When a friend suggested we all travel to Tokyo together, we half-jokingly agreed over drinks. It’s funny how great ideas over drinks – in our case and embarrassingly enough, sake bombs at Benihana – tend to stick. It wouldn’t be long before five New Yorkers set out on a 14-hour flight to hunt for cherry blossoms, eat ramen until our hearts’ content, and see how a city with over 13 million people does things.
Although we arrived a bit disoriented, but well rested (thank you, Ambien), upon landing it looked like we had arrived in Milwaukee. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting when our wheels touched the ground at Narita Airport, but for some reason I imagined lots of tall skyscrapers, flashing lights and high-tech stuff (kind of like Vegas… sort of). My friend said, “It’s not like people visiting New York land in the middle of Times Square!” With that said, I imagine anyone landing in La Guardia most likely shares my sentiment.
Schlepping our bags from the airport train station to get to our hotel in the heart of Tokyo wasn’t the most exciting part of our trip, but it was the fastest and most affordable way (although we took the airport bus/shuttle on our return home, and it wasn’t that bad). We navigated the transit system like pros and made our way to our hotel to drop off our bags and begin our adventure!
Tokyo is made up of many different neighborhoods each with its own style and character, so choosing the right neighborhood to stay in for first time visitors can be a daunting task. We looked at many hotels, but ultimately decided to stay at the recently renovated Grand Hyatt in Roppongi Hills. Built in 2003, Roppongi Hills is Japan’s largest integrated property and home to many high-end shops, the Mori Art Museum, cafes and modern restaurants – in fact, some of Tokyo’s best including Sukiyabashi Jiro and the recently opened Jean-Geroges Tokyo. Note: don’t mistake Roppogni Hills with the neighboring Roppongi whose nightlife reputation for strip joints, hostess bars, and karaoke spots filled with wide-eyed tourists, expats and off-duty military precedes it.
Upon arrival to the spacious Grand Hyatt lobby, our luggage was immediately collected and even though we tried to tip the bellhop, he outright refused. Lesson #1: tipping is not customary in Japan. We arrived earlier than the standard check-in time (3pm), but the GH made some adjustments and before we knew it, we were taken to our room. The living and bedroom spaces are basic and typical of what you would see here in the U.S., but in Tokyo this is quite spacious considering how compact some other hotel rooms are with limited structural capacity. For this 387-room hotel adjacent to hundreds of shops and restaurants, space is not an issue.
Given that the GH in Tokyo was built in 2003 and just recently renovated, we certainly enjoyed the modern style and amenities offered. This isn’t the place where you will find a coffee machine in your room, but the hotel rather takes a more Zen approach with a rustic tea kettle and tea varieties that looked too neatly arranged to move (yoga mat and humidifier provided upon request). However, the highlight for me was the limestone tiled shower and soaking tub….and the high-tech and heated toilet/bidet, of course. After a day of exploring and navigating the city subways, the bathtub and rainfall shower were pure bliss. We even made time to enjoy the Nagomi Spa one evening and relax in the whirlpool. I’m transported to another place just thinking about it!
We loved our stay at the Grand Hyatt and highly recommend it, but would also consider the Park Hyatt (in Shinjuku and featured in the movie Lost in Translation), The Peninsula and Ritz Carlton.
What We Loved:
- Walking distance to many great restaurants
- Unwinding at the GH spa
- Oversized bathrooms
- Proximity to hundreds of shops, restaurants and the Mori Art Museum
- The hotel was one of the pick-up/drop-off locations for the airport shuttle (~$30 USD)
What We Didn’t Love:
- While the subway near the Grand Hyatt is within walking distance, the subway line that is available is not the most convenient line to get to every sightseeing location.
- Checking out was chaotic and required lots of patience on our end. There were many guests waiting in line to leave and check-in at the same time. The staff was trying to be as helpful as possible, but more staff is needed to ease this process.
