We started our trip in Tokyo, which is everything you think it is – busy, bustling, bright, filled with stores and restaurants and people, but it’s surprisingly zen and relaxing. I was concerned that we’d chosen a completely frenetic place to honeymoon, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. There’s tons going on there, but the atmosphere is really calm. People are friendly and no one seems to be in an extra rush and no one is rude – quite the opposite, actually, the guiding public principle is “manners,” and this makes for a place that is just lovely to visit. Each neighborhood is different, and not at all analogous to the neighborhoods in large American cities. For example, I couldn’t tell you which one is the “hipster hood” or the “old guard” neighborhood. We structured our days with a relatively lazy morning and planned to see a few things each day.
Places to go in Tokyo:
One of the very best things we did in both Tokyo and Kyoto was hire a local tour guide to show us around on our first full day in both cities. We used a company called “Tours By Locals“, where they profile the different guides and provide options for things to see and do. In Japan, the tour guides are all licensed by the government and they need to pass rigorous tests about the country’s history and language exams if they offer tours in foreign languages.
In Tokyo, we booked a tour of the main things to see there. We started at the Imperial Palace, which is closed to visitors so you can just look at it, but it’s a peaceful spot in the middle of a busy business district.
We also visited Asakusa, which is an old Sensoji temple (it’s a huge tourist draw and has a street filled with shops selling traditional goods leading up to the temple). It’s definitely on the touristy side, but for a reason – it was just a spectacular site.
We also walked around the Yanaka neighborhood, which is a local residential area that has retained an “old Japan” atmosphere, and followed that up with a visit to the Akihabara neighborhood, which is filled with comic book stores, animae and comic book shops and pachinko parlors (Japanese pinball, a hugely popular pass-time). It was a great way to get a taste of the different influences in the culture from the very old and traditional to the newer trends.
Another “don’t miss” spot is the Tsutaya bookstore in the Daikanyama neighborhood. This place is amazing – it’s several buildings that link together to make a giant bookstore. There’s rooms of stationery, great magazines in all languages, books, decor items, even apple products. But the best part is the cafe upstairs – it’s a fancy spot where you can order coffee or cocktails along with things to eat. They let you linger and the atmosphere is old-library. After touring around, a respite here is so welcome. The rest of this neighborhood is really cute for exploring too – lots of interesting boutiques ranging from home goods to clothes to cookware.
The Meiji Shrine should also make your list. This Shinto shrine is set back in a park-like setting and is one of the most serene spots in the middle of the bustling city. It’s at the same subway stop as the Harajuku neighborhood, which is so much fun to see. There’s a lot of junky shops on the main street, but lots of great stores in the neighborhood. An easy, fun day is just taking the subway to this stop and walking around Harajuku and then going to the Meiji shrine.
No travel article on Japan would be complete without a mention of the Tsukiji Fish Market. The common advice is to get up really early to go see the tuna action and have sushi for breakfast. Perhaps we were lazy, but this was our honeymoon and the idea of getting up early for that did not appeal to us. So we did our usual leisurely morning routine and got to the fish market around 11AM (it’s open until 2) and we found plenty to eat, see and do there. We had had sushi the night before, so we instead sampled the numerous food stall offerings there – we had amazing scallops seared in butter at one stand.
Finally, if you’re into museums, the Mori Art Museum in the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower is worth checking out. This is a contemporary art center on the 45th floor of a high-rise. We saw an amazing Murakami exhibit there.
Things to eat and drink in Tokyo:
There are so many food and drink options in Tokyo and we never had a bad meal. The following are a few places that were simply outstanding.
Sushi Iwa: 8-5-25 Ginza, Chuo 104-0061, Tokyo Prefecture – this is a formal sushi restaurant, much like the one featured in the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” There are very few seats, and you eat what the chef makes for you. It’s usually about 20 “courses” of sushi (we lost count). The chef makes it all in front of you and presents each piece to you, which you are then supposed to eat immediately. It’s not a long or lingering meal, but it’s a really authentic experience that’s as much a show as it is dinner. We had our hotel make reservations for us, which is the recommended approach for any of the smaller, traditional sushi places. Expect to pay around $200 a person for this kind of meal.
Y&M Bar Kisling: Chuo, Ginza, 7 Chome−5−4 – since dinner at Sushi Iwa wasn’t a lingering affair, we did what the locals do and had drinks afterward at this bar that feels like you stepped into the 1930s. A note on bars, you don’t just sit down at any open seat you’d like, instead you check in with the host and they seat you (like at a restaurant). The waiters here wear white tuxedo jackets and pour old-school drinks, like singapore-slings. They start your experience with a cup of consomme and a hot towel, and serve your drinks with candied fruits. I could move into this bar.
Udon Yamacho: 150-0013 Tokyo, Shibuya, Ebisu, 1 Chome−13−6 – this is a noodle spot near the Ebisu train station. Their curry beef udon is to-die-for. It was so good, we went back a second time. This is a casual, neighborhood spot that doesn’t take reservations. The first time we went we didn’t wait in line, and the second we waited for about 15 minutes. I would have waited for hours it was that good. The prices here were really reasonable – dinner for two was around $40.
Department Store Food Halls: Japan is filled with department stores, and all of them have impressive food halls, usually on the lower levels. This is a great place to pick up something tasty for a quick lunch (although you need to take your food to another floor in the mall to sit down and eat because eating on the go is frowned upon).
Benoit: 150-0001 Tokyo, Shibuya, Jingumae, 5−51−8 – after a while, you might get a little tired of Japanese food, and if you want a change of pace, French food is a great way to go. We learned that many Japanese chefs study french cuisine and that they’ve perfected the process for making complicated food. We ate at Benoit, an Alain Duchesne restaurant that has a Michelin star but was very reasonable – they offer a $45/person prix fix menu and there’s a reasonable wine list as well. This was the place for a lingering dinner starting with cocktails and paced over a bottle of wine.
Jugetsudo: 4-7-5 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0045 – after walking around the fish market all morning, I really wanted to stop and relax and we stumbled on this adorable tea shop about a block away. This was a little oasis of calm where we experienced a traditional tea service. It wasn’t crowded and was a lovely place to linger. Apparently they have a sister shop in Paris, but it originated in Japan.
All words and images by eLLe PHOTOGRAPHY.
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