If someone offered me a job in Japan, I would move there without hesitation. I spent 8 days there in October of 2014 and I would recommend taking at least 2 weeks if you really want to experience your top 3 places. For foreign travelers, especially those from the west, Japan is so different from anything they've ever experienced before. You'll want to take your time and really immerse yourself in the friendly culture, outrageously good food scene, and natural beauty of Japan.
3 Days in Tokyo
I stayed at the Shibuya Excel Hotel Tokyo three minutes from the very busy Shibuya Station in southwest Tokyo. I would highly recommend this area. The hotel was comfortable, clean and the views were incredible from both the Japanese and French restaurants on site. Breakfast was included in the room price, a decision I did not regret! I tried both the Japanese style and the "Western" buffet on two separate mornings. While I found the Japanese breakfast agreeable enough, more attention was definitely put in the buffet. It was hands down the best hotel breakfast buffet I have ever seen! Delicate salads, endless choices of fruit and crisp veggies, meats, cheeses, and delicious coffee all while taking in a stunning view of Tokyo. On a clear day, from the French restaurant, you can see Mt. Fuji and the stunning expanse of metropolis to the northeast.
Shibuya is also famous for its bustling crossing. You will notice straightaway while walking through the city that the locals strictly adhere to pedestrian law. No one crosses, even the smallest street, without a walk signal. And when the signal changes at Shibuya, all five crosswalks fill with pedestrians coming and going in all directions. It is especially impressive when viewed from above - Shibuya Excel Hotel or the adjoining mall are great vantage points.
There is great shopping in the area if you want to hit up chains and popular places like H&M, Zara, Muji and Forever 21. Walk up and down the streets and you will hear music blaring from speakers on the tall light poles dotting the streets. It can feel a bit like sensory overload until you get used to it all.
After landing and taking a taxi to the hotel, it was still early afternoon. Leaving the hotel on my own, without much planning felt daunting, but I was determined to explore a bit on my own.
I walked north to Yoyogi Park near Harajuku Station. It is about a 20 minute walk from Shibuya and worth a quick visit.
Inside, beautiful evergreen trees tower over wide paths. It’s cool and quiet, despite the bustling city just outside its borders. The park is 170 acres of evergreen that was originally built as a dedication to Emperor Meiji.
Inside, torii hint at the existence of a shrine inside the park. These beautiful gates, seen all over Japan, usually mark the entrance of a Shinto shrine. Outside Meiji Shrine, dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken, you will see a wall of sake barrels that have been dedicated to it.
The inner complex includes Temizuya which are the water pavilions where worshipers can cleanse their hands and mouths before entering the shrine. Ema, wooden tablets on which prayers and wishes are inscribed, are located just inside, tied to wooden poles. Kiganbun are the bits of paper you will see in temples tied to ropes and contain wishes and gratitude to the deities. The park was calm on a weekday and I found it to be a great introduction to the city. It's calming rather than overwhelming - a nice place to be alone.
Kaikaya (By the Sea)
My first night, Dino and I ventured away from our group, who had taken over a nightclub the company had rented for the evening. The buffet offered questionable food and happily, because we were rather hungry, I noticed that we were right around the corner from a place I had read about and was dying to try. So we walked the few blocks to Kaikaya.
The walk there was fascinating - especially as it was my first night out in Japan! Brightly lit and painted in neon colors, we passed a few of the famous "love hotels" of Shibuya where you can rent rooms by the hour, if you're so inclined.
We stayed in Tokyo a grand total of four nights and ate at Kaikaya 3 times. Don’t get me wrong, I am usually a fan of variety on a trip abroad. I am the kind of person who likes to explore all that the culinary culture has to offer. I do feel I got a great experience from all the eating we did around Japan while we were there and I do not regret the decision to eat at Kaikaya so many of our nights in Tokyo! Here is why: this place was everything I love about eating out. The food was SUPERB, it wasn’t too expensive, there were lots of dishes to share, the waiters were characters, friendly and helpful, and bursting with energy, and the ambience was energetic but intimate.
Kaikaya (By the Sea) is separated into two separate dining rooms. The first (the one on the right) is smaller and more intimate. Small tables along the front window offer a glimpse into the kitchen to the left and walls that are completely covered in photos and art.
The menu offers a decent variety of sashimi, seasonal delicacies, sizzling hot plates, salads and desserts.
The second dining room offers seats along the kitchen so you can watch your food being prepared by the smiling faces of your chefs. This was the first time we witnessed all the employees yell “welcome!” or some version of it as each and every person walked through the door! It was something we would see over and over again. Did I mention how much I love Japanese culture?
The chefs are so full of energy and work so quickly and skillfully it was a pleasure to watch. I got a sense as I watched them that they are part of a well oiled machine. There is so much activity in Kaikaya, even late at night, but everything worked in harmony. I would recommend a night in each of the dining rooms if you love this place as much as I did!
We tried quite a few dishes but here are a handful of our favorites:
We started with a sashimi plate that we filled from the a la carte menu that changes depending on what's in season. Ours consisted of squid, delicate prawns, bream, tuna and octopus.
