How to Tokyo.
Never been? Here’s a crib sheet of stuff that is useful for your first trip. This isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list, but rather a good jumping off point for those planning their travels. Drop me a note if you ever want any advice email@example.com.
When possible, fly Japanese airlines over regardless of class. ANA or JAL are generally like night and day in terms of service compared to their domestic route competitors. If you want to splurge, use some hard earned miles to try out JAL’s First cabin on the 777 which is arguably one of the best products going. If you need help putting miles to work, bookyouraward.com helps navigate the byzantine rules of frequent flier redemptions to help you get the right flights for the minimal amount of miles.
Japan’s trains are incredible, reliable and the best way to navigate the country. JR’s first-class or “green car” rail pass is a bargain for those that live outside of the country. You buy it in advance, get it delivered while you are still stateside (very important) and just validate when you arrive in the country. Then, you simply validate the pass, and request what train routes you want with the JR ticketing counter to take and everything is locked in. Passes can be bought via: https://www.japan-rail-pass.com.
Tokyo is not a cool boutique type city. Best to stick to the bigger, established names in hospitality. To treat yourself, opt for the ever-classic Park Hyatt in Shinjuku, or the new pitch-perfect Andaz by Hyatt, which is part of a new development in Toronomon. The clear winner in terms of location is the relatively new entrant, the Peninsula, right on the Imperial Palace Gardens which sits atop the Ginza line and is arguably the best way to get around. For a more Japanese experience at a cost, Hoshinoya and Aman have relatively new high-end offerings close to Tokyo station, as well.
There’s also old classic hotels that have been beautifully restored, notably the Palace.
When arriving in Narita, for your inaugural visit, simply hop on the “Friendly Limousine Bus” that will deposit you at your hotel doorstep. The Narita Express train is another, potentially faster, option, but requires a bit more legwork, connecting, and taxis. Don’t opt for a taxi from the airport unless you’re in the mood to spend 300+ dollars.
Tokyo has no shortage of Michelin stars that require a bit of pre-planning and concierge wrangling. But a lot of the charm is in the one-off, easy lunches and casual food. The best is taking chances and going with the flow. Try Afuri in Ebisu or Roppongi Hills for Yuzu ramen with a chicken broth base, Birdland Ginza for Yakitori, Appia for Italian, Ishikawa for Kaiseki, Daiwa, Sushi-ya or former New Yorker Yasuda-san for Sushi, and also Golden Brown in Omotesando for arguably one of the city’s best burgers. And yes, Jiro is that good but both hard to book and it costs a pretty penny. Go if you need to, but don’t hang your trip off of it. Other noted sushi options include: Sawada, and Yoshitake. To book the toughest tables in town before you visit, Tableall.com brokers them for a 26 dollar fee, which is worth the money since you don’t have to navigate the often complicated booking rituals that are tough for non Japanese speakers.
Tokyo is a serious drinking town with some of the most unique environments and incredible cocktails imaginable. Some highlights: Shibuya Swing is a small jazz bar with cozy cocktails and friendly bartenders. Also don’t miss Bar Trench, Bar Track, and Bar Radio. Bar High Five typically makes the world’s best bar awards most years, and Bar BenFiddich is worth checking out in Shinjuku, hidden in the ninth floor of an office tower. Worth calling ahead. Also, a crawl through the small, 4–5 seater bars of Golden Gai in Shinjuku, a charming and ramshackle place that harkens back to another era of the city. La Jetee should be your main coordinate here, but also let yourself be pulled into wherever intrigues.
21_21 is a very good design museum in Tokyo Midtown, the Mori Museum in Roppongi is meticulously curated and offers stunning views at the top of the Mori Building, The elegant Nezu Museum focuses on Japanese and other Asian pre-modern arts, especially strong in arts related to tea. You’ll notice exceptional curation and attention to detail at all museums, and worth logging some time.
The Akihabara district is a veritable shrine to Japanese pop culture and its insane sub-genres. The absolute best way to make sense of it all, besides having a savvy local teenager lead you through it would be the amazing Tokyo Real Time- produced audio tour, a highly-entertaining and slickly-done number easily downloadable to your iPhone for $5.99. Get step-by-step directions from the train station for an hour-plus.
Ayako Watanabe, the operator of Edokko Tours, runs an anything-but-traditional guide service that specializes in flexible and customizable tours driven by you and your interests. For about $350, you can hire Edokko’s services for 8 hours and go wherever you like: for example, into the more traditional areas of Ueno and Asakusa, which was Tokyo, long before it became the city you see today. Details on pricing and what is and isn’t included in the rates is at edokko.jp.
Tokyo is a shopping mecca and it is not possible to outline or explain how dense and nuanced the options are. Don’t miss some of the big department stores, notably Isetan and Isetan men’s in Shinjuku. Also, Takashimaya, which had a 5th avenue outpost several years ago, is an incredible experience, notably the food hall.
Daikanyama T-Site is a must-visit, with the flagship outpost of Tsutaya, an incredible book store spread across several buildings with music, books, and an incredible cafe at the top: Anjin. Behind the T-site complex, there is a small shopping street with Okura, a beautiful shop with all indigo dyed clothing, as well as Bonjour Records for music shopping. Omotesando Hills is a beautifully curated shopping experience, as is Tokyo Midtown, located in Roppongi. For architecture enthusiasts, the Prada store in Aoyama is a must-see. The brand commissioned Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron to create one of the most distinctive works of architecture in the city.
Take the early stroll through the quiet Ginza district on down to the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market, renowned as ground zero for some of the best-tasting fish ever caught. While you can wander in any time here in the morning and get fed, early risers won’t have to wait for two hours at the market’s most iconic spots. For instance, Sushi Dai, where about $40 for the set menu gets you some of the best sashimi you’ll ever eat. Get there by five or six o’clock on mornings when the market is open.
The japanese ritual of bathing in hot springs and eating very healthy food for a weekend is indeed a treat. To experience this, the tried and true options are Gora Kadan, Atami Fufu, Sekeitai, Satoyama Jujo, and Lamp No Yado. And if you want to splurge, try the Arcana on the Izu Peninsula.
Last night in Tokyo:
End the evening — and your stay — on a very high note with a late supper by the window at the New York Grill, one of the city’s most enduring restaurants and instantly recognizable to those who saw Lost in Translation. Just like in the movies, it’s epically beautiful, the drinks look as good clinking around in the glassware as they taste, there’s jazz in the air and the crowd is pretty. Best of all, though, is the food: especially, the Japanese beef. Choose the cheapest domestic cut or go way up (way, way up) into the stratosphere on price; either way, this is going to be meal– and a night–to remember.
Any extra tips or tricks for first-time visitors? Drop me a note: firstname.lastname@example.org