THE VERY BEST OF TOKYO – RECOMMENDATIONS FOR TRAVELLERS
AREAS & NEIGHBOURHOODS
Guide to areas and neighbourhoods
*** first-time travellers must-sees
** well worth visiting
* time to spare
Akihabara, aka ‘Electric Town’ is all about shopping for gadgets and electronics. Nerds of the world gather here, all dressed up and raring to go, raving about figurines, video games, anime and manga. This is Japan as you thought it was.
Don’t bother: the totally overrated and uneasy Maid Cafés.
Why go: video games, sex shops, figurines, otaku-watching.
Home to Tokyo’s largest Buddhist temple (Sensōji [浅草寺]) and to the famous golden turd statue (kin no unko, 金のうんこ) atop the Asahi Beer Hall, Asakusa is a neat neighbourhood running alongside the river that you can take a little cruise on should you fancy it. Stroll around, check out the temple and the market or go see a sumo training session!
Eat out: There are some really grotty little restaurants under the station but one of them is a pretty sought-after Thai restaurant…
Check it out: The Ryogoku district is home to some 45 sumo wrestlers training stables or beya and some of them allow tourists to come in and watch big blokes having a go at each other. More info here. Also check the fantastic Edo-Tokyo Museum (a good option if it’s raining!).
***EBISU – DAIKANYAMA – NAKA-MEGURO
I have grouped these three together and they can be visited in one fell swoop. Walk from Ebisu to Daikanyama and back down to Naka-Meguro.
Ebisu is full of great bars and restaurants and is home to the famed Yebisu Garden Place, a ‘city within the city’ with shops and a Beer Museum. Eat out at the Ebisu Yokocho (an alleyway of grotty-looking but very good tiny restaurants), or any of the area’s restaurants.
Up on the hill, upmarket Daikanyama sparkles with glitzy fashion shops and mouth-watering restaurants. Check out the city’s most amazing Starbucks/Tsutaya. Even if you can’t stand the coffee giant, take a peek at the building and go shopping in the little back alleys, it’s worth your while. The Log Road is also worth a little stroll (you can sample beer at the Brewery or do a little shopping further down the road towards Ebisu), as is the courtyard in Tenoha.
Finally, Naka-Meguro, further down the hill is full of little hip shops, and an array of (cheaper) bars and restaurants along the riverside (lined with cherry blossoms in the spring). The neighbourhood is home to a three-time pizzaiolo world champion and even hard-core Italian pizza lovers come to sample his delicacies. For when you fancy a break from Japanese food: Trattoria da Isa.
See it: Starbucks at Daikanyama; The Liquid Room, a concert venue in Ebisu that hosts international bands. Check out the programme.
Eat at: the best pizzeria in the world, Trattoria da Isa.
Connected to Ogikubo and Nishi-Ogikubo is the small neighbourhood of Koenji famous for its many second-hand shops – an absolute paradise for hipsters looking to buy a rare and overpriced 1980s Merino Mickey Mouse sweater. You’ll also find a huge selection of cheap restaurants, bars and live houses where bands play all genres of music.
Go to: Godzilla-ya bar under the station is a great little bar held by an elderly lady and full of myriads of old tobacco-stained toys you can play with when suitably drunk.
Off-the-beaten track: Behind Koenji and running parallel to the tracks is a narrow walkway that takes you all the way from Nakano to Koenji. It’s a beautiful little walk, through flowers and shrubs, and along the way is one of Tokyo’s most delightful cafés…
I am only mentioning this otherwise not particularly interesting area for the sake of the most wonderful little café in Tokyo, the German-sounding and yet traditionally Japanese Café Momo Gärten. Alternatively, grab a bike or walk along the sakura-lined Kanda river, between Nishi-Shinjuku and Takadanobaba. A great place to see the cherry blossoms in the spring with few tourists around!
