I was warned. Everyone said that Tokyo would be overwhelming, that I would find myself getting lost for days and should expect to suffer from culture shock. It’s true that Tokyo is a place which is well and truly alive and will engulf you in a wave of neon, robots, and noodles. But the truth is I felt instantly at home in this city full of so much excitement and such a huge appetite for food. Full disclosure I was lucky to have the ultimate guide of my friend Ben who we were visiting, to navigate us like stray cats through the the labyrinth of this city, and take us to some of the best meals of my life.
To be honest, the most overwhelming aspect of this city is the impossible task of trying to somehow capture it all here. It’s not a city of specifics (I mean there aren’t even street names) so to give you a traditional guide of must-see spots to hit would be foolish. The best experiences are had wandering the busy streets and happening across a spectacular meal. I don’t think any two people could experience this city in the same way, so instead I’m going all 90’s Cosmo girl and giving you my 12 Tokyo commandments to ensure you have a wonderfully weird and delicious time along the way.
Number 1: Eat
little a lot & often
Of all the travel blogs, travelogues, guide books and Instagram posts I obsessively read, watched and screenshot in preparation for this trip I was repeatedly told that the key to experiencing Tokyo is to eat little & often. I don’t know about these people’s self control, but if you’re like me you’re not going to be able to walk down a Tokyo street via a sizzling yakitori spot (grilled chicken on a stick) or a stand with freshly cooked Taiyaki (A sort of savoury fish shaped cake filled with sweet irresistible red bean paste) without stoping for a snack or two (or 10).
It’s hard to give a list of locations to head to as you will happen upon these many sizzling spots as you wander the streets. I will say for something sweet head to Nakamise, a road leading to the Senso-Ji temple lined with stalls selling all kinds of Japanese treats. Here you will find Taiyaki, strange custard and cheese tarts, dango balls on sticks (sweet dumplings made from rice flower), sugary melon buns and delicious soft serve matcha ice cream to just name a few. For the savoury head to Tskuji Fish market as it is heaven (see commandment 8) but another good spot is the delightfully named Piss Alley in Shinjuku and the hidden bars and restaurants in Sanchoku Inshokugai under the railway of Yūrakuchō station. Oh and who could forget the wondrous adventure of late night trips to convenience stores like 7eleven or a family mart.
Number 2: Go to Harajuku for the Gyoza not the girls
For me Harajuku will always summon images of that awkward and questionable time of Gwen Stefani’s career, however there is more to be found here than Hello Kitty merchandise and overhyped crepes. Harajuku Gyozaro is a famous and packed spot which is now found in a lot of guides (expect long queues) but you just must believe the hype. Other than the three small but unmissable sides of delicious things such as beansprouts with meat sauce, the menu is tiny with only one choice to make: will you have the pork gyoza boiled or fried? I went for six of both.
Number 3: Eat the Ramen I still dream about
There was not one, but two exceptional bowls of ramen enjoyed in Tokyo that have ruined all London recreations of the dish forever. The first was had in a haze of jet lag at the comforting Afuri. With branches spread across the city, this ramen spot is famous for its Yuzu Tsuyu Tsukemen with braised pork belly. A lighter dish than the tonkotsu I was use to with a delicious soy and fruity yuzu soup to dip those silky noodles in.
The second game changing bowl of noodles was at the famous Ichiran Ramen. We had given up hope of trying the hyped tonkotsu after many failed attempts of hour long queues when we happened upon the Shimokiazawa branch and alas! no queue! In we went to enjoy the best bowl of ramen I have ever had, punching in our orders to the vending machine and taking our tickets to the counter to await their delivery along with a bow from the waiter. As I write this I mourn the fact that it will be so long before I taste this bowl of ramen again.
Number 4: Go to the Robot Resturant but don’t eat the food
This is Tokyo so you are going to need to suck it up and do some ultimately tacky, cheesy, and weird shit. I can think of no better strange experience than the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku. Think the rainforest cafe of Piccadilly Circus but on acid and with a crazy show. Yes its expensive at around £50 ahead, yes you will have the most jarring experience of being overwhelmingly surrounded by western tourists for the first time since you arrived and will suddenly find the english language deafening, but as soon as the show starts you will forget all of that. I will say no more than eat before you go (and knock back a few highballs).
