Tokyo was part of a two week trip to Japan in November 2009, which also included Nagano, Kyoto, Yokohama and Numazu. It was my fifth trip to Tokyo and Japan but probably took the most time to plan, in order to get it just right.
When I’m in Tokyo, I like to just wander around my favourite spots. It’s so huge that I have to do it in very small chunks, otherwise I become very overwhelmed and disoriented. On this trip, we spent six days in Tokyo in between trips to Kyoto, Numazu and the Japan Alps. As this was my fifth visit to Tokyo, I chose to concentrate on my favourite places, as well as visit a few areas new to me.
Trip 1: Tsukiji – breakfast – Hamarikyu Garden – Sumida River trip – Asakusa – lunch – Kappabashi-dori
Tsukiji Fish Market
This was my first visit to Tsukiji fish market, although I came very close to going on the last trip. Before the jetlag wore off, I decided on an early morning outing to this gigantic wholesale market, which has been in its current location since the 1923 earthquake. Even with jetlag, I knew it would be impossible for us to arrive for 5 am, but 6.05 am was a respectable enough start!
Countless varieties of seafood were on sale at the hundreds of stalls and the sheer volume was overwhelming. We also had to be alert at all times to avoid the numerous mini forklift vehicles scooting up and down the aisles at top speed. Tsukiji workers can be brusque, but after all they are there to earn a living rather than accommodate tourists. A friendly ‘ohaiyo gozaimasu‘ works wonders and one vendor even drew a little map to direct us to the sushi bars. These are located near the other shops and stalls that sell all manner of food products from pickles to divine matcha ice cream and which are just as interesting as the main fish market itself.
My sushi breakfast was a welcome respite from the manic hustle and bustle of the fish market. I chose a place with no queue as I wasn’t prepared to wait for my food. My opinion is that the fish is equally fresh no matter where you eat it at Tsukiji, so why follow the hordes of tourists? I sat with three Japanese diners at the small counter facing an extremely friendly and entertaining sushi chef, who was immensely proud of his creations and loved being photographed too. My breakfast cost ￥2600 (£18) and was worth every yen. I left my sushi bar feeling very pleased with myself, especially as there were ridiculously long queues (with a two to three hour wait!) outside some establishments by 7.45 am.
Hamarikyu Detached Garden
Hamarikyu Detached Garden, situated on an island and surrounded by an ancient walled moat, is a 12 minute walk from Tsukiji. This was the first shogun’s hunting ground in the 17th century before it became a subsequent shogun’s residence. After a brief stroll around the tranquil grounds – there is also a pretty teahouse that serves tea and wagashi – it was finally time to take the 45 minute Sumida River boat trip up to Asakusa (the first boat leaves at 10.35 am). The quicker route is by subway, but the Japanese traditionally travelled to Asakusa by boat and you will see a very different view of Tokyo going this way.
Every time I return to Tokyo, I like to go to Asakusa, and we went twice this time. It is a little touristy, but I love walking up the busy stall-lined Nakamise-dori and looking at the traditional toys and food (including snacks like Kaminari Okoshi thunder rice crackers), before reaching the spectacular Senso-ji Temple. Not be missed are the little and much quieter streets and alleys off Nakamise-dori, where our two lunch restaurants and other old shops selling knives, paper, fans and other artisan products were located.
For our first lunch, we revisited Daikokuya (Tel: 03 3844 1111, 1-38-10 Asakusa) for their famous tendon or tempura donburi – tempura on rice with a strong soy-based sauce. The tempura is coloured dark brown from the sauce, which is incredibly tasty! A Japanese friend took us there on our last trip and we were keen to eat there again, although this time we went to the larger branch with tatami seating.
The second lunch was at Asadori (Tel: 03 3844 8527, 1-31-2 Asakusa), which specialises in kamameshi, a traditional dish of rice steamed in soup and various ingredients and served in an individual (and very hot) pot. The Take combination at ￥1600 (£11) provided me with three rice bowls’ worth of delicious rice with seafood, mushrooms and other vegetables. Very satisfying!
Kappabashi-dori, the wholesale restaurant supply district, is another place I’ve always wanted to visit. It is near Asakusa (a 15 minute walk west of Senso-ji) and the length of the street is about a kilometre, so it’s great for a stroll.
I particularly liked Soi, an interior design shop that would not look out of place in Meguro or Daikanyama. The ceramic pieces were simple but extremely desirable. I bought a couple of furoshiki , but could have easily left with half the shop’s contents.
