22-24 March, 6-7 April 2008
Tokyo is one of the coolest cities in the world and there's endless things to discover in its highrises and backstreets.
One of the best experiences of visiting Japan is to be able to stay in a ryokan: a traditional Japanese inn/hotel with tatami mats, sliding paper screen doors and futons on the floor. The fantastic Japanese Guest Houses booked me into two places.
Sadachiyo. A traditional ryokan located in Asakusa, a less touristy area of Tokyo with a chilled out local feel to it. It's still accessible to most of central Tokyo on the fast and efficient Tokyo metro (or me-ta-ro as I like to call it) Ginza line. After enjoying my traditional 12 course Edo-style dinner, comprising a myriad of dishes of fish, tofu, pickles, hotpot, rice and miso soup, I enjoyed a long hot soak in the public bath. The most delightful aspect of Sadachiyo was the friendly service - when I checked out they gave me a wooden charm with my name inscribed on it, and the owner was so concerned for my welfare in the pouring rain that he insisted in his halting English that I take an umbrella and to throw it away when I didn't need it anymore. I carried that umbrella all the way through sunny Hakone, sunny Nagoya and sunny Kyoto because his typically kind Japanese gesture touched me so much.
Yamanaka. A modern ryokan seemingly linked to a Chinese restaurant near Ueno park. The room was small but comfortable with the usual amenities - yukata (robe), green tea, a sweet morsel and a heated toilet seat with numerous functions. Again they were very kind as I missed the 23:00 curfew without having properly checked in, and they waited up for me until I arrived.
The rule is when in Japan, eat Japanese food. For a foodie like me, it was gastronomic heaven - fantastically fresh and beautifully presented food, available at every price point. And there's no tipping, not even in the classiest restaurants.
Yakitori on the street. On the same alley as Sadachiyo was a tiny yakitori stand run from what looked like someone's garage. Each skewer cost 80 yen (AUD$0.90) and I ate it freshly heated from the coals with a slather of sauce, enjoying the world go by from my low stool.
Unagidon. My policy in Japan is to join any restaurant line I see (especially if it has Japanese people in it) as it will be guaranteed to be good. The likelihood of good value food is increased when the line is full of pensioners. This busy local restaurant of families and middle-aged couples (sorry no name) served a delicious unagidon set (grilled eel on rice) for only 1250 yen (AUD$13).
Midori Sushi. In a row of restaurants near the train tracks at Ginza, this was the only one with a solid line (even at 4pm), to the point where they provide benches and a machine dispensing hot tea for those waiting. Inside was a frenetic restaurant with a row of sushi chefs serving out platters of high quality sushi, and occasionally the whole restaurant would erupt with all the staff yelling something like 'welcome' and 'thanks for coming'. Dad tried the freshest sushi you could possibly get - raw prawn which had just had its head removed, so its tail was still squirming on the knob of rice. Argh!
Sushi breakfast at Tsukiji Market. Some people may balk at eating sushi for breakfast, but if you're a sushi fan then you're not going to get any fresher than Tsukiji fish market, the biggest wholesale fish market in the world. I picked a place in the Inner Market that had a queue (but not a crazy one like Sushi-dai or Daiwa) and it didn't disappoint. The tiny place has seats running along the length of the bar where you can watch the fluid rhythmic motions of the sushi chefs as they deftly place morsels of tuna, scallops and salmon roe right in front of you, still warm from their hands.
Any department store food hall. An amazing selection of Western and Japanese food can be found, ranging from exotic fruit to towering cream cakes. It's fun just to appreciate the beautiful packaging and to taste test some of the odd things on offer. And if you go an hour before closing time you can pickup some reduced items for a picnic dinner or lunch the next day.
Namjatown. A high-octane food-themed indoor amusement park in the middle of the nondescript Sunshine City shopping centre, I think this is a Tokyo must-see. For 300 yen (AUD$2.50) you can visit the Gyoza Stadium, where gyoza stalls battle it out to be 'King of Gyoza', and Dessert World, with stalls selling Western cakes to green tea puddings (Sweet Factory Comodino allows you to take home the cute ceramic serving container as well). My favourite was Ice Cream City, which includes a Museum of Ice Cream with banks of upright fridges filled with products from all over Japan (I recommend the black sesame tofu ice cream). If your mouth is agape with all that kitschness, wait till you see the song and dance routine by the evil looking mouse characters and hosted by excitable Iron Chef-style polyester bolero-wearing MCs.
