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Tokyo City Trip

Ginza district shopping row in Tokyo, Japan
Ginza district


72 Hours in Tokyo

by Andrew Bender

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Spend just three days in Tokyo, or walk merely three blocks, and you'll feel like you've traveled centuries. The futuristic city that defined the modern megalopolis houses nearly twelve million citizens, yet it boasts a four-century history and pre-history that date back millennia, and all can be experienced in just a few short steps.

Just outside the deeply forested grounds of the Meiji Shrine, you're in the fashion-forward youth culture scene around Harajuku station, and another few blocks puts you in the throbbing heart of world couture. Just a couple subway stops away, if the fates are with you, you can catch a glimpse of the perfect orange-dipped cone of Mt. Fuji, Japan's natural treasure, as the sun sets to the west.

In Tokyo, there's a sense of balance. Sure, the city still buzzes with modernity and its people always seem to be on the go, yet amid the hubbub, it's very possible to find moments of serenity, and not just in the city's temples and shrines. Tokyo's subways are virtually silent, and its cafes seem made for quiet contemplation. Even the burliest of public services, such as the underground water system and construction sites, are fronted by graceful design — manhole covers are like miniature carvings and scaffolding stand as temporary works of art. Plus, street crime and even overt rudeness are exceedingly rare.

This is also the city of ultramodern high-rise hotels, like the Park Hyatt Tokyo (featured in "Lost in Translation"), which occupies the top fourteen floors of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Kenzo Tange's Shinjuku Park Tower.

In such a sprawling city, location and access to public transportation are also key. The new Capitol Hotel Tokyu, designed by starchitect Kengo Kuma, fills that bill, as does the more moderately priced (and more modestly spaced), yet still uber-stylish Remm Hibiya Hotel. And The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo anchors the Tokyo Midtown complex, a culinary nerve center, shopping mecca and architectural landmark in the always busy Roppongi district.

Budget travelers should head to the Asia Center of Japan, which offers small rooms on a quiet block. And the two-minute walk to the subway or ten minutes it takes to get to the restaurants and nightlife of Roppongi, makes it worth the while.

TOKYO DAY 1: Tsukiji, Ginza and Roppongi Districts

Tsukiji Outer Market
Tsukiji Outer Market

Jet lag will no doubt have you up early, so make the most of it by heading out to the world's largest fish market, at Tsukiji. Before you wrinkle your nose at the idea of a fishy scent in the air, know that Tsukiji is one of the quintessential Tokyo experiences and remarkably clean. If you're up before first light, you might attempt to see the 5 a.m. auctions of massive frozen tuna from around the globe; although even arriving at 4 a.m. won't guarantee you entry (the limited spaces are first-come, first-served). Not to worry, the market is plenty busy throughout the morning hours, as wholesalers prepare hundreds of varieties of fish and seafood for shipment across town and internationally — the din of voices and vehicles can be both disorienting and exhilarating.

For breakfast, browse Tsukiji's somewhat calmer outer market for sushi, precision-brewed coffee with homey white-bread toast, or a mixture of fruits, vegetables and prepared foods you never knew existed. Powers-that-be have discussed moving the fish market to a newer part of the city within the next few years, but a date is yet to be set. So, for now, you can still chow down.

All this, and it isn't even 9 a.m. yet. Welcome to Tokyo!

Roppongi Hills Mori Tower
Roppongi Hills Mori Tower

When you're done, amble over about a half-mile to the Ginza district, but be sure to arrive by 10 a.m. when the city's grandest department stores (Mitsukoshi, Matsuya and more) open with a daily ceremony — the first to walk through the doors are warmly welcomed with a traditional bow from every ground floor staff member.

Japanese department stores are things of wonder. In addition to the clothing and housewares you'd expect, many contain art galleries and restaurants on upper floors and service that puts American stores to shame. For many visitors, though, the highlight is the basement, where dozens of food counters offer specialties from yakitori (grilled, skewered chicken) to tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), pickles (a Japanese staple food made of vegetables from eggplant to daikon radish and served in all the colors of the rainbow), grills (grilled chicken and fried fish), desserts, Chinese food and good ol' American-style sandwiches. Buy yourself a bento lunch box to take with you, or if you're a light eater, you can fill up on samples and skip lunch entirely (don't tell anyone).

From here, walk through the soaring, inspirational glass hall of the Tokyo International Forum or take a quick taxi ride to the East Garden of the Imperial Palace (Higashi Gyoen in Japanese). Located in the center of town, the palace once served as Edo Castle from where the shogun (chief of the samurai warriors) ruled from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. The building's history dates back to 1603, when military leader shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa unified the country and moved the political capital from Kyoto to Edo — now Tokyo. The imperial family, at the time, maintained its capital in Kyoto, but has since moved here.

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon
L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon

Take particular note of the massive stones that make up the foundations. They were quarried in western Japan and moved here in an operation likened to the building of the Egyptian pyramids. In 1868, the emperor, Meiji, consolidated the imperial and administrative capitals, renamed Edo as Tokyo ("eastern capital") and ruled from the castle. It was destroyed in the Second World War and the buildings of the current palace are off-limits to the public (except for December 23 and January 2, if you should be so lucky to visit then), but the gardens give a good idea of the scale of the place. (Note: they're closed Mondays and Fridays.)

After viewing this historic landmark, take the subway from the nearby Otemachi stop or taxi across town to a modern Tokyo mecca, the Roppongi district. A local favorite for nightlife and dining for decades, three complexes that opened at the beginning of the Millennium have reshaped the neighborhood into the Art Triangle Roppongi. Filled with museums, high-end shops, performance spaces, swank hotels and a TV studio, you won't have a problem finding lunch from any of dozens of restaurants with everything from French cuisine at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon to famous Chinese dumplings and humble, inexpensive noodle shops — all this in an architecturally jaw-dropping setting.

To begin, hit Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown. As futuristic as they are imposing, they're home to two of the nation's tallest skyscrapers. In Tokyo Midtown, the Suntory Art Museum exhibits historic artistry from Japan and other Asian hubs, while the 21_21 Design Sight museum is a tribute to the style of its architect, Tadao Ando, and well-known fashion designer Issey Miyake, the creative director. Atop Roppongi Hills, the Mori Art Museum (with changing contemporary art exhibits) and Top View Observatory are 50-plus stories up and stay open until at least 10 p.m. Even native Tokyoites say that the observatory offers the best views of this sprawling city. In between Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown, it's worth stopping by architect Kisho Kurokawa's heart-stopping National Art Center Tokyo, where temporary exhibits span the European renaissance to this year's top Japanese crafts.

Continue to Day 2

MORE TOKYO INFORMATION

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Tokyo, Japan

* Images courtesy of the Japan National Tourism Organization, TCVB and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon from www.restaurants-joel-robuchon.com

(Updated: 02/15/13 CT)


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