What to do in Tokyo?

UPDATE: added links to new Detour audio tour links. If you try them out, let me know how they are in the comments!

An old friend is visiting Tokyo and asked for recommendations. I often get this kind of question (I lived there for 10 years and am half-Japanese)  so for future reference, to point people in the future (and a place to park any follow up suggestions in the comments) I’ll put my recommendations here in this post. Here’s the (slightly edited) request:

I’d love some advice on what you’d do if you had Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. ( I’m ignoring that we’ll be tired!) I’d love to head out of Tokyo by train (maybe take bullet train someplace, I have not been on it). Some art and shopping but mostly seeing/experiencing things.

Here’s my response.  Feel free to add your own tidbits or call bullshit in the comments:

Basically for the short time you’re there, forget the Bullet train. Odawara is the first stop on the Bullet and while it has a castle, you don’t want to spend a day just to see that. Kyoto is worth a trip but it’s a three hour trip each way and you don’t want to be rushed to see the city – it requires a relaxed, peaceful pace.

So basically you’re in town from Saturday night, checking out Wednesday. Here’s the plan:

Hotel.

If you want something Japanese, try Meguro Gajoen, it’s on the right side of the city to the modern sights you want to see but will still give you a feel for a grand old Japanese hotel. They say that one of the rooms was the inspiration for a scene in the animated film, Spirited Away.  Ask to be put in a room where you can sleep on tatami. Trip Advisor has some write-ups with links to things to do in the neighborhood (Parisitological Museum? Maybe. Japan Folk Crafts Museum? Defintely!) and here’s a longer review from 2006.

Saturday:

It’ll take you at least a couple of hours to get from the airport to the city so I’ll leave the day open.

For your first night out, ask the concierge for a decent Ramen place for noodles. If you want to make it into a quest, read this NY Times piece to get in the mood. Once you have Ramen in Japan, you’ll never eat it anything like it. An alternative, if you feel really hungry, there’s a fried pork cutlet place called Tonki that prepares their meals in an open kitchen which is operating room clean – be sure to get a seat at the counter, it’s quite a production.

Depending on how tired you are, you can head over to Aoyama for some Jazz at the Blue Note or Body & Soul or try out some of the nightclubs in the area. I used to hang out a Yellow but I see they closed. Roppongi’s a bit of a dive but the Pit Inn is a Jazz institution too but if you really want to blow your socks off, catch the show at Kingyo. It’s a weird, only-in-Japan cross between a gay cabaret and Kabuki that is truly unique (get the hotel to reserve this for you in advance).

Sunday:

Head on over to Harajuku (on the Yamonote line) to soak in the street scene. Don’t miss the Rock-a-billy dancers in Yoyogi park and then head on down Omotesando which is basically Tokyo’s equivalent of the Champs-Elysees. Be sure to wind your way back into the side streets to. There’s one that runs to the right, just after (it might be before) Tokyo Kiddyland, the toy store (which you must see). The street is built over a river so it winds it’s way in a gentle zig-zag promenade.

Detour audio tour; Explore the trendy streets of Harajuku as Rei Shito explains how she became Tokyo’s top street fashion photographer.

Continue down that street and you’ll make your way to Shibuya, the next station down the line. If you’ve been checking out the boutiques along the way, it’ll be a good couple of hours.

If you’re up for more – Nakano Broadway is an Otaku Collector Culture paradise. It’ll take you hours to see everything there so pace yourself. When I first arrived I was wondering why there were the occasional massage stations interspersed in amongst the stores but by the time I left, I understood why. Inside you can find everything from old JR conductor’s hats to that rare, in-box Transformer that you’ve been looking for to complete your collection.

Photo Gallery on Google Photos

Detour audio tour; Explore the colorful area of Nakano with US expat Benjamin Boas, who learned Japanese through comic books and video games.

Monday:

OK, I guess you have time for one trip out of town a bit. Kamakura is just 90 mins to the Southwest so if you leave around 9am (missing the morning rush hour) you can make it down there in time to spend a good few hours there. Here’s a site which talks about all that you can see, I recall a hike from temple to temple was real beautiful but forgot how long that took. Try and get back on a train by 4pm or so to avoid the rush hour again and take the train back to Yurakucho so you can get off and walk the Ginza.

While there, try a fancy bar, Star Bar is one and I’ll add more links to this post as I remember them. I’ve never been but Sushi Saito I think is the only sushi place that won three Michelin stars, it’s also in the Ginza.

Since it’s early in the week, you might even be able to squeeze in and visit with my favorite nomiya, Enoki, which is tucked right next the tracks at Shibuya station. You usually need someone to introduce you but if you act nice and it’s not too crowded, you might be able to squeeze in. The conversation there is always lively.

Tuesday:

It’s your last day, what can I say? If you’re jet-lagged and still getting up early, hit the Tskiji fish market.

During the day, visit my old neighborhood, Nezu. It’s on the Chiyoda subway line so best to ask directions from the hotel on how to navigate. It’s over on the East side of the city in a old neighborhood that didn’t get bombed out. You want to walk from Nezu station towards Ueno station but make your way via the side streets, the little back alleys are charming and you may even spot an old hand-pump well if you’re lucky.

One place in Nezu you must see is the Asakura sculpture museum. It’s in the home of a sculpture artist and I’m not such a huge fan of his sculptures but his house is really special and the staff are happy to let you hang out for hours on his veranda looking out on his carp pond.

Near Shinobazu Pond is the Shitamachi museum which will give you a feel for what it was like to live in Tokyo back before the war. It’s a small museum but kinda neat because you really get a sense of what it was like back then.

Detour audio tour ; US-born fine artist Allan West explains why the neighborhood of Yanaka is essential to his artistic and creative journey.

Make your way one stop North of Ueno on the Yamanote line to Okachimachi and you’re in basically the bargin bin of the city. If you’re looking for weird gifts, here’s a good place to check out stuff. If you’re into books, Jimbocho is a great place to browse old books and maybe pick up a woodblock print or two. The latest gadgets can be had at Akihabara but it’s a bit of an otaku freak zone now.  The Yodobashi camera next to the station has everything you need.

Or skip the hubub of shopping and head back over to the jet-set side of town and take the Chiyoda line back over to Omotesando to Radio Bar on Aoyama-dori. This is an institution.

There’s so much more to see – this is only the beginning but hopefully it’ll give you an idea of the city. Enjoy and check back for updates to this post!

Further Reading:

6 Replies to “What to do in Tokyo?”

  1. Great ideas for your longtime (not old!) friend, Ian! Thank you so much.

    When I visited many years ago, did we visit Enoki? The photograph below the reference looks very familiar.

    Tim

  2. Longtime indeed! Poor choice of words.

    There's a very real chance that I did take you to Enoki. I've been going there for years and have introduced many people to the place. That's an old photo too.

  3. Hi Ian,
    You are a great writer! Do you know where in SF or around it you can find Japanese food and noodles that comes absolutely closest to the authentic Japanese food you talked about? thanks.

  4. Thanks Gizelle. I’m sure others will correct me with better recommendations but Japantown over on Geary has a few places. The one that’s off the pedestrian bridge is the best. They even have a collection of Japanese comic books that you can read while you eat.

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