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Why go now?
To glimpse the future – as well as a fascinating past and present – in one of the world’s most exciting cities. After a hot summer, Tokyo is cooling off, with autumn offering an ideal climate for exploring the street life, parkland and culture on offer.
All international flights from Heathrow currently serve Narita airport, 40 miles north-east of the capital. The pick of the bunch of onward rail and bus options is the new Keisei Skyliner – departing two or three times an hour and taking around 40 minutes to reach Nippori station (1) and a few more minutes to Ueno station (2). The one-way fare is Y2,400 (£18.50). Slower trains cost about half as much.
Get your bearings
Considering its size, Tokyo is easy to get to grips with. The areas of interest are clustered around key points, which themselves are served by the marvellous Yamanote Line – like London’s Circle Line, except it’s above ground, cheap, and reliable, with trains every three or four minutes. Looking at the city as a clock face, Tokyo station (3) is at three o’clock, with the busy commercial area around Ginza station (4) at four. Shibuya (5), another hub, is at eight, and Shinjuku (6) – a highrise city-within-a-city – at 10. Metro fares are typically Y150 (£1.15). The best way to use the system is with a Pasmo pre-paid card, which you can buy at Metro stations. Pay Y3,000 (£23) for a card, and you can breeze through the barriers. At the end of your stay, the balance is refunded (less a nominal deposit). For more information, Tokyo Tourism Info is available on 00 81 3 5321 3077 or at tourism.metro.tokyo.jp.
Excellent deals abound for city-centre beds, and free Wi-Fi access is standard. I paid Y9,500 (£73) for a spacious room, including breakfast, at the Hotel Villa Fontaine Roppongi Annex (7) (00 81 3 3560 5550; www.bit.ly/9GQjWl), next to Roppongi 1-chome station, and a seven-minute walk from Roppongi station (8). If you are keen to splash out, Park Hyatt Tokyo (9) near Shinjuku (00 81 3 5322 1234; tokyo.park.hyatt.com) is the place to do it. The reception desk is on the 41st floor, every room has spectacular views, and it featured in the film Lost in Translation. A Park Deluxe Twin booked online costs Y44,250 (£340) without breakfast. Tokyo has plenty of budget options, such as the stylish K’s House Tokyo Oasis, a backpacker hostel (00 81 3 3844 4447; kshouse.jp) near Asakusa station (10). A bed in a dorm for five costs Y2,900 (£22).
Take a hike
Almost any district of Tokyo rewards closer exploration, but perhaps the most accessible and villagey area is Yanaka, immediately east of Nippori station (1). Within a couple of minutes of leaving the west side of the station, you find yourself in one of the city’s biggest graveyards, Yanaka Cemetery, Follow the yellow arrows on the pavement to find the tomb of Yoshinobu, the 15th and last Shogun (military ruler of Japan). From here thread through quiet lanes to Yanaka Ginza (11), a shopping street that has evidence of pre-war Tokyo together with a relaxed, almost South-east Asian air.
Lunch on the run
In the middle of Yanaka Ginza (11), Kamiya Udon is typical of the tiny, family-run restaurants serving up udon (thick noodles) in a range of soups. Expect to pay around Y500 (£3.80) for all you can slurp, complete with free green tea.
Yanaka Ginza (11) is a good location for local crafts, but most visitors will be after something more shiny and new – and therefore aim for Akihabara “electric town”. Yodobashi Camera (12), just northeast of Akihabara station, opens 9.30am-10pm with nine floors of photographic gear, computers and 3D televisions. Helpful English-speaking staff (the people wearing armbands reading “English”) will advise on the compatibility of electronic gear, and arrange a refund of sales tax on larger purchases.
Roppongi Hills – accessed via exit 3 of Roppongi station (8) – may sound like a rural retreat, but in fact the district is full of skyscrapers and art galleries, such as the National Art Center (00 81 3 5777 8600; nact.jp) and the Suntory Museum of Art (00 81 3 3479 8600; http://www.suntory.com/culture-sports/sma/). The Mori Art Museum, on the 53rd floor of the Mori Tower (00 81 3 5777 8600; mori.art.museum), puts the “high” in highbrow. The entrepreneur Mori Minoru has bankrolled a startling space that is occupied by challenging temporary exhibitions. It opens 10am-10pm daily (Tuesdays to 5pm), admission Y1,500 (£11.50).
