Asia travel: How to spend 36 hours in Tokyo

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Oct 15, 2023

Asia travel: How to spend 36 hours in Tokyo

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The vibrant lights of Akihabara electric town in Tokyo, Japan. Photo / Getty Images

Go beyond Tokyo's high-traffic tourist spots and you’ll be richly rewarded, writes Motoko Rich

For two and a half years, pandemic border controls kept international travellers out of Tokyo, leaving its neon shopping precincts and most popular temples and shrines to the locals.

Now, with foreign tourists welcomed back since October, those willing to explore beyond highly trafficked neighbourhoods like Harajuku, Shibuya and Shinjuku and wander down side streets in places like Setagaya or Koto will be richly rewarded with offbeat boutiques, cafes or surprising oases of natural beauty.

Think of Tokyo as a warren of concealed gems, where you can drink at an artisanal bar tucked up in a small office or apartment building, or taste exquisite sushi in a basement at the end of a dark street.

Friday

3pm | Take a nature walk

Forest bathing — shinrin-yoku in Japanese — does not involve a soak in a hot spring in the woods. Rather, it's a meditative practice of simply walking among trees and breathing deeply to de-stress. At the Todoroki Ravine Park in Setagaya, a district in western Tokyo off the Tokyu Oimachi train line, groves of bamboo and Japanese zelkova trees line the only natural valley within the sprawling city.

Enter the park at Golf Bashi bridge, a bright red iron structure that straddles the Yazawa River, and descend to a path where birdsong and flowing water offset the purr of passing cars. Climb a steep flight of stone steps past a teahouse and tiny carp pond to arrive at Todoroki Fudoson Buddhist temple at the peak, where, in spring, you may gaze out over blossoming plum and cherry trees.

5pm | Go from style to sweets

Head back into the urban fray of Ginza, Tokyo's original luxury retail district, where you can gawk at the Issey Miyake showroom or peruse designer brands like Commes des Garcons, A Bathing Ape, Supreme and Kolor at the Dover Street Market.

For far more affordable (and edible) designs, visit Ginza Akebono, a traditional Japanese confectionery shop that dates back to 1948 when Tokyo was recovering from the devastation of the war. The signature treat is strawberries and sweet azuki bean paste wrapped in mochi, powdery skins of pounded sticky rice (432 yen, or about NZ$5.10). Or try the sakura mochi, a pink concoction made to evoke cherry blossom season (270 yen).

6.30pm | Dine in a viaduct

Under the 113-year-old rail bridge that connects Shimbashi and Yurakucho stations, black-and-white photos show early track construction and portraits of the bridge's architects and engineers. The viaduct is now home to a new dining and shopping plaza called Hibiya Okuroji.

Before dinner, check out Japanese craftsmanship in leather wallets and handbags at Tideway, and indigo-dyed goods at Mizuno Dye Factory (both close at 7pm). Then, sate your appetite with inventive varieties of tempura, like salmon roe nested on roasted seaweed at the Oshio Tempura and Wine Bar. (Dinner for one is about 4000 yen, with a drink.)

Or savour the charcoal-grilled eel coated in a sweet soy-based sauce at Unafuji (5400 yen for the "hitsumabushi" set with pickles, soup and a pot of tea to pour over the eel and rice at the end of the meal).

8.30pm | Take in a cocktail

Bartenders in Tokyo don't just mix drinks, they stage them. The waistcoat-wearing cocktail makers at No. in Yoyogi-Uehara, a hipster residential neighbourhood, shake and stir with choreographed elegance. The bar, on the third floor of a narrow apartment building, projects a Japanese-Nordic spirit with blonde slatted wood and minimalist bar stools.

No.'s cocktails are all numbered instead of named (get it?), and there are thoughtful alcohol-free options. Judging from others at the bar, No. is a good place to pitch up at the counter alone and sit with a drink and a book (cocktails from 1100 yen).

10am | Commune with cats

Legend has it that maneki-neko, the waving cat statues that welcome customers to stores and restaurants, first appeared at Gotokuji Temple. Hop on the two-car train of the Tokyu-Setagaya light rail line to get there: The route's final leg winds through humble suburbs and gives a glimpse of how middle-class Japanese live.

