Gal With a Suitcase

Our new travel columnist visits Tokyo, a place at once colorfully chaotic and contemplatively serene—and more accessible to Westerners than ever before.

Reuters

Welcome to Tokyo, home of Harajuku, supersonic toilets, and food that can make even the sturdiest stomach reconsider career options. Every traveler wants to visit Tokyo, but making the schlep (and it is a schlep, from virtually anywhere) is an entirely different matter. But believe me, it’s worth it.

I hadn’t been to Tokyo in three years and what struck me on a recent three-day visit was how the city seems vaster, yet more accessible for Westerners, than it did when I was last here. Now nearly everyone, from your cabbie to your masseur, can manage a few words in English. And speaking of cabbies, Tokyo’s are glorious. All wear white gloves, have doily-adorned seats, and accept American Express. And no more renting one of those weird cellphones when you visit; 3G now works here. All these comforts and conveniences have a way of making Japan feel less foreign—almost, I dare say, like any other major city.

This can be a chaotic, rebellious place, where fashionistas in Hello Kitty haute couture strut the streets of Shibuya, and young punks with 10-inch Mohawks screech from makeshift stages in grimy underground clubs.

Thankfully, what remains unchanged are the enchanting Japanese. Many of the clichés remain true: flawless etiquette in every encounter (even if I was occasionally called “mister”), exquisitely prepared food, perfect-in-every-way service, and masterful in the art of the business deal. I like that life here retains a tinge of formality, too. Take, for example, press releases, hand-delivered to all journalists in the Nikkei by a bike-messenger every day—no blast email, no fax.

But just when you think you’ve got Japan figured out, it surprises you. This can be a chaotic, rebellious place, where fashionistas in Hello Kitty haute couture strut the streets of Shibuya, and young punks with 10-inch Mohawks screech from makeshift stages in grimy underground clubs.

Other Backpack Adventures: • Back Home in East London.A long winter weekend in Iceland.

Before we get to the tips, one little bento box of warning: Tokyo is expensive. If Sofia Coppola were making her movie in 2009, I’d propose the title Cost in Translation. The only place I’ve been that’s more outrageously pricey is Moscow, and you typically get caviar as part of that experience. If you’re on a budget, don’t come—you haven’t a chance in the world. Instead, arm yourself with the phrase takai neh (“How much?!”) and be prepared to shell out. GWS learned this lesson the hard way when trying to buy a basic hair band that would cost no more than $12 anywhere else, but here was quoted at $79. Suffice to say, I did not leave Japan with a new head accessory.

Hotels

Park Hyatt remains a fave. It boasts jaw-dropping views of Mt. Fuji on a clear day, and the infamous New York Grill on the 52nd floor, which I tend to give a miss due to the oppressively loud jazz music. There’s a delicious breakfast at Girandole on the 41st floor, and big, heavenly beds in every one of the 178 rooms, including 23 suites. Skip the gauche, ‘70s-styled spa called “Club on the Park,” but do everything else. Service is mwah—superb concierge. Its location in the Shibuya area is a bit of a haul, but nowhere is perfect. Starting at 35,700 yen (about $400.)

3-7-1-2 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 03-5322-1234 www.tokyo.park.hyatt.com

Few do it better than The Peninsula, a three-minute walk from uber-posh Ginza, across from the Imperial Palace. The neighborhood is gorgeous, and the 24th floor’s restaurant, Peter, is a destination in and of itself. Also a big fat winner is their spa, Espa. 314 rooms and 47 suites, from 60,000 yen (around $685. Ouch.)

1-8-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 03-6270-2888 www.tokyo.peninsula.com

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Claska is, strangely, one of the only designer-boutique options in the city. 12 rooms (nine Western, three traditional tatami style) and a hopping lobby scene, but you must book early. It’s out of the way, but it’s reasonable: rooms from 12,600 yen, or approx $120 for a single.