Take a view
After enjoying the installations, head for the top floor of the Mori Tower to view the city as a work of art from Japan’s highest open-air viewing platform. The Sky Deck is almost 900ft above sea level, with a superb 360-degree panorama. City View, the glassed-in viewing area, opens 10am-11pm daily (to 1am at weekends), Y1,500 (£11.50); admission to the Sky Deck (open only when weather permits) is an extra Y300 (£2.30).
Aim for Shinjuku station (6). Explore the Futaba Street pedestrian area, full of cafés and bars, or aim just beside the railway tracks north-west of the station. Omoide Yokocho is a network of narrow alleys whose name translates as “memory lane”. While some of the bars here are touristy, many are still the gritty preserves of locals seeking an antidote to more sanitised options.
Dining with the locals
Cross town to Ginza station (4), and take exit number A2 for Andy’s Shin Hinomoto – an izakaya, or pub-restaurant, which occupies an arch beneath the Yamanote Line tracks. Unusually for these cheap-and-cheerful drinking-and-dining venues, with long, communal tables, this one is run by Andy Lunt, from Leicester. Book in advance (00 81 3 3214 8021) and you can expect the freshest seafood, bought that morning from Tsukiji fish market (the busiest in the world). Tuna, salmon and crab are served with panache and cold beer, for a very reasonable price – perhaps Y4,000 (£31) for a nutritious, delicious spread.
Sunday morning: go to a shrine
A trip to the Meiji Shrine (13) comes with plenty of rewards besides the spiritual kind. You reach it from Harajuku station (14), which is itself a hub for a certain alternative vibe. You approach the shrine through Yoyogi Park, whose 100,000 trees were paid for by public subscription. The Shinto shrine dates from 1958, replacing one destroyed towards the end of the Second World War. Before you approach it, cleanse yourself (follow the example of locals) before walking up the steps, throwing a coin, clapping twice and bowing. This beautiful place of contemplation opens every day between sunrise and sunset.
Out to brunch
You are close to Shibuya station (5); aim for the Hachiko (west) exit. You could grab a coffee at Starbucks, whose first floor provides the perfect grandstand for the complex choreography of crossing this very busy junction; or bear left and head up the hill to Tenka Zushi (00 81 3 3407 0818; tenkazushi.co.jp), where cut-price sushi is on offer from 11am each day; a flat Y120 (£0.90) buys you a freshly prepared dish of two helpings of rice topped with raw fish, with unlimited green tea supplied free.
Take a ride
Half of Tokyo is built upon reclaimed land, and the scale of the task becomes apparent with a cruise on the Sumida river. You can make the voyage on the closest approximation to a Thunderbirds creation in public service. Tokyo Cruise ( suijobus.co.jp) has a dozen vessels sailing from the dock near Toyosu station (15); the one you want is the futuristic Himiko boat. The 40-minute journey to Asakusa (10) costs Y1,060 (£8) – great value for a trip on a modern masterpiece.
A walk in the park
Part of the Emperor’s garden is open to visitors any day except Monday and Friday, from 9am to 4.30pm (from November to February, to 4pm). The easiest access to the Imperial Palace East Gardens is at the Ote-mon gate (16). Admission is free, but you must collect a token when you enter and hand it in when you leave. The traditional Ninomaru Grove looks as though it is lifted straight from a picture book; you can also see the ruins of Edo Castle, power base for Japan for centuries, and gain some unexpected views from a garden at the heart of the city.
The icing on the cake
A proper Japanese tea ceremony takes several hours, but for a quick "taster", take the Metro to Shiodome station and aim for the tea house inside the beautiful Hama Rikyu Garden. The tea house has been built over the water, and now attracts mainly tourists. A modest Y500 (£3.80) buys an exquisite cup of tea and a cake, served in serene surroundings.
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