Japan Part II: Top 10 Experiences in Tokyo
Tokyo is absolutely magical. It's one of those places you go where you think to yourself "Yes, I could totally live here." From the city lights to the streets lined in cherry blossoms, the fashion and art, the sushi and noodles, I was inspired by everything I saw and every experience I was lucky enough to have.
In this post, I share 10 experiences I had in Tokyo that should not be missed. This is a bit different from the standard itinerary posts we write on TBP because I didn't have a set plan when I arrived. I was constantly distracted by the beauty of Tokyo, and restricting you to an itinerary might prevent you from exploring this city for yourself and finding beauty around every corner.
TBP's Top 10
1. Explore Harajuku
Harajuku is the mecca of Tokyo shopping. You'll find bubble-gum colored stores and iconic Tokyo fashion. When I arrived, I walked into a store called Pink Latte and without looking at the sizes, carried an arm-full of pink clothing into a dressing room. I quickly realized that I had walked into a children's store and had a good laugh with my travel buddy.
I recommend strolling the streets and taking in all that this Tokyo experience has to offer. Check out these 50 things to do in Harajuku for some inspiration.
2. Satisfy your senses in Roppongi’s Art District
Spend a day immersing yourself in the art scene of Roppongi. I recommend Mori Art Museum, The National Art Center, Suntory Museum of Art, and 21_21 Design Sight. 21_21 Design was by far my favorite because the exhibit at the time was interactive and the building is absolutely stunning. If you're hungry or want to do some shopping while in the area, stop by the Roppongi Hills, a large complex similar to a mall. While I was there, I stumbled on a craft sake tasting event and spent a few hours sipping sake and eating from food trucks.
3. Take a local cooking class
My favorite part about Japan was the food. If I could only eat one type of cuisine for the rest of my life, it would be Japanese. While in Tokyo, I recommend taking a cooking class and learning how to make Japanese food for yourself. I attended a class at the Tokyo Cooking Studio and booked it through Airbnb experiences. The class met at a local market, shopped together and then made miso soup, octopus salad, sushi and even mochi!
4. Learn about Sake and Shocho
Did you know that sake is made when a mold called yellow koji is used to ferment rice? There is a premium type of sake called Ginjo made from a special rice that has been milled to a much greater extent than with traditional sake. After trying it, I can never go back to the house-warm sake I usually order. Also, do you know what Shochu is? It's a distilled liquor that can be made with 53 different ingredients including rice, barley and sweet potatoes. It's also the lowest calorie alcohol available.
I didn't know any of this until I took a class on Sake and Shocho through Airbnb experiences. I learned that when you order sake you should never pour your own and always drink it served cold. If you want to impress your friends next time you go out for sushi and sake, I highly recommend taking this class.
5. Go bar hopping in Golden Gai
A Tokyo trip wouldn't be complete without a night out in Golden Gai. This tiny area in Shinjuku is just 6 alleys packed with over 200 bars and restaurants. The bars are so small that only about 5 people can fit in each. Some bars are for locals only, but I was only turned away once before taking a seat in a tiny bar that resembled the entrance to my grandma's house. The bartender was super friendly and I even met some other travelers while sipping my gin and tonic. When you're sitting so close to other people, it's easy to make new friends. I recommend starting your night in Piss Alley to first eat some Yakitori (bbq chicken) and then walk a few blocks to Golden Gai (see our map below).
6. Explore the Tsukiji Fish Market
I love exploring local markets while traveling and knew I couldn't miss a fish market in Tokyo. The Tsukiji Fish Market is the largest wholesale fish market in the world! It's also famous for it's early morning tuna auction that has become a huge tourist attraction. To attend the auction, you have to arrive as early as 3 am! I chose to sleep in a bit more and arrived at 9am. I strolled around for a while, admiring the fresh tuna and varieties of shellfish lining the aisles. I also stopped at a couple different sushi bars to taste the freshest fish I've ever eaten.
Check out this article that I found really helpful when I was planning to visit the market. It also has information about how to attend the tuna auction.
7. Drink a cup of joe at Tajimaya Coffee
If you're a coffee fan like me, you won't want to miss Tajimaya Coffee. It's located right on the corner of Piss Alley and there you can find a cup of rare Luwak Coffee. The certificate for the cup I ordered is below and explains more about this high-quality coffee. To sum up the process: a wild cat in Indonesia eats what are considered the best coffee beans in the world and poops out the beans, which are made into an incredible cup of $30 coffee. It was the smoothest coffee I've ever tasted.
