Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011


Tokyo is a marvelous mix of modern living and old-fashioned manners, slick high-tech gadgets and cutesy cartoon mascots. It's terribly crowded, yet can be strangely quiet. It's home to the understated, and the wacky, and you often find them right next to each other on the sidewalk. That's the beauty of this not-so-pretty city — that, and the fabulous food and unparalleled mass transit system. There are shrines and stone lanterns and other traces of old Japan scattered among the skyscrapers, swanky shopping malls and hole-in-the-wall noodle shops. The trick is to sample it all, to visit the serene garden and the massive office tower with a sky deck. Here's how to see the loveliest — and liveliest — sides of Tokyo in in a day or two.

1. Tsukiji Fish Market

The world's largest, busiest fish market has long been a favorite destination for jet-lagged tourists with predawn hours to fill. But the main reason for going at 5 a.m. is to catch the live tuna auctions. Before you go, however, be sure to check this website to see if public access is permitted that day. If so, it will be on a first-come, first-serve basis, and limited to 120 people, admitted in two shifts of 60. You can register starting at 4:30 a.m. at the fish information center inside the Kachidoki Gate off Harumi Street. If you prefer to do your exploring at a more reasonable hour, keep in mind that by 9 a.m., business will have already started to wind down. You'll still see fishmongers filleting the day's catch, but you won't have to dodge so many trucks and trolleys.

It's been said that no visit to Tsukiji is complete without a sushi breakfast. There are plenty of sushi counters here, but to find best ones, you need to wend your way to the restaurant area near the wholesale fruit and vegetable market, just inside the main gate off Shin-ohashi Street. To get there, walk in from the gate, with the fruit and vegetable market on your right, pass the off-limits loading zone (with its stacks of polystyrene boxes) and turn left at the main road. Walk three short blocks, then turn left again down a small side street. Sushi Dai is the second shop on your right. Look for the faded green doorway curtains and very long line out front. Daiwa-Zushi, a bit farther down on the same side of the street (curtains are red), is just as good. Expect to pay between 300 and 800 yen per generously cut, amazingly fresh piece. Order the chu toro (fatty tuna). To help get your bearings, click on this map.

If the wholesale market smells too fishy for you, a less pungent alternative is Tsukiji's outer market, a warren of narrow streets packed with stalls selling fresh seafood and other specialty items, such as real wasabi. You can buy bowls and sashimi knives there too. Right in the thick of it is the reliably superb Sushizanmai's honten (main branch), open 24 hours.

Take the Oedo line to Tsukiji-Shijo station, exit A1. You can also take the Hibiya line of the Tokyo Metro to Tsukiji station.

2. Sumo

Forget kabuki; sumo is better theater. If you happen to be in Tokyo during one of the three grand tournaments — 15-day events in January, May and September — you can catch some of the action at Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo's National Sumo Hall. Bouts, scheduled throughout the day, usually last for just a few intense seconds (bodies lock, twist, ripple, drop) with a lot of posturing (stretching, stomping, salt-tossing) in between. Try to be inside the arena at the start of a new round, when the rikishi parade into the arena wearing ceremonial aprons over their loincloths, and sometimes a former champion demonstrates some classic moves. Note: The morning and midday contests are not usually well attended, so the hall will be quieter, the competition less stimulating, but tickets are easier to come by. Book ahead if you want to go on a Friday or Saturday evening, when the place is packed with cheering spectators who like to throw their seat cushions after a particularly heated match.

If it's not tournament season, try to catch an early-morning training session at a beya, or sumo stable. Some are more foreigner-friendly than others; recent scandals (including charges of bout-fixing) have put many on the defensive. Have a Japanese speaker call the afternoon on the day before you want to go, to make sure the team is not on tour and that visitors are permitted. You might ask the staff at your hotel if they have an in with one of the teams. Sessions might start as early as 6 a.m. and are usually over by 8 or 9 a.m. Inside the stable, keep quiet and out of the way; you may have to sit on the floor, legs crossed. And don't take flash pictures. You might be expected to make a small donation.

Click here for a complete list of active stables; many are in Ryogoku, a few minutes by train from Akihabara on the JR Sobu Chuo line.

General admission tickets for Ryogoku Kokugikan are sold as same-day seats on tournament days: $20 for adults, $2 for children ages 4 to 15 (kids under 4 get in free); tickets are cash only. The box office opens at 8 a.m., and competition begins at 9 a.m. and lasts into the evening. Click here for the full tournament schedule. Take the JR Yamanote line to Akihabara and transfer to the Sobu line for Ryogoku station; the stadium is next door, and Kokonoe-beya is a 5-minute taxi ride from there. The Toei Oedo line also stops at Ryogoku station.

