Whenever I hear that someone I know is planning a trip to Tokyo, I make it a point to forward them my Tokyo Tip Sheet, a handy guide for the first-time traveler. Today, I make it available to all of you. Safe travels!
BEFORE YOU GO
Invest in a pocket wifi. We went with: http://www.globaladvancedcomm.com/pocketwifi.html. You can either arrange to pick it up at the airport or have it sent to your hotel. Then, when you’re done, put it in the self-addressed envelope provided and drop it off with your concierge to mail for you.
If you have a choice, fly into Haneda instead of Narita Airport. The former is about a half an hour to Tokyo; the latter 90 minutes.
Check out Paolo’s videos for up to date places to check out and eat: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCixD9UbKvDxzGNiPC_fgHyA/videos
FROM THE AIRPORT
Whichever you choose, take the airport shuttle to your hotel. They leave every fifteen minutes or so and are super convenient – and much cheaper than a taxi.
DO NOT take taxis in Tokyo unless you absolutely have to. Half the time, the taxi drivers don’t know where they’re going. The metro/subway is SUPER convenient. You can pick up a fare card (PASSMO or SUICA) at any station. There are self-serve machines that have English options. Just pick how much you want to put on your card, slide your money in, and get your card. Every time you head in through the turnstile, just touch the screen with your card and it automatically takes the payment. Don’t forget to tap the screen on your way out of the station. IN and OUT.
If you’re a foreigner, JR (which covers parts of the metro, various trains and, most importantly, the Shinkansen – bullet train) offers great deals. You’re going to want to take the Shinkansen if you’re traveling around Japan. Again, super fast and super convenient: http://www.jrpass.com/?gclid=CjwKEAjwla2tBRDY7YK9uKXe8R8SJAAhG6LG4Zmz2C27034-1Jqb8VXDrfqPBsOgsH81bc5Ha-6dJhoCGcnw_wcB
On your first morning, wake up nice and early and head down to the Tsukiji Market for a sushi breakfast. There are a lot of popular places with waiting lines of 1-3 hours. If you’d rather not wait, you’ll find equally great places all around the market. Try to find a spot with a menu that clearly depict all of the variety of sushi. This is your opportunity to sample a variety of tuna. I highly recommend the chu-toro (medium fatty) and o-toro (fattier belly). Although the actual fish market has moved to Toyosu, there’s really not much to do there yet (unless you want to get for 4 am and watch the actual auction).
On Sundays (maybe even Saturdays), Ginza shuts down Ginza-dori (a major street) and opens it up to pedestrians. It’s a nice stroll, especially around that time of year.
Star Bar: I discovered this place one night with my buddy Ivon and it ended up becoming our nightly hangout. A small, dark, classic bar set-up run by the accomplished Kishi-san who takes his drinks VERY seriously, serving up some delicious classic cocktails in addition to some highly recommended seasonal cocktails using fresh Japanese pears (with gin), or persimmons. Their Moscow Mule is the best. A great place to cap the night. They have just opened up a sister restaurant a 5 minute walk away.
Or you can check out the equally terrific Bar Goya owned and operated by Kishi-san’s former protege, the ever-genial Yamazaki-san.
Namco Namja Town in the Sunshine City Mall: You can check out the aquarium, then head on over to Namco Namja town which is a foodie theme park. Inside, you’ll find Gyoza Stadium, an area that has been transformed into a 1920’s Shanghai setting, offering 20-30 different varieties of gyoza.
Head down to Roppongi and check out the latest exhibits at the Mori Art Museum. They often have a lot of very cool, contemporary showings. From there, take a walk over to Tokyo Midtown and check out the Jean-Paul Hevin chocolate desserts and, just around the corner on the same floor, a sake-ya offering some truly amazing sakes.
Take the metro to Akihabara (Electric Town) and peruse the digital offerings. If you’re interested, also check out the enormous, multi-level buildings dedicated to everything anime, from DVD’s and manga to costumes and xxx collector statues. While you’e inside the metro (sub-level) look for the Hattendo cream bun stand and order yourself up a couple. I love ’em.
Also be sure to check out the Omotesando area, especially on the weekends when the gals dress up in Harajuku. While you’re in the area, check out Pierre-Hermes for the best macarons anywhere. They do seasonal flavors: white and black truffle, and foie gras!
Maybe take a side trip to beautiful Yokohama (a 30 minute metro ride away) and check out their famed Chinatown.
