Tokyo: City Guide

To land in Tokyo is to realise that every organisational system you have ever known until now has been both pathetically and painfully inefficient. If Japan is a well oiled machine, the U.K. is leaking bucket and Ireland an abandoned fridge. Things just work here. This is first evident in the airport where the swarm of people arriving at customs transforms before my eyes, unprompted, into neat, courteous, impossibly fast moving lines. I step into the baggage hall and my suitcase is in sight. Five minutes later, ticket bought, I am on the metro, speeding towards my destination. (Note: do not take a taxi from the airport unless willing to remortgage, the colours are charming, the prices are unspeakable. The metro is fast, easy to navigate and regular as clockwork).  Once in Tokyo I set about exploring the major neighbourhoods, each one so entirely unique from the last it is often difficult to remember that they belong to the same city. As gentrification increasingly transforms every major urban area into a sprawling, homogenous cityscape, the special wards of Tokyo remain sharply defined, as easily identified by the clothes of people who walk through them as by street signs or maps. Below is a recount of my time in some of these neighbourhoods;

Ginza

At first glance the area of Ginza can be captured with one word; luxury. The area overflows with celebrities, socialites and gainfully employed white-collar workers (referred to rather sweetly as Office Ladies and Salarymen) attending the gallery openings and striding between the towering flagship designer stores before retiring for cocktails. The men wear sharply tailored Valentino suits and Italian leather shoes, the women accessorise Chanel sunglasses with Hermes totes and the entire district sings with money. After deciding to base ourselves in Ginza (it connects multiple train lines and our hotel, the Millenium Mitsui, has a metro station below it making it an ideal starting point) we found that beneath the blandly opulent surface lay some charming, if expensive, local gems.

The first such gem is Star Bar. The venue itself, owned by cocktail guru Hisashi Kishi, is tiny, decorated with dark wood and gleaming brass. The bartenders are formally dressed, the atmosphere is enchanting and the level of care applied to the art of cocktail making is incredible. Apprentice cocktail makers here, explains a member of staff, must study for under Kishi for several years before mixing a drink for a paying customer. The venue has a rare tone; it is not trendy or spectacular but rather it is cosy and soothing, understatedly luxurious and difficult to leave. To have a drink here feels like something special. Nearby and embodying a similar aesthetic is High Five. Opened by Star Bar protege Hidetsugu Ueno, the venue places an admirably high emphasis on quality and is beloved by locals although for me Star Bar still has an unquantifiable edge. 

For food, Ginza has everything and more. For breakfast I love Rose Bakery at Ginza Dover Street Market while Dazzle in the Mikimoto building is ideal for finer dining. The room is stunning with the unique architecture of the building forming patterns on the walls and a floor to ceiling wine display in the centre of the room. In keeping with it’s surroundings the menu definitely errs on the side of expensive but it is one of the most memorable meals I had in Tokyo. Another gem is French restaurant Aux Bacchanales. The restaurant opens out on the street in the style of a traditional Parisienne pavement cafe making it the perfect place to people watch and the food is reasonably priced for the area. For sushi the options are endless and true enthusiasts will be interested to know that Ginza is home to Sukiyabashi Jiro, widely regarded as the best sushi restaurant in the world. 

Harajuku

I turn onto Takeshita Dori and feel dizzy; this is the Japan of my dreams. A riot of colour,costumes and energy, Harajuku is everything I had hoped to find here and more. The street style is phenomenal, a forceful blend of both fierce individuality and subcultural affiliations. Lolita girls, Kaweii girls, Gyaru girls and Mori girls rush past, snapping up the brothel creepers, petticoats and backpacks in the form stuffed animals on sale with joyous abandon. I notice the backpacks are particularly popular and learn that they are mostly affiliated with Decora girls, a rising subculture in which devotees literally decorate themselves with toys and items that symbolise childhood. On Takeshita Dori there are plenty of coffee houses and creperies to choose from but when the crowds and colour became too much we sought out Streamer Coffee, a corrugated shipping container famous for iced lattes and a laidback, minimalist interior.

