My (Not So) Secret Go-To Spots In Japan: Part 2 – Best Hoods In Tokyo

Amigo! Konichiwa,

Your trip is coming up and you must be excited. Last time we checked out the parks, botanical gardens and hikes that Tokyo had to offer.

Let’s get a little more metropolitan, because yes, Tokyo is huge! But the bustling urban center is made up of smaller cities, each with an incredibly engaging personality and we are going to dive into some of the more notable faces that Tokyo seems to love to show off.

This is a long post and probably shouldn’t be digested in one sitting. It covers a lot, from sushi to sumo to Kanye West. Skip around, read the descriptions under the photos and click on the links.

About 10 groupings of “neighborhoods” were made to add some organization and some sanity to the madness of all that Tokyo has to offer. In no particular order, those groupings are (click on them and you’ll get taken to that part of the post):

Shinjuku – Night Life, Metropolis, Food, Red Light District, Parks, Shopping, City Center

Ikebukuro – Food, Metropolis, Performing Arts, Shopping, My CITY!

Asakusa – Must See Shrine Site, Festival Location, Tokyo Sky Tree

Akihabara – Nerd Culture Mecca

RoppongiNight Life, Museums, Shopping

Azabu Juban – Gourmet (and vegetarian) food, High-end shopping, Tokyo Tower

ShibuyaNight Life, City Center, Shopping, Food, Everything, Major Must See Shrine and Park

Harajuku & Omotesando – Shopping, Food, Kawaii (cute-pop), Fashion

The Marunouchi Area (surrounding the Imperial Palace) – Most expensive real estate, Food, Palace

… and finally, Odaiba – Museum, Japanese Bathhouse, Adult Fun Center (not too “adult”)

Throughout the post, there will be plenty of references to other must-see parts of Tokyo and helpful tips to keep you well informed as you travel through each section, like this one:

JapanTips: If you plan on traveling extensively throughout Japan (not staying exclusively in Tokyo) it would be best to look into the JR Rail Pass for foreigners. For a span of 7, 14, or more days, you could have unlimited access to Japan’s bullet train system and other trains. Could save you hundreds, if not close to a thousand dollars!

I promise you will get a lot from this post. Share it with your friends who are going or are planning to go to Tokyo!

Photo Credit: Mistuki Takizawa

Shinjuku

Let’s start with Shinjuku because it embodies a lot of what the city is; the ground zero for Tokyo. This part of Tokyo has got a looming, giant skyscraper, New York City feel (it is a seismically stable area, perfect for big buildings in an earthquake prone Japan); it’s got the botanical gardens; it’s the hub for most trains and Shinkansen to the far reaching corners of Japan.

For two months I lived in Waseda, which is home to a big university and right next to Shinjuku. So most days, I found myself whiling away the time in the coffee shops and streets of Shinjuku. The Kabukicho area is a great night life area and good place to spend some of those ever flowing Yen (It was described to me as a tourist trap by a local who still loved to go waste money there).

Shinjuku Must Do’s:

Shinjuku Gyoen – Botanical garden with prime areas for strolling, picnics and being in nature.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office – Get a free trip to the 45th floor, giving you a panoramic view of the entire city and Mount Fuji on a cloudless day!

Kabukicho – Shinjuku’s red light district. The Golden Gai area, nestled in Kabukicho, offers narrow pathways with tiny food stalls and restaurants with every type of Japanese cuisine.

Shinjuku Tip: Among the many “must do’s” that came up when researching Tokyo before I left, the one that kept popping up was a serious tourist trap known as Robot Restaurant. A performance space where futuristic robots are used by bikini wearing women to fight lizard monsters and pandas in a room drowning in neon, lasers, and smoke. I must warn you: I did not meet a single person, Japanese or foreign, in my entire year in Japan that actually went to a Robot Restaurant show, and yet, it is the highlight of some notable travel shows covering Tokyo. Why????

JapanTips: Train lines stop running between midnight and 1:00 AM throughout Tokyo. Factor that in when making nightly plans.


Near Shinjuku: Ikebukuro

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Ikebukuro was my city while I was living in Tokyo. I worked here and lived only a ten minute subway ride away (which didn’t stop me from always cutting it close with getting to work on time.)

This city has a special place in my heart for better or worse. Whether it was on my lunch break or after work at around 9 PM (English teachers’ schedules are weird), I found myself wandering the city streets looking for cafes, restaurants, and sights.

With a major university in its city lines, Ikebukuro draws a mostly younger crowd. It also spawns a really wonderful coffee shop culture, is known for having some of the best ramen in Tokyo, and Sunshine Street will stuff you up with shopping and eating excess which you can best deal with by visiting the aquarium at the top of the Sunshine building.

