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Insider Guide: Best of Tokyo
By C. James Dale, for CNN
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The 634-meter Tokyo Sky Tree is now the world's tallest tower.
CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
(CNN)Tokyo is a city that can roar one moment and whisper at the next, a place where almost anything seems possible.
And sometimes is.
After all, 13 million people share this 2,188-square-kilometer piece of the planet, which is home to some of the world's top restaurants, stores and cafés.
It's also a one-stop center for the best of Japan -- culture, quality products and impeccable service.
For the visitor wondering what to do in Tokyo, the choices are limitless.
The city has endured the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, bombings of World War II, the implosion of its housing bubble in the 1990s and heavy effects of the March 2011 tsunami/earthquake that hit Japan. Each time, its people have dusted themselves off and rebuilt.
Many tourists already feel an affinity with Tokyo thanks to Hollywood -- 1978's "Bad News Bears Go To Japan," for example (what film were you thinking of?).
But you can't say you really know what to do in Tokyo until you spend your mornings walking through its temples, shrines and parks; your afternoons exploring its neighborhoods and back streets and your nights feasting in its restaurants, drinking in its bars and -- why not? -- hitting its famed karaoke joints.
The Peninsula Tokyo
A Peninsula hotel is like that frustrating friend who, no matter how hard you look, has no flaws.
You could say the luxury chain favors quality over quantity, given that it has fewer properties in the world than you have fingers. (Paris in 2013 will make 10.)
The Peninsula Tokyo is located in the city's ritzy Ginza district, a stroll away from designer boutiques and Michelin-starred restaurants.
The best rooms offer views of the neighboring Imperial Palace.
Park Hyatt Tokyo
Yes, we've all seen it before -- the New York Bar at the Hyatt.
The hotel occupies a pricey piece of sky, beginning on the 41st floor of a high-rise in the city's Shinjuku neighborhood.
Rooms are well decorated and comfortable with eye-catching views of Tokyo's sprawl, while the 20-meter pool is worth a few laps.
Some guests might consider the Shinjuku location a bit out of the way.
The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo
This five-star stunner takes up the top nine floors of the 53-story Midtown Tower (along with the first three levels), with views rivaling those of the Park Hyatt.
The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo has a range of accommodation options, including a Japanese-style room for guests who want to walk on tatami mats and bed down on futons while considering what to do in Tokyo.
The Japanese restaurant features a 200-year-old teahouse for private dining.
The spa and pool are essentially on par with the RC's competitors.
The location is close to Tokyo's lively Roppongi neighborhood.
The folks who build Westin hotels snagged themselves a location to brag about when they set up shop in Tokyo's residential Ebisu neighborhood.
Sure, these are not luxury rooms, but they're nothing to complain about and just a few strides from Yebisu Garden Place, with its shops, restaurants and beer museum (Sapporo Breweries' headquarters is there, too).
Nearby Ebisu Station is on the Yamanote Line, the train loop that circles the city. Also within striking distance are the neighborhoods of Hiroo, Nakameguro and Daikanyama.
Don't look under the bed ...
This hotel is for travelers who crave designer digs.
Its 18 rooms are divided into four categories: Japanese modern, tatami, weekly residence and "DIY" -- the latter being custom creations of Japanese designers.
One is called "Someone's atelier" and has framed art leaning against the walls. Another is known as "Pajamas" and has a bed frame covered with stuffed animals.
Claska also houses a café, dog grooming salon, gallery, shop, event space and rooftop terrace.
Some might feel the hotel is away from the action. It's a short bus ride or a 20-minute walk from Meguro Station.
Hotel Princess Garden
This cherry tree-fringed hotel is a winner because of its quiet and strategic location.
It's a two-minute walk from the train and subway lines at Meguro station, including the handy Yamanote route that circles the city.
And it's not much farther from the dynamic neighborhoods of Ebisu, Nakameguro and Shirokanedai.
The 205 rooms at Princess Garden range from single to superior double, from functional to spacious.
Some of them have views of Mount Fuji.
The latest Michelin guide has awarded its highest ranking -- three stars -- to 17 restaurants in the Tokyo area.
Compare that to Paris, where just 10 eateries hold the coveted trois étoiles handed out by the French tire company, and it's pretty clear fine dining should be at the top of any "what to do in Tokyo" list.
One of the latest establishments to win top honors is Ryugin, run by chef Seiji Yamamoto. Called "brilliant" and a "molecular gastronomist" by food critics, Yamamoto opened his restaurant in 2003 with a clear goal -- "to pursue the possibility of Japanese cuisine."
