[soundtrack. this must be the place]
It was back in ’95 as a young and green 15-year old that I first went to Japan. I was on a 3-month student exchange to a school in Nagoya. It was my first solo overseas trip and I loved every second. I was super lucky to be welcomed into the home of a very kind local family, which made the living-away-from-home thing a whole lot easier. I quickly fell in love with the feeling of being well outside my comfort zone. I was excited and intrigued by this new culture, their language and their traditions. It was incredible. And I guess it set the tone for all my travels today.
My recent trip to Japan in March was just a quickie but we managed to cover off a couple of days in Tokyo (obviously never enough time), the snowy-mountain town of Hakuba, the art island of Naoshima in the south, and then the nature-driven beauty of the Ise-Shima National Park to stay at the outrageously beautiful Amanemu.
With only a couple of days to bop around Tokyo, we managed to find some awesome little spots but also missed out on a few as we ran out of time. A big shout out to my friend Jac at The Broadplace who passed on so many of her awesome recos. Jac, and her partner Arran, have curated the most wonderful Tokyo exploration manual - a perfectly put together guide on how best to spend some lovely days in this energetic and mesmerizing city - if you can get your hands on a copy, I would strongly suggest you do!
The Park Hyatt
The Park Hyatt Tokyo may already be on your radar thanks to its starring role in the 2003 hit indie film Lost in Translation. Staring an aging actor (Bill Murray) and a neglected wife (Scarlett Johansson), this award-winning film by Sofia Coppola went on to become the best PR exercise the hotel has ever experienced. Interestingly, it took awhile though for director Sofia Coppola to get the Park Hyatt on board. Coppola was knocked back on two separate occasions before the hotel finally succumbed (when Coppola made a 3rd offer that was apparently too hard to refuse) to allowing the Coppola crew to shoot their film on site. The Coppolas offered to book out individual hotel rooms for each of the cast and crew, for an entire three week period - agreeing to shoot between midnight and 5am only - so as not to disturb other hotel guests. The film was made, and the Park Hyatt has since remained Tokyo’s most decorated hotel. Housed over the upper floors of the Kenzo Tange tower in Shinjuku, the Park Hyatt offers spectacular views out over Tokyo to Mount Fuji. The check-in process is impeccable. Guests are greeted on the ground floor (Level 2) and then escorted up to the glass-walled 41st floor where a concierge team will meet and greet you and personally accompany you to your room. It is there, once settled, that they will sit with you to go through your arrival information. Intimate and personalised, this process sets them apart from any other hotel I have visited.
Rooms are large and spacious. Aesop Skincare (my favourite) lines the shelves of the bathrooms. The views are incredible. Only one interior designer and one architect were used to design the entire property, and we love its pale wood-paneled walls, the green color palette, and the way the hotel uses the communal areas to showcase local artists. The spa on the 47th floor is definitely worth a visit (with its beautiful Japanese-style onsen, well-lit beauty stations, and incredible 25m swimming pool) - some of the best spa facilities in a city hotel that I have ever seen. The bar is a knockout (and one that completes the Park Hyatt Tokyo experience). Made famous also by the film, you will enjoy breathtaking views over a light-filled Tokyo, with live music and old-school cocktails. And lastly, the food is exceptional. The breakfast selection is diverse. I opted for room service (so i could enjoy more time in the room itself) and had a healthy egg white omelette with ricotta and all sorts of greens. The staff are discreet, kind and humble. The Park Hyatt’s Shinjuku location makes it the perfect base for exploring the city, and if your budget allows, I would highly recommend this exceptional accommodation experience in Tokyo. It will wow you in ways you didn't expect.
After my first night in Tokyo at the Park Hyatt, I then went on to Hakuba in the mountains for a couple of days. On my return to Tokyo a few days later, I checked into the AMAN. Wowee. This, without doubt, is the most exceptional city hotel I have ever stayed at in the world. Big call, I know, but the AMAN Tokyo is a peaceful and humble oasis in the heart of the business district (Nihonbashi), right by Tokyo station, and it will completely blow your mind. Designed by Australian architect kerry hill (responsible also for the Lalu hotel in Taiwan we stayed at last year, as well as a number of other hotel throughout Asia (incl some other AMANs), his design inspiration for AMAN Tokyo came by way of three Japanese themes - nature, light and space. On arrival, guests are greeted on the ground floor by a team of discreet, polite and friendly hotel staff before being ushered up to the 33rd floor. Here, the impressive lobby area is cleverly designed around an engawa (japanese garden) with 30m high traditional washi paper walls. Famed for its high tea, it was strawberry season when I visited (the signal that spring has begun), and so ladies gathered at the AMAN to enjoy their strawberry-themed high tea in this beautiful open space. The Italian restaurant is led by chef de cuisine, Masakazu Hiraki, who is originally from Japan but spent 17 years living in Venice, Italy. The food therefore is a reflection of this.
