Saturday, June 23, 2012

TOKYO: In The Lap of Luxury


Part of choosing to stay at the Conrad was so I could try the Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay Restaurant.  Since I skipped dinner the night before, I made it a point to dine at the Gordon Ramsay the following night.  But I was still full from the lunch at Chin-so, so I opted for a light dinner.  Light dinner consisted of a five-course-meal: Canapes, quail eggs with truffles and white asparagus, foie gras tortellini, sea bream with spinach sauce, and mango coconut and blood orange parfait.


On a planned trip to the Philippines, I had the chance for a three-day stopover in Tokyo. I realized that two and a half days wouldn’t give me much time to explore the country in depth, so I decided to have a relaxing stay in Tokyo instead. I exchanged my hotel points for a stay at a luxury hotel (Conrad Tokyo). The hotel is located on the 28th floor of the Tokyo Shiodome building and boasts a panoramic view of the Tokyo Bay skyline.

jogging course
After checking-in I wanted to go for a short walk to get rid of jetlag. The hotel concierge handed me a ‘jogging course’ complete with map and direction, and recommended that I visit the ‘fish market’ which was nearby.  Considering the time of day, I voiced my concern over the safety of walking around unfamiliar surroundings, but he assured me, "It's always safe in Japan.’   In front of the hotel lobby is the Twenty Eight Bar and Lounge, I took a peek and found a fireplace, warmly lit with calming décor – a perfect place to relax after a long flight. The bar had a floor-to-ceiling window from which to admire an unobstructed view of the Tokyo Bay skyline. The breathtaking view from the bar was so inviting. So instead of taking a walk, I asked the host for a corner table in a non-smoking area.   The bar offered a wide variety of beverages and spirits - from martinis to grappa to calvados. Calvados in Tokyo? I ordered a glass of red wine and something to munch on (little sandwiches and jamon iberico). Everything on the menu had a price that matched the bar’s sophisticated ambiance. 
Tokyo Skyline - A view from the Twenty-Eight Bar, Conrad Tokyo

At half past seven, I returned to my king executive room, a 48 square meters with minimalist décor and a panoramic view of the skyscrapers of Ginza and Shiodome. Feeling the effects of the red wine, I crashed then woke up in the middle of the night. The light from the bathroom caught my attention. I was struck by the size of the bathroom. It was bigger than my room at home and certainly huge for Japanese standards. The bathroom is separated by a glass partition, has a freestanding bathtub, a duo of white marble basins and light-rimmed circular mirror, a separate door for the shower and a separate door for the toilet. It’s a stylish combination of high-tech (temperature-controlled toilet seat) and zen.

Feeling wide awake, I wanted to get dinner but all the restaurants in the hotel had already closed. I went back to my room and stared out of the window. Looking over my window and seeing the skyscrapers of Shiodome just proved my pre-conceived notion about Tokyo as a concrete jungle. Still unable to go back to sleep, I browsed the hotel and travel magazines and called the concierge to ask if he could book me the Mt. Fuji-Hakone day-trip (described in the tour book as a trip up to Mt. Fuji's 5th station at an elevation of 2,300 meters, a cruise on pristine Lake Ashi, and a ride on the Komagatake Ropeway which boasts great views of the surrounding Hakone National Park).  It seemed unreasonable to expect that the tour office would be opened 24 hours. But the hotel clerk obliged and called back to tell me to be ready by 8:00am as I would be picked up from the hotel to go to the tour office. I went on-line only to find negative reviews about this tour. Apparently, Mt. Fuji could only be seen on a clear day.  Since it’s foggy most of the time in the month of May, I decided to stay in Tokyo and explore the city on my own. I slept for a couple of hours and woke up before sunrise. I slipped into my workout outfit, put my hotel key into the ‘hotel jogging guide plastic container’, hung it around my neck and took off for a morning jog.   I continued on to the Tsukiji fish market.   The fish market was overwhelming. I found rows and rows of market stalls and sushi places. Realizing that I did not bring any cards or money with me, I returned to the hotel and wandered around the 28th floor where the Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay restaurant and the award-winning China Blue and Kazahana restaurants were located.  All the restaurants were still closed, except for “Cerise by Gordon Ramsay’ where I found the restaurant staff getting ready for the breakfast crowd. I told the host I’m not a big fan of hotel breakfast buffet, so I was advised to have the ‘light breakfast’. As it turned out, ‘light breakfast’ consisted of almost everything organic. Breakfast never tasted so good!

