Last year, Mike and I decided to take a last-minute foodie trip to Tokyo. It was both of our first times in Japan. Here’s Part One of our oral history: Our time in Tokyo.
Day One: Shinjuku and Golden Gai
Mike: We got our first taste of Japan on the train from the Haneda airport to our hotel in Shinjuku. People were extremely quiet and extremely courteous (even offering to help as I bumbled through buying a train ticket). There was no litter anywhere. And every element of life has been intelligently considered and perfectly engineered. Nothing in Japan happens by accident.
Megan: I still don’t think I’ve had as big of a thrill as getting a can of coffee from a vending machine and finding it to be perfectly hot and delicious…
Oh wait, maybe my biggest thrill was meeting my first Japanese robot toilet. It was like a vacation all in itself, and quite the opposite of the first Tokyo toilet I came across, which was basically a hole in the ground. As my jet-lagged body met the comforting heated seat, and then the warm drying feature… sigh… I was reluctant to leave the bathroom to re-join Mike in the confusing subway.
Oh wait! THAT thrill was only rivaled by the discovery of heated subway seats. (I love heated seats!)
When we finally reached the Keio Plaza Hotel we were too early to check in. So Mike and I had them watch our luggage and we headed out to wander about the city…
Exploring the Meiji Shrine
Megan: We walked through side streets to the Meiji Shrine. It was awesome. I was really glad we got to experience a bit of old Tokyo right away, since the rest of our time in Tokyo was mostly city-lifestyle-based. We washed our hands in the bamboo water fountain. We offered up some coins, and clapped and bowed. We bought a little Japanese trinket for “good fortune.” We witnessed a wedding procession. And we generally enjoyed walking around the park.
Isetan Department Store lunch
Mike: For lunch, we wandered over to the Isetan Department Store, where there’s a thoroughly overwhelming collection of ready-to-eat food of all kinds, savory and sweet. Our friend Allen recommended it for good reason.
Turns out, most major department stores in Tokyo have basement floors that try to outdo each other with more and more extravagant food counters. “Depachika” is actually a portmanteau of “depato” for “department store” and “chika” meaning “basement.”
But FINDING a ridiculous array of delicious food options was only about a third of the battle. On day one in Japan, our communication skills were pretty weak, so we basically pointed and tried not to offend. Megan pulled off a few convincing renditions of “Do you speak English?” in Japanese, and somehow, we managed to procure a fun assortment of treats to try.
Our next issue was finding somewhere to actually EAT the food, because 99.9999% of depachika customers purchase their items to bring home. As a rule, Japanese people don’t eat food on the street (it’s considered quite rude), so we had to eat our (tasty) plum onigiri, red bean rice cake, gyoza, chicken, and salad on the rooftop garden next to one lonely elderly lady in the low-40s cold.
The streets of Tokyo
Mike: Our route back to hotel looked more like the Tokyo we expected. Megan gets anxious about the size/crowd/intensity of NYC, so we both wondered how she’d cope with an even bigger and even more packed city. But other than a few chaotic moments, she was just fine in Tokyo. Maybe it’s because the people and the traffic are so quiet and calm. When you hear the rare honk or siren, you realize just how quiet your surroundings have been.
Megan: It’s so amazingly quiet in Tokyo that if we were standing together on the corner of a massively busy street, you could actually hear one of us whisper to the other.
Heading out for the night in Shinjuku
Mike: At night, lit up by neon, Shinjuku is gorgeous and pulsing with energy. I thought it would look a bit more futuristic — it’s more like the future imagined in the ’80s — but the size and scope is breathtaking.
Drinks at a whiskey bar called Zoetrope
Mike: As our friends warned, finding specific establishments in Tokyo is a challenge, as street names (when they exist) are in Japanese, street numbers are useless (they’re numbered by when they were built, not geographical location), and you have to look in every direction, including up. But after some searching of the side streets, we found a small sign by a door, leading us to an elevator, and we walked into a tiny bar on the third floor.
Fatty Arbuckle movies were projected on the wall as Smashing Pumpkins played on the stereo — an oddly satisfying combination. We sat at the small bar and the bartender poured us a couple tasting flights of Japanese whiskey. My favorite was Nikka Single Malt Yoishi, which we’d enjoy a few more times soon enough.
