SEE & DO
This is generally a list of experiences - I avoid prescribing visits to Tokyo because there’s so much to see and do that you can spend your time trying to find a specific place on your list for 45 minutes when you could just go to any place a good and insightful time. I try and just cover old, new, garden, tea house, gallery, architecture, alleyways, bars, salaryman culture, things to eat/ drink (although lists on other page).
"It was still early in the evening when we emerged onto a street in Tsukiji, near the fish market. From the top of the pedestrian overpass we caught a glimpse of Hongan-ji Temple … The road leading to Kachidoki Bridge was wide but dimly lit, with few shops or restaurants and only the occasional passing car. I'd never been here before. This was a very different Tokyo from places like Shibuya or Shinjuku. Wooden bait-and-tackle shops with disintegrating roofs and broken signs stood next to shiny new convenience stores, and futuristic highrise apartment complexes rose skyward on either side of narrow, retro streets lined with wholesalers of dried fish."
- Ryu Murakami, In the Miso Soup
- Ryu Murakami, In the Miso Soup
Shibuya crossing. It’s on every Tokyo to-do list, and with reason, as the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. Why do I like it? I love the cumulative anticipation of literally hundreds of people stood waiting for the lights to change so they can cross. The excitement through osmosis - street performers catching that few seconds before crowds amass, selfie sticks, looks of awe. It seems like some feat of humanity to have that many people crossing the road at a single place and point in time.
Yakumo Saryo (or another teahouse). Traditional Japanese aesthetics and philosophies meets modern architecture in a modern setting. Eye-wateringly beautiful wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) in polished concrete architect-designed (the incredible Shinichiro Ogata). You can have breakfast or lunch here, but at the very least, go for tea and wagashi. Order a couple of sweet each to try and the matcha tea - watch the staff whisk it, it’s all very sensual. Go and look at the tiny room with things for sale. You are not told to not pick them up, you are encourage to hold them. Japanese tableware is designed to be held. To get there, directions will say take the Toyoko-sen to Toritsu-daigaku, but take it one stop further to Jiyugaoka and walk from there - it’s an affluent suburb with lots of little boutiques, alleyways and fun things to eat (eg. blue salt ice cream from a place I can’t remember). Down the road from Yakumo Saryo is a traditional-traditional teahouse called Kosoan. Kuriya Kashi Kurogi – is a Kengo Kuma-designed cafe, at Tokyo university campus. Aside from its unique aesthetic, it specialises in wagashi and very good coffee by Sarutahiko Brewers.
A sky-high view. I like the view and cocktail option at Cerulean Tower. The view rivals Lost in Translation’s Park Hyatt IMHO and there’s no lines. Other decent and free (drinks aside) views are from the top of Hikarie Building and Tokyo Metropolitan building, Mori Gallery cafe.
Depachika. Join the locals shopping for food at underground food wonderlands (depa = department store; chika = basement). Be prepared to lose several hours and yens in these, it’s take-out like you’ve never known. Try: Shibuya – Tokyu Food Show or Hikarie Building. Ginza – Mitsukoshi. Shinjuku – ISETAN.
The UNU Farmers Markets in Omotesando (every Saturday/ Sunday, 10am-4pm) for taste tasters, chat with farmers, strolling around with a coffee/ beer – what more could you want in a morning? If you can’t get to these markets, the other weekend farmers markets at in Roppongi at Hills Marche. Produce is also lovely, but the vibe is a little less chill/ hangout.
Drink & eat while you stand. Tachinomi (lit “stand-drink”) and tachigui (stand-eat) places can be found all over Tokyo. In Shibuya, try Sake Stand, Fujiya Honten, or anywhere you pass seeing people standing and drinking.
Tsukiji markets. Want reason do you need aside from sushi and beer for breakfast? For all your seaweed and bonito flake-purchasing, fish-ogling, kaiseki-don (seafood-topped rice bowl)-eating and misc snacking needs (tamago roll, grilled scallops, wagashi).
D47 Museum. Level 8 of the Hikarie building is dedicated to showcasing the food, artwork and other projects from each of the 47 prefectures of Japan. Many exhibitions are focussed on sustainable living, traditional crafts in a modern context, architecture and meibutsu (regional specialty foods). D47 Shokudo is a lunch-set restaurant on the same level, featuring menus and products to buy from the different prefectures. You can feel like you’ve traversed Japan’s prefectures in one level of a train station department store.
Galleries/ museums. The Nezu Museum in Aoyama to see traditional Japanese arts and crafts (impressive, not yawn), serene gardens. For impressive architectural design and range of exhibitions, visit 21 Design Sight in Roppongi. The building was designed by Ando Tadao, and has interesting design-based exhibitions. The Mori Museum is in Mori Tower at Roppongi Hills, then a champagne to see the nice view from the restaurant outside the gallery. Visit the Edo Museum and Hokusai Museum. These are both in Eastern Tokyo in the Ryogoku area (where sumo is held). The Edo museum shows life in old Tokyo (Edo), and the recently opened Hokusai museum dedicated to the famous ukiyo-e artist. If you’re hungry over that way, chanko nabe is the staple food of sumo, and you can find it in lots restaurants around the place. The National Museum for Emerging Science and Innovation has fun robots and future forecasting exhibitions, and you can catch the monorail there.
Eat (or even just ogle at) high-end wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets). Visit Toraya, the OG wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) makers in Tokyo Midtown. They used to make sweets for royalty back in the Edo era. Tokyo Midtown department store in itself is impressive, be sure to check out the homewares stores. They also have a shop in Omotesando Hills. Otherwise Higashiya Man in Harajuku is small and impressive.
