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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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).
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).
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).
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.