Dinner at Sakura Sushi
Mike: Despite approximately one billion restaurant recommendations from friends, for our first dinner, we went to Sakura Sushi, a highly-ranked “kaisen” spot — one of those places where pieces of fish motor past you on a conveyer belt. Trip Advisor reviews said to order directly from the chef, instead of grabbing choices from the conveyer belt, so we pointed at various photos, said please (“kudasai”) a lot, and received some amazing sushi. Our favorite was the “tuna set” — a melt in your mouth selection of fatty, medium, and lean tuna.
Drinking in Golden Gai
Mike: We walked down to the Golden Gai to hit a couple more bars. These were even smaller than Zoetrope (which would have been the smallest bar in LA). Tokyo’s motto should really be “Fuck Fire Codes.” We really liked Albatross G, which was cozy and warm on a cold night.
That place also has the smallest bathroom of all time — the toilet paper dispenser is over the less-than-a-foot-wide sink. I couldn’t have sat down if I’d needed to. But the shrunken size of these bars breeds a fun camaraderie — every time a new person enters, everyone sounds off on how to cram another body into the establishment.
Megan: Another thrill of the trip: Stumbling, perfectly whiskey drunk, home past a “Mr. Waffle” — a small shop full of waffles in every flavor. We grabbed an apple one and a chocolate one and wolfed them down on the walk. They distracted us for a minute from the stiff breeze and cold night.
Day Two: Our AirBnB in Shibuya and the Robot Restaurant
Megan: After checking out of our hotel, we headed across town to our AirBnB in Shibuya. Sadly, first we got trapped in the Shibuya station because we couldn’t find the exit! Mike and I walked miles, taking tiny elevators up and down, lugging our giant bags up endless flights of stairs — until we reached the end of the platform entirely. When we gave up, we realized the exit was basically right where we got off the subway originally.
Mike: Somehow, we managed to get to the AirBnB address on time… only to find that we were in the wrong place. It was a rare Google Maps fail, which led to a little panic until we found wifi at a nearby 7/11 (the stores are ubiquitous and super-useful) and emailed our Airbnb host for directions. A half an hour later, we were at our apartment for the next five days, a nice single bedroom on the 12th floor with a balcony, a fancy Japanese toilet (to Megan’s delight) and POCKET WIFI.
FYI: Pocket wifi is the greatest thing to ever happen to travel
Thanks to Pocket Wifi, we left our phones on Airplane Mode for our whole trip, and used these small mobile routers (which had to be plugged in at night to charge) in Tokyo (thru the Airbnb) and Kyoto (rented through a company called Ninja). Being able to use all devices, staying in contact with home, and searching for things online saved us about a million hours of frustration. Occasionally, we’d get brave and try to survive without pocket wifi, and we’d quickly lose our minds retreating to McDonalds or Starbucks for an internet fix.
My most important recommendation for anyone visiting Tokyo without an amazing international plan on their phone: Rent pocket wifi at the airport the moment you arrive — or make sure you’re getting one through your Airbnb. None of our hotels had them — and it’s a life-saver.
Lunch in the Shibuya Hikarie
Mike: For lunch, we ventured over to the nearby Maisen in Shibuya Hikarie (yet another fancy mall with fancy food) to try a pork cutlet that draws rave reviews. I really liked it — but couldn’t quite grasp what the fuss is about. I’d happily eat another, but it wasn’t quite life-changing.
The Robot Restaurant!
Megan: Speaking of life changing, I was finally going to see the Robot Restaurant in person. I had only seen it from my friend’s Instagrams and short videos. It was EVEN COOLER THAN I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE!!! I didn’t realize that it wasn’t just a stage production, it’s a dining arena, where people sit on either sides of a long walkway, and robots and performers go back and forth in between — being just freaking zany weirdos.
Mike’s favorite part was when the “creatures of forest and the sea” fought the alien robots.
Mike: I’ll admit, my Japanese history is a little hazy, but I don’t remember the part where the robots arrive, proclaim “This forest is so peaceful! Let’s destroy it!” and then attack. And I’m not sure why the forest creatures first nominate a panda to attack the robot invaders.