Number 5: Eat Kushikatsu whilst playing weird drinking games
Kushikatsu is a dish of skewered meat or vegetables deep-fried in breadcrumbs. It’s delivered to your table as a mountain of #eatclean goodness to dip in to a vat of delicious communal sauce (remember no double dipping). Try a selection of delicious sticks from eggplant to Quail eggs, chicken gizzard to pork liver. Your covered for all levels of adventurousness. This was also the first place we were introduced to the popular highball drink (whisky & soda). When ordered in this establishment you were suddenly entered in to a strange dice game met with yelling and bell rings where you had to roll a double for a free drink, the forfeit been you had to buy a giant highball instead. Safe to say we all lost multiple times and got very drunk which ended with the dice awkwardly ending up in the communal dipping sauce. I couldn’t work out the english name of the restaurant but it can be found here (and looks like this) just up the street from the robot restaurant.
Number 6: Find some calm in all the madness
If you haven’t gathered Tokyo can feel a little overwhelming at times, however there is so much calm to be found in this city. There is no better way to wind down (particularly after a visit to the Robot Restaurant) than the Nezu Museum. A beautiful collection of pre modern Japanese art housed in stunning modern architecture. The real jewel of this place is the peaceful surrounding gardens that will take you miles away from the busy streets of Shinjuku.
After spending the morning at the wonderful Nezu, I recommend having lunch at the Brown Rice Cafe that’s just a short walk away. A beautiful and serene vegetarian restaurant with a reasonable set lunch of dishes like delicious tofu served with fresh seasonal vegetables, comforting miso soup and of course brown rice. If like us you had been hitting the deep fried meats pretty hard for a few days, this place is a much needed nourishing treat.
If the madness of Harajuku becomes too much, take a walk in the near by Yoyogi Park and visit the beautiful Meiji Shrine. Visit late in the afternoon for a bit of peace, particularly if you’ve just spent hours in the vortex of Chicago searching for vintage Kimonos like my friend. Another lovely spot for a peaceful afternoon is wandering the streets and shops of Yanaka. One of the last places to experience a sense of old town ambience from a Tokyo past.
Number 7: Release your inner nerd in Electric Town
Visit Akihabara famous for its many arcades and electric shops and loose all sense of time playing games you have no idea what your suppose to be doing in. Wander awkwardly around a seven story sex shop and don’t leave Electric Town without getting you photo taken in one of the enhancing photo booths.
Number 8: Sleep in and eat sushi (and everything else…) at Tsukiji Fish Market
I have heard many great things from people who have gone to the Tsukiji Fish market at 4am to experience the tuna auction. Apparently it’s an experience like no other, but if you’re spending your evening drinking in a basement bar you’re not making it to the tuna auction. Fear not as all is not lost, you can rock up to the fish market at 11am and feast on the surrounding ram shackled stalls’ offerings all made with the fresh produce of the market. Eat fresh scallops, crab topped with sea urchin, delicious omelette on a stick, the largest oysters you will ever encounter and of course sushi.
The market is rammed of fantastic sushi restaurants and I had great intentions of joining one of the long queues of the famous Sushidai or Suchi Daiwa, but by the time we had spent a few hours sampling all the delights of the market they were both closed. However we still had some of the freshest sushi I have ever eaten in a place that was still open and multiple rounds of that delicious tuna was ordered.
Number 9: Lose all sense of time in the smoky basement and dingy alley bars (but don’t miss your bullet train)
The most fun to be had in Tokyo is at night and will be found in the many tiny bars hidden deep beneath ordinary office blocks and up tiny staircases layered between restaurants and karaoke bars.
One of these great and totally unmissable bars is Grandfather’s in Shibuya. Enter through the brightly lit corridor of a un-assuming building and walk down to the basement to find this small dark time portal thats been open 40 years with wood panelling, low hanging lights and wall lined with one amazing record collection. Take a seat at a booth with a whisky or a cocktail and watch as the regulars come in to request there own bottle from one of the labelled ones that line the bar.