Odaiba is a large artificial island that would provide great background for a retro-futuristic Walking Dead episode. It can turn into a bit of a ghost town at times and is home to some rather psychedelic architecture, but this vast area of reclaimed land is unique in Tokyo, featuring wonderful sights of Tokyo bay and the Rainbow Bridge as you walk along one of two mainland beaches in the city. Swimming is not allowed – not that you’d want to. But there’s more to Odaiba. First and foremost, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, otherwise known as Miraikan, is plain awesome and features some of Japan’s most famous robots. Odaiba also houses Tokyo’s newest and largest onsen (hot baths), fully equipped with an (admittedly slightly tacky but fun) Edo-style town and some great baths. If you won’t have the time to try an onsen elsewhere in Japan, make sure you check this one out. Cover your tattoos!
Go to: Miraikan, Oedo-Onsen-Monogatari, Odaiba Marine Park.
***OMOTESANDO – HARAJUKU – YOYOGI – AOYAMA
A mere fifteen-minute walk away from Shibuya, the Harajuku area is full of shops, cafés, pretty side streets and Japanese quirkiness. Harajuku latches on to Omotesando, the home of Japanese fashion designers until the gentrification of the area pushed local designers back into the smaller side streets. Consequently, main streets are home to some major fashion brands (the further you go towards Aoyama, the more upscale high-end fashion you’ll get, away from the more commercial brands), while side streets host some small local cutting-edge designers.
Behind Harajuku station is Yoyogi Park, where Harajuku’s youth culture stakes out its territory. Rockabilly dancers, Gothic Lolitas and various street performers bring the park to life. The Eastern part of the park is home to Meiji Jingū, Tokyo’s grandest shrine. Once again, if you plan on visiting other parts of Japan (especially Kyoto), don’t bother with temples in Tokyo. The Western part of Yoyogi Park is worth the visit though, but can get extremely crowded (especially in the spring!).
After walking through the park, head down to Omotesando, grab a brunch at Bill’s on the seventh floor (order the ricotta pancakes!) and check out the amazing terrace, then head towards Kiddy Land to get hold of some quirky Japanese souvenirs. Take a couple of hours to roam the side streets in the area and then walk up to Commune 246, a hidden hipster-heavy area with food trucks and little bars. Later in the evening, if you’re feeling peckish, there is a cheap izakaya hidden away in the side streets which is great fun. You can then top that with a last drink at the secret posh (and expensive) bar The Wall or on the magically-lit terrace of Cicada. Alternatively, the terrace of the upscale grill/bar Two Rooms on the 5th floor of the AO Building offers stunning views of the neighbourhood. Proper attire required here too!
Eat at: Cicada, Nakanishi Izakaya, Bill’s
Drink at: The Wall (the door to the bar is camouflaged in a white wall in a residential part of Omotesando + make sure you’re dressed smart enough!), Commune 246
Souvenirs: Kiddy Land, Oriental Bazaar (very touristy!)
Don’t bother: Takeshita Street, unless you really have to. The street is a little over-rated and generally packed with tourists but it still can be fun to waddle your way through the colourful crowd.
**ROPPONGI – AZABUJUBAN – HIROO
Roppongi is bang in the middle of Tokyo and is well-known as the centre of nightlife and entertainment. Incidentally the area also hosts a huge number of Michelin-starred restaurants. And here’s a worthwhile tip for food lovers: top-class restaurants (Michelin starred included) usually offer a cheap midday menu (same quality of food, but the price can go as far down as USD 30 for a five-meal course!). So, if you’re looking to eat well in Tokyo, do so at midday and keep the ramen-ya and the izakaya for the evening. Shopping, eating and drinking are definitely on the menu, although the nightlife and the numerous touts make it a rather tacky outing. My advice: go there during the day, walk about and shop a little before walking through adjacent neighbourhoods Azabujuban and then making your way across to Moto-Azabujuban, Hiroo and all the way to Ebisu for some lovely residential areas and high-end architecture. Roppongi does have a few highlights, which should not be missed.
