The Scene: Tokyo is a place where the old and familiar mix with the new and strange in ways that will make your head spin. It’s a city that is bisected by one culture rooted in thousands of years of history and another, newer culture that is so progressive and fresh that it feels like you’ve stepped into a sci-fi novel. Tokyo has long been a street fashion powerhouse and you can have a runway show any day of the week if you find yourself in the right neighborhoods. And then there’s the food. Oh the food. It’s not just Japanese food either… you can find some of the best Italian and French food in the world in Tokyo too. But when it comes to Japanese food, most restaurants specialize in one single dish and do nothing else. The dedication to craft and perfection in Japan is on another level. Every bowl of noodles, every piece of grilled meat, and every grain of rice is cooked to absolute perfection. One of our favorite examples is 7-11. It’s not secret that 7-11 is big in Asia. But in Japan, you can walk into any 7-11 and pick up a meal that is tastier and of better quality than what you can find in 90% of the restaurants in the US for under $5. How’s that for a place that is supposedly one of the most expensive in the world? And then there’s the entertainment…. Robot restaurants, video game arcade high rises, maid cafes, cat cafes, owl cafes, train cafes, museums, galleries, and some excellent boutique shopping if that’s your thing.
Two airports: Haneda (HND) and Narita (NRT). While Narita is the more common option, if you can find a flight from Haneda your trip into the city will be much shorter.
The metro lines coming in from Haneda are not as straight forward so be sure you get clear directions upon departing for the city. Check with the info counter.
If you fly into Narita, head down to the trains and look for the information desk where they speak excellent English (acro and can help you determine the best route into the city. You can expect to pay around $12 US and it should take a little over an hour. That’s via the regular metro line. If you’re in a rush and willing to pay 3x for the high-speed express option that one will probably run you around $30 US and will take around a half hour.
Haruki Murakami, 2004
Nothing like a trip to Murakami’s dream world to get excited about going to Japan.
If you’re from the US, you will be able to stay for up to 90 days without a visa. Check the requirements for your country to be sure.
Hotels in Tokyo
The standard of service is so high in Japan that you really don’t need to look to a 5-star hotel to provide you with a great experience. That said, if you do go for top-shelf accommodations, there is no better place to do it than in Japan. The level of service is unparalleled and you will be blown away.
$$$$ Mandarin Oriental (Nihonbashi) – Our favorite top-tier place to stay in Tokyo. The decor is understated and beautiful. Wooden accents throughout, bathtubs in the room, and a breakfast buffet that blows any other you’ve had out of the water.
$$$ Park Hyatt (Shinjuku) – If you’ve watched Lost in Translation you’ve seen this hotel. The Park Hyatt’s New York Bar was the backdrop for some of the most iconic scenes from the movie.
$$ Millenium Mitsui Garden (Ginza) – This is a business hotel but if you book at the right time, the rates can be excellent and the location really can’t be beat. It’s in the heart of Ginza, steps from the main Ginza metro station. The rooms are small and cozy but very well-furnished with comfy beds, great bathrooms, and modern furnishings. If you’re planning to try to hit the fish market in the wee hours, this is an excellent place to stay to avoid a costly cab ride. It’s about a ten minute walk to the fish market.
Airbnb in Tokyo
Airbnb can be a good option in Tokyo if you find the right place. If you’re looking to stay in the Shibuya area, or would prefer a more local experience in one of the quieter neighborhoods around Tokyo, it’s your best bet. The problem is that sometimes it can be difficult to determine exactly how large (or more likely how small) a place really is from the pictures so you’ll need to really do some research and read the reviews. When in doubt, assume a place is half the size it appears to be in the photos. Wide angle lenses really work magic in that department. Good central neighborhoods to search in are Shibuya, Omotesando, and Ebisu.
Expensive for some things but not bad for others. Getting around is pricey. The metro is one of the most expensive around and just stepping into a cab will cost you around $8 to get started. If you’re from the US, the exchange rate is currently excellent and your dollar goes much further than it did here in the past. Food can be expensive or inexpensive depending on what you prefer. You can easily pay upwards of $100-150 per person for a very nice tempura dinner, for example. If you’re not looking to impress your Instagram following with name-dropping the big ones and just want a great meal, you can find an almost identical meal for a fraction of the price if you know where to go. Lucky for you, we can help with that.
