To any and all coming to Tokyo for the first time, please read before sending an email. Thank you!
Since moving to Tokyo, I’ve had friends, acquaintances, and even friends-of-friends reaching out for guidance and I totally get it. Japan is very foreign – even for a Japanese. So I’m happy to pay the kindness of many strangers who helped me, forward, and help as much as I can. But since I tell everyone the same thing, I decided to post on my blogs (I can also just point people here in the future #lazy).
Hope this helps!
I am so happy you are coming to Japan, as you all know I love this country very much. Tokyo may seem overwhelming but it’s really not once you grasp the basics of this mega city.
Think of Tokyo like NYC… times 10 or London on steroids. There are so many things to do, places to eat, areas to shop, must-sees, it will take a lifetime only to see my neighborhood (I live in Ebisu).
What to See
For sight-seeing recommendations, just Google “things to do in Tokyo”, compare-contrast lists and find destinations that are right for you. Pick an objective (ex: I want to shop. I want to eat. I want to see landmarks. I want to see art exhibitions. I want to wander with no plan but want a list of a few must-sees. I want to do it all!) and build your trip centered around what you really want to do.
TimeOut Tokyo and Trip Advisor are wonderful resources — Ex: for coffee shops, I love this list, this list and another one (in Japanese — just Google the bigger, bold font on the left hand side above the photo, as it is the name of the coffee shop with ‘Tokyo’ in English, so you’ll get English results). For art shows / events, there is always something going on, so looking up what’s happening a few days before you are planning to go, is the way to do it. Of course TimeOut but this is also another good resource. This site is great: Tokyo Damage Report (more for grown-ups and not so PG). Or check-out my friend’s super extensive and mega popular Japan Foursquare lists here and here. My lists are here, Tokyo centric; constant work in progress.
UPDATE: 2/22/17 EATER HAS THE BEST GUIDE TO TOKYO … but read on if you’d like. Took a while to put this together so, I don’t want to delete it.
Obviously I am obsessed with the food here and I don’t even know where to start. Tokyo is like Manhattan + LA + SF x98237493. There are way too many ‘must-go’s’ but here are some pointers that should get you started in the right direction:
Ebisu and Shinjuku Yokocho (Omoide Yokocho) are always crowd pleasers. Ebisu Yokocho is definitely more friendly to non-Japanese than the one in Shinjuku, though, so be sure to go with a Japanese speaker if you want to go to Omoide Yokocho.UPDATE: three years later, both those places now blow. They’re massive tourist traps and the crowds are pretty crappy. Only recommended late, late, night.
- Kanda and Kohaku are kaiseki ryouri (Japanese haute cuisine) — the food will blow your mind. Kohaku’s head chef is the first disciple of the head chef of Kagurazaka Ishikawa.
Kanda is probably the best meal I’ve had in Tokyo.Update: Kyōaji is probably the best meal I’ve had in Tokyo. Though Kanda I adore for personal reasons. Only recommended to Japanese food nerds though, as it takes depth to really appreciate the meal and not feel ripped off.
- Torishiki — super wildly popular Michelin yakitori joint (believe it or not).
I’ve never been but I hear it lives up to the hype (from Japanese people, not tourists).Update: I finally visited and it was worth the hype. Bookings are extremely difficult, they only take reservations on the 1st day of every month for up to two months in advance. As soon as it hits 2:00PM JP time, you call and keep calling until you can get through. (They used to take in-person bookings which was the ‘secret’ way people got bookings but a new restaurant opened up next door and apparently complained about the long line of people waiting to make Torishiki bookings. So now, the only way to book is through the phone.) An alternative is a place tucked away in Meguro, ToriyakisasayaTori Kado (just opened 3/2017, they’re still in their soft opening phase though, invitation only). The owner/chef (taishyo) apprenticed at the same yakitori place as Torishiki’s owner/chef, Tori Yoshi.
- Jimbocho Den is everyone’s favorite.
