TOKYO: TURNING A STOPOVER INTO A SOJOURN

How to Tackle One of the World’s Great Cities With Only Two Full Days
Day Two: A Day in Tokyo Spanning all the Days of Japan

By Karen Rubin

My plan to turn a transit through Tokyo into a true exploration pays off richly. The return visit to Tokyo affords me one more full day to explore. As it turns out, because of a fortuitous circumstance – it rains – my one full day spans all the days of Japan.

My visits to Tokyo are like bookends to my trip to Hangzhou, China, and I find that the experience enhanced my understanding of both cultures, both ancient and modern, because of their links through time. Traveling from Tokyo to Hangzhou, China and back through Tokyo, I can better appreciate this human process of transferring technology and the cultural context in which it takes place.

This time, my return to Tokyo from China has the air of familiarity and comfort – I feel like an old-hand.

Even though more flights have landed at the same time, the Immigration and Customs process flows smoothly.

Once again, it is a swift, efficient process to go to the Friendly Airport-Limousine bus, pay $30 for ticket to bring me directly to the front door of the Hilton Tokyo (buses are clean, modern – the same as for long-distance trips – with a bathroom onboard). This time, I have the five minutes I need to go to the ATM machine (it is around the corner from the currency exchange) to use my regular bank debit card to the small amount a local currency to get me through (at the time of my visit, there are about 100 yen to the dollar so it is easy to think of a yen as a penny).

A girl with her father admires one of the dolls on view at the Tokyo National Museum (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

This time, I am bound for the Hilton Tokyo in Shinjuku area, in the core of the Tokyo Metropolis, with towering skyscrapers like the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building and crowded neighborhoods. It also offers new entertainment areas like Kabukicho with theaters, movies, restaurants and arcades, and the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, created for the Royal family and now a national park with flowers and trees year-round. The bus goes by Electric Street, so-named for the large electric stores, but the bright lights make for a fabulous sight, reflected against the rain-soaked street and people making their way home from work under umbrellas.

Hilton was the first modern, luxury, international hotel company in Tokyo when it opened its first property in 1964. That hotel, the Tokyo Hilton, in Nagata-cho, closed in 1983, and the present Hilton Tokyo opened in 1984.

The 38-story property, more the classic international business hotel, has just gone through a three-year, $35 million renovation of the Executive and Deluxe floors, and added new amenities including the Marble Lounge, open 24 hours a day, Hilton Fitness by Precor, a new lobby and an expansion to 815 rooms.

I have been thinking about how I will spend my second full day in Tokyo. My first day was aimed at hitting Tokyo’s most famous attractions and I was able to skip around (by subway and walking), many of its distinctive districts, helped by a volunteer guide, Ms. Reiko Seyama, who gave me a wonderful orientation to the city and confidence to get around on my own.

As it happens, for my second full day, I have the greatest good luck that it rained.

Had it not rained, I probably would have spent the day walking gardens and shrines and markets. But it pours. And the rain is what turns a single day into 10,000 years of Tokyo’s history.

Instead of rushing out to get the most out of my limited time, I linger in the Hilton – enjoying a swim in the lap pool under a skylight that even on a rainy day makes the room bright and airy (there is also a full fitness center and two tennis courts).

Then, I enjoy the sumptuous breakfast buffet – a feast of Asian and Western selections (even bagels and cream cheese) in the 37-floor Executive Lounge (one of the privileges of staying on the Executive Floors) sitting by the window with gorgeous views of the city as I pour over the visitor guides and contemplated how I would spend the day.

I take the rain into my planning, and think – if I were a visitor to New York City, where would I go on a rainy day? Well, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of course. I search in my tourist information among the many attractions and museums for a museum of that caliber and find the Tokyo National Museum.

I figure out the logistics – where the subway station is (the aptly named “Tokyo Handy Guide” lists the subway station and walking directions), which line to take, what station number to get off at, and how to travel to my next point – with the Hilton’s concierge. Most important is to know the station(s) to get back to the hotel at the end of the day.

The subway system is really an underground labyrinth, but I find the entrance and purchase a day-pass on the subway for 700 yen (about $7). I correctly anticipate that the most confusing part would be to know which direction to take the train, but it is amazing how far you can get by simply pointing to a map and asking directions even when people can’t speak English. Also, the electronic sign on the train shows which direction the train is going in and which stop is next, and announcements are made in English as well as Japanese.