Eat and drink as much as you can from convenience stores. They are microcosms of Japanese culture/ food culture. Be it 7/11, Family Mart, Lawson’s, Natural Lawson’s.
Visit traditional gardens. Hamarikyu Gardens in near Ginza is hundred of years old, built as the Emperor's duck hunting ground. Hot tip: go to Mitsukoshi food hall and get things for a picnic.
Sento. These public bathhouses are in instant insight into traditional (and modern) Japanese culture, and a good place to go to get extremely clean and relaxed. Take your shoes off before entering, wash yourself on the little seats before getting into the bath. Just watch what other people do really.. the logistics are worth it.
Yokocho (alleyway). These make for a fun (and usually fairly cheap, depending on the amount of sake put away) night out for dinner and drinks. Ebisu yokocho is popular and fun. Shibuya Nonbei yokocho (although beware entrance fee at some joints). Sangenjaya Sankaku Chitai. Golden Gai is a favorite with visitors and locals, but can be a bit touristy.. but totally dependent though on which of the 270+ bars in the 7 tiny streets you enter, and if they’re nice tourists, what does it matter anyways! Yurakucho yokocho for authentic old-school Tokyo salaryman insights. Niku-yokocho in Shibuya is like a street food hawker market, but on the 2nd level of a building (head ups, pretty much all meat “niku” – although there’s heaps of non-meat side dishes). If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, Akabane.
Izakaya. People often ask what my favorite type of Japanese food. It’s probably izakaya food. Why choose one dish when you can choose 20 tiny dishes to share.
Traditional breakfast. You can go upmarket at a hotel like the Park Hyatt or teahouse like Yakumo Saryo, or you can keep it real and get a traditional-style at any of the family restaurants (Denny’s, Royal Host) or chain restaurants (Sukiya, Yoshinoya, Tenya).
Go out dancing (now that the “No Dancing” law has been lifted - yes, it really was a thing): Oath, Aoyama Hachi (next door to Oath), Bonobo, Vent, Forestlimit, Space Orbit, Aoyama Zero, Sankeys, Circus, Vision, Contact, Shibuya Ball.
Sakeya (sake shop). Isego in Nakameguro is my pick. The smaller original shop is in Yanaka. Kimijiyama in Ebisu and Ginza are also great. Aside from Isego Yanaka, they all have bars dishing up a constantly updating menu of sake by the glass for 300-1000 yen, and solid bar snacks.
See/ buy kogei (traditional crafts). Knives - try Kama-Asa at Kappabashi and Tsukiji. Pigment – for kumanofude ink brushes, ink and pigment (and beautiful shop fitout by Tadao Ando – catch the monorail there and check out the architectural model museum next door). Washi paper - Ozu Washi in Ginza, looks like a fabric store but it’s beautiful beautiful paper.
Shitamachi. Edo-era vibes in a part of Tokyo untouched by war or earthquakes and only a little touched by modern times. The Yayoi Museum, Yanaka Ginza for some tabe-aruki and street milk crate drinking, Scai the Bathhouse for modern art in a retrofitted sento, and Yayoi gallery for classic ukiyo-e prints. Alternatively, Katsushika – a great 1/2 day out in the outskirts of Tokyo. Beautiful traditional old template and tea house, Edo-style street filled with interesting traditional tabe-aruki (walk-eats).
Pasona Urban Farm. Sim City farming-meets-offices of the future feels.
Kyu Asakusa House in Daikanyama. Get a coffee at Surf Saturdays, a mugwort croissant at Lotus Bakery, visit T-Site.
Live sport – sumo, baseball, soccer, rugby, whatever. Even if you don’t like sport, there’s interesting snack to be had. BYO in Japan. In summer, look out for spicy fried octopus legs and frozen sake beverages. In winter, hot sake and oden.
Japanese coffee. Try it all - combini (if you’re getting hot add the creamer, it’s salty. The iced version are mint in summer too), kissaten, siphons, vending machine, hipster Third Wave joints (Sakura, Ikejiri area, ), coffee tonic (lit. coffee + tonic water), coffee and orange liqueur (Nakameguro), coffee with a shot of espresso (City Bakery), cold brew that looks and tastes like Guinness (Streamer) – show it all some love.
Banquet at 3am. Because you can. New York may be the city that never sleeps but Tokyo is the city that always eats. Convenience store or 24 hour izakaya. Who wouldn’t want to sit down to grill their own squid after da club?
Vending machines. Don’t tell me you’re not curious to see what ‘yoghurt tea’ tastes like? Really good, for the record. The tang offsets the tannins, and it’s thoroughly refreshing. Aside from that, I can get behind any of the teas - green, barley (they’re unsweetened), Royal Milk Tea, Pocari Sweat (esp on hot/ hungover days).
"Let's now suppose it's past three in the morning and even the bums are sound asleep, and I am here walking through the grounds of the Senso Temple with Yumiko. Dead ginko leaves flutter down, and we listen to the crowing of the cocks … Just at the neck of the gourd-shaped pond there is this little island, wisteria-trellised bridges extending from either bank. There, next to the fatsa bush under the weeping willow in front of the Tachibana fish stew shop, a large man is standing eating the wheat crackers that have been thrown to the carp in the pond."
- Yasunari Kawabata,The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa
- Yasunari Kawabata,The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa