Top 10 Tokyo travel tips

Ten things that make Tokyo not just cool but also a great holiday destination
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Tokyo is the model city of Asia. It’s modern in its outlook yet still steeped in traditional values. It’s highly efficient, super organised and so obsessively clean that you could probably eat off its bathroom floors (not that we recommend you do so). It’s a city that’s always hungry for something new, and its people are so passionate that everything has been refined into a speciality – sushi, ramen, anime, the concept of zen, the art of simultaneous multi-directional intersection crossing (see No. 1 on Shibuya crossing), etc. You can’t help but be smitten by all that enthusiasm and liveliness. Here are ten things you need to know about one of the world’s greatest cities.

Guide to Tokyo, Shibuya crossing

The Shibuya crossing is not a tourist cliché, but a quintessential Tokyo experience

The world-famous Shibuya crossing could rival the spectacle of New York’s Times Square. It’s the busiest intersection in Tokyo, inundated with giant TV screens and even larger billboards, with an estimated 100,000 people swarming this cross junction every hour. Sure, you’ve seen it featured in numerous movies, from ‘Resident Evil: Retribution’ to ‘Lost in Translation’, and for a good reason, too. If you want to feel the pulse of Tokyo, this is the beating heart of the city. Pace yourself so that you’re in sync with the ebb and flow of the human traffic every time the light turns green. Once you’ve crossed over, make your way to the Starbucks above the Tsutaya bookshop and take in the view from above. FYI, this Starbucks outlet is reputedly the most profitable in the world.

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The food is not as expensive as you think

Tokyo is a regular fixture on the world’s most expensive cities list. But don’t let that scare you off – it’s not necessarily true. Sure, you could splurge on a seven-course kaiseki dinner, but you could also get a bowl of soba for ¥290 (about RM12). And we aren’t talking about a substandard noodle shack hours away from the city; Sagatani (2-25-7 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku. +813 6416 4248) is right in the heart of the city’s shopping district, Shibuya. Amazingly, it’s also open 24 hours. The soba noodles are made fresh in the restaurant, with 100 percent buckwheat flour ground using a traditional stone mortar – you could call this artisanal soba.

Our favourite is the tendon specialist Kaneko Hannosuke in Nihonbashi. There’s always a queue at this humble restaurant. For one, there are only six counter seats on the ground floor, and a few more upstairs. But more so because a tempura rice bowl here only costs ¥950 (about RM37) – and it’s a generous portion too, piled high with shrimp, squid, large white fish and nori.

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It’s a challenge… to find bad food in Tokyo

Tokyo has the highest number of Michelin stars in the world. This is emblematic of Japan’s high standards, and the amount of care they put into the preparation of fresh ingredients, the service and the overall dining experience. This level of precision in food is largely true anywhere you go – even a train station udon stall is memorable.

Here are a couple of recommendations to get you started. Kiraku (2-17-8 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku. +813 3461 2032) in Shibuya is part of Tokyo’s culinary history. They’ve been around for over 60 years, which means they’ve had time to perfect their famed chukamen – chewy noodles bathed in soy-based broth and topped with crunchy bean sprouts, half a slow-boiled egg and tender chashu pork slices.

Better yet, go get a Michelin-starred ramen at only ¥1000 (about RM39) at Tsuta. The broth, a blend of different soy sauces, is flavourful and complex while the noodles are firm and smooth. We recommend you upgrade your noodle with a dollop of truffle oil. Do note that you’ll need to come early to book your time slot, for which a ¥1000 deposit is needed. Yes, it’s worth it.

Guide to Tokyo

Tokyo is bad for recovering shopaholics

Increase your credit limit and come with an empty suitcase because whatever your taste and interests are, whether it’s designer labels, kitschy fashion, handcrafted fabric or artisanal products, you’d find it here in Tokyo. The variety can be overwhelming, and perhaps that’s why select shops (or as we call them, multi-brand stores) are so popular here in Tokyo. Each outlet takes great pride in their curatorial eye, where the fashion buyer brings in key pieces from the latest collections that best project the image of the store and also the customers they cater to.

United Arrows in Harajuku is worth checking out; the men’s and the women’s stores are across the street from one another, each carrying their house label (known for their preppy, well-tailored and smart casual styles) and a selection of international brands (they’re very fond of Maison Margiela).

For unique souvenirs, check out Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten in Kitte Mall across from the central Tokyo station, where age-old traditional crafts are renewed with modern designs and purposes.

If you need more choices, head to Roundabout for their curated selection of unique stationery, crockery, fashion and accessories – most of which are handmade. Nakano Broadway is where you’ll go to shop for Japanese manga, anime and otaku collectibles. For beautifully designed furniture such as the iconic Butterfly Stool, Tendo Mokko Showroom is your port of call.

