The Language of Opposites
Our cover story takes Rissa Mananquil-Trillo to Japan's cosmopolitan capital
To travel through Tokyo for the first time is to learn the language of opposites: old and new, east and west, otherworldliness and banality. Every account of it is honest. Tokyo is as truthfully depicted in haiku and ukiyo-e as it is in the fiction of modern writers such as Haruki Murakami, whose novels collectively refer to a city that walks the fine line between dreams and reality.
Understanding Tokyo is less about translation and more about sensation. It will take anybody, even a Tokyoite, a lifetime to experience all that it has to offer. But, at the very least, first- time travellers can count on the city’s trains to run like clockwork, as if attempting to help them navigate a complex narrative that constantly skips back and forth between centuries.
Those looking to ease into the blur would do well to begin in the heart of Tokyo, in no less than Japan’s Imperial Palace. Its parks and gardens are spectacular in any season but most frequently visited in the spring, when locals and tourists flock to the palace moat to picnic under a gentle rain of cherry blossoms in a tradition known as hanami. Philippine Tatler Traveller cover lady Rissa MananquilTrillo describes the palace grounds as transporting, “a beautiful garden in the middle of the city.” Another lively hanami location north of the area is Ueno Park, whose central pathway is flanked by 1,000 cherry trees, and whose grounds are home to both the Tokyo National Museum and the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.
Nearby Asakusa, the city’s prewar pleasure district, begs to be explored. The best time to go is in the late afternoon, when the crowds around the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), the symbol of Tokyo and the entrance to the city’s oldest temple, Sensoji, are just beginning to relax. Freshly baked traditional pastries and sweet, hot sake await in the stretch of souvenir shops, cafés and street food stalls that lie beyond the trademark red lantern in Nakamise. “Walking around here feels like a step back in time,” says Rissa. “Everything is quaint and charming, and the treats are always so artfully wrapped.” When evening falls, Asakusa warms and coaxes with alcohol and meats in top-notch izakaya set within centuries- old structures.
On the other side of Ueno, 15 minutes on foot from the Tokyo National Museum, primordial Tokyo survives in the old-world neighbourhood of Yanaka. Spared from the destruction caused by
the Great Kanto Earthquake and the air raids of the Second World War, Yanaka preserves many points of culture from both the Edo period and Japan’s post- war revival. Its nostalgic shitamachi (downtown) atmosphere brings in many artisans who seem to share the common mission of promoting a sloweddown lifestyle and a more careful way of practicing their craft. The downtown market area yields cheap thrills like 10- yen manju ( filled buns), and also showcases newer cafes and boutiques owned and run by young entrepreneurs selling everything from bicycles to katsu. While Yanaka is a residential area that remains largely unknown to foreigners, its cemetery, which houses the remains of the last shogun of the Ed o period, is a landmark and a steady draw for local tourists and photographers.
Over in Shibuya, in western Tokyo, the pace of life quickens significantly. This is best observed in the world-renown Shibuya intersection, which sees crowds of up to 1,000 pedestrians crossing at peak hours. Harajuku, Japan’s mecca for all things kawaii, is part of this district. I t’s main shopping avenue, Takeshita- dori, is eternally crowded with young people who are obsessed with trying out both the day’s trends and Harajuku’s famous crepes. Rissa calls it “a must- g o for a glimpse of Japanese youth culture, where you will find fashionconscious teens dressed up in various forms of cosplay, including gothic lolita outfits.”
Shibuya’s oasis of calm is the M eiji Shrine, where locals from all over the country prefer to purify themselves, offer prayers and have their oracles read as they ring in the N ew Year. On any given day, it is possibl e to witness a Shinto wedding taking place in the shrine, which is surr ounded by a man- made forest of over 100,000 trees donated by shrine- goers.
Close by, the more refined art town of Omotesando also offers respite. Both a showcase and a haunt of not onl y Tokyo’s but also the world’s most sophisticated, its central avenue is frequented by those with an eye for architecture and a nose f or good, strong coffee.
The raucous Shinjuku, Tokyo’s entertainment capital, is one tr ain ride away. Travellers will find it worthwhile to visit the Metropolitan Government Office, where the 45th floor observation deck that gives a full view of Tokyo is open to the public free of charge. The South Observation Deck, which glimpses the entertainment district of Odaiba, is open until
the late afternoon; but the North Observation Deck is open until 10: 30 PM and serv es drinks to go with the evening view.
