Tokyo

Overview

There’s never been a better time to experience Tokyo’s strange delights: its eight-seat sushi temples and its Michelin-starred restaurants (of which it has more than any city in the world); its towering luxury hotels and its tucked-away jazz joints; its serene Zen gardens just steps away from its frenetic, neon-tinged streets. Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation perfectly captured the jet-lagged befuddlement Western travelers tended to feel on their first visit to Japan’s capital. But in the years since, experiencing the eccentric pleasures of the Eastern metropolis has gotten much easier, thanks in part to a city initiative to increase tourism in the runup to the 2020 Olympics. (Google Translate also helps!) It’s still a sublimely disorienting maze, but this will help unlock the secret doors of the world’s coolest city.

Best Time to Go

There’s never a bad time to visit Tokyo, a year-round destination with four distinct seasons, each distinguished by its own festivals, rituals, and other cultural highlights. Fall (September through November), favored for its abundance of sunshine, autumnal foliage, and comfortable temperatures, and spring (late March through early April), when white and pink cherry blossoms take over the city, are the two most ideal times to visit. Winter (December through March) is frosty and the summer (June through August) is best to avoid—it’s hot, humid, and (somewhat counter intuitively) the busiest time for tourism.

Airport Info

While two major international airports service Tokyo, each presents its own challenges. In- or outbound U.S. flights are usually relegated to Narita International Airport, which is 40 miles outside of the city. Traffic can make the trip into Tokyo take up to two hours—expect a fare of $230 or more during rush hours. Booking private car services like Tokyo-Taxi (81-3/3212-0505) and Green Tomato (81-479/782-323) fall between $220 and $400. The Limousine Bus (81-3/3665-7220) runs four times per day (7 a.m. to 10 p.m., typically) between the airport and all major hotels and train stations. A one-way ticket costs around $30—have your hotel arrange the purchase and charge it to the hotel bill. The more-convenient Haneda Airport, just 12 miles south of the city center, is the fourth busiest airport in the world, but it primarily accommodates domestic and Asian airlines, and only allots a handful of slots to American flights. It takes half the time to get from Haneda to Tokyo than it does from Narita. Fixed rate taxis (from $70 to $90) are available without reservation from the international terminal at all times and take up to an hour.

Getting Around

Japan has one of the best public transportation systems in the world. Signs written in English signs are on prominent display, and stationmasters are courteous and helpful. For a short visit, purchase the Pasmo (a deposit of $5 needed, but you’re reimbursed when you return it), which can be used on trains, buses, and taxis. But be warned: most modes of public transportation in Tokyo don’t run overnight.

Can’t Leave Without

1. Experiencing an authentic Japanese tea ceremony at the Imperial Hotel’s three-room Toko-an. (1-1, Uchisaiwai-cho 1-chome; 81-3/3504-1111; imperialhotel.co.jp)

2. Taking a sushi-making lesson. Tsukiji Cooking can arrange for private classes with a Michelin-starred chef, or a shopping excursion at Tsukiji fish market with an expert. (From $125; 6-22-3 6F Tsukiji, Chuo-Ku; tsukiji-cooking.com)

3. Visiting a Sumo stable. In Tokyo, matches are held in January, May, and September, but private outings to a stable grants access to rikishi (wrestlers) anytime of the year. (Ask your concierge to set up a visit to avoid a staged experience.)

Deserves the Hype

Don’t miss a visit to the Edo Period area of Japan, Asakusa—a district famous for its SensoJi Temple. The neighborhood is filled with tourist for a reason, and it’s worth the detour. Also stop for traditional earthenware and some of the world’s best knives at Kappabashi (Kitchen Town). Kamata Hakensha (2-12-6 Matsugaya, Taito-ku; kap-kam.com) offers sharpening class in English and Kama-Asa (2-24-1 Matsugaya, Taito-ku; kama-asa.co.jp) makes excellent mioroshi deba for filleting (from $265).

