In Tokyo for the Rugby World Cup? Rob Goss looks at new places to stay and play in the ever-changing city
Change is always afoot in Tokyo. There’s always a new “it” hotel on the horizon, while food, drink and fashion trends hit the capital with regularity before making their way out across the country. But even by Tokyo standards, there’s more newness, more reinvention and a whole lot more construction than usual.
The Rugby World Cup – which kicked off late last month and runs until November 2, taking place in the capital and 11 other host cities across Japan – can claim some of the credit for that. So, too, can the Olympic and Paralympic Games happening next summer. Here’s the lowdown on what’s new in the city.
The hotel scene
If you’ve not been to Tokyo recently, you’ll find some interesting new accommodation options. The grand old Hotel Okura, which launched in the Toranomon business district in 1962 and in recent years had become an unintentional shrine to 1960s retro, began a staggered rebuild in 2015 and has just reopened as the Okura Tokyo.
It has the same mix of top restaurants, plush spa and high-end business services, but design-wise is a departure from the previous incarnation. The new 17-floor Heritage Wing’s airy rooms feature light wooden interiors and furnishings – like a blend of traditional Japanese and Scandinavian design sensibilities. Still, there is one obvious nod to the past, with the lobby of the new 41-storey Prestige Wing being an almost exact reproduction of the one in the original Okura.
Ticking the uber-fashionable box is the new Hotel Koe (pictured below) in Shibuya, a “hotel-in-shop” that has a bakery-restaurant-event space on the first floor, a street-fashion boutique on the second level and then becomes a ten-room hotel from the third floor upwards. With its glass façade and interiors that employ touches such as concrete and exposed pipework, the vibe is chic industrial.
Ginza, the upscale shopping and entertainment district that is within comfortable walking distance of a bunch of high-end hotels popular with business travellers – such as the Conrad in Shinbashi and the Peninsula in Yurakucho – also has a couple of new options. In April, retail chain Muji opened the Muji Hotel Ginza, which occupies the upper part of its ten-storey flagship building and features natural, minimal interiors that match the goods on sale on the floors below. Nearby, the first Hyatt Centric in Asia opened last year.
Let’s begin with what has gone. The legendary Tsukiji Market and its early-morning tuna auctions is no more. The wholesale market relocated to reclaimed land in Toyosu, just over a mile away, in October last year. It was a protracted move because of soil contamination at the new site, and the resulting new market – while state-of-the-art and open in parts to the public – doesn’t offer the same access or charm as the old one. Fortunately, the outer part of Tsukiji Market remains, with 100 or so stalls selling fresh produce, cooking utensils and other items alongside a good selection of small, family-run sushi restaurants.
If you are in town this month when the Rugby World Cup is on and don’t have tickets for matches, there is a Fanzone in the Marunouchi business district (not far from Tokyo Station) where you can soak up the atmosphere and watch games for free on a large screen.
Looking at Tokyo’s art scene, something that is new, permanent and unmissable is the futuristic TeamLab Borderless (borderless.teamlab.art). Billed as the world’s first digital art museum when it opened in Odaiba last summer, Borderless was created by a multi-discipline art collective that has filled the 10,000 sqm space with dozens of interactive digital installations. To give just one example, there’s Universe of Water Particles on a Rock where People Gather (pictured above and on our front cover); visitors can touch or walk through the flow of a virtual psychedelic waterfall and in the process change how the artwork appears to others. It’s never the same twice.
Tokyo also has a new shopping complex to explore. Following in the footsteps of the sprawling and super-sleek Ginza Six, which opened in 2017, Tokyo Midtown Hibiya opened last year near Ginza and the Imperial Palace. As well as 20 floors of office space, it features a total retail floor area of 190,000 sqm that houses 60 or so fashion, interior design and other stores.
Dining and drinking
Tokyo Midtown Hibiya has also become a hub of top restaurants – the kind of places where you can easily drop ¥20,000 or ¥30,000 (£150-£225) on dinner without even looking at the wine and sake lists. Chef Seiji Yamamoto, one of the leading lights of Japan’s culinary world, relocated his three-Michelin starred Ryugin here in August last year (nihonryori-ryugin.com/en).
Midtown has also attracted a branch of the highly rated Sushi Namba and an outpost of Kyoto kaiseki-ryori (Japanese haute cuisine) restaurant Nanzenji Hyotei.
For a nightcap, a new bar on everybody’s radar is SG Club (sg-management.jp) in Shibuya – actually two bars, the semi-casual Guzzle on the ground floor and the more formal, speakeasy-esque Sip in the basement. The SG in the name refers to founder and bartender Shingo Gokan, who opened the bar in summer 2018. This year saw it land 13th on the Asia’s 50 Best Bars list – the highest-placed Tokyo bar. Gokan also picked up the Altos Bartenders’ Bartender award in the same competition. You can put that down to inventive concoctions such as the Flirtibird, a margarita-inspired affair with yuzu, shiso and plum salt, and Wagyu Mafia Fashioned, which blends Woodford Reserve bourbon with Kobe beef fat and honey. Now that’s one way to toast your favourite rugby team.
When Emperor Akihito abdicated on April 30 at the age of 85, after 30 years on the Chrysanthemum Throne, so ended Japan’s Heisei era. It was replaced by the Reiwa (“beautiful harmony”) era when the new Emperor Naruhito ascended the throne on May 1.
The change brought with it a lot of pomp, celebration and retrospection, and for many Japanese was a sad farewell to an emperor and empress who had made the Imperial Family feel human and compassionate – no image encapsulated that more than the pair visiting evacuation shelters after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, kneeling on the floor consoling survivors.
Still, the era change also reminded everyone of a quirk in Japan’s traditional calendar: 2018 was Heisei 30 in the Japanese system (the 30th year of Heisei reign) and 2020 will be Reiwa 2, but 2019 is technically two years. January 1 to April 30 was Heisei 31, while May 1 to December 31 is Reiwa 1.