I quickly discovered that trying to see everything in Tokyo in five days is a fool’s errand, so while this is by no means a definitive guide to the city, I’ve highlighted some of my favorite things I did and would advise you to spend much more than five days in Tokyo if possible.
Tsukiji Fish Market
The Tsukiji Market, to me, is the absolute can’t-miss thing in Tokyo. The enormous wholesale fish market is one of the largest in the world and operates out of a giant warehouse along the Sumida River. On paper, this doesn’t sound that interesting, but I can’t think of anything else in the world that gives you a better behind-the-scenes look at a country’s major industry. You certainly won’t be left wondering if you’ve seen something authentic. At one point, I saw a woman calculating a sale with an abacus.
This place looks like it has the structural integrity of a lean-to and you’ll have to be pretty agile to weave in and out of the narrow aisles, dodging huge stacks of styrofoam boxes, endless rows of every kind of sea creature imaginable, and all manner of fish detritus. To see the market in action, get there right at 9 a.m when it opens to the public.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the famous tuna auction, which is a sore subject for me because I dropped the ball on this one, but if you’re willing to get up at 2 a.m., it’s the ultimate Tsukiji experience. I stupidly did not heed the advice of the guy at my hotel and left too late in order to get a spot, so I unfortunately cannot offer any insight there. Whenever you think you should leave, leave earlier than that.
I have thoughts about visiting Tsukiji.
The market is a truly unique and important place that lets you see a side of Japanese culture that you would never get to see anywhere else. The fact that this is free and open to the public blows me away. At the same thing, I was absolutely stunned by how rude and/or oblivious most visitors to the market were, and our presence undoubtedly got in the way of business and slowed everything down. Wisely, us proles aren’t let in until after 9 a.m. once that bulk of the day’s work is over, but even so, I can’t imagine many other places that would let this kind of tourist nonsense get in the way of important business. We’re the very lucky beneficiaries of this system and I was sorry to see so few people honoring that.
No matter how diligent you are, you’re almost always going to be in the way given the incredibly close quarters (architecturally, this place would never have gotten off the ground in a place as litigious as the U.S.). If you’re able to visit the historic location in the next year (the market is moving in 2016 to open up valuable space along the waterfront), my advice would be to split up with your traveling companion (if one exists) and put your phone away as much as possible. I was lucky enough to have more than one vendor explain to me what he was doing with the fish once the swarming smartphone packs had moved on to the next photo op.
Omotesando and Harajuku
Probably my favorite neighborhood in Tokyo is Omotesando, which you’ll find highly recommended in every guidebook and for good reason. The area is known for high-end shopping, but the place to be is north or south of the main drag (Jingumae).
This part of Tokyo is what most European cities want to be: an area filled with winding side streets with great shops on every corner and lovely, well-maintained homes. Every time I try to have this kind of romantic, wandering experience in a European city, it always works out great for about three blocks before I inevitably come to a major intersection with shops selling Eiffel Tower keychains or pizza magnets or items with various sexual innuendos involving Big Ben.
There’s no wrong turn in Omotesando, so simply veer off Jingumae and go.
No one would accuse the neighboring Harajuku of being quaint, and the teenage-girl haven seems to be entirely covered in rainbows and sparkly bits, and everything plays off either a princess theme or takes its inspiration from Hot Topic.
Here is where you’ll find a Barbie store, a thrift shop inexplicably named Chicago, a Cinderalla-themed emporium called Princess One Spoon, and the self-explanatory Rainbow Pancakes, which had an enormous line on Saturday afternoon. If you really want pancakes, which are very popular in Tokyo, head to the more subdued Brooklyn Pancake House in Omotesando.
Omotesando is sophisticated and homey, while Harajuku is a technicolor kitsch-land, but both are great for an afternoon stroll to get to know Tokyo. Just make sure you’re in Omotesando when you decide to eat.
Ebisu is Harajuku for grown-ups and/or people with discriminating taste (not often do those two overlap). You truly cannot turn around without running into an intimate wine bar frequented by the beautiful people and after-work crowd. This area is great for finding restaurants that blend traditionally appointed Japanese decor with innovative menus and intricate cocktail lists. Navigating the Ebisu restaurant scene can be a challenge if you don’t speak Japanese, so either cave and opt for one of the many Italian bistros (all of which looked wonderful) or head to the minimalist Afuri Ramen, which has an English menu.
Ebisu is also the site of my No. 1 recommendation in Tokyo: Bar Trench. The menu prominently features absinthe and several original cocktails, as well as a friendly crowd with many expats. The Canadian waitress working there when I went was lovely and the French bartender was…very French. But he made an excellent cocktail.
