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Big in Japan: hi-tech meets tradition in Tokyo

As Tokyo gears up to host the Olympics, Japan’s capital is buzzing with new developments. But the city hasn’t forgotten its ancient roots

Peer out the huge windows of Sushi Sora — a compact dining room on the 38th floor of the elegant Mandarin Oriental Tokyo hotel — and the vast city skyline glows as far as the eye can see.

Night-time is surely the most cinematic way to see Tokyo from up high. To the east, the Tokyo Skytree towers above the other skyscrapers and below, there’s the green roof of the Bank of Japan, oddly shaped like a Yen sign (it turns out that its money-shaped architecture is merely a coincidence). Neon signs pulse to an unheard beat.

Inside the restaurant, which seats just eight, it’s dark and moody; a perfect antidote to the flashing lights down at street level. You perch on black leather seats at a counter carved out of aged Japanese cypress, and watch in anticipation as the chefs in front of you give a masterclass on Edomae sushi.

Based around ingredients that reflect the changing seasons, there is a choice of three menus, including a vegetarian option, which varies according to which fish and other produce the chef has purchased each morning.

Exquisitely presented (even your napkin is folded intricately in paper, to echo a kimono), the meal is an endless array of delectable mouthfuls all prepared theatrically in front of you. It’s the ultimate urban experience.

Of course, this is what you’d expect from Tokyo — the definitive hyper-modern capital city. Preparing to host the Olympics in 2020, it’s already in celebratory mood with some streets lined with Olympic flags (left over after marking 1,000 days before the event’s start) while a huge countdown display is already ticking on the metropolitan government HQ in Shinjuku.

Merchandise, emblazoned with the city’s Olympic navy-and-white chequered emblem, is being snapped up at the futuristic Asics flagship store in Harajuku (the brand is one of the main sponsors).

With over 900,000 visitors expected to descend upon the city per day during the games, there’s little wonder that by daylight this same skyline, so serene at night, is actually littered with cranes hard at work. According to Bloomberg there are 45 new skyscrapers going up in time for the event.

The two largest projects are the city’s major new train station and main sports stadium, both designed by renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.

The stadium — a low, steel and wood structure — will reference traditional Japanese temples, while Kuma’s Shinagawa New Station has been inspired by ancient origami, with both showcasing the city’s art of seamlessly blending old and new.

Taking this ethos to heart is the central Nihonbashi district of Tokyo. As the major business hub, you might at first be deceived into thinking this is a bland, corporate corner. But look again, and you’ll realise it is a haven of historical shops harbouring skilled craftsmen, age-old culinary gems and countless family businesses.

Considered the birthplace of Tokyo, Nihonbashi is home to the Kilometre Zero marker. Found on the historic Bridge of Japan, this was once the spot that designated a visitor’s arrival into the capital, and also marks the point from where the city expanded.

As a consequence, connections to the area’s artisan heritage are strong, with many businesses working together on collaborations and community projects to deepen these roots. Stroll around and you’ll discover lacquerware from Yamada Heiando, founded in 1919, which still supplies to the Imperial family.

Yamamoto Noriten, meanwhile, is Japan’s bestseller of Nori seaweed (there’s even a collaboration with Hello Kitty for cute appeal), while Eitaro Sohonpo is famed for its Kintsuba sweets, which it began selling at the end of the Edo period, and remain one of Japan’s leading confectioneries.

At the tiny Ibasen shop, you can pick up a hand-made paper fan — check out the new checked versions which reference the Olympic logo.

On the other hand, if you want a professional sushi knife, stack of washi paper, or a hand-sewn kimono, head to Mitsukoshi Main Store. This, the oldest department store in Japan, is a treasure trove of classic finds. Handily it’s also next door to the Mandarin Oriental, for visitors tempted by its first-class sushi.

Offering its own innovative take on the area’s charms, the hotel has just launched a Nihonbashi Experience, during which guests can tour significant shrines, eat at authentic restaurants, and visit artisan stores, as well as trying their hand at time-honoured crafts — such as washi papermaking and glass engraving.

Found on the 30th-38th floors of the Cesar Pelli-designed Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower, the views from the hotel’s 179 rooms are a highlight; looking east to Tokyo Bay or west towards the Imperial Palace Garden and Ginza. On a clear day, you might be rewarded with the majestic sight of Mount Fuji shimmering in the distance.

Even the décor reflects the country’s cultural traditions: Japanese textile designer Reiko Sudo has called upon a team of master artisans and weavers to produce original fabrics including soft billowing curtains meant to conjure up water, while ottomans are embroidered with delicate floral patterns.

On the walls are framed, rare Isegatas — original “forming sheets” for dying kimono, as a finishing touch to the huge bedrooms’ bamboo flooring, black lacquered chests and lantern-style pendants. Perhaps the best vista of all is from the 38th floor spa, probably the most scenic urban pool ever.

Even the food appeals to this blend of old and new: the sheer choice in Tokyo is overwhelming with 12 restaurants in the hotel alone. For a classic tea ceremony head to Sense Tea Corner, while the Mandarin Bar is perfect for sake sipped to a jazz soundtrack.

Adventurous foodies, meanwhile, should book in advance for the Tapas Molecular Bar (there’s always a waiting list), which blends haute cuisine with Japanese tastes: expect plenty of liquid nitrogen, your menu printed on a tape measure and cutlery replaced instead by a box of tools — all before you start on the 20-bite sized creations. It’s magical.

Not known for its vast choice of kosher options, the city is slowly improving, with Chana’s Place (chanasplace.com) in Takanawa being the closest to the hotel.

However Tokyo also has some standout Shojin Ryouri restaurants — Japan’s version of vegetarian and vegan cuisine, typically followed by Buddhist monks. Daigo, with two Michelin stars, is one of Tokyo’s best, with minimalist dining rooms over-looking manicured gardens.

Come nightfall, back at the hotel, a pot of fresh Sencha green tea awaits, with a traditional seasonal chestnut mochi on the side. A delicately-patterned yukata kimono-style robe is laid out, and there’s a pot of specially blended essential oil to help you go off to sleep. Because even in the heart of a hyper-modern city, you can find harmony.

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