The Robot Restaurant: Featured in Bourdain’s show (on CNN), this is a crazy Vegas-Anime mash-up with gorgeous performers, crazy costumes, pyrothetnics, and dancing robots. The greatest show on Earth! The complimentary meal is terrible so make sure to eat before you go.
Have the hotel concierge call and book your lunches and dinners well in advance if you’re planning to hit any of the high end places. Even some of the more popular cheaper places can get busy.
Butagumi: Located in a little house on a side street in Nishi-Azabu (you’ll recognize it by the pig paraphenalia out front), this place offers up a variety of tonkatsu (crispy pork cutlets) from all over. Order up a sampler plate to try the different varieties, served with dipping sauces and cabbage. Also, there’s a “sanmi” pork appetizer that is outrageously addictive.
I strongly urge you to check out an unagi-ya as well if you like unagi (which is miles beyond what you find here in North America). I suggest Nodaiwa in Ginza which is located right next door to Sushiya Jiro (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) and Birdland (a terrific yakitori place). Again, reservations are a must.
My favorite pizza can be found a Pizza Seirinkan! You get two choices Margherita or Marinara. The dough is magnificent. Featured on Netflix’s Ugly Delicious as one of Chef David Chang’s favorite pizzas worldwide.
High End Sushi…$$$! Be warned! But if you’d like to splurge…
SUSHI SAWADA – I’ve taken three different people to this place and all three declared it the best meal they’ve ever head. The place is small, only seats about 12, but it’s one of the greatest sushi experience ever. Served omakase style. Let Sawada-san feed you an incredible variety, from Hokkaido sea urchin to seared toro. Unbelievable.
5 Chome – 9-19 MC Bldg 3F Tokyo, Chuo, Ginza +81 3-3571-4711 Hours: Mon 5:30pm-11pm; Mon-Tues noon-3pm; Tues 6pm-10:30pm; Wed-Sun noon-2:30pm; 5:30pm-10:30pm
SUSHISO MASA 4-1-15 Nishi-Azabu Tokyo, Japan 106-0031 +81 (0)20 7629 8886 Hours: Mon 5:30pm-11pm; Mon-Tues noon-3pm; Tues 6pm-10:30pm; Wed-Sun noon-2:30pm; 5:30pm-10:30pm Akemi and I had an outrageously good meal here. About 40 different small bites of an incredible assortment of seafood, all skillfully prepared and individually unique. Have your hotel book an early seating (6:00 p.m.) and let them know you want to go “all out” when they make the reservation. Chef Masa speaks a little English but is very friendly and keeps a well-worn sushi encyclopedia handy to show you what, exactly, you’re eating if you’re curious.
SUSHI TSU (or SUSHITSU) [You’ll have to ask your hotel to find you the address because I can’t find it online but I know it’s in the Roppongi Nishia-Azabu neighborhood right around Sushiso Masa.]. We went for lunch. The sushi was excellent. The chef talked about his philosophy and his application of science to sushi preparation in his bid to perfect the individual bites. Certain fish taste better aged for a certain number of days or treated with certain applications (ie. marinade or brushed with a certain sauce or served with a certain seasoning, etc.). It was damn impressive and he told us that lunch was NOTHING compared to what he serves up at dinner.
HIGH END OTHERS…
L’Effervesence: Inspired cuisine that occasionally strays into modernist at this place whose chef worked for Michel Bras and Heston Blumenthal.
Les Creations de Narisawa/Aronia de Takazawa: Two different places. Choose one. Both offer mind-blowing modernist menus.
If you’re looking to splurge on French cuisine, might I recommend either Chateau Joel Robuchon (located within an actual chateau in Ebisu), L’Osier (one of Japan’s highest-rated French restaurants that recently reopened following a lengthy reno), or Quintessence (exquisite and a whole lot of fun).
Esquisse: Chef Lionel Baccarat, formerly of Michel Troisgros at the Conrad, offers creative modern French cuisine using top quality Japanese ingredients. Akemi’s all-time favorite French restaurant.
Awesome italian at Teatrino da Salo. IL TEATRINO DA SALONE, Minato – Akasaka / Roppongi – Restaurant …
If you’re looking to try more classic Japan fare, I would suggest either Ryugin or Ishikawa for a nice kaiseki meal.
I would also suggest… Sushi Taichi