Even before the sun sets, Shinjuk u transforms into a neon lab yrinth. Everything moves in hyperspeed: the slamming of car d oors, non- stop swiping of credit cards, and pinging sounds of a thousand pachinko machines. But beneath this alien— and sometimes alienating— landscape, Rissa urges pushing forward to find the district ’s hidden culinary gems like the sky- high Seryna, a shabushabu restaurant located on the 52nd fl oor of the Shinjuku Sumitomo building. “Seryna serves the best teppanyaki I have ever had,” she recalls. “My mouth still waters every time I think about it. ”
A memorable meal at par with that experience took place at Peter, the signature grill restaurant at The Peninsula Tokyo, where Rissa and the Philippine Tatler Traveller team stayed. Rissa gushes about the A5* Hida- gyu, “I t’s famed to be the best beef in Japan. The melt- in- your- mouth experience was divine.”
Her stay was made even more unforgettable by The Peninsula Tokyo’s location. “It was fantastic— I got to wake up with a vie w of the river and the Imperial Palace every morning,” Rissa says. A frequent visitor to the city, Rissa shares that the place is special t o her for a number of r easons, “I love Japan because it’s where Paolo proposed. Even The Peninsula is special to me because Paolo and I were married at The P eninsula Manila.” The skincaring make- up brand she launched called “Happy Skin” is made here in Osaka, too.
Rissa’s list of must- sees includ es the romantic Tokyo Tower, Japan’s answer to the Eiffel Tower and the herald of its post- war rebirth. From here, visitors can look across the Sumidagawa to the taller Tokyo Skytree, and see, on a cl ear day, the legendary Mount Fuji. Rissa’s must- go luxury destinations are Roppongi in southern Tokyo, which, on this trip, surprised with the special tr eat of an 80- piece Yayoi Kusama restrospective at the National Art Centre; and the swanky 10- millionyen-per- square- metre Ginza. “When shopping, I always aim to find a piece of cl othing or an accessory unique to the place,” says Rissa. “When I open my closet I would like for it to tell a story about my interests and travels.”
Though she makes it a point t o expose herself to things of quality when tr avelling, Rissa stresses that there are other things t o take notice of in upscale locations like Roppongi and Ginza. “Even if you don’t buy anything, you’ll be amused by the luxury buildings, boutiques, and larg e department stores— all boasting Instagram-worthy architecture and inspiring window displays.” She also tries t o get a sense of l ocal living by observing the transport system, roadways, parks, greenery and how everybody is dressed. “What I really love discovering is the soul of a country ,” says Rissa. “There is no substitut e to what travelling can do for the mind.”
Finally, a complete first visit to Tokyo requires stepping into the iconic Tsukiji Market. Early birds will want to catch the fish auctions at dawn in the inner mar ket before sitting down to one of its famed sashimi br eakfasts in the out er market shops. But b y all accounts, Tsukiji is an accidental landmark. More than anything, it is still the territory of farmers, fishermen and business owners, all hurrying past on scoot ers, minitrucks, or their own two legs in a spectacl e that is symbolic of the industriousness that has enabl ed Tokyo to rebuild itself time and time ag ain.
There are certainly many ways to explore the city, whether by following traditional walking tours, scenic train excursions, literary- themed routes, coffee crawls, or your own impulsive, helter- skelter mix of wherever your feet might lead you. While there are impractical ways of navigating Tokyo, there is no rig ht or wrong way to pass through. Each time, y ou become a littl e more fluent in its semantics: chaos and or der, tradition and modernity, survival and reinvention. And under falling cherry bl ossoms in the spring or golden ginko leaves in the fall, y ou learn that Tokyo is not just a constantl y moving city; it is a city that moves.
Understanding Tokyo is less about translation and more about sensation
THIS PAGE: The Imperial Palace East Gardens against the modern Tokyo cityscape; Rissa at the Ginza Crossing, wearing a look from Michael Kors Spring 2017
URBAN LANDSCAPE Tokyo's skyscrapers as seen from the Imperial Palace East Gardens; the great lanterns at the Kaminarimon in Sensoji Temple
OPPOSITE: At the National Art Centre, Tokyo, where Yayoi Kusama:
My Eternal Soul was on show. Rissa wears a red Sierra asymmetrical flounce top by Vania Romoff, tassel earrings, stylist's own