There are no two ways about it. Tokyo is absolutely incredible.
It’s a racy, vibrant, gurgling and thundering stomach of a city with diversity, choice and range like no where else.
Having little time to explore at heart’s will, here are, of my small time there, some bits I think are unmissable.
If you are going to Tokyo for the next two years, it will be standing where it is today, smack in the centre and close to the very posh Ginza neighbourhood. It is of course prime real estate and that is the main reason they are moving it around Spring 2016 to Toyosu, a man-made island closer to Obaida.
If you are into food in any way, I strongly suggest you find an apartment close to Tsukiji and spend every morning there eating the freshest fish and sushi you’ve ever laid eyes on.
We went two mornings in a row and wished we could have spent all our mornings there. It’s a chef’s wet dream. The market is surrounded by an array of sushi shops that sell fresh fish on perfectly cooked warm rice with just the right amount of freshly grated wasabi for a nose rush that makes your eyes water with happiness.
Where to stay?
First off, where are you going to lay your head at night?
We had a friend put us up which is always a better option because you also get insider info into what’s cool in that person’s neighbourhood.
Otherwise, I’d say find a place near Tsukiji Market that’s walking distance. Weeks couldn’t be enough to explore it completely and it’s really inspiring if you’re into food.
Otherwise, Shibuya and Shinjuku are very cool neighbourhoods quite close to each other. You can happily stay around Yoyogi Park which is connected to both these areas and is a great place to run in the morning or hang out in the afternoon.
Airbnb has some good options or find a traditional hotel, Ryokan (about 50-60$/night) where you sleep on a tatami (bamboo mat where you set up your little mattress each night).
First off, make sure to get a map of the surroundings with English/Japanese translations. Lonely Planet maps aren’t great because there are no street names. Go to www.gotokyo.org which is a really helpful site.
Second, if you get the JR pass you can use the Yamanote line which runs all around Tokyo and is great to hop on and off as you discover the different neighbourhoods. You have to just flash your pass at the agents (you can’t use it going through automatically).
Finally, the subway system is really weird because they are privately owned train companies operating different stations so make sure to ask if you aren’t sure how to get to where you want to go or how much it will cost (price varies depending on how far you go). In general, you can count about 200 to 300 yen (1,50 to 2 EUR) per ticket to get around…
Things to eat
Sushi: the freshest we had was at Tsukiji market but a very expensive 30-minute experience could surely also be enjoyed. Not in our budget this time unfortunately!
Tempura: we found a great little place in Shinjuku called Tempura Tsunahachi. The tempura is crispy and smooth but be careful about “specials” and always ask for the price before.
Tachinomi-ya: the place we went is one of the oldest and is called Tachinomi-ya which means standing bar. You go there around 5pm and have snacks (mostly grilled chicken or other grilled meats), guzzle beer and chat with the young chefs behind the counter.
Noodles: be it ramen, soba or udon, the key is to eat it hot and slurp away! The best places we found were in Kyoto but there are all kinds of good ramen and udon joints all around Tokyo we surely haven’t had time to discover.
Bistrot de quartier: the Japanese are quite fond of this french concept. We went to Gris and it was really high-quality on the same foot with the usual Parisian suspects. Delicious food, Clos Rougeard 2006 at 80EUR = hard to beat. Highly recommend!
Kaiseki: it’s basically a restaurant where you are served a multi-course dinner equivalent to omakase (tasting menu at the chef’s choice). It is usually a high-level of cuisine and often quite expensive. In Tokyo, we were invited to a great place called Jin in Azabu Juban that had delicate and precise food with a western inspiration. We would have never found this place without the local knowledge but it was by far our best eating experience in Tokyo.
Where to drink
The one place you should go to is Omotesando Koffee in Shibuya at Omotesando subway. Head there first thing and order a coffee, then enjoy it on their tiny but very well-designed terrasse. Afterwards, spend hours wandering around this stylish area filled with great designer shop displaying edgy clothes and sprinkled with concept stores.
Escape the craziness of Harajuku on the weekend and step into The Taproom serving up dozens of Baird Beer on tap. Find it down an alley off the main street of Harajuku.
