Tokyo is a fascinating but complex city. All pictures copyright Janice Wald Henderson
This is Tokyo's prime time, when cruisers flood streets during pre-sail stays. And stay they should, as Tokyo is one of the world's most magical cities. This modern metropolis - home to more than 13 million residents - has it all: Gracious people, superb hotels and restaurants, exotic shrines and world-class shopping. However, Tokyo's not the easiest city to navigate, plus it's pricey, so read these Tokyo essentials to ensure a sensational stay.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
* Car services and taxis are frightfully expensive - especially for the long drive from the airport to downtown Tokyo. Instead, take the Airport Limousine Bus; it runs to and from the airport to most major hotels (limousinebus.co.jp/en). In town, walk or use the subway.
* Forget American dollars; only yen counts. Exchange at ATMs for best rates.
* Tokyo is squeaky-clean. Marvel at the litter-free streets, neat stores, spotless restaurants and snow-white headrests on taxi seat backs.
* People are incredibly polite. Bowing is the preferred gesture, used as hello, goodbye and thank you. Queuing up, not pushing and shoving, are the norm.
* Japanese use only chopsticks as eating utensils. Soup bowls are lifted directly to the mouth. Noodle-slurping is considered polite.
* Restaurants generally have but one specialty; for example, tempura or sushi-only, unlike Japanese restaurants in the U.S., which offer a myriad of cooking styles from one kitchen.
* Japan National Tourism Organization has a highly informative web site in English. (jnto.go.jp)
* The Peninsula Tokyo wins my vote, although there are many fine hotel chains, such as Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton and Park Hyatt, in the city. The Peninsula Tokyo's location excels; across the street from the Imperial Palace (the Emperor of Japan's main residence) and just a three-minute stroll from Ginza, Tokyo's famous shopping district. Plus, it's right by the Hibiya subway station, with four train lines. (It's incredibly easy to take subways here.)
The Peninsula Tokyo
Interactive Video Wall at Peter Restaurant, The Peninsula Tokyo
* This swanky chain, renowned for service, really steps up to a difficult plate here. Service extraordinaire is a necessity; most residents speak little, if any, English. That includes taxi drivers, restaurant staff and even, sales personnel in fine department stores. A major obstacle - unless you are staying at a hotel that specializes in service. At The Peninsula, the concierge desk is incredibly patient as staff guides guests on how to navigate the city, including creating personalized cards with addresses and expressions written in both English and Japanese.
* The 267-room and 47-suite accommodations are grand. Even a Superior Room (least-expensive) features free Wi-Fi (which can otherwise cost a fortune), king bed and large marble baths tricked out with a built-in flat-screen TV that mutes when the bath-side phone rings. I'd rather choose the cheapest room in a six-star hotel than top digs in a bargain property. (That goes for cabins on cruise ships, as well. You get more for the money.)
* In-house restaurants include Peter, where avant-garde design is the calling card at this 24th floor wowser. Take a private elevator to the exclusive restaurant and get ready for breathtaking floor-to-ceiling views. The walkway to the dining room feels like a catwalk, with an interactive screen backdrop that comes alive with your movement. I dined on delicious modern French food, although the restaurant is morphing into a high-end grillroom in a few weeks. Breakfast is delicious (love the smoked salmon and bagels), served in the grand Lobby, and pastry chefs concoct frilly confections on the lower level in an exhibition kitchen.
* Lastly - but what should come first for pre-cruisers - to revive from the long flight to Tokyo, check out the superior Peninsula Spa, with specialized treatments for jet lag recovery. Just inhaling the aromatherapy-scented air rejuvenates. The fitness center includes an indoor swimming pool. (peninsula.com/Tokyo)
Japanese Beef Rib Loin with Spinach Coulis and Red Wine Sauce at Peter Restaurant, The Peninsula Tokyo
Seasonal Greens, Feta, Beets and Spicy Macadamia Nuts at Peter Restaurant, The Peninsula Tokyo
* Visiting Tsukiji Fish Market is wildly popular, even for non-foodies. It's one of the world's largest wholesale markets and the array of tuna and other plucked-from-the-ocean fish is mindboggling. Unfortunately, the 5 a.m. tuna auction has been overrun by tourists, so it's no longer open to visitors. Instead, arrive about 7 a.m., wander the many stalls hawking fresh fish and enjoy the ultimate sashimi breakfast. If you prefer visiting with a guide, The Peninsula Tokyo and other hotels offer tours.
* The Imperial Palace is not open to the public without reservations, so check with your concierge about guided tours. Imperial Palace East Gardens, replete with moats and guardhouses, are open most days of the year without reservations.
* Meiji-jingu Shrine, primarily destroyed during World War II, was reconstructed in 1958. Revel in this spiritual oasis amidst bustling Tokyo.
* Sumo wrestling matches are must-see and this upcoming May, Tokyo hosts a Grand Sumo Tournament. Ask the hotel concierge for tickets.
* Stroll Roppongi, not just for the nightlife, but also for browsing the many art galleries and museums in this lively district.
* Hit a 100-Yen Store. These discount shops (similar to our dollar stores) make souvenir shopping doable and fun. Visit Mitsukoshi department store in Ginza or Nihonbashi, for diversified shopping at varying prices.
* Palace Hotel Tokyo, a luxurious new property that set the city abuzz, has a slew of ambitious restaurants spearheaded by serious chefs. My favorite is GO, for authentic teppanyaki (food cooked on flat griddle), 180-degrees from Benihana. Guests sit at counter seats in front of the teppan grill. The chef serves course after course of marvels, every item impeccably flavorful and fresh. Teppan-grilled prawns (so fresh, they are brought live to the teppan) are unforgettable. First they're quick-steamed, then grilled, sprinkled with pinkish-hued red-wine salt and served with a swoon-worthy sauce (shrimp guts, or perhaps, eyes, went into it). Fried flattened heads, served on the side, are crunchy-delish. (palacehoteltoyko.com)
Teppan-Grilled Shrimp at GO restaurant, Palace Hotel Tokyo
Teppan Chefs at Work at GO restaurant, Palace Hotel Tokyo
Premium Beef and Steamed Mushrooms at GO, Palace Hotel Tokyo
* Dine cheap in department stores: Most big ones, like Mitsukoshi and Takashimaya, have markets and restaurants on basement floors. What fun to meet and greet the various vendors - many offer free samples as they smile and bow. Ogle the richly marbled authentic Wagyu beef (it's nearly more fat than meat), and taste countless varieties of seaweed, pickled vegetables, dried fish and other Japanese specialties. Food courts and tiny restaurants are tucked into these basement corners and offer good food at bargain-basement prices.
Crusted prawns at Mitsukoshi department store basement supermarket
Pickled Vegetables at Mitsukoshi department store basement supermarket
Vendor at Mitsukoshi department store basement supermarket
* Tokyo's tempura temples are nothing like the U.S. restaurants serving heavily battered greasy food. There may be several contenders for Tokyo's top tempura toque; Yoshinobu Yamada is among them. This chef owns Tempura Masa, an intimate restaurant of unequalled taste. Yamada cooked at the Embassy of Japan in Paris and can coax flavor from food like few. Don't let the tiny size or counter seating fool you; Yamada's ethereal tempura is so light, it nearly floats above the plate. You will pay a small fortune to dine here but you won't regret it. The restaurant is in Ginza, a short walk from The Peninsula. Let the concierge make the reservation and point you in the right direction.