The talk was all about the toilets: Lids lifted as you approached; seats were warmed, offering massages, spritzes, and music at the push of a button—they did everything but pull up your pants. But at The Peninsula Hotel in Tokyo, there’s probably a designated employee to do that, too. Several other staffers are positioned to push revolving doors, so you won’t have to confront that exertion. Others race to punch elevator buttons in your behalf, and put on your slippers as you leave the spa, all with “thankyouverymuch,” which seem to be the first words taught in English in this beyond-accommodating city.
Everything I’d heard about Tokyo proved true, yet no picture anyone can paint beforehand prepares one for this city like none other, the ultimate metropolis. It’s the retail capital of the universe, as proven by neon that turns night into playtime, and sidewalks crowded with shoppers all hours of the day. (What recession? And does no one inhabit the office towers?) They all just have stepped out of a fashion magazine: reed-thin, perfect haircuts—and exquisitely, expensively, but, above all, trendily dressed.
To add to the “too good to be true” experience, Tokyo is admirably safe, spotlessly clean, and absurdly friendly. For instance, when I was confused in finding a seventh-floor office, three gents in the corridor conferred, then escorted me down in the elevator, and—get this!—across the street to the correct address.)
The yen is 100 to a dollar, so even the money is easy to figure out. And easier yet to spend
We ventured to a half-dozen neighborhoods, each with its own personality, each yet-another shoppers’ overload.
The famous Ginza hosts fashionable department stores like Mitsukoshi, the Harrod’s of the city, with two floors of food boutiques alone, selling everything from designer chocolates to sushi. Sony’s multiplex offers techno-gadgets that have yet to hit the States. Nearby, Herzog & deMeuron (architects of Walker Art Center) have designed the palaces of Dior and Prada. Smaller shops abound for specialty items, such as Itoya, offering elite paper goods, and Fukumitsuya, a sake bar, all almost within sight of the Imperial Palace grounds, protected by its watery moat.
Or venture to the fabled Harajuku District, hangout for Tokyo’s teen shoppers, garbed in the latest 15 minutes’ worth of fashion (currently girls in boy-cut shorts, fishnets, and kneeboots or stilettos; boys in plaid lumberjacks). These pedestrian streets meet up with the opposite extreme in Omotesando Hills, which makes Rodeo Drive look like a strip mall. At Prada, the shop girl drops to her knees on the pavement to present a farewell bow. It’s also mecca for souvenir shoppers. The Oriental Bazaar offers four floors of everything from tea and sake sets, tablecloths and T-shirts, to rare antiques.
Another day’s jaunt starts in the Daikanyama District, Tokyo’s answer to Soho or Melrose Drive, crammed with funky-to-forward local designers’ shops with names like Dry Bones, Loveless, and Mother Lip. Here’s where to buy Santa-wear for your puppy, flamboyant jackets for yourself, or takeout from an all-tomato restaurant.
Then, it’s on to Shinjuku and Shibuya, where Tokyo’s bright lights shine even brighter, announcing underground-to-skyscraper megamalls. Or the electronic mecca of Akihibara, also home of comic books, animation items, and the trendy “maid cafés,” where servers are garbed in maids’ uniforms, and patrons may dress as their favorite animation heroes.
All is new in Tokyo, rising from the rubble of World War II. Yet, surprisingly, many harbors of quiet greenery let you forget the teeming 12 million people beyond. Visitors can ramble the immense East Garden of the Imperial Palace grounds or six-acre Hibaya Park—ponds, swans, rose gardens—kitty-corner from the Peninsula.
A short train ride lands worshipers of nature, or royalty, to the forested Meiji Temple to attach their written wish to a laundry line of others—everything from cancer cures to losing weight to gaining boyfriends—even, “Go, Obama!”
For a more modern homage to the dead—in this instance, those killed in wartime—visit the Yushukan Shrine, and adjacent museum that portrays Japan’s history of conquests and defeat, presenting a far different, and fascinating, position than in Western textbooks.
To discover what the country’s artists are up to, head for the Museum of Modern Art, where Japanese Impressionists, Cubists, and beyond emulate their Western brothers. The nearby Crafts Museum is a showpiece for modern designers of jewelry, paperweights, vases, and more. And don’t miss the marvelous historic prints of Japan’s most revered artist, Hiroshige, displayed in American Airlines’s brand-new Admirals Club, which also offers complimentary computers, showers, and sushi for its guests.
Speaking of sushi, sign up for an early-morning tour (and I do mean early: 6 AM) at its source, Tsukiji Fish Market, led by the Pen’s chefs through the wholesale market’s 450 species, the largest in the world. Auctioneers bark out calls for tuna (the best goes from more than $200 a pound). Stalls display everything from blowfish to sea urchin, as you dodge the delivery carts’ kamikaze drivers.
For a taste, dine at Sushi Gonpacki in a traditional Japanese tearoom setting, offering as much fresh sushi as you (and your pocketbook) can manage, bookended by green salad, grilled sea bass, and loads of beer and saki. Even Dubya reportedly enjoyed his meal here. For tempura deluxe, the place to go is Kyoto Tsuruya, the Tokyo outpost of the country’s hundred-year-old restaurant.
Crave noodles? Then, it’s off to down-but-far-from-dirty Ichiran, a chain where the drill goes like this: Fill out your order form (mercifully in English), specifying how much richness, flavor, garlic, “secret sauce,” and such you want in your ramen. Plug your coins into a machine, then wait for a seat at individual stalls—like watching a porn flick—where your order appears from behind a curtain.
Splurge on a Cantonese feast deluxe (madly popular among the Japanese) at Hei Fung Terrace, where Chef Tang creates a tasting menu ranging from pork wontons to Peking duck to deep-fried lobster with bean curd and beyond.
To get a French chef’s take on local products, climb to the 36th floor of the Marunouchi Building to the Michelin-starred Monnalisa for panoramic views with food to match, including mousse of langoustines and sautéed foie gras; Hokkaido venison with cocoa flavored sauce; or grilled kawahagi fish with sea-egg risotto.
You also will find French touches married with local delicacies at Peter, on the Pen’s 24th floor, with spectacular view and food to match, like caramelized sea urchin-coconut flan; braised kinki fish on a bed of citrus with gnocchi; and green miso- and pepper-crusted Kobe beef with beef foie gras.
Later, head to the Park Hyatt Hotel’s 52nd-story bar (yes, the one filmed in Lost in Translation) for a 360 sight of the city. Or the bar of the Imperial Hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. For a night of karaoke, it’s one of the Big Echo’s outposts. For jazz, hit the Cotton Club.
And, for a gay old time, it’s Shinjuki’s ni-chrome area, with more gay bars per block (close to 300 total) than any other place in the world. It’s also the scene for gay restaurants, shops, saunas, hotels, massage parlors, karaoke parlors—and, um, more—much more.
The bars are defined by their scene: S&M, muscle men, young men, etc. Several are particularly popular among Western men and their Japanese admirers. ArcH features a warm, underground vibe, drag queens aplenty, and daily party schedule. Stylish Arty Farty is a real scene-queen space with dance floor. The Annex, AF’s sexily lit annex, features a fountain in the middle of the dance floor. BG is a cruisy spot popular for preclubbing. Dragon Men, ni-chome’s most spacious, offers a modern upbeat decor, hip multigenre crowd, and great drinks at reasonable prices. For more, check the Otoko-machi (“boys town”) map.