One of the most daunting cities for foreign visitors, Tokyo is a manic, hyperactive assault on the senses. But steady your focus and you’ll notice that a distinct strand of traditional elements also weaves through the Japanese capital. Even without leaving Eastern Tokyo, here defined as the area east of the Imperial Palace, a visitor can experience the enormous breadth of what this mesmerizing metropolis has to offer. From boutiques blooming in abandoned spaces to new ramen shops taking root amid glittering high-rises, Eastern Tokyo promises — now more than ever — to leave even experienced travelers wide-eyed with wonder.
1. Under the Tracks | 2 p.m.
In this densely built-up city, it takes ingenuity to create commercial space where none existed. That’s part of the appeal of Maach Ecute Kanda Manseibashi, a handsome riverside complex that opened in 2013 under the red-brick viaduct of the historic Manseibashi railway station, which had been closed since 1943. After browsing the handful of shops selling everything from bamboo matcha whisks to printed handkerchiefs, ascend the old staircase to watch Chuo line trains rumble mere feet from either side of the rooftop cafe N3331, set between the tracks. For another example of creative repurposing, explore the collective of shops called 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan that opened in an arcade beneath elevated railway tracks. Among the dozens of stores filled with handcrafted wares, don’t miss the elegant wooden toys at Nocra or the spellbinding goods in Soshin Kaleidoscopes.
2. Art Anomaly | 4 p.m.
Ginza is a glamorous shopping district dominated by luxury department stores and high-end designer boutiques, which makes the continued survival of the artist-filled Okuno Building so unusual. The brick tenement, built in the 1930s, is crammed with over 50 studios, workshops and galleries. Take the rickety elevator — said to be the last of its kind in the city — to the sixth floor and then work your way down through the low-ceilinged rooms displaying everything from hand-thrown ceramics to wrapped-yarn sea creatures. Keep an eye out for Galerie Sawarabi, a closet-size, second-floor gallery that recently exhibited a hauntingly beautiful collection of silk-screen paintings.
3. Slurp Shops | 6:30 p.m.
Ramen is dead? Hardly. The Japanese government recently announced investments of up to 2 billion yen (over $17 million) in Ippudo’s parent company to support the worldwide proliferation of their noodle shops. And in the heart of Ginza, two stylish, newish spots are doing their own form of trailblazing with deliciously distinct bowls. At Mugi to Olive, slurp a light bowl of the signature clam ramen (980 yen, or $8.40 at 116 Japanese yen to the dollar) or forgo broth entirely by ordering the silky umami-rich mazesoba that arrives crowned with a sunset-orange yolk (840 yen). Mere blocks away, devotees line up in the dim alley outside Kagari, an eight-seat shop that opened in 2013. Join them to sample the revelatory tori paitan soba (880 yen), a steaming bowl of chicken, seasonal vegetables and noodles in a creamy chicken-based broth.
4. Sipping Shimbashi | 9:30 p.m.
Avoid Ginza’s stuffy cocktail bars, and their sky-high seating fees, by heading south to Shimbashi, an area favored by hard-partying salarymen who work in the surrounding skyscrapers. Start at the refined sake bar Kuri, which stocks over 100 varieties of nihonshu and serves three-cup tasting flights (from 950 yen). Then walk under the train tracks to Dry-Dock, a tiny nautical-themed bar with porthole windows and a rotating selection of top domestic craft beers on tap. Finish the night at the even smaller Oyster Bal Bono, a divey new bar where you can pair a pint with a plate of fresh oysters.
5. Museum Morning | 9:30 a.m.
When there’s time to visit only one museum, make it the Tokyo National Museum, a vast complex housing impressive thematic collections (admission, 620 yen). The main building’s second-floor “Highlights of Japanese Art,” with exhibitions dedicated to topics like Zen and ink painting, provides an instructive primer on both culture and art. The adjacent modernist structure Toyokan, which reopened in 2013, contains refurbished galleries filled with early Chinese icons and a grisly mummy, among the Asian artifacts. And don’t miss the army of ancient terra-cotta soldiers of China’s First Emperor, part of a special exhibition in the Heiseikan galleries (Oct. 27 to Feb. 21).
6. Lunch Counter | Noon
Who needs décor when you can admire a perfect plate of food? The unassuming luncheonette Maruyama Kippei, which opened in 2012, serves superlative tonkatsu — breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet — in a modest space that could easily be mistaken for a spartan sushi bar. Make your selection from the ticket machine, take a seat at the long white counter and wait for the chef to deliver bowls of white rice and miso soup, and a plate of crisp shredded cabbage with the juiciest panko-encrusted cutlet you can imagine (about 1,500 yen).
