The Japanese capital delivers an extraordinary variety of experiences – from historic shrines to the latest technology. Here’s how to sample it all.
I am standing on a morning rush hour platform in one of Tokyo’s biggest stations – and the young woman next to me looks like she has escaped from an 18th-century woodblock print. Poised and elegant, she is dressed in a white kimono flecked with a summery red camellia motif, cinched with a perfectly measured silk sash, her long black hair swept off her face with a clutch of decorative pins.
Tokyo is a city that excels at fusing these two worlds. How best to capture and savour its contrasting elements? Easy: embrace both sides of the city. Here is a step-by-step guide to the perfect Tokyo weekend, with one day focusing on all things traditional, the second exploring its high-tech modernity.
Day One: Traditional Tokyo
For many in Tokyo, the day begins when the first trains start running and night arrives when the neon illuminates. So there is something instantly appealing about a place whose hours are dictated not by urban life – but by the sun. This is precisely the case at Meiji Jingu, one of Japan’s most important Shinto shrines, which is open daily from sunrise to sunset (a blessing for jetlagged insomniacs awake at five in the morning).
While it’s possibly one of the city’s most calming places to visit – picture forests, symmetrical architecture and atmospheric walkways – getting there is likely to be a fraction less serene. The closest station is Harajuku on the busy JR Yamanote line, in a neighbourhood more famed for its edgy trend-triggering street fashion and teen tribes than its cultural credentials.
Yet just behind the station, concrete and crowds quickly give way to nature as an elegant gravel walkway lined with tall evergreen trees cuts through a forest spanning more than 170 acres. Strolling along the pathway is the perfect transition from the busy and urban to the traditional and slow-paced. Eventually you find yourself at the gates of the atmospheric main shrine courtyard, where you should wash your hands using a bamboo ladle before entering. Inside, Japanese visitors can be seen clapping, throwing coins and ringing bells at the main altar, while others write prayers on wooden boards or read their fortunes via chopstick-shaped wooden sticks.
And just to add to the sense of time-warp perfection, every now and then a wedding procession appears, with a stoic-faced Shinto bride dressed in a billowing white kimono solemnly leading her family across the courtyard.
Free entry to main shrine complex; 500 yen (£3.80) maintenance contribution requested per person to enter the on-site “Homotsuden” Treasure Museum.
While Meiji Jingu lies at one end of the famed shopping street Omotesando, the traditional emerges in a different form at the other end. A 20-minute stroll past a string of contemporary architect-designed fashion flagships eventually gives way to the Aoyama district. Here, a discreet walkway of minimal bamboo and stone – as designed by cult architect Kengo Kuma (a master of fusing the contemporary with the traditional) – leads to a serene glass-walled space: the Nezu Museum.
The museum is home to a treasure trove of more than seven thousand examples of pre-modern art from across Japan and East Asia, from calligraphy and metalwork to sculpture and tea ceremony tools, all painstakingly collected by the Japanese industrialist Kaichiro Nezu until his death in 1940. Various themes within the collection are highlighted in carefully curated exhibitions that change every few months.
Best of all are its gardens: stone paths wind through the lush, green and beautifully maintained space, complete with carp-filled ponds, small bridges, statues and teahouses. The only sign of its resolutely urban location? The line of skyscrapers on the horizon that appear in the distance above the trees.
Museum open Tue-Sun, 10am-5pm; admission varies by exhibition, but typically around 1,100 yen (£8.40).
Tokyo may be a city synonymous with such skyscrapers, but among the glass, steel and neon are some historic buildings which are startlingly well preserved. Among them is the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, known as the Mingeikan. Located on a quiet residential street in the Komaba district (less than 15 minutes by taxi from the Nezu), the museum – which feels more like a private residence than an arts space – is worth a visit for the 1940s building alone, as created by its late founder and the father of Japan’s folk crafts movement Soetsu Yanagi.
The entrance, where shoes are slipped off, sets an immediately atmospheric tone, due to the grand wooden staircase that takes centre stage and which leads to a network of rooms showcasing the nation’s most comprehensive craft arts collections, from textiles to tea ceremony ceramics.
Museum open Tue-Sun, 10am-5pm; admission 1,100 yen (£8.40).
Green Tea and Rice
Another neighbourhood that excels at showcasing the city’s more low-key side is Nakameguro. Despite being located just a short hop from the neon blare of Shibuya, the area is significantly calmer, with small boutiques, craft coffee shops and bookstores lining its cherry tree-lined canal. It is here, down one narrow blink-and-you-miss-it alley, that Aoya can be found. A favourite among locals (who don’t think twice about queuing for a lunchtime table), the restaurant is located in a small wooden house staffed mainly by young women, heads covered in cotton tenegui wraps.
In its dimly lit interior, customers sit at wooden tables on school chair-like seating, tucking into an array of warming (and good value) lunch dishes – from Kyoto-style vegetables and rice to Korean-inspired hotpots. Later in the afternoon you can choose from green teas and traditional sweets.
Lunch menus from 1000 yen (£7.70).
Yanaka Slow Life
Another Tokyo neighbourhood which is worth a visit for its untouched architecture and slow pace of life is Yanaka in eastern Tokyo. This well-preserved neighbourhood is a haven of wooden houses, generations-old senbei rice cracker counters, ancient temples and shrines. It’s also emerging as a creative hub, with its tranquil pace of life enticing a growing number of craftsmen to set up small shops, galleries and workshops across the area. Centre stage is its historic cemetery (with a string of shrines and temples surrounding it): a perfect place to take a stroll and appreciate springtime cherry blossoms or the changing autumn foliage. Perhaps the best way to explore Yanaka is like a local – on two wheels. Tokyo Bike rents out its minimal, urban bicycles to visitors from its shop in an 80-year-old wooden building.
