It’s a good time to visit Tokyo. As it gears up to host the Olympics, Japan’s heaving capital is buzzing with a raft of new developments. But, this forward-looking metropolis hasn’t forgotten its ancient roots.
Peer out the huge windows of Sushi Sora – a petite dining room on the 38th floor of the elegant Mandarin Oriental Tokyo hotel – and the skyline belonging to this vast city glows as far as the eye can see. Night-time is surely the most cinematic way to see Tokyo from up high. To the east, the Tokyo Skytree towers above the other skyscrapers and below, there’s the green roof of the Bank of Japan, oddly shaped like a Yen sign (it turns out that its money-shaped architecture is merely a coincidence). Neon signs pulse to an unheard beat.
Inside the restaurant, which seats just eight diners, it’s dark and moody – the perfect antidote to the flashing lights down at street level. You perch on black leather seats at a counter carved out of aged Japanese cypress, and watch in anticipation as the chefs in front of you give a masterclass on ‘Edomae’ sushi. Based around ingredients that reflect the changing seasons, there is a choice of three menus, including a vegetarian option, which will vary according to what fish and other produce has been purchased by the chef each morning. Exquisitely presented (even your napkin is folded intricately in paper, to echo a kimono), the meal is an endless array of delectable mouthfuls all prepared theatrically in front of you. It’s the ultimate urban experience.
Of course, this is what you’d expect in Tokyo – the definitive hyper-modern capital city. Preparing to host the Olympics in 2020, it’s already in celebratory mood with some of its streets lined with Olympic flags (a left-over from last month’s marking of 1,000 days before the event begins) and a huge countdown display already ticking on the metropolitan government HQ in Shinjuku. Merchandise, emblazoned with the city’s Olympic navy-and-white chequered emblem, is being snapped up at the futuristic Asics flagship store in Harajuku (the brand is one of the main sponsors).
With around 920,000 visitors descending upon the city per day during the Olympics, there’s little wonder that by daylight this same skyline, so serene at night, is actually littered with cranes hard at work. According to Bloomberg there are 45 new skyscrapers going up in time for the sporting event, which will move the city even further skyward. The two largest projects are the city’s major new train station and main sports stadium, both designed by renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. The stadium – a low, steel and wood structure – will reference traditional Japanese temples, while Kuma’s Shinagawa New Station has been inspired by ancient origami, with both showcasing the city’s art of seamlessly blending old and new worlds.
Taking this ethos to heart is the central Nihonbashi district of Tokyo. As the major business hub, you might at first be deceived into thinking this is a bland, corporate corner. But look again, and you’ll realise it is a haven of historical shops harbouring skilled craftsmen, age-old culinary gems and countless family businesses. Considered the birthplace of Tokyo, Nihonbashi is home to the ‘Kilometer Zero’ marker. Found on the historic Bridge of Japan, this was once the spot that designated a visitor’s arrival into the capital, and also marks the place from where the city expanded.
As a consequence, roots to the area’s artisan heritage are strong, with many businesses working together on collaborations and community projects to deepen their connections. Stroll around and you’ll discover lacquerware from Yamada Heiando (which was founded in 1919 and still supplies to the Imperial family). Yamamoto Noriten, meanwhile, is Japan’s bestseller of Nori seaweed (there’s even a collaboration with Hello Kitty for cute appeal), while Eitaro Sohonpo is famed for its Kintsuba sweets, which it began selling at the end of the Edo period, and remains one of Japan’s leading confectioneries. At the tiny Ibasen shop, you can pick up a hand-made paper fan (check out the new checked versions which reference the Olympic logo).
On the other hand, if you want a professional sushi knife, stack of washi paper, or a hand-sewn kimono, then head to Mitsukoshi Main Store. This, the oldest department store in Japan, is a treasure trove of classic finds. Handily for guests, it is also found next door to the Mandarin Oriental, which, as well as the allure of its first-class sushi restaurant (not to mention 11 other eateries), is an uber-sleek place to rest your head.
Offering its own innovative take on the area’s charms, the hotel has just launched a Nihonbashi Experience, during which guests can tour significant shrines, eat at authentic restaurants, and visit artisan stores, as well as trying their hand at time-honoured crafts – such as washi papermaking and glass engraving.
Found on the 30th-38th floors of the Cesar Pelli-designed Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower, the views from the hotel are a highlight. All of the 179 rooms give sweeping vistas to the east to Tokyo Bay or to the west towards the Imperial Palace Garden and Ginza. On a clear day, you might even be rewarded with the majestic sight of Mount Fuji shimmering in the distance.
Chic interiors, which give incredible attention to detail, is another pull for guests. Japanese textile designer Reiko Sudo, for instance, has called upon a team of master artisans and weavers to produce original fabrics to reflect the cultural traditions of Japan. In the bedrooms, drapes are made from textiles meant to conjure up water, so are soft and billowing, and ottomans are embroidered with delicate floral patterns. On the walls, are framed, rare Isegatas – original ‘forming sheets’ for dying Kimono. It all combines to give a layer of refinement to the huge, streamlined bedrooms, which are enhanced with bamboo flooring, black lacquered chests and lantern-style pendants.
While bedrooms are pared back, the 38th-floor spa provides serious wow-factor. Take a dip in what has to be the most scenic urban pool ever – with its far-reaching views over the city below. For pampering, the Time Ritual is genius – rather than offering a prescriptive one-size-fits-all therapy, it offers a bespoke service catered to your needs. The idea is that you book ‘time’ rather than a treatment. So, if you want to relax, then maybe a cocooning massage will help. Or perhaps, your skin needs a lift, so focus will be given to the face instead. It’s wonderfully fine-tuned.
When it comes to eating – there’s no better city than Tokyo for sheer amount of choice. But, with 12 restaurants in total – including three Michelin starred eateries, you’ll be hard-pushed to tear yourself away from the hotel. There’s Italian cuisine in K’Shiki (check out the Pizza Bar within the dining room), or dim sum in Sense, while Ventaglio serves a casual Mediterranean menu. For a classic tea ceremony head to Sense Tea Corner, while the Mandarin Bar is the perfect place for a sake, sipped to the dulcet tones of live jazz. The adventurous foodies, meanwhile, should book in advance for the Tapas Molecular Bar (there’s always a waiting list), which blends haute cuisine with Japanese tastes: expect plenty of liquid nitrogen, your menu printed on a tape measure and cutlery replaced instead by a box of tools and that’s before you start the 20-bite sized creations. It’s magical.
While not known for its vast choice of kosher options, the city is slowly improving, with Chana’s Place in Takanawa being the closest to the hotel (chanasplace.com). Interestingly, the city has some standout Shojin Ryouri restaurants – Japan’s version of vegetarian and vegan cuisine, typically followed by Buddhist monks. Daigo, with two Michelin stars, is one of Tokyo’s best, with minimalist dining rooms over-looking manicured gardens (atago-daigo.jp/en).
Come nightfall, back at the hotel, turn down service has been and gone. A pot of fresh Sencha green tea awaits, with a traditional seasonal chestnut mochi on the side. A delicately-patterned yukata kimono-style robe is laid out, and there’s a pot of specially blended essential oil to help you go off to sleep. You won’t want to, but you will.
Rates for Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo start from JPY 49,000 per room per night (approx. GBP 330). For more information or to make a booking, please call +81 03 3270 8800 or visit www.mandarinoriental.com/tokyo
This article was also published on 22 December 2017 with the Jewish Chronicle Newspaper