A good friend of mine, John, was going to run the Tokyo marathon. A few of us said in passing that maybe we'd join the trip to cheer him on. We looked into flights, and since it's off season for Japan tourism, the flights were only $550. It was bone chilling cold at times, at least for this SoCal girl. We got some rain and even a bit of snow, but it was a great trip exploring both Tokyo and Kyoto, two very different Japanese cities.
Tokyo was way more sprawled out than we thought it would be but the subways are amazing! They are all color coded to make it easy for anyone to find the right lines, just grab an English subway map. Keep in mind that if you take a taxi or ride app most drivers do not speak English. All you have to do is a get a business card from your hotel with the address in Japanese and hand it to the driver. It's weird but we had to do that every time.
Our first of many sushi dinner, Uobei was a great introduction to Japan. It’s a diner like setting where you sit side by side and individually order food from an iPad. Once you order, the food amazingly shoots out from the kitchen on a track and stops right in front of you. You grab your dish and push a button to send the tray back. High tech and really fun! Also, inexpensive. We all had 2-5 dishes and a beer and the cost was $10-25 per person.
We met some US military while try to find a bar, and they coaxed us into going to Alcatraz with them. Alcatraz is a sort of scary prison sex hospital themed bar. Umm… yeah, you read that correctly. It has cells you could sit inside and order, and disgusting fruity drinks served in strange ways like in the form of an IV or a vial. The staff are dressed in nurse and doctor costumes. We were drinking in a back corner room when the lights when out and it was full thematic showtime. Screaming, lights, wicked laughs… then out of nowhere a man appeared in our room rocking out on the guitar in a thong. I’m NOT into scary, so this wasn’t my kind of bar, but it was pretty interesting to say the least. I had heard of these strange sort of themed bars associated with Japan, so we checked that off the list on the first night. I’m wouldn’t recommend this place unless you’re into this kind of thing. Not my cup of tea,
Koara DJ club
We left the bar and parted ways with our military friends to head over to Koara. DJ bars are apparently a thing in Japan, small clubs with a HIFI stereo. Koara was literally underground, with no sign, just a staircase leading down to it. We almost missed it, but luckily saw someone walk up from the hidden staircase. They had a great DJ playing an electronic disco kind of vibe. We danced for a while, drank some Japanese whiskey, then called it a night.
Meiji Jingu-Shrine is the largest shrine in Tokyo. It’s a nice walk though the greenery of Yoyogi Park to get there, and also has an inner garden. The inner garden isn’t very impressive in February, but I’m sure during cherry blossom season it’s quite spectacular. Japan in late March through early May Japan is full of cherry blossoms!
Afuri Ramen is a chain restaurant all over Tokyo. You stand in line, then when it’s your turn, you punch your order into a machine, pay, and it gives you tickets. When seats become available you sit and give the cooks your tickets and it arrives in a about 10-15min. You can choose different broth bases and toppings. The pork belly ramen was amazing! The best thing is, when you’re done, you leave! No waiting for the bill. We went to 2 different locations in the city because we loved it so much.
If you want to go, book in advance. This is a cafe where you get to hang out with real live owls. While this was incredibly cool because they are such beautiful animals, I have to wonder about the health and well being of these poor creatures.
Ristorante Tersaki is a small place, I mean really small. It seats about 8-10 people at the most. We were a party of 6 and took up the space. The chef works alone. He does the shopping, the prepping, the cooking, the serving, and the cleaning. We had multiple courses that were all unique and delicious, and several bottles of wine. I would consider the cuisine Japanese inspired Italian because the chef most of the cuisine was very light instead of rich with sauces. It felt very fresh and minimalistic. The chef doesn’t speak English, so write ahead if you want to visit to see if they can work out a translator.
Harajuku is known internationally as a center of Japanese youth culture and fashion. It’s vibrant colors reminds me of Japanama and Hello Kittty, which are both rooted in Japan. You’ll see the most creative outfits here on these streets. Make reservations for a fun restaurant like Kawaii Monster Cafe, where you dish is sure to be something unique (and photo worthy!).
Get ready for the best pancakes you’ve ever tasted at Bills Omotesando! Thick and fluffy and magical tasting! Expect a wait but it’s worth it. We got lucky and had no wait, and also got a table on the terrace with a nice view. We be brunchin’.
Tokyo National Art Museum
This museum is housed in a beautiful building, and we were lucky enough to catch the famed Yayoi Kusama’s exhibit “My Eternal Soul.” The main exhibition of her work was bold and vibrant with lots of dots, dots, dots. My favorite addition was an interactive art exhibit where visitors enter a white room where each individual is given colorful dot stickers and can contribute to the visuals by sticking wherever these choose.
Golden Gai is bar area that has several blocks of tiny quanit bars that seat only 6-10 people each. At most of them you have to pay a cover charge. The bars want you to sit for the evening instead of bar hopping. This way it becomes more of an experience where you sit and chat with people. You’ll also find that some of the bars will only serve Japanese speaking customers. We found this rude at first, but upon mulling it over it makes sense. These bars are supposed to be social bars, so if you mix Japanese speaking with other languages, you might end up at a bar with no one to talk to, which somewhat defeats the experience. We found a great bar and chatted with some Canadians and Aussies who were on a boarding trip.
Tokyo’s famed fish market has auctions at 3am. If you so wish to wait in line in the middle of the night, you can watch the auctions for free. We opted out for this portion, but opted in for lunch, freshest sushi ever! There are loads of restaurants throughout the fish market, we read that they are all good so we blindly chose a cute little bar top on the interior of the market. It was the best meal of the trip, with sushi that melted in your mouth. We poked around a bit after our meal. The market is like one giant farmer’s market, with veggies, fish, meat, and more.
The Edo Museum
The Edo Museum is all about Japanese history. It’s large and has several large structures built within the building itself. What I loved about it is they offer free guides that will take you on a private tour (no tips, just hospitality). Our guide was very knowledgeable and made our tour really enjoyable and interesting. I feel like I learned a lot and it was much more engaging than reading plaques.
The Asahi Tower has a restaurant that serves Asahi and food at the top and has a great aerial view of Tokyo. We went up near sunset to grab a beer and rest our tootsies.
Gonpacho (The “Kill Bill” restaurant)
This restaurant is famous for being the set of a fight scene in the Tarentino film Kill Bill. It’s a really cool atmosphere, but the food was just fair, and way overpriced.
We found ourselves back at Golden Gai on Saturday night. We really enjoyed it the night before and this time brought an even more memorable experience. We wandered into a bar with a very friendly host, and chatted with some of the English speaking folks there. The host from behind the bar busted out his guitar and starting singing and playing harmonica, both in Japanese and some English songs. It was one of those special travel moments, in a tiny bar, with the bartender singing melodies and the small crowd singing along. We chased that vibe for the rest of the evening, but ended up at a odd leopard printed bar upstairs that was a bit musty. :(
This show was on everyone’s to do list, so we saved it for the finale. Robot Restaurant is a cheesy robot and light show. It’s really gaudy and ridiculous, but nonetheless, a must-see while you’re in town. The robot’s are massive in size and the building itself it really over the top with it’s colorful decor. I recommend eating before or after the show. We got the sushi option and it tasted really fishy.
Tokyo is pretty amazing place, so clean and efficient, albeit incredibly crowded. Definitely take a trip here but do it in the spring when the cherry blossoms are blooming and the weather is warmer. My takeaway from this trip is everyone is a bit more irritable when we are touring around in 40 degree weather.