Photo Credit: Jennajapan.blogspot.com (with added artwork by yours truly)

 Ikebukuro Displays The Dark Side Of Tokyo

For all the beauty that is offered by Tokyo, I’d also say that Ikebukuro is a good place to see the darker aspects of Japan; namely the suffocating work culture and the overbearing crowdedness. I’m of course biased as I worked and gave my soul in this part of Tokyo, but I definitely got the feeling that life is particularly stressful here.

Ikebukuro Must Do’s:

Sunshine City – A shopping mall meets amusement park behemoth, this entertainment complex is found at the end of Sunshine Street. Excellent restaurants, clothing stores, gaming centers and a popular aquarium make this place pretty alluring.

Coffee Shops – There are tons but I recommend Coffee Valley.

Ramen Shops – Ikebukuro is known for its ramen, and I love Ippudo.

Indian/Nepalese Restaurants – Inclined towards vegetarianism, I may have eaten more Indian food than Japanese throughout my time there. I especially enjoyed Masala Hut and Tomboy.

Tokyo Metropolitan Theater – Located on the West Side of Ikebukuro Station, the space in this complex is huge and is a sight to see by itself, not to mention it hosts a number of concerts and shows. The wide open space outside features a fountain and performance space where you might catch some musical acts. There’s never a lack of people, particularly college students, hanging out around here.

Ikebukuro Tip: I spent most of my time on the East side which offers a lot (Sunshine Street and Junkudo, the 10 floor bookstore) but the West side of Ikebukuro Station offers a somewhat calmer, more mature and fulfilling experience: a variety of restaurants with character, city streets that are an adventure to walk through, and Ikebukuro’s own red light district.

JapanTips: Addresses are made up of mostly numbers and are therefore (mostly) incomprehensible to humans. Google Maps is incredibly helpful, particularly with Japan’s transit system.


Asakusa

Asakusa is notable for some of the most attractive features of Japan, and it draws massive crowds, foreign and local, all year long. The frequent festivals held here throughout the year are also a big draw.

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By Chensiyuan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41891905

Here are just a couple reasons why:

Asakusa Must Do:

Tokyo Sky Tree – A couple train stops away from : Japan’s largest phallic feat of engineering (recently built to surpass Tokyo Tower for the number one spot).

Senso-ji Temple  – Dedicated to the Buddhist Saint Kanon, this temple is central to the allure of Asakusa. Breathe in the incense, throw in some 5 yen coins as tribute and get your fortune as you take in all the incredible Buddhist design found on every building.

Sumida River – allows for incredible river side walks and bike rides, and when it comes time for festival season, floating lanterns!

The Flamme D’Or (Golden Flame) – a building that leaves you more confused than inspired.

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Asahi, one of the largest beverage manufacturers in Japan, asked a French architect to design the Flamme D’Or as 1) a commemoration of their ‘gutsy’ employees and 2) a resemblance of the froth of their best selling ‘Asahi Super Dry’ Beer. Unfortunately, neither message is immediately accessible to unprepared eyes. The building has been dubbed the ‘Golden Poo‘ by many locals. Photo Credit: japaneseperspective.com

Asakusa Tip: Never before had I seen such a blend of commerce and spirituality as I witnessed in Japan, and particularly in Asakusa. Walk past Senso-ji Temple’s front gates, complete with oversized statues of menancing and muscular guardians against evil (or unprepared) spirits, and you will find yourself on Nakamise Street: abundant with souvenir shops and food stands (with some of the best street food and snacks in Tokyo).


Near Asakusa: Akihabara

The Electric Town or Otaku (nerd) Heaven.

The amount of lights and flashing signs in this part of Tokyo makes Times Square look like an off-grid camp site.

If you are coming to Japan, then chances are you are somewhat interested in the electronics and gaming, anime, or just the off-the-beaten-path porno culture that the country provides. Akihabara is the place for you. This sound-and-light induced headache of a city is home to buildings with dozens of floors, mostly accessible to customers who are looking to engage in all things Otaku (nerdy or geeky).

  • Looking for figurines of super obscure anime shows? They got it.
  • Looking for any and all electronics (except Xbox)? They got it.
  • Looking for cos-players galore, enough to put all the Comic Cons in the world to shame? They got them.
  • Looking for floors and floors and more floors of some really specific pornography of different sorts? Come on down to Akihabara!

I’m more likely to be critical of this part of Tokyo as I found no refuge in Akihabara (it was hard to relax with the barrage of sights and sounds and I could never stay there for more than a couple of hours). For that reason, some other sources may be more helpful, if you are so inclined.

Akihabara Tip: Akihabara is home to a plethora of maid cafes. You can easily find one by spotting any of the number of young cute girls dressed in maid outfits handing out fliers on the street. In such establishments, girls (usually one assigned to you) giggle and coo while making small talk and convincing you to get more drinks. These may be a fun experience for any traveler but knowing Japanese will definitely improve the experience.

