A vast, sprawling city, Tokyo lies at the heart of the world’s largest metropolitan area, home to 38 million people. For all its overlay of modernity, Tokyo is really a collection of distinctive neighborhoods linked by its amazingly extensive and efficient public transportation system. In these neighborhoods, you will find the city’s soul. Venture to the Sensoji temple in Asakusa (the oldest in Tokyo), and you will encounter throngs of people clamoring for good-luck charms at wayside stalls, a scene that, aside from the contemporary clothing, might come from a 19th-century woodblock print. The Roppongi district, home to distinctive contemporary art museums, including 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT and the Mori Art Museum, is ideal for an afternoon of art appreciation.
Touring the Art District
The Roppongi district has always been one of the livelier areas of Tokyo. It is home to three distinctive museums: 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT for exhibitions centered on cutting-edge technology and architecture; the Suntory Museum of Art, which is dedicated to classical arts and crafts; and the Mori Art Museum on the top floors of the glass-clad Mori Tower. With the launch of excellent galleries nearby, including Ota Fine Arts and Taka Ishii Gallery, Roppongi is ideal for an afternoon of art appreciation. The district also hosts a yearly Art Night festival in the spring.
Venture to the Sensō-ji temple in Asakusa (the oldest in Tokyo) and you will encounter throngs of people clamoring for good-luck charms at wayside stalls, conjuring up a scene that, aside from the contemporary clothing, might come from a 19th-century woodblock print. Kappabashi-dori, a street in the neighborhood, is where chefs come to purchase cookware and kitchen equipment. There are more than 150 shops to choose from, selling everything from lacquer soup bowls to steamers, as well as an amazing variety of utensils and pots and pans.
When we think about music in Japan, jazz is not the first genre that comes to mind. But the Tokyo jazz scene has been gaining momentum and becoming more popular with locals and foreigners alike. International artists are booking shows in well-known clubs such as the Blue Note. There are two underground jazz spots that are especially exceptional. The Shinjuku Pit Inn is for true aficionados and resembles a small concert hall with seats directly facing the stage. The focus is on the band, and there is even a recording studio on the side. In Roppongi, the hard-to-find Alfie club is a shrine to jazz. Its tiny interior is either exceedingly intimate or plain and overcrowded, depending on your point of view. Loyal devotees return for the superior talent.
Shrines and Pottery
One of the most popular day trips from Tokyo is to the charming town of Nikko to see the shrines dedicated to the great shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. If you are interested in Japanese pottery, visit the nearby town of Mashiko. Noted potter Shōji Hamada, who was designated a “Living National Treasure,” worked in Mashiko. Today, you will find shops filled with plates and bowls as well as one-of-a-kind works of art.
The current popularity of wagyu beef around the world has drawn attention to Japan’s tradition of producing distinctive meat from local breeds of cattle. “Wagyu” means simply “Japanese cow,” and the term refers to a group of four breeds: Shorthorn, Polled, Black and Brown. What makes the meat from these breeds so flavorful and well-marbled is that the animals are raised for 30 months or longer — as opposed to an average of 22 months for cattle in North America — and they lead chiefly sedentary lives. Wagyu beef types are named after the region in which they’re produced, with the three finest varieties — Kobe, Matsusaka and Ohmi — referring to specific locations in Japan. A good choice for those preferring leaner meat is Kumamoto wagyu.