Megan: …Or why that panda came back for more, but riding a cow the second time. I just about lost my fucking mind the moment that two giant robot dragons, being ridden by an alien and a mermaid, battled each other with smoke and a “fire ball.” Then I officially lost my mind when, during the final number, a girl in a pink horsey costume danced in front of a float featuring a horse playing guitar and dancer that would make a Vegas showgirl say, “hmm… that’s a bit much.” My face hurt from making, what I guess would be, a shocked-but-smiling face the entire time.
In short; It was Japanese kitsch in the best form and it might have been the greatest show I’ve ever seen.
Dinner: We discover okonomiyaki
Mike: Dazed by the spectacle of robots, we wandered the backstreets of Shinjuku, looking for Buchiumaya, a tiny hole-in-the-wall I saw on Instagram. We were looking forward to trying okonomiyaki — a savory pancake with a variety of toppings depending on the region… and that night’s okonomiyaki blew our mind. We sat in front of the friendly chef as he worked the grill, frying up a blend that included egg, soba noodles, cabbage, cheese, and about a dozen other things. The finished dish was part savory, part sweet, and completely delicious. It bubbled on the griddle as we picked away at it, enjoying our favorite meal of the trip so far.
Getting swept up in the Shibuya Crossing
Megan: Drunk on kitsch and booze, Mike and I ventured over to get a look at Shibuya Crossing.
Mike: The world’s busiest intersection, famous from film and TV. Three streets cross with giant crosswalks, which leads to thousands of people scrambling in every direction.
Megan: And, while we were standing on a curb to take in the incredible sight of the massive undulation of people crossing the street in every direction, I noticed the Hachiko dog statue. (From wikipedia: “Hachikō was an Akita dog born on a farm near the city of Ōdate, Akita Prefecture, Japan. He is remembered for his remarkable loyalty to his owner, which continued for more than nine years after his owner’s death.”) And now I’m like every other person in Tokyo — deeply enamoured. So I ran over to it to get a photo.
Day 3: The Kawaii Monster Cafe and the tiniest bar in Shibuya
Mike: Our initial plan was to visit DisneySea on this day, but as Megan was fighting a cold — and the weather was fairly brutal (35 degrees with snow and rain), we played it safe/smart. No point standing in hour-long lines in the freezing cold. We’ll have to come back to visit the park another time (friends have said it’s the best of the Disney parks).
Breakfast in Harujuku
Mike: Our mostly-inside day started with a trip to Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku shopping complex, where we found a Bill’s Restaurant. Megan also bought a coat.Then we wandered into the sea of umbrellas on the boulevard below.
We took advantage of the bad weather to sneak into Harajuku Gyoza Ro before the purported long line materialized. I got my pork on, powering through a plate of perfect pan-fried gyoza and another plate of boiled ones. Both were as delicious as expected. Megan staved off her hunger with some chicken soup as our timing worked out for… a second lunch…
Lunch at the Kawaii Monster Café!!!
Megan: I loved the kitschy places even more than I thought I would. It was like stumbling into a child’s fever dream after a candy-laden birthday party at an off-brand Sanrio. And it was wonderful. The experience, I mean, not the food. The food was gross. Well, the “rainbow noodles” were gross. The cat bowl full of cereal and ice cream was great!
Mike: Yep. Our favorite dish was served in a cat bowl. The best thing I can say about the place is that food was colorful and we were dry, warm, and indoors.
Megan: But it doesn’t matter what you’re eating, as long as you get to watch Harijuku’d out girls and guys dancing on a spinning carousel of unicorns and Picachus.
After our big sugar intake, we took a sugar coma nap. And woke in time to get ready for dinner. It was getting harder and harder for me to get out of bed, as I was feeling my head cold more and more.
Dinner at “35 Steps” in Shibuya
Mike: We found the closest decent restaurant, an izakaya called “35 Steps” in Shibuya (named because it’s 35 steps below a hotel). We had a few fun dishes, including some top-notch chicken karaage, tuna tartar, and some mackerel that was blow-torched at our table. And we took off our shoes off for the first time at a Japanese restaurant. But it was just a B+ on a trip filled with more memorable meals.
