Land of the rising sun: the inside guide to Tokyo
Bright lights, big city
In an impossible balance of chaos and calm, Tokyo is a technopolis steeped in tradition. The wild spirit and eccentric energy of the world's biggest city is a study in contradiction; in a single block, you'll find coffee rooms dating from the mid 20th century, old-world soba houses and inner-city shrines that shoulder neon-clad skyscrapers, multi-storey tech stores and fetishistic sex shops in symbiotic coexistence. However, venture slightly further into the surrounding neighbourhoods and you'll uncover small but determined pockets of sprawling, youth-driven bohemia; a nirvana of artist-friendly haunts, hidden networks of buzzing alleyways and bizarrely conceptual watering holes.
It's little wonder that the exquisite tension between modern Japan and its historic past has ignited the creative synapses of the fashion and art world. Consider Alessandro Michele's Autumn/Winter 2016 campaign set in Tokyo starring US-based Canadian artist Petra Collins running among pachinko parlours and the sparks of Shibuya's night lights. This May will see Louis Vuitton showing its Cruise 2018 collection in the country, another courtship in the protracted love affair between the French house and the Land of the Rising Sun, ensuring the eyes of the world's tastemakers are fixed on the city as it prepares to host the 2020 Olympics.
So, if you like your travels with a healthy dose of discovery, unearth Tokyo's best kept secrets from culture to cocktails with the skill of a local in the know.
The careful arrangements of nigiri and futomaki on your plate to the pastel-hued buildings and street mosaics around the city ensure everyday Tokyo has art pumping through its veins. So, when it comes to the scene itself, the galleries are nothing short of phenomenal. From converted spaces that speak to centuries past and institutions such as The National Art Center (7-22-2 Roppongi) and the Mori Art Museum (6-10-1 Roppongi Hills) - which is perched at the top of a 54-storey skyscraper -Tokyo's sprawling art spaces cement the city as a global heavyweight. These are the independent galleries with their fingers on the pulse of the art scene to add to the itinerary.
SCAI The Bathhouse
Converted from a 200-year-old bathhouse in the old town district of Yanaka, SCAI's contemporary exhibits are in delightful stark contrast to the rest of the ancient area. The gallery represents the likes of Darren Almond, Anish Kapoor, and Tatsuo Miyajima. Take time wandering the nearby streets for artisanal prints, calligraphy stores and temples. 6-1-23 Yanaka, scaithebathhouse.com
Set in upscale Ginza between designer department stores and high fashion boutiques, the Okuno Building, built in 1932 as a luxury apartment complex, is one of the oldest in Japan. Having survived the bombings of World War II, the complex is now a den of 20-50 art galleries at any one time, also serving as artist studios and artisan shops. Exhibitions last a matter of days so you can always be assured of fresh work. Don't miss the experimental project, Room 306.
Okuno Building, 1-9-8 Ginza
Opened by Atsuko Ninagawa after having worked as a curator in New York, the gallery represents some of Japan's most exciting contemporary talent such as Shinro Ohtake, Tsuruko Yamazaki, Izumi Kato and sculptor Yuuki Matsumura, and has exhibited at several international Art Basel and Frieze fairs.
2-12-4-1F Higashi-Azabu, takeninagawa.com
Coffee culture is as much of an art form in Tokyo as any other gastronomic practice. For a 100-year-old local experience, head to a kissaten (or coffee house). Try Chatei Hatou, (1-15-19 Shibuya) an old-world den where locals come to take a break, smoking, chatting and enjoying traditional pour-over coffee and feather-light, house-made chiffon cakes. Starbucks, this is not: there are no takeaways and coffees are handmade individually, taking up to 10 minutes each so grab a seat at the counter to watch the ceremony unfold.
When visiting Tsukiji Fish Market, seek out Aiyo (5-2-1 Tsukiji), a closet-sized counter cafe stuck in a '60s time warp run by the friendliest two women you've ever met. If you're missing the antipodean touch, enjoy a brew made with Australian-made Allpress coffee beans at the Monocle Cafe (2-5-1 Yurakucho). The cafe is from the team behind the high-culture magazine of the same name. Head to the basement of hip department store Hankyu Men's and take your time enjoying the perfect latte while you flick through archival issues of Monocle that line the space.
For something a bit stiffer, grab a drink at JBS (Jazz Blues Soul) (1-17-10 Dogenzaka) in Shibuya for a tumbler of whisky set to the soundtrack of a scratchy, smoky record. Head to Golden Gai and up a narrow, steep stairwell to Parasol (1-1-10 Shinjuku), an intimate cocktail bar that seats eight, in keeping with the style of micro bars in the area. Be sure to buy the owner Hayato a shot of tequila along with yours and you might just find yourself on a karaoke crawl with his local crew when he knocks off. And yes, it's a cliché, but there's a reason New York Bar (3-7-1-2 Shinjuku) at the Park Hyatt is a favourite. Go for the view from the 52nd floor and stay for the live jazz after 8pm. Also, they make a mean dry martini.
