To say I have an affinity for Japan is probably a huge understatement. I am deeply inspired by its culture, cuisine, fashion and hospitality; it is a county like no other. This deep infatuation brings me to Tokyo every year when the sakura (cherry blossom) is at its full bloom. The best time for hanami (cherry blossom viewing) is late March or early to April, and this is the finest time to take a trip to this esoteric land of wonders. It is almost like a religious experience for me to take this journey year after year to appreciate the best of weather and people.
Tokyo, amongst many other things, is one of the safest cities for a single female traveller, and it's also perfect for those who need to do a bit of soul searching! The symbolism of its philosophy, the sheer perfectionism and precise aesthetics evident everywhere make it attractive to tourists the world over.
People often have a tendency to stereotype places, but I am here to tell you as a seasoned traveller to Japan that it is far more than bizarre anime, Hello Kitty and cuddle hotels.
So, without further ado, here is my list of absolute must-dos on a trip to Tokyo.
1. Check out anizakaya
An izakaya is the Japanese version of a pub. Here is where people congregate after work and the mood is electric. Most of these establishments have small plates of delicious nosh to offer with house cocktails and complimentary energy. It is a great way to see how local wind down from work.
2. Cat or Rabbit Cafe
You can have a cup of coffee, use the wi-fi and buy treats to feed the adorable kittens and rabbits that inhabit these cafes. Having to play with pets without having to look after them full-time - pretty smart idea.
3. Yoyogi Park
This gorgeous park is alive with foliage and is a perfect spot to picnic on a Sunday. It's a breathtaking hanami spot in spring and is just a hop and a skip from the Shinjuku subway station, which boasts an assortment of excellent boutiques run by local designers.
4. Mori Art Museum
An exquisite platform for local and imported process artworks, the Mori is always featuring interesting ideas and themes. Well worth your time.
5. Take a short cooking class
ABC Cooking Studio offers a one-day lesson in English that does not limit itself to Asian or continental cuisine. I recommend doing a Japanese lesson to understand the subtle nuances of balance of flavour. The Tsukiji Soba Academy specialises in soba noodles - gluten-free noodles made of buckwheat. Doing a course in making noodles is a great way to get a touch with the heritage of Japanese cuisine.
6. Buy a chef knife!
As a culinary professional I have a collection of different knives for a variety of produce, fish and meat. The Japanese make some of the world's best quality steel and craft knives. It is a stellar present for epicurean friends and family.
7. Souvenir stationery
Writing material is always the finest quality in Japan. I normally visit Ito-Ya in Ginza. Spread over several floors, this store is purely dedicated to writing materials, pens, journals and every conceivable kind of stationery. It is scheduled to relocate this summer so definitely double-check the location before your visit.
8. Visit Mount Fuji
Many guided one-day tours depart from Tokyo to the iconic Mount Fuji, a magnificent snow-capped volcano. Take in the stunning views from the mountain and enjoy the scenic Lake Ashi nearby.
9. Vintage shopping at Harajuku
Vintage shopping for clothes is like none other in Harajuku, famed for its urban and animated street style. The Japanese take very good care of their clothes like most things in life therefore you're likely to end up with wares that are almost as good as new.
10. Indulge in some fine dining
Tokyo has a several Michelin-starred restaurants, which is just one indication of the gourmet delights on offer in this city. Most Japanese menus contain seafood so please be vocal should you have any allergies. I recommend Negiya Heikichi in Shibuya and Dorobushiin Ginza for vegetarians. Beef lovers must look for the prime Tajima Kobe and Matsusaka varieties of beef. These are lauded for their marbling (ratio of fat percentage) and an absolute must for carnivores.
INSIDER TRAVELLER TIPS
* Smoking: Smoking is not allowed outdoors or on the streets unless it is a dedicated smoking area. It is allowed indoors. Most restaurants & cafés have a smoking section.
* Place finder: While going to a specific restaurant/bar/shop, give the taxi driver the phone number of the place you are visiting. His GPS will do the rest and you will be able to find the most tucked-away places by using this trick.
* Take the subway: Ok, to be honest buying a ticket is a bit confusing but the locals and subway police are always very helpful. The entire subway is colour-coded and all the hotels offer you a metro map. Trust me it is an efficient way to get around in the city, and it's cheap too.
* Do not tip: Being a hotelier and taking after my father I always tip service staff and valets but in Japan it's almost considered an insult if you tip! It means that the service was not good enough, and you wouldn't want to be in an awkward situation unnecessarily.
* Do not bargain: Most things at stores are marked at a price which the purveyor is willing to sell at. Bargaining is considered very rude.
* Buy a local sim in your own country: In Japan, disappointingly, you can only buy a data card but no prepaid SIM cards. It is a much more beneficial option to buy a data international roaming SIM card to make international and local calls rather than use your data roaming and be overcharged.
* Menu decoder: Kaiseki means a set, fixed-price menu (not a la carte) and omekasi means it's the chefs choice what to serve you, barring your allergies of course.
* Hotel crash course: The Mandarin Oriental, Aman and Peninsula hotels are my personal favourites in the city. Of course, there are plenty of other plush 5-star establishments to pick from. If you're on a budget, you will find an array of 4-star hotels as well as ryokans (traditional Japanese hotels/rest houses). These have basic amenities and matchbox-sized rooms, but are worth checking out for an authentic experience. Local hotel chain rooms have functional but extremely 'cosy' rooms and bathrooms. But what they lack in space, they make up in design, function and price.
* Shopping: I am generally blown away by street style in Japan. Everyone has a very discerning aesthetic and a minimal style is generally favoured. I recommend walking down Ginza, Aoyama and Omotesando When you shop in Japan please be aware that most clothing stores request you to remove your footwear before entering the changing room. You can leave them just outside the booth -- but they will need to be off for you to enter.
* Instant phrasebook: Key terms that will help you in Japanese.
Thank you: Arigato
What is this?: Kore wa nan desu ka?
Travelling to Japan during the cherry blossom season is really an experience bar none, although summer is great too although August is a bit too warm for comfort. Winter gets cold but it is nice for skiing on Mount Fuji. Yoi ryoko O -- safe travels!