As I opened the door to my room at the Park Hotel Tokyo, I was struck by two things. First, the view out the 38th floor window was epic. Gauzy clouds partially concealed a faintly grey sky arrayed over a sprawl of skyscrapers punctuated by the Tokyo Tower, twin sister to the Eiffel Tower, as a mountain range rose and fell at the horizon. The second eye-catching element was the mural of the red-horned, nine-eyed mythical beast Hakutaku, who people believe wards off evil, which seemed to be lunging off the corner wall. There was another one over the bed, its flaming, dragon-like body wrapped around the shoulders of a dark-haired, doe-eyed ingenue.
The view and the art created an unforgettable double wow moment.
That’s the goal of the three-sided hotel in the city’s glitzy Ginza neighborhood, home to 34 different artist decorated rooms, part of a 10-year program to support Japanese artists. Further works are prominently displayed throughout the lobby and in the hallways (almost all are for sale and can be shipped anywhere in the world), giving the hotel the feel of a contemporary gallery.
My lodgings for a recent visit to Tokyo in October — just a few days after the country fully opened to foreign tourists — dovetailed nicely with my museum-focused itinerary punctuated with a robust dining schedule. As always, mornings started with coffee. One standout: Turret Coffee, a slender shop on a sleepy side street near my hotel serving impeccable oat milk cappuccinos.
Another favorite was Mejicafe, billed as the city’s smallest roastery, tucked into a tiny stall at Tsukiji, the old fish market, a hustling, bustling warren of narrow streets packed with merchants selling all manner of seafood, vegetables and kitchen supplies. (If you’re really looking to stock up on culinary gear, instead go to Kappabashi, affectionately nicknamed Kitchen Town.)
If I wasn’t near a new wave coffee shop, I could always rely on 7-Eleven (officially known as Seven & i Holdings in Japan) for an actually-pretty-decent latte. The convenience stores are (thankfully) nothing like their American counterparts. Thoughtfully and thoroughly stocked, meticulously maintained and presided over by helpful staff, there’s not a three-day old taquito or wrinkled hot dog in sight. Every visit resulted in me walking out with my backpack bulging — ultra creamy egg salad sandwiches, truffled Pringles, dried mandarin slices, matcha-flavored Kit Kats, onigiri stuffed with myriad vegetables and seafood, instant ramen galore. I bought all the things.
First stop on my artsy itinerary was the Yayoi Kusama Museum in the Shinjuku Ward, a quieter western suburb. Only five stories tall, the round-edged, brilliantly white building stands out against the grey cityscape, getting an extra pop from the artist’s now-iconic dots emblazoned across the front window. The ground floor is consumed by the requisite gift shop, an installation of two of the Japanese avant-garde artist’s intensely pink vinyl balloons decorated with black dots and a playful mirrored bathroom that doubles as a miniature infinity room.
The self-guided tour officially started on the roof, where several of Kusama’s phallic tentacle statues reached for the sky. From there, I passed through a small library then descended into exhibits of her paintings, heart-wrenchingly beautiful poetry and immersive installation, “I’m Here, But Nothing,” a living room purpled by ultraviolet light and awash in colorful polka dots. You’re allowed to experience it only a minute or two, just long enough for your jaw to drop as you take a couple of shots for the ’Gram and begin to ask yourself, “What does it all mean? How do I feel?” Then it’s over. A metaphor for life, perhaps?
I was allowed to linger at the Mori Art Museum, located on the 53rd floor of the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower and currently home to “Listen to the Sound of the Earth Turning: Our Wellbeing since the Pandemic,” a diverse exhibit of intensely emotive contemporary works, as well as the much more light-hearted, “Welcome to Fairyland,” featuring Motohiko Odani’s arresting statue of a girl riding a unicorn and Miwa Yanagi’s how it started/how it’s going style “The Three Fates” portrait.
Another gallery on my schedule: 21_21 Design Sight for Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped,” a 360-degree look at the couple’s lifelong ambition-turned-reality to swathe the iconic Parisian landmark in 25,000 square meters of silvery blue polypropylene fabric and 3,000 meters of red rope. Neither artist was alive to see their vision completed; it finally happened 2021 after a pandemic delay. Moving through the space, learning how the project took shape over 60 years with the help of thousands of contributors, I was moved by the power of vision, persistence and collaboration.
In between artsy adventures, one of the meals I enjoyed was at the Michelin-starred Ginza Hachigo from chef Yasushi Matsumura. I waited for half an hour in the rain — and would have happily waited twice that long — to buy a cash-only ticket for a bowl of ramen at the six-seat counter. Perfectly cooked noodles arrived in a consommé-like broth alongside gloriously fatty pork, a soft boiled egg with caramel-y yolk and a few grinds of fresh black pepper.
As I slurped away, lost in the deep flavors of the soup, soaring, angelic religious music swept through the compact eatery, adding a celestial surreality to the experience — another double wow moment I won’t ever forget.