At first glance, Tokyo seems like one large maze full of nothing but concrete and glass. It is one of the biggest and most populated cities in the world. Despite the density and “big-city-craziness” on the surface though, Tokyo is one of the most accessible and alluring cities I’ve ever been to. This past April, my wife Lindsay and I visited Japan for the first time, and we spent the first four days exploring Tokyo.
We stayed in the Shinjuku neighborhood, which is home to some of the tallest skyscrapers in the city. Our home base was the Hilton. I should mention here that the Hilton gave us a media rate and Executive Lounge access through our food blog Love and Olive Oil. So thanks Hilton! Service at the hotel was top notch, and the views from our room and the lounge were nothing short of spectacular.
Our travel tends to focus on exploring neighborhoods. We plan our day based around good food with a visit to one or two big “attractions” like a temple, museum, or some kind of monument each day.
First on our list of places to see was the Asakusa neighborhood where the famous Senso-ji temple and Nakamise shopping street are located. Nakamise was full of lots of little knick knack gifts…and people. If you don’t like fighting large crowds, I would suggest taking a quick look at the vendors, and then head over to some of the side streets around the temple. The adjacent streets were not crowded at all, and they had better shops and food options to explore.
Above is a quiet street in Asakusa near the temple. Only one street over was the very busy Nakamise below.
Nakamise street leads straight up to the Senso-ji temple, which is Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. We didn’t make it inside, but admired it from the street. The photo below was taken from the temple stairs looking towards one of its gates.
The next neighborhood I wanted to check out was Shibuya and it’s notorious crossing, or scramble as some call it. This is one of the busiest intersections in the world. When all of the vehicle traffic comes to a stop, the pedestrians cross in all directions (even diagonally) at the same time. On this particular day the weather was rainy so there was less foot traffic, but it was still fun to watch.
Lindsay had her heart set on trying a puffy Japanese pancake. Being the multi-taskers that we are, we found a window seat at Hoshino Coffee overlooking the crosssing. The coffee shop is on the second floor and provided a great view to watch the sea of umbrellas go by.
The pancake was quite good. I would love to try and recreate these at home. It was light on the inside like a soufflé, and seemed more like a dessert than the thin breakfast pancakes I am used to. This one was served with caramelized bananas and ice cream. Perfect for breakfast!
After pancakes we jumped on the train and went to the Harajuku neighborhood to check out the shops along Takeshita Street. One of our first stops was at a cat cafe. We had read about these cafes while planning our trip, and being cat people had to stop and check one out. You basically pay by the hour (or half hour) to hang out with the cats. These cats seemed very well taken care of, with plenty of places to climb, sleep, and play. When I say “cafe,” there was no food being served or a kitchen and wait staff. Instead, drinks were available from a vending machine, and the experience was more about hanging out with cats than it was about eating a meal. The Japanese love cats. I’ve never seen so many cat related products (shirts, bags, etc.) anywhere in my life.
You know what else the Japanese love? Ramen. We had our first real bowl of ramen in Japan from a place called Afuri. They have several locations in Tokyo. The entire ramen experience in Japan was completely different from anything I’ve seen in the U.S. Every ramen restaurant that we went to worked in a similar way. First, you order and pay at a machine located just inside or outside the door to the restaurant. Once you make a selection, the machine spits out a little ticket. Next you wait in line for seats to open up. As soon as there are free seats, you give a counter attendant your ticket, and within 10 minutes or so, steaming bowls of ramen arrive.
The noodles still had a little bite to them, the broth was rich and a bit fatty, and the fresh greens and seaweed balanced everything out. While the service is relatively quick, I doubt this kind of flavor is a quick process. I would love to know how long the cooks have to train to be good at making ramen this perfect.
Rather than a drawn out sit down affair with appetizers and multiple rounds of drinks, every place we encountered ramen in Japan was a quick service type establishment. People came, ate, and left without lingering for extended periods of time.
While the Japanese may eat their ramen quickly, they definitely take their time to enjoy the cherry blossoms, which were in full bloom when we were in Japan. We somehow managed to time our trip with the cherry blossom bloom perfectly. All along the Meguro canal the trees were lining the banks, and everywhere there were cherry blossoms, there were lots of people taking photos, taking walks, and having picnics near the blooming trees. Photo’s don’t do their beauty justice.
Since I’m on the subject of pretty plant life in the city, all over Tokyo we saw these little sidewalk gardens. They mostly seemed to appear outside what looked like personal residences, but sometimes shops or businesses would have them. I loved how they would cram a whole bunch of plants into a small space right at the entrance, giving a little color and life to an otherwise boring area.
