“Once a year go somewhere you’ve never been before”
Unless, it’s Tokyo…
Tokyo, you can visit once a year. Or once a month. You’ll still discover something new, something weird, something awesome, something worth remembering every time.
Anthony Bourdain said that if he had to eat one city’s food for the rest of his life, it would be Tokyo. And that most chefs would answer that question the same way.
I’m no chef, but I couldn’t agree more.
The food is enough reason to go to Tokyo. But I fell in love and realized there are so many more reasons to go back.
The food. The culture. The energy. The perfection.
I’m fascinated with Japanese culture and I truly believe that we can all learn a lot from it. They have the utmost respect for others and an intense level of patience that I can only dream of having. And they bow. They bow hello. They bow goodbye. They bow to say thank you.
I love this city.
With a plethora of flights from the US, it’s easy to get to Tokyo. San Fran, LA, San Diego, Denver, Minneapolis, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Washington DC, NY, and Boston all fly direct.
When in Tokyo, take advantage of the train! The Narita Express will get you to Tokyo Station in an hour. Taxis are incredibly expensive and the train is super easy to use (it’s synced with Google maps and if you don’t have Internet access, the people are beyond friendly and helpful. Use Google translate for easier conversation). The train is also insanely clean. I would lick the ground and be okay with it. If you dropped food on the ground, you wouldn’t even need the 5 second rule. I’d allow the 5 minute rule.
The Japan Rail Pass is a great option if you’re traveling all over the country, but note that with the rail pass, you cannot purchase train times or seats in advance, so if you’re going during a really busy time like New Years, it may not make the most sense. Also note that the rail pass doesn’t work for most in-city trains.
No matter your mode of transportation, leave plenty of time before your lunch or dinner reservation and not because it takes long to get to, but because most restaurants are nearly impossible to find. It’s either hidden in a back alley or at the basement of an office building. Finding an actual address is like trying to find Waldo in a sea of striped tops and the taxis are clueless as well. Don’t worry, you’ll eventually get there. Wandering around Tokyo like a lost tourist is part of the adventure!
Ritz Carlton – Luxurious and timeless, the lobby itself is a beauty on its own with a grand piano and decadent bar that begs you to order a dirty martini. And then the floor to ceiling windows call your name and you realize you’re looking out at the most perfect panoramic view of Mount Fuji and Tokyo Tower. So you order a glass of sake… and a dirty martini. While the room décor is a little business-like for my taste, the rooms are luxurious nonetheless and the sunset view I had from my room was worth every penny (or Starwood point. Did I mention the current conversion is 3:1 to Marriot hotels?)
Mandarin Oriental – Another lavish option complete with electronic (and heated) toilets, this stunning property has Tokyo Skytree views.
I owe the majority of my Tokyo food knowledge to Shinji, The Tokyo Fixer. Shinji has taken out top chefs across the world including Anthony Bourdain and David Chang, and I’m lucky enough to have explored the Tokyo food scene with him – and even luckier to call him a friend.
Sushi Ichi – David Chang dreams of the Uni from Sushi Ichi. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have those same dreams after my first visit. Highlights on the omakase – obviously the uni. (They tend to score the #1 rated from the uni auction). Also, the baby shrimp, and the incredible finale of crab with salmon roe and uni.
Toriyoshi – If you’re ever going to eat every part of a chicken, do it here as a yakitori meal, skewered over a charcoal grill.
Shima – I’m confident in saying that their buttery perfected piece of wagyu beef is the best steak I’ve had in my life. I prefer the sirloin, cooked medium rare. Insider tip – If you ask, they’ll give you the cow’s documentation which includes the cow’s birth date, name, and nose print for you to take home as a unique souvenir of the poor guy you just devoured. Save room to have Chef Manabu Oshima make a sandwich with your leftovers. Except you won’t have any leftovers. So just order a steak sandwich for dessert. It’s worth every second you wandered around the streets trying to find this hidden gem in the basement of an office building. Not so worth it? The $1,000 bottle of Chateau Margaux we ordered on accident after a little debacle with exchange rate math.
Tsujita Ramen – You order at a vending machine so some Japanese may be required or just press some buttons and be surprised. You won’t be disappointed. And don’t worry; your food doesn’t actually come out of the vending machine, although I wouldn’t put that past Japanese technology.
Usagi Ramen – Another bomb ramen choice.
Basement of Mitsukoshi and Matsuya – A food mecca in these department store basements is the prettiest food presentation you’ll ever see. $500 mangos are on display like jewels and even the tofu section is a work of art. It truly makes Whole Foods look like a 7-Eleven in the ghetto.
