After three years away from Tokyo, it’s the familiar face of Hello Kitty that greets me first as I step off the plane. Images of the cat – an icon of Japanese kawaii (cute) culture – are as ubiquitous as cherry blossoms and geishas. But this time Kitty looks different: she’s wearing a face mask. A sign of the times.
After being closed for nearly three years due to Covid restrictions, Tokyo is back on the holiday to-do list. But if the thought of 24-hour neon, robot hotels and conveyor belt sushi makes you cringe, then it’s time for a rethink. Tokyo can be sophisticated, relaxed and always intriguing.
A haven next to the royal family
Palace Hotel Tokyo, in the Marunouchi district, has ‘everything you would expect from a top hotel’. The photo shows restaurant Esterre
The Palace Hotel is right next to Tokyo’s beautiful Imperial Palace (pictured)
There’s no denying that Tokyo can be overwhelming, so start by finding a haven to base yourself. I recommend the 23-storey Palace Hotel Tokyo, in the Marunouchi district, a real oasis.
Known for its attentive hospitality, known as omotenashi, it has everything you would expect from a top hotel: beautiful rooms and suites, Michelin-starred restaurants, a spa, and English-speaking staff. But what sets it apart is its location, right next to the Imperial Palace, with 180-degree green vistas of the outer gardens. Ahead is Tokyo’s iconic cityscape stretching from Ginza to Shinjuku, where red lights twinkle at night but there’s no neon: illuminated billboards are prohibited so close to the emperor’s house.
But when you’re ready to dive into the city, Palace Hotel Tokyo has its own direct access to the nearest subway station, Otemachi, which, like the entire transportation network, is safe, scrupulously clean, and has ample English signage. B&B in a deluxe King Room at Palace Hotel Tokyo costs from £395pp, per night, based on two sharing (en.palacehoteltokyo.com).
Breakfast on the best sushi
Tsukiji Fish Market, above, opens at 4am and is just a ten-minute taxi ride from Palace Hotel Tokyo
Tokyo is surprisingly sleepy in the early morning, so when jet lag hits, it’s a great time to explore.
Tsukiji Fish Market (tsukiji.or.jp/english) opens at 4am and is just a ten-minute taxi ride from Palace Hotel Tokyo. Although the famous tuna auctions now take place at another market in Toyosu – another ten minutes away by taxi – Tsukiji Market remains a great place to see anything and everything from the ocean, from giant spider crabs to dried squid.
The market is enclosed by main roads, so you can immerse yourself without fear of getting lost. Step under the giant tuna statue and head over to Sugimoto Hamono (sugimoto-hamono.com/e), the master makers of Japanese knives who can engrave them for you.
There are plenty of places to eat, but for the best seafood breakfast, head over to Toyosu (sushi-yamazaki.com/english) and queue for Yamazaki – the best sushi counter in the market.
Forest bathing in the city
Nezu Museum (pictured) houses a private collection acclaimed for its tea ceremony utensils and ancient Chinese bronzes. However, the main attraction for Kate is the garden – ‘an almost inexplicable find’
An early start guarantees a quiet day, so visit the Nezu Museum (nezu-muse.or.jp/en), an oasis of calm just a stone’s throw from the glitzy fashion shops of Omotesando.
Housed in a building by Kengo Kuma – the architect behind the Japan National Stadium built for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics – and shielded by towering bamboo, Nezu is a private collection acclaimed for its tea ceremony utensils and ancient Chinese bronzes.
However, the main attraction for me is the garden. An almost inexplicable find in the heart of fashionable Minami-Aoyama, its four acres are reminiscent of deep valleys and mountains, with a forest of pines, camellias and oaks. Here you can practice the Japanese art of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, and stimulate your senses with a meditative walk along the mossy paths.
Listen to birdsong! In Tokyo! And the seeping of gurgling natural springs and ponds filled with koi. Rest your eyes on the green patchwork dotted with ancient stone sculptures from Japan and China. There are four private teahouses in the center of the garden, so have tea and strawberry sponge at NezuCafe, immersed in greenery.
Tea break without pain
A classic Japanese tea ceremony incorporates elements of art, history and culture, from Zen meditation to ikebana (flower arranging) and calligraphy, but it’s not uncommon for visitors who have tried it to be left baffled and with aching limbs after spending hours. kneeling.
