Travel: Tantalising Tokyo
“Are you sure this is the right building?” asks my companion, warily, as we continue our ascent to the third floor of what appears, to all intents and purposes, to be a residential building nestled in a tiny alleyway off Tokyo’s bustling Shibuya crossing.
“The sign outside was orange and it had a cat on it,” I reason, as we pass a tiny makeshift office hosting a group of silent and productive workers tapping away on Macs.
Thankfully, one more floor and it becomes clear that we are indeed in the right place – Hapineko, one of the city’s growing number of cat cafes. US$10 dollars, a hand wash and a short safety demonstration later, we find ourselves, latte in hand and blanket on knee, surrounded by 14 cats. Sound bonkers? You ain’t seen nothing yet...
City of Style
To say Tokyo is a city like no other barely does it justice. Futuristic, kitsch and cute, trendy and bustling, yet steeped in history and culture, it is a truly unique metropolis on a massive scale. From the bright lights of Shibuya, with its teen department stores, iconic pedestrian crossing and somewhat adult evening flavour, via Ginza, with its high-end department stores and Imperial Palace Gardens, to upmarket Omotosando, where stylish shoppers parade with tiny bejewelled panda dogs, it is a genuine assault on the senses.
Yet beneath the cartoon craziness which defines the city’s streets is a quiet calm, a culture of respect and dignity which ensures that even on the busiest of trains and most hectic of crossings, a sense of order pervades. The train stations may play their own unique jingles and tourists may gawp at the extraordinary robot vending machines, but on board, old fashioned manners take over, which makes journeying to the less discovered reaches of the city a true pleasure.
The Tokyo Sky Tree may not reach the heights of our own Burj Khalifa, levelling out at 634 metres, but it’s still a great way to get your bearings. It’s only really from this height that the true scale of the city can be appreciated, with its unusual architectural mix of skyscrapers, temples and traditional wooden houses stretching as far as the eye can see. Getting to the top viewing deck may require patience – with 5.4 million visitors expected this year alone, queues can be lengthy – but the view of the iconic, snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji in the distance makes it a must do.
Also an absolute essential for any to-do list is a day’s people watching at Omotosando and Harajuku. The first, home to the city’s beautiful people, offers plenty for even the pickiest of shoppers, while its famous souvenir shop, Oriental Bazaar, will satisfy your need for painted chopsticks, sake sets and second hand kimonos. The latter, home to the infamous Harajuku girls, is a paradise for Tokyo’s youth. Their spiritual home, Takeshita-dori Street, is a riot of colour and kitsch, with shops selling everything from doggy clothing and tamagotchis to vintage band T-shirts, safety pin jewellery and all manner of neon fashion. Grab a coffee from one of the multi-coloured crepe stands then simply soak up the atmosphere.
A short stroll from the craziness is the Meiji-jingu shrine, set in a stunningly peaceful forest famous for its Japanese Iris garden. The stunning temple is one of the best places in the city to take in the country’s traditional blessings of its children, with youngsters bedecked in the most ornate Japanese clothing happy to play the role of adorable photo opportunities for non-locals, offering peace signs aplenty. The grounds are simply stunning, but never more so than from the period between March and April when the city’s infamous cherry blossoms are in full bloom – the perfect time to visit.
Further afield, an hour’s train ride from the city centre, is Kamakura, home to Japan’s second tallest bronze Buddha. Cast in 1252, the Kamakura Daibutsu is an awe inspiring sight, while the peaceful gardens surrounding it feel worlds away from the busy city streets.
Another highlight, if you’re one of the few lucky enough to be granted a coveted visitors pass, is a visit to Tsukiji Fish Market. The 3.30am alarm call may be painful, but the sight of hundreds of 300kg tuna lined up awaiting auction is something to behold. Watch the city’s restaurateurs fight for the finest fish then, if your stomach can handle it at 6am, head for one of the many tiny sushi spots surrounding the market. It may be a strange experience so early in the day, but it’s guaranteed to be the freshest sashimi you’ll ever taste.
Home to more Michelin-starred restaurants than Paris, Tokyo is a global culinary heavyweight. Here’s our round up of the gastronomic hot spots you won’t want to miss...
Situated on the top floor of the glamorous Peninsula Hotel, Peter is a seriously stylish proposition with a fine French menu to match. From the floor to ceiling windows and motion sensitive art installations to dishes such as Tasmanian salmon confit with black garlic crust and Manjari chocolate-berry soufflé, the restaurant is a real feast for the senses.
