An ancient and mystical country, Japan (and especially its capital, Tokyo) features highly on many travellers hit lists. Despite the appeal of the heritage, food and environment, the financial and cultural obstacles had, until now, put me off visiting.
Finally, I decided to (wo)man up and surmounted the aforementioned obstacles with meticulous planning, resulting in one of the most thorough Tokyo itineraries ever created! Check out our Sassy Guide to Tokyo for where to eat, what to do and a couple of insider tips too…
Skip the overpriced hotel buffets and pop into any local bustling joint for some miso soup and rice. We went to one of the many Denny’s, which was surprisingly local and amazingly cheap.
Explore the business area of Shinjuku on foot:
• Golden Gai and Kabukicho – whilst these are famed night-time haunts, it was great to see them by day without the seedy clientele and be able to soak up the architecture, signage and feel of the place.
• Shinjuku Gyoen (above) – a beautiful park with a wonderful lake in the middle. You have to pay to enter but it’s worth it for the tranquillity and serenity that awaits inside.
Even the best itineraries leave space for spontaneity. We found the busiest, least touristy ramen shop possible in the backstreets of Shinjuku Station. The purely Japanese pre-order vending machine flummoxed us but we asked a kind local to choose some dirt-cheap but delicious ramen dishes for us served up at a quick turnaround bar. The result? The best ramen I have ever eaten!
Explore the Iidabashi area. There’s less to see here but as Tokyo is such an enormous city, it’s worth visiting all the regions as they all have such distinct feels:
• Koishikawa Korakuen garden is famed for its autumn leaves but we weren’t so impressed.
• However, the Kagurazaka backstreets won us over with their quaint and bohemian feel originating from their geisha days (we even spotted a few kimono-dressed women on our wanders).
Enjoy the ultimate splurge evening with sushi at the famous Kyubey. At well over $228 per head, it was worth it for the most delightful sushi served up by an immensely likeable chef from our private sushi station. The fish was so fresh some of it was still wriggling on the way down…!
Set off at dawn for Tsukiji Market to see the fish trade that fuels the sushi restaurants. We skipped the 4am start required to witness the live tuna auction but snuck into the main market area before the official tourist entry time of 9am; we took the risk as by 9am, the market is already shutting down – we managed twenty minutes before being kicked out, but it was worth it!
We then chose a tiny restaurant with an encouraging but not too daunting 30-minute queue to feast on tuna sashimi (delicious and affordable) for breakfast. Choose from any of the bustling joints within the fish market walls.
Walk around the rest of Ginza. Famed for its high-end shopping, there is no need to linger too long but do venture down to the food basements in the giant shopping malls, where Japanese delicacies are beautifully displayed. Try Matsuya Ginza.
You can’t get more authentic than eating yakitori under the train tracks of Yurakucho Station with all the local workers. We chickened out of the innards but delighted in our chicken skewers and meatballs, washed down with obligatory Japanese beer.
There is a picturesque riverboat to whisk you down to Asakusa but rain scuppered our plans. Arriving by train, we headed straight to the famous Sensoji Temple (above). This is a beautiful temple accessed through an imposing Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), with a fantastic alley of market stalls (Nakamise-dori) lining the entrance – where I discovered the deliciousness of Japanese rice crackers!
After seeing the temple, we stocked up on cheap Japanese ceramics at the nearby wholesale kitchenware shops on Kappabashi-dori. I loved this area as it is famed for retaining more of a feel of the old Edo period.
A Tokyoite recommended dining at Gyogyoko in Shinjuku; it was so authentic, he had to send us a translated menu, as we were the only non-Japanese diners. A casual izakaya (pub-type restaurant), there was a raucous atmosphere, plenty of delicious food and drink, and a surprisingly light bill. The address is 7-19-22 Shinjuku-ku, 03-3367-0775 (no website, I’m afraid!).
Fuelled by sake, we headed to Golden Gai by night. Constructed hastily after WW2, it is a collection of alleyways with small shack-like two storey buildings; each is home to its own bar with their own quirky characters, a central bar and seating for about ten people. Some were members only and some don’t welcome foreigners; poke your head through some doors until you find a welcoming one for an unforgettable and exciting Japanese evening of drinking.
Head to the Meiji Shrine (above) in Harajuku on a Sunday morning when local families celebrate various picturesque rites of passage. A peaceful walk through the forest surrounding the shrine brought us onto the chaotic shopping streets of Harajuku itself.
Takeshita Street is a must-see for the crazy dress sense and youth culture. However, I much preferred the quiet alleyways off to the side around Jingumae where trendy, urban cool shops and cafes provided a laidback vibe. We then returned to the glitzy cool of Omote-Sando – another designer shopping street, sometimes called Japan’s Champs-Elysees!
We grabbed lunch on the go to give us time to visit the Tokyo Imperial Palace. Whilst you can’t enter the Palace itself, it’s worth a trip just to see the beautiful architecture and incredible gardens. We then wandered down to Tokyo Station, which is an architectural highlight of magnificent proportions.
WHERE TO STAY
Famed for its views over Tokyo, the Park Hyatt was our home for the trip – you might recognise the 52nd floor New York Bar with its unbeatable views from Lost In Translation. The steep prices were softened by free night promotions but the extras bill reclaimed their profit margin! However, the service, rooms and view were unbeatable and as we sipped our mugs of tea watching the sunset over Mount Fuji every night, and conducted our morning workout on the top floor watching the sunrise over this vibrant city, we knew that it was the perfect spot to play host to our weekend jaunt.
• When arriving at Tokyo Narita airport, don’t take a cab. They cost an exorbitant amount and are slower than the train! Instead take the Narita Express or Keisei Skyliner depending on your end destination.
• Avoid taxis wherever possible; they cost the earth, which is unnecessary when trains are so efficient, clean and cover the whole city. Simply pay the appropriate fare at any ticket booth and follow the English signs.
• If you take a cab, be sure to have your destination address written out in Japanese to show the driver.
• Cash is king. It’s hard to get cash out in Tokyo so take enough out with you.
• Cover charges are the norm. It’s normal to pay a large amount per head before you even order your drink. Factor it into prices.
• Many traditional restaurants expect you to remove your shoes when entering. Be warned and don’t wear your threadbare socks!
Yes, Tokyo is expensive but there are ways to cut your costs. The main thing I learnt on this trip is that Japan is not as inaccessible as you first think. Do your research, plan your time, get Japanese names for destinations printed out in advance to show taxi drivers and you will fall in love with this city and country just like I did.