As dynamic, packed, and energetic as we anticipated, we capped off our recent month long travels in Japan with two amazing weeks in Tokyo. From drinking with working girls in the Golden Gai to the one of the best meals of our lives at Sushi Yasuda, read on for 7 amazing things to do in Tokyo.
Known as the Brooklyn of Tokyo, I’d read about Daikanyama in passing on Cupcakes and Cashmere, and I was so glad I’d stumbled upon it, because it hadn’t come up in any of my other searches of must do sights in Tokyo. With it’s quiet, laid back vibe it, it’s hard to believe it’s only a fifteen minute walk south of the hustle and bustle of Shibuya. We started by walking along the Meguro River (pictured at the top), which is one of the prime spots to look at cherry blossoms in the Spring, before continuing on into Daikanyama itself. Full of cafés, restaurants, and endless fashionable shops, it’s a great place for strolling and stocking up on some of the amazing fashion to be had in Japan. Eat a well stacked sandwich on the rooftop of King George (make sure to get the sesame bread!), peruse the amazing selection of luxury fountain pens at Tsutaya bookshop at Daikanyama’s central hub T-SITE, and enjoy an espresso and pastry on the charming back patio of Le Cordon Bleu’s Tokyo outpost.
The Yokocho of Tokyo are small pockets that can be found dotted here and there throughout the city that preserve the alleyways of old Tokyo. One that we were particularly interested in exploring was only minutes from Shinjuku station, called Omoide Yokocho. Full of tiny little izakaya restaurants (izakaya is a type of Japanese tapas bar) with plenty of ramen and yakitori (meat skewers). It’s considered a late night eating spot, but even at 5pm when we went, several places were completely full with not a seat to be found of locals enjoying after work skewers and beers. While smoking on the street is frowned upon in Japan, it’s very commonplace that it’s still allowed in izakaya spots like these, so keep that in mind. We pulled up a seat at the most crowded place we could find that still had a few seats available and had the most delicious chicken meatballs, and bacon wrapped onions and peppers. Definitely make time to stop by for a snack or a whole meal.
After a snack and a beer in the Omoide Yokocho we walked about twenty minutes further into Shinjuku to check out the now iconic New York Bar at the Park Hyatt, made famous by Sophia Copola’s Lost In Translation. With it’s position on the 43rd floor, you will have epic sweeping views of Tokyo to go with your cocktails and bar snacks. We shared the truly delicious wagyu burger with duck fat fries, while racking up quite the bar bill enjoying wonderfully executed gin cocktails. After 8pm there’s a cover charge, but it’s well worth it to enjoy the live jazz music you’d miss coming earlier.
You’re going to need to book months (in our case about 2) in advance to score a seat in the super intimate Sushi Bar Yasuda, but it is COMPLETELY worth it for an unforgettable, once in a lifetime meal that at about $150 a person is pretty reasonable when it comes to this level of fine dining. (You will need your plane tickets booked in order to complete the online reservation form).
Order the omakaze and listen to Chef Yasuda tell you about his one of a kind rice technique (he compares the muscle memory involved to the athleticism of a professional athlete– even if someone used his exact recipe the rice wouldn’t be the same because the way you mix it effects the resulting texture and flavor) as he serves you simple but perfect sushi one piece at a time. You will try a wide variety of unique fish from around the world not often available at most restaurants. This is also the perfect place to stretch your comfort zone as Anthony, who isn’t a huge fish person, loved even the uni and the oysters which he normally wouldn’t touch.
For some of our other favorite Tokyo dining spots, check our our Japan food diary, here.
If you’re looking for a crazy night out Tokyo style, look no further than the Golden Gai in Shinjuku. A warren of old alleyways tucked just off the main hustle and bustle, this little patch of Tokyo is packed full of tiny little bars, each one with their own theme like Halloween or doctor’s office, and some with as few as six seats. It’s become much more welcoming of foreigners, but there are still a few that are members or locals only. If they have a sign posted outside that’s advertising their prices, it’s probably safe to go in. Many will charge a small cover for entry.
Try starting at Champions, one of the larger bars, for some ear screechingly bad karaoke and cheap drinks with expats and local businessmen. We stumbled out of there around 1:30 in the morning and were ready to head home when Anthony let a new friend usher us up an elevator to another bar full of Philippino working girls. Not entirely advisable, but does make for a good story. Just expect to be buying the girls a few rounds of drinks. While Anthony chatted with his new drinking buddy, I reminisced with the girls about how when I worked in nightlife in LA, I too used to be paid $50 to show up to a club just to help drink the alcohol off the big spender tables…
Dinner theater as it could only exist in Japan, Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku definitely can’t be missed (even it’s much more of a tourist than a locals experience). First you are lead to the upstairs bar for drinks and live music performed by a band dressed like futuristic robots that would not be out of place in a Star Wars movie (or Battlestar Galactica, according to Anthony) where you wait for your show to start, before being lead down a funhouse staircase to the basement where you’re in for a 90 minute sensory overload. Just be careful you don’t get lost and end up in the girly bar that’s also in the building. It is possible to pre-order bento boxes for dinner, but Anthony and I stuck to drinks and popcorn. You can buy your tickets online in advance, and keep an eye out for discount tickets from sites like Voyagin.
MOUNT FUJI FROM LAKE KAWAGUCHIKO
Lake Kawaguchiko isn’t strictly in Tokyo, but only two hours away by direct bus from the Expressway Bus Terminal by Shinjuku station, it is a must do day trip for the amazing view of Mount Fuji. If you’re lucky enough to be in Japan in the fall, you will also get to enjoy the spectacular maple trees in vibrant color.
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Carina Covella is a writer and currently working on her forthcoming memoir, Love Dogs, detailing her six month transformational journey from Hollywood through India. Carina graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University cum laude with a degree in Art History. She also attended the Sorbonne in Paris and studied opera at the Manhattan School of Music through the university exchange programs. Until recently she lived in Mill Valley, California with her wonderful Welsh boyfriend Anthony in a house nestled in the trees, but now they’re off on a two year adventure around the world. When she’s not writing or traveling, she loves to cook for her friends and family.