It’s worth taking a stroll down the shopping street, Yanaka Ginza, complete with nostalgic-sounding music playing and locals queuing at counters for food treats such as just-cooked menchikatsu, which are delicious breaded meat croquettes.
Other highlights include Scai the Bathhouse (free admission), one of the city’s best independent art galleries, with represented artists ranging from Lee Ufan to Anish Kapoor. As its name suggests, it is housed in a former bathhouse with a sloping tiled roof.
The perfect place to finish up the day? Within the vintage confines of Yanaka Beer Hall. Located on the ground floor of a small renovated wooden house – one of a trio around a courtyard that makes up the tiny, charming Uenosakuragi complex – the space is as atmospheric as its craft beer menu is thirst quenching (try their original brew).
Open from Tue-Fri, noon-8.30pm; Sat, Sun, 11am-8.30pm; beer from 600 yen (£4.60).
Day 2: Modern Tokyo
For today’s experiences, you should once again head to Harajuku Station. The same starting point as the day before, it’s also the gateway to a completely different experience. Forget serene forests and historic shrines. Instead, follow the exit marked “Takeshita Dori” and dive head first into one of Tokyo’s liveliest and most contemporary districts. It doesn’t take long to see why the Harajuku area has long been renowned as the birthplace of global street trends and one of the most fashion-forward spots in the city.
Wander down pedestriansed Takeshita Street mingling with gaggles of giggling schoolgirls, iPhone selfie-snapping tourists and eye-catching tribes of teens (look out for the Gothic Lolitas – a dark take on Little Bo Peep, complete with petticoats and heavy eye makeup). Don’t forget the men in skirts, either. It’s been a trend here for a while and one that will, most likely, find its way to the UK eventually.
The shops along this street – plus a raft of back lanes in the surrounding area – are almost as eye-catching as the crowds: a mix of psychedelic vintage boutiques, music-filled fashion shops, crepe stalls and cafes, plus photo booths known as purikura, where visitors customise pictures of themselves with kitsch decorations.
Japan is undoubtedly at the forefront of the robotics industry – as reflected in ever-popular Pepper, the world’s first humanoid robot to have “feelings”, which went on sale in Japan last year. Today, robots such as Pepper are “working” in a growing number of shops, cafes and hotels across the capital (if you want to meet one, just pop into one of the larger Softbank mobile phone stores). But they are still, as can be expected, outnumbered by their human counterparts.
The best place to go for a top-to-toe Japanese robotics fix is the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, known as the Miraikan. Located in the Odaiba district near Tokyo Bay, the sprawling museum – created by the Japanese government’s Science and Technology Agency – is crammed with futuristic innovations. In addition to regularly changing special exhibitions – focusing on themes ranging from toilets to earthquakes – the permanent spaces are attractions in themselves.
However, it’s the robots on display who steal the show, from an android designed to resemble a human child who can read the news 24 hours a day in a range of languages, to ASIMO, an astronaut-like robot created by Honda which performs demonstrations for visitors.
Museum open Weds-Sun, from 10am-5pm; admission 620 yen (£4.80).
One area that doesn’t need robots to make it feel contemporary is Akihabara – also known as Electric Town. A stroll through the district, a little east of central Tokyo, along streets crammed with tall, neon-flickering electrical stores, can be as surreal as it is resolutely modern. In addition to its famously high concentration of electrical stores, the area is also a hub for Japanese contemporary sub-cultures such as manga comics and anime cartoons, drawing crowds of so-called otaku geeks.
It’s as good for people watching (look out for “cosplayers” who dress up as Japanese comic characters) as it is for shopping.
In the Clouds
There is generally only one direction to look when it comes to Tokyo’s 21st-century architecture: up. This is certainly the case at Tokyo SkyTree, which has become an iconic fixture on the skyline since opening in 2012, its streamlined form (it’s the world’s tallest freestanding tower) soaring above the city’s horizon not far from the Sumida River. A template of contemporary craftsmanship, the elegant 2,080ft tall tower has a latticed façade, whose colour, with typical Japanese precision, is an almost-white shade of light indigo blue known as aijiro. Other features range from contemporary-coloured lighting schemes after dark to state-of-the-earth earthquake safety technology, revolving around a central shaft of reinforced concrete.
The main purpose of a visit, though, is to take in the epic 360-degree panorama views across the city. There are two elevators whisking visitors to two viewing platforms, where expansive views of one of the world’s most densely populated cities unfold before you.
Open daily, 8am-10pm; admission for lower deck: 2,060 yen (£15.80), upper deck: 1,030 yen (£7.90).
Cocktail with a view
There is another place to enjoy Tokyo from above, minus the queues and crowds: the 52nd floor New York Bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo – yes, the hotel which stole the show in the film Lost in Translation.
One of the most civilised ways to watch the sunset is while seated by the window, next to floor-to-ceiling walls of glass, with an expertly mixed cocktail in hand.
And then, the nightly show begins – the sun lowers in the sky, the sky darkens and the endless expanse of concrete illuminates, bringing to an end a perfect weekend in the city.
Bar open Sun- Weds 5pm-midnight, Sat 5pm-1am; cocktails from 2,000 yen (£15.30).
Report by Danielle Demetriou for The Telegraph