Part 1 of Japan: Tokyo in Four Days
Welcome to Tokyo, our favorite city! We left San Francisco on a Friday afternoon and about 10 hours later landed at Narita Airport around 3PM Japan time. It was shockingly efficient to get through customs and collect our bags, and we took an easy train ride from Narita into the city.
You have two airport options for Tokyo, Narita and Haneda. Haneda is much closer to the city's center -- about 15 minutes by subway -- but Narita usually has more flight options. I was worried about hassling with subway connections coming off a 10 hour flight, but it was honestly so easy.
(On the way home we discovered there's actually a subway line called the Narita express that goes straight from the airport to Tokyo Station.)
In Tokyo we stayed in this Airbnb, which was located between the neighborhoods of Aoyama and Omotesando. There was nothing fancy about it, but it was absolutely perfect for our needs. Tokyo apartments are notoriously small, so don't be put off by small living quarters (just check the specifics for how many bedrooms the listing has, since many will pack multiple beds to a room.)
I would recommend staying in an Airbnb in a heartbeat. We had more room to spread out than we would have in a hotel, and half the fun was trying to figure out the Japanese washer, dryer and dishwasher. (Although we did stay in a hotel when we came back to Tokyo at the end of our trip, which you can read about here.)
Our first night in Tokyo we had dinner at Butagumi, a top-ranked tonkatsu restaurant, and tried to stay awake by walking around our neighborhood.
The next morning we had breakfast at Bread & Espresso, a place with good coffee and this most bizarre combo of breakfast foods in Omotesando. After that we realized it was easier to buy coffee and eggs from any 7-11 or Family Mart (Japan's convenience stores are basically grocery stores) and make breakfast at home.
From Bread & Espresso we walked over to the famous Shibuya Crossing, rumored to be one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the world. It's crazy to see hundreds of people crossing in every direction without bumping into each other. It's weirdly hard to photograph, but your best bet is the second floor of the Starbucks in the adjacent department store for an aerial view.
After Shibuya Crossing we walked over to the D47 Design Shop, on the 7th floor of the Shibuya Hikarie department store near the Shibuya Station entrance. I found this store on Monocle's rec on my last trip, and loved the selection of handmade items for sale -- they have products from all the prefectures in Japan and it's a great place to pick up unique gifts made in the country. Most importantly, it's where I've found my favorite socks in Japan.
After Shibuya waited about 45 minutes in line for lunch at Tamawarai soba. While the inside of the restaurant was chilly and silent except for noodle slurping, we were rewarded with the most amazing soba ever for about $10 a bowl. We later discovered the restaurant had a Michelin star, which made perfect sense:
That afternoon we made a failed attempt at finding rain boots for one of us at the Hunter store in Ginza, but it turns out Japanese stores didn't sell shoes big enough for any of our feet!
For dinner, we headed for shabu shabu at Butagumishabuan near our Airbnb:
On our second full day in Tokyo we had breakfast at home and then walked through the park, past the Meji Shrine, to Fuglen, my favorite coffee shop maybe in the whole world:
From Fuglen, we walked down to the Daikanyama area for shopping at the T-Site, the most amazing bookstore. With multiple buildings of books (most in Japanese), a bustling Starbucks, beautifully designed exterior, and a book-themed cocktail bar, it's like a much hipper version of a Barnes and Noble circa 2000.
After some book browsing we had lunch at Ivy Place, a restaurant full of Japanese ladies who lunch (supposedly they have great pancakes and open at 7 AM if you're jetlagged). After a mix-up where the waiter brought us a bottle instead of a glass of wine, we stopped by the APC outlet and a few other stores next door, (thankfully we didn't buy anything) and then headed to Harajuku.
We'd booked an afternoon architecture tour through Airbnb -- they now offer activities you book through their app just like you would book a stay.