3. Meiji Shrine

Dedicated to the late 19th-century emperor who opened Japan to the West, Tokyo's most famous Shinto shrine is wonderfully serene and austere, not colorful or flashy like other Asian places of worship, and is less of a tourist trap than Senso-ji, the big Buddhist temple across town in Asakusa. The 40-foot-high (12-meter) torii gate at the entrance to the 200-acre park is made of 1,500-year-old cypress, and there's a second one like it closer to the shrine itself. Stop at the cleansing station where you can dip into a communal water tank and purify your hands and mouth before offering up a prayer. You can write wishes on little pieces of paper and tie them onto the prayer wall, or do as the locals do — toss some yen into the offering box (it's near the enormous taiko drum), bow your head twice, clap twice, and bow once more.

On Sunday mornings you are likely to see a traditional wedding procession (or two) through the courtyard — the bride in a white kimono and hood and the groom in his formal black robe, walking together under a big red parasol, with Shinto priests leading the way and the rest of the wedding party trailing behind. Shrines, big or small, can get interesting on festival days. Check the calendar to see what's happening.

Meiji-jingu is open sunrise to sunset. Admission is free. Take the JR Yamanote line to Harajuku station.

4. Yoyogi Park

Yoyogi Park in Shibuya-ku is the perfect comic relief after a low-key shrine stop. With living space so tight in this city, parks are the places for club meetings and practice sessions and even play rehearsals, and Yoyogi draws all sorts of talent, from horn players to hip-hop dancers to rockabilly gangs, complete with poodle skirts and Elvis-inspired pompadours, who usually gather by the park's east side entrance on Sundays to jam to American pop music from the '50s. Somehow this scene is more satisfying than the Gothic Lolitas and Cosplay kids, costumed fans of Japanese manga and anime characters hanging out on the Harajuku bridge, but I always take my friends to see them too.

Yoyogi Park has a mellower side that's also worth exploring — areas to the north and west, past the fountain pond and central field. There's a cycling center (81-(0)3-3465-6855) northwest of the central field that rents bikes, including tandems, for just a few hundred yen (you're not supposed to go off the path, which is long and lovely) and a snack hut with tables that sells ice cream and beer. There is also a little dog run, so you're bound to see at least a few terriers decked out in rhinestones and denim or chihuahuas dressed like cheerleaders.

Yoyogi Park is open from dawn to dusk. Admission is free. Take the JR Yamanote line to Harajuku, Omotesando exit, or the Chiyoda line to Yoyogi-koen, exit 4.

5. Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

If Yoyogi Park is the most entertaining green space in Tokyo, the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is the most beautiful. Ask for a map in English ("Ay-go mappoo?") as you walk in so you can be sure to hit all the major gardens: English Landscape, French Formal, Japanese Traditional (with teahouse) and the curiously named Mother and Child Forest (Haha to Ko no Mori). There's also a lovely Taiwan Pavilion; go inside and look out the second-story windows.

In late March and early April, cherry blossom season, the central lawn areas are particularly stunning. Consider bringing a picnic lunch. You can buy a variety of take-away items at the gourmet food hall in the basement level of Takashimaya department store, just south of the Shinjuku Station (east of the JR line tracks) and about 500 meters west of the garden's Shinjuku gate entrance. If you get the itch to shop, there's also a massive Tokyu Hands department store in the same mega-mall complex (called Times Square), selling everything from gold body stockings to Japanese tea sets and stationery. Next door is a behemoth Kinokuniya bookstore. The foreign books floor is a good place to find Japanese manga that has been translated into English; some of these are even suitable for kids.

My second favorite garden in Tokyo is Hama-rikyu (admission: $3), which was a feudal lord's retreat during the Edo period. There's an old-style teahouse on a tidal pond, a 300-year-old pine, a grove of plum trees and a peony field. The duck hunting grounds were once used by the Tokugawa shoguns. (The cluster of Shiodome skyscrapers just beyond makes a startling backdrop.) Located at the mouth of the Sumida River, Hama-rikyu is also a stop on a passenger ferry line that you can take up to Asakusa or out to Odaiba.

Shinjuku Gyoen is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and closed Tuesday in weeks in which Monday is a national holiday. Admission is about $2 for adults, less for students and children. Take the JR Yamanote line to Shinjuku, south exit; walk east down Koshu Kaido, a main thoroughfare. Or take the Toei Shinjuku line to Shinjuku-Sanchome.