Sushi Ya – Takao Ishiyama (who worked under Saito) is one of the youngest chefs to open his own restaurant. This intimate 8-seater spot is a serious sushi experience. In case you were wondering, it was also the site of my first time eating cod sperm. No more cod sperm virgins here. Highpoints on the omakase were the hairy crab, baby tuna with a mustard soy, and baby shrimp with fish liver.
Tempura Masa – Don’t get fooled by tempura. Tempura in Japan is completely different than the overly fried concoction in the states where you can’t tell if you’re eating fried fish or a fried carrot. At Tempura Masa, each piece of fish or vegetable is handcrafted right in front of you as you sit at the small bar setting. A favorite was the whitefish (kiss fish in Japanese), which my friend suggested tasted like a much better version of a McDonald’s fish filet. We swear that was a great compliment. Other favorites were the scallop, sea eel, and finale of rice with various tempura pieces on top.
Butagumi – Tonkastu as authentic as it gets – we took off our shoes to eat at a traditional Japanese table. Tonkastu is a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet served with sides of shredded cabbage. I like my meat with a pinch of fat, so I prefer the sirloin, specifically the nattoku-buta from Gifu.
Kanda Matsuya – For soba noodles just like O bachan used to make, this is one of the few establishments that still hand rolls and cuts soba noodles. It’s been around for well over 100 years and has a line out the door, so you know it’s legit. My recommendation? The cold sesame noodles.
Mochi – So there are no surprises, real mochi is not filled with ice cream. It’s typically filled with red bean paste. My favorite is mochi filled with red bean paste and a strawberry. When in Ginza, try one at Akebono.
Sushi for breakfast – Head by the fish market, and you’ll find sushi bar after sushi bar for a unique Japanese-style sushi breakfast. The most famous is Sushi Dai, but expect to wait in long lines (could be more than 3 hours). Instead, check out other spots nearby sure to be as fresh as it gets!
Sushi Sawada and Sushi Saito – Two sushi spots that are on my list, but nearly impossible to get into. They book reservations 30 days ahead of time, but usually only accept regulars. It’s worth a shot!
Sushi Jiro – the first thing everyone asks about or tries to get into due to the popular documentary. Also a tough reservation to come by, a trusted source tells me it’s overrated and unlike a traditional sushi experience as they rush you in and out of your meal.
Higashiya – While shopping in Ginza, take a break for tea and traditional Japanese sweets.
Blondel – We stumbled upon this chocolate shop when looking for a cup of coffee at the famous Café De L’Ambre that ended up being closed for the holiday. Blondel was a welcome audible as we sipped on lattes and spiked hot chocolate in their cute coffee shop upstairs.
Star Bar – The cocktail perfected like you’ve never seen before. Don’t expect to sling back vodka sodas in this small, dark, tufted leather vibe of a bar. Watch as the bartender refines a flawless cocktail and expect to pay a seating charge.
The Lobby Lounge and Bar at the Ritz – Beautiful people in posh attire listening to a live pianist while sipping champagne, looking out to Tokyo city lights from the 45th floor. If you have 2,000,000 yen laying around (or if you’re crazy), you might as well order the Diamond is Forever Martini, prepared table side with a live rendition of “Diamonds are Forever” and you’ll get a one carat diamond with your vodka. Treat yo self – or in my opinion, save it for another round of sushi.
Gen Yamamoto – You’ll need a reservation at this 8 seat cocktail bar, which defines the art of the craft cocktail. With a minimalist vibe, the bar itself is carved out of a 500 year old Mongolian Oak tree where you can sit and watch the master himself. You’ll have a choice between two tasting menus comprised of the best seasonal ingredients. Having worked for seven years in New York City, he speaks great English. But don’t use that knowledge to order a “basic b” American cocktail. Stick to the omakase of cocktails and you won’t be disappointed.
Sake Tasting – While I hope you’ll taste sake throughout your entire trip, it’s interesting to learn about and taste sake with an expert. We learned (and drank) a lot at the shop at Matsuya and a Tokyo Station bar where we tasted the same sake at 9 different temperatures. My favorite lesson of the day was that old sake glasses were shaped so you didn’t have to tilt your chin to drink. This way, you could be sure to look the samurai in the eye so he didn’t cut off your head with his sword. Or a nicer version, so you could look your lover in the eye. Kanpai!
Ginza – A high end, luxury shopper’s dream, Ginza has it all. The main street itself is pristine and even shuts down for foot traffic on the weekends.
Ginza Natsuno – For an eclectic collection of high and low end chopsticks and other souvenirs.
