We went to Tokyo for our honeymoon and had an incredible time. I would highly recommend Japan as a vacation destination for anyone who wants a peek into a country that lives, in many ways, a futuristic lifestyle years ahead of ours. Tokyo was one of the best places we’ve ever traveled to. We feel grateful to have experienced a classy, advanced culture full of art, design, tech, food, and the very best things life has to offer.
In this guide, I won't be recommending too many touristy things to do. Powell’s Books has plenty of incredible guidebooks to explore. I'll be focusing mostly on strategies and advice for navigating the city and its foodie culture, as well as a few choice recommendations for food and drink.
Tokyo doesn’t have a modern cocktail culture, and the cocktails we tried there were poorly-made and extremely sweet. This isn’t a criticism, just a cultural difference. Foreign liquor can be expensive to import, so it isn’t yet realistic to expect a cocktail bar to be able to offer the variety of products and flavors we are used to in the States. Instead, I’ll focus here on the amazing and intricate world of sake!
We hired a guide, Satoko, to help us dive into the world of sake tasting and distilling. She shared her encyclopedic knowledge of ancient and modern sake making techniques. She taught us to taste the variety of flavors sake has to offer. She even gave us instructional note cards to remember what we learned, which was so appreciated, because when you are tasting multiple sake types, you won’t have the best recollection powers by the end of the night. We appreciated being able to look back on those notes the day after and refresh our memories.
Sake is a lot like wine in that it has widely varying qualities, tastes, and flavors associated with the terroir of the rice that it's made with. I appreciated being able to see and touch the different types of rice that are used to get a better understanding of how sake is made and why the tastes vary so much. I recommend hiring Satoko to help you explore the sake scene if this is a topic you are interested in.
Thanks to our brilliant, funny, and kind friend Satoko, I have a much better understanding of how to order and taste sake! Even though I can't read or write Japanese, I know what to look for when I'm buying sake and how to judge its quality to ensure I'm getting a great product.
Coffee (and Tea!)
Delicious hot tea will be available almost everywhere you go, so make sure to indulge! A few favorite types to try:
Here are some other coffee shops recommended to us by Culture Trip:
This is going to sound crazy, but my favorite overall food experience in Tokyo was checking out the food found at the epic and omnipresent convenience stores! Tokyo has a couple of main brands of convenience stores that are found throughout town. The primary ones are 711, Family Mart, and my favorite, Lawson's. They have an amazing variety of snacks and fun drinks! They even have yummy healthy options for a breakfast: salmon onigiri, bento boxes, and hot buns. The drinks are so affordable, usually only $1 or so.
In Japanese culture, it is considered rude to eat and drink in public, especially in the subway. Try to find a park or a private place to sit down and enjoy your snacks.
When picking a restaurant, try to find an establishment that specializes in just one thing. You wouldn't go to Italy and order Italian food, because the regional cuisines are different! It's the same thing in Japan. If a restaurant serves all the types of Japanese food that you know about, chances are, it's a tourist trap and not good.
The best ramen places serve only ramen and operate by vending machine order. You simply walk up to the vending machine and insert your coins, select the picture of the food that you want, and the machine will print you out a tiny receipt. You then take this receipt up to the counter and hand it to them. They will make your order and bring it out to you.
There are tons of curry restaurants all around the city. We didn’t get to try as many of these as we’d like to, but you can find them in every neighborhood. Curry is inexpensive and a great way to warm up with comforting, filling food!
Modern Japanese cuisine has a new trend involving fermented foods. The best restaurants we tried or ones that dabbled in fermentation techniques, which are actually old techniques that are going through something of a revival. In fermentation restaurants, you’ll get to sample many different dishes that all involve exquisitely smoked and fermented foods. These were some of my favorite food experiences in Tokyo.
Thanks to our honeymoon gifts, we were fortunate enough to be able to take a sushi-making class with a home chef named Mayuko! She is one of the very few female sushi chefs exploring feminist cuisine in Tokyo. I was worried that we wouldn't actually be able to recreate any of the recipes because all of the ingredients and techniques would be too difficult. To my surprise and delight, Mayuko had already printed out all of the recipes and instructions for us. Not only that, but all of the ingredients were things we could get at home! I can’t wait to use what we learned and recreate some of the delicious recipes back in Portland. Anyone who knows me well knows that I'm not a huge fan of cooking at home; I find it to be too time-consuming. I love to eat out and try new places all the time, which is not the healthiest option. The recipes we learned in Mayuko’s class were easy and fun.
My biggest takeaway from the class? A sharp knife! The main thing you need for making sushi is a very very sharp knife so you can slice the delicate fishes and veggies and position everything perfectly into the roll.
You can find Mayuko’s cooking classes by searching Airbnb for guided travel experiences in Tokyo or by calling her at +81-80-3502-2005. She speaks perfect English.
On our last night in Tokyo, we had an exquisite dinner with our new friend Satoko. The staff, service, ambiance, and food were so incredible that I can guarantee I will never forget it. We tasted the world’s most delicious and nuanced flavors through a progression of multiple courses and small plates. The female-owned and operated restaurant is called Sake Scene（ますふく/□は枡記号) and can be found here. See some of their mouthwatering menu items here.
When you’re full, spend a few hours exploring Kitchen Street, also called Kappabashi Street. Here you can pick up many affordable kitchen products and beautiful, high-quality Japanese knives. You can also admire the fake food! One of my favorite blogs wrote a whole post about the art of fake food in Japan: “Sampuru, derived from the English word “sample”, is nothing short of an art form in Japan. Picking out a restaurant can be like viewing an art exhibition of fake food so accurate it really does look tempting enough to eat. To compete for customers, restaurants go all out with their window displays, hiring the best craftsmen to turn their menus into a parade of palatable plastic.” Read more here.