This tiny gem, hidden away down a side street in the city’s busy Roppongi district, is a favourite of visiting celebs. Based on the concept of a traditional festive market, the small number of lucky diners who gain access each night find themselves seated around an open grill, expertly manned by two kneeling chefs. Simply point to the meat, fish or vegetable you want and they’ll collect it from the display on a long heavy wooden paddle, grill it to order, and hand it back to you on the same paddle with a loud and entertaining yell. How they manage it is anyone’s guess, but it makes for a night you’ll never forget.
This cafe, bar and restaurant facility in the stylish Daikanyama district is the perfect spot for brunch. Serving international fare, from fluffy American pancakes to pastas and burgers, it’s a favourite haunt of Tokyo’s young professional set. Suitably satiated, don’t forget to take the time to stroll around the neighbouring boutiques – the adjoining book shop is the best we’ve ever visited and an easy spot to while away a lazy afternoon.
Haute cuisine in high end surroundings, a visit here is a uniquely Japanese experience. Set in the idyllic surrounds of a twenty century old sake brewery at the base of the Tokyo Tower, dining parties are each housed in their own garden facing room, with traditional tatami matting and sunken seating. A true culinary gem, the tofu tasting menu is sure to convert even the most curd averse diners. Divine.
Offering a traditional dining experience in the heart of Kamakura, this tatami floored house is a real departure from the city’s popular lunchtime joints. Serving vegetarian and seasonal bento, prepared using only boiling water, this place take the drab out of detox.
Head here as dawn breaks to sample the best the morning’s auctions had to offer. A tiny, family run sushi spot within the boundaries of Tsukiji, Iwasa serves sushi fit for a king. Salmon and tuna sashimi melt in the mouth, while the house specialty of fish intestine is best described as an acquired taste...
Lap of Luxury
Few moments can equate to the experience of walking out of Tokyo’s Narita Airport to be met by a chauffeur in a liveried 1934 Rolls Royce Phantom. But then few hotel experiences can compare to that offered by The Peninsula, a five star retreat in the centre of upmarket Ginza, which comes complete with its own subway station and unparalleled views of the Imperial Palace.
Understated luxury is the name of the game. The Rolls Royce might be an impressive opening gambit, but a friendly welcome is equally important here. Rooms are chic, spacious and unashamedly high tech – indeed, The Peninsula Group employs a full time team of electronics designers to ensure your stay is as relaxing as possible. From the central console which controls the TV, lights and curtains, to the alarm clock which wakes you gradually with relaxing music and softly lifting lights, every detail here has been pored over. The vanity unit in the dressing room contains a nail dryer, perfect for those last minute touch ups before dinner, while we’re not ashamed to admit we became a little obsessed with the ‘spa’ button. What’s that? Why, only a button next to the free standing marble bath which turns your bathroom into a private spa, complete with mood music and lighting. We kid you not. And don’t even get us started on the toilet...If you manage to leave your suite, the hotel’s modern art festooned communal areas are equally extraordinary. Don’t leave without taking in high tea in the impressive triple height lobby – the elegant finger food from the hotel’s own patisserie is among the best we’ve encountered, while the live lounge music only adds to the ambiance. A favourite of Tokyo’s elite, an afternoon here is a prime people watching opportunity, particularly on the weekend when the hotel regularly hosts as many as eight society weddings a day in its numerous expansive ballrooms.
Elsewhere, The Peninsula Spa is the ideal spot to relax and unwind after a hard day’s sightseeing. The signature ESPA aromatherapy massage was perfectly performed, while the sauna and steam suites and rainforest showers are the ultimate rejuvenator. Treat yourself to the ‘Tailor-Made Time’ package – four hours of customised treatments to meet your own individual needs. Perfect.
The pool and fitness suite, with their views of the Imperial Palace Gardens and Ginza’s tree lined boulevards, are a pleasure to work out in. Which is a good job given the standard of the hotel’s breakfast offerings. The blueberry pancakes alone are worth an extra half hour on the treadmill.
Superior rooms at The Peninsula start from Dhs2,500 per night plus tax on a room only basis, while suites, which include use of the hotel’s suite of chauffeured Mini Coopers for all those shopping outings, start from Dhs5,000.
There are few better ways to arrive in Tokyo than fresh from a business class Qatar Airways flight and, with daily flights from Dubai to the Japanese capital launched in October 2012, there’s never been a better time to visit.
Leave time following your connection from Dubai to Doha to enjoy the airline’s Premium Terminal, featuring a spa, numerous fine dining options and world class shopping.
The luxury continues once you step onboard, from the flat bed massage seats, huge entertainment selection and top class in-flight dining menu, featuring a-la-carte options from Chef Nobu and Tom Aikens among others.
Business Class from Dubai to Tokyo’s Narita starts from Dhs11,950 return, while economy flights start from Dhs3,360 return. For more information or to book, visit www.qatarairways.com