You’ll see lingerie and futon covers fluttering on poles set out on the balconies, for example (many families still don't have dryers). At the 15th-century Buddhist temple, thousands of cats in various sizes cram wooden shelves around the main building, some inked with messages left by visitors. Amble through the peaceful cemetery, pause by the pagoda and admire whatever is in bloom.

12.30pm | Eat a fresh lunch

The best Japanese set lunches allow you to try multiple tastes without feeling overstuffed. At Lakan-ka, on the edge of the Aoyama neighbourhood, the obanzai lunch tray offers several vegetable and seafood dishes with multigrain rice, a miso soup and an omelette whorled like a shell.

Complement the meal with one of a selection of teas infused with monk fruit, a fruit native to China and the restaurant's namesake in Japanese (1500 yen for the lunch set; teas from 750 yen). If the line for a table is too long, amble over to Toraya-An Stand, a cafe offshoot of Toraya, the confectionery maker whose founding dates to the 16th century.

Try a simple vegetable bowl of crispy lotus root, sliced red peppers, green peas and hummus with a bean-paste-filled sticky bun (lunch set, 1480 yen) eaten in a minimalist dining room with a tiger mural on the wall.

2pm | Get up close to art

Tokyo has plenty of large museums in the Ueno neighbourhood, as well as the Mori Art Museum and National Art Centre in Roppongi, another district. But Aoyama hosts two jewel boxes of its own: the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art (also called the Watari-um) and the Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum.

The Watari-um, with three gallery floors in a narrow concrete building, mounts solo contemporary exhibitions from artists like Izumi Kato, the Japanese painter and sculptor, and retrospectives like that of Nam June Paik, the video art pioneer (admission 1200 yen for adults). At the Okamoto museum, wallow in the large and vibrant abstract paintings or stacked head sculptures by the Japanese artist for whom the gallery is named.

You can also take a peek into his studio, where stacks of canvases line floor-to-ceiling shelves. Step into a lush tropical front garden looming with sculptures that look like drawings from a children's book (admission 650 yen).

3.30pm | Shop for Kyoto style

Stop at the Aoyama branch of Sou Sou, a Kyoto-based designer of contemporary textiles with a classical flair. Choose from a selection of kimono-inspired jackets, loose-fitting dresses and blouses, or baggy trousers styled like traditional hakama. Shoes and tabi-socks, which are both split-toed, come in a wild array of colours and prints. The tenugui, or hand towels, are beautiful enough to display as wall hangings, and you can buy bamboo hangers designed for that purpose.

6.30pm | Splurge on sushi

With the yen weaker, this is your best chance to nab an omakase sushi meal that won't dent your credit card bill as much as in previous years. Sushiya-Ono in Ebisu is in the basement of an unassuming building at the end of a residential block.

With just seven seats at a floodlit counter, the main chef and owner Junpei Ono doles out one or two delicate pieces at a time. All the fish is bought fresh at the market that morning. Along with the traditional tuna and flounder sushi, come grilled squid legs or crab "mille-feuille" (21,600 yen per person for omakase, reservations required).

Or, for a quick budget-minded meal closer to the station in Ebisu, buy a vending machine ticket and sit at the counter for a bowl of ramen in a chicken-based soup at Ramen Kamuro (about 1000 yen per bowl).

9pm | Enjoy drinks and music

Bar Martha in Ebisu is notorious for its owner's strict policy of banning chatter among guests. The spacious bar, housing some 1000 vinyl records, is intended for serious music listeners and drinkers only. But on a recent evening, the owner, who has been known to shush customers, was not at the turntable spinning records.

In the more lax atmosphere, there was plenty of audible conversation as tunes from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Clash segued into Miles Davis and the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Photos are prohibited; smoking is permitted. Shelves are stacked with bottles of whiskey and other liquors, and drinks are poured into glasses with large blocks or globes of ice (cover charge 900 yen, drinks start at 800 yen).

10 am. | Brunch near the bridge

The Sumida River roughly demarcates the eastern and western parts of Tokyo. The best place to cross it on foot is the Kiyosu Bashi, a robin's-egg-blue suspension bridge that connects the Koto and Chuo wards. In a reminder that Tokyo has long been influenced by Western culture, this bridge, completed in 1928, was modelled after one over the Rhine River in Cologne, Germany.

