If you have a lot of stamina, a trip to Tokyo and Kyoto isthe perfect getaway
isiting Tokyo for the first time is a little like falling down Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole: The clash of perfect order and bright neon chaos is a jarring thrill. In the heart of this neat and orderly city, my friend and I find a roadside Ferris wheel, its explosive color like that of a fireworks display. Walking around the city feels a bit like being dropped into a pinball game; Tokyo is a beautiful contradiction.
Our first stop the evening we arrive is the Hotel Okura, designed in 1962 by celebrated architect Yoshiro Taniguchi. There seem to have been no changes made since then to its mod décor, which is so pristine and faithful to the era that you’d be hard-pressed to find anything to update. In our suite on the penthouse floor of the hotel, which is situated across the street from the US embassy, we are greeted with cold champagne and a spectacular city view through a wall of windows. If only we’d been scouting for a James Bond film, we would have to look no further.
But with a taste of champagne and that teasing view, there is no hope for going to bed. Outside the hotel, on a generic-looking city block, is a lively shantytown called Shinjuku Golden Gai. Comprising more than 200 bars connected by a network of six alleyways so narrow that we have to walk single file, this neighborhood is home to some of the city’s unique drinking establishments, most of which can hold no more than five or six people at a time. Although the area was previously home to brothels, these days, no red lights shine in the windows. There is now something for everyone: Korean pop music at Asyl lounge and the very strange bar Tachibana Shinsatsushitsu (meaning Tachibana examination room), which is decorated with the kinds of medical objects and diagrams that inspire horror films. The neighborhood has an Alice in Wonderland vibe and is charmingly run-down, yet it still attracts very high-end tourist clientele.
The next afternoon finds us atop the Park Hyatt Hotel, on the 52nd floor, where the New York Bar, made famous by Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation, draws an international crowd of tourists and business travelers. A panoramic view of the city, visible through floor-to-ceiling windows, is second to none—especially when the sun sets and the city’s lights illuminate the room’s sensuous décor. Once again, James Bond comes to mind; there is no better place in the world than here to sip a martini.
Following cocktail hour, we head to Kyubey, a sushi restaurant that boasts master chefs with samurailike precision and a 15-course tasting menu. Should you eat here for dinner, understand that you will be handing yourself over to the chefs and therefore should be prepared to try dishes like odori ebi, or dancing shrimp, so called because they’re still alive when served. Many of the dishes we try were purchased early that morning from the famous Tsukiji fish market, where a new record was set at the tuna auction in January 2013: 155.4 million yen ($1.76 million) for a 489-pound whole tuna. This decadence begets decadence, so we cap dinner with a cigar at Raison d’Etre, ground zero for great stogeys. Tucked away in the shopping arcade of the ANA InterContinental Hotel, the store has an expansive selection of cigars worth discovering. Wide awake, we finish the night at the ultra-exclusive Le Baron de Paris, a Japanese outpost of the internationally renowned French nightclub. A hip clientele and brilliant DJs make this the dance capital for Tokyo’s upper crust and in-the-know out-of-towners.
The intimate ambience at the New York Bar in the Tokyo Park Hyatt offers a pleasing contrast to the dramatic metropolitan views seen outside its floor-to-ceiling windows
he following morning, we bid our Tokyo bender goodbye and take a bullet train to Kyoto, home to thousand-year-old Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. The imperial capital for nearly 11 centuries, this city has been ravaged by warfare and natural disasters, yet its resilience is practically palpable and its cultural history is well preserved. If Tokyo represents chaos, Kyoto is calm.
From the train station, we take a taxi straight to the Hiiragiya ryokan. Inconspicuous from the outside, making it the perfect respite from the city, this 28-room traditional Japanese inn, in its almost 200 years, has hosted famous writers, artists, politicians, members of the imperial family and Hollywood stars, such as Charlie Chaplin and Elizabeth Taylor. Typical of the late Edo period in which it was built, the architecture features strong, straight lines in grid formation, low ceilings and muted colors.
We start our day with lunch at the Nishiki Market, better known as Kyoto’s kitchen. Each shop in this 126-stall market offers its own special inventory: sushi, fruits and vegetables, utensils, handcrafted candies and dried seafood. At the nearby Teramachi Shopping Arcade, we mill about in a crowd of giggling teenage girls and get our photos taken in a purikura photo booth; its technology allows us to enlarge our eyes and soften our skin—fun-house tricks that render us unrecognizable anime characters.
Now on to sightseeing. Perched partway up Otowa Mountain in the Higashiyama district, the streets of Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka are steeped in history and paved with ancient flagstones. Today, they are filled with tourists strolling, window-shopping and sipping matcha, a powdered green tea, many varietals of which can be found in the streets’ tiny parlors and stores. At the top of Sannenzaka, which means three-year hill, the 1,200-year-old Kiyomizu-dera temple—named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994—draws pilgrims to its sprawling campus of prayer halls, pagodas and verdant gardens, which are filled with shrines to gods believed to answer prayers. The temple is a testament to Eastern architectural genius; not one single nail was used in its construction.
We return to Hiiragiya ryokan by rickshaw as the sun sets over the mountains and darkness fills the city. While we were gone, our suite was transformed into a tranquil dining room. Attendants now stand by with kimonos for us to slip on before we sit down for a traditional kaiseki multicourse dinner replete with sashimi and brilliant-colored garnishes. Following dinner, with our room once again revamped, this time into sleeping quarters, we slip into a soaking tub crafted from Japanese umbrella pine and watch the steam rising from the water. It’s the perfect way to wind down for a good night’s sleep, which, after the weekend we’ve had, arrives as quickly and quietly as the wind in the forests outside.
Shinjuku Golden Gai
The New York Bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo
Kyubey at the Hotel Okura
Raison d’Etre Cigar Club
Le Baron de Paris
KATE GREER is a New York City–based writer, digital strategist and artist.