Here's a guy so dedicated to understanding food he sent an eel for a CT scan so he could better understand how to carve up the creature for his signature soup.
Ryugin offers a modern spin on the traditional, multi-course kaiseki meal, making creations out of products ranging from Wagyu beef to monkfish liver pâté to shirako (a.k.a milt or fish sperm).
Diners who would normally say "delicious" are forced here to search for more emphatic terms.
Don't bother trying to count the sushi restaurants in Tokyo (we didn't) -- there are just too many.
From high-end to back alley, there are enough places peddling this famous raw-fish-based creation to keep this city's customers satisfied, not to mention the millions of annual visitors.
One way to grab some of the best sushi in Tokyo and to take in a venerable tourist site at the same time is to dine at Sushi Dai, located at the Tsukiji fish market.
It doesn't get any fresher.
The people who run Seirinkan make some of the best pizza in Tokyo, hands down.
You'll see the oven burning away as you enter this narrow building in Nakameguro.
It would be wise to watch your head as you climb the winding wood and metal staircase to the second and third floors, but it's also worth taking in the décor, which includes helmets and camouflage netting. It feels like you're in an army bunker, albeit one with dark red curtains.
The menu has a variety of pasta and appetizer options, but the pizza is the real reason to go.
Sure, it's limited to just two selections -- the cheese-cherry tomato margherita and the tomato sauce-seasoning-sliced-garlic marinara.
But trust us: once you try them, with their lightly salted crusts, you won't want for anything else.
Go for the eggs benedict; stay for the choco-banana French toast or pancakes.
Cozy Irving Place -- with its plush seats and sofas, antique chairs and Persian-style rugs -- sits atop a two-level store that sells urban chic clothing and pricey body care products, along with plants and flowers.
The menu is varied: sweet offerings (see above), omelets, sandwiches (Cuban, falafel), salads (including a tasty Cobb) and pastas.
When the weather's nice, we recommend grabbing a table on the patio.
Certain meals come with a drink and salad bar option.
If not, you can add them by paying ¥250 extra.
Izakaya are to Japan what tapas bars are to Spain.
They sell Japanese food of different forms and flavors -- grilled meat, seafood, veggies, the works -- along with sweaty mugs of draft beer and whisky soda.
It's all at your command with the press of a button.
The atmosphere can be smoky and loud, full of families or drunken salarymen depending on where you end up.
Ask anyone in Tokyo and they'll point you to their favorite. One of ours is Sasano, an upscale izakaya hidden above a ramen shop in Roppongi, a stone's throw from the Tokyo Midtown development.
The owner focuses on creating dishes that go well with the many different varieties of sake he has in stock.
Popular choices include salted fish and squid, fresh sashimi (straight out of the restaurant's fish tank), sea urchin and marinated salmon roe sushi and the negi-ton, or grilled chicken with chopped fresh green onions and vinegar sauce.
Menus are in Japanese only, but the owner speaks some English.
The winding streets near the west entrance of the JR Ebisu Station are home to a wealth of bars and restaurants, most all but hidden from sight.
A couple of signs outside Bar Tram do their best to entice passersby: "Get Drunk Differently," they say.
Head up the stairs and squeeze through the half-door entrance and you'll understand what that means.
Bar Tram's specialty is serving absinthe, the strong and some say mind-altering drink that's also known as "the green fairy."
Patrons sip the stuff solo at the bar or at small tables.
Small groups can also gather on a pair of comfortable leather couches.
There are plenty of varieties of absinthe to choose from, plus there's a small section of booze at the bar labeled "Dangerous Bottles."
Bar Tram is not everyone's tipple.
It accommodates only about 20-25 people and the air is usually thick with cigarette smoke.
Tokyo is famous for its top-notch, old-school bartenders; men (and some women) who have honed the craft and adhere to a strict set of rules when they mix up the classics.
Among the best, Star Bar is a cozy establishment in Ginza squeezed into a space no bigger than a single train car.
This is where top barman Hisashi Kishi works his magic, using five distinctive shake patterns to blend his creations, including his celebrated Sidecar.
Star Bar, B1/F Sankosha Building, 1-5-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku; +81 (0) 3 3535 8005
Bar High Five
Hidetsugu Ueno used to toil away at Star Bar before opening up his own place, Bar High Five (also in Ginza).
