A luxurious space in the most cramped city in the world
Despite being in the home of the busiest intersection, crowded subway and the smallest hotels in the world, Abena Bailey found tranquillity in Tokyo.
As I let the hot waters of the onsen bath penetrate my skin I realized that it was the first time in a while that I was not shoulder-to-shoulder with another human being.
I was staying at Hotel Chinzanso in the Bunkyo district of Tokyo but at that moment, in the spacious and minimalist surroundings of the onsen, while staring at still waters and with just my own thoughts to listen to, the intensity of the metropolis beyond the walls of the five-star hotel felt like it was from a dream.
I had spent my first night drinking sake and eating grilled chicken in the tiny restaurants of Shibuya’s Nonbei Alley. Also known as Drinkers’ Alley, the narrow interconnecting streets house eating and drinking places that are often too small for people to sit down in, so friends and strangers alike get together and socialise.
To me, it felt like a movie set. I saw people chatting and cooking through every open doorway as I bumped my way through the crowds trying to keep up with my friends, who discovered it was difficult to find a spot with room enough for five people.
Eventually we found a spot and sat down to grilled meat skewers, gyoza and horse meat steak tartar before heading off to sing karaoke.
Tokyo has hundreds of karaoke bars, from brow-raising bath bars to the Karaoke Kan chain, which was made popular by being featured in a famous scene in the movie Lost in Translation. The selection of English songs was phenomenal so we sang our hearts out for a couple of hours in the sound-proof room and called for ever more drinks using the intercom system. The late night was followed by an early morning. I was in Tsukiji Market dodging trucks and scooters at 5am.
Throngs of people were already there because, like me, they wanted to eat the best sushi money can buy.
The wholesale market is best known for being one of the largest fish markets in the world and handles about 2,000 tonnes a day. At certain times some areas are off limits to the public due to the sheer amount of tourists who go to eat and see the sights and famous tuna auctions.
I queued for an hour for my seat in a diner-style sushi shop. It had a one-in-one-out policy and I wasn’t even sure whether I really wanted raw fish for breakfast but that was forgotten the moment I tasted the fatty tuna and salmon sashimi, which melted in my mouth.
Truly satisfied, I wanted to relax back at Hotel Chinzanso, but first I had to navigate the subway, which is actually two networks intertwined making a total of 13 lines and 209 stations. It is the busiest in the world – according to Tokyo Metro 6.33 million people used it a day in 2009 – so getting my head around the daunting looking map in a moving tide of people was no easy feat.
I’m a city person. I love Bangkok, London, Cologne, Colombo and Paris for their excitement and fast-paces. Tokyo is the hippest I’ve visited and it is easily the most stimulating, which is why for me Hotel Chinzanso was a welcomed refuge from the overload on the senses. It boasts some of the largest rooms in Tokyo – the imperial suite has a dining room, living room, kitchen and four bedrooms. I had a garden view room. The floor-to-ceiling windows meant at night I had an amazing lit up cityscape view and in the morning I woke to a view of lush gardens.
That day there was no one in the onsen and about three people using the spa area, which consists of an indoor pool, sauna, steam room, indoor jacuzzi, outdoor jacuzzi and relaxation area. It had a natural feel. Waters are brought directly from hot spring Ito in the Shizouka prefecture, the outdoor area was surrounded by vegetation and I could hear a nearby waterfall. I spent the rest of the day wandering from the onsen, to pool, to sauna, to outdoor jacuzzi and to the relaxation area to peruse the Guerlain spa treatment menu.
Hotel Chinzanso is an experience in itself and I thought it was tough competition for the array of attractions in Tokyo. Guests can be fitted with a kimono, learn the art of a Japanese tea ceremony, join in with the champagne events on the terrace, sip on a cocktail that has been matched with a Jill Stuart perfume or read in the library. I could have been tempted to spend all of my short trip within its grounds, which are well known for being the most splendid in the city.
The gardens, which date back 700 years, were once called Mountain of Camellias because of the symbolic wild flowers that bloom there. In the 19th century when former Prime Minister of Japan and art connoisseur Mr Aritomo Yamagata came into possession of the land, he developed it into a Kaiyu-style garden featuring a centre pond filled with koi carp and a path around it.
When I wandered around, the peaceful atmosphere was only disturbed by the sounds of the garden’s waterfall and wildlife. I came across the eight stone Gods of Fortune, which give good luck, and I rang the bell in the Shiratama Inari Shrine after making a wish.
Hidden among the camellias I found four restaurants in traditional Japanese teahouses. Mokushundo serves old style dishes cooked on hot lava rocks, Chu-an is a sushi restaurant housed in a traditional teahouse, Kinsui serves small dishes called kaiseki and Mucha-an is renowned for its soba dishes.
Chinzanso is popular for dining and weddings – it hosts about 30 every weekend in a variety of locations in the grounds, which has a chapel and Japanese shrine. One evening as I was heading out I passed three beautiful brides walking through the gardens, two in western-style wedding gowns and one in a white kimono. I wondered for a second if maybe that was good luck and then I hopped on the subway to Ryogoku Sumo Stadium, which of course was packed to the rafters.