This post was getting CRAZY long, so I’ve kept it to a brief overview as much as I can. Click on the pink links throughout to read my blog posts with more detail and pictures about activities and places 🙂
Day 1: Shibuya, Harajuku & Shinjuku
I can’t believe how much we squeezed into our first day – I always overdo it on my first day in a new city!
We were staying in an Air BnB in Nishiazabu, which is a short stroll from the famous Omotesando Boulevard, Tokyo’s answer to the Champs-Elysee. The architecture along Omotesando makes it worth a visit, even if designer duds aren’t your thing. Afterwards, we checked out the famous Harajuku neighbourhood, which is ground zero for Tokyo’s kawaii (cute) culture. Crepes are really having a moment in Harajuku, so we grabbed a super sweet crepe from one of the dozens of crepe stands in the area.
We spent the rest of the morning in the enormous Yoyogi Park, which is home to the sacred Meiji Shrine. It’s also the stomping ground for some of Tokyo’s most colourful characters and free spirits. We were lucky that we visited during the Autumn instalment of Earth Garden, Tokyo’s quarterly sustainability festival, and also during the Yoyogi Flea Markets.
Trekking around Yoyogi helped us work up an appetite, so we went to nearby Shibuya for lunch. The Shibuya neighbourhood was my idea of Tokyo, and is home to the famous Shibuya Crossing which is the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. I was so surprised at how peaceful and calm the crossing was.
We ate at a ramen joint where you order via a ticketing machine near the entrance. We sat up at the noodle bar, watching the chefs scurry around the kitchen, preparing noodle dishes at lightning speed. After lunch, we’d returned to the apartment to chill out for a bit before dinner.
We had dinner nearby at Gonpachi, a cavernous, Edo-style restaurant which inspired a famous scene in Kill Bill. After dinner, we ventured back into the city, to the Golden Gai precinct in Shinjuku. Golden Gai is a cluster of tiny alleways, lined with even tinier bars. There are nearly 200 bars, and most of them only seat between 4-10 people.
We spent more time trying to choose a bar than we did in one, because entering the bars was surprisingly intimidating. After getting a drink or two, we wandered over to Omoide Yokocho, another rabbit warren of alleyways, this time lined with snack bars. Omoide Yokocho translates to Memory Lane, but to locals the precinct is known as Piss Alley. Appetising, huh?
I liked Omoide Yokocho more than Golden Gai, because the atmosphere is more convivial – who can take themselves too seriously over sizzling street food?
Day 2: Northern Tokyo
Yanaka is much more laidback and has a slower pace than central Tokyo, so I felt more confident practicing my very basic Japanese phrases with shopkeepers here, than I did in busy central Tokyo. We wandered through the busy shopping streets of Yanaka Ginza, which were lined with tiny stores and shop fronts.
Near Yanaka is Ueno Park, another enormous park in Tokyo. We worked our away through the park, and headed to the big lake which we could see on the map. To our surprise, the expansive lake was barely visible under a thick blanket of giant lilypads!
We left from the other end of the park, and found ourselves in the Ueno neighbourhood. Ueno is a little more worn than Yanaka, but we did find a vending machine that sold the popular Japanese soft drink, Calpis. There are vending machines everywhere in Tokyo, and most of the soft drinks have flavours I’ve never tasted in the western world, so I was keen to try this Japanese favourite.
In Ueno, we walked through a couple of precincts with shops specialising in different things. First we walked past a street full of shops all selling shrines. Then we saw the famous cookware district, which sells cooking equipment and utensils, and the plastic figurines of dishes that restaurants use.
For dinner, we went to Sometaro, an Okonomiyaki restaurant where you can cook your own okonomiyaki at your table (the staff help). Okonomiykai is a Japanese dish a bit like an omelette, most often with pork and cabbage and special okonomiyaki sauce. Delicious!
Before we went home, we visited the magnificent Senso-Ji Temple in Asakusa, which is also surrounded by lots of streets filled with yakitori restaurants and other eateries. Unfortunately I can only eat one dinner a day 🙁
Day 3: Shinjuku , Minami-Aoyama & Nishiazabu
In the morning, we went to Shinjuku to visit the free Observation Deck at the top of the Tokyo Metro Government Building. Despite the grey weather, it was still an impressive view over the endless city.