Exchange your cash at the airport or at a bank or post office in town. Better yet, just use an atm at 7-11 for the best rate. Even with fees, it will probably be comparable to what you’d lose on rates changing cash.
Using the Tokyo Metro System
The Tokyo metro is one of the best subway systems in the world – it’s clean and insanely efficient, but definitely not the cheapest. It’s also easily one of the most massive and confusing. The system is actually made up of multiple train operators working together in a jumble of lines throughout the city. The two main operators are the Tokyo Metro and the Japan Rail (JR). In our experience, we usually end up riding the Tokyo Metro the most, but it really just depends on where you’re headed. Google Maps is your friend. If you have a Japan Rail pass you can make use of it by trying to organize your travel around the JR lines. The busses are great too, just make sure you’ve figured out your route ahead of time and are paying close attention to where you are. Again, pocket wifi and Google Maps with GPS are a great help here.
Taking a Taxi in Tokyo
There are a few problems with taking taxis in Tokyo: first off, if you don’t speak Japanese, good luck communicating your destination correctly with 90% of taxi drivers. Even if you have a smart phone with your destination clearly mapped, Tokyo is enormous and expect to get a little lost and pay for your time. Secondly, it costs nearly $8 US just to set foot in a taxi and that’s before the meter even starts ticking. That said, there are many destinations in Tokyo that will require patience with trains and busses, or a cab ride to get to.
Riding the Shinkansen in Japan
If you’re traveling between regions in Japan, by far the most efficient and fun way to do it is via shinkansen (the high speed rail). It’s no secret that we are huge fans of rail travel in general for the obvious reasons – no luggage restrictions to deal with, no security checks to go through, and city center to city center service in most cases. In Japan (as with many other things) rail travel is next level. It’s not cheap, but it’s always on time, super fast, and easily the most enjoyable way to travel. Pop in to one of the main stations – most trains leave from either Tokyo Station or Shinagawa Station, depending on where you’re headed. The ticket counters there can help you secure tickets and seats. If you’re going to be traveling anywhere outside of the major Tokyo metropolitan area round trip – like say, to Kyoto and back – it’s worth your while to purchase a Japan Rail Pass before coming to Japan. This will buy you unlimited rides for a fixed period of time and if you’re doing at least one decent length round trip it will already cover the cost of the JR pass. Then you’ll have the pass and you can use it on JR trains in the city or even tack on another leg or two to really take advantage of it. Now that the Hokuriku line runs from Tokyo to Kanazawa, you can make a loop out to Kanazawa for some of the best seafood in Japan, south to Osaka for okonomiyaki, up to Kyoto to see some shrines, and then back to Tokyo.
Pocket Wifi Rules Japan
Getting a sim card is nearly impossible as a foreigner in Japan. Pocket wifi devices, however, are standard here. It’s basically just a tiny portable wireless modem you pop in your pocket and connect to with your phone. You’ll have access to data anytime you need it and it really helps for navigating the city, especailly figuring out the best routes through the web of the subway network. If you’re renting on Airbnb, there’s a 99% chance your place will come with a pocket wifi – it’s pretty much standard at this point. If you’ve opted for a hotel instead though, you can rent out a pocket wifi on arrival at the airport to use for the duration of your trip.
Drip Coffee – Kissaten and Similar
Japan isn’t necessarily the first place most people think of when they think of coffee but rest assured there is a history of coffee culture and a current scene that gives any major “coffee city” in the world a run for its’ money at the moment. There is a style of old-school cafe called a “kissaten” that is essentially the Japanese equivalent of an old-school diner that serves drip coffee, and often very high-quality drip coffee made very slowly and methodically. A number of brewing methods are used but the Japanese taste for drip coffee is essentially a much more intense version of what we’re used to in the West.
Chateu Hatou – Old school, tea house like coffee shop in the middle of Shibuya. Try the 20-minute pour over made with old beans. Obviously, be prepared to be patient.
Cafe de L’ambre – Another old-school joint, this one in Ginza. Smokey, gritty, and feels kindof like a coffee shop you’d imagine your grandfather’s father spent his days in. They also do some crazy aged bean pour over coffees. They’re pricey, and pretty weird, but kinda fun to try if you’re into coffee.