The designated posh neighborhood in Tokyo, Ginza on a Saturday morning is the epicenter of luxuriating. Women with parasols line up for brunch, old men stake out prime spots for watercolor painting in Marunouchi Brick Square, and couples nosh on croissants from nearby bakeries that look like they were airlifted from Paris. It’s not half as cliche as it sounds and offers a welcoming respite from the usual Tokyo chaos. Going to the movies seems to be the activity of choice for this set on weekends, as the box offices at 11 a.m. looked like midnight on the night of a Harry Potter premiere.
When you’ve had your fill of window-shopping along Ginza’s tree-lined streets, you can head to nearby Ginza Station for a look at something much less aesthetically pleasing, but equally high-end: Sukiyabashi Jiro.
If you want a reservation, I suggest you find someone who speaks Japanese and call now, assuming you’re planning to visit Tokyo in a year or so. Finding this place is no small feat (don’t even get me started), so look for signs for exit C6 when you enter Ginza station and walk through the glass doors on your left as you head for the stairs. Follow the English sign for Birdland, a famous yakitori restaurant next door.
Good news! I found all the Americans in Tokyo. They, and every other tourist in the city, like to congregate at Senso-ji Temple on Friday mornings. A Buddhist temple has been on the site since 645 A.D. and the area was rebuilt after it was destroyed in World War II. The Hozomon Gate at the entrance, befit with enormous paper lanterns and some pretty frightening statues of Buddhist gods (you’ll have to look closely behind the protective screens), is something to behold and one of the last few things in Tokyo that can give you a sense of Edo-era Japan.
Senso-ji is like Times Square; I would tell you not to go on your first visit, but inevitably you will and probably should. Historically and aesthetically, it’s very impressive, but the area is so overrun with tourists and the grounds have been converted into something that very closely resembles a state fair. It’s just a mess, and I found it really difficult to enjoy the temple when surrounded by hordes of people eating chicken skewers and posing for next year’s Christmas card.
The best way to get a sense of old Japan is to walk through the neighborhood just south of Senso-ji, which still has its fair share of tour groups and accompanying garbage, but you’ll also find handmade soba restaurants and traditional izakaya dens.
For a head-first dive into modern Tokyo, take the train a short ride to Akihabara, the center of all things anime and electronic. Even if you’re not looking to buy a camera or an action figure, you’ll find plenty to do in this consumerist haven.
My final recommendation for Tokyo, or any other large city in Japan, would be to attend a kabuki show. I’ll begin by saying there is, of course, kabuki has a long and fascinating history that I won’t get into when Wikipedia can do the job much better than I can.
Kabuki performances can be rather long and I imagine tedious for people not accustomed to this kind of thing, and thankfully the good people at the Kabuki-za theater are here to help. Single-act tickets are sold about two hours before performances on the day of the show for around $10. It can be a very simple process if you time it right and a great way to see a performance without fully committing to an afternoon or an evening at the theatre.
I went to a performance of Bo Shibari, a farce about two servants who drink their master’s sake. Various shenanigans ensue. The best way I can describe kabuki is as the exact inversion of Western theater. For the most part, high-brow American theatrical acting is all about subtlety and the ability to convey emotion with limited, but powerful expression. Kabuki is the polar opposite. Every movement is highly exaggerated, speech is very stylized, and the costumes are so ornate as to be very limiting. Characters almost always face each other head-on when speaking to one another, which sounds silly but can look incredibly unnatural by Western standards.
Not surprisingly, I couldn’t take pictures during the performance, but this is a clip from Bo Shibari. You probably don’t need the full 28 minutes to get the idea, but it was the only good video I could find.
The show was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and a completely wild experience that you won’t find outside Japan.
Overall, Tokyo is a wonderful place to visit and I would highly recommend it to anyone, so long are you’re up for a challenge. Part of what makes Tokyo so appealing is its inaccessibility to tourists. I never encountered a single tchotchke store outside the nightmarish Senso-ji Temple area and there is almost nothing that feels geared specifically to tourists, which is immensely refreshing and make you feel like you’re visiting a real place. Of course, the downside of this is that being a foreigner, particularly one who doesn’t speak the language, can be daunting, and make navigating and interacting with the city a real challenge.
You definitely cannot know Tokyo in five days, five weeks, or probably even five months, and that’s integral to its charm. But as a tourist, you’ll have to accept that. I always want to feel like I “get” a place when I visit and I don’t feel that I got that here. Tokyo, I think, can only be known very slowly. Which is why it’s so great. And annoying.
Onto Kyoto later on the bullet train. Until then.