still warrants a visit outside of spring, as the newly developed Nakameguro Koukashita now affords visitors a 700-metre shopping walkway anchored by the uber-modern Tsutaya Bookstore.
The unfortunately named yet decidedly cool Takeshita Street in Harajuku is a pedestrian street and microcosm of Japanese contemporary pop culture. Wind slowly down this street to appreciate the trendy boutiques and dessert artwork alongside excitable local teens in manga cosplay. While the main street itself is crowded and geared towards a young, fashion-conscious crowd, the side streets and outer Harajuku area are also worthy of a stroll and a breather. While ice-cream crepes are certainly worthy of worship, you may be searching for something more. In this case, come to Toyokawa Inari Tokyo Betsuin, an inimitable Buddhist temple allowing city explorers to seize a moment of sanctuary from the surrounding bustle of Akasaka and purify their souls.
As well as the weird and the wonderful, Tokyo’s take on classic international cuisine is also insanely good
Where to eat in Tokyo
Japanese cuisine is no stranger to having Michelin stars thrown at it, and Tokyo especially – holding the world’s highest number of Michelin stars – is an irrefutable foodie paradise. Michelin starred, meat specialist Imafuku offers up sukiyaki, or hot pot, where the finest Japanese wagyu beef and seasonal ingredients are boiled in a fragrant broth right at your table. Reservation-only Kotaro, located in the residential backstreets of Shibuya, is an izakaya-style restaurant where saké and food take equal footing and chilled-out conversation is the tune of the evening.
While tradition is lauded, fusion is also a welcome stay of the city. Salmon & Trout in particular, features a mash-up of cultures inside an eclectic restaurant that may also daylight as a bicycle showroom. Diners get served all at once from Chef Kan Morieda’s extensive repertoire of fusion choices to be washed down with Punk IPA from Scotland. As well as the weird and the wonderful, Tokyo’s take on classic international cuisine is also insanely good. For us, the answer of where to go in Tokyo for Italian fare, has to be Cignale Enoteca towards the outskirts of Shibuya. While still giving off that Japanese sensibility, the restaurant is familiarly European featuring warm, country home décor dotted with antiques and vintage pieces.
Drop all your instant assumptions about Ramen for this next recommendation, because for Tori Paitan Kageyama at Takadanobaba Station, ramen is a way of life. Its tori paitan speciality brings balanced, mouth-watering perfection to Asakusa-made noodles served in a rich, white broth with steamed chicken, green onions and egg. In Shibuya’s Tomigaya, the puff pastry-powered bromance of two top chefs has spawned Path, a western-style breakfast café of wonders. Head here for the rye-encrusted brunch of your dreams! For something a bit more substantial, the multi-course tradition of kaiseki , or the less formal kappo-ryori, should be investigated. For those booking well in advance, Shirosaka near Asakusa station is a quirky hybrid of both styles, offering personality and sophistication.
It would be imprudent to make a list of the best restaurants in Tokyo without at least mentioning the super-exclusive, three-Michelin star awarded Sushi Yoshitake. Omakase-only, meaning you don’t need to worry about choosing, and seating just seven lucky diners at any one time, experience the master Chef Yoshitake as he whips up sublime, seasonal sushi plates, from sake-simmered shirako in winter, to hay-smoked bonito in spring.
Shopping in Tokyo
Turning shopping into an art is something that Japan’s concept stores have truly nailed. Complete with brand philosophy, workshop spaces and museum elements, Porter Omotesando is the perfect example, flagship store of Yoshida & Co, makers of the coveted Porter luggage bag. With high standards of craftsmanship and gallery-style store layout, you may find yourself viewing bags with a whole new perspective. Concept store pilgrims will also want to try Niko and… a multi-purpose market space of lifestyle, clothing and design, where Italian ice cream serves as a preliminary to actual store browsing.
Selling one-of-a-kind kimonos and traditional Japanese garb exclusively for men, at Y & Sons each detail is painstakingly perfected to add originality and intricacy. Another ‘craft or art?’ type quandary is found in the Japanese ceramics scene where family-run Kurodatoen takes has taken in Ginza since 1935 when Japanese ceramics gained global popularity. Firm advocates of the ‘Japanese Classico’ concept is menswear store Jun Hashimoto whose collections are based on cultivated Italian sophistication enmeshed with a uniquely Japanese aesthetic. Offering both functionality and beauty, Hashimoto’s garments bring a certain harmony to high fashion.
Shinjuku Ni-Chōme boasts the world’s highest concentration of gay bars
Being gay in Tokyo will undoubtedly take you to Shinjuku Ni-Chōme (Area 2) where Tokyo’s gay community comes to party. The area boasts the world’s highest concentration of gay bars (300, count them!), many under LGBTQ management, all crammed in among the narrow precincts and foyers hung with lit-up bar signs and flirty gay propaganda.
With each establishment fitting no more than a few dozen people, prepare for a sexy sardine scenario in this multifarious bar scene. Start with Bridge, an atmospheric gay haven for smart-suited salarymen to unwind in a safe space after work, tended kindly by handsome gay mixologists. Lighten up at nearby Dragon MEN, a famous watering hole in the heart of Ni-Chōme luring a mix of expats, travellers and locals for happy hour cocktails and all-night dancing. A newcomer to the area, Eagle Tokyo also hosts a mixed international clientele, as well as beautiful bearish staff and muscle man entertainment. Ni-Chōme ain’t your only place to enjoy Tokyo’s nightlife however. Tender Bar in Ginza is home to one of Japan’s most famous bartenders, Kazuo Ueda – AKA Mr. Hard Shake. As well as enjoying his flamboyant performance, the bar itself offers glorious views of Sotobori-dori to gaze at while savouring world-class gimlets and quiet conversation.
Heading west, Shibuya is another top answer of where to go in Tokyo for a good time. Notably you’ve got the seriously glitzy Trump Room, which brings together fashionistas and fashion victims to schmooze, booze and boogie under chandeliers and glitter balls. Those ready for all this “muchness” will get to experience themed nights featuring slick looks and extreme makeup, with ear-candy courtesy of local and international DJs. Only slightly more subtle is FancyHIM, a monthly costume party hosted monthly at Contact nightclub for fashion-conscious LGBTQ crowds. Outgoing and super queer, this is one of the top places to visit in Tokyo to find Japanese hipsters, crazy outfits and people willing to hit the dancefloor all night long.
Photo: Yu Kato
Photo: Finan Akbar
Photo: Pawel Janiak