Drinks at “Tight” in Shibuya
Mike: We finished our night by going to the most-challenging-to-find and most-absurdly-tiny bar yet… “Tight” in Shibuya. One second before we gave up searching, we found their sign in a back alley next to the train tracks, and climbed a nearly vertical set of stairs, squeezing past purses and jackets to emerge in bar with seven other folks, packed shoulder to shoulder. When four more people showed up after us, a regular encouraged them to join, saying at times, they’ve fit TWENTY people inside. That’s absurd. The entire bar is smaller than our bathroom in LA. Luckily, the four people wandered off, and we had some great drinks and nice conversation with our fellow drinkers.
Day 4: The Tsujiki Fish Market
Mike: This day’s Western Breakfast Quest led us to Clinton St. Baking (a branch of the NYC eatery) in the Minato neighborhood. On the way back, it became clear that Megan was too sick to go on our pre-arranged tour of the Tsujiki Fish Market and the surrounding area…
Megan: I was a officially sick in a way I couldn’t pretend not to be. The rest of my day was napping, blowing my nose, coughing, and watching a Japanese reality TV show. So I’ll let Mike take it from here…
Lunch: Mike’s guided food tour of the Tsujiki Fish Market
Mike: My tour guide Rei was friendly and fun. As I was without my travel buddy, I decided to get the most out of my tour by hitting Rei with five hours of non-stop questions as she showed me a bunch of new-to-me neighborhoods. She filled me in on the Japanese side of eating whale (mostly: tradition), the fact that there are no guns in the country (“I feel safer without guns and drugs”), and said her fellow citizens are confident that Trump won’t last four years.
We walked through the inner fish market (for businesses) and the outer fish market (shops, tourists, etc). I tried some tamago (a sweet omelette stick, which was decent, not my favorite), an eel skewer (far better), and had lunch at a small sushi place with a name in Japanese characters. Rei corrected my soy sauce-dipping skills and I tried some great fish, including tasty horse mackerel.
We headed into Ginza (oh my god, Tokyo has tons of shopping centers), where we circumnavigated the Kabuki theater, checking out the Kabuki hall of fame and the garden on top. We ventured through another depatchika, past a fancy chocolate place where only a few customers are allowed inside at any one time so the body heat doesn’t affect the goods. We did a loop through the museum and park area in Ueno, stopping at the Ameyeko market for some great takoyaki (octopus balls). And then we wound our way through Akihabara, doing recon for my visit with Megan later. It wasn’t the most fun tour in the world, but I learned a lot and covered a ton of ground. And walked 27,000 steps.
Dinner at Blacows
Megan: When Mike got home, he started talking about the menu at this place called Blacows — kobe and wagyu beef burgers and sweet potato fries — and my stomach started growling. I figured some meat would do my sick body good. So I braved the cold with my cold and we headed out.
And… I should have stayed home. Turns out, I do not like that kind of burger. It tasted like a meat milkshake, and my stomach did a turn and I lost my appetite immediately. Mike, however, downed his burger AND MINE. Walking 27k steps will make ya hungry.
Mike: I don’t know if wagyu is the perfect beef for a burger – it’s a bit too fatty. But Blacows was pretty great. And their zucchini fritters (an option to replace fries) were delicious.
Day 5: Ramen, Roppongi and Taiyaki
Lunch at Afuri Ramen
Mike: With Megan back on her feet, we headed for Afuri Ramen in Ebisu. We’d heard about long lines there, so we showed up right as it opened. We were part of the first seating, but spent some awkward moments figuring out their vending machine ordering system. Luckily, there weren’t too many choices — Megan went with a vegan version, and I opted for the spicy Yuzu Ratanmen. Both were delicious (I was deeply impressed that the vegan ramen was good).
And we tried our best to match the slurping pace of our neighbors — Japan is the first country I’ve visited where people eat faster than us. One guy ahead of us in line was admitted to the restaurant, ordered his ramen, got/slurped up his ramen, and was out the door in twelve minutes flat. When we’re back in LA, and people accuse us of eating too fast, we’re going to say “we’re training for Tokyo.” “For the 2020 Olympics?” “Nope. Just eating in Tokyo.”