Trip 2: Ameyoko – Ueno Park – Yanaka
Ameyoko Market or Confectioners’ Alley, running along the railway tracks of Ueno station, was the traditional place to buy ame (candy) during the Edo period. It then became a black market after the Second World War and many American products were sold there (‘Ame’ also stands for America).
Now practically everything – food products, clothes, shoes – can be found at the hundreds of shops, usually at a discount. There are also plenty of restaurants to tempt visitors. Ameyoko is particularly crowded before the New Year as people stock up on traditional foods and gifts for friends and family.
Using the excellent National Geographic walking tour of Old Tokyo which we found online, we walked from noisy Ameyoko through Ueno Park to eventually reach the quiet, traditional neighbourhood of Yanaka.
Yanaka survived both the 1923 earthquake as well as the Second World War bombings, and is a rare example of a shitamachi district (Tokyo’s old downtown), with old houses packed in narrow alleys, as well as small food stalls. It was a very pleasant area to spend the afternoon.
Eating Out & Things To Do
Kagurazaka is another well-preserved shitamachi area, with a mixture of traditional shops and trendy boutiques and cafés. Our friends took us there for a delicious Italian lunch at Scugnizzo!, followed by afternoon tea and manju (steamed wheat buns with a sweet bean jam filling) at hip tiny café Mugimaru 2 (Tel: 03 5228 6393, Kagurazaka 5-20). Manju options ( ￥140 each) included azuki jam in a black sugar bun; azuki cinnamon jam in a tea-flavoured bun; sweet potato jam in a white bun; and sesame azuki jam & cheese in a wild grass bun. All are highly recommended!
Something fun to do at the weekend is a visit to an antique or flea market, of which there are many in Tokyo. The trick is to find one that is open on the Sunday (this seems to be the most popular day) that you’re in the city. Some will open from dawn to dusk, and in light but not heavy rain, so try and research this before you arrive. Luckily for us, Yasukuni Shrine antique market happened to be open every Sunday in November. There were weird and wonderful things for sale, from samurai swords and World War Two rifles to old ceramics, cameras and toys. It’s also great for taking photos of local people browsing for bargains.
A pleasant area to go furniture and interiors shopping is Meguro (one long street lined with shops), while nearby Daikanyama is packed with boutiques and restaurants.
We were taken by friends to Shisenan Teuchi Soba (Tel: 03 3712 8555, 6-6-3 Shimomeguro), a small soba restaurant on a residential Meguro street. Teuchi soba means the soba noodles are handmade by the chef. This was one of our favourite meals of the trip and I discovered afterwards that Shisenan is featured in the Miele restaurant guide. The chef uses only 100% juwari soba (pure buckwheat) and the noodles were phenomenal. He also runs soba making classes every Tuesday (￥4000 for 90 minutes). The menu is only in Japanese, and reservations are accepted for dinner but not lunch (closed Mon & Tue).
We arrived before it opened at 11.45 am to secure four of the 16 seats in the tatami seating area. Highlights included the freshest yuba (the skin by-product of tofu) I have ever had, in the form of yuba sashimi; sobagaki, a large soba dumpling similar to polenta and served with wasabi, nori and soy sauce; and two types of satsuma age (fishcakes) which were superb. We each had a different soba dish and mine seemed to be the favourite – hot duck dipping sauce with cold noodles. The meal ended with a bowl of hot soba-yu, the water in which the soba is boiled, to drink either straight or mixed with the remainder of the dipping sauces. It might sound strange, but it’s delicious and supposed to be very nutritious.
Nishi-Azabu, near Roppongi Hills, is full of small hip restaurants and bars that can be rather hard to find. We were taken by friends to their favourite hangout, Hale Kai’s (Tel: 03 3400 8012, 2-16-4 Nishi Azabu), where we had one of the best evenings of the entire Japan trip, with creative dishes, excellent company and relaxed surroundings. Highlights included fresh oysters with yuzu and wasabi sauce; seared katsuo (bonito) with ankimo (raw monkfish liver) and grated daikon; Hale Kai’s original lobster stock cheese risotto (out of this world!); and scallop and uni (sea urchin) cream spaghettini with salmon roe.
There was also a very special watering hole where we were taken afterwards, but as to its location, I was sworn to eternal secrecy…
The head office of the company where I used to work is located in trendy Omotesando, so I know the area well, particularly for shopping. Two restaurants we were taken to for lunch are expensive for dinner, but offer reasonably priced set lunch menus.