Bar Liber (11-1-#102 Motoyoyogi Shibuya 151-0062): this bar was great because it’s tucked away on a quiet street a 10 minute bus ride from Shibuya station. The owner, Fuminori Umeda is alone behind the bar. Behind him there are hundreds of bottles of spirits, liqueurs, vermouths, etc. You tell him what you want and he concocts a cocktail on demand. We had the best Negroni and the space, which is dark, mysterious is a perfect after-dinner hangout. On the plus side, with every 15EUR cocktail, you get three free little bites that are both delicious and generous. Closes at 4AM.
The Lost in Translation experience: like 99% of tourists to Tokyo, who can forget the epic shot from the Park Hyatt’s 52nd floor with Bill Murray as a confused and disgruntled traveller?
Firstly, make sure you are going to the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku (you can’t miss those two towers). Secondly, AVOID the ultra touristy, loud and really tacky 52nd floor. Instead, relax with some bites and good drinks on the 41st floor at The Peak Lounge and Bar. The ambience is relaxing, the view even better and the service zen.
Le Bistrot Le Verre Volé à Tokyo: I have to say, when I got there, it was like being transposed back in space and time to a lazy Sunday afternoon by the canal stumbling out of Le Verre Volé, glasses under a hand and the third bottle of wine in the other. Nostalgic and welcoming at once, we proceeded to start that night with Eric Pfifferling’s Tavel 2012 which tasted beautifully familiar even thousands of kilometres away from home. Cozy up in the eerily similar decor and drink as much natural wine as you can stomach while nibbling on product-driven delicious bites.
Next stop was Yasuhiro Ooyama’s wine stand Waltz: the place is the size of a tiny walk-in closet yet I discovered there a delicious Japanese wine made with the Koshu grape by Caney wines, Yamanashi prefecture, Manriki-Koshu Asayake 2005. I had never tasted anything quite like it. Floral and herbaceous with a bright acidity, the pellicular maceration and singular orange tint made me think of Italian Emilia-Romagna. Before tasting it, I actually thought it was sake because it really had a fermented rice nose. In the end, the grape is indigenous to Japan and is primarily grown in the Yamanashi Prefecture. It travelled from the Silk Road thousands of years ago and belongs to the “prestigious” Vitis Vinifera family. Unlike many hybrids of poor quality in Japan, this one really has class.
We finished the night at Libertin, a wine bar/bistro serving up simple fare but with a really nice natural wine selection. We drank some of Etienne Thiebaud’s Trousseau and it was great. Five people, five bottles later, it was good to be tipsy in Tokyo!
Big thanks to Junko Suzuki for taking us out to the natural wine spots of Tokyo.
Parks & gardens
Back when I briefly lived in New York, I used to hang out in Sheep’s Meadow. I loved to see skyscrapers from the greenery and feel totally disconnected from the intense rapidity of the city.
In Tokyo, you can readily escape the crazy gurgling Tokyo belly and nestle in the arms of the city’s many parks and Japanese gardens.
Here are the ones I loved:
Shinjuku Gyoen: it is one of Tokyo’s largest parks and it’s conveniently located just minutes from the Shinjuku station. Spend the day sitting under the cherry blossoms from late March to April. You won’t be alone as all the city revives after winter and embraces the pink blanket that colours it.
Yoyogi Gyoen: nestled between Shibuya, Harajuki and Yoyogi subway stations, this park is great for running and for watching the crazy teens sport nutty clothes on the weekends while dancing to funky tunes.
Hama-rikyu gardens: this has to be my favourite garden. About 10 minutes walking distance from Tsukiji market, wander towards this garden after the morning spent smelling and eating fish and sip matcha tea at Nakajima-no-ochaya which is the rest house at the centre of the garden. This is where the shogun, ladies and Imperial court nobles would come to enjoy the zen way of life. Then, take the boat up the river to Asakusa and get a look at Tokyo from a different angle. It’s more touristy but there are good temples to visit.
Tokyo is a wild city where old tradition, new technology, curiosity, novelty and beauty are breath-taking and addictive.
It does change you and beckons you back without a doubt!