Local Dish to Try

No dish better represents Japanese food than sushi, but don’t expect the rainbow rolls from your takeout spot. Maki, raw fish rolled with rice and vegetables in nori (seaweed), and nigiri, rice topped with wasabi and raw fish, are most common, but regions throughout Japan have their own renditions. Tokyo’s Sushi Sawada offers a classic example—just don’t mix the wasabi and soy sauce, unless you want to insult the chef. (3F, 5-9-19 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3571-4711).

Local Drink to Sip

Nihonshu (as sake is called in Japanese) has always been the country’s booze of choice—it plays an important role in Shinto ceremonies—but until recently, the rice wine’s quality had been declining thanks to mass production. A new generation of brewers has started a craft revolution in response, returning to the roots of its making. One of the best ways to explore sake is at Akita Pure Rice Sake Bar: Order the “nine-temperature” set, which demonstrates how temperature can influence flavor. (Yaesu North 2F, 1-9-1, Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; 81-3/6269-9277).

Seasonal Highlights

WINTER: The season brings crisp, dry air to Tokyo, which means clear skies and rarely much snow. The conditions make for the perfect backdrop for Illuminations, the yearly showcase of glittering LED light designs on display throughout the city.

SPRING: Tokyo temporarily explodes with delicate pink and white blossoms in late March/early April. Take in the magnificent sakura and ume trees at sites around the city. Make like a local and bring a picnic.

SUMMER: Sanja Matsuri, the Sanja Festival, is a major Shinto celebration hosted in late-May at Asakusa Shrine. Expect parades, music, dancing, and lots and lots of people.

FALL: Tokyo’s leaf-peeping fervor just might rival that of New England, and it’s with good reason: red maple, gingko, and a variety of other trees offer a dazzling palette of autumnal shades. Gin Shinjuku Gyoen Park is a national garden and one of the capital’s best places to take it all in.

Quick Tips

Car Service to Know

MK Car Services
81-3/5547-5547

Same-Day Dry Cleaning

Shiba Koen Kokusai Cleaning
81-3/3431-7160

Hair Stylist to Book

Kakimoto Arms
81-3/5464-0011

Makeup Artist to Book

Shiseido The Ginza
8-3/3571-7735

Personal Shopper

Urban Connection Personal Concierge

Best Spa

Aman Tokyo
81-3/5224-3333

Best Hotel Gym

Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo
81-3/3270-8800

Gym with Week Pass

Gold's Gym Ginza
81-3/3535-7373

Best Souvenir to Take Home

Tsuzura lacquered box from Iwai Tsuzura-ten
81-3/3668-6464

The Fixer to Know

Azwin Ferdauz at Conrad Tokyo
81-3/6388-8000
Hotels

Peninsula Tokyo

The Peninsula's unassuming hallways do not do justice to its accommodations, which have soaring ceilings, sexy lighting, burnt-orange carpeting, and glamorous dressing rooms (most have seated vanities, and even nail dryers).
Marunouchi
FH&R

Aman Tokyo

Design wise, no hotel in Tokyo compares to Aman's first urban property.
Otemachi
FH&R

Hoshinoya Tokyo

Hoshinoya, a Japanese brand with five resorts, adds diversity to the hotel scene with this luxury ryokan that opened in July 2016.
Otemachi
FH&R

Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo

The service at the Mandarin Oriental is beyond attentive—and that’s saying a lot in Tokyo.
Nihonbashi
FH&R

Imperial Hotel

Hibiya, a business district adjacent to Marunouchi and Ginza, has the first Western-style hotel in Japan: the 931-room Imperial Hotel, which celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2016.
Chiyoda-ku
FH&R

Palace Hotel Tokyo

The hotel, built more than 50 years ago, attracted mostly a business clientele until 2009, when it was transformed into a bona fide luxury property with a renovation.
Marunouchi
FH&R

Shangri-La Tokyo

On the east side of Tokyo Station, the Shangri-La Hotel occupies the top 11 floors of the 37-story Marunouchi Trust Tower Main and has a Chinese theme throughout.
Marunouchi
FH&R

Park Hyatt Tokyo

Celebrated in the movie Lost in Translation, the hotel is probably Tokyo’s most beloved—in Americans’ imaginations, at least.
Shinjuku-ku
FH&R

Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo

Situated in Tokyo’s tallest building, the Midtown Tower, the views at this hotel are spectacular.
Roppongi
FH&R

Conrad Tokyo

Located in Shinbashi, below Marunouchi and on the fringe of Ginza, the Conrad Tokyo seamlessly blends a business and leisure aesthetic.
Shiodome
FH&R
Restaurants

Yuu

When ordering at Yuu, the adventurous should say “omakase” and leave it to the chef to select what's skewered and roasted over Japanese binchotan charcoal.
Iidabashi
Yakitori

Nihonbashi Yukari

Third-generation talent and Iron Chef champion Kimio Nonaga serves up an oft-changing, haute rendition of traditional kappo cuisine.  
Chuo-ku
Kappo

Sasuga Soba

This understated Michelin-starred gem prepares outstanding 100-percent-soba noodles that are rolled and cut by hand each day.
Ginza
Soba

Shinjuku Takano Fruit Parlor

Fruit is revered in Japan, and the menu here demonstrates how it can be flawless, aromatic, and juicy.
Shinjuku-ku
Café

Sushiya

Sushiya translates as “sushi shop.” While the name is simple, the sushi is not.
Ginza
Sushi

Kagari

The creamiest bowls of chicken ramen are made at this shop with two branches in Ginza.
Ginza
Ramen

Tenmatsu

The offerings at this tempura shop go far beyond the usual fried shrimp and mushrooms.
Chuo-ku
Tempura

Kotaro

The friendly izakaya has an open kitchen where chef Kotaro Hayashi serves small bites to pair with rare sakes.
Shibuya
Izakaya

Tsuruya Yoshinobu

Sit at a counter and watch as the craftsman creates a seasonal sweet and complements it with a cup of matcha.
Nihonbashi
Confectionery

Tonkatsu Katsukura

The breaded and deep-fried pork cutlets at this restaurant in Takashimaya department store represent the best of Japanese comfort food.
Shibuya-ku
Tonkatsu
Bars + Lounges

Mixology Laboratory

Bartender Shuzo Nagumo likes to play with unexpected ingredients and techniques, using machines like rotary evaporators and centrifuges to create blue cheese-infused Cognac, miso gin, foie gras vodka, and more.
Yaesu
Cocktail Bar

Popeye

At Popeye, owner Aoki Tatsuo has amassed one of the largest selections of Japanese beers, including many hard-to-find Japanese microbrews.
Ryogoku
Craft Beer

Bar Orchard

Owners and bartenders Takuo Miyanohara and Sumire Miyanohara straddle the divide between classic and experimental cocktails at this tucked-away bar in Ginza.
Ginza
Cocktail Bar

Cask Strength

This basement bar in the Roppongi district is one of Tokyo’s best whisky bars, with an impressive selection of rare and aged varieties.
Roppongi
Whisky Bar

Gem by Moto

The queen of the craft-sake scene is Marie Chiba, manager of the 13-seat Gem by Moto.
Ebisu
Sake Bar

Ahiru Store

This little wine bar on the edge of Shibuya specializes in natural wines from small producers, plus a menu of simple but well-executed food.
Tomigaya
Wine Bar

Gen Yamamoto

This bar’s owner and eponym is capable of turning out a martini like none you’ve ever tasted, but be smart and ask for something seasonal.
Azabu-Juban
Cocktail Bar

Ben Fiddich

Relative newcomer Ben Fiddich came onto the Tokyo bar scene in 2013 and has quickly become one of the city’s must-visit cocktail bars.
Shinjuku-ku
Cocktail Bar

Bar High Five

Though most people visit High Five for Hidetsugu Ueno’s celebrated cocktails (he worked at Star Bar under Kishi before opening his own place), it’s also a great place for a whisky.
Ginza
Cocktail Bar

Star Bar

Hisashi Kishi, one of Japan’s most well-known and well-respected bartenders, helms the bar at this top-notch cocktail spot.
Ginza
Cocktail Bar
Shopping

