Tokyo. Japan’s capital city. 13 million people. Business, fashion, shopping, and all things futuristic. It’s the home of anime, neon lights, cosplay, and outrageous piles of raw fish.
One cannot understand a country by only visiting its capital city. Likewise, one cannot fully understand a place without visiting its capital. So after we explored Japan for two weeks on the Discover Japan tour, we stayed an extra few days in Tokyo. Here’s what we found.
The First 24 Hours
Visit: Tsukiji Fish Market. If you’re feeling really ambitious, wake up in the wee hours of the morning to catch the tuna auction. There are a limited number of places for tourists at the auction, so be sure to get there around 4-5 AM.
Otherwise, enjoy the market between 9-11 AM when restaurants, seafood buyers, and ordinary people buy directly from the fish vendors, some of whom have families who have worked at the market for 20 generations (yes, do the math). Finish up your visit with a sushi breakfast at one of the tiny restaurants. Sushi Dai (Daisha) along building #6 is the most famous, but if you don’t have three hours to wait in line, try BenTomi Sushi a few doors down. We can recommend one of their dons (sushi rice covered with sashimi).
Note: The market is expected to move to a different location in 2014.
Visit: Senso-ji Buddhist Temple in the Asakusa area of Tokyo. It is the city’s oldest temple, dating back to the 7th century, and one of its most revered. Just nearby is the Asakusa Shrine, a Shinto shrine. The area around it is filled with shops, restaurants, and markets. If you visit in the late spring, check to see if the Sanja Matsuri, one of the three great Shinto festivals in Tokyo, is taking place.
Eat: Tempura at Tsunahachi Restaurant in Shinjuku. Take a seat at the bar to watch the tempura masters at work as they meticulously prepare everything – from asparagus to scallops – in some of the world’s greatest tempura batter. The lunch menu involves three main options ranging from $15-$30. Though it’s missing some of the more exotic bits of seafood, the basic menu offers the best value.
Visit: Akihabara, Tokyo’s center for gaming, anime and electronic pop culture. Get lost in the sea of lights, shops and anime characters popping out at you at every turn. It’s also the mecca for gadgets and electronics.
If you want something a bit on the “this is different” side, try an experience at a Maid Café for a quick drink or meal. You’ll come away with your head spinning, trying to make sense of what you just witnessed and where you’ve just been. (Don’t worry, it’s completely clean.)
Eat: Do-It-Yourself Monjayaki in Shibuya. Monjayaki is Tokyo’s version of Okonomiyaki, a combination of chopped vegetables and seafood turned in a thin pancake-like batter cooked on a hot grill. Not only is it hearty and cheap, but when you can make it yourself, it adds to the fun. Ask all the locals around you if you are lost; they will be more than happy to help. Not only is Monjayaki one of the least expensive meals you’ll find in Tokyo, it’s one of the most social.
Visit: Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in Shinjuku. Head up to the observation deck on the 45th floor and treat yourself to a fantastic view over the city at night. The deck is open to the public until 11 PM on weekdays and is free. Be sure to leave a bit of time to poke around the gift shop.
48 Hours Later
Visit: Harajuku, bridge near subway station. The wall-to-wall scene-to-be-seen neighbourhood known for cosplay (short for “costume play,” a type of living performance art where teenage kids dress up in hip, anime costumes) and goth, especially on Sundays.
Visit: Meiji Shrine in Harajuku. A slice of peace and nature in the middle of Tokyo’s cosplay hipster neighborhood.
Eat: Conveyor belt sushi in Shinjuku. Sushi aficionados, purists and snobs: Don’t be put off by the conveyor belt, as some belts serve up sizable portions of quality sushi at unbelievable prices. The big secret to conveyor belt sushi dens: almost every one will also feature an a la carte menu so that you can order up your favorite sushi, maki and sashimi combinations – made to order fresh so you don’t have to wait for them to show up on the belt. Our favorite stumble-upon-it sushi: Tototoriton Sushi Go-Round near Shinjuku subway. Most plates were under 130 Yen ($2).
Visit: Shibuya Crossing at night. With the sea of lights, traffic, and people, this is where you get the classic “Lost in Translation” moment.
Local: Karaoke. There are endless options for karaoke places all over the city, which means competition. This is a good thing, as many offer discounts on beer, karaoke rooms, and food for the first few hours. We found our favourite place not too far from the south entrance of the Shinjuku station. Be sure to venture out of your private karaoke room and crash the room of a group of locals. You never know – you might soon be leading them in Michael Jackson songs for the rest of the night.