Ryogoku – the home of Tokyo Sumo, only a couple stops from Akihabara. Sumo is an incredible sport to experience live. It’s steeped in spirituality and culture (which can make it especially BORING if you’re uninformed; matches usually last less than 10-20 seconds with 5-7 minutes of traditional practices in between). But the force of impact between two professionals is electric and will shake the entire stadium! Find out when the tournaments are happening and try to go.IMG_0527


Roppongi

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Photo Credit: tokyofotos.photoshelter.com

Roppongi has a weird reputation and it almost deserves it. The town simultaneously houses the largest number of expats in Tokyo, a diminishing presence of the Japanese mafia (the Yakuza), and the Japanese offices of some of the biggest corporations in the world. It’s also known as a party district for foreigners and locals alike.

The city night view from The Ritz-Carlton located in Tokyo Midtown.

The Roppongi I got to know was the neighborhood where I went to a salsa club for the first time and felt horribly unprepared for a salsa club for the first time. It’s the neighborhood with several museums, including the Mori Art Museum where I got to see Takashi Murakami’s incredible blend of anime and Buddhist art. (You probably already know his work; he designed Kanye’s Graduation album cover and the Good Morning music video. Oh, and he did something with some designer named Louis Vuitton.)

And the Mori Art Museum and Building are located in Roppongi Hills, where I’ve spent plenty of time watching free concerts or lying on the grass with a partner as the summer came to a close.

Roppongi Must Do:

Tokyo Midtown and Roppongi Hills – Two industrial complexes that offer everything from world renowned museums (Mori Art Museum), expensive and elegant dining and shops, movie theaters and performance spaces. You could easily spend an afternoon or two walking around these two locations.

Roppongi Tip: The nightlife in Roppongi is particularly welcoming to foreigners making it a great place to party but also attractive to people who may want to rip off unsuspecting foreigners. Probably less prevalent now (I didn’t go to Roppongi often and it never happened to me), but Roppongi has a reputation for clubs that lure people in with attractive women or pushy solicitors. These clubs have been known to serve drinks that have been spiked or laced, and then force the guests to foot an astronomical bill. Careful now!


Near Roppongi: Azabu Juban

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I kept stumbling upon this same building where I took this picture. A simple 10 floor walk up later and I was granted the most incredible views of surrounding Tokyo.

In the shadow of Tokyo Tower, and a couple stops away from Roppongi, this section of Tokyo is reminiscent of upscale, cobble stone European city streets, and it has got the restaurants and stores to match.

I was first drawn to Azabu Juban when I learned of the abundance of vegetarian restaurants there which suited my semi-vegetarian diet in the midst of a seriously meat obsessed Japan.

Azabu Juban Tip:

No “must do’s” for Azabu Juban. This small town is a must-do in itself. Romantic and lovely area to walk around in and take in the sites. There are plenty of restaurants. Oh, and don’t forget to grab a gelato and walk over to Tokyo Tower.

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It had just drizzled as we finished our gelatos and my friend (a girl I was seriously interested in) and I walked over to the base of Tokyo Tower together. The tower was lit up in its colors of fiery, bright orange and flood-light white and the tower’s rays were slowly and gently swallowed up by the deep, majestic blue of the freshly rained night sky. Considered that if it was to be my last night alive, it would be alright. Photo Credit: Bhavini Joshi

Shibuya

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The statue of Hachiko: In the early 1900’s, a professor at the University of Tokyo adopted an Akita breed dog. The dog would leave its residence everyday to greet the professor at Shibuya Station. One day the professor suffered from a cerebral hemorrhage and passed away. Hachiko, as the dog was known, returned to the station every day for the next 9 years waiting for his absent owner’s return. Photo Credit: Airbnb.com

Probably most famous for its crossing, Shibuya stands as a hub for cafes and restaurants, shopping centers, night clubs, maid cafes, and if you venture far enough to its corners, prostitution rings.

Shibuya, unlike a lot of Tokyo, unveils more and more to you the more you venture through its streets and buildings. It has a labyrinthine city system to it that can make you feel like you are experiencing a new city every time you go.

It also encompasses some surrounding areas (see below: Harajuku and Omotesando) and some of my favorite places in Tokyo: namely Meiji Jingu and Yoyogi Park.

Shibuya, like Ikebukuro, has special meaning to me, thanks largely to many of the incredible experiences that all happened there. For example:

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Shibuya set the location as I watched world-traveling friends and colleagues say their goodbyes.
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There’s a bridge with a park on it called Miyashita Park. I would go there for a Tokyo Street Dance meet up. Photo Credit: Simon Tan, Daniel Norris

And then Halloween was just crazy…

Shibuya Must Do:

Go ahead and indulge!Department Stores, gourmet food, one of the busiest Starbucks in the world; the glutton is gleeful in Shibuya!

