Four friends independently asked me for travel advice on Tokyo. I’ve only been twice and neither time for tourism, but that meant I was quite picky about what I’d actually do in the free time I had. I was last in Japan for a couple of weeks hosting an art/techno/startup conference and worked in Tokyo for a month in 2011.
I’m by no means an expert on the city. In fact, I find it quite a difficult place for my mind to be. So I’m sure this guide is missing out on some really cool underground hot spots but despite the language and cultural challenges I’ve had there, but still Tokyo is somehow wonderfully marvelous and inspiring. Also check out my friend Tanya’s Facebook page Getting Weird in Tokyo for other good tips in this fine city.
First thing’s first. Reserve a wifi (mifi) device from Japan Wireless. Keep this little device charged and in your bag for a wifi connection everywhere you go. This is especially important since there is little-to-no rhyme or reason to most of the streets in Japan. You can pick up your reserved device from the Post Office at Narita Airport or have it mailed it to your hotel. Without a doubt get the Wimax 40mbps unlimited connection speed.
The Google Maps team did an excellent job charting out the cities walkways and trains. You have to work pretty hard to get lost, now (though entrances aren’t always where the pin drops). While you’re at it, download the Google Translate app. It will pump out your phrase in Latin characters, Japanese characters and offer voice pronunciation. Life Saver.
Where to stay
Both times I visited I stayed in Shibuya: once near Yoyogi Park the other time near the Womb nightclub. It’s centrally located but also quite loud. I don’t have good advice on better places to stay but my home at the Fantastic Pad Airbnb was as lovely as its pictures look. The hosts, Happy Tokyo, have 12 other listings, mountains of positive reviews, and will comfortably communicate to you in English.
You’re going to go to Shibuya, you just are. It’s hard for me to imagine not needing to go there. I suppose it’s the Times and Union Squares of Tokyo. Shibuya is wonderful for several everything stores including Tokyu Hands, Loft and the Ito-ya Stationary Store in Shibuya Station (and its bigger locale in Ginza). Shibuya is home to several nightclubs I’d actually go to: meaning good people, quality sound system and top notch tunes. I’ve been to Womb (big room) and have had many friends go to smaller spots like Unit, Bar Bonobo (supposedly similar to 222 Hyde) and Oiran.
There’s a hella-lotta ramen in Shibuya. Many spots have a vending machine that spit out a ticket after you’ve paid. Give to the host or person behind the counter and wait for your noodle paradise. If you get a chance, dip into one of the many Afuri Ramen spots that has light, fresh, delicioso noodles. There are also some late-night Ramen shops with little walls on either side fo the bar table so you can find a quite moment among all the noise. There’s also a little forrest nook restaurant called Yoyogi Curry with some pretty stellar curry. Like. Extremely delicious.
Cat Cafes are all over Tokyo. I found to Cat Cafe Hapineko in Shibuya just by keeping my eyes extra-peeled. They’re hosts and cats are used to tourists and the venue has an English menu. The kitties aren’t drugged up but were a little skiddish, which I suppose comes with the territory.
Takeshita Street & Akihabara
These two ‘hoods met the Harujuku expectations I had for the gothic and cutesie (Kawaii) fashion styles. Takeshita Street (close to Shibuya) is much more pink and frilly, whereas Akihabara (close to Asakusa) seems to attract more of the gamer culture. It’s very possible I’m botching up what’s really going on in these places, but it’s what I saw and felt. Visit at least one of these places during your visit.
This little ‘hood has cool, quirky, hipster boutiques at actually reasonable prices. Vogue named it one of coolest neighborhoods in the world when it comes to street style. It was surprisingly unpretentious when I went there. It reminds me of a less gothic, less commercial version of Camden Town in London. I didn’t find it the easiest place to get a good meal, but Lauren and I shared some nice steak and broccoli snack at Rainbow Kitchen.
This was the most touristy activity I’ve done in Japan. And you know what? It was actually pretty rad because I came home with some nice kitchenwear that I love. You can have a good bowl of noodles and nice stroll. The average age here is a little older than Shibuya which means it comes with some kind of meandering slowness that I appreciate.
Come here for the view from Mori Tower and a visit to the Art Museum. Absolutely worth your time, if nothing for then for the view. In this ‘hood you’ll find lots of ex-pats, businesses and I think the Google offices are here. I think there are some good clubs around here but I’m not sure.
I really wanted to keep my yoga practice going while in Japan. I found a nice studio with several classes in English near the Hiroo stop called Be Yoga. It was a nice dip into the comforts of San Francisco and mental calm while in a city that kinda makes my mind spin. I believe there are a few reasonable studios in Shibuya as well.
Costume Karaoke at Festa has full clothing racks of costumes, and endless rooms with multiple screens each with musical instruments to everyone can participate. They also have remotes in both English and Japanese so it’s a great place to meet lots of friends for beers and singing.
Bction is an art group that’s on the pulse of the contemporary, underground art in Japan. Pop over to their site/twitter/instagram and find out what they’re exploring and talking about. Guaranteed to inspire you.
Yoyogi Park is the Dolores/Central Park of Tokyo. It’s walking distance from Shibuya and hosts lots of events and is great for people watching and generally entertaining meandering.
Hot Springs I’m not sure if there are any in Tokyo, but definitely outside of the city. If you can’t make it to a spring, visit an onsen and have a nice soak.
Maid Cafes are a thing to explore. I haven’t done it but if you’re curious, google it and have a looksee.
Ghibli Museum I’ve heard is fantastic, especially if you love Miyazaki films.
Arunjyansu is where I got purple hair extensions during my visit. They were friendly to walk-ins and happy to communicate with me through the Google Translate app. Easily made for the best souvenir I’ve ever had from a vacation. It’s on the second floor across the street and to the left of the Forever 21 in Shibuya if your back is to the Forever 21.
Naoshima is a trek from Tokyo and worth every moment. It’s an island completely dedicated to contemporary art including world renowned architect Tado Ando and several installations by James Turrell and Yayoi Kusama. Naoshima is at the top of my list of special places my favorite people need to visit.