In August 2019 we realised our dream of going to Japan and visited six cities in fifteen days. In this article, I will tell you about our time in Tokyo where our unforgettable trip started and ended. While here, you can find all the information you need to plan your trip to Japan.
TOKYO IN SHORT
We landed in Tokyo from Dubai on a Friday evening, just in time to complete all the necessary paperwork before dinner. At first sight, Tokyo is not impressive. The tube stations are old, its skyline is not memorable and many of the buildings are box shaped. This is mainly because earthquakes are a regular event here, so building an iconic city is not their priority, efficiency and simplicity come first.
However, as you’ll read below, there are buildings and districts that will catch your eye and it won’t take you long to fall in love with this city. Tokyo is like food; you need to slow down and engage all your senses to appreciate it. The more you see of it, the more you’ll love it.
The following paragraphs are divided by districts, except the first one, which describes the hotels. At the end, you’ll find a map with all places I talk about highlighted, and more! Download it, so you can easily see how close each district/restaurant is and arrange your daily tour based on your needs.
We spent five days in Tokyo, split in two, and each time we stayed in a different hotel and area:
- The first two days, before moving to Kanazawa, we stayed at the Keihan Tokyo Yotsuya Hotel, a 3-star hotel located in SHINJUKU – one of the top-rated districts in Tokyo. Although the staff was really kind, the hotel itself wasn’t what we were expecting. Also, it’s located in an area which is too quiet and not very close to Shinjuku centre, where we wanted to be.
- The last three days, before going back to Dubai, we opted for the Mitsui Garden Hotel Nihonbashi Premier, a 4-star hotel located in beautiful NIHONBASHI (Chuo City), one of the Tokyo’s oldest commercial districts close to some lovely places and only 10 minutes’ walk from Tokyo Station. The hotel is very good and also has a public bath.
TOKYO DISTRICTS, WHERE TO EAT AND WHAT TO SEE
– SHINJUKU & OMOIDE YOKOCHO –
Shinjuku is famous for its nightlife and shopping centres. This is where we spent our first day in Tokyo.
OMOIDE YOKOCHO (“Memory Lane”) – In this narrow street, full of tiny bars and restaurants, we had our first dinner. When you leave the station (east exit), just follow the unmistakable smell of barbecue to find it. Walk around, choose somewhere to eat, and start queuing (each place has just a few seats).
Since it was almost closing time, and everywhere was packed, we sat down in the only restaurant that allowed us in. That night, we ate delicious Yakitori (chicken skewers) and I had my first Asahi beer, which accompanied almost all my meals in Japan.
ISETAN SHINJUKU – This is an amazing depachika food hall, with all you can dream of and more. From savoury to sweet, you won’t believe your eyes and you’ll need a few hours to decide what to try, so take your time. Like almost all public spaces in Japan, you can’t eat inside the hall, but you can buy your meal and have a picnic in the nearby Gyoen National Garden.
– Must-visit –
Gyoen National Garden – Enjoy the perfection of nature as you eat your picnic in one of Tokyo’s largest parks. After your meal, walk around and visit the tea house. I read that in spring this park is one of the best places in the city to see the cherry blossom.
Suggested spots that I was unable to visit: Afuri Ramen ; Golden Gai, another narrow alleyways full of tiny bars; Tokyo Metropolitan Gov. Building for views and drinks. Keio Plaza Hotel (Aurora Sky Lounge) for views and sake.
– NIHONBASHI (CHUO CITY) –
Nihonbashi is considered to be the Kilometre Zero point of Tokyo, where all roads in Japan start from. Elegant, centrally located, full of modern and traditional restaurants and shops that are easy to find if you’re curious. Along with the nearby Ginza and Omotesando, Nihonbashi, it’s one of my favourite districts in Tokyo and I recommend that you make it you base during your stay.
TAPAS MOLECULAR BAR – Located in front of the Mitsui Garden Hotel, inside the Mandarin Oriental, we had our Michelin-starred dinner. Tapas Molecular Bar offers a breathtaking view of the city, and the food experience was good, even though I must admit it wasn’t my favourite. Read more about our dinner here.
