Dec 012009

By Denise Mattia

Grand scale skyscrapers, manicured gardens, little white gloves on taxi drivers that go with white lace seat covers for their cabs. Clean streets and a clean underground system. Elegantly prepared cuisine in food bars. When I think of Tokyo, detail, design, order and cleanliness come to mind. Without these elements the city, with nearly 13 million people occupying its center, would be a drab and claustrophobic place.

Exploring the City

View is everything in Tokyo, and the accommodations at the Ritz-Carlton-Tokyo, which occupies the top nine floors of the Midtown Tower, the tallest building in Tokyo, present an impressive bird’s-eye view of the city and Mt. Fuji beyond. It would have been easy to stay in and let myself become mesmerized by the ever-changing scene, but there were places to go.The Midtown Tower is an urban district in the center of the city that opened in 2007. On the street level, passers-by are invited to rest, eat, buy or browse in museums, galleries, trendy shops, restaurants and bars designed around sculpture parks. David Childs SOM, Master architect of the Midtown Tower developed the idea after a traditional Japanese garden. His team was “particularly fastidious about creating a complex where people can readily gather and savor the space around them.”

Close to the Midtown Tower is the largest property development in Tokyo, the Roppongi Hills , an expansive maze of concrete and glass buildings and multi-level malls. Portions of the Hills are devoted to an art center, with a number of museums and galleries showing the latest in contemporary art and design. The complex is so big I needed a map to find my way around this city within the City. Fortunately brochures are located in pockets at every entrance. I found less trafficked districts farther south where visitors find oases among the tranquil gardens and waterfalls adjacent to the Sheraton Miyako and the Grande Tokyo Bay Hotels.

There’s little left of historic architecture in Tokyo (formerly Edo). Until 1868, when the Tokugawa shogun was overthrown, the capital and Imperial Residence were moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. Much of the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1923 and by bombs during World War II. A replica

of the 19th century Edo Castle, now the Imperial Palace, home to Emperor Akihito, was completed in 1968. Visitors are able to enter the inner palace grounds only at the New Year’s Greeting (January 2nd) and on the Emperor’s Birthday (December 23rd).

Returning to my hotel was more difficult than I thought. Weary from trekking all over Tokyo, I took several wrong turns. Still, the city is safe no matter what the hour. Respect for the law is the norm, as evidenced in the way renegades from convention and gray-flannel suiters wait at untrafficked corners for the light to change before crossing. I was told that if you leave your wallet at a counter, you’ll find it there when you return. The only problem I encountered was that menus are in Japanese, and waiters don’t speak English. But with a little mime and customers’ help, I wasn’t disappointed with my snacks.

I feel like an honored guest whether I’m at a sushi bar or a hotel. Hotel personnel have a talent for addressing guests by name — a gift for memorization I wish I had. I also stayed at the Four Seasons Marunouchi and the Mandarin Oriental, and felt my hotel rooms were home. In one day I’d come to view the Ritz-Carlton the same way. The bathrooms are particularly impressive. More often than not, they were bigger than my New York apartment. And no one but the Japanese would design a warmer that runs through the commode seats, ensuring

a comfortable “sit,” in addition to installing control buttons nearby to spray warm water on the front or back of your derriere once business is complete.Help in retracing my steps came from those who spoke English, and

those willing to try out their language skills. I arrived back at the hotel in time for an exemplary dinner at the Hinokizaka on the Ritz-Carlton’s 45th floor. The restaurant’s top chef, Junichi Yoshida, prepares sumptuous

dishes on a built-in teppan (griddle), while diners at a counter opposite watch in eager anticipation.

Then, it was time to leave. My new home was at the Rosewood Hotel, Seiyo Ginza, one of the first luxury properties built in Tokyo and I arrived in time for a late luncheon at the Repertoire, a dining room reminiscent of traditional French cafés in my native New York. Although noon hour is the standard midday meal, a multinational power lunch was still going on by the time I left to see more of the city.

Clutching maps, I explored Ginza, the Fifth Avenue of Tokyo, passing Tiffany’s, Cartier’s and Chanel before venturing into the subway where a passenger helped me decipher the system.

A giant red paper lantern marks the entrance to the Sensouji Buddhist Temple at Asakusa. The main religions in Japan are Shintoism and Buddhism, and many Japanese are believers in both. Once inside the most famous temple in Tokyo, a long street flanked by shops selling colorful souvenirs and snacks leads to the Asakusa shrine. Built in 1649 the shrine is the only structure that escaped wartime bombs.

At the beautiful Hamarikyo Onshi Garden, I boarded the Sumida River Cruise boat, which follows the coastline. From the waterfront, it’s easy to see the Tokyo Tower. A taller copy of The Eiffel Tower, the orange and white lattice structure was constructed in 1958 and supports an antenna that broadcasts television and radio signals for important Japanese media outlets.

My arrival at the Hinode Pier was much farther south than I’d expected. Still, the subway system in Tokyo is excellent, if not a little daunting, and I was soon at the hotel. Not wishing to venture out again, the Seiyo Ginza’s affordable, popular Italian bistro, Attore, provided me with universal comfort food.

Another gastronomic mission took place the next morning, with a pre-dawn visit to the Tsukiji Fish Market and tuna auction followed by a breakfast on fresh sushi. Unfortunately it was pouring rain, at 4:45 a.m., when I left the comfort of the hotel and, map in hand, turned into Ginza Chuo Dori. There was hardly any sign of life along Tokyo’s most famous shopping, dining and entertainment avenue. Daylight would transform it into a thriving, lively promenade, luring tourists and nationals into shopping or simply window shopping for the latest fashion or electronic gadget, or dining in one ofthe innumerable restaurants.

Sloshing through rivulets, I arrived at the market, an area the size of a few football fields. Here, thigh-high rubber boots slapped against slickers; only faces and fearsome hooks were discernable on the men inside them. I’d walked too far and was in the wrong section. Still, I didn’t have to ask. One look at this bewildered, somewhat bedraggled tourist and a worker knew where I wanted to go. He pointed his hook in the right direction and I neatly skipped along.

Tourists jammed the cordoned periphery of the cold, damp hanger, watching potential buyers inspect the three-to-four-foot finless/tailless frozen tuna, which had been separated into lots and positioned in rows on a concrete floor. Brokers walked from one to the next lot, from one to another big fish, each time lifting a cutout near the rear with a hook and removing a small morsel. The action was imperceptible. But to these knowledgeable buyers, rubbing the tiny pieces of tuna between their fingers to determine the texture and quality of the fat content meant the difference between bidding on and passing over the catch.

At 5:30 an auctioneer stood on a small platform, rang a bell and started the trading. Farther down, another bell pealed and another lot was traded, until finally, all the prime fish had been sold, marked with the buyer’s identification and carted away. Secondary auctions took place, and by 7 a.m. most of the fish had been loaded on trucks or brought to shops located inside the market. Since my visit, stricter regulations toward tourists were enacted due to their interference during the auction process.

Kabuki-Za Theater

After the market, I stopped by the Kabuki-Za Theatre. Inside, booths line corridors to the width of

the theatre and offer a variety of snacks and souvenirs, T-shirt and Kabuki doll vendors taking up

the larger spaces. Nearby, patrons can dine at a fast-food restaurant before and between performances and during intermission.

Kabuki, a dance-drama, was started originally by a women’s acting company in the early 15th century as a popular form of entertainment. While still retaining its dance-like movements, the plots and stories have become stronger over the centuries and the scenery and décor more elaborate. Matinees at Toyko’s famous theatre start at 11, and evening shows run from 4:30 to 9. Headsets provide an excellent translation.

Unlike the play I’d seen many years ago in New York, where our theatres aren’t configured for Kabuki, it was apparent how essential the wide,shallow stage and long raised gangway is to the presentation. I couldn’t resist attending an authentic performance. Watching the heroine reenactthe drama about forbidden love was like watching in slow motion the petals on a flower blossom and sway in a gentle breeze, while her lover –fierce with his enemies and tender with her – accepted his fate with heroic dignity. It was thrilling.

I stopped for a Starbucks coffee in the Marunouchi business district near the Tokyo Station, the starting point of most of Japan’s trains. Built in 1912,the station was bombed in 1945 and is currently being restored. Between sipping the brew, browsing the internet and looking out the window at city life in the rain, it occurred to me that like any major city, Tokyo has its share of problems with housing, traffic, parking, finance – and bias, as well. I’d been told that in order to prevent women from being groped in the subway during rush hour, male and female riders use separate cars. Still, to this tourist who comes from a fabulous but overcrowded, chaotic, dirty city, Tokyo seemed like a Utopia. I realized I’d merely seen the highlights and would likely never experience the real Tokyo. Still, it’s a great city, and my visit was reason enough for me to learn about and experience more of the country.

There’s a new solution for tourists traveling throughout the country. The East Japan Rail Pass, powered by ACP Rail’s RailNet web-based system, will let you receive a confirmation and e-ticket voucher for exchange in Japan.


as published in

Denise Mattia

About Denise Mattia

A writer and photographer, Denise Mattia’s works are published nationally and internationally and include all aspects of leisure travel: art , culture, resorts, spas, food and wine and sports’ activities. She's the founder of the soon to be launched Yum-Yum-Traveler, a site devoted to reviewing restaurants in addition to her travel articles from around the world. She lives and works in Manhattan, where she was born.

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