There is a canteen on one of the lower levels, which is designed for government employees but open to the public. I regretted not eating breakfast here after leaving, because Shinjuku was strangely devoid of places to eat. We headed to Isetan, a luxury department store in Shinjuku, which is renowned for it’s basement food hall.
We returned to the apartment after lunch for a rest, and when we ventured out again later we stayed close by in the Minami Aoyama neighbourhood. Minami Aoyama is often referred to as the West Village of Tokyo, and is one of my favourite areas.
We went for tea at Miniami Aoyama Flower Market, a gorgeous florist and greenhouse-style café. Their desserts looked out of this world, but we stuck to tea. It was the perfect place to while away a rainy afternoon.
For dinner, we went to Butagumi, a tonkatsu restaurant in the backstreets of Nishiazabu. Afterwards, when I was researching Tokyo’s restaurants one evening, I was not surprised to find that Butagumi was recommended as one of the best tonkatsu restaurants in Tokyo by Monocle and other publications. Highly regarded but without the tourist hype of competitors like Maison, Butagumi was a dream.
Confession: I’m not a huge fan of pork, schnitzel, parmas or curry. Tonkatsu is not something I expected to like. It’s a testament to the quality of Japanese cooking and Butagumi’s chef that their classic pork tonkatsu, which is essentially breaded pork served with a curry-like sauce is one of my favourite meals I’ve ever eaten.
The ambience was everything you’d hope for in a traditional Japanese restuaurant. The restaurant was announced only be a small light at the front door, in building nestled among houses in the backstreets of Nishiazabu. The hosts were welcoming and attentive, and we were seated on the second storey of the restaurant, in a small room near the kitchen with three or four tables, the only other table occupied by a pair of Japanese businessmen.
After dinner, we weren’t ready to go home so we decided to visit one of the many bars we’d noticed on our way. The bars, like Butagumi, were easy to miss. The doors were always closed, the signs small and perhaps there would be a small light about the sign to suggest that it was an open business.
We settled on Library Lounge These, which was a tiny, dimly-lit bar with a few booth seats. We were seated in a booth, and presented with a bowl of fruit. We were told to choose some fruit and a type of alcohol, so we did. I think I chose passionfruit and vodka, and david chose whiskey and orange.
You can only really pay in cash in Tokyo. The only time I saw anyone pay for anything on card was an American family at Tsukiji fish market. We didn’t see a price list, but had approximately $80 left on us – as much as our multi-course dinner with matched drinks cost us. Surely this would be enough, we thought. We considered getting a second drink, but decided to pay first.
Lucky we stopped at one – the two drinks cost us every yen we had left on us! Ouch.
Day 4: Day Trip to Mt Fuji & Hakone
We booked a day trip to Mt Fuji & the surrounding Hakone region, with Viator. Our first stop was Mt Fuji. We had a nice view of the mountain as we drove towards it from Tokyo, but only through the tinted bus windows – no good for photos. I was a bit disappointed that there was no photo stop to take a photo of the famously photogenic mountain, but oh well.
There are ten “stations” on Mt Fuji, and we drove up to the fifth station, which is as high as you can get by motor vehicle. You can walk the entire way up, but it takes a few days and it is considerably colder at the top of the mountain, so you’d want to be wearing proper hiking gear.
It was October when we visited, and the bright yellow, orange and red foliage was particularly stunning against the clear blue sky on top of the mountain.
There was a tourist centre at the top of the mountain, which was crowded and full of junky trinkets, so we wandered into the forest which ran down the mountainside. It was peaceful and beautiful in its autumnal glory.
Afterwards, we went towards Lake Ashi in the Hakone region. Hakone is spa country, or onsen country.
By the time we reached Lake Ashi, the weather had really turned. It was windy, freezing and drizzly. Despite the gloomy weather, the ride across Lake Ashi was still beautiful. It reminded me of Tasmania, or photos of Norwegian fjords (as I haven’t actually been to Norway).
