Let The Games Begin: Checking in with Tokyo as it prepares to host the 2020 Olympics

Angelina Villa-Clarke

Tokyoites love a seasonal celebration. If they’re not picnicking under a blossom-laden tree, in honour of the spring sakura, then they are trekking to the nearest park to see the splendour of the autumn leaves. It’s no surprise, then, that the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games – despite being two years away – has already got the city in a celebratory mood.

A few months ago, to mark the ‘1,000 days to go’ until the Paralympics, the streets of the Nihonbashi area of the city were festooned with Olympic flags, while nearby, the world’s tallest tower, the Tokyo Sky Tree, was lit up in red, blue and green, the three colours of the Paralympic logo. It was the city’s first opportunity to start celebrating the impending event and they were grabbing it with both hands.

In Ginza, meanwhile, in the heart of the city, commuters are reminded of the city’s upcoming extravaganza with a three-metre tall countdown clock, which is already ticking down the minutes until the big day. And, for those wanting to look the part, you can already snap up merchandise, emblazoned with the city’s Olympic navy-and-white chequered emblem, by stopping by the futuristic Asics flagship store in Harajuku (the brand is one of the main sponsors and is already cashing in on the excitement) or in the ground-floor pop-up shop, filled with key rings and visors, at the Cesar Pelli-designed Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower.

Handily, the tower, found in the city’s business district, is also home to the sleek Mandarin Oriental hotel, considered one of the premier places in Tokyo to rest your head. Take the super-speedy lift up to the 30th floor and you’ll step out into a serene world far removed from the bustle below.

Stretching from the 30th to the 38th floors, the Asian hotel brand is renowned for its chic, pared-back interiors, and this Tokyo offshoot is no exception. Interior design has been led by textile designer Reiko Sudo, who has called upon a team of master artisans to produce original fabrics to reflect the cultural traditions of Japan and has devised a concept based around a living tree. In reality, the hotel is more about the guest than the gimmick, and while there are wood and water themes referenced throughout, the effect is very subtle. The hotel is best known for its 12 stand-out restaurants (including the intimate eight-seater Sushi Sora, regarded as one of the best sushi restaurants in the city) and futuristic spa, not to mention its far-reaching views over the city and to Mt Fuji beyond.

Of course, no-one visits Tokyo to stay in their hotel, so Mandarin is making much of the hidden charms that lie in the surrounding Nihonbashi area. Highlighting significant shrines, authentic restaurants, and artisan stores on the doorstep, the hotel’s Nihonbashi Experience, also invites guests to try their hands at time-honoured crafts – such as washi papermaking and glass engraving.

As the city’s major business hub, you might be deceived into thinking that Nihonbashi is a bland, corporate corner. In fact, it is a haven of historical shops harbouring skilled craftsmen, age-old culinary gems and countless family businesses. Considered the birthplace of Tokyo, the district is home to the ‘Kilometer Zero’ marker. Found on the historic Bridge of Japan, this was once the spot that designated a visitor’s arrival into the capital, and also marks the place from where the city expanded. It feels apt, then, that the Olympic celebrations have kicked off from here.

There are 45 new skyscrapers going up in time for the sporting event, including three towers – housing hotels, offices and retail spaces – in the Toranomon Hills area of Tokyo

With around 920,000 visitors expected to descend upon the city each day during the Olympics, there’s little wonder that Tokyo is already buzzing with industry. The two largest projects underway are the Shinagawa New Station (the first new station to be built on Tokyo's key JR Yamanote train line since 1971) and the new National Sports Stadium, the latter reportedly costing $1.4bn, both designed by renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. The stadium – a low, steel and wood structure – will reference traditional Japanese temples, while Kuma’s Shinagawa New Station has been inspired by ancient origami.

While these two projects are architecturally the most impressive, they are just part of the larger urban re-development underway which is set to transform the face of Tokyo. According to Bloomberg, there are 45 new skyscrapers going up in time for the sporting event, including three towers – housing hotels, offices and retail spaces – in the Toranomon Hills area of Tokyo. One of these is being designed by the renowned architectural firm OMA, founded by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Rem Koolhaas, and will play its part in moving the city even further skyward. Meanwhile, on a lower level, infrastructure improvements will see road signage becoming bilingual, more green spaces opening up and public transport becoming accessible to all by the start of the Paralympics in 2020.

“The new station is key,” Kuma has said. “It’s a great project because it will connect the sea and the hills of Tokyo, which will give a new face to the city.” It’s also a fitting tribute to the city’s ability to seamlessly blending old and new worlds.

Talking of which, stroll around Nihonbashi, and you’ll uncover a multitude of hidden gems. There’s lacquerware from Yamada Heiando (which was founded in 1919 and still supplies to the Imperial family). Yamamoto Noriten, meanwhile, is Japan’s bestseller of Nori seaweed (there’s even a collaboration with Hello Kitty for cute appeal), while Eitaro Sohonpo is famed for its Kintsuba sweets, which it began selling at the end of the Edo period, and remains one of Japan’s leading confectioneries. At the tiny Ibasen shop, you can pick up a hand-made paper fan.

If you want a professional sushi knife, stack of washi paper, or a hand-sewn kimono, then head to Mitsukoshi Main Store. This, the oldest department store in Japan, is a treasure trove of classic finds. Useful for guests, it is also found next door to the Mandarin Oriental. After a day of exploring, head to the hotel’s 38th-floor spa for a moment of relaxation. It doesn’t get better than a dip in what must be the most scenic urban pool ever – with its incredible views over the city below.

Come nightfall, turn down service brings a pot of fresh Sencha green tea, with a traditional seasonal chestnut mochi on the side. A delicately patterned yukata kimono-style robe is laid out, and there’s a pot of specially blended essential oil to help you go off to sleep. It really is the best of both worlds.

Rates for Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo start from JPY 49,000 per room per night (approx. GBP 330). For more information or to make a booking, please call +81 03 3270 8800 or visit mandarinoriental.com/tokyo

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