I know I’ve said this before, my Paris and Tokyo have always been my dream cities to travel to. I honestly don’t even remember where the fascination began, before age 5 definitely, and it’s stuck. I had a trip in the works senior year of highschool to Japan, but things fell through and since then, I’ve been dying to go.
After visiting Hong Kong, Drew and I hopped on a flight to Tokyo for five days of eating, shopping, and exploring (read: getting lost and not that mad about it.) I think I can safely say Tokyo is my favorite place I’ve ever traveled to, and I cannot wait to go back.
Below are some tips and tricks I picked up if you’re planning to go, or just like planning fake vacations in your imagination like I do.
HOTEL: Sakura Fleur in Shibuya
This adorable French/Lolita themed hotel made me so happy! Everything from the pink toilet paper, complimentary slippers and pajamas, to the free drink tickets for the bar, and bottled water daily had me so grateful I chose it! This hotel is super reasonably priced at around $120 a night, and as I said, comes with a lot of great perks. It has fast and reliable wifi, and phones in the room (if you can possibly find anywhere with someone who speaks English to answer.) It’s located about a 5-8 minute walk from the Shibuya train station, in a really cute area filled with boutique shops, chain shops, little restaurants, high rises, locals going to school and work, and general buzz!
This Hello Kitty theme park is in a suburban outskirt of Tokyo easily accessible by train. Filled with Harajuku and Sweet Lolita girls, and actual children, we rode the two rides they offered and I spent forever picking out souvenirs and posing with characters.
One of the reasons we timed our trip the way we did, was the Sakura, or cherry blossom blooming. We rode the infamous bullet train to Kyoto to visit temples, rock gardens, and walk the Philosophers Path as it snowed light pink cherry blossom petals. This is a once a year, or once in a lifetime, experience and I’m so happy I got there in time.
Shopping in Shibuya
Shibuya was my favorite part of Tokyo. Of course there are some shops you’d find in America, but it was filled with really cool perfectly curated vintage and thrift stores, especially for mens clothing. Drew found an APC jacket and some other gems. I found Playboy track pants. Some shops I suggest: BOY, Kinji, Keshiki, 291295 Homme, and all of the shops on Cat Street.
In the basement of a shop in Harajuku, a madhouse of teenage girls are modifying their faces and eye shape in Purikura Photobooths. These terrifying and insane machines are only 400 yen each. I could spend hours in here.
Shopping in Harajuku
Harajuku is the neighborhood and style that has inspired everyone from Gwen Stefani to Nicki Minaj. Full of boutiques and candy pink dessert shops, Harajuku is a girly girls paradise, filled with inexpensive fast fashion in impossibly small sizes.
No food. A few robots. This place is bizarre. The hefty price tag of around $50 per person may discourage some people, but 9/10 of my friends told me to go when I said I was going to Tokyo. I wouldn’t say I’d go again, but I’m glad we went. You can also explore the Sex and Nightlife areas of Shinjuku after and soak in all the neon lights. You gotta respect the choreography at least.
Japanese Nail Art Manicure
I want to chop off my hands so I can stare at these nails forever. The Japanese are known for their intricate and delicate nail art, so I headed to ES Nail, a super successful branch of nail salons for the full on, crystals and gel experience. Unlike a lot of things in Japan, this was actually more expensive than I anticipated. But I’m a nail junkie and it was worth it. They actually have a location in LA but I would never justify spending that much in America.
Possibly one of the weirdest and Japanese of my experiences was the cat cafe. Basically it is what it sounds like, you can have some coffee and play with cats. Except the coffee is a shitty vending machine, the cats are kind of scared of you, and a lot of people were just SLEEPING in there (which I learned is actually because of this epidemic) We hung out for about an hour trying to make furry friends before taking off.