At the Tokyo National Museum, a Jomon vessel "with flame-like ornament," that dates back more than 4,000 years was an epiphany (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

I arrive at the Ueno-okachimachi station (E 09), follow the exit sign (with a little help) out of the underground maze of the subway system, and when I come out to the surface, walk a couple of blocks to enter Ueno Onshi Park.

When I enter the park, I am overwhelmed by the site of blossoming trees; even in the rain, this is a magnificent place, and I am immediately feeling delighted and relieved that I have chosen correctly, especially when I see all that is in this park.

Much like New York’s Central Park, Ueno contains many important museums, a zoo, ponds, and historic sites – you could easily occupy yourself for a whole day or more. I first come upon the Toshogu Shrine, built in 1617, with absolutely magnificent architecture.

Tokyo National Museum

I stroll up the path, past the fountain, to the Tokyo National Museum, (admission is 600 yen, about $6; there are free lockers, for which you deposit a 100 yen coin which you get back). There is a fabulous museum store and a caf�, and very modern restrooms (there is even a little seat where you can securely place an infant – an idea that should be imported to the U.S.).

The museum consists of four buildings – the main building, Toyokan, Heisikan and the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures – that collectively display art and archeology from Japan and Asia. The main building is the Honkan (the Japanese Gallery), housed in a magnificent noble structure with its “Emperor’s Crown” style and oriental ceramic tile roof, designed by Watanabe Jin, in 1938.

And here is how I was able to span all the days of Japan in a single day, for it is here that the entire history of Japan – indeed, all of human history – is laid out in the form of the finest art of the time. Presented in such a way, you see the unfolding of cultural aesthetics, social sensibilities as well as the progress of technology and technique, and how all of this has been brought forward to today.

The 23 exhibit rooms of the Honkan (Japanese Gallery) present the full array of Japanese art in chronological order, beginning with the clay figures of Jomon period (10,000 to 5th century BC), up to the famous Ukiuo-e prints of Edo period (1603-1868), and finally, the influence of European Impressionism on painting and sculpture, in the early 1900s. In this way, you appreciate the art in the context of the history and vice-versa. It is riveting.

The galleries include many designated National Treasures (breathtaking in their beauty as well as rarity) and important cultural properties – paintings, sculpture, calligraphy, ceramics, textiles, swords, lacquerware, costumes and artifacts of Kabuki and Noh theater, plus historical documents and archeological artifacts. The exhibit is unique because it includes the art of tools, weapons, everyday objects like toys, clothes, but in each case, also an object of art.

One of the most astonishing comes at the very beginning and sets the stage of what is to come: it is the Jomon vessel “with flame-like ornament,” that dates somewhere from 3000-2000 BC. You look at the dynamic decoration that has nothing to do with the utility of the vessel, and imagine the thinking of the artisan, who had probably been making very serviceable vessels over and over but for some reason, had the idea to make it visually and aesthetically pleasing.

You look into the face of “Haniwa Man in sitting cross-leg fashion,” from the 6th C, and feel you are looking into the face of a person of that time, as well as the mind of the artist. “Haniwa Man in formal attire,” also from the 6th Century, is striking because it appears almost modern.

These objects were produced at a time that coincided with the rise of Buddhism in Japan. There are galleries devoted to Buddhist art, as well (reminding me of the Medieval Art rooms in the Met with the emphasis on Christian art).

Sculpture like this laughing man make you think about what the artist was thinking, so long ago (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

It’s one thing to see Japanese antiquities at Metropolitan Museum of Art but quite another to see them in their proper context in the land and among the people where they were created. Not to mention these are spectacular treasures of a quality that you have never seen before.

One room is called the National Treasure Gallery where a single exceptional work of art, selected for its impeccable artistry and cultural and historical importance, is showcased in a tranquil setting. There are only 1,000 so-designated National Treasures, 88 in the museum’s collection, and another 62 on loan. When I visit, there is a silk painting of the Patriarch of the Tendai School Zenmui (Subhakavashimha), considered a masterpiece of Buddhist painting of the mid-Heian period (794-1192).

The notes and descriptions and English language guide to the Highlights of Japanese Art exhibit that are provided are excellent – informative and clear.

You see the calligraphy, the poetry, the stunning illustrated scrolls of narrative stories, the “Art of the Tea Ceremony,” and even the beauty of military attire and the swords. A sword was a samurai’s most precious possession. I am struck by the magnificence of a sword from the 13th Century that is so polished, sharp and shaped, you would think it had to be machine made.

On the main floor, rooms devoted to Archeology put the emphasis more on history, but here, too, the artifacts are simply exquisite examples of the art and aesthetics.