Gokaku (Tel: 03 5413 0831, 3-14-4 Minami Aoyama) serves mostly vegetarian food (but don’t let this put you off, as the dishes are very innovative!), such as lotus root manju lightly fried in a special sauce, and figs with tofu paste. Apart from several delicious vegetable side dishes, I had the spectacular Iberico pork donburi and the silkiest, lightest almond tofu, originally a Chinese dessert, that I have ever had.
Ariso-Tei (Tel: 03 5466 5820, 5-4-41 Minami Aoyama) specialises in seafood from Fukui prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast. Next door is their stylish shop selling specialist food products from the area, as well as beautifully designed ceramics, chopsticks and other homewares. From the several lunch set menus, we ordered the anago (eel) teishoku and soba with tempura set – one with a clear soy sauce-based dipping sauce, the other with a spicy grated daikon (Japanese radish) version. I had the grilled mackerel and gindara (black cod) in a special yuzu miso sauce. This was one of my favourite dishes of the trip, along with the iberico pork donburi.
Another place to mention is the Ninja restaurant in Akasaka-Mitsuke (2-14-3 Nagata-cho, Akasaka Tokyu Hotel Plaza 1F), where my Japanese stepmother-in-law took us for dinner. Although it’s a themed restaurant, Ninja was a lot of fun, and surprisingly full of suited Japanese diners rather than tourists. Each set of guests is greeted by a masked ninja who leads them through dimly lit, narrow corridors for ‘training’, crossing over a trap bridge, before finally reaching their table (in our case a private dining room). The husband was impressed with his vegetarian set menu, while I absolutely loved the magic tricks that a ninja performed for us between courses. They were so simple but impossible to figure out! And the food was far better than I expected. Although somewhat expensive, Ninja is an experience that visitors to Japan will enjoy.
Last but not least, the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum (Tel: 045 471 0503, 2-14-21 Shin-Yokohama) in Yokohama, our very first port of call after stepping off the plane! The recreation of a 1960s Tokyo shitamachi district (old downtown), in which the eight restaurants and other facades are located, is really well done, and popular with regular Japanese diners.
I had planned to try a small bowl of ramen or Chinese-style noodles (there are full size and ’sample’ size bowls) from each of the eight ramen restaurants representing the different regional styles. However, due to the onset of extreme jetlag, just a single sample size bowl from Harukiya (representing the Tokyo style), was more than enough to fill me up.
The system of buying a ticket from a vending machine outside each restaurant was complicated as the instructions were in Japanese, but a kind policeman in costume and a restaurant attendant helped me out. I even managed to explain in Japanese, no mean feat, that the husband was vegetarian. The museum is an excellent introduction to the regional variations of ramen and I shall return with a very empty stomach next time to try the other seven restaurants…
Shopping & Misc
I go to Tokyu Hands every time I’m in Tokyo. It’s a gigantic multi-storied shop selling all manner of household and hardware goods, stationery and other useful things you never knew you needed. I usually head for the Shibuya branch, but my friend recently recommended the one in Ikebukuro as it’s better organised. We still managed to spend nearly three hours there, starting on the 8th floor and ending up in the basement.
Our purchases included little woollen socks for our dining chair legs to stop them from scratching the wooden floorboards (what a brilliant idea!). If it’s your first time at Tokyu Hands, allow at least half a day to explore. Seriously. You’ll find things you never knew even existed.
I also discovered homeware shop J-Period in Omotesando Hills shopping complex, selling exquisitely designed ceramics, chopsticks, kitchen utensils and countless other products. I managed to walk away with (just) a mini round hinoki wood tray from Atami, a set of three condiment jars and a shichimi togarashi bamboo dispenser for around £80. I can’t wait to go back again.
Hara Donuts is a successful okara (soymilk) doughnut chain, using soybeans from Hokkaido. They come in different flavours such as orange and Earl Grey. Delicious!
There were far too many places that I couldn’t visit this time, but luckily there is always the next trip to look forward to. I had the quirky neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa on my list, along with Nishi-Ogikubo, an area famous for its antique and second-hand shops (about 23 minutes on the train from Shibuya). I should also have done more research into the shops at Jiyugaoka, Ebisu and Hiro-o, as I love home interiors and design shops and there are many in these areas.
Finally, no matter how good you are at navigating your way around a city, a warning about Japanese addresses. We had a detailed street atlas with us at all times and still struggled to find many places that didn’t have street names.
For example, with the address 2-16-4 Nishi Azabu – the 2 represents the city district or chome, the 16 is the city block and the 4 is the house number. However, it’s hard to find these numbers actually marked on anything. So allow plenty of time if you’re going somewhere unfamiliar. And enjoy your trip!