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A Concierge’s Guide to Tokyo

By Katherine LaGrave

Feb 17, 2020

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Boats are available for rent in the moat behind the Imperial Palace.

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Boats are available for rent in the moat behind the Imperial Palace.

Ahead of the Olympics, one of the city’s top concierges shares what to do—and where to eat—in the Japanese capital.

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Before working in the hotel industry, Masumi Tajima worked at a bank as a secretary many years ago, making travel reservations for her boss. Planes, trains, and automobiles. It’s a far cry from where she is now, as director of Concierge Services at the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, but the fundamentals of what she was doing are the same: finding the best and booking it. Only now, she’s got a different boss every day, week, hour—the customer.

In a city like Tokyo, staying on top of what’s new is no small thing. Tajima, a member and past president of Les Clefs d’Or, the concierge association, says it helps to have a strong network; monthly, member concierges from around the city meet to exchange information. Tajima herself is also, in some ways, a student. “I’m really curious—always, about many things,” she says. “Not only in a hotel environment. I love to know everything.”

It’s this curiosity that’s helped set her apart as one of the city’s top concierges. With this in mind, we sat down with Tajima over tea at the hotel’s 38th-floor Oriental Lounge to pick her brain about some of the city’s best offerings, even though, as she put it, we could talk for hours and still not scratch the surface of the city. “We can’t see, stay, or say enough,” she says. “Even if we stay a month or two months in Tokyo, you always need more time.” 

On where to pick up the best souvenirs

“The commercial quarter of Nihonbashi has many antenna shops, or stores that are dedicated to products from other prefectures around the country. There are also shops for lacquerware and Edo kiriko, a type of cut glass, like Edokiriko no Mise Hanashyo. For Japanese washi paper, travelers can visit Ozu Washi, a shop and factory that offers paper-making demonstrations and workshops. Ginza also has really, really nice chopsticks shop called Natsuno. They do name engravings and will add messages on the chopsticks.”

On the lesser-known spots Tokyo to see cherry blossoms

“Knowing the timing of cherry blossoms in Tokyo is important, so it depends—we’ll try to explain north spots or south spots, based on the weather. But I personally recommend Chidorigafuchi [the northwest moat of the Imperial Palace]. It’s not a big area, but there’s the Imperial Palace and the lighting is beautiful, as is the walking. There are boats, and it’s really nice. I also love Nihonbashi with its narrow streets, and walking Naka Dori, which is one of the best shopping streets in the city.”

Tickets for sumo matches, which are only held a few times a year in Tokyo, can be hard to come by, so it’s best to plan ahead.

On the sumo lowdown

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“The best way to see sumo is to attend a sumo tournament. These are held every two months around Japan, but only three times a year in Tokyo. Tickets are sold for each day of the 15-day tournaments, and they can be purchased in advance—online and by phone. The websites can sometimes crash, so if you know you want to see a sumo match, let your concierge know beforehand. If you missed the sumo tournament, you can visit a sumo ‘beta,’ or stable. There are 46 official sumo stables in Japan, the majority of which are located in Tokyo and the Kanto region. More and more are allowing tourists to watch the wrestlers in training, but to enter the privileged world of asageiko [early morning practice], you often need to be accompanied by a Japanese person, so the best way to see a training session is through a guided tour.”

On sushi that doesn’t break the bank

“Here are five casual places that I like: Sushi no Midori Ginza, Mantenzushi Coredo Muromachi, Haneda Ichiba Ginza 7, Tsukiji Sushi Dai Bekkan, and Nemuro Hanamaru. This last place is for kaiten-sushi, or conveyor belt sushi, but you can get good quality sushi for a good price.”

On where to get a moment of quiet

“There are so many nice gardens in the city. I personally like Kiyosumi Garden in Fukagawa, one of the traditional areas of Tokyo, for all seasons. If I need air, and if I need some calm, I’m going there. It’s a Japanese landscaped garden with walking trails around it. Part of the trails go over stones in the water—it’s really peaceful.”

On shopping in depachika 

“Depachika [underground food halls] are wonderlands where you can find bento boxes, liquor, and sweets. Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi [the main store] is Japan’s oldest department store, with roots dating back to a 17th-century kimono shop, Echigoya. Go here, and to Isetan in Shinjuku, for the city’s best depachika experiences.”

>> Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to Tokyo

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