From crazy kitsch to uber cool, Tokyo is a hustling, bustling city that is drenched in tradition, with a tone of yester-year, and oozes a vibe now in favour with those seeking an alternative edge. Here the world is immactuely maintained, rules are respected and an underworld currant ripples through the nightlife of the city. Post-war buildings are preened to prisitine condition, fashion is eclectically edgy, escapism adventures are encouraged and old school taxis, driven by perfectly groomed and gloved drivers, tear through the mess of humans rushing across the busy street crossings, all within a city that breathes work hard, play harder.
Fly from any major city into one of two Tokyo Airports – Narita or Haneda.
Insider Tip: Haneda Airport is much closer to the city centre than Narita, so if possible, try to choose a flight that gets you there to reduce commuting time upon arrival. If you do fly into Narita, the best mode of transporation is the Skyliner Train – a fast train into the Nippori Station, from which you can get onto the metro train system or taxi to your accommodation.
Where to stay
For a centralised location within easy access to all major areas of Tokyo.
If you want the insider feel within a cooler vibe, edgy but affluent neighbourhood.
To easily get around the city grab yourself a Suica or Pasmo card (much like an Oyster card in London) from a rail station and load it up so you can tap in and out of the different train lines. This will be your most cost effective mode of transport, alongside a tonne of walking.
Insider Tip: Uber isn’t as affordable in Tokyo as many other big cities due to the regulations from other taxi companies. Due to this, it is often cheaper to hail down a taxi from the street or opt for public transport instead.
Whilst many people do speak a little English here, sometimes the language barrier can be challenging – particularly when trying to navigate the signs or confirm driving locations. Make sure you have any important addresses (AKA your apartment/accommodation details) in Japanese characters to be able to show drivers and be respectful for their language. Brushing up on a few key terms will go a long way to demonstrate you aren’t an ignorant tourist!
What to see
Tsukiji Fish Market
One of the worlds most famous fresh fish markets and the centre of trade for the countless restaurants of Tokyo and beyond, this is a working market where you can get a sneak peek into the inner workings of the trade. If you get up early enough (we’re talking 2:30-3am) and brave the dark, cold queue to line up to win one of the 120 tickets to the daily tuna auction, you can get a chance to see the fresh hauls being auctioned off to the highest bidder. If that doesn’t appeal, head in a little later (around 6am) and check out one of the many sashimi restaurants dotted around the edges of the market, which serve the freshest daily fish, prepared right in front of you. Expect long lines as these restaurants seat around 8 people max and are VERY popular. The fish market itself is not open to the public until 10am and there are crazy, careening trucks shooting all over the markets, so best to keep out of the way and maybe get a glance or two into the fish market hall itself.
With Vogue calling it the “Brooklyn of Tokyo”, Daikonyama is one area that you should not miss on any trip to Tokyo. With an artsy vibe and a touch of affluence, there’s a melting pot of unique ateliers, award winning bookstores, breweries and edgy archicture all within the tree-lined streets. The area apparently is a big deal to local insiders, and acts as a modern oasis that is a classy world away from the neon lit streets of Shibuya and Shinjuku.
Shop Tsutaya T-site: this famous bookstores has not only won architectural awards, but holds every taste of literature under its seemingly endless sweep of shelves.
This “up and coming” area beats the city stress and has the more laid back, current vibe that gets it labelled as the “hipster” spot of Tokyo. It is definitely way more chill, so enjoy wandering through alleys, stopping for coffee and cruising the plethora of vintage boutiques, vinyl stores and cafes which will keep you occupied for an afternoon.
Shop The Fog: this beautiful homewares stores stocks stunning brassware and handmade linens.
The area made famous by Gwen Stefani, reportedly if you come here on a Sunday you can find Harajuku girls parading around showing off their best outfits. Sadly we visited on a rainy day, so missed out, but regardless this area is a great central spot to explore, especially if you’re a shopping fiend.
Shop Cat Street: a pedestrian only strip filled with boutiques, RagTag: for quality second hand and vintage, Atmos: for the sneakerheads
The backstreets and alleys that weave between Minamiaoyama through Omotesando and up to Harajuku are trove of eclectic boutiques, vintage fashion, speciality cafes, food spots and local businesses. Once you get off the main roads and explore you can find little nooks and hidden lanes that fix both your shopping and culture cravings.
Shop Lisn: the most incredible incense store you will ever find. Nike Lab MA5: for all your ecletic Nike collections.
It’s one of the worlds biggest and busiest pedestrian crossings, where thousands of people cram and converge across 5 walkways at peak hour. The imagery of the crossing is synomous with Tokyo iconography and as a major hub for transport links, you will likely find yourself at Shibuya during your Tokyo adventures so it’s worth a look... or a photo op.
Tokyo isn’t one of the worlds greenest cities, in fact the architecture is decidedly urban grey in its post war haste, but tucked into the very centre of the town, you can find the Meiji shrine – a tribute to the spirit of Emperor Meiji and a beautiful example of a Japanese Shinto shrine. Nestled with the densely forested Yoyogi Park, meander along stunning, canopied walkways and take a break from the city hustle.
The Must Do’s
Kappabashi Kitchen Town
If you have any interested in interior design, homewares or culinary products, this street will be your absolute heaven. Kappabashi Road is lined with endless speciality stores stocking Japanese ceramics, knives, homewares, kitchen products, even plastic food to be displayed in shop windows. Whatever you need, you will find it right here. After the first three shops at the top of the road, we hit our weight limits with incredible ceramic bowls, plates, trays and mugs, all ranging from only $2-10. It’s simply mind blowing and an absolute must do.