You see changes in pottery vessel making spanning 10,000 years. The Jomon produced pottery vessels earlier than any other people in the world. The cord-mark patterns- twisted rope – was a unique style unmatched in prehistoric pottery. The pottery can be dated from the decorative design.

You realize that there is something primal in man – some urn maker who held some internal inspiration or compulsion to add decoration. Most of the early objects that have designs seem to have some spiritual, religious, or magical basis – but these cord patterns which must have taken so long, seemed to be just for the pleasure of the creator.

This section also makes clear the connection between technological change and changes in the political, social and economic systems, including art and culture.

About 2400 years ago, rice production began in Japan, the technique brought in along with bronze and iron from China and Korea. For the first time, people could cultivate their own food; the technology contributed to a revolution in Japan’s social and political structure.

Ladies in Kimonos holding umbrellas make their way to the train (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Iron tool production became the mainspring of economic development – the spread of iron implementation resulted in progress of agricultural technology and rapid increase of production.

Here you see a jar with a human face, from around the 2nd century BC- it is like having a window to the people of that time.

In the “Century of Great Kings,” the Yamato government received new technology and ideas from the Korean Peninsula and the powerful Yamato leaders controlled them, and “must have used them to create new political authority.” Artisans began to produce treasures that symbolized political or religious authority.

During the Kofun Period, the time of trade along the Silk Road, Japan formed relations with the world beyond. Objects of this period show the influence of Mediterranean designs.

During the Nara Period, coinciding with the unification of China and the emergence of Tang Dynasty, the Tang culture had a tremendous influence and was emulated by Japanese – demonstrated in the architectural features of houses, the celadon ceramics and even the organization of a centralized government and Ritsuryo law, that imitated China.

There are intriguing objects identified as “Time capsules for 5,670,000,000 years”. What could this be? Around 1052, Buddhists were so convinced that frequent natural disasters and decadence of aristocratic society were caused by the end of Buddhist Law, that it was said that Buddhist law would begin again 2000 years after the death of Sakayamuni; until that time, no enlightenment could be attained and people could not act correctly. Buddhism would decline in the world, but 5,670,000,000 years later, would again arise. So Buddhist law was contained in sutras that would be passed on to that future world.

The rise of the Warrior Class produced a new culture and a new economy. In Edo (now Tokyo), 70 percent of the population was made up of military families. The Warrior Class took political control from imperial court and created culture different from aristocracy.

One of the last rooms displays the art of the Meiji Era, 1868-1912, which reveals a struggle between modernists and traditionalists. Here, there are portraits by Japanese painters who studied with the Impressionists in Paris.

In all, there has been this constant ebb and flow of other cultures and ideas and techniques that came on the tides to Japan’s shores. It is a fascinating sociological statement of globalization, even to the earliest times.

The historic Kabukiza theater in Ginza where on almost any day, you can see Japan's traditional Kabuki performed (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

I give credit to the museum, itself, for these insights. I have rarely seen art, history and sociology so elegantly and exquisitely presented together before. The art is the depiction of history as it unfolded.

I come away thinking Tokyo National Museum is a time machine and a treasure chest, and without a doubt, one of the great museums of the world, as important to visit as the Hermitage in Leningrad, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Le Louvre in Paris, the Prado of Madrid.

I have spent more than five hours in just the Honkan part of the museum, and realize that I had scarcely breathed the entire time – the stunning beauty of the objects, the epiphanies they triggered, the connection the artifacts provided to the ancient people who created and used them (Tokyo National Museum, 13-9 Ueno Park, Taito-ku, Tokyo,www.tnm.jp).

But I have to pull myself away – even without stepping in to the other three buildings of the museum or the National Science Museum, the Ueno Royal Museum and other attractions in and around the park – because I had set a goal for myself to see Kabuki theater.

I walked out to the subway, and came upon flocks of women wearing kimono and heading to trains.

I make my way to the Ginza Line subway (finding my day pass not valid on the line, I paid 160 ($1.60) for a one-way ticket), to get to the Kabuki-za, the historic theater where Japan’s traditional theater, the Kabuki is performed. I appreciate it all the more having seen the early costumes and learning more about the tradition at the museum.

Kabuki Theater

Located in the famed Ginza district, Kabuki is Japan’s most celebrated traditional stage art. It originated in the early 17th century with a Kyoto woman named Izumo no Okuni, a maiden of the Shinto shrine and attracted the attention of the shogunate. Courtesans began to copy her. But, because of concern that performing would corrupt the morals of women, women were prohibited from performing. Even today, women’s roles are performed by men.