Ex cafe. My friend Andrew tells me this is best coffee in Tokyo, and it was filled with bright young things taking a break from shopping on fashionable Ometosando.
Gonpachi. Made famous by Quentin Tarantino, the Shibuya branch of this chain of Western-influenced Japanese food sits high on the hill, and the view of the Tokyo skyline from the glass elevator is quite captivating. I recommend the handmade soba noodles, served with a pot of starchy water (from the boiled noodles) which you pour into your soy vinegar bowl and drink like a vinegary miso-soup.
La Foret. My favourite store in Tokyo, it's 9 floors of great clothes shopping and where the cool kids of Harajuku go. The most interesting part is the basement, where the stores sell pink girly tutu dresses for costume-play doll girls, or scary black studded leather for the goth punk rockers.
Gomme. In amongst the prairie prints and patent leather shoes of La Foret is a store selling my favourite Japanese design aesthetic - structural chic. Every jacket, skirt and shirt has some detail which takes it beyond the norm - ruching, pleating, play on proportions. I didn't take much convincing to come away with a light khaki jacket.
Tokyu Hands. A behemoth homewares and lifestyle 'creative life store' selling cake tins to planks of wood. I spent a good hour examining their lunch box collection before deciding on a two-level click-lock box with chopsticks and insulator bag.
Shibuya 109. There's no need to go clubbing when can you have your fashion senses and hearing assaulted in this multi-storey storehouse of youth fashion. Every store is manned by a pretty Japanese surfer chicks in short shorts and dripping in bling (or variations on that theme) and you can feel the techno bass reverbrating through the floor. I felt like such a grandma as the fashion was a bit 'young' for me (neon bra-top, anyone?) but it was lots of fun.
Uniqlo. It's the Primark of Japan, but of infinitally better quality. For example, men's premium cotton tshirt for 1500 yen (AUD$18) and four pairs of socks for 990 yen (AUD$11). They also have a manga-themed concept tshirt store UT which sells red canisters containing limited edition tshirts with designs by famous artists, such as Astroboy. Tip: there's a store at Narita airport so you can stock up after check-in. They also have a small range of UT shirts.
Kappadashi-dori. If you like cooking, you'll love Kitchen Town. This long street sells everything you'll need to set up a restaurant - from Coke signs, plastic soft serve icecream lights and blackboard menus to chopsticks and soup bowls. I bought sweet wrappers from Itokei and a Japanese print tea canister from Takamura.
Harajuku on Sunday: See kids in crazy costumes strolling down Takeshita-dori, B-list rockers strutting around for a photo shoot and buskers and street theatre around Yoyogi-koen.
No one jay-walks in Japan and there is order in the chaos of famous Shibuya crossing - check out the scene from upstairs of Shibuya station.
Sukeroku No Yado Sadachiyo: 2-20-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo 111-0032
Yamanaka: 4-23-1 Ikenohata
Midori Sushi: Ginza 7-108, Ginza Korida-dori 1F (Also other locations)
Tsukiji Market: 5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku
Namjatown: Sunshine City World Import Mart Bldg.2・3F, 3-1 Higashi-, Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku
Ex Cafe: 2F 1-12-6 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0001
Gonpachi: 14F. E.Space Tower
La Foret/Gomme: 1-11-6 Jingumae, Tokyo
Tokyu Hands: 12-18 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku. (Also other locations)
Shibuya 109: 2-29-1 Dogenzaka Shibuya-ku, Tokyo.
Uniqlo: everywhere, including Narita airport.
UT: Jingumae 6-10-8, Shibuya-ku
Graniph: 150-0001, TokyoT's ONE1F 1-C, 3-23-5 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (Also other locations)
Kappabashi-dori: between Ueno and Asakusa, closest metro Tahara-cho.