For less laid back vibes head to Shinjuku and back down to another basment to the rock bar Mother. In this tiny red soaked room I warn you you will lose all sense of time scanning the endless cd collections of all your 90’s guilty pleasures whilst treating this place as your own personal juke box. Before you know it you will be pouring onto the neon lit street at 4am with the realisation that your bullet train to Kyoto is mere hours away.
No trip would be complete without a visit to Golden Gai. Over 300 tiny bars are crammed in to this small handful of streets where a group of 5 like us will easily fill a empty bar to capacity and have the enjoyment of your own personal bartender. We sipped sake and smoked endless cigarettes with one eye on the strange 70’s horror film playing behind the bar. Take a walk around and pick the bar that calls out to you and set up shop for the night. I recommend ones without a cover charge, but sometimes this missing charge is made up in more expensive drinks.
No good night out in Tokyo should end without a drunken stumble around a 24hr DonQuijoto. You will buy some of your strangest and most wonderful souvenirs here or at least wake up after every visit the next day surrounded by different types of Japanese sweets and crisps. No, just me?
Number 10: Izakayas are the best place to be
One of my favourite experiences were the many nights spent sat barefoot in a Izakaya, drinking beer after beer and working our way through dish after dish. An Izakaya is a sort of fun and casual Japanese tavern with a tapas like menu serving dishes of yakisoba fried noodles, mouth watering fried chicken, miso grilled mackerel, sweet Japanese omelet, sashimi, yakitori and many more.
I can’t even pin point on a map all the ones we visited, but one exceptional meal was at 35 steps in Shibuya on our last night.A fantastic spot with a slightly different menu with world influences creating some spectacular fusion dishes.
Number 11: Don’t leave without covering all the major food groups.
Japanese cuisine is incredible, so much so it’s protected by UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage list. What I love about eating in Japan is the fact that most restaurants will specialise in just one impeccable dish or specific type of the cuisine creating a hit list of dishes to try on your trip. So far we have covered ramen noodles (my favourite soba and udon spots are coming soon in my Kyoto post) fried chicken, Japanese omelettes, the freshest sushi, yakitori, gyoza, kushikatsu… but you can’t leave Tokyo without crossing of these last special two: Tonkatsu (breaded pork) and okonomoyaki (a sort of savoury pancake but so much more).
Ok so the Tonkatsu sandwiches you find in the train stations of Tokyo are pretty incredible, particularly the ones from the specialist chain Maisen (even more so after a night of highballs and karaoke), however you have to experience Tonkatsu at Butagumi to truly appreciate it. At Butagumi which is located in a beautiful old Japanese house In roping they take Tonkatsu very seriously. You will be presented with a wine list-like menu of different type of cuts, breeds, pork from different regions of Japan, the environments the pigs were raised in, their feed… the list goes on. Once you have managed to decided on which tonkatsu to order you can relax as there is no more choices to make except when to order more beer, as all comes served with rice, miso soup, Tsukemono (Japanese pickles), shredded cabbage, a variety of seasonings and of course that delicious tonkatsu sauce. All sides come with free refills… if you need it.
Lastly if you’re going to eat okonomoyaki (and you must) do so in one of Tokyo’s oldest restaurants Sometaro in Asakusa. Take a seat on the floor around a hot plate and order your chosen mix of ingredients, I went for a mix of minced beef and pork with cabbage, egg and sliced beef. When it arrives you are required to do a bit of DIY for your dinner so mix it all up and poor out on to the hot plate to cook, pause for beer and then top with the delicious sauces and bonito flakes to finish it off. Its absolutely delicious and the cross between a pancake and a Japanese pizza.
Number 12: Channel Scarlett & Bill
Last of all you can’t leave Tokyo with out a authentic Lost in Translation experience, so head to a karaoke bar (ideal to have a drink or 5 before), request a room with a view and sing your heart out.