Some people have closets that are more spacious than this watering hole, which can accommodate just a handful of lucky drinkers.
Ueno is fluent in English and famous for his White Lady.
This swank establishment in Aoyama is a favorite with Tokyo visitors. Japanese who know what to do in Tokyo love it, too.
And Mark Zuckerberg must "like" it, as well.
Regulars spotted the Facebook founder and his entourage there last New Year's Eve.
Two Rooms has low lighting, lots of wood and an expansive terrace.
It also has a private room just off the glass-faced, walk-in wine cellar (home to 1,800 bottles).
Drinks don't come cheap. A glass of wine or a cocktail will cost you ¥1,400-¥2,300.
Two Rooms has a sister location in Roppongi, the R2 Supperclub.
Anthony Bourdain featured Bar Ishinohana on his TV program, "No Reservations."
That's probably because owner Shinobu Ishigaki is an award-winning bartender with a penchant for creative garnishes.
He readily mixes all the big-name drinks, but his signature is the Claudia, a rum-pineapple-vermouth concoction that features a cherry plunked inside a dug-out radish, with a lime peel coiled like a snake around the stem of the glass.
If you've come to Tokyo to pour your heart out in song, you've come to the right place.
Walking around town, you wouldn't know that the karaoke business is in decline.
It seems like there's one of these singing havens on every corner.
That's a lot of people belting out "Living on a Prayer."
Clearly, an old-fashioned, stonewashed singsong is what to do in Tokyo.
This karaoke chain has branches all over the city.
The hourly rates are cheap and the closing time is late.
One go-to outlet is in Roppongi, where the rooms are spread out over three floors.
Mancy's puts a fancy, VIP spin on the karaoke experience.
Rooms have large sofas, plush cushions, soft rugs, artwork and mood lighting.
It's pricey, but a worthy experience nonetheless.
Shopping / Attractions
Better pack a backup credit card.
You'll need it if you're planning on shopping in Tokyo or doing much traveling around this expensive city.
Starting at the top, the luxury and designer gang's all here, some of them in well-designed digs -- the Prada outlet in Aoyama and Louis Vuitton store in Roppongi are both photo-worthy.
Many beat a path to the 34,000-square-meter Omotesando Hills complex, which has about 100 brand-name shops and restaurants.
Escape the crowds at Roppongi Hills. (Mainly because it's a pricey affair.)
Roppongi Hills is another attractive destination for shopping and sightseeing.
Visitors can find Hugo Boss and Diane von Furstenberg, along with Banana Republic and Zara.
The sprawling complex is also home to unique Japanese shops, including jewelry designer Yoshinob.
In addition, Roppongi Hills has a hotel, the Grand Hyatt Tokyo (rooms start at ¥38,000), a movie theater with a VIP screening lounge (¥3,500 gets you a ticket and a drink) and an observation deck with 360-degree views of Tokyo and the surrounding area (¥1,500 per person).
For an extra ¥300, visitors not prone to vertigo can step outside onto the Sky Deck.
Still puzzling over what to do in Tokyo?
The Oriental Bazaar traces its roots to 1916 and claims that shoppers who visit can get almost anything related to Japan.
Visitors will find kimonos for adults and kids, Hello Kitty key holders and lacquerware, along with art and antiques.
A quiet day on Harajuku's Takeshita Dori. Really.
Takeshita Dori is one of the places Gwen Stefani's Harajuku Girls go to stock up on cheap togs and accessories.
The 400-meter-long walking street is a must-see for visitors keen to sample some of the styles worn by Japanese youth -- frilly dresses with low hemlines, wigs, trinkets and T-shirts.
Keep your camera on standby -- Tokyo's cosplay aficionados like to strut around in this area (and closer to the train station), showing off their outfits like proud peacocks.
Takeshita Dori also has cafés, fast food outlets, a Hello Kitty ice cream stand and a three-story ¥100 shop (Daiso, Japan's version of the Dollar Store).
This neighborhood is Tokyo's bastion of bohemia, a place where college and university kids go to hang out and maybe catch some live music.
Shimokitazawa has big brands (such as French chain Petit Bateau), but is known more for its local boutiques, which sell everything from vintage clothing to vinyl.
The Shimokitazawa Garage Department is a trendy indoor bazaar with 20 or so small stores selling hats, used and new clothing, jewelry, bags, bikes and T-shirts.
Village Vanguard is a national chain in Japan, but some say its coolest outlet is in Shimokitazawa.
It's billed as an "Exciting Book Store," but it offers much more.
