For being one of the largest metropolises on earth, Tokyo is quiet. One of the first things I noticed after our plane touched down, we had navigated the overwhelming subway system, and were finally walking toward our AirBnB was the silence. Japan is a generally quiet, polite, and reserved society which was a bit at odds with what I generally look for when I travel -- I like my cities loud, chaotic, energetic & hot. Tokyo was none of those things.
That said, everything you've heard is true -- the people are incredibly polite, the food is delicious, and there is an endless amount of shopping. So much so that at times, every new neighborhood felt like a new place to shop for endless gadgets, clothing, homewares and various cute Japanese things. I can see why Marie Kondo is a sensation, because the endless variety of things to buy was in stark contrast to our 180 sq ft AirBnB.
Below are some of our favorite places in Tokyo.
Where We Ate
Donjaca. This izakaya (Japanese pub) in Shinjuku was recommended by our Lonely Planet guidebook. As our trip progressed, we learned to use Tabelog (the Japanese equivalent of Yelp) for the majority of our restaurant recommendations, but this was a rare gem included in the guidebook. Our dinner, which included fried rice, fried chicken, wasabi-coated chicken and beer, came to US$30. The best dish was the green chile fried rice, which was 600 Yen (US$5.30). We were seemingly the only foreigners in the place.
Abura Soba. This might be hard to find as it seems to be the name of the type of food ("soupless noodles") as well as the name of the restaurant chain. Absolute best food we had in Tokyo, and probably on our entire trip. We went twice, the first time to the location in Shimo-kitazawa, but there are locations all over the city. The concept is similar to ramen, but rather than broth, the noodles sit on top of an oil/chili sauce/spice mixture that you stir around with your chopsticks to incorporate before eating. Tickets are purchased via vending machine outside the restaurant before being handed to the person cooking your food (common in Japan), and this isn't a place to linger but to slurp down your noodles as fast as possible to make room for the next person. Seating is bar style, and each seat is provided with bottles of chili oil and vinegar that you can season your ramen with as you see fit. A bowl of noodles is 820 Yen (US$7.30) plus extra for toppings like additional pork, extra garlic, etc. If you seek out one ramen place in Tokyo, this should be it.
Misoyahachiroushouten. No, I have no idea how to pronounce that either. Another delicious ramen place found on Tabelog (where anything above 3.5 is a great rating). Located in Shinjuku, also operates by vending machine and is very cheap (bowl of ramen around US$7-8).
Conbini. As anyone who has traveled to Japan will tell you, the country has an immeasurable amount of convenience stores (7-11, Family Mart, and Lawson's being the big three) that seem to entrance foreigners. The food is a bit overhyped by tourists who are entranced by the novelty factor, but I did love the onigiri (rice balls), especially the plain salted one (sounds boring, but actually delicious and in many cases preferable to the variety that have a fermented fish surprise in the middle). I ate a lot of those for breakfast, along with the ubiquitous hot Royal milk tea. Japan is also well-known for its many gummy candies (Kasugai is one of the better-known varieties in the states). I discovered some sour gummy candies called Pure, which come in lemon, muscat, and grapefruit varieties, all delicious.
Last but not least, I drank a lot of what the Japanese call 'sochu highballs' while I was there. Basically, this is the girliest drink in existence, with a very low alcohol content and lots of fruity flavors. Conbini carry a brand called Horoyoi, produced by Whisky giant Suntory in a variety of flavors like peach (my personal favorite), black tea sour, and white grape. Perfect for someone like me who is very hangover-prone.
What We Did
Meiji Shrine. There's multiple shrines to visit in Tokyo, but this is one of the most popular. I wasn't so blown away by the shrine itself (which was under construction anyway), but the surrounding forest, which was planted in 1920, is beautiful, peaceful, and vast. The drizzly rain added to the atmosphere. The walk to the shrine is around 20 minutes down a large path, and you can get lost in the forest afterwards. Located in the Shibuya neighborhood.
Tsujiki Market. This is Tokyo's famed fish market, and one of the most popular tourist destinations. I love markets, and Tsujiki definitely delivered. There are multiple vendors selling and giving away samples of everything from tamagoyaki (an egg omelette-type snack that I hated but D loved), to sushi, to green tea ice cream. If you wake up at the ungodly hour of 3am you can watch the tuna auction in the inner part of the market -- an activity we decided to skip. We were still allowed to walk around the wholesale portion of the market, behind the sales vendors. Overall, this was one of my favorite activities in Tokyo and I highly recommend it.
Drunkard's Alley. Tokyo has several streets lined with tiny bars that seat only 4-5 people, and this was the least touristed one we found. We actually stumbled upon the bar we went to after being turned away from one recommended by the guidebook (whether because it was closed or because we were foreign, I'm not sure - some bars in Tokyo do not allow anyone who doesn't speak Japanese). I don't remember the name of the wine bar we ended up at, but every bar looked similar - populated by businessmen in suits who had gotten off work and were out for a drink. They serve small complimentary snacks with their drinks. It was a great, more 'local' experience, and another of my favorite places in the city. The more touristed Golden Gai in Shinjuku is another network of tiny bars. We went to a place called Ace's Bar that had a very friendly bartender, no cover, and a clientele of sociable foreigners. Also recommended, but not quite as much of an experience as Drunkard's Alley.
Where We Stayed
AirBnB, Shinjuku. We stayed in Shinjuku, one of the two major nightlife areas of Tokyo (the other being Shibuya). Our tiny (220 sq ft) Japanese apartment was far enough from the bright lights that we could sleep at night, but a fairly convenient 15 minute walk to a major subway line.
After a week in Tokyo, we hopped on the bullet train toward Osaka ...