– Must-visit –
Mitsukoshi Mall – Just a short walk from the Mitsui Garden Hotel is this stunning high-end department store which is also famous for selling kimono fabric. I bought the award-winning Pitera Essence by SK-II, here, and lovely Fabio Rusconi shoes at a fair price (I was actually looking for a Japanese shoe designer, but I fell in love with these. And, since I don’t live in Italy, I suppose I’m allowed :). This store is also worth a visit just for its renaissance style facade, and its stunning interior design.
Suggested spots that I was unable to visit: Nihonbashi bridge, from where you can take a cruise down the river.
– GINZA –
Ginza is Tokyo’s main high-end shopping area, home of the three Michelin star sushi restaurant Jiro, considered to be the best in the world, and of my favourite ramen place ever, Kagari, a must-try.
KAGARI – The creamy soba ramen I ate here set a new quality standard that means I’m always disappointed when I eat ramen in other cities. We ate here twice. The first time we fell in love, the second time was our last night in Japan, and we ordered three different ramens because we wanted to try as many types as possible.
They serve two styles of ramen: a thick creamy soup (the tori-paitan soba), and a dark, soy-based broth made from dried sardines (the niboshi-shoyu soba). I’ve tried both, and the first one wins hands down. My favourite is the Chicken Pai-Tan Soy Sauce Soba.
The restaurant is very small with just fifteen seats, and there’s always a long queue of people waiting outside for their turn. You can’t book a table here, so don’t be late or they won’t even let you queue.
LUPIN – This is a historic bar located near Kagari, so it’s the perfect place to end your night after dinner. Although it was full of people, we were surprised by how quiet it was inside, it was like being in a movie.
The bar opened in 1982, and became trendy due to many famous Japanese writers who were regular customers here. It has a very cosy atmosphere with low lights and just a few seats. Be sure to have cash with you as they do not accept credit cards.
– Must-visit –
Fashion Buildings at Night – If you love architecture and fashion, you must-visit Ginza at night. The high-end fashion brands use lighting and design to build stunning stores which are worth a visit. Worth remembering – in the Bulgari store you can also enjoy a Michelin-starred Italian dinner at Bvlgari Il Ristorante – Luca Fantin.
Muji Store & Hotel – You can’t avoid the world’s largest Muji store. Here, you’ll find all the products you already know, and much more. There is a grocery, an ice cream stand and a tea corner with a lot of tea options to choose from. I bought two delicious types.
Suggested spots that I was unable to visit: Tokyo International Forum (architectural landmark and 8 floors with the newest electronic goods), Yurakucho (a dining district located beside the Imperial Palace, next to Ginza).
– TSUKIJI –
Near Ginza, there is Tsukiji, home of the biggest fish market in Tokyo until a few years ago. The market has now been moved to Toyosu, however, you’ll still find a market if you want to take a look.
SUSHIZANMAI – We went to this famous sushi restaurant chain with our Japanese friends who invited us for dinner. The restaurant is not fancy but the otoro (fatty tuna) melted in my mouth.
Our local friends said that traditionally sushi should be eaten with the fingers; and we should begin our meal with a white fish and finish with a sushi that has stronger flavours (like the fatty tuna).
– Must-visit –
Tsukiji Hongwanji Temple – The sushi restaurant is within walking distance of this unique Buddhist temple with an Indian look.
– ASAKUSA & KAPPABASCHI DORI –
Asakusa is a historic area and home of Tokyo’s oldest temple, Sensō-ji, which is also full of video games rooms. We enjoyed two food experiences here.
SOMETARO – In this historic place, we ate an old-fashioned Okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancake) and grilled noodles, that we cooked for ourselves on the hot grills fixed at the centre of the table.
This restaurant is quite rustic and has no air-conditioning, but the experience is unique. After removing your shoes at the entrance, you will sit on a tatami floor and prepare your meal under their supervision. In August, the summer temperatures combined with the hot grills made the place very hot, but we survived!
TENGOKU CAFE – A few minutes from Sometaro, is this small café famous for homemade pancakes. Enter, take a seat and relax – it will take a while to get your order but it’s worth the wait. Only two people work here, one of them prepares the super-soft pancakes, one by one, making the mixture from scratch for every single order. Don’t miss it.
– To Visit –
Kappabaschi Dori is a long street famous for its many small kitchen shops. To be honest, I didn’t find it very appealing, but you should at least take a look if you’re in this part of the city. Here, you’ll find all sorts of tools, including the famous Japanese knives on which they can engrave your Japanese name. I bought two cups (that we now use the most to drink our tea at home), but no knives as we already have got two amazing ones – with our Japanese names engraved – at Tower Knives in Osaka.