Omotesandō – Right near Harajuku and the Meiji Shrine, this gorgeous tree-lined street filled with high-end designers is often compared to the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
Kanesou – Right outside Sensoji Temple, this shop will hand-make truly authentic knives right in front of you. They’ll wrap them up well so you can take some home.
Dover Street Market – For a store experience that’s truly a work of art, visit Dover Street Market. Name brand designers will partner with Dover Street Market to create unique pieces you can only find here and because it’s Tokyo, the merchandise is extra fashion forward.
Daikanyama area – A true local shopping experience in a cool area with a bit of a hipster vibe.
Harajuku – This area defines Japanese youth fashion and culture. Harajuku is every Japanese teenage stereotype in real life. Head to Takeshita-dori to squeeze your way through the crowded narrow street, people watch, take it all in, and wear some goth-hello kitty-esque attire to try and fit in.
Asakusa and Sensō-ji Temple – Visit Tokyo’s oldest and most significant Buddhist temple and take time to explore the entire Asakusa area, specifically the main shopping street selling local snacks and souvenirs.
Yoyogi Park – Right next to Harajuku station, it’s the prettiest in spring when cherry blossoms are abundant. However, you can visit the park year round, especially on Sundays when musicians, martial arts groups, and jugglers come out to play.
Meiji Shrine – Tokyo’s grandest shrine, it’s most popular on New Year’s Eve and summer weekends if you want to catch a Japanese wedding.
Shibuya Crossing – Like a choreographed dance routine, all the lights turn red at the same time and hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of people merge into the intersection without trampling one another. It’s an art form of organized chaos that screams Tokyo. Shibuya Crossing is known as the busiest intersection in the world and is best viewed from the second-story window of the Starbucks in the Tsutaya building.
Sumo Practice – There are only a couple sumo tournaments per year, so it’s more likely that you’ll visit a Sumo Stable to watch them practice. Tourists are only allowed in with a local guide (The Ritz set us up with ours) and you must follow strict rules (shoes off, hats off, ZERO talking). Respect the rules and you’re in for a sweaty treat. Sumo squats are a real thing. They respect their master. They have a professional hairstylist to create the perfect bun. Their uniforms are loincloths. Now this is a sport for me.
Tsukiji Fish Market and Tuna Auction – Check out the action at the largest fish market in the world and stay for a fresh sushi breakfast. The 3am wake-up call is well worth it to witness the famous tuna auction. And yes, you really have to arrive before 3am as there are only two sets of 60 people who are allowed in to watch the auction and you need to reserve your space in line! Note that there’s no tuna auction on Sundays.
Roppongi Area – Known for its ample clubs and stay up all night entertainment, head here if you want to get wild. I had the best time at R2 Supper Club on my husband’s birthday one year. We drank with new friends from all over the globe and still keep in touch with some of them. The space has a cool speakeasy, yet energetic vibe, but it was all about the people we met that made me want to go back for more.
Golden Gai – Where salary men go to party… Located in Shinjuku, this truly intimate drinking experience is not to be missed. There are over 250 tiny bars crammed into the narrow streets of Golden Gai. After midnight, you’ll see anyone from men in suits who have been out since happy hour to foreigners to young locals. Duck into bar after bar to find one that’s welcoming with an open seat. And yes, some will turn you down because they only accept regulars! So snuggle up with your neighbor because you may be sitting on their lap. Kanpai!
Iron Ferries Bar – A dark, yet glittery fantasy lounge in Ginza. The entrance resembles a speakeasy where you’re not sure if you’re entering a dungeon or a party. Once you turn the corner, you’re in a fairyland dusted with glitter and gold keys. Bonus – you can take viles of glitter home with you.
Shibuya Photo Shoot – The second story of the Shibuya Starbucks isn’t just for the view. It’s to make your friends play photographer and videographer while you run in the center of the craziness and make boomerang videos.
Karaoke – In what I would label one of the best nights of my life, we wandered around the halls of Big Echo, a private room karaoke building, and came across a friendly crew of locals eager to sing with us. Belting out Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas with new Japanese friends is truly all I wanted for Christmas. Who said dreams don’t come true?
Cat Cafes – Just when you thought things couldn’t get weirder, you realize that cat cafes exist all over the city. You pay a fee to literally sit on the ground, drink coffee, and play with cats.
Owl Cafes – But if cat cafes aren’t weird enough for you, head next door to an owl café.
Robot Restaurant – Best described as a robot strip show, you really have to see it to believe it.
Domo arigato, Mr. Robato… and Tokyo. I’ll be back