T h e L e g e n d s A r e T r u e
Like so many, I've grown up watching Anime & reading Manga, all my toys were made in japan and their written language looked like some coded hieroglyphics far more complex than our Latin alphabet. Then I saw images of the country’s sprawling mega city Tokyo & dreamed of one day going. Everything about Japan's culture, cuisine & religion(s) seemed fascinating, modern and alien. So of course when deciding on a city break destination, I had to go. Before booking I carried out extensive research. I planned & rammed an insane itinerary into 2 weeks and took a no holds barred approach to achieving 100% completion. Gladly, Tokyo didn’t disappoint. The people, the tech, the history, the Architecture and food were all beyond expectation. Although be warned, one to two weeks may not be enough, If you live in Europe or the US its a long trip to make for a short break and it’s so vast you’ll want to give each place a generous amount time to explore at a leisurely pace. I'll need another visit to see the districts I missed and leave Tokyo to make use of Japan's environmental advantages such as Skiing on Hakuba's powdered snow or Onsen bathing in Kusatsu's volcanic springs.
In this iteration of the travel guides/reviews I'll cover the Shiodome, Travelling in Tokyo, The Conrad Hotel, Hamarikyu Gardens, The Sumida River, Shinjuku, Akihabara, Ueno, Ginza, Kabukicho, Shibuya & the Tsukiji Fish Market. Plus money, tips & general ways to enhance your stay. Once read I hope you’ll be inspired to make the trip too. N.B Take plenty cash & allocate ample reserve space in your suitcase. Tokyo, as a retail & consumer playground is generally expensive & the pound or dollar won't take you far.
S h i o d o m e
This is where I stayed & for very good reason! Which I'll detail later on. Shiodome is a business & skycraper district. Home to the Conrad Hotel and a few others. Close by is Tokyo's 5th Avenue & Oxford Street equivalent Ginza. You'll also find the world's largest fish market Tsukiji Market close by (soon to be relocated). The Shiodome renovated area re-opened to the public in 2002 & is now one of Tokyo's most modern districts. Similar to London's Canary Wharf. Spend a while in Shiodome & you'll soon notice the proliferation of black suits, white shirts, black ties & spit shined black shoes. You'll hear Japanese and American businessmen talking mergers, acquisitions & stock options, overtly too. I'd eavesdrop during my breakfast buffet whilst taking in views of the skyline through newly cleaned floor to ceiling windows. Walk around the precinct & you be rewarded with modern art & excellent examples of architectural design, photogenic from all angles. I even found a traditional English pub a few minutes from the Conrad. Tokyo features quite a few emulations of English pubs and American grills to give expats & tourists a little taste of home.
T r a v e l i n g i n T o k y o
Nearby subway station "Shimbashi" is along the JR Yamanote main line, perfect for navigating your way across the other main areas of Tokyo. The Subway system in Tokyo is simple and quite easy to navigate. All maps & signs are written in both Japanese and English. As you can see below, the JR line loops continuously around popular tourist destinations making it difficult to get lost
When you arrive simply purchase one of three time period passes. A 24hr , 48hr or 72hr pass. This will cover the Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway lines that cover over 200 stations throughout the city. This is your "Tokyo Tourist" pass. which can only be purchased with your foreign passport. If you're travelling to a specific destination i.e dinner reservations or any other booking, a taxi is the best way to go so you're not wasting time navigating, & you're partner isn't left standing around or walking long distances in her dress & heels. However, be warned. Tokyo taxis are not cheap. Most journeys I made from one area to the next, all within the city where between £15 -£20.00 as standard.
T h e C o n r a d H o t e l
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The Conrad occupies the 28th -37th floors of the behemoth Shiodome skyscraper, featuring a visionary minimal aesthetic, art installations and sophisticated lobby. After a few pops of the ear you exit the lift and emerge into an expansive reception. To your right sits a grand piano where jazz pianists entertain an open plan bar/restaurant & seating area with lounge sofas, armchairs & huge floor to ceiling windows over looking the bay area of the Sumida River, Hamarikyu Gardens and it's famous tea house. The rooms have a distinctive Japanese touch, varnished long wood grain surfaces, plush carpets, his & hers sinks, standing shower, huge double bath with a glass wall separating the bedroom & the bathroom, Business work desk, flat screen TV & window ledge chaise-Longue. Not to mention Japan's infamous modernists toilets with control panels. If you choose to dine here before or after an evening out you'll dine at the Michelin Star "Gordon Ramsay" on the 28th Floor. délicieux!
H a m a r i k y u G a r d e n s
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Close by is the sprawling Hamarikyu Gardens. A huge parkland similar to New York’s Central Park in that you’re surrounded near the entrance by sky scrapers. As you wonder further in you’ll find enchanting pathways, lush foliage some of which is labelled as centuries old! but the main attraction in the park is most definitely the famous 'Nakajima No Ochaya', an authentic 17th Century Shogun Tea Hut that sits majestically within a huge pond to the east of the park.
Here you can partake in traditional "Matcha Tea" tasting. Both the park & surrounding area is a great walk if you’re looking for horticultural, architectural or general landscape shots/scenes. If fitness is your thing, this makes Shiodome an excellent place to stay as the park is ideal for jogging. You may not have such easy access to an open space quite like this in other parts of the city. Plus, it's a great location for picnics & and escaping the city bustle as there are calming bay area views of the Sumida River & cherry blossom trees that seem to last a little longer than the ones found in Ueno Park (see further down).
