Let’s come to terms with one thing before we plan our Tokyo vacation, shall we? Tokyo is not one of those cities that will ever feel conquerable. In much the same way that you can’t ‘do NYC’, Tokyo is just too expansive and too innovative to ever feel like you can really cross it off your bucket list just from a short trip. Bummer, I know, but at least now you can enjoy the land of sushi sans outrageous expectations. Moving on.
Where you stay will depend entirely on what type of traveler you are. Since traffic is absurd, cabs cost a fortune… and you could suffocate to death on the subway during rush hour… I suggest choosing a region of the city you prefer first and planning your lodging from there.
Playing it safe and opting for a gorgeous view and a short walk to the “Beverly Hills of Tokyo” I stayed at the Mitsui Garden Premier Hotel in the Ginza district. It is affordable, the rooms are spacious for Asian standards, and the futuristic toilets heat your toosh (among other options that I’m too shy to delve into). The hotel begins on floor 16, affording every guest a spectacular view of the skyline from their room. The staff speaks a passable amount of English and they were patient and helpful throughout the stay.
My one major complaint is that the pillows are absolutely dreadful. Two are paper thin. The other two rocks hidden in a pillow case. I was devastated. But in hindsight, maybe it’s just part of the cultural emersion. Perhaps the japanese prefer this sleep method of torture. And who am I to complain? It got me out of bed bright and early to explore the city. Nonetheless, sans the pillow incident, the Mitsui Garden Premier Hotel was the definition of affordable luxury and a place I would happily return to.
|Sweet Potato Street Food Heaven|
1. Start your day off at the Sensoji Temple, which is quite a bit north-east of the city. I cabbed to save time, but the metro is efficient and inexpensive. Explore the street food and shops outside of the temple doors. Make sure to stop at every single street cart serving sweet potatoes. There’s no sweet potatoes actually being sold. It’s a front. It must be some kind of drug cake, because it actually tastes like heaven. If you see anyone with an apple stuffed with whipped sweet potat interrogate them on the exact whereabouts of this shop. Nosh liberally on street food, but remember the Japanese don’t eat and walk, and you shouldn’t either. Enjoy your colorfully dipped chocolate banana in front of the place you purchased it. Choke down that last skewer and stroll through the temple grounds, making sure to take off your shoes before entering places of prayer.
Now, I know you are going to see the Skytree in the distance and feel drawn to it like a bug to a light. Stuff another sweet potato in your mouth and keep moving. The Skytree is not worth the 30 dollars a person. It is a tourist trap and you can see the same view without the lines and headache from other areas in the city.
Leaving the Sensoji Temple will be your most ambitious migration across the city – as we’re going to the second most famous temple from here. For that reason I suggest taking the metro to save the cab money.
2. Tour the peaceful Meiji Shrine, write out your prayers, buy some trinkets and head out.
3. On to Shibuya Crossing to see the hectic moshpit of teenie bopper fashion strut the street. Go down to the trenches if you’ve got a go pro or take my route and head to the second story Starbucks to watch the world’s busiest crosswalk from above.
4. From the Shibuya Station, hop the metro to Roppongi for a picture with the Louise Bourgeois’ giant spider sculpture and a free city view from the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office Building.
5. Head back to your hotel to freshen up before dinner. My restaurant suggestion is go for authentic. The city feels like NY and you will undoubtedly be overwhelmed by dining options. We ate on the 42nd floor of the Shodome City Center amongst Japanese businessmen sitting with their legs dangling below the sunken tables and shoes left at the door. The raw fish impeccable, the sauces divine, the experience riveting. Abide by the customs during dinner. Finish everything, never pass food with chopsticks or leave them sticking up from your bowl, don’t pour soy sauce directly atop food, and don’t tip!
6. Nightlife: Tokyo comes alive at night in the most mesmerizing of ways. I felt like I was walking through a video game of neon lights and overwhelming sounds and smells. For a ritzy night out with city views stick to Ginza or Roppongi. For dancing amongst the trendy youth, head to the Shibuya or Shinjuku district. You’ll also find dozens of bars in these areas offering sake and a large variety of beers.
|Street Food outside of the Tsukiji Fish Market|
1. Shouldn’t be hard getting out of bed since you just slept on rocks (or had a real Tokyo night out and haven’t slept yet)! First things first – and this is NOT to be skipped – head to the Tsukiji Fish Market via cab. If you’re ambitious (and they are in a season that allows tourists) get there at 5 AM to purchase a ticket to see the massive tuna auction. If your stomach is week from too many sake-tinis and hite beers, just get there before 8:30 AM and you can still get an essence of the bustle. Wander the alleyways of street food and crafts after adequate gawking (and probably gagging) at the fish plopped all over the floor or hanging from motorbikes. Your breakfast will be one for the books – something to relish and enjoy thoroughly – a true sushi breakfast with the best cuts of fish for the most reasonable price you can imagine. The most renowned places are Sushi Dai and Daiwa Sushi but expect an hour + wait in line. If the fish stench is getting to you and you can’t fathom wasting your morning waiting — you’ll find a number of on par sushi breakfast restaurants sprinkled in the halls surrounding the market.
3. For lunch, head to Tokyo Station and make your way underground to Ramen Road. Duck into one of the busier stalls, order from the kiosk, and enjoy some of the world’s best ramen for an incredibly affordable price. The bowls of soft noodles, meats and exotic vegetables are going to be life-changing-scrumptious just to give you a heads up. After lunch, spend some time sifting through shops inside Tokyo Station and taking in your surroundings. This is the real deal tourist-free version of Tokyo and the perfect place to do wallet friendly shopping and eating while you soak up the urban culture of this bustling city.
Tokyo is a whirlwind, an absolutely mind blowing experience straight out of a sci-fi movie in one neighborhood and a zen paradise in another. It is a place rich with history but eager with technology. Where American ideals are king but Japanese customs reign. It’s a beautiful, wonderful, hectic city that can’t be understood in just two days, or maybe ever. A place that changed me forever… that I yearned to return to before I had even left. Culture shock is an understatement, but call it what you will, Tokyo awakened a curiosity and wonderment in me that I have never felt before and never will forget.