The Fumoir cigar lounge, another impressive room, is a place where residents as well as guests can store their alcohol and cigars to come back and enjoy at anytime. The 84 minimalist rooms throughout the hotel are light-filled and full of traditional Japanese furnishings including washi paper sliding doors and a “furo” deep-soak onset bathtub. The pool, however, was the highlight for me. 33m long at 34 floors high, this incredible space - with its floor to ceiling windows - has jaw-dropping views over the Imperial Palace and out to Mt Fuji. You are provided robes, towels, goggles, water - anything at all you might need to make your swim easier and more enjoyable. We enjoyed a deeply relaxing 90min seasonal journey spa treatment with senior therapist, Mai, in an all-light and pale-wood treatment room. It was ridiculously heavenly. But probably the best bit (and the nicest surprise) was the personalized leather name tags that were already affixed to our bags on checking out. It’s the little things… An incredible accommodation experience and the hugest treat. It is so very beautiful here.
Shop & Explore
National art centre: we loved the current Yayoi Kusama: My Eternal Soul exhibition.
Nezu Museum Garden for a peaceful place to rest
Check out the amazing depachika (or food halls) in the basements of department stores - Takashimaya is our favourite
Yoyogi Park on a Sunday afternoon
Miyazaki: if you’re into movies/cartoons
Commune in Aoyama
Mori Art Museum
Post book store
Dover Street Market
Aoyama Growers Markets - on weekends only.
Bonjour Records in Daikanyama.
Little Nap: off the beaten track a little, right near Yoyogi Park, this was our favourite coffee find of all.
Cafe Kitsune: a cute coffee shop corner down a little laneway in Aoyama, with a charming bamboo courtyard and staff that dress in matching Kitsune sweaters. Coffee and a few tiny snacks only. Don't come hungry! Extra points for Aesop Skincare in the tiny bathroom.
Fuglen: where Scandinavia meets Shibuya (via Oslo). We love this cosy little spot.
Bear Pond Espresso: this is one worth hunting down.
Cobi Bloom and Branch: a cute spot in Aoyama with more than just coffee - ceramics, clothes and more.
Blue Bottle: with quite a few locations around town, we like this one in Aoyama.
Shozo Coffee: the prettiest one of all (very photo-friendly).
Saturdays: for a coffee with your NYC-style clothes shop.
Little Cloud Coffee: inside the Visvim store in Shibuya.
Sidewalk Stand in Nakameguro for their affogato.
(So many more…but that should be enough to get you started…).
There are endless awesome eating options in Tokyo, obviously. But (in our short couple of days in the city) we absolutely loved some of these…
Shimada: the standing restaurant. No seats, you just stand at the counter. No English menu. Just trust what they recommend. The food is incredible.
Butagumi: for the best tonkatsu in Tokyo. A great lunch option.
Kaoriya: for lunch or dinner in Ebisu. All the noodles here are based on buckwheat, and come served on ginormous wooden trays. incredible. As recommended (again) by Jac from The Broadplace. So good.
Brown Rice Cafe: for an organic and healthy lunch.
Higashiya: a must for afternoon tea.
Yakitori bars: we recommend trying Birdland.
Mikawazezankyo: for excellent tempura (a little off the beaten track).
Sue Zen: as recommended by Julia Ostro.
Lotus Bakery in Nakameguro: for their charcoal croissants.
Gogyo Ramen: order the kagashi, or burnt ramen.
Oshito in Azabujuban: for their delicious vegan food and individual tatami mat rooms.
Den in Jimbocho for Kaiseki with a modern twist.
AMAN Tokyo: for a drink at sunset (overlooking Mount Fuji) from the 41st floor
Park Hyatt: for that real-deal “Lost in Translation” moment.
Gen Yamamoto: for their cocktail degustation.
Bar High Five: for more old-school cocktails
Star Bar: same
Codename Mixology: for more cocktails
Shonzui wine bar: for their focus on natural wines
Zoetrope: for whisky
Ne Plus Ultra: for whisky