A dizzying array of stuffed toys, watches, cards and Japanese manga, plus joke items (poop-shaped hats, plastic purses that look like blackfin tuna) and light sex toy fare.
Temples and shrines
Kaminarimon -- the "Thunder Gate" -- guards Sensoji.
What to do in Tokyo? Temples, that's what.
Most people who visit Japan end up setting foot in at least one shrine or temple.
Tourists often head straight for Tokyo's oldest temple, the Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple in Asakusa.
After walking through the Hozomon Gate, visitors will see the main hall and the five-story pagoda.
The Shinto Asakusa Shrine stands next to the main building.
Nakamisa Dori is also nearby.
It's a shopping street selling a vast range of items, including Japanese yutaka (summer kimono), fans and ninja costumes for kids.
There are also dozens of cafés and restaurants in the nearby area -- take the Ginza, Asakusa or Tobu lines to Asakusa Station.
Meiji Shrine in Harajuku is a big draw with the foreign and Japanese tourist crowds. The Shinto shrine, surrounded by a small urban forest (170,000 trees), is dedicated to the souls of Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken.
Visitors walk through the large torii gates and up a gravel pathway to the shrine buildings.
Meiji Shrine is packed during the New Year period -- take the Chiyoda or Fukutoshin lines to Meiji Jingu Mae Station, or the Yamanote Line to Harajuku Station.
Not into big crowds?
You could always head to a neighborhood temple, such as the Meguro Fudoson Ryusenji Temple -- take the Tokyu Meguro Line to Fudo-mae Station, walk 10 minutes.
This is where Japan's emperor and empress rest their pampered royal heads.
The Palace, a 10-minute walk from Tokyo Station, was built in the late 1800s, destroyed during World War II and then rebuilt.
It's surrounded by gardens and a moat, with two bridges (one stone, one wooden) forming the entrance to the inner grounds.
Aside from guided tours, the Palace grounds are open to the public only on December 23 (Emperor Akihito's birthday) and January 2 (Imperial Family's New Year greeting).
The Imperial Palace East Gardens are open all year round except Mondays, Fridays and special occasions. For the most current information, check The Imperial Household Agency website before visiting.
Check for pink in Nakameguro in spring.
April is cherry blossom season in Tokyo and for about three weeks, the city floats on a cloud of pink-and-white flowers.
It's the time of year friends and family get together to sit in parks for hanami, or flower viewing.
This also involves a lot of eating, drinking and boisterous merrymaking.
Tens of thousands of people pack Ueno Park to stroll or hold hanami parties -- take the Yamanote Line to Ueno Station.
Others flock to Kitanomaru Park, part of the outer gardens of the Imperial Palace and home to the National Museum of Modern Art, the Science Museum and the Nippon Bodokan, a venue for martial arts competitions and concerts -- take the Tozai Line to Kudanshita Station or Takebashi Station.
The cherry trees that hang over the Meguro River in Nakameguro are also stunning. Vendors set up stalls selling food, beer and pink Champagne.
Lanterns lining the river are lit up at night, adding to the ambiance -- take the Hibiya Line or the Toyoko Line to Nakameguro Station.
Tsukiji fish market
"Hey, Koji -- there's a squid in your pants."
You've got to be a morning person if you want to check out the real action at Tsukiji.
The market, which handles the largest volume of fishery products in Japan (more than 450 kinds), opens its famous fish auction at 5 a.m.
It also has a sometimes-overlooked outer market, where shoppers can pick up seasonal fruit and vegetables, beans, spices and more.
Take the Hibiya Line to Tsukiji Station or the Oedo Line to Tsukijishijo and follow your nose.
The two towers
Poor Tokyo Tower. For more than half a century, the 333-meter tower was the tallest in the land.
People came from far and wide to zip up to its observatory deck and take in the views of Tokyo, Mount Fuji and Mount Tsukuba.
They'd also meet its weird, phallic mascots, the Noppon Brothers.
About 150 million people have climbed Tokyo Tower since it opened in 1958 (¥820 to the 100-meter deck, ¥600 more to the 250-meter deck).
But now it has a rival -- the 634-meter Tokyo Sky Tree, which is now the world's tallest tower.
Two observatories (350 meters and 450 meters) are open to the public, with 1.5 million people having visited in its first week, during May, 2012, alone.
The higher of the two will feature an "air corridor" -- a glass outer walkway, with an eye-watering ¥3,000 to get to the 450-meter deck.