Everything I loved about Japan: Tokyo

Avid followers of my Instagram account would have recently experienced Japan via my posts and stories, as I overshared our incredible honeymoon with you all as I fell in love with Japan.

We chose Japan for our honeymoon as we both had common interests in it as a destination- hubby is into samurais, Karate Kid, gardens and bonsai, and I am obsessed with Japanese food. After being told again and again by friends that it is one of their favourite travel destinations ever, we decided to spend two weeks there for our honeymoon, lucky enough to be able to be there in cherry blossom season. The trip was everything we wanted and more; it took literally a day to fall in love with the people, the culture, the traditions, the technology and of course, the food.

I have been asked to share this as a list of recommendations for future travelers but a word of warning- this is OUR trip and OUR experience and what we personally loved… I cannot guarantee the same experience for everybody. Food wise, I also want to reiterate as I have on my Instagram account that the sheer number of restaurants in each area means that whilst we ate amazingly, these are just the places we happened upon or ate at near our accommodations. My main point is: we didn’t have a bad meal in Japan. The quality of food over there is incredible, so unless there is a particular dish you would like to try, I urge you to discover your own little pieces of foodie heaven over there rather than trekking all over town trying to visit these exact spots. We were also only there for two weeks. Whilst we crammed a lot in and saw a lot, there would be avid travelers who have spent a lot more time there who can probably give more of an insight into Japan…. however, this is my experience and why I can’t wait to go back.

I have decided to focus this article on Tokyo alone, because once I started writing, it seemed this would be the worlds longest article if I managed to fit my whole trip into here!

TOKYO

We began and ended our trip in Tokyo, and maybe thats why it has become our favourite city we visited in Japan. It was where we felt the most the pull of why we felt so at ease and relaxed on our trip- despite it being one of the biggest cities in the world, it felt the least chaotic city I have ever been in. There is something about Tokyo and the way it just works; it runs in a strange, orderly symmetry that is so calming to be a part of. Despite the amount of people moving through the city, no one seems rushed, angry or frustrated. People move at the same pace, without having to squeeze or push past each other. The people of Tokyo (and Japan as a whole) are amongst some of the most courteous and polite people we have ever encountered. From the bright lights to the quiet backstreets and gardens, to the incredible calming energy we personally felt from the clean and orderly streets, and people, there wasn’t a moment in Tokyo where my heart didn’t feel full!

Things to do:
Shinjuku:
We stayed in Shinjuku and loved it. Around every corner we felt there was something to see, and especially at night when the streets are lit up like a Christmas tree, it was a really cool place to be.

Our favourite area to explore was the rambling back streets of charismatic little Golden Gai, filled with local and tourist bars alike that squeeze in 6-8 drinkers at a time. We loved finding the bars that catered to both Japanese and tourists, and drinking with the locals.


Our favourite bar we happened upon was not very traditional at all, and called ‘Nothing Suspicious’, where the bar tender was drunker than the patrons and we had a great time there.

Also in Shinjuku is the beautiful Shinjuku Gyoen, one of the largest parks in Tokyo that contains some incredible gardens (very popular in cherry blossom season).

What we ate here:
Pork Katsu at Coco Ichibanya Higashi- there are a few of these in Shinjuku, and we found they do an amazing Pork Katsu curry for a super reasonable price. The curry sauce is particularly flavoursome and the portion sizes are huge, you could easily share.


Okonomiyaki and Yakisoba at Kabukicho– we found this gem on Tripadvisor because we happened to be in the area (it is not easily found through Google Maps, but persist!) It was our first dinner in Japan and set the tone for the whole trip- both the okonomiyaki and the yakisoba are cooked in front of you and were delicious.

Sardine broth ramen with pork brisket at Ramen Nagi in Golden Gai- this was suggested by an Instagram follower and it was one of the best things I ate in Japan! One of our favourite things was seeing the different styles of ramen from region to region, and this rich broth made from sardines and thick wonton-like fresh noodles was perfect on a cold Tokyo evening. We did have to line up for half an hour, in the rain, but even Mr Foodie Melbourne (an avid, “I don’t line up for food” guy) rates it amongst the best things we ate (even though it isn’t the most appealing dish to photograph!)

Ninja Shinjuku- we knew we had to check out one of the ‘novelty’ restaurants in Shinjuku whilst we were here but ended up choosing Ninja because it featured a bonsai dessert (hubby’s obsession). It was not the best meal we had in Japan but was enjoyable, dining in our own little private dining room with a ninja as our waiter, who performed tricks with fire and knives on our food, as well as magic tricks. The bonsai dessert was probably the least enjoyable part of the meal, but photographer well. I have heard the food isn’t great at the Robot Restaurant, whilst here the five courses we had were quite nice if not the same standard we had throughout Japan.

Sushi Zanmai- a no frills sushi chain that you will see throughout Japan (look out of the placard of the owner with his arms out wide outside the restaurants) we liked this spot because you didn’t need any bookings, the chefs make the sushi in front of you and it was very good value, fresh sushi. On our last night in Tokyo when we were feeling extra piggish (and maybe a little tipsy after spending the afternoon in Golden Gai) we ordered 2 x tempura, 2 x sushi platters and 2 bottles of sake and we were set back about $110.

Cocktails and sunset at New York Bar, Park Hyatt Tokyo- commonly known as the ‘Lost in Translation’ bar from the film, this is a gorgeous bar that overlooks Tokyo city from 180 degrees of windows. It is over a few cocktails and sunset in this spot (we arrived at 5pm and there were many window side tables left) you can understand the sheer size of Tokyo city as it seems to go on FOREVER. Mt Fuji also popped up behind the clouds for us in the distance, which was a massive ‘pinch me’ moment to be enjoying cocktails (and bottomless Japanese crunchy bar snacks) with Mt Fuji next to a stunning sunset over this city that had captured our hearts.

