Tokyo is a test for the knees. At the sumo wrestling, at chanko restaurants, in izakaya bars, you sit seiza, heels under haunches. If you’re a Westerner not used to kneeling on tatami mats the pins and needles start after ten minutes and your feet go numb soon after. Is this why the Japanese build high? After centuries of sitting on floors, eating at low tables, sleeping on futons, did the national architectural spirit say: soar! The five-storey pagoda became the skyscraper. Tower after tower rose through Tokyo, lit red at night to warn off helicopters.
The motto of any new art gallery is: go high or go home. The Sumida Hokusai Museum, designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Kazuyo Sejima and opened last year, is folded and pleated like an origami swan. Inside, Katsushika Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji pay tribute to the Tokyo-ite’s quest for height. In Hokusai’s day they made pilgrimages to sacred mountains; today they take the elevator. The Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills is on the 53rd floor. The views are better than the modern art on the walls.
Our room at the Aman Tokyo was on the 35th floor with a dragon’s-eye-view of the Imperial Palace Gardens. A thrill to look down on the palace, its paths and lakes and see the first Sunday walkers, ant-small, troop through the gates. There isn’t a better view in the city. A swim before breakfast shows you glass-and-steel Tokyo: great picture windows frame towers as far as the horizon. Twenty lengths and the knockout library of art and design books lifted my jet-lagged spirits.
In May, the Imperial Palace Gardens are between seasons: cherry blossom over, irises beginning. ‘Just like Monet,’ you think, taking photos of irises, water-lilies, bridges and pergolas. But of course it is the other way around: Giverny is just like Japan. Climb the Tenshudai Donjon Base for a garden panorama. This was the tallest donjon — fortified keep — built in Japan, symbol of the clout of the Tokugawa shogunate. The last tile was laid in 1638, and the tower burned down in 1657. That’s the trouble with wood-frame construction: one toppled lamp and it’s up in flames.
Many of the ‘historic’ buildings we saw in Japan — Okayama Castle, Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto — were box-fresh reconstructions. Dorling Kindersley will tell you what’s new and what’s not, but the Japanese keep shtum. In the UK, we relish our ruins and charred remains. It’s a badge of honour if a wing of a stately home was burnt down in the Reformation or Civil War: all grist to the guidebook mill. In Japan, they sweep up the soot and rebuild.
Tenshudai is a rare example of a tower that hasn’t risen from the ashes. Today, the steep stone base, all that remains, gives the best vantage over the Tokagakudo Concert Hall, an odd, delightful building put up by Kenji Imai in 1966. The roof is curved like clematis petals and the octagonal walls are tiled with birds, suns, stars, moons, musical notes and stringed instruments. Imagine a Leonora Carrington fantasy done in mosaic.
Imai’s intricate, embellished buildings were a rebellion against the Japanese ‘Metabolist’ movement. The Metabolists promoted buildings with a bare infrastructure and clip-on ‘capsules’. Most famous is the Nakagin Capsule Tower, with its protruding pod flats. Once a beacon of new Tokyo, it is now a sorry, unlovely building, dirty, under-occupied and covered in pigeon netting. (Tokyo’s pigeons aren’t the worst of it. The crows that menace the city’s temples are massive.)
Even the most robust sightseer starts to suffer temple-fatigue. After four days of shrines to the Shinto kami and Buddhas dressed in red crochet bibs and bonnets for good luck, my boyfriend marched us to the Catholic St Mary’s Cathedral. This stone-and-stainless-steel church, designed by Kenzo Tange, is like a bird in flight with two great, reflective outstretched wings. The bell tower is a thin silver needle pricking the sky. Inside it is shadowy, with shafts of sun through archers’ windows. The rough-hewn font might be a meteorite that has hurtled through the roof and struck the baptistery floor.
From sacred St Mary’s to profane Prada (my choice). Omotesando is Tokyo’s Bond Street, where Stella McCartney, Gucci and Dior compete for the most elaborate, crystalline flagships. Issey Miyake has an empire of shops (I counted seven) for his pleats and creases. The Prada store with its glass rhomboid front by Herzog & de Meuron (the Tate Modern men) is the finest. Outside is a plaza with a bench for bored boyfriends; inside is the sense of being in a kaleidoscope with shoes, satchels, sunglasses as shards of jewelled colour. If I hadn’t spent all my yen on books and postcards at the Nezu Museum (glorious) and Tokyo National Museum (heaving) I’d have bought a key ring. Cheaper than Omotesando is the Jimbocho booksellers’ district in the old university quarter. This is the street for woodblock prints by Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utagawa Kunisada and for pork, ginger and lemongrass gyoza from Suito Pozu — a hole-in-the-wall café where the set lunch is as cheap as a paperback. Students prop second-hand books against rice bowls and dip their dumplings in rice wine vinegar.
One last Tokyo trick: the house and studio of the sculptor Fumio Asakura in the Yanaka district is built around a sunken courtyard. Everything calls the eye down: the pool, sea rocks, trees and irises, the koi carp with shimmering, flirting tails. Don’t be lured. Get on to the roof. There, if you look across the tiles is Asakura’s secret: a crouching bronze life-size nude where a weather vane might be. You wonder what the neighbours said when they opened their upstairs shutters the first morning after she’d taken her perch.
A night in a Garden View Double Room at the Aman Tokyo starts at £770. www.aman.com