Tokyo Feature


Today's Tokyo . . .

... is pumped to host the 2020 Olympics. In 2013 Tokyo got the exciting news that it would host the 2020 summer games, beating out cities like Madrid and Buenos Aires. Tokyo was deemed a "safe" choice by much of the media, capable of hosting the world event without political drama or economic upheaval. It's also seen as a supportive rally by the international community after the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Overall, the city has embraced its role as host, and even Japan's prime minister said that his joy in hearing the announcement was even greater than when he won the election.

... is more environment minded. Japan still has a penchant for overpackaging and pesticides, but Tokyo is gradually becoming a greener city. In the last few years eco-friendly hybrid taxis have become a familiar sight in central Tokyo, while offices and public buildings have been sprouting rooftop gardens. After the energy shortages that followed the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, setsuden (energy saving) has become a prominent buzzword. These efforts come to the fore in the summer months as people look for alternatives to energy-guzzling air-conditioning—look out for people growing “green curtains” (usually vinous plants) on their balconies to block out the heat of the midday sun. You will also see the eco boom reflected in menus. While Japan still lags behind other developed nations when it comes to the production and consumption of organic produce, today it’s become much easier than it once was to find organic food in Tokyo’s restaurants and cafes.

... is as tasty as ever. Judge a city by Michelin stars alone and Tokyo is the undisputed culinary capital of the world. In 2013, the guide handed out 323 stars to a total of 281 restaurants in Tokyo, more than twice the number given to restaurants in Paris and New York combined. The culinary culture in Japan, however, runs far deeper than Michelin’s elevated focus, and there’s been a renewed appreciation among Japanese of what’s been dubbed B-kyu gurume (literally B-grade gourmet)—low-cost, fairly no-frills dishes such as ramen and okonomiyaki (a savory pancake filled with various ingredients).

... is better for nonsmokers. A decade ago you would have struggled to find a smoke-free café or bar, but quite a shift has taken place in recent years. Although some coffee shop chains only have token nonsmoking areas, where smoke from neighboring tables fills the air, the major international brands and many small, local cafés are frequently smoke-free or at least keep smokers in a separate, closed room or on different floors. Izakaya are as smoky as ever, yet a growing number of Tokyo’s pubs and bars are smoke-free. Many of Tokyo’s wards, including Chiyoda and Shinjuku, have also banned smoking on the street. This all ties in with a steady decline in cigarette sales in Japan. Japan’s 30 million smokers got through just under 200 billion smokes in 2012, an incredibly high number but still less than half the amount consumed in the mid-'90s.

... is as crowded as ever. But that could be about to start changing. With a population of just over 13 million Tokyo knows crowds. Commuters get squashed in the morning and evening rush hours. Shoppers in areas like Shibuya and Shinjuku are buffeted by shoulder bumps. But with an aging population and declining birthrate, Tokyo’s population is soon expected to stop growing. It might peak at the 14 million mark in the next decade, but after that, one government report predicts, there will be just 8 million Tokyoites by 2100.

... is going through a craft beer boom. Sake and mass-produced beer brands like Asahi might be Japan’s most famous tipples, but over the past few years the country has been experiencing a craft beer boom. To be fair, there have been small-scale brewers in Japan for years—some great, like Baird Brewing and the Shiga Kogen Brewery, others less so—but what’s new is the number of places in Tokyo where hopheads can sample their wares. Joining older pubs, such as the magnificent Popeye in Ryogoku, are hip venues in Shibuya like Goodbeer Faucets, which is drawing a once unimaginable eclectic mix of drinkers to artisanal beer. Beer-loving visitors should raise at least one pint while in town. Kampai!

... is getting chicer hotels. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Tokyo’s hotel scene started to go through a transformation. To rival the traditional (some might say staid) domestic Western-style hotels that had long dominated top-end accommodation options came a wave of international five-star brands. Hotels such as the Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula, Park Hyatt, and Ritz-Carlton have since redefined what it means to be a luxury hotel in Tokyo, and more recently a wave of boutique hotels is redefining what it means to be chic, providing individually designed rooms that mix Asian and European sensibilities.

On the Calendar

January Basho: This tournament at Kokugikan Sumo Hall sees the sport's best get in their first licks of the year.

Roppongi Art Night: Roppongi’s numerous art venues open through the night and the streets are overrun with artists and revelers.

Opening Day: Japan’s 12 baseball teams kick off their season at the end of March. Tokyo teams include the Yakult Swallows and Yomiuri Giants, while the Chiba Lotte Marines, Seibu Lions, and Yokohama DeNA Baystars are based in neighboring prefectures.

Sanja Festival: Asakusa’s streets see dozens of portable shrines hoisted through huge crowds for three days in May.

Sumida River Fireworks: The skies of eastern Tokyo burst with color on the last Saturday of July.

Tokyo International Film Festival: In late October more than 130 films from around the world are screened at the theaters in the Roppongi Hills complex.

100% Design Tokyo: Contemporary interior design companies and designers showcase their newest works in late October and early November.

Comiket: The second installment (the first is August) of this semi-annual comic and manga event draws hundreds of thousands of people to Tokyo Big Sight for the biggest convention of its kind in the world.

Tokyo Game Show: Fans of video games crowd the Makuhari Messe convention center in September to check out the hottest releases.

Updated: 2014-01-23

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