Tokyo is the perfect mix of traditional aesthetics and bold innovation. Natasha Dragun explores the cutting-edge creations putting the Japanese capital at the top of the style stakes, with moments of Zen in between.
It’s autumn in Tokyo, and the Happoen Gardens are a riot of colour. The leaves of Japanese maple and ginkgo trees are a fiery palette of orange and gold, their branches arching gracefully over the mirror-like surface of a stream where koi fish bob for dragonflies.
In spring, the ornamental cherry trees lining the banks will draw visitors with their powdery blossoms; today, their ochre hues are a reminder that cooler weather is on its way.
The deciduous flora across this peaceful park is like an autumnal kimono for hundreds of manicured bonsai, most of them more than a century old, and one said to date back 500 years.
When I visit, the only sound is the tinkling of water across a stone fountain – if it wasn’t for the backdrop of skyscrapers, you’d never know I was in a city of nine million people.
While it’s one of the world’s most advanced cities when it comes to design and technology – look no further than the jaw-dropping new teamLab Borderless museum, which combines them both – Tokyo pays as much attention to details and kanso, a Zen aesthetic of simplicity exemplified in these leafy Edo gardens.
This philosophy is also adhered to at nearby Hotel Gajoen Tokyo, which I stroll to after my morning moment of quiet contemplation. One of the loveliest lodgings in the Japanese capital, Gajoen’s gracious design aesthetic has remained largely untouched since the property opened in 1928, which is a good thing.
The lobby is more like a Showa-era gallery than a reception area, home to an incomparable collection of Japanese pre-war art, from opulent paintings to lacquer murals and ornate woodwork.
The wood-panelled library is stocked with glossy tomes on Japanese art and culture, and I find myself lingering in the hotel’s museum (Hyakudan Kaidan), where tatami rooms are decorated with pieces by some of the country’s most famous artists. Then there are the leafy grounds, where I wander between waterfalls and order saké to be served on a stone bench shaded by red parasols.
In the evenings, I alternate between Gajoen’s numerous high-end restaurants: one night, it’s pretty plates of perfect sashimi and crisp tempura at Tofutei, the hotel’s signature Japanese eatery housed in a thatchedroof building beside a stream; the next, I slip into Shunyuki for warming bowls of Chinese medicinal cuisine.
Big city, bright lights
Tokyo’s streets can feel like a video game at times, with giant neon billboards illuminating oddities that range from owl cafes to Harajuku girls. Nowhere are the streets busier than Ginza, Tokyo’s iconic shopping magnet where Louis Vuitton carrier bags are as common as their Waitrose counterparts in London.
Among the dozens of malls — including Ginza Six, a sparkling new complex designed by Yoshio Taniguchi — I find Itoya, a gorgeous stationery store where you can write a letter (and post it), try out more than 700 pens and create your own original notebook.
Artistic traditions are also preserved at Koju, an aromatic haven dedicated to making fragrances based on scents dating to the Heian period, and nearby Nihonbashi Kiya, where talented craftsmen have been sharpening blades since 1792. Apparently, knives purchased here are able to cut through a sponge in a single swipe, without making a sound.
When I can’t look at another designer bag or beauty boutique, I zip to the top of the red beacon that is the Shiseido Building to sip shochu at Bar/S. A suitably sultry space conceived by Ryu Kosaka, the lounge is all velvet and leather, overhung with a giant pink chandelier that resembles a cherry blossom under a microscope.
Perched beside the fire, I contemplate the food menu, with delicacies delivered from the Shiseido Parlour Restaurant downstairs. But in the end, I opt for a dining experience that will neatly bookend my day of kanso.
Tokyo has its fair share of Michelinstarred dining, but Edo-styled Sushiya Ichiyanagi stands out for its superb omakase menu featuring nigiri. From behind a beautiful hinoki wood counter made for 10, chef Kazuya Ichiyanagi hand-moulds warm sushi rice while I watch on. First, he tops it with delicate sea urchin from Hokkaido, then oceanfresh conger eel from Nagasaki and cuttlefish from Chiba. The finger-like boats are bliss in a bite, and I don’t want their procession to end.
In the footsteps of royalty
Ginza is within easy reach of the Imperial Palace, on the site of a former Edo castle, all ringed by gardens and moats. It’s a setting fit for royalty, and although Japan’s emperor still resides here, parts of the complex are open to visitors. I walk past mossy stone bridges like Meganebashi and Nijubashi to reach Hoshinoya, one of the upscale palace-hugging hotels making the most of the views from Tokyo’s reach-for-the-sky buildings.
Known for its destination ryokans across the country – think by the ocean or in a maple forest – the Hoshino Resorts group reinterpreted the concept for an urban setting, doing so in Tokyo without losing the serenity these traditional inns are known for.
The fashionable Otemachi neighbourhood outside disappears through a door made from a single cut of cypress; on the other side, a kimono-clad staff member shuffles me into a cocoon-like space of hinoki and bamboo. My shoes are whisked away almost as fast as my worries, and standing on the sandalwoodscented tatami floor, I’m suddenly transported back to the calming enclave of the Happo-en Gardens.
In typical ryokan style, rooms are simple yet extremely stylish, with sliding washi screens, jewel-coloured walls, deep square black bathtubs and cloudlike white futon mattresses hovering at floor level. There are also kimonos in the bamboo wardrobe, which I’m encouraged to wear when I pad to the rooftop onsen for alfresco soaking.
Thermal water here is piped in from 1,500 metres below the streets of Tokyo, reaching me on the remarkably dark 17th floor, where the spa is almost completely devoid of city lights. The saline water is said to have an energising effect, adding to vitality and wellbeing. In this Tokyo moment, all I feel is a sense of peace.