If best supporting location awards were handed out at the 2003 Oscars, Japan certainly would have won top honors. Cinematic love letters—The Last Samurai, Kill Bill, Lost in Translation—filled screens last year with gorgeous (sometimes unsettling) images of the island nation's past and present. So why, then, in the face of all this Tinseltown adoration, does the very idea of Tokyo, Japan's largest and most cosmopolitan city, intimidate even sophisticated travelers? Many think nothing of jetting off to Hong Kong or Shanghai or Saigon, but the Tokyo they imagine is still the off-putting eighties version.
Back then, of course, Tokyo was intimidating. In the midst of its vaunted "bubble years," Japan was suddenly, almost impossibly, wealthy. On television and in magazines, Americans saw a futuristic city—its horizon all but glowing with neon-tipped skyscrapers—whose 12 million inhabitants scurried from place to place under massive watchful LED screens blinking a ceaseless assault of digitized commercials. Complicating the picture were what seemed like irreconcilable contradictions: Despite its having 25th-century technology, Tokyo was depicted as a city mired in tradition, one with an elaborate and incomprehensibly baroque code of etiquette. Woe to anyone (foreigner or not) who broke the rules.
But visitors who have fallen in love with Japan in the last decade know that to avoid Tokyo based upon old conceptions is to forgo one of the most fascinating, electric, perplexing, and friendly cities in the world. Indeed, there is a strange, sweet moment for every first-timer, whether you're standing in a throng of a thousand people inching their way across the famous intersection in Shibuya (the district that inspired Blade Runner) or walking down the crisp, glittering streets of the Ginza, the city's smartest shopping district. Tokyo, you realize, really is as frenetic and unfamiliar as you had always thought it would be. It is also kinder and warmer and more welcoming—like nothing you had expected, and nothing you could have hoped for. And for a seasoned traveler, what could be better?
There's no way around it: The Japanese are fanatical about etiquette (and bowing is the least of it). While they're very forgiving of foreigners' faux pas, it's impossible not to feel, if only occasionally, like a clod. For this reason, skittish newcomers might want to stick with one of the city's superior Western-style hotels.
One of Tokyo's most famous hotels (especially since it was immortalized in Lost in Translation as a sort of splendid gilded cage), the Park Hyatt Tokyo (rates, $472-$4,540; 3-7-1-2 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; 81-3/5322-1234; tokyo.park.hyatt.com) is justly renowned for its tranquillity, muted elegance, and spectacular 360-degree views of the city from the restaurant and bar on the 52nd floor. Request one of the Park Corner Rooms, which are so effortlessly minimalist that the Noguchi-inspired lamps almost seem to float in midair.
If the Park Hyatt has a drawback, it is the location, a rather dull section of sprawling Shinjuku, a vast Tokyo business district. During the week the place hums with energy and purpose, but it can be dreary on the weekend, and part of the pleasure of Tokyo is being able to immerse yourself in the thrumming street culture. The Four Seasons Hotel at Marunouchi (rates, $542-$3,613; Pacific Century Pl., 1-11-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; 81-3/5222-5888; www.fourseasons.com/marunouchi) is also located in a business district, albeit right next to Tokyo Station (one of the city's bustling central train depots) and close to the towering Marunouchi shopping complex. The Four Seasons also epitomizes the peaceful oases—shrines, temples, museums, and, yes, hotels—that can be found in the middle of the city. (One of the most famous of these sanctuaries, the exactingly landscaped Imperial Gardens, is just a short stroll away.) This serene 57-room boutique has sophisticated rooms decorated in cool grays, silvers, and beiges, as well as generous bathrooms with black slate floors. The service here is as discreet and excellent as the decor.
The only thing the Japanese revere more than the very old is the very new. Combine that affinity with Tokyo's favorite pastime—shopping—and you have every kind of store selling every kind of thing.
