In places Tokyo seems to have been frozen in time—especially in the traditions that underpin many Tokyoites’ lives or the temples and gardens that have survived centuries of upheaval—yet in others the city never stands still, and change of some kind—gradual and rapid—is always afoot. Lights, sushi, manga! Sprawling, frenetic, and endlessly fascinating, Japan’s capital is a city of contrasts. Shrines and gardens are pockets of calm between famously crowded streets and soaring office buildings. Mom-and-pop noodle houses share street space with Western-style chain restaurants and exquisite fine dining. Shopping yields lovely folk arts as well as the newest electronics. And nightlife kicks off with karaoke or sake and continues with techno clubs and more. Whether you seek the traditional or the cutting edge, Tokyo will provide it.
Tokyo is undoubtedly one of the most exciting dining cities in the world. Seasonal ingredients reign supreme here, and there's an emphasis on freshness—not surprising given raw seafood is the cornerstone of sushi. And though Tokyoites still stubbornly resist foreign concepts in many fields, the locals have embraced outside culinary styles with gusto.
While newer restaurants targeting younger diners strive for authenticity in everything from New York–style bagels to Neapolitan pizza, it is still not uncommon to see menus offering East-meets-West concoctions such as spaghetti topped with cod roe and shredded seaweed. That said, the city’s best French and Italian establishments can hold their own on a global scale. Naturally, there's also excellent Japanese food available throughout the city, ranging from the traditional to nouveau cuisine.
Asakusa is known for its tempura, and Tsukiji prides itself on its fresh sashimi, which is available in excellent quality throughout the city. Ramen is a passion for many locals, who will travel across town or stand in line for an hour in order to sit at the counter of a shop rumored to offer the perfect balance of noodles and broth. Even the neighborhood convenience stores will offer colorful salads, sandwiches, and a selection of beer and sake. As a result of increased travel by the Japanese to more exotic locations, Thai, Vietnamese, and Turkish restaurants have popped up around the city. When in doubt, note that Tokyo's top-rated international hotels also have some of the city's best places to eat and drink.
Japan may have experienced more than two decades of stagnation following the collapse of the asset-inflated "bubble" economy of the late ’90s, but one wouldn’t know it from the steadily increasing number of high-end hotels throughout the metropolis. As land prices subsequently fell, Tokyo's developers seized the chance to construct centrally located skyscrapers. Oftentimes hotels from international brands were installed on the upper floors of these glimmering towers. This boom has complemented the spare-no-expense approach taken by many of the domestic hoteliers a decade earlier, when soaring atriums, elaborate concierge floors, and oceans of marble were all the rage. The result: Tokyo's present luxury accommodations rival those of any big city in the world.
A number of boutique hotels—typified by small rooms, utilitarian concepts, and quirky, stylish elements—have popped up in Tokyo. Modern room furnishings of neutral hues are prevalent, but so are such Japanese touches as paper lanterns and tatami flooring. Reception areas are simple spaces bathed in dim lights and surrounded by earth-tone wall panels.
The sheer diversity of nightlife in Tokyo is breathtaking. Rickety street stands sit yards away from luxury hotels, and wallet-crunching hostess clubs can be found next to cheap and raucous rock bars. Whatever your style, you'll find yourself in good company if you venture out after dark. Major nightlife districts in Tokyo include Aoyama, Ginza, Roppongi, Shibuya, Shinbashi, and Shinjuku. Each has a unique atmosphere, clientele, and price level.
Tokyo is Japan's showcase. The crazy clothing styles, obscure electronics, and new games found here are capable of setting trends for the rest of the country—and perhaps the rest of Asia, and even Europe and America.
Part of the Tokyo shopping experience is simply to observe, and on Saturday especially, in districts like the Ginza and Shinjuku, you will notice that the Japanese approach to shopping can be nothing short of feverish. You’ll probably want to resist the urge to join in the fray, especially since many of the wildly trendy clothes and accessories on offer will already be "uncool" by the time you get home. But shopping in Tokyo can also be an exercise in elegance and refinement, especially if you shop for items that are Japanese-made for Japanese people and sold in stores that don't cater to tourists. With brilliantly applied color, balance of form, and superb workmanship, crafts items can be exquisite .
Note the care taken with items after you purchase them, especially in department stores and boutiques. Goods will be wrapped, wrapped again, bagged, and sealed. Sure, the packaging can be excessive—does anybody really need three plastic bags for one croissant?—but such a focus on presentation has deep roots in Japanese culture.
This focus on presentation also influences salespeople who are invariably helpful and polite. In the larger stores they greet you with a bow when you arrive, and many of them speak at least enough English to help you find what you're looking for. There's a saying in Japan: o-kyaku-sama wa kami-sama, "the customer is a god"—and since the competition for your business is fierce, people do take it to heart.
Japan has finally embraced the use of credit cards, although some smaller mom-and-pop shops may still take cash only. So when you go souvenir hunting, be prepared with a decent amount of cash; Tokyo's low crime rates make this a low-risk proposition. The dishonor associated with theft is so strong, in fact, that it's considered bad form to conspicuously count change in front of cashiers.
Japan has an across-the-board 5% value-added tax (V.A.T.) imposed on luxury goods. This tax can be avoided at some duty-free shops in the city (don't forget to bring your passport). It's also waived in the duty-free shops at the international airports, but because these places tend to have higher profit margins, your tax savings there are likely to be offset by the higher markups.
Stores in Tokyo generally open at 10 or 11 am and close at 8 or 9 pm.