5 days in Tokyo

Have you ever traveled somewhere and almost instantly started plotting how and when you can return? That's how I felt about Tokyo. It was not an immediate feeling—Tokyo has 38 million (!!!) residents, and it can seem incredibly overwhelming at first—but halfway through our second day there, I started to get a sense of the different neighborhoods and their unique character, finding the quiet moments of discovery amidst all the hustle and bustle. Having several Japanese (and Japan-loving) friends, we were armed with a wealth of recommendations for where to eat, what to do, and how to get around, and we barely scratched the surface. So obviously a return trip is in order (and next time, maybe not in summer when the temperatures are above 90 degrees every day)! But until then, here's everything we did during our 5-day stay in Tokyo. 

Day 1: Shibuya

We luckily flew into Haneda airport, which is much closer to the city than Narita; after clearing customs (I highly recommend registering ahead of time with Japan's tourism site to expedite the process), we hopped in a taxi and had a quick 25-minute ride to our hotel in Shibuya. Our hotel was right across the street from Sushi No Midori, which a friend recommended for affordable sushi, so that was our first stop. It did feel a little weird to be eating in a mall, but as we quickly found, this is where some of the best food is! We then braved the famous Shibuya Scramble crossing, which is far less intimidating in person, once you're actually walking through it. Right next to the scramble is Hachiko Square, which has a statue of a dog who famously waited for his human to come home work every day, even years after his death (I'm not crying, you're crying). People line up to take photos with the statue (Japan is so orderly!), but the line moves quickly. Just northwest of the scramble is Hands, which has a gazillion floors and feels like a cross between a Michael's, a Ricky's, and an Ace Hardware. Highly recommend for souvenirs or just a unique glimpse into Japanese life. 

After a much-needed shower, we had our first of many gin & tonics of the trip at Bar Piano, which was recommended by our friend—it's on a tiny, tucked-away street with even tinier bars and restaurants, most of which only seat 4 or so people. I have no idea how anyone found anything in Japan in the days before smartphones and Google Maps. Once our friends arrived, we met up for dinner at Tsukishima Monja Kuuya, a restaurant where you kind of half cook your own food on a hibachi grill in the middle of the table—it was delicious but service was on the slow side and we all smelled like grilled meat afterward. It seemed to be a good place to go after a night of drinking. 

Day 2: Harajuku & Omotesando

After Kisseki pancakes for brunch at Flipper's, we walked through Yoyogi Park, the Central Park of Tokyo, which was hosting a dance festival—it was fun to watch all the different types of dance (and the performers' immaculate costumes and makeup) as we walked to the Meji Jingu shrine. I am generally not a fan of church tourism when I'm in Europe, but I do appreciate a good Eastern temple or shrine, as I find them to be more approachable, calming, and connected to nature. 

A short walk later, we landed in the polar opposite area, Harajuku, which used to be a center for over-the-top cosplay (culturally appropriated/made famous in the Gwen Stefani song) and is still quite the happening spot for young Japanese fashionistas. Takeshita Street is the very crowded main drag, and the store So La Do is a fascinating look into Japanese street fashion micro-trends. The surrounding streets are filled with cool streetwear and vintage shops, as well as the coolest location of Beams, which reminded me of Barneys Co-op (RIP). 

Just to the southeast of Harajuku is Omotesando, which is one of many neighborhoods in Tokyo filled with super high-end, big-name designer boutiques; I highly recommend wandering around the smaller streets off the main drag—there are a bunch of really unique boutiques and the window-shopping is off the charts. We stopped for a quick bite at Tsukiji Tamazushi Sasashaguire  inside the Omotesando Hills mall (our second mall sushi, in case. you were counting). Aoyama, home to the famous Herzog & de Meuron Prada store, is just a few blocks further east. 

For dinner, we ended up at the cozy Uoshin Izakaya back in Shibuya, and the seafood was mind-blowingly fresh (and affordable)—I almost never have uni at home but it was so delicious here. Afterward, we hit The SG Club, which is on the 50 best bars list; the drinks were solid, but it wasn't my favorite bar of the trip. 

Day 3: Ginza & Ebisu

American-style breakfast is not always easy to find, but we were happy to get on the subway and veer off the beaten path to Parklet Bakery, which felt like home and reminded us of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. We then walked to Ginza, which is another big shopping area with even more over-the-top designer boutiques. Some favorites: Itoya for all things stationery, the super high-end Ginza Six mall for the incredibly well curated Cibone concept store (and an Aperol spritz upstairs at Eataly, which was a surprise), and of course the Muji flagship store. If you need an afternoon pick-me-up, Glitch Coffee is a classy place to have an espresso martini. 

After post-shopping drinks at Udagawa CafĂ©, we walked south from our hotel toward Ebisu, which felt like a quieter but trendy neighborhood, with a slightly older crowd than Shibuya. We ended up having dinner at Itasoba Kaoriya Ebisu, which specializes in soba noodles served either in a wooden tray with dipping sauce, or traditionally with broth (I had mine with duck, which was delicious). We ended the night with several rounds of drinks at Bar Trench, a postal stamp of a bar with delicious cocktails and a very welcoming atmosphere.  

