The moment you set foot in Tokyo, you’re taken by the level of courtesy, cleanliness and serenity. It may well be a city of nearly 10 million but you get the feeling of craftsmanship and charm of a small town. And then, mesmerizing food hits you!
As I exit the airport and hail a cab for the city centre, the driver arrives curbside – white gloves, gentle smile, face looking down. It suddenly hits you that you can’t read signs or directions on the subway, relying heavily on navigation apps. Still you don’t feel any angst. The calmness around makes you feel at ease… this may be a foreign place but you easily can feel at home. And food is the best way to experience Tokyo. Izakaya for nibbles and drinks, yakitori for simple grilled food, tonkatsu for all things fried, shabu shabu for traditional rituals and, of course, sushi.
Ginza, Marunouchi and Yanaka
Stuffed from the plane ride, I venture to Ginza for some window shopping and our first impressions of the busy city. One of the main shopping attractions, Ginza has been consistently becoming more upmarket with many dining and drinking establishments opening up. I quickly realize what prior visitors to Tokyo had shared: all of the action happens either above street level or underground. Tokyo’s space is limited and every single square matters.
On the way back to the hotel, we explore the highly financial district of Marunouchi with its five star hotels and the recent addition of Japan’s first modern take of the traditional ryokan, Hoshinoya hotel. Apart from the numerous high rises, the area is also remarkably green mostly due to the National Garden next to the Imperial Palace., which is also a great running track in the mornings. Just make sure you stick to the rules cause you only run clockwise!
On a different day, we indulge in a hot cup of specialty coffee at Glitch Roastery before heading off to Yanaka, the only district in the city that has refrained from modernization. As we get off the tracks at Nippori station, we follow a clockwise planned route starting from Tenojji Temple all the way south to the Yanaka Cemetery Park. Strolling along the quiet alleys of this remote area you easily take note of the very few commercial establishments. Yanaka Matsunoya is an interesting homeware store for some window shopping. Kikumi Senbei is another one if you’re into having a bite by trying Japan’s traditional rice crackers – senbei. Try their soya flavor or a spicy one!
Daikanyama and Nakameguro
The vibe around Daikanyama is much more modern. The moment I set foot in this part of Shibuya I realize the boutique shops, the cafés and the beautiful people. Upscale and alternative at the same time, Daikanyama is home to the infamous T-site, a multi-faceted bookstore where patrons read, meet and dine. Walk up to the first floor and enjoy a break from busy Tokyo in one of their comfy couches. Further north, you can stop by Log road, an open-air shopping mall that also features a beer brewery.
Nakameguro on the other hand is more of a photo opp for cherry blossom lovers along the Meguro river. The small streets around it are also charming and if you happen to swing by around lunchtime then you can easily try Seirinkan for a slice of pizza.
Shibuya, Harajuku and Omotesando
Days go by and having explored the more alternative part of Tokyo, we consciously make it to its busiest part: Shibuya. The infamous crossing is not at all mind-blowing but still has some vibe to it. Regardless of the current reconstruction of the area, tourists flock the streets taking photos and videos. There are a few spots that offer an aerial view to it (with or without a fee) but the best one may be at the very end of one of the platforms of Shibuya station. Easy. With that in the bag, we follow directions to Ichiran, an insanely tasting underground ramen shop 2mins down the road. Depending on time that you’ll visit, you may bump into a queue but it will definitely be much better than its sister (and more central) outpost not he main road.
The lovely thing about Tokyo’s culture is that food is about small-sized portions and not exhaustive meals. We hence walk north to Harajuku for the infamous gyozas at Harajuku Gyoza Lou and a walk around the west end of Omotesando near Cat Street – a lovely backstreet with limited traffic and lovely upmarket boutique shops. Takeshita street is also one of the nearby attractions but if you’re not into teenager shops for ice cream and sportswear then you probably need to stay away. The more east we walk, the more upscale the vibe gets as we reach the likes of the Prada shop (designed by the incredible duo of Herzog + De Meuron) and other high end design firms around Omotesando. We stop by at Café Kitsuné for a quick espresso and take note of a second hand store with high end luxury bags just across the street. Breadworks nearby also offers high end baked goods (in line with the frenzy about all things French!).
Roppongi, Shinjuku and fish markets
Roppongi is a lively entertainment district where locals and tourists mix in buzzing late night restaurants and sake bars. Genuinely speaking it’s home to most of Tokyo’s expats due to the ever expanding nature of foreign companies like Google, Amazon and more. After some shopping at the IMA Concept Store and just wandering around the commercial streets on the Hibiya line, we’re meeting some friends at Gonpachi Nishiazabu for a night loud out with drinks at this iconic place. And the yummy bites are not half bad. But what’s more this is the place where one of the main scenes of Kill Bill movie was shot. On a different weeknight we take a more refined approach and opt for Joumon Roppongi, an amazing izakaya (reservations are a must!) with great grilled dishes. Just across the street, we take the elevator to the 3rd floor where an off-the-beaten-path sake bar operates a 12-seater affair. Personalised service from the owner and some nice jazzy tunes at the back are more than enough to get you dizzy on some high quality Japanese liquor.
On the more hardcore self of it, the city has to offer a couple of night attractions on the more touristy front in Shinjuku. Omoide Yokocho, an ultra-narrow alley full of counter-serve stalls is a great segue to your evening and a nice chance to try it their grilled specialties. Fret not, the quality of meat is not bad, but due to the high temperatures they grill on, the meat gets a bit chewy. Minutes away is also Golden Gai, where we lose ourselves in the maze of small streets and alleys full of tiny bars and snug taverns. Boy, we’re in for a ride!
When the night fades out and dawn cracks, we take a taxi down to the seafront to get a feel of what Tokyo sushi is all about. Both Tsukiji and Toyosu fish markets are worth a visit even if it’s just to catch a stool at Sushi Dai and Daiwa Sushi, accordingly. If you’re really into catching the tuna auction vibe at Toyosu, it’s worth getting there by 05:30 when the whole place lits up! Some lucky (and well prepared) travelers get to also visit the floor… assuming they win the 50 golden tickets per day; otherwise you can still watch it from afar at the upper observation deck.
Imperial Palace – scenic gardens & tours of the grounds is the main residence of the emperor of Japan – careful of visiting times (although most parts are not open to public)
Tsukiji Market – Tokyo’s first fish market that closed down in 2018 due to a modernization plan that also called for increased hygiene standards, despite numerous protests. Still interesting to visit, especially for a tasty meal at Sushi Dai
Toyosu Wholesale Fish Market – new and much bigger fish market that launched in 2019, also featuring numerous sushi spots
Daikanyama T-site – a complex of stores housed in a modern bookstore, also featuring a nice cafe and gardens
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden – beautiful gardens, especially during cherry blossom, featuring small ponds and a great chance to unwind in its numerous uphill spots
Tokyo Hoshinoya – the modern take on Japan’s traditional ryokan stay, featuring ultra quality interiors and a charming ambience at the rooftop onsen
Hotel Koe – modern, hip and busy hotel on top of a Koe concept store in Shibuya. Small rooms but great location if you’re visiting only for 2-3 days
TRUNK hotel – very hip and eco-chic hotel close to Shibuya with vibrant common spaces for drinks and nibbles
Sushi Dai Toyosu Market – despite the hype, probably not worth queuing up for at least 3hrs at 6am in the morning. Best to opt for Daiwa Sushi across the street at Toyosu market
Tsukiji Sushidai Honkan – great sushi spot around Tsukiji market. Read our full review here
Birdland – for high quality chicken yakitori around Ginza. Make sure you get a reservation first (ie. if you can!)
Joumon Roppongi – for fun yakitori (near the office at Roppongi)
Ginza Bairin – for the best tonkatsu in town, hands down. Don’t bother trying anything else, this compact spot in the middle of Ginza district is great and if you’re lucky the queue will be short. Read our full review here
Ichiran – for ramen in Shibuya; commercial yet yummy. Can’t be missed! There are two outposts so plan accordingly (and mostly based on how busy the queue is)
Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho – historic narrow alley that lights up around dinnertime, featuring counter-serve stalls for simple fare and some alcoholic drinks
Udon Maruka – for udon noodles during lunch break. Read our full review here
Fuglen Coffee – for specialty coffee, hip 60s aesthetics and a nice stop when you are around Shibuya
Cafe Kitsuné Aoyama – elegant and posh coffee stop whilst in Omotesando and some high quality espresso. No laptops, no chargers and not much sitting whatsoever – grab and go!
Path Cafe – one of the very few European breakfast places in Tokyo. Famous for their Dutch pancake that takes 25mins to get prepared
365 – premium bakery with their infamous fluffy white loafs of bread. Locals tend to queue here all day long (although it goes fast)
The Iron Fairies Ginza – for great cocktails and an underground yet classy vibe!
Golden Gai – for Tokyo’s most notorious drink dens; comprised of a network of six narrow alleys, connected by even narrower passageways. Dodgy but nice
Bar Trench – compact bar at the back end of Ebisu with some premium spirits and nice cocktails. Better get there early as they open or you may have to wait for a table