Don’t miss: First, check out the shops, the spider statue and the view at Roppongi Hills. Look at what’s on in the Mori Arts Museum and combine that visit with a walk up to the viewing deck which offers an outdoor 360° view of the city from 250 metres above sea level. Seeing Tokyo from high up is a must! Most people will go to the Tokyo Skytree or the Tokyo Tower (did you know it is higher than its French twin the Eiffel Tower?) but there are other great viewpoints, including the Mori Tower, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office in Shinjuku, which you can access for free.
You might also go to Midtown Tower, visit the park behind the tower and go for a late evening drink or a morning brunch at the Ritz Carlton on the top floors of Midtown Tower to enjoy the stunning views of the city.
Extra bonus for food enthusiasts, click here to download a pdf list of Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo!
Shibuya is rife with shops, cafés, restaurants, pubs, hotels, love hotels, clubs, karaoke bars and anything you can think of. It’s also where the famous zebra crossing lies so you can expect hundreds of tourists trying to film or take pictures of themselves crossing the road, while frenzied Tokyoites navigate around them. The area is ridiculously busy at times. The square also features the statue of the most faithful of dogs, little Hachiko, which mainly serves as a meeting place for hundreds of people every day. Whatever, you’re in Shibuya, you’ll probably take a selfie in front of the dog and on the zebra crossing anyway. There’s no helping that.
Shibuya is the essence of Tokyo, so just go there, walk around, shop, eat, drink, try out your karaoke skills and go wild all night.
See: Hachiko, the zebra crossing, Tokyo!
Go to: favourite bar Amulet is located in a little known part of the neighbourhood right next to the station. The bar has about 4-5 seats but there’s an extra room upstairs with bean bags, where you can play your own music and even watch your own film if you have your computer with you (Bluetooth installation). Amulet is held by owner Michi, an awesome guy who speaks perfect English (as well as a few other languages –and who is something of a Rubik Cube’s expert (Update: Michi has left for Okinawa!). Also Grandfather’s for whiskey and/or (80s) vinyl enthusiasts is a treat! Ask the bartender for your favourite record.
Souvenirs: Tokyu Hands & Don Quijotte
Try: Try a love hotel in Dogenzaka for a night – choose wisely!
Music: Shibuya has some amazing venues for clubbing and concerts, including Womb, Contact (ran by the owners of former club Air in Daikanyama) and Tsutaya O-East and O-West to name but a few.
**SHIMOKITAZAWA – SETAGAYA
The coolest neighbourhood in the world spells ‘hipster’ in bright, vintage neon lights. It’s indie, underground, trendy, the home of buzzing youth culture, etc. Basically it’s the place to be away from the frenzy of Shibuya. Vintage shops, lovely cafés, cute houses, Shimokita is warm and welcoming and it’s close to Setagaya, another lovely, slightly upscale residential part of town, where my favourite temple, the Gotokuji lies.
Go to: Gotokuji Temple, La Giraffe, any cool bar/restaurant recommended here.
***SHINJUKU, SHINOKUBO, KABUKICHO, GOLDEN GAI
Three stations away from Shibuya is the metropolis’ other centre, the sprawling neighbourhood of Shinjuku. Shinjuku station is the busiest in the world (some 4 million people per day), with some 50 platforms and over 200 exits, so don’t even dream of planning to meet people there.
Shinjuku can be broken down into:
Minami Shinjuku (South Shinjuku), exit beneath the Odakyu Mylord and Lumine 2 shopping malls. Minami Shinjuku includes its fair share of shopping malls, with Takashimaya a few steps away across the sparkling new platform. It is also the closest exit for the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (Southeast of the station) – a stunning park bang in the heart of the city, great for sakura viewing.
Nishi-Shinjuku (East Shinjuku) is Tokyo’s skyscraper district, home to the Park Hyatt Hotel (of Lost in Translation fame – by the way, don’t bother going there to see the sunset since the bar faces the East) and the gargantuan Tokyo Metropolitan Government Centre, where two observatories are accessible free-of-charge on the 45th floor for some stunning views of the city (check here for schedules).