After breakfast, I stopped by the concierge to cancel my day-trip reservation. Then I remembered a conversation I had with the money exchange clerk at the San Francisco airport. He’s half-Japanese and apparently goes to Japan frequently. He told me that nobody speaks English outside of Narita airport. I didn’t want to waste time getting lost, so I opted for a guided tour of Tokyo. I thought I knew the routine of a city tour, where they take you to a famous site for a 10 minute photo-op. But as an avid traveler I also learned to keep an open mind. Of course the best thing about traveling is that you’ll never know what or who might cross your path.

Dynamic Tokyo Tour

Our first stop was the Tokyo Tower, the tallest structure in Japan and inspired by the Eiffel Tower. The line to the observation deck was long. There were kids all around. I found out that it was ‘Children’s Day’, a part of the ‘Golden Week’, a national holiday in Japan to celebrate children’s happiness. So my focus turned to this cultural phenomenon and was fascinated by the excited kids gathering around the Tower mascot. When I finally got to the observation deck, I realized how huge the city of Tokyo is. There are buildings as far as the eye could see. As my luck would have it, the day was clear and I was able to catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji without traveling to Hakone.

Afterwards we traveled to the Happo-en gardens for a tea ceremony.  At first I was skeptical that this was a show made for tourists. But the tea master was dead serious. Every move she made was delicate. I learned that the tea ceremony is an art form and that the best of all the green tea is the most- bitter tasting. There were also a few wedding ceremonies outside the teahouse. It was a cultural first for me to see the bride and groom in their traditional Japanese wedding costumes.

The tour included barbeque lunch which I thought something that is typically served for tourists. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find the restaurant hidden behind a vast Japanese garden. Walking through the wonderful garden in the middle of Tokyo was a delight in itself.    But eating a delicious Japanese style barbeque on a stone grill created from molten lava from Mt. Fuji was an added treat.


After lunch our tour continued on to a definitive sightseeing tour. We went to the Imperial Palace Gardens, the Imperial l Palace Nijubashi Bridge (surrounded by a moat and an abundant variety of trees, it was like a world apart situated right in the middle of Tokyo. Then we took a boat trip on the Sumida River passing 12 bridges and seeing a mix of Tokyo’s different architecture. We joined the crowd at Nakamise Street (lined with shops selling Japanese souvenirs) to get to the Senso-ji Temple. Our tour ended at Ginza. I walked back to my hotel in time for dinner.

I was exhausted from this previous day’s activity that I had a good excuse to visit and refresh in luxury at Mizuki Spa. I went in and out of the hotel in my running shoes and jogging outfit and nobody said anything. But when I stepped into the spa room with the white slippers I found in my hotel room, I was politely reminded that it was improper. The spa host gave me traditional pair of slippers to wear in the spa and pointed out that this part of Japanese culture is taken seriously.

In my travels, I tried to avoid places labeled “Las Vegas of…” or ‘Beverly Hills of the East” like Ginza. On my last day in Tokyo, I thought I would venture and find other eating places outside of my hotel. I walked around Ginza to find the stores and restaurant closed. It was Sunday! I walked back to my hotel passing rows of restaurants including Salon De The, and other famous brand named Italian and French restaurants. I also passed a small convenience store where I found bottled water for an equivalent of a dollar and mochi balls for 75 cents apiece. I crossed a flyover and continued on a long pathway of connected buildings to get to Shiodome.. And when I got there, it took me a while to find the entrance to the hotel. I went back to the Twenty Eight Bar and Lounge to try its famous drink: the tei-in martini (described as a green drink of Japanese cucumber muddled with shiso and cardomon seed, shaken with New Zealand kiwi vodka and served with shiso flower). Relaxing on the bar lounge and drinking in the incredible vista for the last time, I realized I did what I set out to do in Tokyo. Staying in this stylish hotel that combined high-tech and zen and offers international cuisines, yet steep in tradition as observed from the politeness of spa and other hotel personnel. This whole experience gave me a glimpse of Tokyo – a city of contradiction I thought. And I barely scratched the surface. So next time I come to Japan, I have to look for the old.

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