Whether you’ve watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi or gazed longingly at the backdrop skyline in Lost in Translation, Tokyo’s portrayal in the media can’t even begin the convey the charm, scent and addictiveness of the city itself. An incredible fusion of modern architecture, mystical ancient temples, a love of fashion and design and possibly the best food in the world, Tokyo has to be the unrivalled champion of must-visit global city.
I had my first initiation to Japan in Tokyo. Initially overwhelmed by the potential cost of the trip, language barriers and dizzying amounts of places I wanted to see and eat, I did what I do best and spent about 2 months researching my trip. I wanted to see the city from every side. The neon-lit commercial areas versus the meandering lanes of old Edo. The michelin starred restaurants versus the holes in the walls frequented by efficient salary man for their daily lunch ritual. The instantly recognisable view from the Park Hyatt’s New York Bar versus the cavernous interiors of the shack like bars in Golden Gai. I contacted expats, sought advice from Tokyo stalwarts and let my nose and guide books lead me to the rest.
The below Tokyo city guide, is the result, a painstakingly researched and tried and tested guide to a weekend in Tokyo. As such a vast city, I tackled it region by region, an approach which let me fully appreciate the complexity of the city and its many guises. If you’re tight for time simply skip some sections and choose your favourites. And as an ever shifting landscape, I’m always on the lookout for new things to add to my guides so do get in touch with your own insider knowledge.
Words of advice to the novice visitor
Unless you’re fluent in Japanese and/or rolling in cash, don’t learn the hard way but arrive prepared with my hints and tips in mind:
- When arriving into Tokyo Narita airport don’t take a cab to your hotel. They cost an exorbitant amount and are actually slower than the train. Instead take the Narita Express or Keisei Skyliner depending on your end destination.
- Furthermore, when navigating within the city, avoid taxis wherever possible. With such an efficient and affordable subway and clear English signage, they really are an unnecessary expense.
- If you do decide to take a cab, be sure to have your destination address written out in Japanese to show them and perhaps even have your hotel’s doorman tell the driver in person where you’re heading for.
- Cash is king. It’s hard to get cash out in Tokyo so take enough with you; if you need cash not all ATMs accept international cards – try ones in post offices for your best bet.
- Cover charges are the norm. It’s standard to pay a large amount per head before you even order your drink. Factor this into prices.
- Many traditional restaurants expect you to remove your shoes when entering. Be warned and don’t wear your threadbare socks.
Skip the overpriced hotel breakfast buffets and pop into any local bustling joint for some miso soup and rice. If the lack of English signs puts you off, ease yourself in at one of the city’s many Denny’s outlets; with a Japanese take on fast food and low prices, they’re always bursting with locals kick starting their work day.
Once you’re sufficiently fuelled, work your way around the business hub of Shinjuku on foot. When you bore of the high rise offices, sneak into the backstreets of Golden Gai and Kabukicho. Whilst these are famed nighttime haunts, daytime explorations allow you to soak up the architecture and feel of the place without seedy nighttime clientele clouding your vision. For a breath of fresh air, pound the paths at Shinjuku Gyoen, one of Tokyo’s many sprawling and beautiful parks. A highlight is the central lake with picturesque wooden bridges. A nominal entrance fee is charged but it’s worth every penny for the serenity and tranquility that awaits inside.
Lunch in Tokyo, unlike dinner is best as a spontaneous affair. Follow your nose and the crowds to a bustling ramen shop, hundreds of which are dotted in the backstreets around Shinjuku station. If you’re left flummoxed by the Japanese vending machine where you have to pre-order your dish before perching on a stool to slurp away at it, ask an obliging local to order for you, by the fail safe point and thumbs up method!
Restored and revived, head on over to the Iidabashi area. Whilst there is less of note to see it’s a great insight into a less touristy part of town and the distinct feel emanating from the buzzing streets. It’s especially worth exploring the Kagurazaka backstreets; with their quaint and bohemian feel originating from their Geisha days (if you’re lucky you’ll even catch some genuine kimono clad, white faced Geisha wandering around).