Sushi is a whole ‘nother beast. There are the staples at Tsukiji (the fish market) – you can see all my recommendations here. Outside of The Market, Sushi Iwa, Sawada everyone loves and my personal favorites:
Tokami Sushi as the chef speaks fluent English and Update: Tokami raised their prices and the chef is a bit moody as several people I sent had bummer experiences. Plus, Sato-san (the head chef everyone visited at Tokami) is opening his own spot. For sushi, Sushi-Ya in Ginza trained at the same mothership as Saito San of Sushi Saito, Kanesaka. His sushi is great. My all time favorite is Saito — plus a few places I like to keep to myself. Saito is super hard to get a booking though.
Tonkatsu I’ve written a few posts about katsu: Suzuki and Ponta. Tonkatsu in Japan generally falls under two categories: fancy and not fancy. The katsu popular with people from abroad, falls into the former category (Maisen and Butagumi are the two most popular). I still have yet to post about fancy katsu — only because I’d rather introduce katsu loved by locals. Gyu-katsu (beef katsu), though, is now the hot thing to eat.
Cocktails Japan has a ton of incredible speakeasy type bars with a gangload of mixologists. These are the bars everyone loves:
JBS (Jazz, Blues and Soul) — no website, google for images or drop this address into Google Maps: 〒150-0043 東京都渋谷区 道玄坂1-17-10
Bar Martha — amazing whiskey bar with tons of silly rules but the vibe is one of a kind.
Bar High Five — they have this super silly rule where they do not accept groups of more than four people (I think it was) at once, even if the bar is empty. Really annoying. I super enjoyed my time there when it was with one or two people but the last time I went was with a group, got denied and never returned.
My personal favorites:
Gen Yamamoto — a must
Trench and Tram — Tram is open during the day as a coffee shop and have slow drip coffee. For cocktails, try Trench first and when they’re packed, they’ll escort you to Tram. I’ve been to all the staples in Tokyo and I think the bartenders at Trench make the best cocktails. The head bartender at Trench isn’t there that much anymore. Ai-chan (the bad ass chick I LOVED) moved to SG. The new dudes are kind of underwhelming. Trench used to be my go-to but I haven’t stepped foot in there since, let’s see, I can’t even recall.
…there are also a few hidden bars I like keeping to myself. Only because every time I go now, there are no tourists. But really, any and all bars in Tokyo are incredible. Get lost and stumble into one.
This should cover the basics of food and drink. Just poke around this blog for more recommendations or stuff I share (mostly local places). See all my posts about restaurants here. I also touched upon recommendations and why I’m reluctant to make them in Japan here.
UPDATE: 7/13/16 I have started an ongoing list from Tabelog here
MOST IMPORTANTLY (CAPs are necessary): Wi-Fi / SIM situation
Update 8/1/15 on Wi-Fi situation — free Wi-Fi connectivity has become more accessible but renting a SIM at the airport is still highly recommended.
Public Wi-Fi, what a nightmare!
As advanced of a country Japan is and as connected as we all are, public Wi-Fi is an absolute disaster. Before I moved here, I visited expecting connection to be a breeze but every so-called public Wi-Fi requires creating an account what the hell. I don’t mind creating an account or registering, but what I do care about, is how I was unable to register because I had no Internet. Because I had no Internet access, I couldn’t sign-up for an account but without an account, I couldn’t get Internet — total chicken-egg problem. It was so annoying. Also, registering for accounts is usually in all Japanese so unless you are Japanese. Or read Japanese. You are basically SOL (shit outta luck).
I recommend everyone to rent a SIM at the airport (Narita or Haneda, I’m assuming). Softbank has rental SIM booths there and the rates are super reasonable. The rental service is available only to visitors, so it’s super inconvenient to rent a SIM once you are in a city. There’s actually only one office in all of Tokyo, in some random office building that you won’t be able to find or access (because of security)…unless you are Japanese.
I think this is more than enough to get you started. If you still have any questions and such, feel free to contact.
Your friendly neighborhood Japanese