Live Tokyo Like a Local
Now that you've done the National Gallery of Tokyo, toured the Imperial Palace grounds, braved daytime crowds in Asakusa and strolled the Ginza, you're ready to dig in deeper. But where do you go, and how do you get there? How do you know what places are the places you need to see now? Hint: it's not the cosplay scene in Harajuku, which has faded in the years since Gwen Stefani devised a fashion line inspired by it.
When planning your second…or twenty-second…foray into Tokyo, it is good to have a reliable navigation app. To further save time and aggravation, invest in either a Pasmo or SUICA card that will not only get you in and out of the subway faster, but also work for vending machines ("Boss" brand canned coffee is crazy good), busses and even some taxis. Guided food tours, such as Arigato Tours (arigatojapan.co.jp, founded by energetic Anne Kyle), provide the added benefit of the guide’s local scoop on not only where to eat, but also where to shop, where to sip cocktails and what theaters and museums are worth going out of the way for.
Now you’re ready to carve out your base camp. While the business district near Tokyo Central Station is ideal for first time visitors, wonderfully chaotic Shibuya is an even better choice for those who want a less structured experience. The nicely appointed Cerulean Tower Hotel earns points for its proximity to the much-photographed Shibuya Crossing, as well as a major commuter train station and city bus depot.
There's much to see within Shibuya’s spider web of streets and lanes. Pick almost any direction, and you are bound to hit a charming mix of Japanese chain fashion stores, high-end designers, and large pharmacies chock full of affordable beauty products. The Shibuya Hikarie theater complex boasts one of the best views of Mt. Fuji on a clear day, and a shop at street level selling accessories from up-and-coming Japanese designers. If you're on a budget, Kyle recommends Shibuya 109. At many of the stores lining ten floors, sizes can run on the small side, but at least there are countless inspirations on how one can attain Japanese style--be it girly, professional or boho--on a budget.
Shibuya is also home to a mix of bars and restaurants that could only exist in Japan. At Zaou, after you catch a fish using poles and nets provided by your waiter, it can be prepared any way you wish by the chefs. There's also a Mos Burger, a fast food institution known for its complete reinvention of America's favorite sandwich. Adventurous imbibers will like Shugar Market, where they can mix their own cocktails from dozens of house-crafted liqueurs, and Kurand, offering unlimited sake tastings for about $30 U.S. and an advanced reservation.
Daikanyama, Shibuya’s high-rent residential area, is fashionable discovery packed with surprises. Ivy Place provides a welcome break from classic Japanese fare, while reflecting the Japanese passion for European and American breakfast plates. The breezy locale is just opposite the Tsutaya Bookstore, a compound of three buildings interspersed with lounge space that will have one longing for old-school bookstores that were replaced by e-commerce. Kagurazaka, another Shibuya offshoot, is known as Tokyo’s “French Quarter. The food-focused neighborhood built around the Bishamonten Zenkokuji temple and La Kagu (lakagu.com), a modern two level structue housing a coffee bar, bookstore, European street wear and prêt-a-porter and Japanese contemporary home accessories.
Numerous craft cocktail bars have proliferated in recent years, from the whisky and gin focused Bar Ben Fiddich in Shinjuku to the recently opened Iron Faeries on a side street off the Ginza, which literally brings tons of sparkle to the neighborhood pub concept. If exploring the bar scene keeps you up late, there is nothing better than Oreryu Shio Ramen, around the corner from the Cerulean. The late night menu, which includes amazing fried chicken and decadent garlic ramen, is not only flavorful but effective in staving off a next-day hangover.
Before Tokyo’s current craft cocktail heyday began in earnest, there was Golden Gai, a neatly organized cluster of shoebox-sized theme bars. While this has long been a scene for expats and tourists, one has to admire the way so much creativity and character is still being packed into tiny spaces that seat no more than ten people. Albatross, which has since sprouted other locations in town, is one of the better ones, and up on the current infused spirits trend.
While the National Gallery of Japan in Ueno Park is one of the epicenters of visual arts in Tokyo, a walk through the Tokyo University of the Arts will carry you to the Taito neighborhood’s tiny temples, interesting cemetery, and Asakura Choso Museum. The private home of the artist and his daughters is not just an exhibit space for their sculpture and sketches, but also a slice of their lives thanks to the home’s loving preservation. From there, the neighborhood itself opens out into Yanaka Ginza, a less built up side to Tokyo with a lively street market and several artisanal fashion and home design shops.
Asakusa takes on a certain magic at night after tourists migrate elsewhere. Gorgeous murals painted on the metal doors of shuttered stores can be seen in their full glory. This evocative trail of art and street lamps leads to Asakusa Imahan, a century-old traditional sukiyaki restaurant where diners can cook wagyu beef and vegetables to perfection in a simple soy and oil-based sauce with a little assistance from the servers.
Though there are many arguments in favor of leaving town to experience "real" Japan, there are surprising finds bringing the country to the city. Tokyo Shiba Tofuya Ukai (www.ukai.co.jp/english/shiba/), near the Eiffel-influenced Tokyo Tower, is a former bowling alley transformed into a setting reminiscent of the Imperial Palace with its gorgeous courtyard, public and private dining rooms and Kaiseki (multi-course meal) spotlighting the limitless uses of tofu. Fussa City, the farthest away one can get and still be in Tokyo prefecture, is home to Ishikawa Brewery. In addition to interesting brewery tours, there's an excellent soba noodle spot, a historic home to admire, and performance space for live shows in the summer months.
While it is impossible to do everything in Tokyo, mixing the tried and true with the best-kept secrets will ensure your translation will be unforgettable and enlightening.
For more information, visit www.gotokyo.org/en/index.html