For Takashimaya or Tokyu Hands, the entrance is across from Shinjuku Southern Terrace — after Krispy Kreme, turn left and take the bridge over the train tracks.

For Hama-rikyu, take the Toei Oedo line to Shiodome station. You can also take the JR Yamanote line or either the Ginza or Asakusa Metro line to Shimbashi, but you're looking at a 12-minute walk from there.

6. City Views

There's a lot going on at and around the popular Roppongi Hills complex — a garden, a cinema, loads of shops, cafés and restaurants — but if you stay focused, you can be in and out in an hour and hit all the highlights. Start at Louise Bourgeois's giant spider sculpture, Maman, then move on to the Mori Tower for the 52nd-floor observation deck called Tokyo City View. The $15 ticket includes admission to the Mori Art Museum, where exhibits range from the intriguingly modern to the truly bizarre (one recent show had my kids running for the door). For an extra $3, you can go up to the 54th floor Sky Deck, which runs the perimeter of the rooftop heliport. There's a bilingual photographer on hand who will take your picture, Tokyo Tower behind you, with his nice camera. Purchasing the $15 print, which will be waiting for you downstairs, is entirely optional.

If you decide to stick around for lunch, I recommend sushi at Pintokona. Take the escalators, which are near the spider sculpture, down two flights (follow signs for the Tokyo Metro's Hibiya station). The restaurant is kaiten-style, so you simply help yourself to the artfully arranged dishes as they roll by on a conveyor belt, or use the picture menu to let the chef know what you want. At the end of the meal, a member of the wait staff will wave a scanner at your stack of plates to tally the bill; prices are stored on a chip embedded in each plate, and generally range from $2 to $7, although some cost more.

Alternatively, you can see the skyline for free from the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices building (TMGO), which boasts two towers and two observation decks on the 45th floor. The TMGO stands at the west end of the Shinjuku skyscraper district near the Washington hotel, which, incidentally, is a good spot for dinner — one of the hotel restaurants is Zauo Fishing Boat Café, where you can catch the fish that ultimately ends up on your plate (you use a net to scoop a live one out of the big tank). The Park Hyatt Tokyo, the hotel featured in the movie Lost in Translation, is also nearby, and the money you save on the free view at TMGO might just cover two drinks at the Hyatt's swanky New York Bar.

If you want the after-dark view — you'll get the pretty lights, but you won't see the mountains — check the schedules: the TMGO towers are open late, until 11 p.m., only four nights a month (the North tower on the first and third Tuesday, and the South tower, the second and fourth Monday). Roppongi's observation deck is open until 1 a.m. (last entry at midnight) every night.

Regular adult admission to the Mori Tower observation deck is $15 ($10 for students, $5 for children). It includes entry to the Mori Art Museum, which is open daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. (Tuesday until 5 p.m.), and usually closes for two weeks between shows. If that is the case, the combo ticket will include admission to the separate Mori Arts Center Gallery, which normally costs an extra $5. To get to Roppongi Hills, take the Hibiya or Toei Oedo line to Roppongi station. Click here for directions.

The TMGO towers' regular hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; to get there or to the Park Hyatt hotel, take the Toei Oedo line to Tochomae, the Toei Shinjuku line to Shinjuku, or the JR Yamanote line to Shinjuku, and exit west.

7. Shibuya Crossing

It would be a shame to come to Tokyo and not take a walk across the famous intersection outside Shibuya Station. On sunny afternoons or clear evenings, the surrounding area is packed with shoppers, students, young couples and commuters. When the lights turn red at this busy junction, they all turn red at the same time in every direction. Traffic stops completely and pedestrians surge into the intersection from all sides, like marbles spilling out of a box. You can observe this moment of organized chaos from the second-story window of the Starbucks in the Tsutaya building on the crossing's north side.

After experiencing the "scramble," follow the trendy teens into Shibuya 109, a big shiny mall with more than 100 boutiques, for a look at the latest in disposable fashion. Or duck back into Shibuya Station and down to the bustling Tokyu Food Show for an elegant array of gourmet eats and an education in local tastes: grilled eel, fried pork, tiny fish salad, octopus on a stick, seafood-and-rice seaweed wraps and much more. The prepared dishes and grocery items are all sold from immaculate counters amid a chorus of "Irashaimasen!" ("Welcome!"). There are aisles full of beautifully packaged treats — rice crackers, mochi cakes, jellied confections — but the pickle counter is my favorite.

Take the JR Yamanote line to Shibuya station, Hachiko exit.