This 8 seater cocktail bar was easily one of my favorite things we did. Shout out Jeff for the amazing suggestion. Gen is a Japanese mixologist who opened his own bar 2 years ago serving omakase (aka he picks, you drink) cocktails made from fresh ingredients, flight style. We opted for the 4 drink flight. I emailed him in advance and he even made non alcoholic drinks for Drew.
I wish I had a specific name for you here, but we stumbled here after the Robot Restaurant for some amazing skewers I tried to order off a Japanese menu and beer. Chicken, beef, shrimp, pork, at only $2 or so each.
Drew found this absurd restaurant online and had the time of his life. The concept is you catch your own live fish from their pond, and they cook it for you. He wrote about it at length here for Vice.
I didn’t realize how much of a hot spot this iPad sushi spot was until I came here the second time and encountered a long ass line- yes I waited. This again, super affordable sushi bar has you order off iPads and your sushi is delivered on a conveyer belt. There were basic 2-piece Nigiri for around $2 or nicer ones like fatty tuna belly for $4. We stacked plates on plates on plates here. And the DIY matcha at the table for free is a nice touch.
This was the first spot we went to after getting off the plane and realizing it was COLD. This ramen chain is 24-hours and has you order from a vending machine, which spits out a ticket. You then sit in a tiny cubicle at a bar (yes with dividers between you and other ramen slurpers) and eat your ramen quickly and silently, and get the hell out cause people are waiting. A bowl with the works is only around $8.
Nabezo Shabu Shabu
This 2+ hour long dinner was fantastic. Nabezo is like the Souplantation of Shabu Shabu, except amazing. A fully DIY spot, you cook your meats, pick vegetables and add-ons from their fresh salad bar, and create a bubbling soup full of your favorites. We opted for the Japanese beef and pork, combined with spicy kimchi broth, noodles, and a bunch of vegetables. Theres also an insane “Spice Market” of spices, herbs, and toppings you can add self serve ice cream.
As you may have seen in the video at the top of this blog, we waited in the rain without an umbrella for this ramen. This of course was my idea. We were in Ikebukuru, a neighborhood in Tokyo known for it’s ramen, and had to stop here. When we finally got in and scarfed it down, not even the NUMBERS on the bill were in English. The line full of locals reassured us it would be worth it, and it was. You can even crush your own raw garlic at the bar and add it to your bowl.
I’m really happy that my friend Annabel, who had recently traveled to Japan, told me about the JR Pass. The JR (Japan Rail) pass is an unlimited one week use of the JR lines. These not only go to and from the airport, but around the city, and most importantly, to other parts of the country. This pass was $250, but compared to spending $300 just to get to and from Kyoto from Tokyo, it saved me! We also used it to get around the city as well as the airport.
If you are just doing Tokyo, this pass is unlikely worth its cost in value. I would suggest just purchasing individual train rides. The fare is only around 350 yen on average, which is a few bucks!
As a very experienced lover and hater of public transit, I have to admit, Tokyo’s public transit confused the hell out of me. Almost every single train station housed not only the JR lines, but about 3-4 other types of train service. Imagine NYC Metro, Metro North, NJ PATH Train, Amtrak, and Long Island Rail Road in ONE station. Pretty much like Grand Central, but at most stations. That being said, this makes it easy to get on the absolute most efficient route. Sometimes using our JR passes was limiting so we just paid to ride different trains.
Taxis are abundant in Tokyo as well. The starting fare is around 750 yen, which is around $6, so higher than LA/NY/SF. We still resorted to them 5 or so times when we were rushed, lost, or just wanted the view from a car. The drivers were super nice though NONE of them spoke English. We were relieved to not be “taken for a ride” if you know what I mean. Japan is not a country full of scammers and rip offs, unlike some of my adventures, and the US of course.
POCKET WIFI was a lifesaver, thanks Elise for the suggestion. This is exactly what it sounds like, a tiny little router/box thingey that you keep in your pocket that provides Wifi to you anywhere anytime. This was the only way we were able to find very tiny and specific shops and restaurants and not just end up at whatever accessible American friendly joint was on the ground floor.