Tokyo is a city to dream big, to awaken the imagination. It captured my heart, stimulated my senses and overloaded my belly. Sure it’s full of sci-fi streetscapes , soaring towers and pretty epic crowds, but you can also go back in time and find glimmers of ancient Japan just bubbling gently beneath the surface. Here’s my top 20 ways to experience Tokyo like a local in partnership with Jetstar Australia.
Experience the craziness of Shibuya
Shibuya never sleeps with the continuous buzz of people, neon lights and its famous Shibuya Crossing, (rumoured to be the biggest intersection in the world) which sees thousands of people cross its hectic streets per second. Here you can experience some of the best pop culture Japan has to offer. Start with a walk across Shibuya Crossing then go for a spot of window shopping at Shibuya’s main drag, Shibuya Center-gai, before partying into the wee hours of the morning in its many bars.
Feast on world-class Tonkatsu
No one does tonkatsu (crumbed pork cutlet) like the Japanese and a tonkatsu experience in Tokyo is an absolute must. My favourite is Maisen, located in an old bathhouse in Aoyama, where you can choose from different grades of pork on the menu including the prized kurobata (black pig). A word of warning: It doesn’t come cheap but it’s definitely worth it. If you can’t be bothered waiting in the inevitable line to dine in, grab a takeaway tonkatsu sandwich at the neighbouring takeaway outlet. Tonki in Meguro-Ku is also one of Tokyo’s most famous , with the recipe being largely unchanged for the last 80 years .
Hang with the hipsters in Harajuku
There’s not many districts in the world as cool as Harajuku with its dozens of quirky vintage shops, colourful street art and trendy boutiques. Don’t miss a stroll down Takeshita-dori, the centre of teenage pop culture, where you’ll feel like a kid in a candy store with all its crepe shops and eclectic boutiques. Come here early since it gets extremely crowded especially on weekends. Don’t leave without feasting on gyozas (Japanese dumplings) at Harajuku Gyozo Ro, Maisen Tonkatsu and Totti Candi Factory.
Ogle at Japan’s top performances
Fancy some sumo wrestling? If you’re visiting Tokyo during a Sumo Tournament (January, May and September), don’t miss the ancient ritual of sumo wrestling. If sumo is not your cup of tea, try a kabuki performance. Kabuki developed over centuries during the reign of the shogun and is Japan’s most recognised art form. With its elaborate costumes and dramatic performances, a show at Kabuki-za is a must while visiting Tokyo.
Eat your heart out on sushi
If you take sushi seriously, make sure to make a booking at sushi restaurants including Sushi Saito and Takahashi, Alternatively, there are plenty of lower end casual sushi joints like Standing Room Sushi or the city’s leading sushi trains.
Feast on yakitori
No trip to Tokyo is complete without feasting on yakitori (grilled meat on skewers). For the city’s best try Toritama, a beautiful and atmospheric Tokyo institution where Chef Tokoshima serves 20 different items of grilled chicken. Alternatively try Torisawa which is more on the casual side. Here it’s all about the charcoal grill. Order the omakase (chef’s selection) washed down with a glass or two of sake. Although it’s on the touristy side, it’s worth a stroll down memory lane by exploring the dozens of yakitori stalls lining Omoide-yokocho where the smell of freshly cooked chicken and billowing smoke lures you in each time.
Sip on coffee at Tokyo’s most famous kissaten (coffeehouse)
Established in 1948, Cafe de l’Ambre is one of Tokyo’s most famous coffee houses, located just off the main drag in Ginza. Still owned and operated by the original owner, Sekiguchi Ichiro, (who is now over 100 years old!), the coffee is served meticulously with love and pride. Trust me, don’t miss it. Other coffee shops worth a visit are Path Restaurant in Shibuya (try their epic pastries and the Dutch pancake) and Blue Bottle Coffee just under the train tracks at Akihabara.
Act like a Royal at the Imperial Palace
Known as Tokyo’s geographic centre, the Imperial Palace is a sprawling green space full of museums, lush gardens and a public park. It occupies the site of the original Edo-jo which was the largest fortress in the world in its heyday. Unfortunately now little remains except for the moat and stone walls. A daily tour of the ground begins at 10.00am (bookings required) or you can explore the palace at your own leisure and stroll along the moat. A must visit is the stunning East Garden, where you can even climb up one of the ruins at the old keeps.
Go for a night out in Shinjuku
Shinjuku really shines at night-time and is Tokyo’s largest nightlife district. Make a booking at Bar Benfiddich, one of my favourite bars in Japan where Hiroyasu Kayama’s approach to cocktails has been dubbed “farm-to-bar”. He sources most of his ingredients at his parent’s farm including anise, fennel, mint and juniper, just to name a few. It’s like an intimate dark and mysterious moonshine den and oh so sexy.
