City Break: Tokyo

Why Tokyo?

Tokyo never fails to make me see the world afresh. It’s a fascinating sci-fi mega-city of more than 35 million people-one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world-where ancient customs still underpin much of daily life. Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are found amid the hi-tech, high-rise buildings. You never know what you’ll see next, from a rabbit out for its Sunday walk in fashionable Omotesandō to a Japanese punk fashion shoot in the Hie shrine. Beauty sits along side ugliness: a pretty bonsai pine tree next to a street-vending machine; the hazy spring moon rising over the tangled wires of a quiet back street.

Where I stayed

The Capitol Hotel Tokyu ( is discreetly located in the political centre of Tokyo, next to the leafy 500-year-old Hie shrine. It was rebuilt in 2010 to reflect its surroundings. Unlike many five-star Tokyo hotels, it has a uniquely Japanese feel inside, with its simple architecture, exquisite calligraphy and striking central flower arrangement. My room echoed a traditional ryokan (Japanese inn) with its layout and sliding shoji screen doors, and the airy bathroom conjured up a hot-spring onsen (bath) with its stone-textured black tiles and huge raindrop shower.

What was surprising

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How friendly everyone is. I just had to gaze at a street or subway map and someone would stop and politely ask in English if I needed help. It’s incredibly relaxing to be in a city that is both safe (street crime is very low) and polite. If only life could always be like this!

What I saw

In a city four times the size of London, there are more things to see and do than days in the year. As I love to wander, I decided to dip into different areas of the city to sample different aspects of Tokyo life, so I headed off on the surprisingly easy to use (and cheap) subway to visit the Tokyo National Museum. It’s filled with wonderful objects, such as the extraordinary Jomon period ‘flame-like deep bowl’ from 3000-2000bc which almost feels alive, or the exquisite paintings from the Heian period that you can imagine Sei Shōnagon admiring.

After eating a reviving sweet green-tea jelly with black beans (I’m addicted to Japanese sweetmeats) accompanied by coffee alfresco, I strolled past the crocodiles of Japanese schoolchildren to visit the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures. It’s filled with beautiful 7th- and 8th-century Buddhist artefacts.

What was unmissable

I spent my first afternoon walking around the Ninomaru Garden in the Imperial Palace Gardens, admiring the great swathes of fluttering irises, while taking care to step around avid Japanese flower photographers. But you can’t visit Tokyo without a spot of window shopping, so I headed to the ultra-designed, high-end shops of Aoyama before diving into the streets of teen-heaven Hara-
juku. If you’re feeling exceptionally energetic, you can start at the delightful Nezu Museum, walk down through Aoyama and then on to the Meiji shrine.

What I ate

With more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city, Tokyo is my idea of heaven, although to eat in many, you need a large bank account and an adventurous palate. Luckily, lunch is often cheaper, but, in either case, you will need to book ahead.

My favourite haute cuisine restaurant was the fabulous (but very expensive and only open at night) Aronia de Takazawa ( I fell in love with it as soon as I stepped into the tiny Minimalist dining room-it only seats 10 people and is creating a new style of Japanese food.

As with many Tokyo restaurants, the set menu is made up of myriad tiny courses, such as a tiger prawn wrapped in rice paper with herbs and petals and dipped in a fragrant peanut sauce, or carp poached in red wine and soy and served with Japanese burdock, sweet potato purée and truffle shavings. Chef Takazawa’s wife speaks perfect English and everything is explained as you eat.

There are, of course, all manner of good, cheaper places to visit, but if you like stretching your taste buds, order a traditional Japanese breakfast from the hotel with its soup, pickles, fish and rice.

How I got there

Japan can seem a daunting destination, especially if you’re going there for the first time, so it helps to have inside knowledge and help, both at home and while you’re there. I travelled with the award-winning InsideJapan Tours (; 0117-370 9730) on a self-guided tour and booked my flights separately, but the company can book everything for you and shape your trip according to your interests. An InsideJapan five Tokyo nights stopover package at the Capitol Tokyu (with breakfast) including direct flights, meet and greet, airport transfers, Tokyo transport pass, one-day private guide and an izakaya experience (traditional Japanese ‘pub’) with food and drink-would cost from £2,190 per person, based on two people sharing.

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