72 Hours in Tokyo
Soaring skyscrapers, sacred temples and sushi bars all jostle for space in Japan's neon-lit capital. Sara D'Souza discovers what makes Tokyo tick in just 72 hours
Taxis from Narita Airport to the city cost upwards of $200, so jump on a 60-minute train to Tokyo’s main station, a beautiful three-story Renaissance-style building topped with a domed roof. Here you can pick up a Suica (metro pass). Daily passes will set you back around $9 and offer unlimited travel around the city. A five-minute stroll from the station, the Shangri-La Hotel Tokyo provides a handy base for exploring the city — it’s a short walk to the Imperial Palace and its impeccable manicured lawns.
Come afternoon, nothing says you’ve arrived in Tokyo quite like a visit to the Shibuya crossing. Surrounded by soaring skyscrapers, flashing neon lights and gigantic video screens, up to 2,500 people stream over the crossing at each change of the lights. There are few better places in the city for people watching. Feeling peckish? The sprawling self-appointed ‘theatre of food’ under Shibuya’s station dishes up everything from bento boxes to sushi and sashimi, with plenty of tasty snacks in between.
For a retail fix, hit the high street chain stores in Shibuya, the designer shops in Omoto-Sando Hills (the Beverly Hills of the east), the quirky vintage boutiques that line Cat Street in Harajuku or the department stores in Shinjuku. Head to Roppongi Hills for a late afternoon mooch around the Mori Art Museum, where the brilliant ‘All you need is Love’ exhibition is on until September. Hop up to the roof to take in 360 degree views of the city. As the sun sets, this pulsing metropolis comes to life. Glam up and head for dinner and cocktails with a view at the Park Hyatt, which shot to fame in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Karaoke Kan should be next on your agenda to belt out a few classics in a private booth. Branches are dotted all over the city and are open well into the small hours.
Get up early to visit Tsukiji Market (and we mean really early, trading starts at 5 a.m.). It’s the world’s largest, busiest fish market and hosts live tuna auctions. Needless to say a sushi breakfast is in order. Appetite sated, stop in at the nearby Kabukiza Theatre to get tickets to see a traditional Kabuki show. Caffeinate with some Japanese drip style coffee at Café de l’Ambre which opened in 1948 and is run by (almost centenarian) Ichiro Sekiguchi.
Get your fill of temples at leafy Ueno Park. See the Toshogu Shrine, Kaneiji Temple and the Yushima Tenmangu Shrine, which dates to 458. For more, hop the metro to Tokyo’s ancient Asakusa, home to the city’s oldest temple the Sensoji Temple. If you’ve had enough of land-based activities take a gentle cruise along the Sumida River and see Tokyo from a different vantage point. Boats leave every 25-30 minutes from the pier next to Azumabashi. Alternatively, catch some Sumo at nearby Ryogoku Kokugikan.
Head back into Shinjuku, the pulsing heart and soul of the city, for nightfall and don’t miss the arcades for a dance-off or to get snap happy in a photo booth. Pop into a traditional Izakaya for Onigiri (rice balls) and noodles, like Yukun-tei, then duck off the beaten track in the Golden Gai, a labyrinth of over 200 tiny hidden drinking dens. The miniscule three-tiered Albatross G is an absolute favorite.
Start the day with a morning stroll around Kokyo Gaien National Garden before experiencing the fantastic Japanese rail system. Take one of the immaculate bullet trains that run every half and hour and speed from Tokyo to Hakone, home to Mount Fuji. Notoriously shy, you’ll only get to see the mountain in all her snow-capped glory on a perfectly clear day, but the surrounding countryside is also stunning, and well worth a visit. Mount Fuji is divided into ten stations and adventure seekers can climb to the top in a day. If that sounds too energetic, there’s the switchback railway, the funicular and a cable car that run to Owakudani, an active volcano zone, where you can buy eggs to cook in the natural hot waters (legend has it, this will add seven years to your life).
Back in the city, spend your remaining hours indulging in a traditional tea ceremony. The Hamarikyu Gardens are traditional gardens from the Edo period, which are encircled by a walled moat. A teahouse sits on an island in the middle of an enormous pond and you can sip maccha while looking past the plum tree groves to the surrounding skyscrapers. A perfect way to round off a weekend in this city of intoxicating contrasts.