Rough Guide: The neon city with a mountain on its doorstep

Jan Dodd, co-author of the 'Rough Guide to Tokyo', recommends fish for breakfast in Japan's capital
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The Independent Travel
Best view

Winter is the best time to catch Mount Fuji flaunting herself on Tokyo's southern horizon. It's sometimes possible to see the sacred mountain from the plane, but otherwise there are plenty of observation decks among the recent rash of high-rises. Last September, I arrived in Tokyo after dark and checked into an 18th-floor hostel in the thick of the city. The night view, a carpet of neon threaded with the pulsing red-and-white expressways, was stunning, but morning revealed an even more magical sight. I woke to find Fuji-san's graceful, snow-capped cone floating above the haze, seemingly close enough to touch in the cold, dry air.

Best modern architecture

A legacy of the eighties' Bubble Years, Tokyo is spattered with a fine array of adventurous modern architecture. The best architects have apparently been given almost free reign to vent their imaginations on the cityscape. The most visible of these flights of fantasy is Tange Kenzo's post-modern Tokyo Metropolitan government building in Shinjuku. It is too monumental for some tastes, and there is a touch of Gotham City about its sweeping, colonnaded plaza and its twin towers, cross-hatched with a dense network of glass and granite. My current favourite is Raphael Vinoly's Tokyo International Forum, which opened in 1997 just south of Tokyo station. This is now the city's premier art and convention centre. The facilities are superb, but what really makes the building stand out is its soaring atrium sheathed in 2,600 sheets of "earthquake-resistant" glass. The glass roof, 60 metres above, is supported by a cradle of curved, steel girders, like the rib-cage of a great, white whale.

Best indie fashion

Tokyo designers are well known on the catwalks of the world. Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo (of Comme des Garcons) were among the leaders of the pack, but young, independent designers are beginning to make their mark. Their funky boutiques, as much art events as clothes shops, are concentrated in the swanky southern districts of Harajuku and Aoyama. Here, Parisian- style pavement cafes provide the perfect spots for watching the passing fashion parade. Or take a dive into the back streets to find the latest in recycled grunge gear and ultra-cool teenage tat.

Best temple-town

Not all of Tokyo is so relentlessly modern. One of the best places to capture the flavour of the old city is in northerly Asakusa. For centuries, pilgrims have come here to worship at Senso-ji, the city's foremost Buddhist temple. Even today the holiday atmosphere is apparent the moment you duck under the giant, red-paper lantern of Kaminari-mon (Thunder Gate) which marks the entrance to the sacred compound. To either side, stalls selling gaudy souvenirs, traditional dolls, delicate hand-painted fans and fragrant piles of freshly roasted rice-crackers fight for your attention, while Senso-ji's magnificent, sweeping roofs beckon in the distance. The crowd pauses beside a gigantic bronze cauldron immediately in front of the temple as everyone wafts incense smoke "the breath of the gods" over themselves. Then it is up the steps to throw a handful of coins clattering into the wooden coffers.

Best sushi

At about the same time as Senso-ji's monks are holding their crack-of- dawn prayer service, over on Tokyo Bay some two million kilos of seafood, much of it still alive, are being unloaded at Tsukiji wholesale market. The bounty of the world's oceans is on display: eels, squid, sea urchins, great hairy crabs and fish of every conceivable shape, size and colour. But the real show-stoppers are the frozen, fat-bellied tuna lined up like so many overweight torpedoes. A good-size specimen costs as much as a new car, but tuna is also available in more affordable quantities at the foodstalls which cram the outer market. A mouthwatering breakfast of unbeatably fresh fishy morsels, laced with fiery wasabi paste, costs under a fiver.

Best eavesdropping spot

As a nation of islanders, it is perhaps not surprising that the Japanese go in for aquariums. There are several in the Tokyo area, but it doesn't really matter which you go to. The important thing is to tuck in behind locals and keep your ears open. As you proceed round the tanks of darting, multi-coloured fish, listen for appreciative exclamations of "Oishii", not "Oh, how beautiful", but "Mm, how delicious".

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Getting there

Several airlines operate daily direct flights from London to Tokyo, including Virgin Atlantic (tel: 01293 747747) and British Airways (tel: 0345 222111). Trailfinders (tel: 0171-938 3366) offers its cheapest fare on Sabena via Brussels for pounds 455, including tax, in January and February.

What to experience

The depreciation of the yen means Tokyo is no longer an outrageously expensive destination. Prices are now on a par with London. All the places mentioned are linked by Tokyo's marvellously efficient network of trains and subways. There is plenty of information in English, the trains are squeaky clean, and run from 5.30am to midnight. The only downside is rush- hour - trains are packed from 7.30am to 9am and 5.30pm to 7.30pm.

Further information

The Japanese National Tourist Organisation (tel: 0171-734 9638).

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