Day 4: Roppongi

Tokyo has the most Michelin-starred restaurants of any city in the world—and French chefs have famously sent their kitchen staff to train in Tokyo for years—so I wanted to make sure we enjoyed one totally decadent meal on our trip. We landed on Narisawa, which has two stars and is a textbook example of seasonally-driven kaiseki cuisine. We had 11 courses with wine (and sake) pairings, and we were so full, we didn't eat again until breakfast the following day. It was one of the most memorable meals I've ever had, and I don't think I'll ever forget it. I definitely recommend it if you can afford the splurge (which, by the way, was probably half of what we'd pay for a similar experience in San Francisco). 

Full of seafood and sake, we took a taxi to the Mori Art Museum, which sits 52 floors above the already hilly Roppongi neighborhood and is worth the trip for both the modern, primarily Japanese artwork and the sweeping city views. 

After a very long nap, we ventured out for a nightcap at Bar Ginza Panorama, which took an inordinately long time to locate (it's on the third floor of what looks like a residential building) but was worth it for the jovial bartender, mesmerizing model train set, and cozy atmosphere. Just make sure you bring only one guest—there are only six seats in the entire bar. 

Day 5: Daikanyama & Shinjuku

I hesitate to say we saved the best for last, because it wasn't completely intentional, but Daikanyama was my favorite neighborhood, to the point that I felt like everything there was curated just for me. Our first stop was the Tsutaya bookstore, which blew my mind in terms of its breadth in every category. I could have spent hours (and hundreds of dollars) there—it might have dethroned Powell's as my favorite bookstore in the world. There, I was happy to see that print magazines are alive and well in Japan, so I bought three of them. This neighborhood also has a Buly store (I stocked up on my favorite Mexican Tubereuse soap), a his-and-hers A.P.C., a Maison KitsunĂ©, and my favorite store of the trip, Okura, a wonderland of Japanese denim, indigo dyes, and seasonal dressing. I bought two tops there and am kicking myself for not buying more, as they were the most gorgeous yet understated clothes I came across the entire trip. And in case you thought the day couldn't get any better, we had pizza at Seirinkan, a Beatles-themed spot on the Michelin Bib Gourmand list. 

I didn't hit as many department stores as I'd hoped to on this trip, but I'm glad I made it to Isetan in Shinjuku, which started out as a kimono shop (the top floor is still very traditional) and now feels like Bergdorf Goodman on steroids. It's worth a trip alone for its first-floor food hall, where you can buy every type of prepared food you could possibly imagine.  There's also a huge Beams in the neighborhood, as well as additional branches of many luxury stores (yes, they're everywhere). 

We started out the evening with drinks at New York Bar in the Park Hyatt, where most of Lost in Translation takes place (I watched it on the plane and it still holds up).  I recommend getting there for sunset, because the views are out of this world (I could even see Mount Fuji). We then headed over to Omoide Yokocho, otherwise known as Memory Lane (and sometimes as Piss Alley), another narrow street with a string of tiny yakitori restaurants and bars. Amazingly, we were still hungry afterward, so we ended up at Ramen Nagi in Kabukicho, a.k.a. the red light district, and it was definitely worth the wait. Ordering ramen in Japan is a whole experience—usually you press a button on a machine (if you're lucky, there's a translation, but otherwise you look at the photo and hope for the best), hand the cook a ticket, and out comes the most umami dish you've ever tasted. 

Where we stayed

Several of our friends recommended staying right in the middle of the action in Shibuya, and I'm glad we did. We had lots of good restaurants, bars, and shops within walking distance, and the experience felt very true to Tokyo (versus Ginza, where I saw the most tourists at any point in the trip). We chose the Cerulean Tower Hotel, which was larger and more ritzy than what we normally go for, but it had the most comfortable hotel bed I'd ever slept on, our room was huge by Japanese standards, and the location was absolutely perfect. It also had a curling iron in the bathroom, which was an amenity I'd never experienced before, and one that came in handy given the wild humidity in the summer. I wouldn't hesitate to stay there again—because even after five amazing days, I couldn't get enough of Tokyo and definitely want to go back. 

Stay tuned for my Kyoto travel diary coming next week!     


Doused In Pink said...

What an incredible trip! All of the food looks amazing!

Jill - Doused in Pink

Jessica Jannenga said...

So interestig to read Cheryl!
My nephew is also there with his wife on a trip. It seems to interesting to learn about the culture, and the food looks good! I snickered at the fact that there was a curling iron in your hotel room. I know, that would be a luxury! I am traveling in 2 weeks and I cant forget to bring a convertor, to use my hairdryer etc.
thanks for sharing!
jess xx

Laura B said...

Wow! I didn't realize how populated Tokyo is! It is a city that is definitely on my bucket list. It looks like such an amazing place to visit!

Gail Is This Mutton? said...

Oh how amazing. Have always wanted to go to Japan. You crammed a lot in. I love the sound of the Michelin starred restaurant. Thanks for linking!