In turn, there are as many sensibilities as there are shops. In the plush, leafy Minami-Aoyama neighborhood, stores are not so much arranged as they are curated. Just around the corner from the new Prada store (5-2-6 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/6418-0400), a dazzling honeycomb of a building that glows, spaceshiplike, at night, is the dark, irreverent Undercover (5-3-18 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/3407-1232), where Jun Takahashi's fantastically creative and brainy clothing line exemplifies the conceptual abstraction for which Japanese designers are known. But if Undercover proves too inaccessible, you can simply walk to Hiroko Koshino (5-4-40 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/5474-2932), a clothing-and-lifestyle boutique offering gorgeously cut, unconstructed clothes and brightly colored bags, or Marni (6-2-11 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/5468-6301); its rear façade has a convex stainless-steel screen punctuated only by a small, witty fish-eye window that offers a sweeping look into the store.
For all those fans of Japanese toys (and no one does robots and monsters better), there's Billiken Shokai (5-17-6-101 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/3400-2214), a tiny wedge of a store jam-packed with artful displays of vintage and reproduction tin toys. And do not miss Torindo (3-6-12 Kita Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/3400-8703), a sweet shop-cum-gallery that sells traditional Japanese pastries in addition to beautifully packaged boxes of candied fruits and vegetables—orange peel, lotus and burdock roots, yam—all sparkling with drifts of granulated sugar.
North of Minami-Aoyama is the Harajuku neighborhood, ground zero for street fashion and a favorite of Western trend-spotters. (On the way up the neighborhood's lovely boulevard, Omotesando, you'll pass architect Jun Aoki's glamorous Louis Vuitton store, as well as the queue of eager customers who await its opening every morning.) In Harajuku—where anyone over the age of 25 will feel positively ancient—it's always fascinating to visit pulsing Laforet (1-11-6 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/3475-0411). This department store, the mother ship for fashion-obsessed Japanese youth (all of whom are much cooler than we will ever be), offers a surprising look into the fashion future.
While first-rate stores abound in Tokyo, the ones receiving the most attention nowadays are in Roppongi Hills, developer Minoru Mori's massive $2.5 billion, 28.7-acre business-residential complex—at once a city fortress and a temple to shopping. Follow the walkway—with its exuberant, grinning Technicolor daisies done by Takashi Murakami—to the elevator that whisks you to the much-hyped Mori Art Museum, some seven hundred feet in the air (6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku; 81-3/6406-6100; www.mori.art.museum/english). The museum houses a diverse collection of art—from traditional Japanese to postminimalist Western and back again—arranged over three gleaming, largely windowless floors high above the city. One of Tokyo's hottest destinations, it stays open until midnight on weekends.
Despite the omnipresence of homegrown artists like Murakami and the abundance of remarkable, and often ingenious, modern design, Tokyo's contemporary-art world is strangely diffused, even absent. Unless you know where to look, that is. Recent years have seen a boomlet of galleries, many showing works by the country's most provocative visual artists. Unlike London and New York, though, Tokyo has no centralized art neighborhood; instead, the galleries are sprinkled across the city, forming small artistic hives in some of the dingier (but never gritty) districts.
The most important galleries are concentrated in two areas: Roppongi, known primarily for its sparkling clutches of hostess bars and sizable expat community, and Kayabacho, a dreary industrial neighborhood known for nothing in particular.
Sharing a clean-planed white building in Roppongi (6-8-14 Roppongi, Minato-ku), just down the hill from Roppongi Hills, are Ota Fine Arts (81-3/5786-2344), Hiromi Yoshii (81-3/5786-3566), Taro Nasu (81-3/ 5411-7510), Min Min (81-3/5414-2360), and Roentgenwerke (81-3/3475-0166) galleries. They all show challenging, energetic works by up-and-coming and established local artists, including Yayoi Kusama, Akira the Hustler, and Tsuyoshi Ozawa. Over in Kayabacho, an unassuming concrete bunker plays host to two of the country's art powerhouses: Tomio Koyama (1-31-6-1F Shinkawa, Chuo-ku; 81-3/6222-1006) represents Yoshitomo Nara, Shintaro Miyake, Mr., Mika Kato, and, yes, Takashi Murakami. Taka Ishii (1-31-6-1F Shinkawa, Chuo-ku; 81-3/5542-3615) represents Nobuyoshi Araki, Daido Moriyama, Naoya Hatakeyama, and the wonderful young painter Naoto Kawahara. Next, take a detour to Mizuma Art Gallery (2F Fujiya Bldg., 1-3-9 Kamimeguro, Meguro-ku; 81-3/3793-7931), where you can see works by bad-boy artists Makoto Aida and Hisashi Tenmyouya up close. Finally, make the trip back to the city center to visit Tokyo's most distinguished white-box gallery, Gallery Koyanagi (1-7-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3561-1896), which represents Hiroshi Sugimoto and Mariko Mori—just steps away from Renzo Piano's luminous Hermès building.