The wealth of fine dining restaurants in Tokyo is simply overwhelming, both in range and in price. Book ahead and be prepared to splurge when it comes to dinner. One hot spot, where booking months in advance is essential, is the infamous Kyubey. Sit in sunken seats surrounding the counter where your personal sushi chef will tailor a meal to your tastes. Don’t expect menus or prices, and for those not faint of heart, let him choose your dishes (known in Japanese as omakase – chef’s choice). Interaction with the chef is a high point as you feast on sushi so fresh some still wiggles on the way down.
It’s worth rising early to set off at dawn for Tsukiji fish market to witness the fish trade that fuels the sushi restaurants. A 4am start is required if you want to nab tickets to the live tuna auction that takes place daily with limited numbers of spectator seats. For those more inclined to dawdle, you can still sneak into the main market area before the official tourist entrance time of 9am to glimpse into the sheer range and freshness of fish on offer. With your nostrils filled with the scent of salt water, wander the alleyways still within the market compound browsing the shops selling affordable Japanese dining accessories. Then stalk out a restaurant with a long but not off putting queue and await a unique breakfast of the freshest sashimi you will ever eat.
When you’re full to the brim of fish, spend some time walking around surrounding Ginza. Famed for its high end shopping there is no need to linger too long but do venture down to the food basements in the giant shopping malls where Japanese delicacies are beautifully displayed. Try Matsuya Ginza and search out the exorbitantly priced but perfectly shaped fruits on offer.
If you’re looking to top the novelty of sushi for breakfast, you can’t get much more authentic than eating yakitori under the train tracks of Yurakucho station with all the local workers. Even if you chicken out of the innards on the menu prepare to delight in a range of chicken skewers and meatballs, washed down by local beer to the rumbling echoes of trains passing overhead.
As an alternative to the train, take the picturesque riverboat down the waterfront to whisk you down to Asakusa. Head straight to the famous Senso Ji temple. A beautiful place of worship accessed through an imposing Kaminari-mon or Thunder Gate with a fantastic alley of market stalls (Nakemise-dori) lining the entrance overflowing with local snacks and handicrafts. Be sure to head to the less photogenic street of Kappabashi-dori to stock up on cheap Japanese ceramics. Winding behind this street the architecture is a stark contrast to that witnessed so far, more reminiscent of the Edo of old.
If you’re looking for a cheaper dinner option after the previous day’s extravagance, head to an izakaya – the Japanese equivalent of a pub serving up alcoholic beverages and a range of hearty Japanese food in a raucous atmosphere. Many are so local that the staff are unable to help you order from the Japanese menu. A solution is this Tokyoite recommendation; Gyogyoko (7-19-22 Shinjuku-ku, 03-3367-0775, no website) in Shinjuku where said expat is such an ardent fan he translated their menu so that his friends could enjoy this Izakaya and its delicious offerings alongside the purely local clientele. Don’t say I don’t let you in on some of my secrets…
Fuelled by sake from dinner, head to Golden Gai. Constructed hastily after World War Two it is a collection of alleyways with small shack like two storey buildings. Each is home to its own bar with their own quirky, unique characters, a central bar and seating for about 10 people. Some are members only and some don’t welcome foreigners. Poke your head through enough doors until you find a welcoming one for an unforgettable and exciting Japanese evening of drinking.
In the morning head to the Meiji Jingo shrine in Harijuku. Preferably do this on a Sunday when local families celebrate various picturesque rites of passage in traditional dress populating the beautiful scene with a vibrancy and authenticity lacking on weekdays. A peaceful walk through the forest surrounding the shrine brings you onto the chaotic shopping streets of Harajuku itself. Takseshita Street is a must see for the crazy dress sense and youth culture but the real allure lies in the quiet alleyways off to the side around Jingumae where trendy, urban cool shops and cafes provided a laid back vibe. Spare some time to wander down Omote-sando where the designer stalwarts have laid their roots in glitzy, mesmerizing fashion.
Grab lunch on the go to give you time to get over to the Imperial Palace. Whilst you can’t enter the Palace itself, it’s worth a visit just to see the beautiful architecture and spectacular gardens. Wander from here down to Tokyo Station; an architectural highlight of magnificent proportions. Finally, end your day post sunset at the famed New York Bar in the Park Hyatt. Familiar to many as the backdrop to Lost in Translation, it offers unbeatable sky-high views of the city, with prices to match.
With a carefully planned approach, an openness to explore and a hearty appetite, even a novice visitor can get deep under Tokyo’s skin and experience the addictiveness of this fast paced city.