Continue the European mood at Iki Roastery & Eatery, a large cafe on the riverbank set in an open industrial space with vaulted wood ceilings. Try a simple brunch of salmon quiche (800 yen) and a chocolate croissant (380 yen) in the shape of a nautilus shell. Exit the restaurant and zag to the left to a flight of stairs that leads to a secret garden dedicated to Matsuo Basho, the most famous Japanese haiku master of the Edo era.

11am | Meet the turtles

Although Tokyo has much less public green space per capita than London, New York or Paris, its beautifully groomed gardens are a marvel and a balm. Take a walk along the stone paths of Kiyosumi Gardens (150 yen admission for adults), where turtles crowd rocky outcroppings and ducks and carp swim in the large pond that dominates the park.

In spring, cherry and plum trees explode with blossoms, and profusions of irises overflow a long, wide flower bed. Basho makes an appearance here as well, on a large rock inscribed with one of his most well-known haiku: "Old pond — frogs jumped in — sound of water."

12.30pm | Pick up kitchenware

Jump on the Oedo line, switch to the Ginza line at Ueno-okachimachi station and head for Kappa Bashi, the kitchenware district that spans several blocks in eastern Tokyo and serves as the stockroom to the restaurant industry.

It's a bonanza of traditional Japanese ceramics, wooden cutting boards and last-a-lifetime knives. Try Dengama for ceramic rice bowls, serving platters, teapots and sake cups; Majimaya for confectionary tools; Fu-Wa-Ri for playful animal designs and children's tableware; and Ganso Shokuhin Sample Showroom for plastic model food.

Beyond kitchenware, buy a hat at Hareto or sturdy canvas messenger bags and backpacks at Inujirushi Kaban.

KEY STOPS

Todoroki Ravine Park: Tokyo's only natural valley, is a place to clear your head and experience beautiful bamboo groves up close without leaving the city.

Gotokuji Temple: This is a peaceful Buddhist temple surrounded by thousands of maneki-neko, the waving cat figures that are one of Japan's most popular symbols of good luck.

Kappa Bashi: Offers a long street of kitchenware shops. Save room in your suitcase for ceramic rice bowls, sake cups, chopsticks and knives.

WHERE TO EAT

Oshio Tempura and Wine Bar: Serves unorthodox tempura, with wine pairings, in an old train viaduct.

Unafuji: A Tokyo outpost of a Nagoya restaurant that specialises in charcoal-grilled eel.

No. A mellow bar with a Japanese-Nordic vibe serving specialised cocktails on the third floor of an apartment building.

Toraya-An Stand: A cafe serving sweet bean paste buns and light salads in the trendy Aoyama neighbourhood.

Sushiya-Ono: The place for a blowout omakase sushi meal with exquisitely cut fresh fish served by the chef at a seven-seat counter.

Bar Martha: The place to listen to vintage vinyl while you drink Japanese whiskey or cocktails. Warning: You could get shushed for talking.

Roastery & Eatery: Serves quiche, pastries and espresso drinks in an industrial space on the banks of the Sumida River.

WHERE TO STAY

Aoyama Grand Hotel: Located on a busy intersection in Kita-Aoyama, an area near Tokyo's high-end Omotesando district, has elegant rooms furnished in midcentury-modern style. Doubles start from about 47,200 yen a night, or about NZ$556.

Trunk Hotel: A boutique hotel in Jingumae, is as popular with locals for its bar and restaurant as it is with out-of-town travellers looking for minimalist rooms in a trendy neighbourhood. Double rooms start from about 44,300 yen a night.

All Day Place Hotel: On a quiet corner near a main thoroughfare in bustling Shibuya, with a pizza joint and the About Life Coffee Brewers on the ground floor; smooth lattes and outdoor seating make for a good place to rest before plunging back into the city. Doubles start from about 21,400 yen.

Short-term rentals: Search in the Aoyama, Shibuya, Shinjuku and Yoyogi areas which are centrally located and near good transport connections.

GETTING THERE: Fly direct from Auckland to Tokyo's Narita International Airport with Air NZ.

DETAILS: japan.travel/en/au

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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