7. Daytime Drama | 2 p.m.
No foreign language skills are required to appreciate Kabuki, the classical Japanese theater rich with expressive performances, elaborate costumes and dramatic stage makeup. And there’s no better place to immerse yourself in this traditional art form than at the city’s premier theater, Kabuki-za. After a three-year closure, the grand theater reopened in 2013 in a newly built structure designed by the acclaimed architect Kengo Kuma. A full multi-act performance — typically lasting about four hours — is a major time commitment, but the box office now sells same-day, upper-balcony tickets for single acts (about 1,400 yen).
8. Earlier Era | 5 p.m.
For a glimpse of an earlier, pre-neon-and-skyscraper version of the city, explore the narrow, winding streets of the Yanaka district. Along the way, seek out Scai the Bathhouse, a pioneering art gallery where metal lockers flanking the entrance of the centuries-old building hint at its previous life as a public bath. Then duck into the brick-and-wood house of Kabaya Coffee. Open since 1938, this cozy cafe serves green-tea lattes by day and, after 6 p.m., pours cocktails infused with ingredients like ginger or homemade plum liqueur.
9. Bountiful Bowls | 7 p.m.
Japanese addresses often confuse more than clarify. So when trying to locate a top restaurant specializing in tendon — an oversized bowl of rice topped with tempura — just look for the lines waiting outside. There’s bound to be one alongside the old timbered house of Dote no Iseya, a tendon specialist since 1889 that has fittingly traditional décor: a few wooden tables, a small tatami-mat alcove and an ancient grandfather clock ticking in a corner. Try the excellent “Ro” bowl, which comes piled with crisp tempura of conger eel, squid, prawns and sweet pepper (1,900 yen). If you’re prepared to measure your wait in hours, head to Kaneko Hannosuke, where everyone is queuing for the kitchen’s only dish: outstanding tendon with generous portions of tempura including vegetables, prawns, eel and an oozy egg (950 yen).
10. Water, Water Everywhere | 10 p.m.
Tokyo can be overwhelming, but a late-night soak at Myojin no Yu, a spalike public bathhouse, is sure to melt away the stress of a chaotic day. The calming complex features a large bathing area complete with saunas, cypress-wood pools filled with natural spring water, cold-water baths and a series of outdoor tubs of varying sizes and temperatures surrounded by trees and greenery. Facilities are separated by gender and bathing suits are not permitted. Admission 1,200 yen.
11. Green Peace | 10 a.m.
Swap out the city’s steel and glass for trees and grass during a morning stroll through the landscaped Hama-rikyu Gardens (admission, 300 yen). This peaceful park, framed by Shimbashi’s soaring skyscrapers, spans more than 60 acres of green meadows and placid ponds. If your visit to the city happens to coincide with the brief cherry blossom season, tack on a walk through Sumida Park in Asakusa. The delicate blossoms’ fleeting beauty blooms along the park’s riverside allée, which also offers unobstructed views of the futuristic 2,080-foot-tall Tokyo Skytree, currently the world’s tallest tower.
12. Coffee Queen | 2 p.m.
Even as the city pushes the limits of modernization, there remain charming spots where you can feel the nostalgic pull of the past. That’s evident at Café de L’Ambre, a classic kissaten (coffee shop) tucked on a back lane in Ginza since 1948. Take a seat at the curved wooden bar or on the maroon banquette and order a drink you’ll never find at Starbucks: the Blanc et Noir “Queen Amber,” served in a coupe glass with milk floating atop sweetened coffee. Or try a brew made with aged beans, like an extra-fine Colombian vintage from 1954. Either is a delicious reminder that there’s room for everything — new and old, traditional and trendy — even in just a portion of this exhilarating city.
Tokyo is home to some of the world’s most luxurious hotels, including the first urban outpost of the exclusive Aman Resorts, Aman Tokyo (1-5-6 Otemachi, Chiyoda-ku; amanresorts.com), which opened in the eastern Otemachi financial district in December. Occupying the top six floors of a soaring tower, the hotel features sweeping views – from the neighboring Imperial Gardens to Mount Fuji – in the restaurant, lounge and 84 elegant rooms and suites (from about 90,000 yen).
Style and views can also be had for far fewer yen at the Park Hotel Tokyo (1-7-1 Higashi Shimbashi, Minato-ku; parkhoteltokyo.com), an art-filled hotel near Shimbashi station. The 25th-floor lobby faces the Tokyo Tower, and similarly spectacular scenes figure prominently in each of the 273 plush rooms (from 20,000 yen), some of which have been decorated by former artists-in-residence.