tokyo: why are you so damn delightful?
Tokyo: it's hard to do you justice. A land of industrial buildings, grey as they come. But then you enter one, climb six flights of stairs and pop out into the most charming tiny restaurant you've ever seen. It's a sprawling city with patches of glittering signs; one minute, you may as well be in Times Square, the next, in an alley with rows of mini bars, each with its own theme, executed to the inch.
It's a strange mix -- so much charm and so much care in small unlikely details, but also with a certain flatness -- commuter trains packed with suits, a constant murmur of "sumimasen!" or "sorry, sorry!" — as the backdrop.
Yet it's hard not to fall in love with a place where the flight attendants are so delighted to hear it's your honeymoon that upon returning home, you discover that they've handwritten "congratulations!!!!" on one baggage tag and "I LOVE YOU!" on the other (true story). Where each little sweet comes wrapped up like a gift, where the boxes are too pretty to throw away, where even cab doors are automatically opened so you needn't dirty a hand.
It's magical and disarming and these days, not quite as hard to navigate as it may have been.
Disclaimer: I first attempted to include everything in one post, from all the sweet treats to cocktails and museums... and then realized it just didn't do any of it justice (slash you dear reader would keel over). So, here are the things to do, with things to eat and drink and caffeine to follow.
Tokyo is not a city known for its long list of things you must see; while there are a few museums and a few historical sites, for the most part the joys are those of the neighborhood: walk, eat, explore.
Cherry blossoms: Beginning with the most obvious and most tricky to time: sakura, or cherry blossom season. For a few days every year, the city stops: everywhere, everyone looks up at the cotton candy sky. Hanami is the order of the day: enjoying the momentary beauty, with picnic celebrations and total joy. Nights are for beers and toasts with entire parks covered with salarymen cheering for the new fiscal year. It is magical, and it is also serendipitous: despite researching the dates of the past few years, we knew it was only by chance that the blooms would open during the trip. And for the first few days, it seemed we were out of luck - the tight blooms were there, but it was chilly and grey. And then, finally, the world opened and suddenly the skies were full.
The best places for hanami are Ueno Park to the north and the canals along Meguro River as you head towards Daikanyama. At Uneo you'll find entire companies popping champagne (it was apparently a prosperous year), and families packing the paths every night. The canal-side, way further to the south, is a much younger area - at the risk of sounding like a New Yorker, Brooklyn-esque is probably the term. We landed there our last night, on a Friday, and it felt like every holiday rolled into one, with selfies and mimosas everywhere.
Tsukiji fish market: Every tourist's book #1 site in a city with few. In the old days, the advice was to go early morning to catch the tuna auction. These days, tickets are extremely limited and the intrepid arrive around 1am in order to catch the show, waiting hours in what amounts to a freezer. A friend offered the pro tip to go your first night in Japan if possible and take advantage of the jet lag.
For those of us who have *finally* survived the terrible effects of no sleep, I'd say hold off and go a bit later. We arrived mid-morning to a mess of tourists fighting over incredibly marked up sushi meals on the outskirts of the market. At some point, a series of yellow-vested security guards--like security guards everywhere--went on a yelling spree (albeit a politely Japanese muted yelling spree), herding all the tourists into a rough line from which you'd occasionally see a jail break, causing the guards to sprint after, attempting to maintain their dignity while huffing and puffing in the wake of sandaled Americans. In any case: once in, it's an incredible site: vast quantities of every fish and sea creature possible; tons of tuna being sliced apart; the remains of seablood being washed away. Totally worth it, if only for the 15 minutes of watching them clean up the remains.
Shibuya: Cross the famous crossing a la Lost in Translation, then eat delicious food and go shopping. A really fun area - I could see staying in the vicinity. While there, pay a visit to Itoya, the stationary mecca, and Tokyu Hands, a chain of famous department stores.
Shinjuku: Packed, crowded, one of the most central areas. Great food tucked in, worth cutting through to feel the energy, but not a ton to see and do in and of itself.
Omotesando: A fairly posh shopping area, crowned by the entrance to the Plaza, a whirlwind of mirrors. (Inside the mall behind is Bills - an Australian restaurant famous for its fluffy ricotta pancake. Think of it as the cronut of Tokyo, but actually worth it - insane lines, lots of instagramming).