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Art and design drive the city

You could spend an entire week exploring Tokyo’s art scene; here are just some of the highlights. The Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo is the largest of its kind in Japan, featuring both local and international collections, including the earlier works of Yayoi Kusama and Roy Lichtenstein. Mori Art Museum, located on the 53rd floor of Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, is constantly rated as one of the best art galleries in the city; their exhibitions are often bold, daring and boundary pushing. Before you leave, head to the observation deck for an unparalleled wrap-around view of Tokyo. And as you exit the tower on the ground level, don’t miss the iconic giant spider sculpture ‘Maman’ by Louise Bourgeois.

Kitte Mall has something a bit more unusual. University of Tokyo has opened an anthropological museum called Intermediatheque, which is like a cross between a natural history museum and a house of wonders. Think skeletons of whales and giraffes, plus a display of taxidermy birds; it’s really quite fascinating.
Guide to Tokyo

The best part of Tsukiji Fish Market ends before the sun even rises

If you only do one sightseeing trip in Tokyo, check out the tuna auction at the world’s largest seafood wholesale market, Tsukiji. Though the auction only starts at 5.25am, you need to be there by 4am to secure your spot – only 120 visitors are allowed in every day. Big, fat fish are laid out on the warehouse floor, and prospective buyers examine the quality of the fish and place their bids using a traditional system where they speak in codes. From here, the fish are air-flown to sushi restaurants all over the world. Once you’ve been ushered out, linger around the massive grounds of the market; the sushi restaurants on site are some of the best around. And yes, expect a queue here, too.
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Guide to Tokyo

Nightlife in Tokyo includes browsing in a bookshop

Easily one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world, the Daikanyama T-Site won a World Architecture Award for the building’s design. With the concept of a library in a jungle, this is the books emporium all bookshops aspire to be. It consists of two floors sprawled across three wings, offering not just books, magazines and rare tomes from the world over, but also music and films plus a small selection of specialty cooking utensils, fashion accessories and gift items. Plus it has a cool lounge upstairs, Anjin, which features an extensive selection of vintage periodicals on top of their food and drink menu. The best part? It’s open until 2am.
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Some of the world’s best retail architecture is right here in Tokyo

With the influx of luxury labels, Omotesando’s main thoroughfare has become a parade of architectural sculptures, or rather, a physical résumé of some of Japan’s most internationally renowned architects.

Looking like a stack of luminous glass containers, Louis Vuitton’s flagship store was designed by celebrated Japanese architect Jun Aoki. Dior’s all-white, minimalist monolith of a glass building was designed by noted Japanese architects Sejima Kazuyo and Nishizawa Ryue.

Across the road, the upscale Omotesando Hills shopping mall is no slouch either. The interior looks like Guggenheim’s ramp galleries. There’s no clear demarcation of individual floors; rather, a continuous spiralling walkway lined with shops takes you from the ground up to the top of the building.

While you’re there, don’t miss the mirrored elevator entrance of Tokyu Plaza. The sci-fi-like design is trippy and perfect for Instagram.

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Guide to Tokyo

Old-world Tokyo is just a train stop away

When you want a breather from the city’s glitzy glass skyscrapers, take a train to Asakusa for a slice of traditional Tokyo. Compared to the rest of the city, Asakusa seems to be stuck in a time warp, with an overall ’80s vibe. Ladies still shuffle in full kimono to the beautiful, sprawling Senso-ji temple, Tokyo’s oldest temple and the neighbourhood’s spiritual centre, to pay respect to the legendary golden image of the Goddess of Mercy. The surrounding marketplace is filled with shops selling everything from tourist trinkets and local street snacks to edo-style (old Japan between the 17th to the 19th century) crafts. A quick way to see the area is to hop on the kitschy-but-cute panda bus; service is free from 10am-5pm.
Guide to Tokyo

Some of the city’s best eats and bars are hidden in alleyways

In Ebisu, an arcade running through the ground level of a decaying apartment block has been turned into a food alley. Known as Ebisu Yokocho, its discreet entrance (right next to a 24-hour convenience store) makes this a genuine local hangout; push past the door and you’ll be greeted with an alley filled with micro-restaurants, each no bigger than a stall, bustling with people and chatter, serving Japanese street food such as yakitori, oden and okonomiyaki pancakes. The atmosphere is very relaxed and welcoming, even if you don’t speak a word of Japanese – though ordering may be difficult as English is hardly used here. Grab a seat, just order anything that looks appetising on your neighbour’s table, and you’ll make some new friends in no time.

Nonbei Yokocho (1-25-10 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku), otherwise known as Drunkard’s Alley, is similar, though it’s packed with predominantly bars and izakayas (traditional drinking dens that also serve food). This backstreet, lined with lanterns, is just a stroll away from the Shibuya crossing, but it feels as if you’ve just stepped into pre-war Japan. The bars are closet-size tiny and they each fit no more than eight people, but then again, this sense of intimacy is just part of the charm. Hidden in plain sight, these alleys are the guards of old-school hospitality that have survived the modern, neon-accented transformation of Tokyo.
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