Shake Shack- its hardly Japanese food but we had never tried Shake Shack and thoroughly enjoyed sneaking this one in as a late lunch on a busy day!

Harajuku:
A kawaii paradise, Harajuku is home to everything that is cute or kitsch about Tokyo. We avoided the crowds (and because of this, maybe some of the allure) and visited on a Monday morning when the area was actually very quiet. I can see the pull of Harajuku, with its crazy and colourful shops and food, but it wasn’t our favourite part of Tokyo. I can imagine on a weekend when all of the Harajuku girls are visiting, it would have a completely different vibe!

Whilst we were there, we did visit the Harry Hedgehog Cafe, which was a cute experience but did stir the animal activist in me because I didn’t think the hedgehogs seemed super happy to be cuddled. We went with the whole ‘when in Japan’ mindset and felt an animal cafe had to be on our hit list, and I’m allergic to cats…. so hedgehogs it was.


Our favourite part of the Harajuku area was the stunning Yoyogi Park and Meiji Jingu shrine, an oasis in the middle of the bustling city. Walking through the park you could almost convince yourself that you are in the middle of a forest and it amazed me how quickly we felt completely hidden from the city. The shrine itself is lovely (as they all are in Japan), and the huge display of huge sake kegs in the park makes a great photo!
We actually walked from Shinjuku to Harajuku through this park (about 5kms) and it was a great way to explore the area.

Tsukiji Fish Market
As a seafood lover, this market was paradise for me! Although the famous tuna auctions are not available to the public in this arena anymore, it was still a foodie haven to visit. We explored the outer market for breakfast, arriving at about 9am. By 10am, the streets were chock full of people so I recommend getting there early.
We indulged in countless pieces of sushi (amongst the freshest seafood you can eat!), giant oysters, sea urchin and freshly cooked wagyu as we wandered through. It is by no means a cheap breakfast or lunch by Tokyo standards, as all up we probably burned through $100 AU in the morning, but it was a great experience and I highly recommend it for seafood lovers.

What we ate:
EVERYTHING

Shibuya
Busy Shibuya was my second favourite part of Tokyo. Bustling with people (but never manic, despite the amount of people who are there at one time) it is a feast for the senses with so much happening around you, and for the tastebuds with some great restaurants around the area.

The highlight is of course the famous Shibuya Crossing, the most famous pedestrian crossing in the world, which once again highlights the lack of chaos in Tokyo as thousands of people cross the road in a (mostly) structured, orderly fashion. The best way to people watch in Shibuya is to head up to the Starbucks windows and watch from there!

What we ate:
Sushi Train at Genki Sushi– a super fresh and cheap sushi train in Shibuya, we loved our meal here. As much as the experience of having your sushi made in front of you is a must for Japan, so is the fun simplicity of a sushi train.

Meguro River
This is a particularly lovely area during cherry blossom season. You can walk for a few kms along this river lined by cherry blossoms. The Japanese people take ‘hanami’ or flower viewing very seriously, with it becoming quite a social occasion. Because of this, this area (and the parks around Tokyo) have a great vibe with people eating and drinking. I expected sakura viewing to be a very touristy thing, but loved that so many Japanese people take such pleasure in doing it. This particular river area is lined by street carts in this season, selling mulled wine, champagne and street food snacks to munch on whilst you admire your surroundings.

SOME EXTRA TIPS:
These tips really cater for the whole of Japan, so I will probably include them throughout this series.
– SOFT SERVE. Eat it everywhere. I absolutely loved the ‘milk cream’ soft serve available in an array of interesting flavours, and ate at least one a day.
– 7/11 is your friend! As you would have seen in my Instagram posts and stories, 7/11 food is delicious and cheap in Japan. We would eat from a 7/11 when we were on the go usually one meal a day, trying an array of hot and cold dishes, as well as crunchy snacks, chocolates or coffees for about $10 per person per day. Lawson is another popular convenience store chain with some great food.
– Public transport- whilst it is very intimidating at first, it is SO easy to get around once you arrive. Take the time to learn the train system and how to read the maps from one of the super lovely guides at most big train stations and your life will be easier. We used the Hyperdia App to map out our regional travel, and Google Maps for metro. We used a Japan Rail Pass for regional travel, but just bought ticket by ticket for Tokyo metro (it was never more than a few bucks per trip). Keep in mind that on trains you should be as quiet as can be, put your phone on silent and do not answer phone calls- this makes the train a very peaceful place!
– Do not tip! There were times we would have loved to have tipped but it is not part of Japanese culture and it (apparently) considered rude.
– Take the back streets! Some of our favourite parts of Tokyo were in the back streets, where little charming shops, homes, gardens pop up everywhere.
– Carry cash. The majority of the smaller Japanese restaurants we visited accepted cash only. Most 7/11, Family Mart and Lawson convenience stores have ATMS.

It is incredibly hard to sum up in one article why and how we loved Tokyo so hard. Realistically, we spent five nights there. You could spend weeks and weeks there and not see enough of it. (I haven’t even included in this our random visit to ‘Bonsai Village’, hit me up if it is something that interests you!)
To truly understand the feeling that Tokyo brings, I feel like it has to be visited. I can preach to you about how calming I found it, how orderly and easy it was to get around, how lovely the people were and how every day was full with such fun activities, but without experiencing it, it is hard to believe. I know my flight alerts will be set for cheap Tokyo flights from now on, and we can’t wait to visit again!

Please note: as said above, this is all based on my experience only and I do not claim to be an expert in Japanese food, culture or travel 🙂

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