Winter is the best time to visit Tokyo. It is cold but you will be spending time commuting form one place to the other mainly underground or in well-heated train stations. All buildings are kept at a steamy temperature. I almost found them too hot. From Cat-Cafes to Owl Cafes, Ninja Restaurants to fine dining, electronic hubs to manga districts, Tokyo is vibrant and full of life. Here are some wonderful places to visit in Tokyo and things to do in Tokyo.
This time, Tokyo Station has become my second home as I am currently in residence at the luxurious Aman Tokyo, which is only a four-minute walk away.
I have finally conquered fears of crowds and getting lost (there are about half a million people using this station daily).
The beauty of Tokyo
Travellers should avoid being there at rush hour.
The 100-year-old Marunouchi side of the station has undergone extensive renovations and it is now restored to its pre-war condition (the station as most all of Tokyo was badly fire-bombed during WWII).
I particularly like the main dome under which the Travellers Help office sits, staffed by English-speaking experts who provide information on how to get from A to B.
If you, like me, get disoriented despite maps, there is always a kind person who will show you how to get to where you are going. This is the beauty of Japan: its people.
As a travel writer most of my previous visits to Japan were organised trips from beginning to end and all I had to do was follow the guide all along thinking what a daunting task it would be to find a train on my own.
This time I am exploring Tokyo without a guide and discover that the system works (everything is well signposted in English) and there is always help at hand so, that Japan Railpass will serve you well.
Do not leave home without it (you can only purchase it from outside Japan).
Cat and owl cafes
Tokyo has an amazing array of world-class restaurants and surprisingly good underground eateries (literally underground, as there are kilometres of underground wide, sparklingly clean arteries connecting platforms.
It also has crazy themed cafes such as the Owl Café, where you share space with startled looking owls, and Cat Cafés, where you can pet the felines that leap onto your lap.
It also has Ninja restaurants in a maze of dark passageways populated by pretend ninjas who might attract the young.
If you want to experience a Japanese traditional dinner (in the old Kyoto kaiseki style) but without the rituals and in a vibrant atmosphere, try Giro Giro in the old quarter of Kagurazaka, Shinjuku. (Giro Giro Kagurazaka Daily 5.30pm-12am.
Fixed degustation menu of ten dishes at 4500 yen per person 5-30 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku. Reservations: 03-3269-8010. Nearest Station: Ushigome Kagurazaka (Oedo Line) Kagurazaka (Tozai Line) Iidabashi (JR Chuo Line).
This location is quaint and unexpected being as it is so near the high rises of Shinjuku but it looks like Kyoto’s Gion district with cobbled streets, dark little lanes and fleeting sightings geisha on assignment.
Many Italian and French Michelin starred restaurants are located here too.
Giro Giro (sometimes spelled Guilo Guilo) is on a quiet, very narrow alley lined by small lights on the ground. Once in the restaurant, the vibe is intense.
The open kitchen has a team of chefs who don’t mind engaging in lively repartees with customers from their open kitchen.
There are private alcoves upstairs but the action is certainly around the kitchen.
The 10-course degustation dishes are not only delicious but the presentation – from the hand-thrown plates to the absolute perfection of the plating design- is top class.
The wine and sake list is extensive and no matter how modern you get in Japan, tradition is always present:
This Setsubun–themed dish, part of the 10-course menu at Giro Giro – Kyoto, shows all the elements of the Setsubun Festival: the roasted beans, the holly leaf and the presence of sardines (in the countryside, sardine heads used to be burnt at the end of winter to scare away evil spirits).
More places to visit in Tokyo
Lucky enough to be here at the right time, I follow a tip and take myself to the Kanda-Miojin shrine where the Setsubun Festival will take place.
I get here by train, of course (I have given my Japan Rail Pass a thorough work out) but coming out of the station I need help.
A gentleman sees me pondering and walks me to the shrine, which is way away from his destination.
The Setsubun festival ushers in spring and good luck and shoos away winter blues and past misfortune.
To do so, families, corporations and all those who can skip work (it is not a national holiday) gather at various shrines and other locations to re-enact an old, rural tradition: throwing roasted beans to the four corners of the compass shouting ‘Evil spirits, go away!’.
In the past, the patriarch of the family would don a devil or ogre mask and the children would chase him, throwing beans at him.
Nowadays, people go to organised sessions where celebrities, cheerleaders in manga costume and corporations throw beans (in neat little pouches) and sweets from a balcony or raised platform to the crowds below.
I am amazed at the orderly fashion in which this ceremony takes place: a determined number of people are allowed into rope enclosures every few minutes, so everybody has a chance to catch some the bounty.
The opening parade is the eeriest as Edo period uniformed Firemen file in chanting old and haunting songs.
It is also very reassuring to see JAL pilots and crew at the balcony throwing beans to the crowd and thus assuring another year free of misfortune.
Getting under the skin of Tokyo requires a degree of enterprising as in such busy metropolis it is easy to feel overwhelmed by it all. But if you persevere and seek beauty you will find it; not least in the helpfulness of its inhabitants.
Thank you Tokyo, can’t wait till I am back…
Maria Visconti travelled as a guest of JNTO and the Aman Tokyo