Tokyo: one of the world’s largest cities. It’s big, buzzy and loud. But the Japanese capital isn’t all frantic-paced living and cramming on to impossibly packed subway trains. There are blissful pockets of peace and tranquillity too. From discovering the intricacies of a traditional tea ceremony to zazen meditation and dining experiences that last all afternoon, here are five ways to find calm in Tokyo.
So much more than dunking a bag into a mug, a Japanese tea ceremony lets you truly savour the stuff – preferably manicured garden. Immerse yourself in cha culture at Kosoan, a traditional wooden teahouse with a pretty garden in the leafy Jiyugaoka neighbourhood, or at Nakajima no Ochaya, located on a tidal pond in the impressive Hama-rikyu Gardens. And to learn the intricacies of the ritual, head to Tokyo Grand Tea Ceremony (TGTC) in October, were tea masters lead first-timers through a series of ceremonies and workshops. Although Japanese tea culture seems intricate and exclusive, TGTC offers and open and welcoming atmosphere while maintaining authenticity. Tap into the Zen spirit without feeling out of place.
Now you’ve had your tea, find peace in the big city with zazen meditation (that’s a meditation done sitting in the lotus position). In fact, tea and Zen Buddhism have more in common than you might think, as their history in Japanese society is intertwined: Zen monk Eisai brought green tea seeds to Japan for the first time, while ascetic monks took tea during their zazen meditation practice to stay awake. Several Buddhist temples in Tokyo teach the stress-busting, brain –strengthening technique of focusing your mind on your breathing and surroundings. The Korin-in temple in the upscale Hiroo district offers 50-minute sessions from 7am Monday-Friday (available in English) that should have you making your way through the urban sprawl feeling significantly lighter.
Our favourite of Tokyo’s serene, manicured gardens is Rikugien, which once belonged to a samurai lord. It’s great in spring (hello, cherry blossom!) but also stunning in autumn. Designed in the kaiyu style, its focal point is a peaceful pond surrounded by winding paths and mini-hills. The garden also features 88 impressive landscapes representing scenes from Japanese poetry. The seventeenth-century Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden is home to koi carp and turtles, while the lush Nezu Museum garden is filled with Buddhist statues, Zen-style bamboo decorations and a modernist cafe.
TEMPLES AND SHRINES
For religious sites in Tokyo without the crowds, visit the Tomioka Hachiman Shrine, famed for its traditional architecture and huge torii (gate). Otherwise, head to Yanaka for the Buddhist Tenno Temple, which dates back to the thirteenth century. For serenity with a view, climb the 86 stone steps of the shusse no ishidan up Mount Atago to the Atago Shrine – the highest natural point in the city.
For an epic fine-dining experience, book yourself in for some kaiseki cuisine. This ceremonial, artful and perfectly balanced meal (dating back to medieval Kyoto) takes place over a few hours. Everything is chosen to reflect the season, from table decorations and calligraphic menu to your hostess’s kimono and, of course, the food. Think intense, fragrant matsutake (pine mushrooms) in autumn. Except to pay at least ¥10,000 (£70/US$90) per person, plus drinks, for kaiseki – but it’s well worth the splurge. Our favourites are the Michelin-starred Seihotei in Harajuku, Tagestu in Aoyama and Ukai Chikutei out in the wilds of Mount Takao.