Tokyo, Japan

Yakitori Alley, Shinjuku

My vision of Tokyo before travelling there was of loud Pichinko parlours, closely packed sky scrapers and avant-garde fashion. All these aspects are there however they quietly slot in between a low lying, sprawling CBD that is surprisingly spotted with greenery. The fast paced Tokyo of my dreams is still visible in areas like Shibuya, Shinjuku, Tokyo station and Ginza (during business hours). However it’s also possible to find a slice of tranquility throughout the city in its quite gardens and residential neighbourhoods. We stayed in Shinjuku which was a perfect location for its proximity to everything. We were fortunate enough to stay in an Airbnb within a residential district of Shinjuku which helped to give us a slice of tranquility from the busier, commercial side of Shinjuku.

A street in Shinjuku

THINGS TO DO:

Tokyo is a city that is spread out, so catching the train to travel to different areas is the best option. Getting to Shibuya and the famously crowded ‘Shibuya crossing’ intersection is easy – simply catch the train to Shibuya station and make your way down onto the street level. You really can’t miss it, it’s right in front of you! People and noise are everywhere! The billboards on the nearby buildings display video ads which amp up the noise factor on the street level.

Shibuya intersection, Shibuya

The Harajuku district of Tokyo is a vibrant destination. The majority of the gritty coolness of Harajuku is located in the side streets off the main tourist strip. There are a plethora of boutique and designer stores as well as multi-storey manga and gaming stores in Harajuku. Being in this area of Tokyo gives off the youthful cool vibe that Harajuku and Tokyo is famous for. Unfortunately if you go on a weekday the manga dress ups (cosplay) are not as easy to spot. Around Harajuku there are also a host of vintage stores with a range of clothes and price points. You may also see fashion vloggers out in force on any given day in the district.

Meiji Shrine

Walking around the Shinjuku district, you will come across the Meiji Shrine. This shrine is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his wife. This is a shinto shrine that showcases traditional Japanese architecture. Surrounding the shrine are tranquil gardens that make you forget that you are in the middle of bustling Tokyo city. The serenity of the gardens and the shrine itself are a gentle reminder that this is a place of peace and worship.

Entrance to the Meiji Shrine

 

The Meiji Shrine, traditional Japanese Shinto shrine.

During our stay in the Shinjuku, we were also lucky enough to witness a Shinto procession that moved right outside our apartment. These processions happen once a year where the local Shinto deity is carried on a palanquin around surrounding area. This procession was also accompanied by drums and singing, it generally occurs in the month of May.

A shinto procession where the local Shinto deity is carried through the town.

Park Hyatt Hotel

Making your way to the iconic Park Hyatt in Tokyo is a bit of a left field experience especially if you’re interested in street and food culture. However its worth a visit purely for the pop-culture reference alone; the movie, Lost in Translation was filmed here. The Hotel’s second claim to fame is also for the views of Mount Fuji that can be seen from a number of its guest rooms and the Kozue restaurant. We headed to the New York bar on the 52nd floor of the hotel, to get a glimpse of the Tokyo city. Its important to note that the bar has a cover charge for entry. However the views from the ceiling to floor windows of Tokyo night skyline are stunning. There is also live jazz music playing every night at the bar. The cost of entry, food and drinks at the New York bar, make this an expensively indulgent experience!

City skyline view from 52nd floor of Park Hyatt, Tokyo

Japanese Stationary and Organisation Stores

Whilst we were in Tokyo we were also able to experience the world of Japanese organisation and stationary. We spent almost three hours at the multi-storey (8 to be exact) Tokyu Hands store in Shibuya. This store had anything and everything you could need to set up a home from clothes, DIY products, camping gear, kitchen supplies to stationary and gift products. Imagination is the limit at this shop. Oh and your baggage allowance too!

We also went to Maruzen (for stationary) opposite Tokyo station as we were wanting to purchase Maruman notebooks (some of the best notebooks in the world are made in Japan). Maruzen is primarily a bookshop, however this flagship store has a huge selection of planners, diaries and other stationary supplies. Maruzen stocked a range of stationary at different price points, all the premium stuff is incredibly expensive, however the difference in paper quality when writing was quite astonishing!