Nakameguro + Daikanyama: where the cool kids play. Really hip, lovely neighborhoods. T-Site is an enormous bookstore (and lifestyle institution) that's worth a visit. In the surrounding area you'll find tons of boutiques and little places to eat. From everything I read, Taste & Sense is the way to go for lunch and Garden House Crafts for Tartine-like pastries (though truth be told, we were too busy gorging on churashi bowls and takoyaki to make it to anything resembling homefoods). Also, if you walk up from the canals, you'll pass the Kyu Asakura House, a vintage home from the early 20th century. If you're staying in a ryokan during your trip, skip it; if not, it's an easy to way to get a sense of how (wealthy) homes used to look.
Roppongi: Known to be swank, Roppongi is home to the Mori Art Museum, a contemporary collection that's open until 10 most nights of the week. We had the most perfect evening in the general area, beginning with drinks at Gen Yamamoto, taiyaki at Naniwaya, a visit to the museum, followed by yuzu ramen at Afuri (details on all to follow).
Kappabashi: I'd put this area on tier two, if you have more than a few days. Start out at Senso-ji, Tokyo's oldest Buddhist temple (be prepared for floods of tourists), then head west over to this neighborhood famous for supplying the city's restaurants with fake, plastic food (hilariously expensive - those window displays do not come cheap!).
Shimokitazawa: I was excited to visit this younger neighborhood, home to many vintage stores and the famous Bear Pond coffee (more below). In truth, it reminded me a bit of the Haight in SF -- tons of tourists, super young, and while fun to see, not necessarily a priority. (Though if you do go - please pop into Fog Linen, purveyors of the most lovely housewares and sadly closed while we were there.)
Akihabara: Known as electric town. This is the Tokyo everyone dreamed of in the 90s: lots of lights, lots of costuming, and now lots of cat cafes (also: maid cafes.) Wander around, accidentally wander into a shop of what you think are girl-power themed movies ("but why aren't they wearing any shirts?...OH!"), dress up & and take mall-style photos, or just play some arcade games.
On the wish list: I became obsessed with going to the Nezu Museum, planning a whole morning around it... only to discover it was closed for our entire time in Tokyo. So please go, and please take pictures of its perfect architecture face, filled with bamboo. Also - had time permitted, we would've loved to have gone to the palace, or at least had tea at the Aman hotel overlooking the gardens.
Also: baseball. Last minute scheduling left us sadly bereft, but from everything I've heard it's an incredible, joyful spectacle.
Things to know:
Restaurant reservations: For a society that is gadget-heavy and decades ahead on the toilet front, Japan is well, a touch behind when it comes to reservations. Unlike New York where every restaurant switched over to a democratic "first come, first served" (frustrating any impromptu saturday night dinners), Tokyo is civilized and hierarchical, and most places require a booking. Unfortunately, said book often requires fluent Japanese and often comes with extremely specific requirements as to whether a call or email will do and at what time and on what day. In one particularly hilarious instance we found ourselves actually faxing personal details into the abyss. (Try tracking down a fax machine these days in Brooklyn.) So: plan ahead; stay somewhere where there's a concierge to help; and realize that a few top places are just unlikely to happen. Some of the famous sushi spots tends to avoid foreigners, and a few literally require an introduction from a member.
Pocket wifi: One of the best tip we got in advance of our trip was to rent a pocket wifi device. There are a few different companies that offer them, and you can book in advance and have it sent direct to your hotel or for pick up at the airport (just be sure to check what time their office closes if you're coming in on a late flight.) For around $10 a day, we found it a lifesaver to be able to direct ourselves around, particularly given that street names and numbers were incredibly hard to decipher. (Google maps also offers a handy little visual for discovering what floor things are on.) Strongly recommend for sanity!
Transport: So Tokyo is big. Like really big. Luckily it has trains, but unluckily there are about 18 different systems that intersect. We found two things made this easier: 1) Literally looking directions up on google maps (see pocket wifi above!). They may not have been perfect, but certainly easier to determine what line to take where and how to transfer there in English than on the massive maps and 2) Changing up where we stayed halfway through. Because we were eager to see a lot of neighborhoods, this allowed us to map out days there were at least mildly efficient, rather than spending 3 hours a day on the trains criss-crossing town.
Money: Tokyo is heavily cash only, with the exception of large purchases or expensive meals. Unfortunately most local ATMs do not process international transactions... but luckily 7-11 (always 7-11!) has ATM machines that do. We tracked one down in the station as soon as we arrived and had no issues continually pulling wherever we were.
Soon to follow: where to eat, where to drink, and most importantly where to caffeinate. But for now, more snapshots.