Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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The Tokyo Drift: What My Son Recommends
July 16, 2015 -- With the yen at a 12-year low against the dollar, the Nikkei Index at historic highs and Tokyo gearing up for the 2020 Olympics, the Japanese capital is rumbling again.
My son, Erik, who is also a journalist, just returned from a 10-day business trip and slipped some notes to his dear old dad. In turn, I thought I'd share them with you in case you're headed to Tokyo soon.
Erik scored a Japan Airlines first-class sleeper seat roundtrip on JAL's Chicago/O'Hare-Tokyo/Narita Narita nonstop for just 125,000 AAdvantage miles. (JAL is American's Oneworld partner.) JAL's 777-300ERs on the ORD-NRT run has four classes, including premium economy. (JAL also uses Boeing 787s on many of its North American routes and those aircraft don't have a first-class cabin.) Competitor All Nippon Airways (ANA), aligned with United Airlines and the Star Alliance, is selling first-class sleeper seats on the same route starting at $6,850 roundtrip for a restricted ticket and as much as $25,000 roundtrip on a walk-up basis.
As many other business travelers have learned in recent years, Erik says close-in Tokyo International Airport (aka Haneda) is a much better option than Narita. However, U.S. flights to Haneda are limited and usually offered at poor times. Which brings us back to Narita, a $230 cab ride to Central Tokyo. The best and quickest public transport option is the Narita Express train. It's just $35 one-way and you arrive at Tokyo Station relaxed and refreshed about 50 minutes after clearing customs.
With the notable exception of the Narita run, Tokyo taxis are plentiful and inexpensive. That's a boon for business travelers, but most drivers speak no English. Get directions and addresses spelled out in Japanese. Tokyo's mass-transit system is easy to navigate and workers speak some English. (There's also a downloadable map in English at the Tokyo Metro Web site.) But fair warning: the city's subways are frequently packed and jostling and pushing is standard operating procedure.
If budget's not an issue and status is, the Aman Tokyo is the place to be. It is perched on the top six floors of the 38-story Otemachi Building in the coveted Marunouchi District across from the Imperial Palace. The bar is Tokyo's best and a cigar room, drinking lounge and library are impressive. Rooms this month start at $780 a night and suites top out at $1,662. The Peninsula Tokyo's singles start at $420 a night while the recently renovated Palace Hotel offers rooms beginning at $480. Rooms in Hyatt's year-old Andaz, situated in Tokyo's second-tallest building, also start at $480 a night. For the more cost-conscious, there is a cluster of dispiriting jumbo business hotels, many centered near the Shinagawa business district. Rates are high and rooms are small. If you don't smoke, be sure to ask for a non-smoking room or you'll wind up unhappy in a tiny, smelly chamber.
But Tokyo is not world-priced luxury or dreary chain hotels. Consider the Hotel Niwa Tokyo, a 170-room property a 5-minute cab ride from Marunouchi. Tucked away in a college/university neighborhood between the Suidobashi and Ochanomizu subway stations, it's a 2015 TripAdvisor Traveler's Choice Top 10 and garners Two Pavilions in the 2015 Michelin Guide. Erik booked it for $90 nightly on TripAdvisor. He found the guestrooms smallish, but not cramped. There was a firm, super-comfortable double bed and a compact desk. The WiFi was free. A money-changing machine in the lobby is quick with reasonable fees. The concierge is helpful to Americans needing directions. The only hassle: A sweet staffer at the efficient front desk turned downright surly when a one-hour late check-out was requested. When an assistant manager was notified, he repeatedly bowed and apologized, but it's doubtful the policy will change.
DINING AND DIVERSIONS
Food in Tokyo ranges from simple and super-cheap to beyond exotic and expensive, from basic izakaya pub fare to the finest Japanese and American super-prime beef. There's also a wide and deep selection of dried fish, grasshoppers, US-sourced horsemeat sashimi and whale meats, including whale bacon.
Japanese diners love Italian food and top Italian restaurants in the city execute the cuisine with passion, precision and the freshest ingredients. Northern Italian standards, together with homemade pastas, are at Osteria Meguro in the cozy Meguro neighborhood in Southwest Tokyo. Chef/owner Toshihiko Hatton shops daily at the famed Tsukiji fish market, then presides in the kitchen. Prices start at $40 a person, including a favorable pour of better-quality Italian whites and reds by the glass.
If you're interested in authentic Japanese fare, head to Northeast Tokyo's historic Asakusa neighborhood. In a building that was built to look like a sake bottle, Sukizuki is a 65-year old teppanyaki-style grilled steak and seafood fish spot. One floor down is a Northern Japanese eatery called Aramasa that features tasty and authentic hot-pot and other homey fare. Koto Suzuki and sons Brian and Chris own both restaurants; the eateries were started by grandpa, who recently retired. American-born Brian works the Benihana-style grill and is an engaging conversationalist. Prices at Sukizuki for five courses run about $80 a person. Prices downstairs at Aramasa, which could serve as movie set for an old world, Japanese countryside supper club, start at $4 per plate. More information about both dining rooms is available here.
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