Meiji Jingu – Massive wooden Torii gates mark the entrance of this Shinto shrine dedicated to the former emperor Meiji. Entrenched in a forest (next to Yoyogi Park) you will have to take a small stroll through paths sided by enormous trees. A really wonderful treat and escape from the busyness of Tokyo and Shibuya.


Near Shibuya: Harajuku and Omotesando

Harajuku: The breeding ground of kawaii(cute-pop) culture!

If you are going to Harajuku, 2 words: Takeshita Street. Go to it; embrace the colors, the doll-like wardrobes, the fancy boutiques and cafes; eat a thousand crepes at the thousand creperies available; and then get out of there! Doctors have advised refraining from exposure to so much cuteness!


Omotesando: You’ll find that Omotesando offers much less kawaii but makes up for it with polish and elegance. Taking a stroll down Omotesando’s street can be quite lovely when it is not over crowded.

Also, be sure to check out Commune 246 – an outdoor food court with some gourmet food that also plays host to some music performances that kick ass.


Around the Imperial Palace: Ginza, Tokyo, Yurakucho, and Yotsuya

More commonly referred to as the Marunouchi district of Tokyo. This is the most elegant and upscale section of the city, with Ginza being home to the most expensive real estate in the world.

This area offers wide open streets (an anomaly in Tokyo), high-end shopping everywhere, endless skyscrapers, salarymen (Colloquial term for office worker), and some of the best food you’ll find in Japan.

But an impeccably clean city center with wide streets would only be fit for royalty in Japan if it were balanced by a sense of openness and connection to nature. Immediately encircling the Imperial palace, a big field with pruned trees and a moat tempt you to kick your shoes off and take a break on the grass, or go for a run around the circumference. Either way, it’s a rejuvenating experience in the midst of the busy and gray Tokyo.

Marunouchi Must Do:

Take a walk around the Imperial Palace. 

Check out Tokyo’s fascination with cars – This area is a good place to get a taste of Tokyo’s (and Japan’s) obsession with incredible cars.

Jiro from Jiro Dreams of Sushi operates his restaurant in Ginza – But if you’re looking to skip the $300 USD price and possible 3 month wait, then I recommend Karaku Ginza’s lunch special which ranges between $10-$20 per sushi bowl and matches the quality.

Marunouchi Tip: The Tsukiji Fish Market, famous for its early morning tuna auctions and home to this guy who hates money, is a couple stops away and definitely a place to check out if for nothing other than some of the freshest fish in Tokyo. But! The market won’t be there forever. Due to the Olympics, Tsukiji will be winding down its run as the fish marketplace in 2016.


…and finally, Odaiba.

This man-made island in the bay of Tokyo is what you would get if you asked land developers and city planners to design an area for workers and families that felt like an amusement park.

Odaiba Must Do:

Ageha – I’m not a club person but I’ve been around to a few and in terms of venue space and set up, Ageha is the best club I have ever been to because it mixes huge concert venues, small intimate dance floors and an outdoor area by the Tokyo Bay. And almost everyone who goes there is ready to party – trains stop running at midnight – so you’ll have plenty of time to make friends.

Diver City – A playhouse for adults featuring floors of restaurants and shops with a skate park on the roof and a giant Gundam statue out front!

Miraikan – The National Museum of Science and innovation – Where else can you find a giant spinning globe, watch demonstrations of the Honda Asimo robot, and ponder what that icky sense of unease is that you are feeling when you see the almost life-like androids exhibition?

Oedo Onsen – Hitting up a bathhouse was one of my favorite activities and for good reason. You can wear a Japanese robe (known as a yukata), try some delicious foods, and stroll through the garden and indoor festival area. Oh, and the baths are relaxing, too. I also recommend Niwa No Yu in Toshimaen.


One last must do before you go:

Ghibli Museum – From Studio Ghibli, the creators of Spirited Away and the the Totoro characters. I must admit that I knew very little (read:nothing) of the anime these people produced but the museum still instilled a sense of wonder in me. The attention to detail is extraordinary (I especially loved the mockup of the artist’s (Hayao Miyazaki) studio and the staff is incredibly well informed/former artists for Miyazaki.

My visit to the museum also inspired me to embark on a solo journey to the mystical island of Yakushima. I’ll discuss that magical place in a future post.

Ghibli Tip: Order you tickets WELL in advance, I had to wait months before I could visit.


Still with me?

If you’ve made it this far; congratulations! How you feeling? That was a lot of information you just took in! So here’s a little treat for you. This is one of my favorite videos on Tokyo. It’s called Tokyo Roar and will make you want to book your ticket tonight!


Next, I’ll focus on easy day trips out of Tokyo to some of my favorite places in the world, including Kamakura.

Til then,

Mahyar

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