Higashi-Shinjuku (West Shinjuku) is devoted to shopping and nightlife and includes Tokyo’s largest red-light district Kabukicho, gay nightlife central Shinjuku ni-chōme and the renowned Golden Gai district. Lift your eyes up when you get to the Gracery Hotel to marvel at the huge Godzilla statue sticking out of the building. The red-light district is pretty safe generally, but don’t push it. The Golden Gai area caters to a lot of foreigners and some bars have a ‘for locals only’ policy.
Further down from Kabukicho and to the North of Shinjuku are Ōkubo and Shin-Ōkubo, otherwise known as Korean Town. It’s a great place to eat and catch a K-Pop band. One station further is the amusingly-named Takadanobaba, a hub for students and salary men where you’ll find some awesome no-frills restaurants.
See it: Godzilla, the view from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Centre, Kabukicho, Golden Gai
Go out: Shinjuku 2-chōme!
Try it: A karaoke of course, with the friends you’ll have made in some random bar. Follow that up with a touch of baseball. In Kabukicho, going towards Shin-ōkubo are two baseball training grounds where you can hit some 20 balls any time of day (or night) for 300 ¥. Try it! You won’t regret it! If you’re into it, try a host/hostess club, it’s fun and rather innocent, but don’t get carried away!
Drink at: Golden Gai obviously or anywhere in Kabukicho.
Eat out: Enraku Tokorozawa in Takadanobaba is amazing. It’s Japanese only but if you’re willing to take a risk, it’s well worth it.
Check out a Korean restaurant in Shin-okubo, there’s a choice selection and they’re known all over town, but beware of the spicy stuff!
Forget it: Shinjuku’s yokocho next to the station is not that great… There are better ones out there!
Souvenirs: Tokyu Hands in Takashimaya, obviously.
Ginza is considered the high fashion centre of the city and contains many upscale shops and restaurants. It’s pretty impressive to walk around, especially on weekends when the streets are closed to motor traffic, but it does feel a little like a Japanese version of Manhattan/New York’s business district or a gigantic film set.
Go to: Uniqlo, the Japanese brand’s flagship store is 12 floors high and contains every item you could ever dream of.
*TSUKIJI – CHIYODA – BUNKYO
Tsukiji gets a mention here because of its famous fish market, which unfortunately will be closing down and moving to Toyosu in 2016. Obviously the area is known for its killer sushi.
Right next to Tsukiji is Chiyoda, the centre of the city and in many ways of Japan itself as it houses the Imperial Palace and Imperial Gardens, the Chidoriga-fuchi Moat, where you can rent a boat and paddle happily and the controversial shrine to Japan’s war dead, the Yasukuni Shrine. The area is also home to quite a few museums, including the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art. Head over to Iidabashi – the French quarter – for a little coffee after your visit of the park or to the Bunkyō district for some more greenery and peaceful beauty, including the traditional park Koishikawa Kōrakuen, the classical Japanese and teahouse-filled Rikugien, or Tokyo’s best-preserved early Edo-era Western-style mansion, Kyu-Furukawa Teien.
***UENO – NISHI-NIPPORI
Ueno is a downright popular area of Tokyo. Get away from the high-rises and the heavy-duty shopping and get down with the people. The whole area revolves around Ueno Park, home to the National Museum, the Ueno Zoo and the Shinobazu Pond. Stroll around the park, take in a museum or two, then get lost on the side streets towards Asakusa, Akihabara or Nishi-Nippori. If you choose the latter, check out the 2k540 Aki-Oki Artisan under the railway, with its little handicraft shops.
Try it: Denki bran! This type of brandy is said to have been created after WWII, when alcohol was in short supply and someone came up with the idea for this ‘electric brandy’. Slightly sweet, the drink is served in a glass filled to the brim (saucer included) and waiters won’t let you have more than three glasses (or your brain might start oozing out of your ears).
Onto Part III…
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