Shinjiku East Side, Tokyo
After taking multiple trips via Tokyo over the past decade (to places like Bangkok, Manila, Singapore and Hong Kong), taking one single flight nonstop from New York City is a piece of cake. The bus service from Narita airport to the hotels in the city seems really well organized and runs perfectly on schedule. The new Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo, is a soaring tower of glamour – the tallest hotel in the tallest building in Tokyo – and the view from our room is just as good as any observation deck.
The Ritz-Carlton is the tallest element of Tokyo Midtown, which opened this year. It’s an interesting, upscale place, where we wander the mall (complete with dramatic lighting and hardwood floors, and a decidedly glamorous version of a food court – no McDonald’s here).
I meet with Ricco DeBlank, the general manager of the Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo. He tells me about how the Japanese economy is improving. . “Household spending is up,” he says. “When I arrived here four years ago, if you took the last Metro home, it was empty. Today, it’s full. People are going out, and they are spending money.”
Even if the economy is strengthening, my partner Angel and I are still happily surprised by the generally reasonable prices. Since I’m not on a lavish expense account, however, we avoid taking taxis, opting usually for the efficient Metro subway system. Like any good foreigner we are at first completely confused and purchase the wrong tickets for the wrong amount – but the staff at the entrance gate quickly refund our money, no questions asked.
We head to the new Anime Center and to the always-popular electronics district, where I flirt with the idea of buying a waterproof digital camera.
We take a quick walk from Tokyo Midtown to the new National Art Center, Tokyo, which opened in March 2007 and features international and national exhibits of modern and contemporary art. Its architecture – a sleek glass curve and minimalist interior – is just as impressive as the works in inside.
Later, we meet with Charlie Spreckley, co-owner of the new ultra-luxury tour operator, Bespoke Tokyo. He guides us to a wonderful place for lunch and then for a walk around some of the hottest shopping areas, visiting the shops of some local designers as well as Otomesando Hills, where you can do everything from buy fashionable clothing to race toy cars and pick up a cute little outfit for your dog. Nearby is Cat Street, located between Harajuku and Shibuya, which is becoming more upscale, with boutiques like DKNY (opened in 2007).
In general, I have to say I’m thrilled with the level of service here. People are much more courteous here than in New York City, where I’ve lived for some 20 years. In Tokyo, people go out of their way to let you board the subway – and we quickly adjust our attitudes to do the same for everyone else.
One surprise is difficulty accessing our bank accounts. I guess I had assumed that such a technologically advanced destination would have foreign-friendly ATMs on every corner. But after more than an hour searching and trying unsuccessfully with a variety of machines, someone finally tells us that Citibank is the only place that allows foreigners access to withdraw money. It’s a good tip for any visitor in need of cash.
I have a meeting with the Tokyo CVB this morning, and of course I get lost as soon as I get out of the Metro. I head into a building where I ask the receptionist if she knows where the address is that I’m looking for. She doesn’t quite understand, but quickly finds a security guard who knows what I’m looking for. Rather than just pointing me outside, he accompanies me, walking me about a block away and right into the building where I need to be. I don’t think I’ve ever come across people as helpful as this – certainly in New York City, no one would walk away from their job to make sure a foreigner finds what he’s looking for (I’d more likely just be made fun of in my current home town!).
The drums are pounding and the crowds are filling the streets as we enjoy the festivities at sanja matsuri, a three-day event that takes place in the Asakusa district. The festival started some 13 centuries ago to honor three fishermen who “caught” a statue of the goddess Kannon in their nets. That statue is now enshrined in Asakusa’s Sensoji temple. It’s a lively event, and we enjoy the music, the processions and some delicious food from a street vendor. Even a brief rain shower can’t douse the spirit of the participants.
The perfect spring weather continues in Tokyo, and we head to Odaiba, a growing waterfront neighborhood with several amusement and entertainment options, including Palette Town, a shopping and amusement complex with a giant Ferris wheel that offers great views of the city. We hear thumping music coming from a nearby parking lot and find that it’s Body & Soul, a giant afternoon dance party. Continuing further, we find? the striking architecture of the Fuji TV building, some very enthusiastic Elvis impersonators, and an interesting replica of the Statue of Liberty, even more beautiful with the sun setting.
Air travel is always better when you can get into the club lounge – and thanks to American Airlines’s recent move to Terminal 2, things are looking great. Angel and I relax at the airline’s brand-new Admirals Club -which has what I consider the best food and beverage center of any club I’ve seen (spacious, with plenty access areas and no lines to the grub – as a travel writer, access to complimentary grub is always important).
The flight home was equally relaxing thanks to American’s first-class service. But even with six days in Tokyo, I know I just scratched the surface of what’s new and exciting.