A couple months ago, my good friend Cammy (of Ravel fame) asked for some Tokyo recommendations since she and her husband Josh are traveling to Japan next month. Good friend that I am, it's taken me this long to answer her. But partly that's because I have so much to say about Tokyo that I needed the time to sit down, gather my thoughts, consult my battered Lonely Planet guide to remember the names of everything, and write a thorough e-mail.
THEN I realized that a condensed guide to Tokyo is actually excellent blog fodder. Now friends, you know how much I love sushi. But NO ONE loves sushi more than Cammy. Her (un)ravel wedding featured the biggest sushi bar I've ever seen. AND IT WAS ALL FRESHLY ROLLED. BOW DOWN, YE WEDDING PINTERESTERS.
All this is to say that I know my Tokyo guide has to be top notch, because America's biggest sushi fan is headed to Japan. So Cammy, this one's for you.
Essential Essentials (Some Words of Caution)
Now, I am not easily overwhelmed by urban atmospheres. Rather, I thrive in them. In fact, it is the suburbs and rural areas that make me uncomfortable and out-of-sorts. Inside of a couple weeks at NYU, I felt instantly comfortable navigating NYC and felt immediately at home. Paris? Madrid? London even? Not a problem. But Tokyo...sigh. Tokyo is some next-level crazy.
I don't really have words to describe how insane this city is. If you took Manhattan, divided every interior space into two, then doubled the number of stories in every building, and then multiplied the city's radius by like, I don't know, 10? Then you maybe can get an idea of the sheer density and massiveness of Tokyo. From the top of the Skytree, the tallest tower in the WORLD, you can't see the city limits. And the whole thing is as dense and frenetic as Times Square.
So some quick pro tips:
- FFS, this is no time for an Airbnb. I'm not anti Airbnb or anything, but unless you're super Asia-savvy, I'd recommend leaving Airbnb for North America and Europe. When Rhi and I went to Tokyo, we booked an Airbnb, and I knew things were off to a bad start when I handed our cab driver the Google map printout and he turned it a full 360 degrees trying to figure out where to go. It turned out to be on the outskirts of the city (I think) with no nearby Metro, a heating system understandably marked entirely in Japanese (I slept in a sweater, scarf, and mittens), and an overhead light that didn't turn off at night...it just glowed blue like a giant spaceship all night long. Needless to say, we ate the Airbnb money and found a hotel in the center of the city with a semi-English-speaking front desk.
- Leave extra time for navigating. Like hours. The underground system in Tokyo is easily the most impressive I've ever seen, but it's also ridiculously sprawling. NYC's doesn't even come close. Tokyo's is quick and efficient, ruthlessly clean (despite there somehow never being any trashcans in sight), and they have women-only cars. But I can't overstate how big it is. It's so big they have full shopping malls at some of the stops. Like...multi-floor SHOPPING COMPLEXES UNDERGROUND. If you're not a local, it's nearly impossible to know which exit to get out at to get you where you're going, and it can take a huge chunk of your time just to walk through the station itself. And above the ground? I genuinely mean it when I say it is a clusterfuck. The biggest streets are transliterated into English which is great, but even if they were all Japanese, IT DOESN'T HELP WHEN HALF THE STREETS HAVE NO NAMES AT ALL. What that means is addresses are hard to come by. I have no explanation for this. I heard something once about it being some sort of quiet rebellion against the Americans after WWII after we tried to impose some kinda postal service-style order over the city, but it is true madness. This seems like a stupid way to rebel. I am not exaggerating when I say we spent at least 40-50 percent of our time in Tokyo figuring out how to get where we were going.
- If it's not too late, leave as much time as possible in your itinerary for Tokyo. Because you will spend a lot of time lost and because there is just so much to do.
- Trust your chef. That is...unless you have food allergies or a deep and abiding fear of meat (that you've never tried) like Cammy does. The best meal I've ever eaten was the chef's choice sushi tasting menu at Kyubey (see below), and I could only identify about half the items.
Now for the fun parts.
I don't actually think my pictures do Shinjuku justice, but it's like Times Square on crack. It's impossibly crowded, and this is where you see girls dressed up like they are from Pokemon or whatever. The crosswalks go every which way, the buildings are a gajillion stories high, and you can play a lot of arcade games and sing karaoke here. But like...you have to sing. You can't just go watch. They take karaoke very seriously in Japan.
I KNOW, RIGHT?! Tokyo is the original home of cat cafes, and they are just delightful. You pay a few yen for a little cup of chicken and you'll have all the kitties eating out of your hand...literally. It's a GOOD time.
The Shinto shrine in Tokyo's Shibuya neighborhood was easily my favorite spot in the city. It's so deep in the wooded park that you can forget you're in Tokyo, and it's incredibly peaceful. We visited twice, once early in the morning to watch worshippers partake in the morning rituals before heading to work, and once to see the teenagers in their traditional garb of the Coming of Age Day (January).
Not quite as peaceful as Meiji Jingu (this is an understatement), the Buddhist shrine Senso-ji in Asakusa is madness like the rest of Tokyo. But it's still impressive and a must-see. Once you pass the Thunder Gate, you'll basically have no choice but to let yourself be swept along in the throngs of people visiting along the food and shop stalls to the main shrine. I did not, however, check this out twice. Once was enough for me.