The Gyre Building

Located in Omotesando, this spot is a shopping mall done with typical Japanese refinement.
Shibuya
Shopping Mall

Tsutaya T-Site

Theoretically, you could spend a perfect day in the city’s best bookstore (and possibly the world’s) without opening a single book.
Daikanyama
Lifestyle

Okura

Prized for its deep dyes; rough, imperfect hand; and startling density, Japan is synonymous with high-quality denim. Daikanyama has a few not-to-miss spots, but Okura is a favorite.
Daikanyama
Japanese Denim

Tailor Caid

Japanese tailors offer a focus on top-notch craftsmanship to re-create classic styles of the past, and Yamamoto of Tailor Caid specializes in traditional American suiting from its golden age in the 1950s and ’60s.
Shibuya
Tailor

Sacai

Designed by world-renowned architect Sou Fujimoto, Sacai’s flagship store in Aoyuma carries the local brand’s main collections as well as loungewear line, Sacai Luck.
Aoyama
Men’s + Women’s Clothing

Undercover

Known for graphic tees and fantastical runway creations, Undercover is a tech-based label with punk rock–themes and streetwear influences.
Aoyama
Men’s + Women’s Clothing

J’Antiques

Located in Tokyo’s answer to New York’s Fifth Avenue, J’Antiques offers equal parts vintage clothing for men and women and antique furniture throughout two vast rooms.
Nakameguro
Vintage Clothing + Furniture

Laila Tokio

This futuristic vintage concept store celebrates tradition in the context of modernity by offering high-end nostalgic clothing in an avant-garde atmosphere.
Shibuya
Women’s Clothing

Dover Street Market

The Tokyo outpost of the art-meets-fashion retail chain by Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garcons) offers the same invigorating shopping experience as its fellow locations in London, New York, and Beijing.
Ginza
Men’s + Women’s Clothing

United Arrows

With over 160 stores nationwide, United Arrows’s opened its largest flagship store in Roppongi Hills in 2016.
Roppongi
Men’s + Women’s Clothing
Things To Do

SCAI the Bathhouse

This leading independent gallery is considered the neighborhood of Yanaka’s cultural heartbeat.
Taito-ku
Art Gallery

Mori Art Museum

Many visitors come for the view and leave before strolling the two floors of exhibition space below, but this is a mistake: Museum director Fumio Nanjo organizes contemporary shows that are as crowd-pleasing as they are curatorially sound.
Minato-ku
Art Museum

A Yomuri Giants Game

For an American, attending a baseball game in Japan can be an out-of-body experience: The action on the field is familiar, but what happens in the stands is completely foreign.
Bunkyo
Baseball Game

Sumo Stable Visit

Sumo wrestling is not Japan’s national sport, but it is its most well known (and celebrated) of its traditional athletic competitions.
Sumida-ku
Sumo Experience

Takarazuka

This from of Japanese theater features all-female casts in extravagant costumes on elaborate sets performing high-energy musical versions of recent Western cinema hits, as well as classics of the silver screen and Broadway.
Chiyoda-ku
Theater

Hara Museum of Contemporary Art

Originally built as a private home for business mogul Kunizo Hara in the ’30s, the Hara opened as a museum in 1979.
Shinagawa-ku
Contemporary Art Museum

Tea Ceremony

The fourth floor Toko-an at the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo offers an excellent traditional tea service experience for guests and non-guests alike.
Chiyoda-ku
Tea Ceremony

Meiji Shrine

Created to honor the Kami (deified spirits) of 20th-century Emperor Meiji and his wife this 200-acre forested park consists of two major gardens and traditional nagare zukuri–style Shinto shrines.
Shibuya
Site

Ōta Memorial Museum of Art

The ukiyo-e genre may not be familiar to the Western world by name, but its works are without a doubt some of the most popular examples of Japanese art we have today.
Harajuku
Art Museum

Tokyo Cook

This small cooking school offers a wide variety of courses dedicated to the numerous styles of Japanese cuisine, all taught taught by celebrated local chefs.
Roppongi
Cooking Classes