If you’re interested, you can also find the same shop in Tokyo – on the opposite side of the river from Kappabaschi, near ASAHI BEER HEADQUARTERS and SKYTREE TOWER. However, you’ll find similar places almost everywhere, I also saw a knife shop in front of our hotel in Nihonbashi.
Suggested spots that I was unable to visit: Nakamise–dori for souvenirs and tempura (a 5-minute walk from Asakusa Station), Asahi Beer HQs for a beer tasting (one of the 2 towers is designed by Philippe Starck).
– SHIBUYA –
Shibuya is a commercial area famous for its crossing and for Meiji Jingu, one of the largest shinto shrine in Tokyo.
Meiji Jingu Shrine – Located in the middle of the city, this shrine is surrounded by a beautiful forest. Meiji Jingu is easily accessible from three different stations (Harajuku, Yoyogi, Sangubashi) located within 10-minute walk. Go early morning or late afternoon to avoid the crowds.
Shibuya Crossing – Here, the lights turn red at the same time in every direction, traffic stops and hundreds of people coming from all directions cross. The best place to watch this show from a high point is the open-air observation deck called “Crossing View” in Mag’s Park, you just need a few coins to enter.
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– OMOTESANDO –
Omotesando is another of my favourite districts in Tokyo. Although it’s next to Shibuya district, the atmosphere and architecture are completely different – in a good way. In Omontesando, there are countless charming buildings, cafés and stores. Take your time to explore the area on foot, and when you’re hungry eat at:
TONKATSU MAISEN AOYAMA HONTEN – Here we tried the Tonkatsu, a crispy cutlet of veeeery tender pork. Maisen offers six different types of branded pork cutlets to choose from, many of which were already sold out when we entered, along with other Japanese dishes like soba.
We choose one of the available signature set which included the pork cutlet, miso soup, white rice, sliced cabbage, and pickled vegetables. While my husband loved it, I wasn’t wild about the Tonkatsu; but since it is a typical Japanese dish, I think you should give it a try and judge for yourself. The restaurant also has a lovely zen atmosphere so it’s a good place to spend a few hours.
– TOYOSU (KOTO CITY) –
TOYOSU FISH MARKET – Opened in 2018, this is the new fish market replacing the famous Tsukiji. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to visit it, but we definitely will on our next trip. I read that it’s huge and has three connected buildings, two of which are for seafood. The market is open from 5:00 to 17:00 (except Sundays, public holidays and other special days), the admission is free and there are many restaurants where to eat fresh seafood.
– Must-visit –
TeamLab Planets – We spent a few interesting hours here. The Digital Museum has many interactive installations that we really enjoyed exploring. Be sure to book the tickets online before departure (you’ll need to choose the day and time) and remember that you’ll have to take your shoes off.
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Similar to TeamLab Planets, there is Teamlab Borderless, another digital museum. I suggest you visit Planets as it’s easier to access from central Tokyo, the installations are similar, but it takes less time to visit.
– AKIHABARA –
If you love anime and video games, you’ll love Akihabara, “the Electric Town”. We spent a few hours in Yodobashi Camera, a nine-storey building where you’ll find everything from video games to electronics, from bikes to fashion, and much more. We spent lots of time here as well as our money.
Suggested spots that I was unable to visit: Roast Beef Ohno, Kanday Yabu Soba (noodles)
THE BEST OF TOKYO IN ONE MAP
Be sure to take this map with you when you’re in Tokyo, so you can quickly read my comments about places near you. And, if you like it, please share it with your friends!
Tokyo is so full of interesting places that a month won’t be enough to see them all. There are many other places we didn’t have time to visit but considering the heat and the packed tour we took all around Japan, I think we packed a lot in.
One year later and I’m still dreaming about Japan, the delicious food and indescribable vibes, and I can’t wait to go again. In between our stay in Tokyo, we spent our days exploring other beautiful cities (Kanazawa, Kyoto, Kobe, Osaka, and Hakone) and I will write about them too.
I hope you’ll find this article helpful and that you’ll share it with your friends. Please feel free to leave a comment below if you have any question. I will be very happy to help.
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