8. Sip on a cocktail at the New York Bar
Have you ever seen Lost in Translation? Well, the New York Bar where Bill and Scarlett meet is located in the Park Hyatt Hotel in Shinjuku and there isn't a better spot to see the Tokyo skyline at night. A visit here isn't cheap, so you can expect to spend about $50 for entrance and one drink. In my opinion, it was worth it for the breathtaking views and live music.
9. Stroll through Omotesando
Omotesando was not on my agenda, but when I stumbled upon a quaint, tree-lined street with cute coffee shops and high-end shopping, I decided to spend some time walking around. Omotesando is located in Shibuya and is famous for it's gorgeous architecture. The location of this street is very close to Harajuku, so you can visit both on the same day.
10. Eat everything
Everything. I mean it. The best part about Japan is the food. I ate sushi 6 out of the 7 days I was in Japan, ramen and udon more than once, and mochi every single day. Here's a list of what you must eat while in Japan and some restaurant options to check out.
Japan is famous for it's sushi. It takes 10 years to become a sushi chef and they take their art very seriously. I recommend trying the Otoro or fatty tuna sushi while in Japan. In Tokyo, you can't really go wrong with sushi. My favorite sushi in Tokyo was at the Tsukiji Fish Market because it was so incredibly fresh, but I also walked into a few sushi spots during my time there and none of them disappointed me. Check out our tips below for some help with sushi eating etiquette!
Japanese ramen combines wheat noodles in a meat broth and is flavored with soy sauce or miso. It is usually served with pork and other toppings and I always recommend adding a soft boiled egg. The best ramen I ate in all of Japan was in the basement of the Odakyu Department Store at Abura Soba. It was Tokyo-style ramen with less broth than what I am used to, but the noodles were perfectly cooked and the flavor was amazing.
Udon was the first meal I ate when I arrived in Tokyo. Udon is similar to ramen but the noodles are a bit thicker. The restaurant we chose was Shin Udon and right when I arrived, I realized this place was not a secret. There was a line out the door but the noodles were incredible and worth the wait. I ordered the regular udon with some ginjo sake.
Yakitori is a type of skewered bbq chicken and it's another food you should add to your list when you visit Tokyo. The best Yakitori can be found in Piss Alley, also know as Yakitori alley. I recommend stopping here before your night out in Golden Gai.
Mochi is a japanese rice cake often eaten as dessert. You might have seen ice cream mochi at your local supermarket, but mochi in Japan is usually not filled with ice cream and rather with a red bean or matcha paste. Don't go to Japan without trying it out!
Where to Stay
After a lot of research, I decided to stay in the Shinjuku area and found an incredible Airbnb for just over $100 USD a night. I was within walking distance from the main Shinjuku station and a close distance to some of the mains attractions I wanted to experience, such as Golden Gai.
TBP Insider Tips
> Throughout my time in Japan, my Airbnb hosts gave me "pocket wifi" and it was a life saver! I highly recommend renting one from the airport if you aren't offered one with your accommodation. There are stands near the taxi stations that you can rent them from.
> If you have more than 4 days in Japan, visit Kyoto, Nara and Osaka. Check out our itinerary here.
> Japan is a very developed country, so you can rely on using your credit card and taking cash out at an ATM. The currency in Japan is called Japanese Yen and the conversion rate at the time of this post is 1USD = 109.89JPY.
> Depending on your itinerary, it is probably a good idea to buy the JR Rail pass which can be used all over Japan. I didn't buy it myself and while the amount of money I spent on trains in the week may have been a little less than what the 7 day JR Rail pass costs, the convenience of having one pass that you can use for almost all of your transportation will save you some precious time and confusion as you try to buy tickets at every station. I'm embarrassed to admit I got on the wrong train more than once!
> The train system in Japan is very reliable and you don't need to book your train ahead of time.
> If you do need to buy tickets at a train station and are an English speaker, always look for the "English" button first. It took me a while to catch on to that, but once I figured it out, buying tickets was a lot easier. On some machines you have to put the money in first and others you pay after selecting the ticket. I used cash to purchase but most ticketing machines take cards as well.
> Ordering sushi and eating sushi is an art in Japan. My go-to order always includes salmon (sake), maguro or otoro (types of tuna) as well as yellow-tail (Hamachi). Check out this list of Japanese sushi item terms to help you with your orders.
> Another sushi tip for you: eat the sushi from light to dark, and do not dip it directly into the soy sauce. Usually, sushi is served as it is meant to be eaten. If you do want to add some soy sauce, dip a piece of ginger into the sauce and brush it onto the sushi so you don't overpower the taste.
> If I had more time in Japan, I would also have booked a night or two at an Onsen, which is a natural hot spring that exists in Japan due to the active volcanos located there. This is definitely on my list next time I visit, and I plan to go to one of the Onsen's on this list.