Any post about Japan would be lacking if it didn’t mention the trains and mass transit system. The system, while elaborate and possibly a little confusing to someone new to it, was unbelievable. The trains were efficient, reliable, safe, clean, and most of all, ran on time. We were able to travel anywhere in Tokyo on subways and above ground trains that circled and crossed the city. Once you figured out the system, and the difference between the underground Metro subway lines, verse the above ground lines, it was pretty easy to get around. The only tricky part was finding the right platform as some of the stations are 3 or more layers deep into the ground.
One such station was Shinjuku station near our hotel. It was basically a labyrinth of stairs, hallways, train platforms, more stairs, and department stores that seemed to be surrounding the station. These department stores had the best food courts I have ever seen in my life on their bottom levels. They literally looked like cosmetic counters from a U.S. department store, but instead the cases were full of delicious foods. There were sweets, savory dishes, and just about anything you can imagine.
We found these fresh udon noodles from a vendor in the basement of the Isetan department store near Shinjuku station. They were doing a noodle making demonstration and made these right in front of us minutes before we ate them. One thing to keep in mind is that most of the food in these food courts was meant to be taken home and consumed. It was rare to find a place near the food court to actually eat what we bought.
Just to the north east of Shinjuku station is Kabukicho, otherwise known as Tokyo’s “red light” district. It is definitely worth walking through to check out all the lights and shops. There were so many people out that it felt very safe and somewhat touristy. Just to the east of Kabukicho is the Golden Gai, which is a small district crammed with a bunch of tiny bars that might only seat 5 or 6 people at a time. The bars are crammed into little narrow alleys and stacked on top of each other. We walked through before many of them were open.
On our last day in Tokyo we took a tour of the Tsukiji Fish Market and took a sushi class with our friends Laura and Connor. Laura runs A Beautiful Plate, a drool worthy food blog you should definitely check out. She and Connor happened to be in Japan around the same time we were and told us about this tour/sushi class they were doing. We met up in the morning and started the day with a tour of the market. The Tsukiji Fish Market is the biggest wholesale seafood market in the world, and is famous for its early morning tuna auction (3:30 am!). Our tour guide showed us how to choose fish for sushi, walked us around the market, and even procured some fresh fish samples for us inside the market. This was quite possibly the freshest fish I’ve ever tasted. It was sprinkled with just a dash of soy sauce and melted in my mouth.
After the market tour, we walked back to their facilities to learn how to make sushi! What better place to learn how to make it than in one of the areas in which modern sushi originated. It doesn’t get any fresher than this!
Within walking distance from the fish market and sushi making class was the Ginza neighborhood. We stopped by what may be Tokyo’s most famous coffee shop, Cafe L’ambre. I ordered a coffee made with beans that had been aged since the 1970’s. The idea that coffee beans can be aged blew my mind. I was always under the assumption that the fresher the beans are the better the coffee. I’m not sure I would get the same aged coffee again, but it was a fun thing to try in the moment. The interesting thing about Cafe L’ambre is that it is still operated by the same man who started it in 1948. He has some younger workers behind the counter these days, but he still hangs out at the cafe.
More ramen. These bowls were from a place in Tokyo Station on what is called Ramen Street. This “street” is actually an underground mini food court area that specializes in just ramen. There are eight restaurants offering different kinds of ramen. While most of the ramen seemed to have a pork base, we were intrigued by this place because it had a vegetarian option and used noodles made from carrots in one of their dishes. We tired both the pork base and vegetarian ramen and they were both excellent. Really, I don’t think we encountered any bad food in Tokyo or the other places we visited in Japan.
One of the more interesting meals we had was a traditional Japanese breakfast served at the Hilton in Shinjuku. Our western palates were not accustomed to eating fish for breakfast, but we really enjoyed this meal, which had fish as well as some fish paste (chewy boiled fish stuff that had the consistency of ultra firm tofu). In addition, the breakfast included rice, miso soup, and perhaps a couple things we didn’t recognize at all. I would recommend trying a traditional Japanese breakfast at least once for anyone visiting Japan for the first time. The Hilton also offered western breakfast food if fish in the morning just isn’t your thing.
For dessert in Japan, or any time really, there is an abundance of soft serve ice cream. I always went for the green matcha flavor (think sweetened creamy green tea without any bitterness). These ice cream shops could be found everywhere, in train stations, street corners, and food markets. We found these two cones in a place inside Shinjuku station. They pretty much have everything within Shinjuku station. If you counted all of the attached department stores, plus all of the food vendors inside the station, it is not an exaggeration to say that you could eat every meal in Shinjuku station for two weeks and not eat the same thing twice.
Other than once or twice in a busy train station, Tokyo never felt overwhelming like you might expect in a city of its size. We felt very safe the entire time we were there, even at night time in areas like the red light district. The areas we saw were very clean, surprisingly so given that there are very few public trash cans. I came away with the sense that the Japanese have a lot of respect for the areas in which they live in work. Either that or there is a very busy clean up crew that cleans all of the streets when no one is looking.
Stay tuned for my next post about our time in Kyoto!