Throughout our trip we got to see many cool things, eat at many great places and experience a culture unlike anywhere in the world. Some of my favorites included the Shibuya Crossing, the Tsukiji Fish Market, riding the bullet train, visiting Kyoto (covered in my next post), shopping in Roppongi Hills and the Ginza District and eating the best sushi I’ve ever had in my life at Sukiyabashi Jiro (made famous by the documentary Jiro Dreams of Suhi).
However, one of the most memorable experiences from our trip had to be our last night. Before heading to dinner, we toasted to a few drinks at the posh Oak Door Bar (part of the GH). It’s the type of place you light a cigar and mix with expats and businessmen, and if you look through the wall of carefully organized champagne and wine bottles, you can see chefs hustling with dinner orders. After drinks, we made our way to the Anthony Bourdain recommended Robot Restaurant and mistakenly arrived 8 minutes late. No biggie, right? We were told we could not get in (being tardy is a no-no in Japan), but luckily, our dear friend and feisty New Yorker has a way with words and body language. Quite frankly, I think he scared the restaurant staff into letting us in against their policy, however, we’re so happy we got in to experience one of the most bizarre and entertaining restaurants we’ve ever been to. It’s a mixed bag variety show, but note, you go here for the show, not the food. We ended our night making friends with some locals at a tucked-away bar in the Golden Gai District.
We were in Japan for 9 days, but I’m already dreaming about my return to Tokyo. We fell in love with the food, the hospitality, the cleanliness, and everything around.
- Although most international flights depart/land in Narita, if you can get a flight into/out of Haneda, it would be in your best interest because getting to Tokyo from Narita can take up to 90 minutes…and that’s via train (taking a car would take even longer including traffic).
- Worried about radiation exposure from Fukushima? For a hypochondriac who has an unhealthy relationship with WebMD , this was a huge concern of mine. Rest assured, you will be fine. There is no U.S. travel advisory to Japan, just a warning to avoid the Fukushima area.
- Smoking is widely accepted at most restaurants and many people smoke in general. If you’re concerned, bring some of those surgical masks (or buy them there, widely available). I had some on-hand and they were a lifesaver when I couldn’t bear the smell of smoke waiting for my sushi.
- Subways and trains shutdown between midnight and 5am, so plan accordingly for any flights and for getting to the Tsukiji fish market if you plan on seeing the auction.
- Make sure to always save your subway stub. You will need it to exit any station (I learned this the hard way).
- As mentioned, there is no tipping in Japan…for anything – restaurants, salons, taxis, etc.
- Be punctual to any reservation you have in Japan.
- Watching thousands of people cross (from the comfort of the 2nd floor Starbucks, that is) at the world’s largest and famously photographed intersection: Shibuya Crossing
- Visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market and catching the auction if you’re up before sunrise
- Viewing the Skytree at night and checking out the great selection of restaurants with panoramic views at the Skytree East Building’s top floor
- Hanging with the Harajuku girls on Sunday mornings in Yoyogi Park (near the Harajuku station) then shop at nearby Kiddyland for great Japanese toys and tchotchkes
- Checking out what’s coming to the U.S. in 5 years at the Electronic district
- Seeing a show at the Kabuki-za Theater in Ginza
- For watch lovers/collectors, a must-go-to shop is Jack Road (near the Nakano stop)
- Consider making reservations at one of the most expensive restaurants in the world, Aragawa, to try Sanda beef, the highest grade of beef on the planet. Reportedly, it has the power of converting vegans to meat lovers.
- Make reservations at least 2-3 months in advance so you can experience a meal at Sukiyabashi Jiro. Trust me, it’s worth it and is the best sushi I’ve ever had. The original location run by Jiro and his older son is in Ginza. The second location run by his younger son is in Roppongi Hills.
- For an experience you can only get in Tokyo, dine at the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku.
- Make time to explore and discover the different foods at various depachikas (food halls).
- Grab tea, coffee, or a hard drink with a view on the 45th floor lounge at the Ritz Carlton.
- Visit the Maduro Bar, a luxuriously designed bar in the Grand Hyatt with nightly jazz.
Reviewed and Written by Christina Meza-Kim
Grand Hyatt Tokyo
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