The thing that makes Afuri’s ramen special is the yuzu citrus taste in the broth. Everyone but purists likes it, but I think I was particularly into it because the lemony taste reminds me of my mom’s Greek avgolemono soup.
Dinner at Warayakiya in Roppongi
Mike: That night, we checked out another neighborhood, Roppongi. We walked through the massive mall/residential area before finding Warayakiya, a restaurant recommended by Kevin Meehan (chef at Kali). They cook over straw, and the kitchen is occasionally lit up by huge bursts of fire as the chefs grill fish and meat. We enjoyed the chicken thigh skewers, the seared bonito, and then got a big plate of amazing wagyu to finish grilling ourselves on a super hot disc of metal.
Drinks at Bar Martha
Mike: One of the cool things about having 13 million people in your city is that you can support truly niche operations, like the awesome Bar Martha. Apparently Tokyo has more than enough folks who want to pay a cover for a bar where you have to talk quietly, not take any photos, and just listen to records…
Megan: I loved Bar Martha. It was something my musicians friends back at home would dream up — a low-key join with two GIANT vintage speakers behind the bar, a corner area of wall-wall records, and one dj who takes NO REQUESTS — just spins whatever deep cuts from vintage albums he wants. It’s good music, great drinks, and a super-chill vibe. Unfortunately, you aren’t allowed to take photos, so I didn’t get to excitedly text my friends back at home about this find.
Mike: Definitely pretentious, but great drinks and vibe. And I refuse to be intimidated by a place that also plays a live version of Taylor Swift’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
Megan: Mike and I had been scheming how to get our hands on one of those pastry fish desserts, when all of a sudden, we walked right past a taiyaki place on our way home! We ordered the red bean paste fish, and giggled over our new phrase “fishes get stitches” as we waited for it to cook.
Verdict was: It was good. But the paste-to-pastry ratio was off. It needed more “fish.”
Day 6: Daikanyama and Harijuku
Books and breakfast in Daikanyama
Megan: It was our last day in Tokyo, and I was determined to check out the Japanese version of Blu Jam (a restaurant located down the street from us at home). So we had a little time to kill before it opened at 11. (Things open late around here — even the shops wait until 11 on the weekend to open!)
I found us a Starbucks in Daikanyama that happened to be located in a giant, and super-famous book store — Tsutaya Books. And once we got there, not only did I notice that it’s where (maybe) ALL the dogs of Tokyo were hanging out, there was also a cherry tree in full bloom! Mike and I snapped a few pics in front of it (who knows when/if we’d see another one here) and then went into the store, where I promptly got swept away by rooms upon rooms of awesome books, art, and gifts. (I may have purchased a bag covered in ice cream and unicorns.)
Mike: At Blu Jam, I got some chilaquiles, which have never tasted so good. Megan liked her huevos rancheros too. With a friendly staff, lots of tables, and food just like our Melrose location, Blu Jam would definitely be our hang-out if we were in Tokyo for an extended period of time.
Walking around in Harajuku
Mike: We headed back to Harajuku to see it on a (comparatively) nice day. We walked up “Cat Street,” a long strip of boutiques, grabbed a shaved ice dessert, and wound up in some packed side-streets. There were frolicking teenagers everywhere…
Megan: Too many frolicking teenagers! This was actually the first and only time I had a panic attack on the trip.
It’s funny, I was expecting to have them constantly while on the streets of Tokyo. I thought maybe I might have one in Shibuya Crossing. Or maybe trying to fight my way through the crowded subway stations. But nope, that was all nothing compared to this particular area of Harajuku. As the streets narrowed, and the crowds compacted, and the vendors got more aggressive, I found myself disassociating. I finally squeaked out a, “I’m not loving this.” And Mike immediately pulled us out of the crowd and onto quieter streets.
Drinks at the “Lost in Translation” bar
First off, from the 52nd floor, the view is unreal. The scene is pretty fun — especially once the jazz band started to play. And did I mention the view? As the full moon rose over the city, people rushed to the window to take photos.
Megan: Much like with most things in Japan, I was surprised by how freaking cool it was. Mike ordered an Old Fashioned and I ordered a drink made with cherry blossom liqueur. Turns out it’s their signature drink. Turns out it’s delicious. Turns out I had two and got a bit buzzed.