Kabuki features dances, dramatic gestures, music, and, because of playwright Chikamatsu Monzemon (1653-1724), also developed complex plots and stories.

A living National Treasure, Tojuro. performing at the Kabuki Theater (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Matinee and evening shows are performed at Kabukiza on most days of the year. Shows last three to five hours and are divided into about three or four acts of about an hour each. You can purchase a ticket for a whole show or just a single act (recommended).

The one-act tickets are sold on a standby basis (the cost ranges from $6 to $10 a ticket) – you have to get there about 45 minutes ahead of show time, and line up.

I highly recommend renting the “Earphone guide” which provides commentary and explanations relating to the plot, music, actors, and other aspects of Kabuki, timed to coincide with the action on stage (costs 650 Y, or about $6.50, per program, with a refundable deposit of 1000 yen, or about $10).

I time my visit to arrive by the second act, at 5:45 p.m. (get on line by 5 p.m.) to see “Kyokanoko Musame Dojoki” (“The Maiden at Dojoji Temple”). This is considered one of the greatest showpieces of the skills of the omnagata female role specialist – a series of dances that takes place in a temple full of cherry blossoms.

I am especially fortunate because a literal “Living National Treasure,” Tojuro, celebrating his 77th birthday, performs the role of the young woman expressing her feelings of love. It is a little like vaudeville (if you can imagine that), but at slower pace, with some humor and quick costume changes on stage (www.kabuki-za.co.jp).

Dining Par Excellence

I return to the Tokyo Hilton for dinner at the celebrated TwentyOne Restaurant, only one of two restaurants in Tokyo to earn two stars in the first Tokyo Michelin guide (the Hyatt Regency earned the other). TwentyOne has been a French restaurant for 10 years, the restaurant changed its style three years ago.

The experience of dining at TwentyOne starts with a stunning room, broken up into small spaces, that make it intimate, warm, inviting, evocative of a French bistro, with colors of orange and red – that complements the food very well.

At just 28 years of age, Chef Sebastian Lefort, seems young to be the head chef until you learn he started at the age of 14. Originally from France, he has been at TwentyOne for a year. He worked at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, but has also been influenced from his stints in England, French Polynesia, and the U.S. (San Diego, Las Vegas) – which gives him a sensitivity to the local culture.

What you quickly realize is that this isn’t classic French, not even nouveau. It is something entirely new and different and pleasing – a Japanese reinvention of French that takes advantage of the extraordinarily fresh ingredients, minimal sauces, and pure, distinct flavors.

Hilton Tokyo's TwentyOne Chef Sebastian Lefort shares his concept of French cuisine, Japanese style (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

“I had to re-invent everything,” he says. “You can recognize the French taste, but in Japanese style.”

A signature dish is poached slipper lobster, a fish that is brought in from Nagasaki prefecture, that is more tender and sweet than lobster, served with seasonal vegetables and greens on black truffles dressing.

Scallop from Hokkaido, served with parmentier garnish with black truffle also has an unbelievably sweet flavor because it is so fresh.

Sauted duck foie gras is served with roasted pineapple with coriander seed and 25-year old balsamic vinegar.

Even a French staple like chicken consommne has distinctive innovation – it is served with Hokkaido crab ravioli and yuzu confit.

Chef Lefort serves a Japanese snapper (Kinme-dai) meuniere, taking the bold step of putting it atop white coco beans with a stuff clam and a succulent, delicate sauce derived from clam. The effect is succulent and light, the pure flavors burst. Chef Lefort says that the fish is turned upside down on the pan for just three seconds, for a slightly crunchy texture. The coco bean, al dente, is unexpected – fresh, organic, a respect for the food’s true flavor.

The demand for freshness is such that the chef emails his fish catcher that night what to catch for the next day’s menu.

A meat specialty is the roasted lamb saddle with Provencale flavor, stuffed red bell pepper from Pequillo with spinach, ricotta cheese and marjoram, lamb juice. The lamb is wrapped in lamb fat and roasted, salted, seasoned with pepper and rosemary, and the natural lamb juice, reduced over and over. The lamb is impossibly tender.

Chef LeFort keeps his beef supplier a secret – he purchases one-third of the farmer’s production. He will only say that it comes from the Iwati Prefecture

Tokyo's Electric Street, in the rain (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

His signature dessert is a carmelized apple mille-feuille and caramel parfait. Another favorite is Chocolate and pistachio crisp, with Jivara cream and chocolate sauce.

