By Chadner Navarro
“I can’t wait to eat” seemed to be at the core of everyone’s excitement for our trip to Tokyo. In fact, so strong was our intent to eat our way through one of the world’s greatest cities, we picked our hotels based on their proximity to two exciting culinary hot spots. We wanted to be within walking distance of both Tokyo Station and Tsukiji Fish Market. (We also chose the former because it’s much cheaper and faster to get into Tokyo from Narita Airport via train or bus rather than taxi, so being able to walk to the station became a secondary priority.)
There are so many delicious things you can eat inside a Japanese transportation terminal that my friends and I see Tokyo Station as massive Japanese food court first, transportation hub second. There’s ramen, yakitori and sushi; stands selling takoyaki; and fabulous convenience stores plying all sorts of local candies, cookies, potato chips and other snacks.
Because food was the biggest motivation behind this trip, it was only fitting our arrival to Tokyo would be in a place ready to feed us.
As someone who had been here before, I was quite insistent we, strapped with luggage, first head to Daimaru, a department store connected to Tokyo Station. Its 12th floor includes an outpost of an iconic Japanese restaurant chain called Maisen, known for its tonkatsu, or breaded and fried pork cutlets. I wasn’t silly enough to suggest we actually sit down and eat there, as nearly everyone was suffering the physical exhaustion that comes with flying to Japan from the United States. But that’s what makes Tokyo Station so fantastic. You’re most likely going to arrive tired and hungry. The station offers a vast selection of places to eat, most of which will gladly hand you something to go.
At Maisen I cleverly grabbed two orders of its famous tonkatsu sandwich, made up of three elements: Fried cutlets are stuffed between two slices of white bread swiped with a thin layer of tangy katsu sauce. Our hotel, the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi, lies only a few minutes outside Tokyo Station. I ate sandwich No. 1 soon after we checked in. I ate the second when jet lag unsurprisingly woke me up before 3 a.m. Obviously, this was not my first rodeo.
Mornings after a grueling day of travel to a destination with roughly a half-day time difference can be weird, with your body not really knowing what to do with itself. After a fortifying breakfast of miso soup and rice (when in Rome … ), we leisurely toured the verdant gardens of the Imperial Palace on two wheels. The gardens offer more than just exquisitely manicured bonsai trees. As a centuries-old royal residence, it also includes moats, fortification walls and even guardhouses as well as pretty water features topped with curved bridges. The Four Seasons can outfit you with glistening BMW bikes to take in the gardens’ beauty at greater speed. It’s an atmospheric place that pulls in quite a few tourists, but we didn’t want to be there all day. The spa was waiting.
Surrounded by glittering skyscrapers and chichi shopping malls, the smallish Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi (with fewer than 60 rooms) definitely caters to business travelers, so the spa isn’t an expansive port of indulgence. But following a 14-hour flight from the East Coast, who wouldn’t be thrilled to soak in a small but atmospheric indoor onsen-style thermal bath? Onsens, traditional hot spring baths found all over Japan’s volcanic islands, can be quite stunning when located outdoors, with mountains and trees providing the kind of unforgettable setting that makes relaxation all too easy to achieve. We may not have had the transporting natural surrounds this time around, but the serenity of the spa and the just-hot enough waters of the bath were more than enough to soothe our travel-weary bones.
At more than 840 square miles, the city is massive — yet another reason staying adjacent to Tokyo Central is such a genius choice. It makes every neighborhood of this urban sprawl that much more accessible. The network of trains and subways that stop at this station makes commuting effortless. The western neighborhood of Koenji, known for its overflowing vintage and thrift shops, is a brisk ride away. So is Kichijōji, a laid-back, bohemian enclave with bustling yokocho alleys housing everything from artisan boutiques, bakeries and beer pubs to a buzzing yakitori hot spot, where we enjoyed dinner one night. Two-floor street food eatery Tetchan recently earned renown thanks to its psychedelic aesthetic, with some of the walls and seats covered in a tie-dye pile of Ethernet cables. We chose to sit at the tightly packed bar, featuring no such whimsy except for the nearly overwhelming din of the chatter of the evening crowd. It seemed we all had an identical agenda: Chow down on perfectly charred meats on a stick and toss back ice-cold Sapporos.
By the time we transferred to the Conrad Tokyo, on the other side of glamorous Ginza from the Four Seasons, more than half our time in the Japanese capital had passed. We had seen plenty and eaten even more, but with still a lot to squeeze into the last couple of days of the trip. A few years ago, Conrad launched the Stay Inspired program, a collection of hand-selected local experiences that help travelers dig a bit deeper into a destination. The experiences are categorized based on how long each activity might take: one hour, three hours or five hours. It’s obviously helpful if you have a limited schedule and are overwhelmed with the breadth of options at your fingertips in a city as vast and ever-changing as Tokyo.
The hotel’s website provides detailed descriptions of the experiences, and we found another culinary adventure listed here: a soba-making class. Chef Akila Inoue of the Tsukiji Soba Academy teaches a three-hour-long primer on all things buckwheat noodle. We donned headscarves and aprons and dug deep into our limited reservoir of cooking knowledge and skills to use rolling pins and samurai-style knives, turning dough into edible strands of noodles that would eventually end up floating in a steaming bowl of broth for us to enjoy. It was also in this class some of us learned wasabi doesn’t always come perfectly packaged in plastic tubes but must be made from grating a plant into a paste.
Conrad Tokyo is a 15-minute walk to the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market. We ended up missing the legendary early-morning auction, but the spectacle of the market didn’t lose its luster just because we didn’t watch men bid for the world’s finest tuna. To arrive around 6 a.m. still provides a largely unforgettable experience. The market is mostly full of local chefs as well as home cooks picking up an assortment of fish and seafood while the briny scent of the sea wafts all around. The market has become such a bucket-list destination for travelers, some of the vendors gladly hand over small plastic plates of finely sliced tuna drizzled with soy sauce. You may not want to eat this at such an early hour, but I did. After all, delicious discoveries were the purpose of this trip.