We have ramen in the States, and we have sushi, but for some reason okonomiyaki is hard to come by. I don't see why. It's fucking delicious and one of my favorite things I ate in Tokyo. It's like halfway between a savory crepe and a pancake. You sit around the hot plate table, order your okonomiyaki of choice, and it comes out as a bowl of raw ingredients. Then, like fondue, you cook it yourself. The Japanese usually put mayonnaise and seaweed flakes on top. Actually, they put mayo on damn near everything; that was something I didn't see coming. But I digress. I recommend Sometarō in Asakusa. It has no address. It was almost impossible to find. I was almost in tears actually, I got so frustrated. LP said it was in a historic house covered in vines. This was false. So much so, that I have crossed it out in the book and wrote "LIES!" next to that sentence. I'm pretty sure it took us an hour to find it and a lot of help from locals, but it was worth it.
As previously mentioned, this is the tallest tower in the world. Seems like a bad idea for a city so close to some pretty major tectonic plate lines, but what do I know? We didn't go all the way up and the views were still stunning. This is one of those deals where you grab your ticket to come back later in the day at a designated time, so plan accordingly.
This wouldn't be an overseas trip for me without some kind of banana and nutella crepe, and lucky me, crepes are the official unofficial street food of Harajuku, the Tokyo neighborhood known for shopping. Harajuku butts up right against Meiji Jingu, so if you visit Meiji for the morning rituals, it's perfect to come out and treat yourself to a crepe for breakfast.
I can divide my life into two portions -- before Tokyo ramen and after Tokyo ramen. No ramen will ever compare, Momofuku be damned. I can't tell you where we went. It was just a hole in the wall. And I can't tell you what we ate. One of the cooks came out to help us order; you do this by choosing your dish from a vending machine. You pay the machine and it prints out your ticket. I asked the cook to select his favorite for me. Again, no idea what was in it, but it was 100 percent delectable.
I really cannot stress this enough: This was the BEST meal of my life. It remains the best meal of my life. It ruined American sushi for me for quite some time. We opted for Kyubey in the sushi-heavy neighborhood of Ginza -- it's along the Sumida River and is home to the Tsukiji Central Fish Market. Kyubey was another extremely difficult place to find. It is on three floors high up in one of Tokyo's towering lookalike neon buildings. Lonely Planet lists it as a splurge (they once made headlines for buying a piece of tuna for 10 million yen and selling slices of it for 2,000 yen a piece -- that's roughly 20 bucks for a single piece of sashimi). You can read more in detail about my Kyubey experience here. I honestly still get chills thinking about it. I can't imagine Jiro could possibly be much better.
Tsukiji Central Fish Market
We definitely didn't make it there early enough to catch the fish auction, but it was still impressive to see where all that delicious sushi was coming from. And then we bought some squid balls from a street vendor for breakfast (covered in mayonnaise of course). Breakfast of champs.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (IF YOU HAVE TIME)
They crazy high-tech toilets are so ubiquitous in Japan, you just have to try them at least once, right? Right?
Sumida River Cruise
It's pretty nice to take a break and have a nice chill cruise for a few yen down the Sumida River. Sunset was a particularly lovely time to do so.
If you're going to see the fat boys fight, make sure you swing by the arena to buy your tickets a few days in advance. The matches go on all day though, so you can stay for as long as you want. I won't lie; it's pretty entertaining. After a while, it gets to be the same thing over and over, but as much as I am currently marveling over the Olympic bodies that are gracing my television screen, I equally marveled over (and envied) what kind of diet it must take to become a sumo wrestler.
I've heard you can get some pretty odd things out of vending machines in Tokyo, and they are EVERYWHERE. But I expected the iced coffee I got out of one to be way more delicious than it actually was, so unless you come upon something particularly novel, don't bother.
Traditional Japanese theater is really fucking weird. The actors are all men, many dressed in drag and making very squeaky voices. It's entertaining as hell, don't get me wrong. But even with the headset in my ears translating the story for me, it was so convoluted, I couldn't follow. Of course...that might be because I drifted off to sleep a few times. What can I say? Tokyo is demanding, and Kabuki shows go on for five hours.
THE TO-DO LIST
Should I be lucky enough to someday return to Tokyo, I'd like to visit an onsen, the hot spring bathing facilities all throughout the city. We weren't able to go, partly because Rhi has a tattoo (and people with tattoos aren't allowed in) and partly because she also had a gaping open wound and communal bathing is probably not the best idea in that situation. I mean, I won't lie. I wasn't particularly stoked about the idea of getting naked with a bunch of strangers, but someday...
The Imperial Palace
So we tried to go to the Imperial Palace on our last day and trucked it around the grounds but simply could not find the entrance...after walking what was probably miles. The surrounding gardens were beautiful, but yeah. Never made it.
Because the truth is, Tokyo is HARD. Unless you're exceptional at navigating without wifi, speak Japanese, or are just really familiar with the culture, Tokyo will kick your ass. But at the same time, it's so weird and cool.
So embrace the fact that things will inevitable not go the way you planned and revel in its weirdness.