FOOD CULTURE

The striking thing about travel to Japan is its cleanliness and orderliness. People don’t blink an eye at waiting for anything! Be it trains or food. Surprisingly the longest wait we had in Tokyo for food was 30 – 45mins. Getting to restaurants just before or after the lunch-time or dinner rush was the key to missing the long queues.

Noodles

The options for finding quality food in Tokyo are dizzying. There are reportedly up to 10,000 ramen shops in Tokyo alone! In the end we ended up at the big ramen chains: Ichiran and Ippudo during our trip. Partly due to a food coma as Tokyo was at the end of our trip and partly due to the difficulty in finding the boutique ramen restaurants. We tried Ippudo in Ginza on our first night and I remember sitting there just enjoying the aroma from the ramen. It was complex and redolent with smells of garlic and tonkatsu pork broth. After a long flight to get to Japan this was the ultimate comfort food. The ramen broth at Ichiran was even more complex in flavour with perfectly cooked char siu pork.

Tonkatsu ramen from Ichiran

The day after our late night ramen adventure we were heading out to the Hakone region so we had a quick brunch at what appeared to be a hole in the wall soba noodle restaurant in Ginza – Yomoda Soba Ginza. This was my first experience of ordering food at the vending machines, an ingenious invention! The restaurant gets to save their pennies to spend on things that really matter – the food! The soba noodle had a dense, nutty and slightly chewy texture and was swimming in lightly flavoured broth. There was also a large pancake of tempura vegetables sitting on top of the noodles. It was a light yet filling meal eaten at a standing counter against the wall. We also tried some late night soba noodle at Iwamoto Q in Shinjuku and this was also good and came with a soft boiled egg – bonus!

Soba Noodle with vegetable tempura from Yomoda Soba Ginza.

Tsukiji Market

The number one foodie adventure to partake in during a trip to Tokyo in any guide book is Tsukiji market. Getting to the market from Shinjuku was complicated via public transport so we ended up getting a taxi to drive us there. The driver was able to drop us off right outside one of the entrances to the outer market.  The market was a bustling food mecca full of fresh seafood, cooked dishes and various produce that was difficult to describe. Think dried fish, seaweed and Japanese spices.

This is a photo of dried fish and other seafood ingredients used in Japanese cooking that was taken at a market stall in Kanazawa market (Unfortunately I didn’t take a photo at Tsukiji market).

Tsukiji market is enormous and can be disorientating especially as most of the signage is in Japanese. If you are planning on eating at a specific place in the market make sure to bring a map with the exact location and accurate directions. Whilst ambling through the market we snacked on ginormous oysters, these were probably the largest oysters I have seen to date. They were so fresh, although had a very distinctive briny taste. We were also able to sample some cooked crab, sashimi bowls and the famous Tsukiji market sweet omelette which was fluffy and delicate.

A photo of Oysters from Kanazawa market – its difficult to see, however these oysters are massive!

Mochi

One of the experiences you have to have during a trip to Japan is to eat some fresh mochi. These are glutinous rice cakes that are stuffed with different fillings. Red bean paste and matcha are just a couple of the options available. The best mochi we had during our Japan trip was from one of the counter shops in Tokyo station. The mochi had a glutinous chewiness, whilst the red bean paste added a delicate sweetness.

Fresh Mochi, Tokyo Station

Kissaten

In Shibuya, we found an old style Japanese coffee house referred to as a kissaten; Satei Hato. It is discretely nestled off the side street with its signage in Japanese so it is easy to walk past. This coffee house is internationally renowned for their use of fermented coffee beans. For this reason, the coffee house can be packed with long wait times for a table. Stepping into the coffee house is like being transported out of the city of Tokyo. Indoor plants and floral bouquets are dotted around on available surfaces and soft jazz music plays in the background. Against the wall behind the coffee bar are rows of shelves stacked high with intricately designed tea and coffee cups. The story is that your barista will pour your coffee into a cup that they have specifically chosen for you. Along with the coffee, ordering one of their famous chiffon cakes is a must! One of the lightest, airiest sponge cakes that I have ever eaten.