In a neighborhood called Asakusa, you can sample sweets, sweet potato cakes, marzipan creations, macarons, matcha cookies, and lots of street food.
Why go to Japan and buy art when you could go to Japan and make art? We took a class called “Calligraphy in Motion” to find out more about traditional creative arts in Japan. The class is taught by Soufu, an accomplished calligrapher who regularly creates beautiful lettered art for the Japanese government and its institutions, as well as private collectors. She usually teaches the art of Japanese calligraphy to Japanese people but has recently opened up her studio workshops to include foreigners. We were honored to be able to study her masterful techniques. I was surprised to learn how difficult it could be just to make one single perfect stroke. Her studio is beautiful and includes examples of different techniques, both modern and ancient. It’s a blast to learn about these and try to replicate them yourself. We were able to practice a lot and then create our own large print to take home! My immersion in the Japanese culture was so much stronger because of Soufu's teaching.
Amy F. recommended that we see one act of a kabuki play, and we’re so glad we did! Actors wear elaborate colorful costumes and bright face masks, and express the nature and meanings of their characters using exaggerated poses and gestures. All roles are played by men, but so skilfully do they control their gestures and voices, that it’s often hard to believe that the female characters aren’t played by women. Kabuki actors are also masters of vocal expression, so much so that much of the meaning of a Kabuki play can be picked up without understanding any of the words themselves. Some theaters provide English translation devices. Read more here.
Misc. Travel Tips
Japan has so many things figured out that the United States does not. This is not to say that Japan is without its problems; they have a shockingly gendered culture and can be a bit conformist. We were also mystified at how such an advanced and technology-based society could run on cash and not accept credit cards. Aside from those points, we loved Japan.
You will want to take out all of the cash you need for your entire trip in advance and bring it with you. The good news is that the country is so safe that you needn't worry at all, not even for a second, about if your money is going to be safe. It will be. Japan is a cash-based society. At home I don't think I touch cash or transact with cash more than a few times a month. In Japan we needed coins and small bills hourly. This is just such a vast difference that I wasn't prepared for it.
Taking money out of the ATM while you're in Japan isn't too difficult. 7-Eleven has an incredible brand presence throughout Tokyo and you'll be able to find their convenience stores with ATMs that accept American cards in nearly every neighborhood.
To get around without speaking Japanese, you’ll need Wi-Fi access or data on your phone, so figure this out ahead of time. I'm a tester of Project Fi, which is the new cell phone product from Alphabet (Google). The concept of the service is that instead of having one cell phone carrier, you actually have access to every cell phone carrier in the world, for the same rate. Google just routes your service around to whichever tower is closest, no matter what country you're in. You have high-speed, high-quality cell and internet service no matter where you are, and you never pay international fees! This is a great option for people who need to travel frequently. Based on the last couple months of service, it's the best network I've ever been a part of. The service is impeccable — I would expect nothing less from Google.
One thing I wasn't fully prepared for was the enormity the city. The city is more comfortable in size to an American county. 14 million people live in the city itself, and a great number more live, work, and play in the suburban areas that surround Tokyo. It can take 90 minutes to get from one neighborhood to another, so plan ahead. When you “visit Tokyo”, you're not really just visiting one central downtown area; what you're going to most likely be doing instead is walking around and checking out multiple districts or neighborhoods that all have their own unique character. Tokyo doesn’t have one certain vibe or one certain characteristic, because it's an enormous city with many unique neighborhoods. You can have a completely different experience depending on which neighborhoods you go to.
For example, one day we went with a new friend to see her urban farm in a less-central district of Tokyo. We were shocked to see family farm operations happening right there within city limits. In the same day, we visited Ahikabara — one of the busiest and most urban areas of Tokyo. There you can find the neon lights you've heard about, video game culture that is so advanced and niche you most likely won't be able to participate, maid cafes, cat cafes, owl cafes, sex shops, and everything else the heart can desire.
You'll probably find your own special corners of the city that make you feel most at home, but for me, I had the most fun and felt the most comfortable in Koenji, a youthful neighborhood with lots of musicians, cute bookstores, little coffee shops, and tiny hipster bars that only have a few seats in them.
We went in winter. If you’re going then, be ready to dress in layers! When you're outside it can be quite windy, especially downtown where all the tall buildings are, but then when you go downstairs to the subway the air is hot, hot, hot.
Cassandra K. gave the brilliant advice of “if you want to stand out, dress in bright colors and patterns; if you want to fit in, bring all dark colors”. This was 100% true and I appreciated the insight. Tokyo is an extremely homogeneous society. People tend to dress almost exactly the same. Most people wear black on black or navy on black or brown on black, especially during the weekdays.
Bring comfortable shoes so you can do plenty of walking around and adventuring around town. Bonus points if these comfortable shoes are slip-ons. You will need to remove your shoes at the entrance of most homes, some businesses, fitting rooms inside clothing stores, and many other places.
I could go on and on for a long time about what to do in Tokyo, but it's the kind of place where everyone is going to have a completely different experience based on their outlook, expectations, and desires.
With this trip, I tried hard not to get too obsessed with seeing every single touristy site and taking every single tour (my normal method of traveling). I usually don't like missing out on a single thing and try to pack the schedule with dozens of activities. In Tokyo, however, I kept our agenda light and laid-back to go with the flow every day based on how we were feeling. This decision made for a perfect trip. The city is too big to try to plan every minute of your day.
Tokyo is a magical wonderland that we can’t wait to go back to as soon as possible. I hope this guide has been helpful and that you’re able to have your own adventure there soon!
Proud sponsors of the Women's Foundation of Oregon, MercyCorps, MercyCorps NW, The Q Center, and Oregon Tradeswomen.
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