Japan's capital is a place of unfathomable size, endless variety and constant movement, but just below the surface of this futuristic megalopolis is a surprising and delightful sense of calm
Author Robert Michael Poole Photography Marie Takahashi
DAY TWO Local guide Shinji Nohara—a.k.a. the Tokyo Fixer— has offered to walk you through Tsukiji Fish Market, which requires prying your eyes open before 5 a.m. As you wander among acres of boat-fresh seafood, the affable Nohara dispenses insights while pausing occasionally to point out a monster-size lobster or an oncoming forklift. Predictably, you develop a hankering for fish and beeline it to Daiwa Sushi, where you wolf down a breakfast of shrimp, sea urchin and swordfish before riding to Tokyo’s west side.
Soon you’re idling down Omotesando, Tokyo’s answer to the Champs-Élysées. Zelkova trees cast gentle shade on a procession of ultrastylish citizens who glide into designer boutiques and emerge looking even better than before. At the street’s end is the colorful chaos of the Harajuku district, whose narrow, bustling pedestrian thoroughfare, Takeshita, is chockablock with pop-up fashion shops and boisterous teens dressed as horror-film extras and schoolgirl-styled kogals.
Near the iconic Laforet store and museum, with its wedding-band rooftop, you spot a stream of people heading down a side street to Eggs ‘n Things, a spin-off of the Waikiki original that’s become a popular local brunch spot. “I feel like I’m in Hawaii again!” exclaims an excitable young woman, as you grapple with a mountainous strawberry-and-cream pancake on the patio.
Bulging, you head toward the hallowed Meiji Shrine for a bit of downtime. Here, an enormous torii gate ushers you into a wide gravel pathway and 175 acres of dense forest, from which the rest of Tokyo can be neither seen nor heard. Devoted to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, this Shinto shrine holds the city’s prayers and wishes. You write yours on a small wooden plaque, called an ema, and tie it to a divine tree to be conveyed at the next morning’s ceremony.
Now for a stroll around nearby Yoyogi Park, where you stare in slack-jawed appreciation at a troupe of giant-haired, leather-clad rockers dancing to Elvis. From there, you take the squishing-room-only JR loop-line train to the Shinjuku district and its twin-towered Metropolitan Government Building, once destroyed by Godzilla. Having ascended to the top, you watch Mount Fuji slide into dusk on one side, and Shinjuku flare into neon life on the other.
Dinner is a 20-minute walk northeast, at Cha Cha Hana. A preferred meeting spot for locals, this Kyoto-inspired eatery has a stone garden and warm wooden interior, and is known for putting nouvelle spins on traditional food. From a medley of nibbles you pick a beef and potato pot-au-feu, sticky grilled wheat cakes and kyoto miso, washed down with umeshu (plum wine) on the rocks.
The real tippling, however, begins close by in the warren of shabby alleyways that make up the 1960s-era Golden Gai district, home to some 200 sardine-can shanty bars. You spend the evening rubbing shoulders and swapping sake toasts—Kanpai!—with a motley assemblage of locals.
At the end of a blurry cab ride, you arrive at the Shangri-La Hotel, where you’ll spend the remainder of your stay. Despite its ultramodern exterior, the hotel has a bronzed, gentleman’s-club opulence, which makes you feel a little drowsy. In your 33rd-floor room, you gaze down at the toylike bullet trains drawing into Tokyo Station. To the east, the Skytree stands like a beacon, its twirling lights lulling you to sleep.