Ditch the cool complex or insecurity and jump into a private booth to sing your little heart out. There’s costumes, disco lights and all the ballads, dirty hip hop and 90s pop you can ever desire. You’ll have a great time, just don’t watch the videos the next day…
Insider Tip: Karaoke Kan is a popular spot to look out for (a Lost in Translation spot) and has a few locations across town.
For a totally kitsch, hilarious and eventful night out, reserve a spot at Tokyo Burlesque. It's a little tacky, wild and cheesy, but the performers are super cute and make you want to have a good time. It's the sort of burlesque show you could take your mum to, and it definitely isn't a slick, polished production, but that makes it all the more fun and interactive. Plus you'll have some excellent stories to tell when you get back home.
Photo Booths, Purikura no Mecca
What would any great Tokyo trip be without a little Photo Booth action! This is where airbrushing, modifcations, photoshop and photo editing have all gone next level, and without even stepping foot into the editing booth, the camera will modify you to look flawless – or slightly scary... This spot is absolutely teeming with girls dressed up and snapping away in the many booths making up the mecca, but at around $5 a go, its well worth it for the memories and laughs for years to come.
Duck into one of the many, many, many arcades around the Shinjuku area for a quick video game, Mario Kart race or even to step into the nets to hit a few baseballs! The Japanese love this form of escapism and it's hugely entertaining!
For the best brunch in town (that is totally not traditional) go straight to Bills. Founded by Aussie celeb chef Bill Granger, this is another outpost of his famous cafes [Granger + Co in London] and has all the staple healthy, and not-so healthy, brunch treats you could desire. The lines can be super long, but it’s well worth the wait!
Harajuku Gyoza-ro, Harajuku
For a quick pit stop when cruising the streets of Harajuku head here for a refuel. Tucked just off Cat Street, the specialist menu has 6 items, including two variations of gyoza, and they are pretty damn delicious!
35 steps bistro, Shibuya
This Izakaya ( a Japanese "gastropub") has all your Japanese favourites in the traditional seating style – shoes off and be prepared to sit down low to the ground – but throws a few modern twists in as well. A buzzing popular restaurant in the always crowded Shibuya, there can be a longer wait for groups, but it is a great spot, with something for everyone on the menu!
Insider Tip: If you do have to wait for a table at 35 steps, nip across the road to the Golden Balls bar for a drink.
New York Grill, Park Hyatt, Roppongi
For a fancy dinner or special occasion, try out the New York Grill within the Park Hyatt. Tucked next to Bar 52 (check below for deets) this is top quality dining with all the views and incredible service.
Afuri, Multiple Locations
One of the most renowned for great ramen around the city, Afuri has numerous locations where you can go for a more traditional bowl, or try their famous shoyu recipe. Perfect for an on-the-go lunch stop, part of the novelty here is ordering through a vending machine before sitting down to receive your lunch!
Gonpachi Nishiazabu, Roppongi
Remember that famous fight scene from Kill Bill? This is the exact location it was filmed in and it is now an uber popular spot to dine. Squeamish? Don’t worry, there only knives getting thrown around now, are slicing the sashimi you can feast on... The atmosphere sets the scene here beyond the food, there’s a few set menu options available, but going ala carte might be your best bet to go at your own pace and try out all what picks your fancy.
Bar 52, Park Hyatt, Roppongi
Possibly the most famous drinking spot in Tokyo, thanks to its feature in Lost in Translation, this jazz bar perched on level 52 of the Park Hyatt does not disappoint and is worth every cent of the drink list price tag. With a jazz band in residence and views tumbling over the city, post up in the cozy bar and be whisked away into the Hollywood atmosphere.
Golden Gai, Shinjuku
Known across the world for its many streets packed with the tiniest bars imaginable, the Golden Gai is a tangle of drinking spots you can try to squeeze into. At first overwhelming due to the countless options of where to stop, and the calls of sleazy club dudes trying to bring you to their “nice” spots, here you can bar hop and explore the local area. Most have a cover charge for entrance (though it will likely include a snack) and many will be hard pressed to fit more than 6 people in.
Bloody Angle, Shibuya
Vinyl is a bit of a thing in Tokyo. There are countless record stores with huge selections and a few cool bars popping up where they will spin records whilst you enjoy a drink. One of the more well known is JBS, but for a friendlier vibe and more welcoming atmosphere check out Bloody Angle. Set up and tendered to by a record producer and rapper, this joint offers a chicer vibe than the mess of Shibuya below.
Bear Pond Espresso, Shimokitazawa
Coffee is surprisingly great in Tokyo, but for the best brew, head over to Bear Pond Espresso. This favoured spot is well regarded and comes with a few rules for the intimate setting size - everyone must order a drink and there are no photos to be taken inside – and is a cool pit stop when cruising around hipster Shimokitazawa.
Insider tip: There is a pretty epic vinyl record store just across the road to check out post refuel.
Wodka Tonic, Roppongi
If it's great whiskey and an intimate vibe you are after, check out Wodka Tonic, a hushed, concealed establishment that caters to the local businessmen and whiskey connousiers. It’s not cheap, but has a secret, underground vibe that whisks you away from the busy outside streets.
The Rooftop, Two rooms grill and bar, Omotesando
If you find yourself with a clear day, or sunny skies, head to the rooftop bar at the Two Rooms and perch up on the balcony for endless views across the city. You’ll get a new perspective high above street level and get a sense of the lay of the teeming city from far below.
Spring Valley Brewery, Daikonyama
Craft beer is a fast growing trend in Japan at the moment and this brewery is the perfect spot to have a tasting of some of the local brews on offer. The outdoor deck is great for some afternoon sun over a drink flight whilst you people watch all the super chic locals rolling up to hang out.
Insider tip: walk down the tree-lined, fairy-light lit walkway adjacent to find Fred Segal.