8. Dinner and Drinks in Ebisu

You can easily spend a fortune on meals in this city, but it's more fun to rub elbows with salarymen at a standing bar or drink in some local color on the cheap at a small izakaya. Ebisu, a trendy neighborhood in Shibuya-ku, is full of these establishments, which specialize in grilled meat and vegetables, sashimi and other casual fare, cooked in tiny kitchens and served on petite plates. Almost by definition, they also have extensive drink menus, and are easy to spot by the doorway curtains (called noren,) and chalkboard menus propped up out front. You won't have to venture far from the train station to find side-street blocks full of them, and the neighborhood is easily accessible — just one stop away from Shibuya on the JR Yamanote line, and two stops from Roppongi on the Tokyo Metro's Hibiya line.

For a really old-school Japanese pub experience, try Saiki, a two-story joint with a sparsely furnished wooden interior and lived-in feel. The place seats less than two dozen on the first floor, and even fewer in the tatami room upstairs, so don't try to go with a large party of gaijin in tow unless you pre-book the 2nd floor. There's no English menu so you'll just have to wing it (you might study the food section of your phrasebook beforehand). The sashimi plate is a winner; also try the raw veggies with red miso dip. The gyu miso is a fragrant stew of devil's tongue (a.k.a. elephant yam) and tripe; the tempura features a deep-fried ginger root — a revelation. To find Saiki, leave the Ebisu JR station through the west exit (by the escalator and police box, or koban) and cross Komazawa-dori, the main road. Head down the narrow street in front of you. Or if you're using the Metro, take exit 2, and at the top of the station steps, make a U-turn, then your first right. You'll be walking north and should see green signs on utility poles announcing that you are in "1-7" (Chome No. 1, Block No. 7 of Ebisu-nishi, or West Ebisu). Saiki's building number is 12, more than a half a block down on the right. The front door slides open.

There's another street packed with izakaya off Komazawa-dori that starts opposite the SMBC bank building. The road is anchored on one corner by a KFC, with its life-size statue of Colonel Sanders (sometimes dressed as Santa Claus, or in samurai costume) greeting passersby out front, and a Choco-Cro café on the other. The first door on the right, just past the chocolate croissants, leads downstairs and into the terrific Momotaro (open nightly from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m.). Look for the sign with the Japanese Hiragana script and the English words "sumibi yakitori 'n wine." Here you can order individual items — prices are per stick — or if you're feeling adventurous, order the set menu, a generous series of courses priced around $40 that includes the full range of edible chicken parts, from gizzards to hearts to delectably crispy skin.

Buri (open nightly from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.), a spiffy tachinomiya known for its sake menu, is a couple blocks farther down that same road on the left, and it too serves tasty bits — try the asparagus wrapped in pork — for $2 to $3 a skewer. At the far end of this lane, before you reach the next main road, is Honoji; the signs are all in Japanese, so look for the rather brightly lit room with food and drink prices tacked up on the walls (there's a big picture window in front that gives you a glimpse inside). There's no English menu here, but don't worry; just say to your server, "Osusume" (oh-soo-soo-may), which basically means, "Whatever you recommend." One more phrase to learn: "Nama biru, onegaishimasu" (nah-mah bee-roo — roll the "r" — oh-neh-guy-shee-mah-soo), which means, "Draft beer, please." Honoji is open daily for dinner (5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.), and every day except Sundays and holidays for lunch (11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.).

Japanese bar food isn't the only reason to head to Ebisu for dinner. On the other side of the train station you'll find a two-story Toraji Korean diner, where you can grill your own choice cuts of beef. Take Komazawa dori heading north toward Meiji dori; at the motorcycle parking lot, right before the bridge that spans the canal, turn right and you'll see the big red chili pepper sign straight ahead. Open daily for dinner (5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., on Sundays until midnight) and for lunch from 11:30 am to 2:30pm, Monday to Friday. Book in advance if you want a private Japanese-style room upstairs, where your shoes have to come off and you sit on cushions, but there's enough space under the table for you to dangle your legs.

Or how about sampling Chinese noodles, Japanese-style? Tonkatsu ramen is a regional specialty from Kyushu, and nobody does it better than the cooks at Ippudo. Unlike soy and miso-based ramen dishes, the broth is creamy with pork fat and is absolutely delicious. Be sure to throw in some spicy bean sprouts or pickled ginger. There's also fresh garlic — whole cloves of it, and a press is provided. Extra noodles only cost a couple of bucks more. A trip to Ippudo will take you across the Ebisu border and into Hiroo, one block east from the Shibuyabashi intersection, where Komazawa dori meets Meiji dori. Look for the pedestrian bridge. You will cross Meiji-dori on the east side. Turn right and Ippudo is on your left, past the post office and next to One-Dish Thai. The shop name appears only in kanji; look for the red sign on the sidewalk, which lights up at night. It's open from 11 a.m. until 4 a.m. daily, and if you've had too many shochu sours, a bowl of noodles is just the thing to prevent tomorrow's hangover.

