Tokyo shines on the world stage as a metropolis of superlatives: It’s the most populous, the safest, and according to Condé Nast Traveler readers, the greatest city on earth. Beyond these labels, the Japanese capital is a hub of striking contrasts and evolving culture, both rooted in a reverence for tradition as well as forward-looking ambition.
Here, daily life blends pioneering technological innovation with age-old social customs. Ancient neighborhoods sit in the shadow of towering skyscrapers. And as Tokyo continues to welcome record-breaking visitor numbers, world-famous Japanese hospitality will be tested further with Tokyo 2020 Games.
Build your trip to Tokyo around the unique juxtaposition of the old and the new, the traditional and the ultramodern, by experiencing these six local-approved hot spots through local photographer Mitsuru Wakabayashi’s lens.
SEEK: MORI Building DIGITAL ART MUSEUM: teamLab Borderless
Since its opening in 2018, this digital art museum has welcomed over two million visitors to mind-bending exhibitions that smudge the line between art and observer. Located along Tokyo’s commercial harbor, teamLab Borderless boasts about 60 touch-friendly artworks comprised of computer generated projections, optical illusions, and interactive soundtracks, among other sensory touchpoints. As its name suggests, there are no boundaries or paths that dictate how to explore the museum’s five zones: The transcendent journey is yours to create through mirrored infinity rooms, fantastical “forests,” and other manufactured universes. With so many museums scattered around the city that offer a classical experience, teamLab dreams up an immersive art universe that expresses humans’ relationship with the world in an unexpected way. Protocols now in place for your comfort and safety include advance ticket purchase with timed admission, temperature screenings, limited guest capacity, and increased ventilation.
Make a reservation at Michelin-starred Ren, a basement restaurant tucked off a hushed Ginza sidestreet. Prepare for an incredible meal that exemplifies the confluence of gastronomic tradition and modernity, served in an intimate setting. Chef Jun Mishina’s multi-course kaiseki menu worships the core tenets of Japanese cuisine, like seasonal straight-from-the-source ingredients and meticulous, simple preparation. A seat at Mishina’s five-person counter includes light commentary about the origin of the chef’s dishes, like charcoal-grilled Matsuba snow crab and salmon harvested ikejime-style for optimal flavor. Two smaller, offset dinings rooms are also available for group dining. Wine and sake also come from the finest Japanese distilleries, altogether served in a mix of modern tableware and artisanal ceramics. Seating is limited—but oh so worth a try.
SIP: The Open Book
Unlike greater Shinjuku, the Golden Gai district was never razed and replaced with glass and metal, maintaining a post-war, neo-noir ambiance that has inspired creative types for generations. The district is particularly popular for its collection of micro dive bars tucked behind frames of neon placards and milk crates, some serving customers for decades, though a fresh influx of watering holes are shaking up the scene. Head to The Open Book, a drop of mixological sophistication in a sea of free flowing draught pints. You’ll notice that the rear wall is filled floor-to-ceiling with books—the personal collection of award-winning author Komimasa Tanaka, stacked there by his grandson who founded the bar. Grab a novel while sipping the signature lemon sour, a three-ingredient embodiment of wabi sabi (the perfection of simplicity) with lemon-infused shochu, lemon syrup, and soda. Call ahead if you don’t want to be disappointed—hours may be limited.
Kagurazaka’s rich history as an Edo-era hanamachi (entertainment district) is best seen along its cobblestone yokocho (alleyways), where centuries-old geisha houses and modern establishments rub shoulders. The neighborhood is a picture-perfect example of old-meets-new Tokyo, but with a surprising infusion of French essence. Kagurazaka, an expat stronghold since the seventies, is home to a wealth of trendy cafes and boutiques, but is best known for its popular European restaurants and wine bars. Also hidden in plain sight are Bishamonten Zenkokuji, a 16th century Nichiren Buddhist temple, and the recently restored Akagi Shinto Shrine, which are both worth a visit.
SHOP: Mitsukoshi Ginza Food Hall
Founded in the Edo period as a kimono outfitter, Mitsukoshi has evolved into Tokyo’s premier upscale department store with two outposts in Ginza and Ebisu, and its legendary flagship in Nihonbashi. The company has carried forward an affinity for luxury fashion with top-tier international brands, but its restaurants, terrace cafes, and depachika (basement food halls) are another attraction, serving everything from premium coffee to savory bento boxes and seasonal desserts. Be sure to check hours before you go.
STAY: Onsen Ryokan Yuen Shinjuku
Look to this newly opened hotel for a contemporary interpretation of a ryokan, the quintessential Japanese inn. Onsen Ryokan Yuen Shinjuku has adapted the concept of a rural hot spring retreat as an unassuming 18-story high-rise in the beating heart of Tokyo. The buzz of Shinjuku’s crowded streets dissipates upon entry to the property’s heavenly lobby and 193 rooms, which boast tatami-mat flooring, shoji screens, and earthy decorative accents. Head to the roof to soak under the stars in the communal onsen, filled with mineral geothermal water shipped from the nearby region of Hakone. Guests can enjoy their daily breakfast—as well as optional lunch and dinner—in the sleek Kakatojo restaurant, where traditional dishes are served in stacked ceramic boxes. Overall you can expect omotenashi, the satisfying guests’ needs in an anticipatory fashion, to be alive and well in this refreshing oasis of calm. . Extra-stringent measures are in place to ensure cleanliness and safety; restaurant hours may be limited.
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