Spend the rest of the night exploring Golden Gai, a rabbit’s warren full of alleys and tiny buildings housing tiny atmospheric bars (not a location for the claustrophobic). Some of them only welcome locals so keep out for the ‘tourist friendly’ sign or just ask nicely.
Immerse yourself in teamLab Borderless
“A world of art without boundaries”, “a museum without a map,” are some of the words than describe an experience at one of Tokyo’s quirkiest museums. It consists of a group of artworks that form one borderless world. Artworks move out of rooms, communicate with other works, influence, and sometimes intermingle with each other with no boundaries. But I won’t ruin all the surprises, it’s worth seeing it for yourself…
Play vintage arcade games and get your manga on in Akihabara
Be prepared for sensory overload in Akihabara or “Akiba” by locals, one of Tokyo’s coolest neighbourhoods filled with Japanese comic stores, vintage arcade games and manga stores. This should be your first stop on any pop culture Tokyo tour and be prepared for ‘geek’ overload. Pop in for a drink or a bite to eat at a Maid Cafe like Home Cafe, where waitresses dress up as French maids and play rock paper scissors “maid style”.
Go back in time at Meiji-jingu
Meiji-jingu is Tokyo’s most famous Shinto shrine. Here you’ll feel like a world away from the bustle of the city. Enter through the wooden torii (gates), the largest made from Taiwanese cypress which soars to 12 metres high. The shrine is spectacular and has a distinct old world feel, despite being rebuilt in 1958. While you’re visiting, have a stroll around the beautiful forest grounds and Yoyogi Park which surround the shrine.
Get all Lost in Translation
Channel those Scarlett Johannsen and Bill Murray vibes at Park Hyatt’s incredible New York Bar on the 52nd floor. There’s no better place than watching the sun sink into the skyline than here. Try to get here early to nab a table next to the floor to ceiling glass windows and enjoy a premium whiskey, or cocktail or two. There’s a cover charge if you stay or visit after 8.00pm but it’s worth it for the jazz band.
Slurp on Noodles & Ramen with the locals
For the ultimate soba noodle experience, visit Kanda Matsuya. Operating since 1884, Kanda Matsuya is famous for their handmade noodles and has a lovely inviting atmosphere and timeless charm. You’ll often see the chef hand making and cutting the noodles in the kitchen. Make friends with your neighbours and slurp on a selection of hot and cold noodle dishes.
No trip to Tokyo is complete without trying at least one bowl of steaming hot ramen. Visit Tokyo Ramen Street in the basement arcade of Tokyo Station. My favourite is Rokurinsha which specialise in tsukemen (cold dipping noodles): Just get there early to avoid a line. More must visit ramen shops include Nakiryu, Tsuta, Ippudo, Afuri and Gogyo for kogashi ramen. To be honest the list can go on and on.
Sing along at one of Tokyo’s famous Karaoke Bars
It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but an experience at one of Tokyo’s karaoke bars is an experience not to be missed. Get your posse together, or make some new local friends and let loose in a private karaoke room. Most karaoke joints will also have a food and drink service where you can dial in. Look for branches or major chains like Karaoke Kan.
Explore Tokyo’s National Museum
Established in 1872, Tokyo National Museum is divided into several buildings with an incredible range of art, sculptures and ceramics. Allow at least a few hours to see everything here, especially if you’re a history buff.
Market to Market
Although the neighbouring wholesale seafood market has moved locations, the Tsukiji Outer Market is worth a visit in its own right. Here you can enjoy blow torched scallops, unagi skewers, tamogoyaki (sweet omelettes) from Yamacho, sashimi bowls and pretty much every Japanese food under the sun. The market is a feast for the senses as rows of street vendors hawk local delicacies. You definitely won’t come away hungry! Just make sure you come here early as most shops in the Outer Market close by 2.00pm.
Visit Tokyo’s Oldest Temple
If you want a proper glimpse of bygone Japan, visit Senso Ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple. A visit is extra special at night-time when the main hall and its gate are illuminated from sunset until 11pm. The main gates, often called ‘thunder gates’ with their enormous lantern are beautifully majestic. Don’t miss the large incense cauldron outside the main hall. It is said to be good for your health to rub the smoke into your bodies through your clothes.
Catch a bullet train
It’s super easy and quick to get around in Japan, thanks to their bullet trains. Plan a trip to Mt Fuji, Hakone – a beautiful onsen town – or if you want to travel a bit further afield – Kyoto.
Shop up a storm
Ogle at the striking architecture and endless shops at Tokyo’s always buzzing shopping district, Omote – Sando, then get lost in the atmospheric back streets of Ura Hara. Ginza is one of Tokyo’s most sophisticated neighbourhoods, full of department stores, lavish fashion houses, designer boutiques and galleries. In the 1870s Ginza was the first neighbourhood to modernise and has been a fashion centre ever since. Check out the newest shopping complex, Ginza Six, which has its very own rooftop garden or head to Roppongi Hills which is home to dozens of shops, contemporary art museums and a sky-high observatory.
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