Dinner in Yakitori Alley
Megan: Then we went from high culture to low, when we went from that scene to Omoide Alley (aka. Yakitori Alley) for some, much-touted meat on skewers. We found one of the rare places that actually had chicken — not just pig. But sadly it was only chicken thigh. which I’m not a fan of. I tried two pieces of thigh and my stomach said, “no thank you.” However Mike LOVED them, and then ordered two more skewers: Liver and okra and bacon.
The highlight of my dining experience was finally making one Japanese person laugh. The yakitori chef found it very amusing when I recognized and sang along to a song in a movie he was watching. It happened to be a scene of Mexican school children singing one of my favorite tunes: “Los Pollitos.” I have never been able to make anyone else here laugh (for real) since. I may be big in Japan, but I’m not hilarious.
Tokyo really blew us away. We knew we’d like it, but for some reason, we didn’t have a huge pull to come visit, despite enthusiastic testimonials from friends. Happily, we were mistaken — and we’re already thinking of the places we need to hit when we’re back…
Japan Rail Pass:
The first thing everyone recommends to visitors is the special pass that allows unlimited trips on Japan Rail. You can only buy it outside Japan, and you can only order it if you have enough time to have it shipped to your home. We opted against it because we weren’t returning to Tokyo from Kyoto — and it seemed like the cost of the rail passes was way higher than our combined ticket prices. That turned out to be completely true. On the other hand… it was a pain in the ass to figure out and buy individual tickets. And everyone constantly asks if you have the pass, and then thinks you’re an idiot when you don’t. It would have been worth buying the stupid passes just to shut everyone up.
Hotel or Airbnb:
With a little notice, we’d have been better off reservation-wise. We loved our location in Shibuya — and liked our Airbnb — but a hotel concierge in Tokyo is worth more than any city we’ve ever been to. If you want to get reses at fancy restaurants, probably stay at a hotel for a few more nights.
Restaurant Reservations: All fine dining requires reservations — sometimes a month in advance. You need someone who speaks Japanese to make them, and to guarantee them with a credit card. This takes advanced planning… and probably a hotel concierge. There’s a service that charges a bunch to do this, but it didn’t work the one time we tried (they refunded our money). This isn’t an issue for most people — you can eat incredibly well at more casual places — but if you want fancy places, you gotta plan for them.
With more notice, it would be great to check out restaurants like Ryugin and/or Narisawa (two of the Top 50 in the world). Friends have also sung the praises of Mikawa Zezankyo (Michelin-stared tempura), Kimura (aged sushi), Butagami (top-notch tonkatsu), and World Breakfast All Day.
We got by just fine with a handful of Japanese phrases and lots of awkward pointing and shrugging. Definitely more of a language barrier than Europe or Southeast Asia, but everyone’s ridiculously nice about it. Here’s a list of the key phrases we kept accessible on Megan’s “notes” section in her phone. Feel free to copy and paste…
- Yes – hai
- No – iie (ee-ay)
- Excuse Me / Sorry – sumimasen (sue-me-mas-en)
- Do you speak English? -Ay-go hanase maska
- Please – kudasai
- Thank You – arrigato gozaimasu (are-ay-ga-toe go-zai-mas)
- I’m sorry/excuse me – soo-mee -ma-sen
- No worries – Ee-eh ee-eh
- Water – mizu (many places you don’t have to ask for tea, but you may
- have to ask for water)
- Tea – ocha
- Toilet – toire (toy-ray)
- Where is the ___? – ___ wa doko desu ka (ka is the word for a question, rather than inflecting up, and you don’t pronounce the u on desu)
- Where is the bathroom? – toi-de-wa doko des-ka
- How much is the ___? – ___ wa ikura desu ka
- Two people – Nee-meh
- Non-smoking – keen-en
- How much is the ___? – ___ wa ikura desu ka
- This please – co-re kudasai
- Can I move here? – Ee-des-ka
- What do you recommend – na-nee ga osu-su-neh des-ka
- Check please – Oh-kai-ke oh-ne gaisheemas
- This is good – oishi
- Meal is done – go-chee-so sama-deshta
Stay tuned for the continuation of this trip: Our quick trip to Hakone…