When we arrived on the other side, we went to take a cable car to the top of Mt Hakone. Halfway up the mountain, we were enveloped in clouds and fog. When we got to the station at the top fo the mountain, we could barely make out the people walking a few feet in front of us, completely submerged in the fog.
It was pretty, but also kind of freaky. I get a bit nervous on cablecars, so it was a bit of a tense ride back down the mountain for me.
At the end of the day, we took the Shinkansen (the bullet train) back to Tokyo. We got off at the stop in Ginza, in central Tokyo. Ginza is Tokyo’s most upscale neighbourhood, full of luxury shopping and department stores. We had a bento box dinner from a food hall in one of the department stores.
Day 5: The Imperial Palace & Tokyo Tower
The Imperial Palace is the residence of the Emperor of Japan, and is built on the site of a former Edo Castle, surrounded by gardens and moats. Unfortunately, I realised when I got to the palace that my DSLR camera battery was still charging in the apartment, so I had to rely on my iPhone for photos.
As it turned out, I didn’t find the imperial palace particularly inspiring as a photographic subject, so it wasn’t a disaster. David and I wandered around the gardens for a bit before heading to Shibuya for lunch.
There are clusters of restaurants and shops under lots of major train tracks in Tokyo, so we decided to try one out in Shibuya. We had a cheap lunch special which involved miso soup, edamame and noodles.
That night, we went to Prince Park Tower’s bar, for the views over Tokyo and Tokyo Tower. Unfortunately, it was an extra 300 yen ($30 AUD) per person to sit by the window and enjoy an unobstructed view, so we sat behind the bar. The cocktails were pricy enough! The view was still beautiful.
Afterwards, we wandered near Tokyo Tower and wondered whether to bother going up. We’d already had a few nice views, and I had heard the tower was overrated. We decided to go up anyway and I’m glad we did.
Day 6: Tsukiji Fish Market & Ebisu
The Tsukiji Fish Market is the largest and busiest fish market in the world, famous for it’s early morning tuna auctions. We’d considered visiting the tuna auctions, but it turned out to be a logistical nightmare and we’d have a very low chance of getting in. Rather than getting up at 2:30am to see something neither of us were that invested in seeing, we decided to just go around breakfast time.
We started with the outer section of the market, which is lined with stalls selling snacks and homewares. We had breakfast at a sushi train, which was our first sushi of the trip!
Afterwards, we visited the interior market, where vendors were selling the last of their wares and packing up. It was a good time to go for a wander, because we weren’t getting in the way of people trying to do business, so we were able to stop a bit more and stickybeak or take photos.
In the afternoon, we went to Ebisu, another off-the-tourist trail neighbourhood. I say that not because I’m trying to be a holier-than-thou travel snob, but because I want to stress that there’s not really any reason for a tourist to visit Ebisu, if you’re looking for interesting sights etc. It was just a normal neighbourhood, but I kind of like wandering the everyday parts of a city that aren’t on show.
Confession: We had lunch at Shake Shack. I did not eat enough Shake Shack in New York City, and when I saw one in Tokyo I had to go back.
We spent the afternoon chilling out in the apartment, and decided to stay local for dinner. I googled “cheap restaurants in Nishiazabu”, because we were after something easy and low key. There are some gorgeous restaurants in the area, but with a price tag to match. We came up with one, and went to check it out.
It was one of the best meals I had in Tokyo, and one of my most memorable overseas meals! It was an Izakaya bar, which is the equivalent of a Japanese pub. We were seated at the bar, and shared a few dishes from the menu while we watched the chefs work. I’d never seen any of these dishes before, and they were all delicious. The complimentary dessert at the end was the icing on the cake.
Day 7: Saying goodbye to Tokyo
Our seventh day was cut short, as we had to get to Haneda airport to return to Australia. A bus transfer leaving from Roppongi to Haneda made the airport journey as stress-free as it could be.
We experienced so much of Tokyo in one week, and visiting the city was a wonderful introduction to Japan. I really want to return to Japan and see more of the countryside and other towns, but now that I’ve felt I’ve seen a lot of Tokyo, I’ll be able to concentrate my next visit on other parts of the country.
Have you been to Tokyo? Would you like to go? What are your favourite things to do there?