You don't need to book in advance at the tea hut, but as it's a popular destination you may want to either arrive early or allocate some queuing time during the day. You'll be handed a guide upon entry and a host will see to your needs, assisting you if need be. The atmosphere is calm & orderly as Matcha Tea appeals more to an older audience. Although busy, no discernible conversations can be heard as people speak so quietly, or at least they did whilst we were there. Matcha tea confectionery is an acquired taste, but you can see how it's flavours work with the tea. The term "when in Rome" very much applies here. Like onsen bathing there's an etiquette that should be adhered to. My advice would be to embrace the experience, show respect and not embarrass yourself or who/where you represent.
T h e S u m i d a R i v e r
If you head towards the northwest of the park from the entrance you arrive at a pier where you can travel along the Sumida River via a range of water bus options. The Yakatabune, an old style boat with charming timeless characteristics from a bygone era (the style we opted for). Or the modern & elaborately designed Himiko & Hotaluna boats. They were designed by Leiji Matsumoto, a legendary Anime & Manga creator. N.B Its travel options like these that further support Shiodome as a great place to stay when visiting Tokyo.
You can travel to Odaiba & enjoy it's swimmable sandy beaches, Statue of Liberty replica & Tokyo Disney Land. Or head over to nearby Kasai Rinkai Park and explore it's Tokyo Sea Life Park Aquarium. Alternatively you could head in the opposite direction towards Asakusa for a taste of Edo Tokyo via it's traditional Japanease townscape and temples. If you head to there (Asakusa) during May you can observe the world's most elaborate Shinto festival at Sanja Matsuri. Or you could head to Hinode Pier to check out it's observatory's awesome panoramic views of the city.
S h i n j u k u
Metropolitan magnificence, cool restaurants, shops, nightlife and of course, late night arcades! My girlfriend & I hit Shinjuku the night we landed to celebrate our anniversary & dine at the famous New York Jazz Bar & Grill. Featured in “Lost In Translation”. An excellent depiction of the city’s atmosphere, if you haven’t seen it, do so before you go. From the restaurant’s bar you’ll have one the best views at night.
T h e P a r k H y a t t N e w Y o r k J a z z B a r & G r i l l
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Rooftop red blinking lights stretch far off into the horizon suspended above a schematic of slow moving headlights. Around you is the sound of coffee shop & party jazz with aromas of perfume, cigars smoke, spices and the gentle ambiance of bustling conversation. The crowd is eclectic, hipster, corporate, artsy, Bohemian, take your pick. For me, I’d arrived, I was just where I wanted to be with whom I wanted to be there with. After years of wanting, i'd finally made it! The food isn't bad either. The prices are what you'd expect for Tokyo. Not over the top but not cheap either. Luckily we landed a window seat in the non-smoking section. Once you've finished your meal head over to the band and keep an eagle eye out for the best seats in the house. They're highly coveted & people sitting there know it. If you do mange to land seats, chill, relax and take your sweet time.
T h e P i t I n n
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The following day I made a late night trip back to Shinjuku to experience the Jazz Pit Inn or Shinjuku Pit Inn as Tokyo is a globally recognised jazz capital. Anime enthusiasts will recall jazz themes from Metropolis, Ghost in the shell 2 innocence & the awesome Cowboy Bebop.
Cowboy Bebop Opening Scene (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Go4J1RaeuM).
The Pit Inn is a must-do for any jazz or live performance fan. It's namesake more than likely comes from it's location. To find the Pit Inn you must traverse an unassuming alleyway with no apparent signage, descend below ground level a few empty flights of stairs before you find it. The walls are lined with black & white posters and framed pictures of all the great Jazz pioneers. The room is dull lit and suitably misty. You can still smoke indoors here so the feel of an original Jazz Pit is exactly what you get. Bring cigars! Your ticket gets you a complimentary Whiskey or Bourbon of your choice to ensure you have some degree of inebriation to accompany your impending jazz intoxication.
You can order hot dogs, fries and other hot food bites if you wish. The crowd is an eclectic mix of generations. The youngest were all dressed sharp & preppy, older gentlemen looking quintessentially jazz-ish with thick knit wear, John Lennon’s and cigarettes hanging off the lip (literally). Then there were those in printed Hawaiian & tie die shirts. In Tokyo fashion is a big deal. Unlike anywhere I've seen before, both mainstream and obscure subculture styles feature everywhere as bold unashamed personal statements. I looked around and felt completely at peace with my surroundings. "I could so live in Tokyo!" or at least would love to own an apartment here.
D i s k U n i o n
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I hadn't finished with Shinjuku after two nights. A third was needed. This being the earlier part of the trip, I had cash to spend and Shinjuku has a variety of late night shops for after-hours consumerists. 1st stop was the well known music store and local landmark Disk Union. The great thing about Japan is you get many of the rare items you'd only otherwise find somewhere in the US, plus everything that's cool from everywhere else! I elaborate on this unprecedented level of stock in greater detail whist covering Shibuya. Returning to Disk Union, the store is definitely worth a pilgrimage for any music fan or audiophile looking for a special LP or CD to celebrate their visit to Tokyo. Also, If like me you have an affiliation or love for Street Art, then the Japanese bombs, stick