Ramen, the rich, hot, bone broth noodle soup is a must at Ichiran (1-22-7 Shibuya) not far from the famous crossing in Shibuya. Go alone to enjoy the experience of eating in an individual private booth designed to heighten the experience of the ramen. Honestly, it's so good, this writer felt drunk afterwards.
Sushi is good anywhere but for something that is both cheap and conversation-stopping good, go to Genki Sushi (24-8 Shibuya). Place your order on a personal tablet and wait for it to arrive on one of a series of conveyor belts delivered direct from the kitchen to your seat . Visiting an izakaya is a must for a local, tapas-style experience. Try Teyandei (2-20-1 Nishi-Azabu) hidden away in a backstreet, if you can find it. Sit on the tatami mats, order literally anything and add two hours of all-you-can-drink for about $15.
Pro tip: Go to the basement floor of any department store or of most metro stations (Tokyu Food Show, linked to Shibuya station, is the best) for the most overwhelmingly amazing food hall experience you'll ever have. Prepare to spend all your yen sampling fresh fish and Japanese delicacies. Also, don't be frightened of 7-Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart; the food is surprisingly fresh and delicious.
Top local tip:
Lead singer of local band Yahyel (who played Fuji Rock Festival, Rough Trade in London and supported the likes of Warpaint and BadBadNotGood), Shun Ikegai gives his recommendations below:
Young Oyster (2-3-4-1F, Star Building, Aoyama): "Order the omakase."
Higashi-Yama (1-21-25 Naka-Meguro): "Traditional, complex Japanese courses."
Liquid Room (3-16-6 Shibuya): "A hangout spot for local musicians."
Hidden between love hotels, sex shops and seedy strips is possibly my favourite experience in Tokyo. Lion Cafe (2-19-13 Shibuya), which originally opened in 1926 and then was rebuilt in the original design in 1950 after burning down in the war, combines the reverential atmosphere of a church with blackout windows and opium den vibes against the soundtrack of classical records. Sounds strange, but it's truly the weirdest, most incredible must-see. Go upstairs for the best acoustics.
Head to youth-oriented 'look street' in quiet Koenji for the best vintage and quirky antique stores. In true hipster style, the suburb only really wakes up after midday. Hit up Kiki (2-21-11 Koenji) for the kind of batsh*t crazy interior decorations that Harajuku used to be famous for. A few doors down, swing by Slut (4-6-1 Koenji) for a well-curated selection of denim and souvenir jackets that would make Alessandro Michele proud. Then, wander over to the Williamsburg of Tokyo, Ebisu, and visit Marfa (2-2-8 Ebisu-Nishi) for a curation of Japanese and Korean contemporary designers. For something more upscale, explore Omotesando where you can see all the designer-commissioned mega-boutiques such as Prada and Miu Miu (both designed by Pritzker Prize laureates Herzog & de Meuron) and the Rubik's cube-esque building that houses Chanel.
Visit Tsukiji Fish Market (5-2-1 Tsukiji) to eat at Sushi Dai or Sushi Daiwa for the omakase (chef's choice). Be prepared to wait about 45 minutes, eat in 15 and be moved on. But it's worth it, I promise. Then, get off the train at Naka-Meguro and walk over the canal in Daikanyama for beautiful, local designer stores that line this quiet, off-the-beaten-track residential area. Finally, head to Shimokitazawa, which after dark is a sleepy, bohemian part of town filled with tiny, five-seater spots, shisha bars and concept cafes such as Avocado (2-13-4 Shimokitazawa). Largely populated by local artists and musicians, it has managed to stay out of the guidebooks thus far and was by far my favourite for its low-key vibe.
Millenium Mitsui Garden Hotel
Next door to the Ginza line and five minutes from all the designer shopping. Plus, the toiletries are by Shiseido. From $243 per night. 5-11-1 Ginza, Expedia.com.au
The Prime Pod
Full disclosure: I had many hours and a hangover to kill between checking out of my hotel and into my red-eye flight so I came here for a some shut eye. At $42 a night, you get your own little 1x2m sleep 'box' with a set of PJs, slippers, toiletries and your own TV. Slightly coffin-esque, yes, but good on a budget and with the kind of spectacular views you'd hope to find on the 13th floor. 5-13-19-13F, Duplex Ginza Tower, Ginza, Expedia.com.au
Ryokans, or traditional Japanese guesthouses, make for an authentic experience. Homeikan Honkan has been registered for the Japanese equivalent of Heritage Listing. A former boarding house, there are cute details such as an increasingly rare sliding-door entrance and fan-shaped windows. Step back in time to the Showa era from $94 a night. 5-10-5 Bunkyo-Ku, homeikan.com
Buro 24/7 travelled, stayed and explored with expedia.com.au
Buro 24/7 Selection
Buro 24/7 Selection