Photo source: Tokyo Fashion 

A short walk beyond Takeshita Dori is Omotesando, an area with a slightly calmer and more sophisticated feel. The street-style here becomes decidedly more Brooklyn hipster and the range of vintage boutiques, pop-up galleries, coffee houses and American style eateries in the area definitely reflect that. Walk further a little further to discover a residential area with charmingly mismatched houses and small businesses that offer a glimpse of daily local life. 

om om2

Shibuya

Things are off to a bad start in Shibuya when I attempt to enter Hapineko Cat Cafe.  I am greeted in reception by a friendly, obliging employee who assures me that they have plenty of space today and that once I complete a short form I will be seated. Momentarily distracted by the spectacle of several Rolex wearing, besuited men stroking cats,  I take five minutes to complete the form in which time the smiling, dimpled employee I first met has been replaced by a stoney faced harridan with a distinct air of madness. I hand her my form, she says “you cannot come in today”. I ask why, she replies that I do not have a reservation. When I ask if I can make a reservation, she barks “no, we are full forever”. As I attempt to query this further she exclaims “go away, I only want Japanese people today, no foreigners, get out”. I am scandalised! I have never been spoken to in such a manner in my life. The walls are practically papered with pictures of smiling tourists surrounded by cats! I take this rejection extremely personally and storm back down to the street, carried on a wave of self righteous fury. Why did I decide to come to this city AT ALL? Overwrought, I take myself to an Alice in Wonderland themed restaurant to calm down. Once safely ensconced within my Alice In Dancing Land boothI consult the Hapineko reviews and realise that many other tourists have suffered a similar fate at this particular establishment. Feeling soothed, I take in my surroundings. I’m sitting in a life-size fair ground carousel with a ‘Talking Flowers’ cocktail in hand and an ironically purchased Cheshire Cat Meringue Parfait on the table in front of me. In love with Japan again, I head back out into Shibuya with renewed enthusiasm. 

Shibuya is famously a place to shop and has an abundance of high rise department stores that can feel overwhelming. The iconic Shibuya 109, Shibuya Hikarie and Shibuya Mark City stores all sell a dizzying array of products but in my experience the more interesting finds are on sale at Shibuya Parco, Shibuya Loft and Tokyo Hands.

Shibuya Parco is split into zones comprising of a theatre, a bookshop, and exhibition space and a sprawling clothing section. Christened ‘The Pop Culture Market’, Parco is said to have knocked Shibuya 109 off it’s perch in terms of dominating the youth fashion scene. Loft, by contrast, focuses on lifestyle products such as stationary, accessories and homeware while Tokyo Hands stocks all this in addition to an outrageously large range of craft supplies. For anyone creatively minded, these stores are a must. Aside from the department stores, there is a growing number of independent boutiques and vintage shops, some of which I discuss here. When energy levels start to sag, try Satei Hato, one of the most popular coffee spots in the area. 

Shinjuku

Shinjuku is an entertainment district with everything from 24 hour disco inspired bowling alleys to Robot themed gentleman’s clubs. In addition the area encompasses a thriving gay scene and the time-warped Golden Gai alleyways that are home to over 200 of the smallest and strangest bars in Tokyo. While the main streets of Shinjuku are a neon lit, fast paced maze of loud music and cheap thrills, Golden Gai is an eccentric grid of dark lanes and closed doors that hide the activity within. If nighttime is when you come alive then Shinjuku is absolutely for you but if, like me, you’re infinitely more in thrall to the daylight hours (and the easy paced activities than come with them) this district still has plenty to offer.

To experience a relaxed side of Shinjuku, start the day with brunch at Manhattan export Sara Beth’s before checking out the recently opened Shinjuku Za art space and gallery. After a quick browse around quirky fashion emporium Tokyo Kaihoku, head to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, one of the grandest parks in the entire city.

Beyond these neighbourhoods I caught glimpses of Akihabara (the home of maid cafes and anime superfandom) and Roppongi (a nightlife neighbourhood with a rumoured dangerous edge) but ultimately ran out of time to fully to take them in before moving onto Kyoto. Owing to this, I can safely say that the time I spent in Tokyo was exciting, enchanting and not nearly long enough. The scale of the city is enormous and it would take a lifetime to experience everything that it has to offer. I left feeling that I had barely scratched the surface and already hankering to return.

Note: As a person with limited interest in supporting a concept based on the exploitation of animals and even less interest in drinking a coffee in an environment that has been heavily scented by cats, I am not on board with the general notion of a cat cafe. I do, however, like to experience life like a local when travelling and, for better or worse, cat cafes are a ubiquitous part of Japanese culture. Following the Hapineko fiasco I did attend another cat cafe in Shinjuku but found the entire experience to be rather vile. If it is, however, something that you choose to do, Eat Your Kimchi bloggers recommend Temari No Ouchi as the best in town.