Electric Nights, Serene Days: A Journey Through Tokyo and Kyoto
Visiting Japan is an electric experience, heightened by unrivaled cuisine, design, and culture. In Tokyo, gigantic robots battle in subterranean restaurants and unmarked stairways lead to sultry music dens that never close. Further south in Kyoto, traditional tea ceremonies and 1,000-year-old shrines are reminders of a country steeped in rich history. It is this combination of traditional and futuristic that makes Japan a surreal voyage for the senses. For a taste of cosmopolitan and country life, head to Tokyo and Kyoto. Combining the two cities provides a great glimpse into the wide spectrum of possibility in Japan.
Begin in Tokyo, with the neon-color fashion of Harajuku, alleyways dotted with closet-size bars, and a hotel that floats eye level to an endless orange skyline. Then head to Kyoto, where the peace of century-old shrines, vivid foliage, and shaded bamboo groves provide a calming end to a full itinerary. And with the sleek bullet train connecting the cities in under three hours, dancing into the night and then meditating in the morning have never been easier.
Here are just a few places that embody the best of each city’s distinct pace.
Café de l’Ambre
In Tokyo, staying energized while exploring the populous streets is key. Coffee lovers will rejoice in the refined approach to caffeinated concoctions at Café de l’Ambre. Located in the chic Ginza shopping district, the legendary kissaten(coffeehouse) opened in 1948 and is still run by its original owner, centenarian Ichiro Sekiguchi. Hordes of people line up to sip coffee made from beans that have been aged for more than 40 years or brews mixed with Champagne or cognac. Dark wooden tables are illuminated by glass lamps and gold-framed French poems hang on the wall. The history here is one you can taste in each sip.
Tsukiji Fish Market
This fish market, recognized by film lovers in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, is a sensory and culinary adventure. The famed 81-year-old market is the largest wholesale fish market in the world and represents the best of Japanese dedication to production. Here, multigenerational families sell steaming yakitori skewers, noodle dishes, tamagoyaki (rectangular omelets), and, of course, sushi. Massive, freshly caught tuna is meticulously sliced, then topped with ginger and wasabi. Melded knives and handcrafted tableware decorate wooden tables.
People line small alleyways (yokochos) in hopes of pulling up a chair at one of the many tiny restaurants serving fresh catches of the day. Try the fatty tuna roll at Okame (4-8-7 Tsukiji, Chuo 104-0045) or, if you have patience, the always-crowded Sushi Dai (Tokyo-to, Chuo-ku, Tsukiji 5-2-1). Here, patrons delight in omakase that highlights the best of Tsujuki’s fresh bounty of the day. (5 Chome-2-1)
There are few dining experiences as intimate, memorable, and true to traditional Japanese technique with a Western touch than Shirosaka. Located on a quaint street in Akasaka, this nine-seat restaurant is marked by a stone path that leads to a dramatic floor-to-ceiling window. Inside the restaurant, chef Hideki li and his team prepare charcoal-grilled dishes and fresh sushi for their tasting menu. The signature dish, served in a handcrafted wooden box adorned with maple leaves, contains a spherical rice cracker. Inside, a beautiful quail egg, dashi jelly, sea urchin, and herring eggs complete the surprise. Underneath the egg sits fresh tuna, micro-greens, and scallions. The texture and taste of the dish is an explosion for the palate, almost as rushing as the Tokyo streets. 6-3-9 Akasaka, Minato-ku
The first rule of Robot Restaurant is to leave reason outside the door. This neon-color spot in Shinjuku is all about the fantastical and strange. Stairways clad with tiger-illustrated and jeweled walls lead to the dinner show. Often confused yet amused patrons experience 8-foot robotic figures in battle, jeweled majorettes, and live music performances featuring Broadway hits. 1-7-1 Kabukicho
While “Drunkard Alley” may not be the most appealing name, this dimly lit street, just minutes away from the populous Shibuya crossing, is a must visit. The lantern-lined alleyway filled with tiny restaurants and izakaya (Japanese gastropubs) is a glimpse into prewar Tokyo. It is also an oddly calm space in the midst of the neon-color lights and buzzing of cars and pedestrians right outside of it. 1-25-10 Shibuya, Tokyo
For a taste of reggae and nightlife in Tokyo, head to Garam in Shinjuku. Bullhorns, rum, and rhythm are central to the bar, a testament to Tokyo’s deep love of and intrigue with Jamaica. Bartenders wear belts donning the country’s flag. Dancehall beats keep people on the dance floor until 6:00 a.m. There are also live performances by famous DJs, hip-hop artists, and reggae performers. 1 Chome-16-6 Kabukicho
No late night in Tokyo is complete without a visit to Lawson. The convenience store, easily spotted by its blue and white awning, can be found all over the country. Anthony Bourdain has called its egg salad sandwich one of the best in the world. You can buy everything from potato croquettes to sake. And you won’t be alone. The store is always filled with people, so better grab that egg salad sandwich early.
Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho
There’s walking around Tokyo, and then there’s floating above it. Tokyo’s newest luxury hotel, the Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho, a Luxury Collection Hotel, offers panoramic views of the city, with windows and furniture placement that create the illusion of being suspended in air. A sexy lobby bar pulses with green light fixtures, making the Tokyo skyline look like a scene from Mad Max. In the distance, Mt. Fuji, the Imperial Palace, and the Tokyo Tower twinkle.
The 250 guest rooms and suites embody the best of Japanese modernity: tablets that enable fingertip control of lighting, temperature, concierge, and even curtains. Black and red yukuta robes in guest rooms, curated artwork, and literature by dozens of Japanese artists invite guests to become immersed in local culture. At Souten restaurant, a crystalline motif of ice hangs from the ceiling, and, of course, fresh sushi is paired with an impressive collection of sake and shochu. At La Maison Kioio, afternoon tea and French fare are available in a sunroom once frequented by a Japanese prince. 1-2 Kioicho Tokyo 102-0094
Relax, Relate, Release
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Walking through the soaring stalks of bright green bamboo in Arashiyama is the type of experience that is hard to capture with words. Go at 6:30 in the morning, before the crowds have begun to roam. Feel the freshness of air produced by thousands of bamboo over 1,000 feet tall that grow up to 40 inches in just 24 hours. The experience is like walking through another world, one that can’t help but leave anyone refreshed and at peace.
Shrines and Temples
Kyoto offers some of the most beautiful shrines and temples in the world—some 2,000 to be exact. Each year, thousands of visitors flock to these tranquil, historical wonders, so it is best to visit as soon as they open or right before closing. Fushimi Inari Taisha (68 Yabunouchi-cho) glows with 5,000 vermilion torii gates. The Shinto shrine is dedicated to Inari, the god of rice, sake, and prosperity. Here, visitors offer a coin donation and pray, walk at the base of its mountain, and find a quiet space to take in the vibrant colors.
Another, far less crowded temple to consider is Rurikoin. Located on the outskirts of Kyoto, this hidden treasure is dreamlike when the autumn leaves change and cherry blossom season begins. You won’t find hordes of tourists, only a Technicolor collection of nature that appears like a painting. Breathe it in.
Walk This Way
Considered by many as the most beautiful street in all of Asia, Shinbashi Dori in the chic Gion neighborhood is like a street out of the most tranquil dream. The shaded area is draped by willow trees and glowing paper lanterns—a sight to behold during cherry blossom season. The Shirakawa canal, or “White River,” runs alongside the street and past beautiful wooden teahouses, restaurants, and boutiques that offer lattes and kimono-clad clutches.
Around the corner from Shinbashi sits Gion Yata, a restaurant offering Kyoto cuisine. Located in a traditional townhouse, it has an open kitchen, and on the second floor, a private room for dining with private bar vibes. Traditional multicourse Japanese cuisine (called kaiseki), including buttery wagyu beef and clam dumpling broth, is featured. 605-0087 Kyoto Prefecture
Less than 15 minutes away from Gion Yata, head to where all of the cool kids sip and chat: Sour. The bar draws in cocktail lovers with its fun shochu cocktails, mixed with Japanese spices and fresh fruits like fig, watermelon, and mango. Live DJs make appearances in front of a colorful bed of fresh produce behind the wooden bar. 604-8041 Kyoto-fu, Kyoto-shi
Detox and Chill
Suiran Hotel, Kyoto
Luxury Collection’s first hotel in Japan, Suiran, has the most enviable location in all of Kyoto—on an idyllic street under the verdant hills of Arashiyama. Views from the property include the famous Togetsukyo Bridge on the Katsura River. There are 39 guest rooms mirrored after the traditional ryokan style. Some include a gorgeous private onsen—a traditional warm Japanese bath made of natural spring water that is believed to calm the mind and rid the body of toxins. At the hotel’s café, Saryo Hassui, afternoon tea with Japanese sweets can be enjoyed right on the Hozu River outside as canoes float by.
Less than 10 minutes away from Suiran, Tenryuji Temple is a Zen temple with jaw-dropping mountain views. Meditate near a central pond shaded by drooping pine trees and a colorful garden. After a morning of going inward, take a short stroll to % Arabica, a popular kissaten that serves frothy lattes worthy of the line that snakes around the street. But with the views of the jade-color river just across the street, time is of no consequence.
Article courtesy of Kristin Braswell, Vogue