Not in Sokkon. Sokkon (sokkon.jp), created by tea master and monk Soko Utagawa, offers the chance to experience the ceremony alongside the convivial food and drink usually associated with a proper tea party – with no kneeling required. It is hidden in the basement of a nondescript tower near the Nezu Museum. Inside, a series of intimate rooms are revealed, including a small wabi-sabi tea house where you crawl into to watch the slow, deliberate preparations of the matcha by the tea master and drink the thick green result.
Then an exquisite meal of vegetables, rice, fish and pickles is served, washed down with sake generously poured by the tea master (who also happens to be fluent in English). It’s insightful, memorable and fun – a tea ceremony to remember for all the right reasons. I won’t spoil it, but the ending will be marked with cocktails in another secret room with a theatrical reveal.
Eat with the (Michelin) stars
‘Expect lots of great food in Tokyo’. Above is a dish served at Zalm & Trout in Setagaya
Expect plenty of fine dining in Tokyo: at last count, the city was home to more than 200 Michelin-starred restaurants.
If you have your heart set on any of these, book in advance or enlist an insider, such as your hotel concierge, to assist you.
Via myconciergejapan.com, which also for once gets around the problem that many of the restaurants have Japanese-only websites.
Don’t worry if you can’t book a star – there are plenty more gems that locals hope Michelin leaves alone or else they won’t be able to get a table. One such place is Atelier Fujita (atelier-fujita.com) in Yoyogi-Uehara, a Japanese-French seafood restaurant that also happens to be one of the best spots for vegetarians. Or there’s Salmon & Trout (salmonandtrout.tokyo/en), in what appears to be a bicycle repair shop in Setagaya.
For an excellent sushi counter show, Sushi M (sushi-m.com) is a 12-seat restaurant run by a chef and sommelier, both formerly of two-star Michelin Narisawa. The USP is sake pairing: try Akishika motoshibori and be converted to the rice spirit.
Secret sake spots
Kate drank sake in bars in the labyrinthine alleyways (above) of Sankaku Chitai yokocho in Sangenjaya
Despite the many gastronomic options, my choice would always be to go local and head to a yokocho – slightly shabby alleys lined with restaurants and bars, which are found all over the city.
Yokocho is difficult to navigate – little English is spoken and fewer English menus – but they are one of Tokyo’s most memorable experiences, so get a guide.
I visited the labyrinthine alleys of Sankaku Chitai yokocho in Sangenjaya with guide Tyler from Inside Japan Tours (insidejapantours.com). Within minutes of meeting, we dove into an unmarked lane – one I would have definitely missed – among the many eateries, bars and intriguing places behind sliding doors. I was completely lost by the time we reached the humble place Tyler was so eager to show me.
We were greeted with exuberant shouts of ‘Irasshaimase’ (welcome to my restaurant) as we took our bar seats, sandwiched between a young couple and an elderly regular. Plates of sashimi, chestnut tempura, tuna and grilled burdock arrived – and the sake flowed freely. This unassuming spot turned out to be one of Tokyo’s best spots on rare occasions: a sequence was written almost casually on a whiteboard above the bar.
We later moved to a second-floor bar elsewhere in the maze, with racks of Japanese whiskeys and an impeccable bartender. We left late, Tyler escorted me back through the yokocho to my hotel, after an evening that would not have been possible without his inside knowledge.
It’s okay to share a bath
Head to the residential districts of Sangenjaya and Shimokita (pictured) to ‘gently soak up Tokyo life’
Nights in a yokocho should be followed by lazy days, and there are few better places to soak up Tokyo life than the residential areas of Sangenjaya and Shimokita.
The area in between has recently been pedestrianized and given a green makeover, with gardens, coffee shops and craft bars – and even a new traditional-style hotel, Yuen Bettei Daita (uds-hotels.com/en/yuenbettei/daita), with an onsen (hot spring bath). The compact rooms have shoji screens, wooden floors and futon-style beds (that lift off the floor), kimonos and traditional sandals to wear to the bath.
It’s a proper Japanese bath, so no tattoos or swimsuits are allowed – there are separate baths for men and women – and you must wash before entering. Locals use the onsen just as much as guests do, but once you’ve checked into the hotel (B&B from £191 per room, per night), the in-room iPad can save your blushes with a live feature that tells you when the bath is due. is quiet.
Take the plunge and immerse yourself in a side of Tokyo that is both local and low-stress. Do this and you will feel energized, inspired and completely enthralled by this sprawling metropolis.