New British Airways flights have made the lively Japanese capital, full of ancient and modern culture, more accessible, says CLAIR WOODWARD
ARRIVING in Toyko, it is clear this is a city like nowhere else.
The streets teem with people: "salarymen" in their sharp-cut black suits and skinny ties rush to work, mingling with youngsters with their outlandish fashion sense and big hair.
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Futuristic skyscrapers loom over the city from dizzying heights and huge neon street signs flicker and change constantly, advertising every product on Earth and a few more besides. In sharp contrast to this organised chaos there are peaceful gardens and parks and an escape to mountains is just a short train ride away.
It can all make a visit to the Japanese capital a tad bewildering as Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson's characters found in Sofia Coppola's Oscar-winning film Lost In Translation.
Yet there is no need to feel as alien as they did, providing you are willing to immerse yourself in Japan's amazing culture, both ancient and modern.
The base for our stay perfectly mixed these tempos of fast and slow. The Mandarin Oriental Tokyo has every convenience.
Beautiful blooms adorn the public areas (which include two Michelin-starred restaurants) while the simple, wood-lined rooms have traditional paper lanterns.
The hotel is a short ride from Haneda airport, the former domestic hub now open to international flights thanks to a new runway and terminal.
It is right in the thick of things.
In this city of super-consumers, the Mitsukoshi department store (dubbed the Harrods of Tokyo) is a short stroll away and worth visiting for its food hall alone with its piled-high array of such Japanese specialities as green tea and sticky dumplings.
Our walk also took us to tea shops selling pretty, colourful but strange-tasting cakes made from bean curd, a shop selling nori, the thin sheets of dried seaweed for wrapping into sushi; and another selling goods where everything has gold in it, from jewellery to exotic facial treatments.
A short ride on the underground, which is much easier to navigate now the signs are also in English, and we came to Akihabara or Electric Town as it's also known.
Here the neon lights are stratospheric and huge stores sell the kind of electronics that won't be seen in Britain for another decade, from working robots to computer chips that are sold from roadside bins by the kilo.
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Trendy Harajuku is another great place to shop and to simply people-watch. Centred on a pedestrianised street lined with hip boutiques, it's where Tokyo youths gather to indulge in cos-play (costume play). The teens spend weeks preparing their beautifully detailed fancy dress-style outfits that are based on characters from Manga comic books or computer games.
Girls dress as French maids, in Englishstyle school uniforms or with Victorian ruffled dresses, while boys tend to don punk outfits. They all preen themselves regularly to make sure everything is just so, eager to gain the approval of fellow cos-players.
DAZZLED by the modern side of Tokyo we decided to take refuge in some more traditional pursuits by visiting the Meiji Shrine. Surrounded by parkland, the single-storey, green-roofed structure is dedicated to the spirits of the deified Emperor Meiji (died 1912) and his wife, Empress Shöken, and you can leave a message for the gods on small wooden boards.
Most ask for health and happiness for family and friends but I did spot one from a London family which specifically asked for "good grades for James in Basic Skills and fantastic Year 11 and 12 results for Gregory".
The Nihonbashi district, another short walk from the hotel, is one of the city's oldest neighbourhoods. There are centuries-old shops that specialise in Japanese handicrafts, from lacquerware to the finest kimonos, but it's also home to one of Tokyo's premier Samurai training halls where we saw men train in the art of Bushido, the ancient Japanese code of honour and ethics.
Their displays of swordmanship took the breath away with their elegance.
Life is so fast in Tokyo it is likely you will need a break. We copied the city's inhabitants by taking a 90-minute train ride from Shinjuku station to the mountains of the Hakone area. The scenery was beautiful with Mount Fuji, made iconic by 19th century artists such as Hokusai, in the distance.
We took the cable car to Odaiba where there are a series of volcanic, sulphuric springs where a quick dip served to ease some of the city stresses. The traditional dish here is black eggs, cooked in the springs. Legend has it these add seven years to your life if you eat one. They don't taste bad but to keep up in this fast-moving city perhaps I should have had two.
British Airways (0844 493 0758/ba.com/Tokyo) offers four nights at the five-star Mandarin Oriental from £1,798pp (two sharing), room only. Price includes return flights from Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda.
Japan National Tourism Organization: 020 7398 5670/seejapanco.uk