The never ending city: Tokyo
Since this trip become a reality and we started telling friends and family about kicking things off in Japan we got a lot of recommendations and opinions, especially for Tokyo. Tokyo is one of those place that people have incredibly strong opinions on; they either love it or they hate it. And shocker, we LOVE Tokyo.
As city people, I think we are easily able to adapt to and get swept into the fun, exciting energy & craziness that is Tokyo. It truly is a never ending city; coming from New York city, it felt like standing in the heart of downtown Manhattan, skyscrapers all around, and then going to the east village, but towering buildings still surround you, then to brooklyn and they are still there and same in New Jersey, Upper West Side, and on and on. Looking for restaurants in Tokyo isn’t just a matter of scanning the street level - you have to search in all directions, usually up, but als inside other stores, down below buildings. Often restaurants were tucked away in alleys or within train stations, so it was fairly common to go in circles before finding a place we were looking for. Regardless, we loved it all, from the rich history & moments of beauty to the weird / unique elements that are everywhere.
WHAT WE DID
Better question would probably be, ‘what didn’t we do?’ Although, despite how much we did, and how much ground we covered, Tokyo being Tokyo, the answer to that is also probably a lot. Rather than going into every detail of our days away, or sharing a daily ihere are a few of the highlights:
Robot Restaurant: Imagine a cartoon show come to life, and this is basically the Robot Restaurant (site note, it’s not a restaurant). I had pretty low expectations and despite being full of tourists, it was amazing. Maybe it was just feeling like a kid again, but it was unlike anything I’ve seen before and brought me genuine joy. I’d love to have a sit down with one of the performers and get their take on performing in it (lots of googling on this was done post-show).
Kabuki: I didn’t know what Kabuki was basically until going. It’s a very traditional type of Japanese theater performed entirely by men (even women’s roles). We got tickets for only one of the 3 acts, which was just over an hour, and that was more than enough for us. Overall it was a cool cultural experience, but I don’t think I’ll be seeking out Kabuki again any time soon.
TeamLabs Planets Exhibit: TeamLabs apparently does exhibits in a few different countries, all of which look incredible. They have a permanent one in Tokyo called Borderless but we chose to go to Planets, which was a fully immersive experience. No shoes throughout so that we can feel the different textures of the floor - including one space in which we were walking through water that came nearly to our knees.
Toyosu market is getting its own section. Recently moved from Tsukiji market, Toyosu is the newer fish market in Tokyo. This is where the famed tuna auction takes place and is also home to a number of really incredible sushi restaurants.
It’s common for people to start lining up at some of the most well known restaurants (Sushi Dai & Sushi Daiwa) at 2-3 in the morning, to wait possibly 4 hours or more for a meal there. Fortunately our better judgement ruled out and we decided we prefer sleep over waiting in line for sushi only to eat it while tired and cranky. Especially when, although we like to think we are sushi connoisseurs, we probably couldn’t tell the difference from one place to the next
It all ended up being all well and good because when we arrived at sushi Daiwa just before 10am, we only had to wait about 20 minutes to eat and still had THE most incredible sushi.
Art / History:
Senso-Ji Temple - Visiting Sensoji Temple temple was the first thing we did in Japan, and was a perfect way to kick things off. Not only was it located near our first hostel in Asakusa, but the walk leading up the the temple is filled with a ton of little vendors (lots of food but also other knick knacks). As this is Tokyo’s oldest temple it was a nice introduction to both the history & culture of the city and country more broadly.
Meiji-Jingu Shrine & Yayao Park: We had few expectations for this shrine and were impressed by the huge arches, that lead up to the main building. Walking through the park & visiting the shrine was a nice way to balance out the craziness of Harajuku street and the neighborhood nearby
Edo-Tokyo Museum: Also something we did on our first day in Tokyo, which set us up well for some knowledge and history for the rest of the trip. The museum provides free guides, so we had a very nice women show us around the museum and explain much of the History.
Neighborhoods / Sites: I’m not going to go into detail on these, beyond saying we enjoyed walking through these neighborhoods, and getting to see the unique aspects of each.
Shibuya station crossing
Golden Gai (little area with alleyways of bars, apparently there are over 300 in this tiny area)
Owl Cafe Harajuku: We made sure the place was reputable before going, but still felt weird afterwards. Was pretty cool seeing these beautiful animals up close and getting to spend time with them.
WHAT WE ATE
We could just eat our way through Tokyo (and all of Japan for that matter). We’ve managed to have some really great meals while sticking to our backpackers budget, but the best from Tokyo were definitely:
Ichiran Ramen - apparently there is an outpost in NYC, so if you are there, go :) we loved getting to order at machines and pick our customizations for our first Japan Ramen experience
Kagari Ramen - AMAZING Chicken Ramen. I think this place actually has a Michelin star. It was truly incredible and best part was we just walked right in when apparently it can get pretty long lines.
Daiwa Sushi - I already mentioned this one in my Toyosu Market note. The entire experience of Daiwa was amazing and special. No need to wake up at the crack of dawn. We got there just before 10am, waited maybe 20 minutes and had incredible omakase sushi.
Higashiya Ginza - a bit of a splurge, but this is a beautiful Japanese Tea house serving Wagashi & other treats. (Thanks to both Amelia Travel & also our friend Yuzu for the tip on this one!)
Despachikas (department store basements) and Train Station Dining Halls - an important note on these (in my opinion). One of the things many people told us before going to Japan is how great the food is in many train stations & department store’s. And they are not wrong. But what people failed to mention is how overwhelming the experience can be. My feeling is ultimately go to see what the deal is, walk around see how incredible these are, but don’t necessarily eat there (or don’t plan for it to be a full meal). We did have a good experience at the Tokyu Foodshow at the Shibuya Train station - we each tried a few things and they had an area where you could stand to eat. But it didn’t go quite as well at the Shinkju Isitan Despachika. Not only were we overwhelmed by options but once we did pick something out, there was no where to eat it. We ultimately broke a number of cultural norms and ate in a corner near an elevator (sorry, don’t tell anyone please!).
WHERE WE STAYED
We stayed in two different places over the 5 nights we spend in Tokyo.
Nui Hostel: Nui was amazing. It’s located in a Neighborhood called Asakusa, which felt a bit like brooklyn to us. Slightly outside of the chaos of neighborhoods like Shibuya & Shinjuku, but really easy to get to (did I mention Japan has incredible train access?). It was a great spot, nice cafe / bar lounge too, which made it a perfect place to start & end the day.
&And Hostel: There wasn’t anything particularly notable about the neighborhood here, but the hostel itself was surprisingly comfortable. The room was nice & big for a hostel, but it didn’t have the same social ambience that was special to Nui. They call themselves a ‘smart’ hostel, meaning little buttons to control everything (even to close the blinds), which was cool, though maybe not all that necessary.