x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Sushi, shopping and serenity in Tokyo

My kind of place Japan's capital is full of tempting bites, captivating fashion and soothing gardens, writes Danielle Demetriou.

Danielle Demetriou in Nakameguro, an area south of Shibuya filled with cafes and vintage stores.
Danielle Demetriou in Nakameguro, an area south of Shibuya filled with cafes and vintage stores.

Sumo, sushi and skyscrapers were among a romantically jumbled maelstrom of images that prompted me to swap London for Tokyo two years ago. I was charmed from the start: with a skyline that changes almost as frequently as the sun rises and sets, it is an ever-evolving city that can tame the most insatiable of short-concentration-span wanderlusts. Today, I live in a pink apartment block along a cherry tree-lined river in Nakameguro, a residential area just south of Shibuya that is filled with cafes and vintage stores.

Perhaps a reflection of a 12 million-strong population, there really is something for everyone in Tokyo: a horde of Michelin-starred restaurants, world-class design stores, trend-sparking street culture, iconic urban architecture, shrines and temples - not to mention some of the freshest sushi in the world. But for me, the most seductive aspect is its atmosphere: it may famously be one of the world's most densely populated cities, but it is not only clean, punctual, safe and polite - it is infinitely more serene than its chaotic counterparts such as London and New York.

Tokyo excels at luxury, with virtually all major hotel groups present. There is the sleek Park Hyatt, aka that hotel from Lost In Translation (www.tokyo.park.hyatt.com; 0081 3 5322 1234, from about US$844; Dh3,100). Afternoon tea queues tail along the marble corridors of the Peninsula (www.peninsula.com/tokyo, 0081 3 6270 2888, from $762; Dh2,799). The Mandarin Oriental is the pick of the crop for understated elegance (www.mandarinoriental.com/tokyo; 0081 3 3270 8800, from $893; Dh3,279). And the latest addition to the luxury hotel scene is the Shangri-La, which opened its gilt-edged doors last year (www.shangri-la.com/tokyo; 0081 3 6739 7888, from $633; Dh2,396).

Those who are on a budget need not scrimp on style. The Grandbell hotel offers a slice of boutique chic at a stone's throw from Shibuya (www.granbellhotel.jp; 0081 3 5457 2681; from $231; Dh850). For a more authentic taste of Japan, check into Yoshimizu, a modern take on a traditional ryokan, complete with futons unrolled nightly, tatami floors and sliding paper screens, in the heart of the Ginza shopping district (www.yoshimizu.com; 0081 3 3248 4432, from $858; Dh233). But there is only one option for the very brave or the very poor: join the salarymen queue and check into a capsule at Akasaka Riverside (www.asakusa-capsule.jp; 0081 3 3844 5117; $33; Dh121 a night).

To get your bearings, make the most of Tokyo's clean, fast, punctual and mostly bilingual transport system and jump on the circular JR Yamanote line. Stop at Ueno to explore its cherry blossom-filled park with hidden shrines, historic museums, tea rooms and lotus ponds. Hop back on the train to Akihabara - aka Electric Town - to pick up the latest gadgets from multi-storey shops. Next stop is Harajuku - visit the forested Meiji Jingu shrine before eating a strawberry cream crepe on Takeshita Dori (a colourful gathering spot for Japan's teens) and exploring the architecture of the design stores of Omotesando. Other stops include Shibuya for shopping and its famous crossing, and Shinjuku for its neon-lit skyscrapers and entertainment district.

Downing sake is the best way to bond with locals. Head to an izakaya - a pub often marked at the entrance with large red lanterns - and tuck into an array of tapas-sized dishes before striking up a conversation with the neighbours. The smaller and more intimate the venue the better - and some are tiny, seating only about half a dozen people. Karaoke also helps break down barriers: ask for directions to the nearest outlet of national chain Karaoke Kan. Be prepared to be outshone - Japanese are endowed with a karaoke gene and will belt out pitch perfect hits till sunrise.

With more Michelin stars than New York, London and Paris put together, the only challenging aspect of dining out in Tokyo is choosing where to eat. For a modern take on traditional Japanese cuisine in a stylish design setting, head to Shunju Daichi no Chikara in Roppongi. The city's best tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlets) are on offer at Maisen, a restaurant in a former bathhouse located on a quiet back lane off Omotesando.

Tap into the latest "beauty food" trend by ordering a collagen nabe hot pot at One Garden in Shibuya, which promises to make skin softer as well as sating appetites. The hardiest of foodies should rise before the sun and head to the famous Tsukiji fish market to peruse the otherworldly collection of marine life on display before tucking into a sushi breakfast at one of the local restaurants. Still overwhelmed? Visit www.bento.com for a comprehensive list of reviews and directions to restaurants and bars across the city.

Resistance to retail therapy is futile in Tokyo, a modern-day temple to all things consumer-related. Ginza is home to wide streets of old school department stores and gleaming fashion towers. An emerging rival is Marunouchi, an area in the throes of a major makeover with a growing number of stylish shopping towers. Omotesando is also home to an architectural encyclopaedia of iconic flagship fashion stores - from Tod's to Christian Dior - while the tangle of small lanes on either side of the boulevard is home to independent boutiques and cafes. For a fashion fix away from the neon lights, head to the small stores and edgy boutiques that fill the Daikanyama area.

Roppongi by night. While there are exceptions, many late night bars have acquired the dubious reputation of attracting western men looking for Japanese girls.

Tokyo is a haven for hidden gems that recall the city's past in a modern context. One example is the garden at the Nezu Museum. Recently reopened following a major renovation by architect Kengo Kuma, the centrepiece is its beautiful green garden, complete with ponds, cherry trees and tea rooms - all the more remarkable given its location in Aoyama a stone's throw from the city's most upmarket design stores. The best way to unearth other such delights - for example, the red gates of a Shinto shrine on a quiet lantern-lit lane in the shadow of a skyscraper? Simply wander the streets and explore. travel@thenational.ae