If money is no object, why fuss with taxi, train or bus transfers from the airport when you can hop into a helicopter? And not just any whirlybird - the $10-million Hermès helicopter. For luxury travellers heading to central Tokyo, it's the only way to arrive in style.
"Our female passengers say it makes them feel like they're inside a Hermès bag," says Takako Otsuka of Mori Building City Air Services.
I hopped aboard this chic chopper one sunny December morning at a helipad a short drive from Narita International Airport's busy runways and bustling terminals and settled back in the soft leather seats. Seconds later, I was hovering high above a landscape crisscrossed with expressways and train tracks, dotted with dwellings big and small. The ride to the heart of the Japanese capital is equal parts smooth and spectacular. After 15 minutes, we swooped past the iconic Tokyo Tower and touched down atop a midtown skyscraper.
Tom Cruise inaugurated this luxury airport transfer service in 2009, and since then it has ferried a few thousand passengers to and from Narita (the cost is $900 a person for a round trip). Once they land, though, where do the most affluent travellers unload Louis Vuitton cases of cash? I decided to start with the celebrities, and followed them to the Park Hyatt in Tokyo's Shinjuku district. Cruise and company, Brangelina and George Lucas have all stayed at this hotel, but it's more famous for hosting Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in the Oscar-winning film Lost in Translation.
I took the ear-popping elevator ride to the 41st floor and then grabbed another lift to a deluxe corner suite - almost, but not quite, the $11,000-a-night presidential suite.
The suite comes with a stunning view of Tokyo's Yoyogi Park and a grand piano in case you're inspired to play.
Things only got better after I headed to the Club on the Park spa, which boasts an onsen-inspired soaking room. I spent almost an hour hopping between the huge hot bath and the cold plunge pool before sitting in the serene lounge, sipping iced tea and watching the sun set behind the vast Tokyo skyline.
The next stop was the 52nd floor and the hotel's vertigo-inducing New York Grill, where guests and Tokyoites alike tuck into prime, pricey Japanese beef and sip expensive wine and whisky. Manager George Akes was my host, dropping in on my table from time to time to fill my glass with Dom Pérignon or one of the restaurant's exclusive wines, the W.E. Bottoms Pinot Noir from California's Russian River Valley.
"What's the most someone's paid for a dinner here?" I asked him.
His matter-of-fact reply: "There was a couple that spent $5,000 one night."
Good thing you don't have to tip in Japan, I thought.
For visitors who lack the time to visit a ryokan - a Japanese inn - outside Tokyo, there's always the Ritz Carlton in Roppongi Hills. Here, for nearly $2,000 a night, you can walk on tatami mats and bed down on futons. Before you do, though, top off your night with a Diamonds are Forever martini. Shaken or stirred, it comes with a one-carat diamond at the bottom and costs about $20,000.
But the leader of the luxury pack in Tokyo is The Peninsula, where you can book the best room, the Peninsula Suite, for almost $24,000 a night, or slum it in lesser digs starting at about $700. The hotel is anchored in the glamorous Ginza neighbourhood, with its Michelin-starred restaurants, designer boutiques and world-famous cocktail bars. All I cared about was my room, a sprawling suite with sheets that put the thread in "thread count." But when I awoke on a rainy morning and watched out the window as fog engulfed the Imperial Palace, I remembered luxury travel is about more than being pampered at five-star hotels and zipping around in designer helicopters. In recent years, high-end travellers have shown they want to pull back the curtain and make cultural connections.
So that's what I went looking for at the end of Japan's sweltering summer on a tranquil river at Hoshinoya Kyoto. The renovated ryokan, which opened about a year ago, is in Arashiyama on the western outskirts of the country's ancient capital. The experience starts before check-in at a dock on the Oi River where guests are greeted and then ferried to the hotel and its modern-meets-traditional suites (which range in price from just under $400 to about $850 a night).
Along with the very best in accommodation, food and service, Hoshinoya offers guests exclusive access to a dawn prayer ceremony at one of Japan's oldest Zen Buddhist temples. I got up before sunrise to give it a try.
A short time later, I found myself kneeling on a tatami mat as a monk chanted sutras over and over again. My knees started to ache and one of my legs went numb. One moment I felt like I was floating, the next I was falling asleep.
This, I wondered, is luxury travel?
Special to The Globe and Mail