Any time my international flight plans veer near Japan, I stop over in Tokyo. I make a point of it because the toilets are akin to artificial-intelligence robots, and the vending machines—more plentiful than Starbucks in Seattle—sell everything from ice cream to sake to nylons.
While these reasons may seem trivial given that the city is on the other side of the world, they’re the tip of Tokyo’s iceberg. Japan’s greatest gateway effortlessly blends efficiency, zany ideas, tradition, and style like a living lab staffed with savvy, all-ages scientists.
When Mr. Trip Styler and I visited Bali in April 2014, we fandangled our flight path to start and end in Tokyo. Tucked securely into our seats aboard Japan Airlines’ (JAL) new 787 Dreamliner—a Boeing jet over which we’ve been drooling since we heard tales of its Tokyo-style toilets and jet lag-reducing humidity levels—we made the 10-hour journey East.
Flying JAL was the ultimate Tokyo primer. First, my flight attendant gave me an impromptu (and incredibly helpful) tutorial on a camera I’d owned for two years; second, the executive class toilet was outfitted with a warm-water bidet for backside bliss; third, the smart-glass windows dimmed electronically with the touch of a button. It was like I was already in Japan.
Once on the ground, we took a high-speed train (the Narita Express) past rice fields and Tokyo suburbs into the city center, stopped on the roadside for the first of many vending machine purchases—this time for a water and mints—and made our way to our hotel. Because our arrival was before the property’s 3 p.m. check-in time, we were unable to get into our room, so we defaulted to coffee instead of the midday cat nap about which we were (day)dreaming.
Viewfinder Tip: It is common for hotels in Tokyo to charge a day rate for rooms, making it challenging to score an early check-in before 3 p.m.
Currently, coffee is causing a lot of commotion on the streets of Tokyo. Locals are getting a buzz from the city’s newfound artisan caffeine culture, pairing hand-cranked brew with Japanese treats. Thanks to this cup-rising, it was not hard to wake-up from our “what-time-zone-are-we-in?” daze.
If your two-day Tokyo trip only allows for one fix, make sure to hit OMOTESANDO KOFFEE on the backstreets of Aoyama—one of Tokyo’s upscale shopping districts. Hidden between residential homes on a quiet street, OMOTESANDO is an ode to Japan’s old and new. The minimalist indoor space sports a lone bonsai tree and sleek coffee machine, and opens onto a tiny stone garden shaded with leafy greenery. Here, I sipped the best coffee I consumed in Japan, and I discovered a decadent treat I’ve longed for my whole life (but didn’t know I needed): Warm cubes of baked custard; caramelized on the outside, soft on the inside.
Stopping for coffee at OMOTESANDO KOFFEE
With our energy levels back at full throttle, we set our sights on sushi (obviously). And this wasn’t any sushi; rather a high-grade, passion-prepared version served at an intimate bar by sushi master Naomichi Yasuda. Originally from Japan, Yasuda crossed the Pacific and made a name for himself in New York before returning home to open this small restaurant. (His NYC buddy, Anthony Bourdain, visited in 2013 for an episode of Parts Unknown: Tokyo.)
While Yasuda could have a fancy high street address and a whole team of apprentice chefs dedicated to his craft, he chose the simple life in his 8-seat, side-street bar named Sushi Bar Yasuda. He alone makes trips to the fish market, ages the fish, and serves interpretative menus for patrons (most of whom are his sushi groupies; like we, they reserve up to two months in advance).
Dining under Yasuda’s wing is an exercise in stomach stretching and in-depth sushi education. “There are 12,000 grades of seaweed in the world, and I use the top grade in my sushi” he tells me as we’re discussing my “omakase,” or “chef’s pick,” menu. Upon further probing, I learned he is the only chef in Japan to even attempt to use this type of seaweed in a restaurant setting (most shy away from it due to its fragile composition).
Temples and (more) toilets
Outside of consuming coffee and cuisine, exploring Tokyo’s neighborhoods—Shibuya, Shinjuku, Asakusa, Ginza—is the best way to see the sights. This is where you’ll stumble upon the real Tokyo: The five-seat bars in Shinjuku, or the theatrical street-styled guys and gals in Harajuku.
While I love all that is new and now in the Land of the Rising Sun, one official attraction to which I keep coming back is Sens?-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple. Here, miniature shops that peddle hand-painted fans, kimonos, and blueberry soft-serve mingle with omikuji stalls where visitors can consult an oracle to seek answers to their life questions. (I didn’t consult an oracle on this visit, but I did buy a kimono!)
Digressing to the topic of toilets once again, I made sure to bring up Japan’s cool commodes—with their seat warmers, built-in dryers, soothing nature soundtrack, auto opening and closing lids, and all—with my new BFF, Chef Yasuda. It turns out he shares my passion for Japanese potties, and offered me this travel gem: “the men’s bathroom on the 12th floor in the Daimaru (Department Store) have one of the best views of Tokyo.” (Ladies, there’s also a great view from the 13th floor, too.) Who knew toilet talk could translate into travel tips?
If you had 48 hours in Tokyo, how would you spend it?