Tokyo: Capital of Asia

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The Independent Travel

A tiny French bistro on a cobbled backstreet rings with the clinks of wine glasses . A nightclub heaves with caipirinha-fuelled Brazilian dance beats. A tearoom serves English scones and Earl Grey tea in bone china. Scratch the surface of Japan's capital and a world of international influences appear one reason why it is the undisputed capital of Asia.

Tokyo is prone to stereotyping. Its name conjures expectations of a sprawling Blade Runner-style landscape buzzing with neon lights, shiny skyscrapers and packed trains. Certainly, the city excels at showcasing culture that is unique to Japan, from the hi-tech haven of Akihabara to the lantern-lit streets of Asakusa.

But there is more to Tokyo than sushi, sake, sumo and skyscrapers. Only 1 per cent of the country's population is non-Japanese, but the citizens appear to embrace an interest in all things cosmopolitan. From Indian restaurants and American musicals to French art exhibitions and Italian design stores, the city is a den of global flavours. This internationalisation has been fuelled by Japan's economy, the world's second largest after the US, attracting foreign corporations and their employees.

But it is in terms of food that Tokyo's star shines brightest. From Gordon Ramsay to Alain Ducasse, a raft of international celebrity chefs have opened high-profile restaurants in Tokyo in recent years. The first Michelin guide to Tokyo, published last month, gave it more stars than London, Paris and New York.

Shopping is another area in which Tokyo excels. Visiting Japanophiles can spend all their time enjoying distinctly Japanese shopping experiences. But the city is also home to international high street stores, and has become a playground for the luxury fashion market. International designers are flocking in to open flagship stores built by top architects. A stroll down Omotesando, past the European and US fashion stores is like browsing around an open air architecture museum. There is Tod's store, a tree-motif inspired Toyo Ito creation, a Louis Vuitton building designed by Jun Aoki, and Tadao Ando's Omotesando Hills shopping centre. Up the road is the bubble glass Prada store designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the architects behind Tate Modern. The upmarket shopping district Ginza is home to flagship stores for Herms, Chanel, Versace and Gucci; last month, Giorgio Armani, surrounded by a celebrity coterie, opened the Armani/Ginza Tower.

In terms of entertainment, Tokyo is also far from mono-ethnic. Sumo matches and kabuki performances may be a highlight of any visit to Tokyo, but the city also has an appetite for international plays, musicals, films and art exhibitions. Yet the ultimate evidence of Tokyo's cosmopolitan status may lie in the long-running presence of the most un-Japanese of venues: Disney Resort, which in April kicks off a year of celebrations to mark its 25th birthday.

Tokyo has the world's biggest population, Asia's busiest airports and longest underground