Cafe Use – This place is basically across the street from Bear Pond (below) in Shimokitazawa (Shimokita, to the cool kids). Use kindof feels like the drip coffee version of Bear Pond, weirdly. The difference is that the rules here are even more strict and very specific. It’s a husband and wife pair and it seems that he runs the coffee operation and she runs the cheesecake and service end of things. It’s pretty clear as soon as you meet them that she is the once enforcing that page-long sheet of rules. They only serve two things – coffee brewed with beans roasted freshly in house, and cheesecake. Both are exceptional. The coffee is brewed super strong – literally using twice the volume of coffee grounds traditionally used for the same amount of water. The coffee is great on its’ own, especially if you’re into strong, thick coffee, but paired with the cheesecake it’s amazing.
Espresso-Based Coffee in Tokyo
Bear Pond – Katsu Tanaka and his Bear Pond Espresso were already popular enough among the coffee crowd in Japan but as soon as Drift Mag dropped their Tokyo issue he became an international superstar. He also has his own set of strict rules which includes no photography inside the shop. Tanaka San makes syrupy-thick espresso that is rumored to be so thick you could turn the cup upside down without losing a drop. You surely have never tasted a shot like this. If straight espresso isn’t your thing, he makes great milk-based drinks with it as well.
Turrett Coffee – Awesome little shop near the Tsukiji Fish Market. One of our favorite spots in Tokyo. Solid drinks and friendly staff. It’s a small spot, so don’t plan on hanging around or getting work done in here.
Streamer – Famous as the champion of latte art in Japan. As latte art is their specialty, the lattes are enormous and taste more like milk than coffee. The art is dope, though. Their spaces are also nicely conducive to working in, if you’re looking for a space.
Toronamon Koffee – I’f you’re looked into coffee in Tokyo in the last five years, you’ve heard about Omotesando Koffee. They closed their doors for good earlier this year to focus on a move to opening up their first shop in Hong Kong. Meanwhile back in Tokyo, you can find their coffee at this, their other, less famous spot in Toronamon Hills. They also carry the same fun little canele cubes to go with your coffee.
Most decent restaurants in Tokyo require reservations. The trick is that as a foreigner, you’ll have tough luck securing one, sometimes even if you do speak Japanese. If you’re staying at a hotel with a concierge, they should be able to help you out. If not, you can still check with your hotel as they may be willing to help. Additionally, many Airbnb hosts will be more than happy to help you with reservations. There are endless amazing restaurant options in Tokyo, so we’ll just list a few of our top picks that aren’t impossible to get into and won’t cost you a kidney or your kid’s college fund.
Afuri – A super tasty and hip chain with locations around the city. Bucking the heavy tonkotsu broth trend, Afuri offers an amazing yuzu shio broth – citrusy salt flavored broth. They top it off with pork that’s been grilled on a real charcoal grill. It’s top quality stuff. Otherwise, Ramen Street in Tokyo station is a great place to check out too. It’s a little tough to find depending on which way you come from but look for signs and just ask around. Everyone knows where it is.
Easily the best bang-for-your-buck sushi meal you can have in Tokyo is at the famous Sushi Dai and Sushi Daiwa at Tsukiji Market. They’re famous for a reason – for around $30 USD you will get an amazing sushi meal in a much more comfortable and fun environment than a lot of the fancier sushi places around town. The catch? They open at 6am so this will be your breakfast. You have to line up at 5am or earlier unless you want to wait in line for many hours. It’s totally worth it. Sushi Dai seems to be more famous and will probably have a longer line initially but Daiwa is awesome and not to be slept on.
Tenpura Tensei – There are some insane tempura restaurants in Tokyo. The catch is that you need a reservation well in advance. Tensei is a perfect gateway to high-quality tempura. If it’s your first time, this is a great place to start. The set menus at lunch are an absolute steal and really great. You can reserve online on their website or you may be able to walk in. Lunch ~$35, Dinner ~$80
Butagumi – this is one of our all-time favorite restaurants in Tokyo and maybe the world. This place is a temple to fried pork. You’ve never seen a pork cutlet so well-taken care of. The menu offers a front and back page filled with different cuts of pork from different prefectures around Japan based on flavor profiles. The dinner set will run you around $35 USD. Reservations are a must unless you arrive right when they open in the evening.
yaki = grill, niku = beef
Yoroniku – If Butagumi is the temple of pork, Yoroniku is the temple of beef. This place is seriously some of the best beef you’ve ever tasted. There’s no reason to really do anything other than the set menu, which is around $80 USD per person.