The entry into Satei Hato

 

The coffee bar and the shelves full of the unique tea cup collection at Satei Hato

 

Cinnamon chiffon cake with coffee, Satei Hato. I think the blue coffee cup was a perfect choice for me!

Katsu Curry

The one other food we tried during our trip was a pork katsu curry on rice. This was again at a small restaurant in the Shinjuku area called Ouroji Tonkatsu Don. It looked like a place mainly frequented by locals. We managed to get a table downstairs and were served green tea on arrival. We both chose the Katsu curry on rice. When we received our food, the curry looked brown and gluggy, with thick pieces of fried pork swimming on top. Despite the appearance though it tasted really good! It was a huge departure from all the noodle soups, sushi and yakitori we had been eating. This was a bowl of deep fried pork goodness in a flavourful curry with rice.  I was actually quite surprised that the curry had a spicy kick to it. Suffice to say this was a hearty comfort meal which was perfectly washed down by a strong green tea.

Pork Katsu Curry, Ouroji Tonkatsu Don, Shinjuku

Sushi-ya Hashiguchi

One of our other big adventures during our Tokyo trip was going to Sushi Hashiguchi, a top quality sushi-ya in a quiet neighbourhood. Itamae Hashiguchi is known for his refusal of Michelin stars and strict rule of no photography inside the  restaurant. The dining room consists of a beech wood sushi counter with around 8 – 10 seats. The drinks list here is minimal and has some green tea and sake options. The chef himself is humble and generous. He was more than happy to speak with us in English about our experiences in Japan and the food that we had eaten to date. We started the evening off with sashimi omakase, this was then followed by the nigiri omakase. Unfortunately this meant that I was too full to eat the whole nigiri course however the chef was more than accommodating and changed my last few nigiri around so that I could have the two show stoppers of the night – the uni and unagi nigiri.

The sashimi course was interesting and consisted of different cuts of fish; cod sperm sac (a japanese delicacy); pearl oyster meat; octopus; and clam meat.The nigiri section of the omakase menu was out of this world! Easily one of the best meals of my life! Every single piece of fish or seafood used as the neta on the nigiri was the tastiest sushi I have ever eaten! The rice was lightly flavoured with vinegar for a subtle, sharpness that contrasted well with the fatty fish.  Some of the outstanding pieces of sushi included: otoro (fatty tuna), chutoro (medium fatty tuna), o sake (fatty salmon), chu sake (medium fatty salmon), uni (sea urchin) and unagi (freshwater eel). Up until the uni nigiri at Hashiguchi, I didn’t quite understand the obsession with the humble sea urchin. However this meal completely changed my mind! The uni served at Hashiguchi was sweet and creamy and did not have any of the bitter aftertaste found in inferior quality uni. All in all, this sushi meal at Hashiguchi was an amazing experience watching a sushi master at work and eating his amazing creations.

Tokyo city from the viewing deck of a shopping centre in Shinjuku

  1. Foursquare works well in Japan, although the difficulty is finding the restaurant as most signage is in Japanese. Make sure to use your maps to help pinpoint the location. Looking at the photos of the exterior of the restaurant can also be helpful in identifying the restaurant on the street corner
  2. Tablelog is the more popular user review website for restaurants in Tokyo. It has a greater following in Tokyo than Foursquare. However it can be a little tricky to navigate if you’re using it for the first time
  3. If you want to book a table at a top quality Sushi–ya, you need to organise this through your hotel concierge. As these sushi restaurants don’t accept tourist reservations. If like us though, you are staying at an Airbnb you have a couple of options, you can ask your airbnb host to make a reservation for you or use a travel booking site for a small fee. We booked Hashiguchi through Go Voyagin which worked really well
  4. Dinner time at most restaurants in Tokyo finishes by 9pm. If you are looking for a meal after this then look specifically for late night eating spots. As many of the boutique restaurants will be closing up after 10pm
  5. Take a list of recommendations with you for food in Tokyo however don’t miss out on an opportunity to step into random restaurants, you will most likely be pleasantly surprised by the exceptional food available everywhere
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