Michelle Mannion samples curious snacks and lurid cocktails while exploring the capital’s historic centre.
Start your exploration of Tokyo’s historic central district at the bridge it grew up around. When Tokugawa Ieyasu became Japan’s first shogun in 1603, he built Nihonbashi (the Bridge of Japan) and declared it the point of origin for the country’s five main roads. The surrounding area became a major mercantile hub in the Edo period that followed, and Nihonbashi remains an important business and commercial district. The bridge is still used as the reference for measuring distances to the city – look out for the bronze plaque in the middle that marks point zero. Originally made of wood, it has been reconstructed 19 times and the current version – a double-arched stone bridge from the Meiji era, complete with ferocious-looking lions and dragons – is a century old this year. It’s said Mount Fuji could once be seen from the bridge but, sadly, the view has been blighted by the elevated highway built above the river for the 1964 Olympics. The locals have lobbied the government to have it removed.
As well as being home to institutions such as the Bank of Japan and the Stock Exchange, Nihonbashi boasts a range of old shops selling traditional goods. A few minutes’ walk northeast of the bridge, Chikusen kimono store (2-3 Kobuna-cyo, open Mon-Fri 9am-5pm) has been in business since 1842 and specialises in two types of the garment – edo komon, formal silk kimonos printed with patterns such as cherry blossom, and yukata, casual garments made of cotton or linen. Two blocks north, the 400-year-old Ibasen (4-1 Kobuna-cyo, open Mon-Fri 10am-6pm) sells beautiful fans. A couple of minutes’ southwest will take you to the Coredo-Muromachi shopping complex, where knife specialist Kiya is located (kiya-hamono.co.jp, open 10am-8pm). Established in 1792, Kiya blends traditional methods with new technology to make perfectly polished blades costing as much as ¥68,000 (£525). You may have difficulty getting them through customs though. Also in Coredo is Hakuza (hakuza.com, open 10am-8pm), which sells exquisite jewellery, lacquered plates, bags and chocolates.
STOCK, SWEETS AND SEAWEED
Time for some sustenance. Walk through from Hakuza to Ninben (open 10am-8pm). Founded in 1699, it sells katsuobushi (dried bonito fish flakes), which is boiled with water to make dashi fish stock, the base for miso soup and a staple of Japanese cooking. Try its shavings dry or do as the locals do and grab a cup of soup from the bar – add salt and soy to taste. Next, head south to Yamamoto Noriten (yamamoto-noriten.co.jp, 1-6-3 Muromachi, open 9am-6.30pm). In operation since 1849, it sells countless types of nori seaweed, used in sushi, rice balls and soba noodles. Try a sheet – it comes in flavours ranging from wasabi to sake – or pick up a brightly coloured Hello Kitty gift pack for any young ones, or lovers of kitsch, at home. Finish your culinary tour at Eitaro Sohonpo, across the bridge (1-2-5 Nihonbashi Chuo-ku, open Mon-Sat 9am-6pm). A confectioner since 1857, it makes traditional Japanese sweets such as kintsuba – sweet bean paste formed into round shapes and coated with flour – using ingredients such as grass, rice and chestnuts. The taste may not be to your palate (one delicacy I tried, shaped like half a squashed lime, reminded me rather of peas) but they’re certainly worth trying, washed down with some green tea.
And now, the shop to end all shops. Japan’s first modern-style department store was established in 1683 as a kimono outlet, and the current mammoth store, back over the river, was built in 1914 in Renaissance style. Have a look at the pair of lion statues that guard the entrance – they were based on the ones in Trafalgar Square. The elegant main building is seven storeys high while the adjoining, narrower annex has ten levels – all filled with designer and high-street clothing, accessories, cosmetics, homeware, jewellery, crafts, books, music, DVDs and toys. Brands stocked include Burberry, Chanel, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Missoni and Valentino.
If the thought of tackling this beast of retail makes you faint, simply take a seat in the central hall and admire the striking, colourful sculpture that rises up through the atrium. Depicting a celestial nymph that “wrapped in an auspicious cloud, sets foot in the centre of a flower”, it was erected in 1960 to mark Mitsukoshi’s 50th anniversary, and took sculptor Gengen Sato ten years to build. 1-4-1 Nihonbashi-Muromachi. Open 10am-7pm. Visit mitsukoshi.co.jp
MANDARIN ORIENTAL BAR
End your tour with a well-earned drink in the bar of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, a couple of minutes’ walk around the corner in the Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower. The luxury property takes up the top nine floors and the bar is located on the 37th level, offering wonderful views of the Tokyo skyline through floor-to-ceiling windows. The décor is sleek and chic, with a square black bar, a grand piano sitting in the middle of a water feature, and traditional Japanese touches such as clay walls and cedar blocks enclosed in glass. By day the atmosphere is relaxed, with well-heeled ladies chatting on comfy sofas and armchairs, while by night it has a smoky, clubby feel, as businessmen puff cigars by the bar.
If the Nihonbashi cocktail (¥2,100/£16) is a little toxic-looking for your tastes – the blue-green concoction is made of vodka, yuzu liqueur and grapefruit juice, with a lime peel spiral signifying the bridge – the bar does a good line in martinis. Food is served after 5pm and there is live jazz nightly (except Sundays). Open 11.30am-12am. If you’re hungry and have more time then Signature restaurant next to it (open 11.30am-2.30pm, 5.30pm-10pm), serves inventive Michelin-starred French cuisine. 2-1-1 Nihonbashi-Muromachi. Visit mandarinoriental.com/tokyo