As I write this, I’m on a plane flying over the Pacific Ocean, contemplating the trip I just had. I’ve always wanted to visit Japan (Tokyo in particular), and it finally came to fruition this past week. I left feeling more inspired than even my (already high) expectations predicted, and felt compelled to share a few thoughts on the city and the culture.
For those of you simply looking for recommendations on things to do in Tokyo — you can skip to the Neighborhood Guide section at the bottom. That said, I feel I should warn you that simply following a list would do a disservice to your experience. While I did receive some recommendations beforehand (far too many, in fact, as so many peers had recently visited), I found the best experiences I had were entirely unplanned.
Follow The Alleys
When you first visit a neighborhood in Tokyo, you will take in the sights visible from whichever station you arrived at. Most likely, these are main roads, filled with big and flashy offerings to get your attention. I quickly learned to avoid these areas — instead, you must find the small alleys within them, and explore those to discover what the neighborhood truly has to offer. This may seem like a stereotypical thing, to walk “off the main path”, but I’ve never seen as high a contrast between the two as is the case in Tokyo. I often imagined I was entering an artery and discovering magic in a capillary.
As I explored the neighborhood of Daikanamya (my favorite in Tokyo), I passed countless furniture and department stores my eyes had become trained to ignore. I saw a crooked path branching off to my right, barely inviting strangers to enter. Following it, I felt the air change, and was drawn to the curiously minimal shops within it. Suddenly, to my great surprise, I saw a sign for a Yemeni coffee shop. This was particularly shocking, as earlier that day I had lamented to my friends how coffee shops such as Blue Bottle had made it all the way to Tokyo, but the inventors of coffee itself had no footprint here. Yet, here I was. I was utterly delighted to be proven wrong.
The humble sign was pasted on the wall in a small gap between two stores. I was confused. Where was the store? As I soon realized, I needed to squeeze into this little gap, and as I did so I felt like Alice crawling down the rabbit hole. What awaited me on the other side immediately put a smile on my face.
I sat down on one of two empty stools at the coffee bar. I expected to try the nostalgic and appealing Kadak Chai on offer, mostly for novelty’s sake, and then head back on my way. Just as I was about to leave, a man walked in and took the seat next to me. He seemed to be a regular, and struck up a conversation with me. Before I knew it, we had been chatting for two hours about public transit over many cups of Turkish coffee. As it turns out, he runs one of the largest transit companies in the world. I had so many questions, and he was patient enough to answer them all. It was an incredibly inspirational conversation. I gained a lot of knowledge and a new friend that night.
Life happens in the empty space between our plans.
The Freedom of Trains
The best piece of advice I can give you about visiting Japan is this: if you are planning to be there for any length of time, you should get a J.R. Pass. This little piece of paper is a thing of magic — it will enable you to freely travel the bullet trains between cities, as well as countless local trains within each of them. In the week that we were there, it surely paid for itself at least three times over.
Additionally, you’ll get the chance to ride on Japan’s various bullet trains (starting with the one that takes you from the airport to Tokyo). They truly are a marvel. I recommend getting the ‘green’ pass which lets you sit in upgraded cars for only slightly more fee. They’re almost completely silent, incredibly fast, smooth as silk, and always on time. What more could you want in a train (or any form of transport, for that matter)?
Sometimes I think about the scale of the system that operates so many of these different rail systems all at once… I can barely fathom it. Bullet trains, local trains, subways, light rail… all operating at such a high frequency and reliability. Every single time I got to the tracks, my train arrived within minutes, if it wasn’t pulling up already.
I have been thinking and studying about public transit of late. Its urgency in my thoughts has accelerated due to the impending impacts of climate change. A well designed, highly available and accessible mass transportation system can truly change the fate of our planet. Beyond avoiding catastrophic damage to our planet, I believe there is another (possibly more important) motive for us to build these kinds of networks: our happiness. When we can leave our rooms and walk out knowing there will be a transport within minutes to take us wherever we need to go, we feel truly free.
The Culture of Performance
One of the reasons I’ve always been enamored with Japanese films (any Ghibli fans out there?) and products is their attention to detail. We all know the value of this — our experiences improve when thoughtfulness is instilled into the design process of the products we use. So, I wasn’t surprised to see this kind of attention paid during all my interactions with Japanese service workers, staff, and shop owners. The manifestation of this can include phrases of welcome upon entering a store, amenities such as hot towels being offered, or most often a ritual of someone spending 3-5 minutes carefully packing what you just bought.
I expected to love all this, but somehow I didn’t. It ranged from being mildly amusing at best, to frustrating or awkward at worst. The packaging methods in particular are difficult to accept. I once purchased three little macaroons, and even though I clarified I was going to eat it right away, it was still packed inside a plastic box within paper wrapping within another plastic bag, with lots of other paper inserts included. In particular, I couldn’t get past how wasteful it was to use so many unnecessary plastic materials.
In another instance, a waitress was bringing a piping hot latte in a large mug for my friend. It was filled to the brim. As she slowly carried it toward our table, I could literally sense the tension. There were a lot of barriers in her way, and it was evident she was terrified of dropping it.
At some point, a tiny drop spilled into the saucer, and with many apologies she turned around, returned to the kitchen to wipe it, and came back to do it all over again. Many more apologies. As I looked at her expression, I could sense this utter helplessness on her part as she felt obligated to go to these lengths. It felt more like a forced performance rather than a ritual of kindness.