9. Karaoke

In Japan, karaoke usually happens in a private room with your friends or colleagues, with a waiter delivering drinks. But at Smash Hits, located at the west end of the Hiroo shotengai (neighborhood shopping street), you perform on stage before a random, rowdy audience. There's a thick catalog of English songs to choose from, and emcee Saito-san is known to shuffle the order in favor of newcomers, so you won't have to wait long to make your evening debut. Cheer the salarymen taking turns at the mic — many are practiced regulars who favor Billy Joel, Guns 'N Roses and Queen — and they'll show you love in return. Inside these cozy basement quarters is stadium-style seating and endearingly grubby décor. The walls are papered with album covers (remember LPs?) and Polaroid snapshots of patrons from years gone by. Smash Hits is open Tuesday through Saturday nights, from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m.; the $40 cover charge includes two drinks. It's a 5-minute walk from the Hiroo stop on the Hibiya line; take Exit 2, turn right, then round the corner at the wine shop and walk to the end of the block.

If you'd rather not run into other foreigners — the risk of going to Smash Hits is that it is occasionally overrun with expats (who tend to arrive in a drunken horde after midnight) — try the red-velvet swathed Jan Ken Pon, the Japanese name for Rock, Paper, Scissors (it's actually what you chant while pumping your fist, right before the throw). Most nights a live cover band performs (usually disco, soul, rock or pop hits from the '50s, '60s, '70s or '80s) and customers can sign up to sing in between sets. Note: during early evening hours, house lights are up and music volume is down, while elegantly dressed hostesses work the room (there's a charge for table conversation). The club's atmosphere is vastly improved after 11pm, as more patrons hit the dance floor. Jan Ken Pon is open from 7 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday (until 3 a.m. on Friday), and from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Sunday and holidays. Cover charge is about $25 for men, $20 for women. Take the Hibiya Metro line or JR Yamanote line to Ebisu.

Harboring a rock 'n roll fantasy? At Gigabar, located in Minami-Aoyama (next door to Roppongi, the epicenter of this city's nightlife) you can sing — or play guitar, bass or drums — with a live band. The musical "menu" lists some 200 songs, including six by Deep Purple (did those guys really have that many hits?) as well as tracks by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. You pay $10 per performance, plus a $12 per person table charge. It's a restaurant and full service bar too. Gigabar is open 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. Monday to Saturday. Live sets end at 1 a.m. (2 a.m. Saturday).

For a variation on the standard karaoke "box" experience, Lovenet in Roppongi offers a variety of "suites" — private lounges with various themes such as Candy, Sakura, Sunshine, Heaven and Vodka. In the Aqua Suite, you can croon while soaking in a jacuzzi. Lovenet is open from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. daily (until 7 a.m. Friday and 11 p.m. on Sunday). To find more late-night entertainment, check listings in Time Out Tokyo or Metropolis magazine.

10. Daimaru's Kimono and Yukata

Most departing visitors leave town from Tokyo Station. Before you go, check out the Daimaru department store next door — just outside the station's Yaesu entrance. The kimono shop on the 10th floor is not geared to tourists; it's where Japanese ladies come to order custom-made ensembles. The samples on display, and the price tags attached, will take your breath away. The shop also stocks a full range of accessories — obi, hair combs, toe socks, thong sandals, purses, fans — all nice to look at it, some even affordable. Ask the salesladies about yukata, the lightweight cotton robes that you'll find in the closet of every ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). The store stocks lovely, traditional blue-and-white geometric patterns for men and orchid and bamboo prints for women, in a full range of sizes, including American XL. Prices are $50 to $60, belt included. To buy yourself more browsing time, direct impatient friends to the samurai swords on display down the hall.

Oriental Bazaar, a tourist magnet on Omotesando Street, offers a much bigger selection of yukata (along with all sorts of other souvenirs) and robes there go for $10 to $15 less than Daimaru's, but the place can get mobbed on weekends. After braving the basement, which has kitsch galore, head upstairs to the much quieter second floor for a look at the vintage and antique items, including classic woodblock prints from the ukiyo-e masters. The store is closed Thursdays.