Ippo is an awesome yakitori joint in a basement right around the corner from Butagumi. Seriously incredible meals for the price.
Ginza Torishige is a great spot right in the center of Ginza to try out a slightly fancier yakitori without breaking the bank. The lunch sets are especially affordable and excellent.
Mister Donut – This could really fall into the snacks section too because you should be eating Mr Donut any time you pass one. Their mochi-like rice flour based donuts are addictively chewy and perfectly sweet.
Mercer Brunch / M House – Mercer Brunch in Roppongi is some of the finest breakfast around. Specifically the amazing french toast is one of the best we’ve ever tasted – anywhere. And that includes NOPA in SF. Yeah, we said it. M House is their Ebisu branch in a comfy little space with a similar (if not the same) menu.
Clinton St. Baking Co. – Maybe you’ve tried it in New York. The Omotesando branch of this now international chain is easily the best we’ve had of NY, Tokyo, and Singapore. Everything is perfect and the pancakes are the best. Ever.
Drink Machines in Japan
Easily one of our favorite features of Japan are the drink vending machines. They are on almost every corner of the city and tucked into every unused nook you can find. The variety of drinks available is generally great and entertaining but one of our favorite things about them is that in the cold weather months you can buy HOT beverages! You can find hot coffee and tea in many, hot soups (usually just a creamy corn soup), and hot red bean soup dessert. If you don’t read Japanese, the easiest way to determine which beverages are hot or cold is to look at the label. Cold drinks will have a blue label, hot drinks will have a red one.
High-End Cocktail Bars
Bar Hi Five – Well, the bad news is if you haven’t been before now, you missed your chance to see Bar Hi Five in its original indiscreet high rise location. The good news though is that they’ve moved into an easier to find and much larger space a few blocks away in the middle of Ginza. More seats including many more table seats means an easier chance you can get in to taste what are still inarguably some of the best cocktails in the world from a true master of the craft. Ueno San literally wrote the book on Japanese cocktail methodology and he is the Godfather in this city.
Bar Gen Yamamoto – Gen Yamamoto is a young, insanely creative and talented bartender who spent a number of years building his chops in New York City. He returned to Tokyo and created his tiny temple to the art of seasonal imbibing. There is no fresher, more seasonal, beverage menu on the planet that we know of. Each night his bar runs a few seatings at the 6 or so seats available. He offers only a 3 or 6 course omakase cocktail menu tailored to pairing seasonal produce turned into juices and flavorings on the spot with some seasonal spirits and some more common spirits like Japanese whiskey. The prices are amazingly reasonable as well, for such a menu. He speaks perfect English and takes reservations via email. He’s also as friendly and personable as they come.
Golden Gai is one of those places you only ever thought existed in dreams. It’s the neighborhood in Shinjuku that is what you probably expected all of Japan to look like. It’s a grid of tiny alleyways filled with even tinier bars, many only seating 5 or 6 guests. Many are themed, and every one is unique. Some serve food, some only specific types of drink. There are some small food shops peppered in as well. This is a place you can spend a night and just get lost in some of the most unique bars you’ll find in the world.
The Albatross – is one of our favorites. Head all the way up to the little lofted top floor and watch the bartender prepare your drinks below and carefully pass them up to you above as they’re ready. This place would be a fire hazard and a half in the US but here apparently code has no bearing.
Mens Shopping and Sneakers in Tokyo
Tokyo seems to be one of the few places in the world where men’s shopping trumps women’s. You can find some seriously cool and unique fashion but be prepared to pay for it. Shopping in Tokyo is not cheap. If you’re from the US, don’t even bother with vintage stores. Most of the stock is brought over from the US thrift stores and marked up as much as 2000%. A sweatshirt that would cost you $2 in an Ohio thrift store and $30-50 in a California vintage store, would cost you $100+ in Tokyo.
Sneakers are one thing that is great to buy in Tokyo because you’ll find styles that are only available in Japan. Check out Harajuku for some of the best shops. One of our favorites is Gettry, down a few stairs at this location.
Kappabashi Kitchen Town
If you’re into cooking in any way, no trip to Tokyo is complete without a trip to Kappabashi Kitchen Town. It’s basically a neighborhood full of stores filled with kitchen tools and toys, knives, and really anything else you can think of related to cooking. You’ll find plenty of things you never knew existed and if you’re looking for any specific piece of Japanese cookware, you can definitely find it here.Bill