While I can understand the value of the tradition and the importance of the ritual in many cases, a lot of times my sympathy for the struggles of these service workers made the experience a definitively negative one. It was then, however, that I recalled a wonderful quote I saw in Pico Iyer’s book about Japan:
“…as the woman in the tiny patisserie flashes you a beautiful smile and spends many long minutes placing your $ 1.50 éclair in a pink box, enclosing a bag of ice so the pastry won’t melt on the long way home, wrapping the box in seasonal paper and appending a bow (pick any color) under a badge to keep the box shut, you’re really in the realm of the transpersonal. Everything is deeply personal; it just has nothing to do with you.”
I suppose then, that an important step in embracing these rituals is to recognize the value gained by those performing them – acts of kindness to others can give one a deep sense of satisfaction and purpose. So, rather than perceiving them as being just for us, we must recognize their mutual value.
(Lack Of) Language Barriers
I came to Japan embarrassed that I had not spent the effort needed to learn how to speak Japanese at a basic level (beyond the minimal “hello”, “thank you” and so on). I was surprised to discover, however, that everyone I spoke to was able to converse in English (to varying degrees). Even in the towns of Osaka and Kyoto, we never found ourselves in a situation where we needed to use a translator app (I had the Google Translate app ready, but alas it was never called upon).
I later learned, after speaking with one of my friend’s past schoolmates (who is a Tokyo resident), that Japan’s government (and its society as a result) has invested significantly in tourism. This was done primarily to try and counteract the economic losses being felt due to the decline of the Japanese electronics industry.
This investment is clearly evident in the shopping experience as a tourist — you simply don’t pay any tax at all. The shop will charge you the tax-free price, and hand you a customs receipt. Upon leaving Japan, you submit all the customs receipts so that the shops can get paid back by the government. This is a policy that is clearly optimizing for tourist experience rather than local businesses. One might assume that some percentage of tourists (anywhere from 25% or more) will simply forget to submit these receipts, so local businesses surely lose revenue with this policy.
Assuming the increase in tourism helps sustain local businesses and grow the economy, one could perceive this as a win-win. On the flip side, however, this removed a bit of the ‘mystery’ of visiting a foreign country for me. It was clear that even remote areas were expecting a tourist like myself and had accommodated me, in more places than I expected.
I wonder, during these transformations to help foreigners feel more at home, what is being lost in the process?
Alright, let’s get to the recommendations! I found the best way to navigate Tokyo is to figure out some neighborhoods you want to explore, take the train(s) there, and then spend a few hours to a half day in that area. It will give you the best chance of finding what that place actually has to offer you, based on your individual tastes.
TOKYO FISH MARKET
The fish market is famous for being filled with trading chaos, and delicious food. They actually had to move the trading floors over to a new location in Shijo-Mae. If you want to see a massive tuna, and lots of people shouting over fish prices, go here as early as possible (5AM).
If, like me, you’re more interested in the food… the old market location in Tsukiji still has all the restaurants and stalls you could ask for. Find the man with the outstretched arms, get a seat at the sushi bar, and go to town. I’d also recommend finding one of the stalls with Wagyu beef — you can buy it on a stick, and it’s so buttery smooth that you can bite it right off without even needing a knife.
We visited the fish market multiple times. It’s. The. Best.
This was my favorite area in all of Tokyo. If you read my story about alleys above, you know this is where I discovered the Yemeni Mocha Coffee spot. I also loved the clothing stores here — lots of unique options that you won’t find by just wandering department stores. Overall though, it’s just a really amazing atmosphere, with cute brick roads and lots of different paths to explore.
Known as the “Brooklyn of Tokyo”, this is a bit outside the main areas of Tokyo, but worth a visit. Hit up the main station and then explore the market nearby. Note that there’s stuff on either side of the station — the North has the main market, but the South has some gems too.
Also make a stop at Yeti Coffee: I loved this spot. If you go, see if Amit is there and tell him I said hi! He made the tastiest coffee I had in all of Japan (they use a special Himalayan blend).
We stayed in Ebisu, and didn’t realize how much it had to offer until near the end of the trip. If you get off at the station, head toward the Ebisu-Jinja shrine, and you’ll discovery many alleys to explore. There are lots of great places to grab a bite, many with nice outdoor seating.
I’d highly recommend finding a place with Yakiniku style BBQ — it’s truly an incredibly dining experience. I should note that the best Yakiniku I had in Japan was actually in Kyoto, so if you are going through there I’d highly recommend stopping at one of the Yakiniku Hiro locations.
Go to the Starbucks by the main Shibuya station, order something, and then go upstairs to the deck level to get a view. There, you’ll get a good vantage point to see the Shibuya Crossing. It’s a pretty cool sight to see that many people crossing at once, and gives you a true sense of the scale of Tokyo. Take some photos, and then leave immediately and don’t come back. There’s really no other reason for you to be there.
This area has great Nepalese restaurants (Angan is a good pick), but otherwise it’s mostly a haven for K-Pop, and is apparently where all the kids hang out. If you’re into that, make your way there, otherwise I’d avoid this area entirely. I found it way too crowded and couldn’t handle being there for any longer than it took to walk between Angan and the station.
This place can feel a bit like LA’s Rodeo Drive (another neighborhood similar to this in Tokyo is Ginza, if you’re into that). It’s worth walking around just to get some glimpses, but as I mentioned earlier, there’s gold in them thar alleys! One coffee place I found was called Imperfect Coffee, and it has a program where you get a token for each purchase enabling you to vote for things like education or the environment. The company devotes a percentage of their revenue toward the winning causes. I voted for education.
That’s all, folks! There are, of course, so many more neighborhoods to discuss, not to mention all the parks and gardens, or other cities in Japan… but we’re landing soon, so I’ll stop here. Besides, you’ll enjoy it more if you find it yourself! Did you notice I didn’t include any spoiler photos here? Have fun, and remember to follow the alleys :)