As Tokyo is such a commerce-focused city, it makes sense that some of the best restaurants can be found in department stores and shopping complexes. The top two floors of the chic Parco department store in Shibuya are devoted to a series of small restaurants, all decked out in gleaming dark woods. At Den Rokuen-Tei (dinner, $60-$150; Parco Part 1, 8th floor, 15-1 Udagawa-cho, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/6415-5489), try such inspired Japanese tapas as seared chicken sprinkled with coarse, crunchy sea salt, and meaty, grilled mushrooms, their caps slick with lime juice.
For more appetizers (or aperitifs), head over to B bar in Roppongi Hills (Keyaki-zaka, 6-12-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku; 81-3/5414-2907). This sleek bar—adjacent to a Baccarat store—seats only a dozen people, but what could be better than sipping a single malt out of a heavy Baccarat tumbler? For old-world elegance (and decadence), there's Le Connaisseur (Ginza Hakua Building, 6-7-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3573-8686), a cigar bar with buttery leather chairs, subtle, opium-den lighting, and a well-stocked humidor.
After such indulgence, you'll need to eat. Tokyoites love anything French, and at master chef Joël Robuchon's smart but unpretentious L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon (dinner, $230; Roppongi Hills, Hillside, 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku; 81-3/5772-7500), they get the best Paris has to offer. Fans of Japanese cuisine also know that nothing equals the experience of a traditional kaiseki dinner, a multicourse meal made with only the freshest seasonal ingredients, served in dishes as exquisite and carefully composed as the food itself. At the serene and hushed Kitcho (dinner, to $810; Hotel Seiyo Ginza, 1-11-2 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3535-1177; www.seiyo-ginza.com), the ambience is transporting and the food a revelation; this is an unforgettable gastronomic experience. (And at $400 a person, it should be.) For a less formal interpretation of kaiseki, there's also the Park Hyatt's casually elegant Kozue (dinner, $120-$230; 3-7-1-2 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; 81-3/5323-3460), a clean-lined, soaring-ceilinged aerie high above the city; on clear days you can see Mount Fuji peeking through the clouds. Try the excellent Shino set menu, which includes delicate servings of simmered pork with radishes and greens in a bright, heady broth, and Spanish mackerel painted with a miso-and-yuzu sauce that's slightly sweet and heavily nuanced.
The pursuit of the new in Tokyo never fails to leave one intoxicated, yet there's always something to be said for an old favorite. Kogai (dinner, $180; 2-10-5 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; 81-3/3797-0408) is just over two hundred square feet and can seat ten people in a pinch. Like many of Tokyo's best restaurants, it's filled with regulars who'll give you a quick once-over when you squeeze in. But those who can overcome the initial awkwardness are in for some of the best sushi of their lives: The meal (all omakase, or chef's choice) might begin with a slippery, milky fold of yuba, followed by a bowl of sea-fresh squid intestines and a shallow dish of small peppery eels topped with gently briny seaweed and a scattering of citrusy fish eggs. The dinner ends, as many as 15 plates later, with a broth fragrant with the delicate, sandy smell of steamed cockles. Gliding out into the quiet night, you'll realize that you've had another one of those Tokyo moments—impossible to define, just as impossible to forget.