I’m standing in the birthplace of some of Japan’s most celebrated foodstuff. It also happens to be the very centre of the country. The two things are not directly related but seem perfect, poetic companions. The district of Nihonbashi is the point from which five key routes in the country were originally measured; the word means ‘Japan bridge’, and at the very midpoint of said crossing is a brass marker of Japan’s exact ‘Kilometre Zero’ spot.
Nihonbashi was also the original site of the Tokyo fish market (now a 20-minute cab ride away in Tsukiji), where Edomae-style sushi began, consumed on the hop by busy fish vendors. A pile of rice topped with raw fish could be eaten with just fingers. Commonly known as Tokyo-style sushi, today it’s by far the most popular variant.
Back in the Edo period (1603-1868), Nihonbashi was the hub of five routes, the Gokaidō, connecting the capital with the provinces. It quickly became a mercantile hub, and continues to flourish with artisan wares — think exquisite washi paper, high-sheen lacquerware, and tiny toothpicks, sold in shops that sit cheek-by-jowl with luxury department stores. The old stone bridge, now traversed by the expressway built for the 1964 summer Olympics, seems thoroughly hemmed in and yet it marks a centuries-spanning crossroads. At some traffic lights, I spy four grown men driving Super Mario-style carts, in outfits to match: the modern city thriving in its old heart.
This area is also an epicentre of spring’s hanami (flower viewing), when the trees of Cherry Blossom street (Edo Sakura Dori) are in full bloom, the focus of ‘welcoming spring’ celebrations that include delicate foods perfumed with the flowers. But you don’t have to wait until spring to get a taste of Nihonbashi. Tokyo Station is a 15-minute stroll away, notable not just for its pre-war, red-brick facade, but for its endless subterranean food outlets. On ‘Ramen Street’, join locals loudly slurping slippery noodles and lip-smacking umami broth from big bowls. And make a point of exploring Nihonbashi’s smaller side streets and find a queue to join. More often than not, this signals one of Tokyo’s top food spots. At Kaneko Hannosuke, customers are prepared to stand in line for hours for its exemplary edomae-tendon: tempura set over a bowl of rice.
Taste flavours from the north and south of the country in a 90-minute spin round some of the best food shops and restaurants located in the COREDO Muramachi shopping centre. This is a learning experience with small samples from each outlet, but you can head back to your favourite spots in the centre armed with new culinary knowledge.
The Imperial Palace and its gardens are just a short walk from Nihonbashi’s bridge. The palace is built on the former site of Edo Castle and is surrounded by moats and stone walls. It’s the residence of Japan’s imperial family, so the inner grounds are only open to the public on two days a year (23 December, the Emperor’s birthday, and 2 January); however, the Palace East Gardens are fully accessible to the public.
Where to eat
The sushi experience at Sushi SORA is a culinary education in the district that gave birth to Edomae-style sushi. Master chef prepares rice and fish on the ancient wood counter in front of you, turning them into sushi masterpieces.
For tempura heaven, sit at the counter and watch as the chef delicately dips fresh fish and vegetables into batter, before deep frying and serving them up, piece by individual piece. Don’t dither over photos — this stuff should be eaten hot, hot, hot.
Tapas Molecular Bar
TThis tiny eight-seat, one Michelin-starred bar loffers molecular cuisine, sushi bar-style. Chef Ngan Ping Chow presents a fusion of Japanese and Western cuisines that play with modern cookery techniques to produce a truly interactive experience.
Bring it home
Ninben has been a part of Nihonbashi for more than 300 years selling dried bonito flakes, a traditional component of the Japanese diet. Katsuobushi is dried tuna, shaved into delicate flakes. It’s often used as a food topping or boiled in water to create dashi (stock). The shop contains a dashi bar, selling soup and rice dishes.
Nihonbashi Kiya — the Kiya Cutlery Shop — has been around since 1792 and sells Japanese-forged stainless steel knives. Marvel at the array of task specific knives before opting for the one that suits you best for kitchen use. The walls are also lined with kitchen knick knacks such as peelers, scrubbers and strainers.
Head to the Mitsukoshi depachika (food hall) for dried goods, pickles and seasonings. Snaffle some free samples and grab a picnic for the plane home.
Where to shop
Set in a stunning stone building, this flagship store offers pipe organ concerts (thrice daily on Friday, Saturday and Sunday) and year-end choral performances. The basement food hall is a gasp-a-minute gourmet delight, with a variety of sweet and savory dishes available.
This traditional Japanese washi paper shop sells high-grade paper for painting, calligraphy and origami. Pull out drawers to find screen-printed glories that look marvellous when framed. The site includes a gallery and a studio where you can make your own washi paper.
IBASEN was born in the Edo era as an Ukiyoe publisher for Hiroshige and others. Throughout its 400-year history IBASEN has kept alive the traditional skills of SENSU (folding fan), UCHIWA (fan), WABUNGU (Japanese-style stationery).
Where to stay
It features 179 guest rooms and suites over seven floors of the 38-storey Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower, and these, as well as most restaurants, bars, spa and even some toilets, afford spectacular views of greater Tokyo and beyond. A 37th and 38th floor spa offers eight treatment rooms and Spa Studio plus heat and water facilities including a sauna that look out across the city.
How to do it: Rooms at the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo begin at £380 per night. Rates do fluctuate and are subject to an 8% consumption tax, 15% service charge and accommodation tax of 200 Japanese yen (roughly £1.50) per person, per night.
Flights with Japan Airlines, from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda, begin at £819 direct return. Promotional flights are sometimes available and can often begin as low as £480 for an indirect return flight.