Hilton’s $35 Million Renovation

Hilton was the first modern, luxury, international hotel company in Tokyo when it opened its first property in 1964. That hotel, the Tokyo Hilton, in Nagata-cho, closed in 1983, and the present Hilton Tokyo opened in 1984.

The 38-story property, more the classic international business hotel, has just gone through a three-year, $35 million renovation of the Executive and Deluxe floors, and new amenities including the Marble Lounge, open 24 hours a day, and Hilton Fitness by Precor, and a new lobby and an expansion to 815 rooms.

The Executive Floors, on the top seven floors (32 to 38), form a hotel within a hotel, with personalized services, access to a private lounge, upgraded facilities, and free use of the hotel’s fabulous pool and fitness center, no cover charge at St. George’s Bar, newspaper delivery and evening turndown. Executive floor guest rooms on executive floors have 32 or 37 inch or larger flat screen TV (with English language channels and digital movies on demand), DVD player, high-speed Internet access, in-room safe, iron and ironing board, and upgraded amenities, such as espresso maker, and mini-bar.

My room is one of 12 new Deluxe Tower Suites, decorated with contemporary fine art created by young and talented Japanese artists. Artworks are changed regularly (and available for purchase).

Deluxe Tower Suites (66 square meters) afford gorgeous views of the Shinjuku skyline, are smart and luxurious, partitioned into a spacious living room and bedroom. With beige and black striped carpet, an L-shape sofa and Japanese traditional Shoji screen (screen with washi paper over a wooden frame), the interior of the room reflects best in international design with a unique Japanese touch.

Executive Floor guests are provided VIP attention from the moment you arrive – you met at the lobby and escorted up to the Executive Lounge on the 37th floor for personalized check-in by Guest Relations Officers who provide VIP service throughout your stay.

The Executive Lounge is a spectacular room with panoramic views over Shinjuku. It is equipped with a/v equipment, wireless Internet access; laptop computers and printers available for guests’ use.

Open from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., The Executive Lounge is where a complimentary breakfast (a lavish buffet of Western and Japanese fare), afternoon tea and evening cocktails, along with freshly brewed coffee and selection of local and international beverages are served throughout the day.

The entire fifth floor is the Fitness Center, with a glorious indoor lap pool under a skylight, an exercise room, massage room, separate sauna for men and women; in addition, there are two lighted outdoor tennis courts on the 6th floor. (Executive Floor guests have free access to the pool and Fitness Center).

A view of Shinjuku skyline from the Hilton Tokyo's Executive Floors. One of the world's busiest and most crowded cities, Tokyo can be intimidating, but pre-planning paves the way for a wonderful exploration even in a single day (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

The hotel offers a selection of restaurants are on the second floor: in addition to TwentyOne, there is also the Musashino, a deluxe Japanese restaurant with traditional d�cor and counters for Sushi, tempura and teppanyaki; Dynasty, a sophisticated Chinese restaurant with 160 selections from Canton, Beijing, Sichuan and Shanghai; Checkers, a brassier with Mediterranean-influenced menu as well as oriental dishes, and Teppen Grill.

The St. George Bar on the first floor is an English-style pub, and the Marble Lounge is a convenient rendezvous spot that is open 24 hours a day.

New Urban Escape 2008 room packages – Urban Escape, Urban Gourmet, Urban Family, Urban Ultimate and Urban Girls, are priced from 19,950 pp (about $200). The Urban Escape, for example, features deluxe or executive floor accommodations, Korres bath amenities, mineral water, bathrobe and pajamas, complimentary breakfast at the Marble Lounge, access to the fitness center, pool and sauna, and extended checkout.

The Hilton Tokyo is at Nishi-Shinjuku 6-chrome, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, www.Hilton.co.jp or www.hilton.com.)

The next morning, it is a swift check out at the Executive Lounge, and another ride on the Friendly Airport Limo Bus for the ANA flight back to New York.

To preplan your trip, get tourism information from the Tokyo Tourist website, www.tourism.metro.tokyo.jp, or contact the Japan National Tourist Office, 1 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 1250 New York, NY 10020, tel. 212-757-5640, email visitjapan@jntonyc.orgwww.japantravelinfo.com/. The official Japan site offers tools to plan your visit to Tokyo, Kyoto or any other Japanese city and provides information on culture, festivals, tours, guides, and history.

(See also, Day One: Hitting Tokyo’s Tourist Highlights)

 

Wednesday, 11 June, 2008

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© 2008 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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