Worth getting out of bed for
In Asakusa – Tokyo’s Old Town –you’re as likely to see ornate mikoshi shrines sail by on the shoulders of Buddhist monks, as you are gliding geisha in colourful kimonos. Here Shinto festivalgoers swarm around Tokyo’s oldest temple, seventh-century Sensō-ji (+81 3 3842 0181), during thrice-yearly religious festivals in the restored pagoda-style place of worship. Its magnificently detailed deity statues, gauntlet of souvenir stands and glorious gates in bold Buddhist red (Thunder Gate is the most popular for its colossal lantern) temper Tokyo’s world-of-tomorrow style with a touch of tradition tucked between soaring skyscrapers. Religion isn’t the only cause for major celebration in the area, each August revellers at the Asakusa Samba Festival shimmy in glitzy itsy-bitsy bikinis and throughout the year, sumo-wrestlers, samurai and dancing dragons take to the streets. If the celebrations get a bit too much for you, rise above it all at Tokyo Skytree (+81 5 7055 0634), a 20-minute walk from the hotel or a 10-minute metro ride from Asakusa Station on the Skytree line. At 634 metres, this is the tallest tower in the world, so the bird’s-eye view you get from the top is truly spectacular. Or you could take some respite in Sumida Park, a 15-minute walk from the hotel, where a blush of cherry-tree blossoms brightens this waterside spot each spring and the Sumidagawa firework festival lights up the sky in summer. After recharging under a floral canopy, float away on a Sumida River cruise (+81 1 2097 7311) by hopping on at Asakusa pier (a 10-minute walk from the hotel) or take a rickshaw tour (JPY8,000 for 30 minutes) for a break-neck history lesson. Vibrant and vivacious, even during this downtown locale’s downtime, between parades and throngs of praise, it buzzes with kitsch-laden market stalls, bijou ramen joints and bustling bars of all kinds – from dives to designer dens.
The Asukasa district has more ramen joints than you can shake a chopstick at. To reach noodle-filled nirvana all you need to do is step out of the hotel door and follow your nose. The 100-year-old Raishuken (+81 3 3844 7409) Michelin-guide fêted Ippudo (+81 3 5807 2772) and lively local-filled Ichiran (+81 3 5826 5861) are considered to be some of the best. At Unatetsu (+81 4 2221 4522) – a 10-minute walk from the hotel – the chef’s speciality is expertly sliced and diced eels, served chargrilled in large wooden tubs. Minimalist frill-free decor ensures the focus is on the food, and with quirky delicacies such as grilled pine and horse sashimi on the menu, it’s excellent off-script dining for the sushi-spent. English (and Korean) menus are helpfully offered, so your meal won’t be too much of a surprise, unless you want it to be. Mountain (+81 3 6796 0172) – a traditional monjayaki joint – offers a hands-on introduction to the art of Japanese cooking where visitors prepare and make their own food (usually a seasoned pancake with a variety of toppings). Noodle and seafood dishes are also offered for the less DIY-inclined. Elaborately presented teas, an array of ice creams with red-bean-paste sauce and towering parfaits are served in the small café downstairs. Gonpachi Nishi-Azabu (+81 3 5771 0170) is a sushi restaurant with a rock-hewn bar and a gallery level for more intimate evenings and some bar voyeurism. Dark-wood furnishings, exposed wooden beams and an artful sushi menu make the 30-minute metro ride from the hotel to the Minato district worthwhile (via the Ginza and Hibuya lines to Roppongi Station).
Bar Sanfglass (1-16-2 Kaminarimon, Asakusa) is a dinky drinking establishment, where close quarters and a maximum 10-person capacity make for a very sociable environment, and waiters are well versed in English. While there, be sure to down a few Denki Brans, Asakusa’s local drink – a stiff blend of brandy, gin, vermouth and curacao – available in 30–40 per cent proof.
Sanseda (+81 3 3841 3400) is an adorable and aromatic café, which has been serving tempura and soba noodles for over 150 years. Dainty bowls and bento boxes filled with lightly battered squid, shrimp, oysters (with aubergine for vegetarians) and a few ‘surprise items’ served; however, little English is spoken here, so some hand puppetry may be required.