1-3-18 Chuo-Cho, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 03-3719-8121 www.claska.com

Eat

Robataya. You just have to. This Roppongi institution is the ultimate in kitsch dining experiences. Western faces line the small, den-like robatayaki restaurant, where two large Japanese men kneeling over a grill will cook up whatever fresh food you’re in the mood for. It’s utterly delicious. I recommend the Kobe beef skewers, fresh shrimp, and any type of veg. Be prepared for a loud welcome and a wacky host called Suzuki. It’s expensive, naturally, but it’s the best meal I’ve had in Tokyo.

1F, 7-8-4, Roppongi, Minatuo-ku, Tokyo 03-3408-9674 www.roppongi-robataya.com

Make your reservation now at Aronia De Takazawa. This stunning restaurant is impossibly delicious and is fully booked far in advance. With only 10 seats, it has some of the most palate-pleasing fare Tokyo has to offer. Set menu, so your only job is getting in.

2/F Sanyo Building, 3-5-2 Arasaka, Minato-Ku, Tokyo 03-3505-5052 www.aroniadetakazawa.com

Their mantra is simplicity and their food lives up to it. Promising an “alluringly comfortable time,” Higashi-Yama’s 10-course tasting menu is a veritable sashimi-gasm. No English menu, so just nod and smile. Closed Sundays.

1-21-23 Higashiyama, Meguro-Ku 03-5720-1300 www.simplicity.co.jp

Do

Set your alarm for a visit to Tokyo’s infamous Tsukiji Market. It’s worth rising in darkness to spend an hour or two slinking amongst the frenetic commercial activity of this working fish market. The tuna auction takes place from 5 to 6:15 a.m. and must be seen to be believed. Be mindful of mad fishermen on moving vehicles; they do not stop for tourists. And dress accordingly—this place is covered in slime. Wear with old sneakers or boots and be sure your trousers don’t drag. I couldn’t bring myself to eat sushi this early, but if you’re game this is the freshest catch on earth. Closed Wednesdays and Sundays.

5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0045 03-3542-1111 www.shijou.metro.tokyo.jp/

Meiji Shrine and Harajuku. A trip to the Harajuku area is daunting, but if Gwen Stefani can do it, so can you. Elaborately costumed Japanese teenagers converge here every weekend in a bizarre Japanese youth-culture ritual that has no parallel anyplace else on earth. Tucked away on the opposite side of the Harajuku train station is one of the city’s hidden gems, the Meiji Shrine. Set in a serene park oasis in the middle of Tokyo, a visit here gives visitors a real sense of history and traditional Japanese culture. On a weekend you may witness a wedding, or families paying their respects at the temple, or—my favorite—beautifully attired children in kimonos and slippers.

Once you’ve found Zen, venture into the chaotic experience of Takeshita Street. A guidebook I read aptly called it “a conveyer belt of black hair.” If you’re brave enough to shove your way through the crepes-eating teenagers (yes, crepes) you’ll be rewarded with sensory overload in its purest form. Push through to the end and you’ll come out to Omotesando Hills, where top-brand shops abound. If seeking a late lunch, one of the few options past 2 p.m. is Sin.

Avoid

Not leaving yourself enough time to get to and from the airport. It’s two hours from Narita International into central Tokyo. Cabs cost $300, or there’s the limo bus that stops at the big hotels.

Beware of eating at places without prior recommendation. Oftentimes you’ll be given a set menu, which offers little choice for diversion. GWS spent many nights staring in horror at plates of indistinguishable fried creations, or worse, raw ones. (Is that uncooked chicken?) Your Japanese hosts may be confused by your reticence. My advice? Be gracious, and carry a granola bar.

Jolie Hunt travels on her own dime for more than 50 percent of the year. She is the global head of public relations for Thomson Reuters, appointed April 2008. Prior to that, she served as global director of corporate and business affairs for IBM Corporation She was the director of PR for the Financial Times. She lives between New York and London.