My favorite were the garlic-butter mushrooms which I even tried to recreate upon returning to London at the restaurant with satisfactory results. They arrived covered on a sizzle platter. As the waiter set it on the table he uncovered it and poured over the amazing tamari sauce. The bonito flakes garnishing the dish began dancing as if alive!
This towering tuna jaw arrived in a bowl resting in a sparerib-style sweet sauce. Holding the jaw vertically, you scrape down the bone with your fork to separate the moist meat into the sauce. Heaven!
My husband's favorite was the steak. It was rich, fatty and flavorful sizzling in a ponzu sauce. It came with a few charred vegetables.
Their tuna tartare was absolutely amazing with all the fixings resting around it to be stirred in.
Get your server to recommend a sake to you based on your particular taste! Kaikaya's list is impressive!
High 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo is the lovely New York Bar. Arriving late and in a big group, we still managed to get a table by the window. They do serve food but we only had drinks and enjoyed the stunning view of a lit up Tokyo night.
Located in the Shinjuku district, I would recommend at least having a drink here to enjoy the view and listen to the live music. Just like in the movie Lost in Translation, full of scenes shot in the hotel, the bar features cheesy lounge music and jazz singers.
This bar is also where I realized how common the hi-tech bidets of Japanese restrooms really are. More on that later. But here is a picture to describe how we all felt about Japanese bidets:
Tsukiji Fish Market
Yes, you can wake up in the wee hours of the morning and wait in line to see the famous auctions of Tsujiki market. You aren't guaranteed to make it in though as the space is limited to just 120 people.
But if waking at 3 am and standing in line in the cold rain isn't really your bag, you can see all the glory of the Tsujiki Fish Market after 9 am when it opens to the public. Weaving in and out of aisles of the inner market you will be absolutely dazzled by the staggering selection and variety of seafood available here. You can watch fishmongers sharpening their huge knives, slaughtering and sorting their wares.
Sadly, I read recently that the market is moving to a new location to accommodate all the tourism. I hope the new space has a similar atmosphere and isn't completely geared to tourists.
The dizzying array of seafood in the inner market of Tsujiki Market.
The outer market is a great place to try all the delicious, FRESH fish brought into Tsukiji. This is the place where high-end sushi restaurants all over the world buy their fish and fly it into their cities. If you're a fan of sushi, and visit Tokyo, you absolutely cannot miss the freshest sushi you will find on the planet!
We had no qualms eating sushi at 10 am. Seat yourself at one of the many stalls and watch as delicacies are prepared right in front of you.
Koenji Vintage Shopping
I absolutely love vintage shopping. The excitement of finding a good piece is akin to finding a new favorite dish. After doing a bit of research it sounded like the Koenji neighborhood in Tokyo was the place to go for a dense vintage shopping experience. I'm glad we went for two reasons: the shopping, obviously, but also Koenji is unlike anywhere else we went in Tokyo. A short train ride from Shibuyu, Koenji streets are small and relatively quiet. Everywhere you turn, it seems, there is a vintage shop or center to explore.
Give yourself at least half a day to explore this wonderful area. Do some research and take notes about where you'd like to visit. It's easy to lose yourself here!
I wish I could have spent more time in Tokyo but alas, we had more places to visit. There are so many more areas I wish that I had been able to visit but Tokyo is absolutely massive.
Read up before you go and decide what your priorities are going to be. Some vacations are great flying by the seat of your pants. And I'm sure down the line, I might like to visit Tokyo this way. But if it's your first time, I would definitely plan ahead. See my notes below.
General Notes on Tokyo:
On my first day, I found myself standing perplexed in front of the map in Shibuya Station. After about five minutes of willing the map to mean something to me, someone tapped me on the shoulder. A smiling teenage boy asked me in perfect English if I needed any help. He could probably sense my relief as I told him that yes, I was completely lost. He led me to the English map (mortified) and asked me where I wanted to go. He then guided me to the ticket machine, showed me how to pick out the station I wanted and even took me to the correct platform to catch my train.
You can rely on the kindness of strangers in this country. Most of the younger generation speak English and they are eager to try it out on lost-looking tourists. But if you plan on spending extended periods of time in any place in Japan, get a guidebook. An app I find really useful in traveling is called Stay which offers an offline GPS tracking map, recommendations and tips for cities you can download to your own personal guide.
OK, I promised we would get back to the bidets. Every modern hotel and even some public restrooms in Japan are equipped with hi-tech bidets that allow you to customize your toilet experience. From the temperature of the water to the intensity of spray, every bathroom experience was heavenly and I must say, I totally want one of these in my house one day! I'm a total convert! It wasn't just the bidets, but the showers, amenities, and toiletries in this country that were all amazing. The Japanese know how to make you feel pampered!
Know the exact address of everywhere you intend to take a cab. Frustratingly, they will not take you anywhere unless you have this so have the address and a screenshot of it pinpointed on a map for your driver. Sadly, the drivers are the least friendly people we encountered on the trip.