Our tour guide took us through Harajuku and Aoyama over the course of three hours, pointing out some really striking architectural buildings in those areas and introducing us to a number of Japanese architects, including Tadao Ando, who we'd come to appreciate later in Naoshima. It wasn't the most cohesive tour, but we enjoyed our time walking around new neighborhoods.
For dinner we headed to Suzu Sushi, a very small sushi restaurant in Roppongi that a Japanese coworker recommended the last time I visited.
As with many Japanese restaurants, we took off our shoes and were seated at the sushi counter. A single stern chef was making sushi for everyone seated in the quiet room, and for a while he just ignored us. But once he started putting sushi in front of us, we were enamored -- it was so good:
For our final full day in Tokyo, we started the morning at the Blue Bottle near our Airbnb, which somehow felt Japanese despite having an identical menu to home.
Then we hopped on the subway to Asakusa, a neighborhood a few stops north of Ginza. We headed to the Senso-ji temple, which was founded in 645 AD, making it the oldest temple in Tokyo. It was beautiful and dramatic in the post-rain weather, although it had a fair dose of tourists, who we hadn't encountered much in Tokyo so far:
From Senso-Ji we headed to Kama-Asa to buy Japanese knives. The internet indicated it was a great place to shop for knives in Tokyo, and it didn't disappoint -- the staff spoke great English and were super friendly and knowledgeable as they helped us pick out the right knives for each of our needs.
We all left with more than one knife, and our only mistake was thinking we could visit a duty-free shop anywhere to get tax back on our knives. Apparently you can only do so at the local duty-free shop down the street as specified by the store -- lesson learned.
We had fun wandering all the kitchen supply stores on that street, checking out plastic models of sushi that restaurants use for window displays, and a whole store devoted to coffee paraphernalia.
After a quick bowl of ramen at a random corner store, we hopped back on the subway to Ginza for an afternoon of shopping.
Department stores in Ginza are really fun. My personal fav, Matsuya Ginza, has eight floors with anything you could want to purchase, including a basement level food hall and a top floor full of restaurants. I particularly love their design-centric housewares, where you can see the overlap between Scandinavian and Japanese style on display.
And if you love stationary and paper, you'll freak out at Itoya -- 12 floors devoted to paper, pens, stationary, and cards. My friend bought stationary and the saleslady lifted it out of the case with gloves so as not to smudge the paper. They don't mess around with paper here. Apparently you can even get a custom notebook made for you.
Then we headed to dinner at Manten sushi, which was in the basement of an office building next to the entrance to a subway station. I discovered it via this Eater article on affordable sushi in Tokyo, and was thrilled to realize they take online reservations.
While we'd been spoiled by Suzu Sushi, and it didn't quite live up to that meal, Manten was solid for the super affordable price tag. And we appreciated how efficient it was:
And with that final sushi dinner, we closed the loop on Tokyo Part 1, and got ready for our next stop: Kyoto.
We went back to Tokyo at the end of our trip so scroll to the bottom of this post for additional recs.
Where we stayed: this Airbnb
Where we ate: Butagumi (tonkatsu), Bread & Espresso (breakfast), Family Mart (groceries), Tamawarai soba (Michelin star soba), Butagumishabuan (shabu shabu), Fuglen (coffee), Suzu Sushi (serious sushi), Blue Bottle (coffee, obviously), Rockfish (whiskey highballs), Manten sushi (affordable sushi)
Where we went: Shibuya Crossing Starbucks, D47 Design Shop (handmade goods), Daikanyama T-Site (bookstore), architecture tour in Harajuku and Aoyama, Senso-ji temple, Kama-Asa (knife shopping), Matsuya Ginza (high end department store), Itoya (stationary)
What we read for advice: Monocle's Tokyo book (where we got 99 percent of our restaurant and shopping recs), Foursquare, Eater's list of 38 essential Tokyo restaurants and their budget sushi recs, Tabelog (reliable restaurant reviews by foodies in Japan, similar to Yelp)