Tokyo's hidden gems: an insider guide

Lisa Murray gets exclusive Tokyo tips from a stylish resident in the know: Airbnb superhost Mayumi Omura.

Tokyo has plenty to offer travellers, with the Imperial Palace, the world’s busiest intersection in Shibuya and the Meiji Shrine at the top of most to-do lists. But digging a little deeper takes insider local knowledge.

Browse like a local: Nezu Museum

One of the highlights of the Nezu Museum, designed by contemporary architect Kuma Kengo, is the walk down to its spectacular bamboo-lined entrance. To make the most of this outing, start at the A5 exit of Omotesando station and turn right down Miyuki Street, where you can visit Japan's best boutique stores. These include at least three concepts from Issey Miyake as well as clothing, jewellery and homewares shop Plain People - where you can see craftsmen weaving insect catchers by the entrance - and the popular Tsumori Ohisato, with the Japanese designer’s hand-painted prints and feminine dresses.

Head straight upstairs where you can sit back in plush leather couches and see how the Tokyo cool set live.

Our stylish guide Mayaumi also recommends we head across the street, to the small but special Over The Counter by Arts and Science, which sells handcrafted nail scissors, face wash brushes and delicate fans. With the shopping out of the way, head down to the bottom of the hill to the Nezu, which houses a renowned collection of Japanese, Chinese and Korean antiquities, all lit to perfection and set among beautifully crafted bamboo benches and atop noise-cancelling cork floors.

After looking at the 18th century screen paintings of a field of irises on gold panels, head outside to see the real thing and have a wander around one of the most tranquil gardens in Tokyo.

6-5-1 Minami-Aoyama,  Minato district, +(81) 3-3400-2536

Style shop like a local: Dover St Market

This art gallery/design studio/department store tucked down a side street in the shopping Mecca of Ginza is the brain child of Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo. Most days there is a line-up to get in before its 11am opening and it's easy to see why.

Each floor houses a select group of limited collections from the biggest names in fashion, and their displays are like a series of small art exhibitions.

Giant sculptures of grasshoppers compete for space with a red slippery dip and a large black elephant surrounded by a crowd of bodyless black Nike hoodies, heads bowed.

The early crowd races up to buy the latest from Rei's own collection under her brand Comme des Garçons, French for "Like Boys." They snap up $85 t-shirts, aided by a young sales assistant sporting an Afro and wearing a tucked-out business shirt over black shorts and the latest Adidas treads.

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The T-shirts are among the most affordable pieces in the store, with the high-end fashion collecting high-end prices.

Don't be put off by the enormous photographs of pouting clowns placed strategically at the foot of the escalators, and make sure you make it up to the Rose Bakery on the seventh floor for a cauliflower and ricotta tart, some fruit compote and an excellent coffee.

Stairs lead up to a lovely roof-top garden. Even the smoking room, with its ashtrays lined up in military formation, is an art installation in this place. 

Dover Street Market first opened in London and there is now one in New York but the store feels like it is at home in Tokyo.

Komatsu West 6-9-5 Ginza, Chuo district, +(81) 3-6228-5080

T-Site, Daikanyama

This place is what book heaven might be like. The retail complex was designed by award-winning Tokyo-based architecture firm Klein Dytham, and at its centre is Tsutaya Books, sprawled over three buildings and filled with rare books, best-sellers, vintage magazines, vinyl records, CDs and trinkets.

Ignore the Starbucks on the ground floor and head straight upstairs to the Anjin lounge bar where you can sit back in plush leather couches and see how the Tokyo cool set live. Waiters and waitresses in flowing black silk skirts and tuxedo shirts hand around the iPad menu that includes western fare such as an old-school beef sandwich which comes with a tea-cup full of soup and a pristine salad. Different sized bottles of Taittinger Champagne line the bar along with expensive bottles of Japanese whisky. (The bar, by the way, is a mixture of dark wood and book spines).

Jazz versions of old Beatles hits play in the background and a 1940s edition of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is on display. A stroll around the trendy Daikanyama neighbourhood – one of the city’s best low-rise shopping districts – is also recommended.

17-5 Sarugakucho, Shibuya district, +(81) 3-3770-2525

Hamarikyu Gardens

Surrounded by skyscrapers, this park in the middle of Tokyo is a welcome respite from all the shopping, eating and drinking. A former duck-hunting ground for Japan’s shoguns, it is now more famous for its saltwater pond, peony garden, 300-year old pine and a view all the way to Tokyo Tower and Roppongi Hills. And this garden offers a guilt-free leisurely stroll, with a sign out the front that says no running or jogging is allowed.

1-1 Hamarikyu Teien, Chuo district, +(81) 3-3541-0200

Uomaru Honten

No visit to Tokyo is complete without a beer and a meal at one of the city’s many casual eateries known as izakayas. Uomaru Honten is a pretty good start. Nestled under the railway tracks in the downtown area called Sanchoku Inshokugai, not far from Ginza’s glitzy shopping district, this seafood restaurant is packed most nights. But the waiting is part of the experience as friendly staff provide you with a drink, some over-sized oysters and what look like giant barbecued edamame to tide you over.

Once inside, it’s loud and squashy but lots of fun, with diners perched on crates covered in leather cushions. This old shack, held together by corrugated iron and lit by dangling naked bulbs, is a favourite with the after-work crowd as it stays open late and serves up drinking food. French fries can be found among the sashimi and grilled fish dishes on the menu.

2-1-11 Yurakucho, Chiyoda district +(81) 3-5510-1278

Ishidaya Restaurant

This 14-seater traditional restaurant in the quiet streets of Ginza, away from the luxury shopping malls, offers up the best of Japanese cuisine.

There is no rush as the seven-course dinner menu is served up at a leisurely pace by the husband and wife-team.

Yasuyuki cooks while Motoko, dressed in traditional Kimono, serves up tofu made with cherry blossom leaves, sashimi arranged on a gold-plated leaf and grilled cherry trout. These are best washed down with the many types of sake on offer, served in delicate glasses.

Most of the seats are arranged along the bench so you can watch Yasuyaki and Motoko at work, but there is a room for four diners in a partitioned room off to the side if you want privacy. It helps to have a Japanese speaker with you for the ordering.

3-13-2 Ginza, Chuo district, +(81) 3-6228-4793

The author stayed in Tokyo as a guest of Airbnb.