Tokyo is suddenly affordable. With the U.S. dollar devalued in Canada and Europe, travel to upscale restaurants and hotels in those regions is more challenging than ever before. The opposite is true in Japan: once formidably expensive, Tokyo now has prices on par with New York or Los Angeles rather than London or Paris.
Your best bet is to ease into Tokyo by starting your evening at one of the extraordinarily luxurious hotel bars—they are used to gaijin (foreigners) here. Your inability to speak Japanese won’t matter. Outside the hotels, you need patience, an ability to communicate in pantomime, affability and a hearty sense of humor. Nothing will occur exactly as you hope, but it all works out.
“Tokyo is just like America,” says Takeshi Endo, a Japanese businessman who got his MBA in the United States. “Only it’s different in every way imaginable.”
If that sounds inscrutable, it isn’t—what Endosan means is that being in Japan will feel familiar to Americans, but at the same time the Japanese have reinvented and refined what they have taken from the West and made it uniquely theirs.
New York Grill, at Park Hyatt Tokyo (3-7-1-2 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; www.parkhyatttokyo.com), was made famous in Lost in Translation and it retains that cinematic appeal both in terms of the deeply sophisticated ambience and the spectacular views of the city 52 floors below. The wine here is exclusively American, often from hard-to-find, small yield vineyards. Equally enjoyable is Tapas Molecular Bar at Mandarin Oriental hotel and resor (2-1-1 Nihonbashi Muromachi, Chuo-ku; www.mandarinoriental.com) where Chef Jeff Ramsey puts on a floorshow with delicious dishes created through the wonders of chemistry, such as “carrot caviar.”
Tokyo has this thing for luxury that is way over the top, and hotels with lounges that prepare you for the city at large can be found at The Conrad (1-9-1 Higashi-Shinbashi, Minato-ku; http://tokyo.conradmeetings.com), or the spanking new Ritz Carlton (9-7-1 Akasaka, Minato-Ku; www.ritzcarlton.com) or The Peninsula (1-8-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku; www.peninsula. com). The Conrad offers killer views of the harbor; the other two properties only opened this year.
All over town there are terrific wine bars, shochu bars, tea rooms, and cafes where beautiful jazz—Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker—plays while you enjoy delicious Japanese food. Like Ori-Higashiya (3-16-28 Nishi Azabu, Minato-ku; www.higashiya.com), a tea shop next to an art gallery, where the country’s best teas are served in an atmosphere so calm you might as well be in the countryside rather than in this Megapolis.
A great place to continue your evening is by having some fresh, raw fish—hundreds of places exist in the city. One of the best, frequented by locals, is an 11-seat spot called Sushi Kogai (2-10-5 Nishi Azabu, Minato-ku). Based on his assessment of how you feel, Chef Kazuo will serve you fish and shellfish he thinks will address your mood: Ikura with shredded daikon, mackerel, shrimp, snapper, tuna—I had 15 courses of the tastiest sushi I’ve ever enjoyed, and all for just $75.
Japanese food is far more than raw fish, and it’s essential to roll up your sleeves and dig in. Reserve a table at Toufuya Ukai (4-4-13 Shiba Koen, Minato-ku; www.ukai.co.jp) where the emphasis is on fresh vegetables and deeply satisfying tofu served in a reconstructed mansion brought piece by piece to the city from the prefecture of Yamagata. One of the very best soba noodle joints in town is Honmura An (7-14-18 Roppongi, Minato-ku; www.honmuraantokyo.com). Located in cosmopolitan Roppongi, the restaurant serves house-produced soba with fresh grated wasabi.
Tokyo is the trendiest of places and what’s in today may be out tomorrow. But regardless of change, it’s always a destination for discerning gourmets.