Japan is experiencing a tourism boom. August's estimated tally of 2.6 million visitors was the best ever, and up 4 per cent on the year before.
But Tokyo, the country’s principal and capital city, rarely feels touristy. This is in part because it is defined not by its highlights, but by its character. It’s a place where, for the first couple of days at least, a newcomer can simply flow and absorb the Tokyo-ness. However, the build-up to the 2020 Summer Olympics, will surely test this absorptive power as more people descend on the city.
Tsukiji Fish Market has attracted tourists for decades. The inner market, with its early-morning tuna auction, closed earlier this month in favour of a new location, but the outer market remains open. Which is good, because that’s where you’ll find some of the best sushi in the world.
Past the outer market’s food stalls – selling fish, seaweed, raw wasabi and the like – the sushi restaurants open before dawn. People gladly queue for 30 minutes or so outside popular spots such as Yamato Sushi. Its interior is narrow, everyone on stools in a lunch-counter setting.
The fish sits under panes of glass frosted from the chill, and a white-haired sushi chef makes and serves the super-fresh dishes one at a time. Here, the wasabi is on the inside, which makes sense: it’s an essential part of the dish, best left to allocation by the chef. The bill for four people comes 14,700 yen (Dh480) and is well worth it.
8.30am Watch a fight
From the fish market it’s a 45-minute walk, southwest and parallel to the Sumida River, to the Arashio sumo stable (www.arashio.net). You can join other visitors in watching the sumo wrestlers spar, but in order to not disturb their training, watch from the alleyway through a big window.
The fighters’ hands are quick as they struggle to push their opponent outside the ring. Between bouts they ladle water from a bucket. In a corner is a wooden pillar against which they practise their handwork, their hands covered in white bandages. Sumo is a match for this city: a competition for space where crossing the line is tantamount to banishment.
9.30am Shop for Kit Kats
Your first experience of a city can lead to a feeling of much wonder, and in Tokyo, this sensation is doubled by the local penchant for everyday innovation. On the taxis, passenger-side doors open and shut automatically; at the petrol stations, pumps hang from overhead while the tanks are kept underground to save space; at the airport, luggage trolleys slide easily on to the escalators; sinks are built into the lids of toilets and drain into the tank to save water. And then there’s the endless variety of Kit Kat flavours: wasabi, matcha green tea, azuki bean, grilled potato, Tokyo banana, and sakura (or cherry blossom) and roasted soybean. Seriously, pop into a 7-Eleven or Don Quijote, stock up on Kit Kats, and the souvenir shopping for the folks back home is complete.
10.45am Learn a lesson from history
The Edo-Tokyo (www.edo-tokyo-museum.or.jp/en) tells the city’s big-picture story. Tokyo grew despite many setbacks: epidemics, uprisings, typhoons, earthquakes and many, many fires. So how did it succeed? The Edo-Tokyo conveys a sense that the keys were cohesion, specialisation, industriousness and education. A ticket to the museum costs ¥600.
1pm Prepare for some serious retail therapy
The Ginza district is touristy and expensive – but this wouldn't be a holiday without some conspicuous consumption. So take time to fill up on lunch and locally made crafts at Tokyu Plaza Ginza (ginza.tokyu-plaza.com/en), a 12-storey building that opened in 2016 that crams in some 125 retail outlets and from the outside, appears to be coated in cut glass. Apart from the pricey shops, it has a lovely rooftop garden and a wide range of restaurants. TsuruTonTan, for example, calls itself an "udon noodle brasserie". Try the tsuruton zanmai, an immense bowl of soup combining sweet fried tofu, tempura, beef, an egg and udon noodles, for ¥1,980.
4pm Cheer for the home team
Museums are fine, but popular culture is culture, too. So head to a baseball game. I watch the Tokyo Yakult Swallows play the Hanshin Tigers. Tickets to sit near the action cost ¥5,000 apiece. Fans of both teams chant when their heroes are batting, and they unfurl umbrellas when they score. Between innings, the cheerleaders, with kimonos and pompoms, run on to the field and dance to Van Halen's Jump, and they are joined by what appears to be a spaceman. If you decide to visit, you'd be wise to buy your tickets ahead of time from the Tokyo team's website (www.yakult-swallows.co.jp/en). The Yomiuri Giants are the city's other team, but they are more famous, so tickets are harder to get. The baseball season runs from late March to early October, followed by playoffs, which culminate in the Climax Series.
7.30pm Try some of the city’s fusion food
Italian fare has a long tradition in Japan and the pizza here, especially in the Neapolitan style, has won praise from the experts back in Italy. Try Seirinkan (theseirinkan.com) in the Nakameguro neighbourhood. The menu lists just two kinds of pizza, margherita and marinara (¥1,500 each). These salty-crusted pizzas are simple, but perfect. No wonder this place is so busy.
Restaurants in Tokyo tend not to stay open late. So after eating, you’ll have time for an evening stroll in the area around the eatery. Part of Tokyo’s appeal is that often it feels less like a megalopolis than a collection of distinct neighbourhoods, from Shinjuku shopping to Ginza glitz, to Asakusa market kitsch, Chiyoda business bustle, Shibuya’s crosswalk crush of humanity, Shinagawa small-town streets and, here, the lantern-lit walkways of Nakameguro.
Rest your head
Central Tokyo’s mid-range hotels tend towards the clean and efficient, but not the spacious. Though typically tiny, a room in the Shibuya Granbell (www.granbellhotel.jp/shibuya) is a decent deal at US$150 (Dh550) a night for two people, taxes included. Front-desk staff are quite helpful. The breakfast room on the first floor is superior to the one at ground level. From the Granbell, it’s a five-minute walk to Shibuya Metro.
Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, with flights costing from Dh4,003 return. Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies to Narita with flights costing from Dh4,235 return, and to Haneda International Airport with prices from Dh4,495 return.