Taxis and Ubers are quite expensive in Tokyo - a taxi ride from the city center to Narita Airport costs ~$200. The metro is probably a better option for getting around Tokyo given its extensive coverage. It does require some extra planning but with English signs well laid out in metro stations, we found it fairly easy to navigate. The Tokyo metro system is modern and clean so quite comfortable to ride. It is also a good way to experience how locals live and commute.
Download the official Tokyo Metro app before your trip. This app helps users search and plan their transfers on the Tokyo metro network.
Overall a good experience - we had a private dining room with unlimited options of perfectly marbled meats. The bill was a bit steep - came out to about 20,000 yen (~$200) for the two of us, double the costs of our usual go-to shabu spot in NYC, Shabu-Tatsu.
Given the reputation of Tokyo's bustling night life, we decided to check out one of the local clubs, Sound Museum Vision, on our first night (while we were still quite jet-lagged). It turned out to be a massive club including 4 rooms with DJs playing different music. Entrance fee was not cheap at ¥3,500 (~$35, no drinks included) per person but drinks inside were reasonably priced. No coat check but there are self-vending lockers (¥300 per locker) to store personal belongings. It was overall a fun experience except that we inhaled a lot of second-hand smoke because inside smoking was generally allowed in Japan.
a farmer's market every Sunday
Meiji Jingu has multiple entrances so plan ahead according to where you come from and plan to go after. We took the JR Yamanote Metro Line to Harajuku stop and entered through the giant wooden gate of the south entrance and exited through the north entrance to go visit Shinjuku Gyoen afterwards. Entrance to Meiji Jingu was free.
There is a long walk through a man-made forest to get to the main shrine and you will come across a small side entrance to Meiji Jingu Gyoen, where you can visit the Inner Garden, the South Pond, and a bunch of other sites. This part is not free but the 500 yen (~$5) entrance fee was reasonable. This paid area has two entrances too, one to the south (close to the south gate) and one to the north (close to the main shrine).
a ramen vending machine
the No.1 dish on the menu
End of March is still a bit early for cherry blossoms as early April is the typical peak season. Nevertheless, we got to enjoy some early bloomers in Shinjuku Gyoen. The once-royal park has about 1,300 cherry trees vs. the other two popular spots, Ueno Park ~1,200 and Meguro River ~800. We visited all those 3 spots during our visit - our favorite was hands down Shinjuku Gyoen, which had about half of the cherry trees in blossoms at the time while most trees in Ueno or along Meguro River were still bare.
Bring a picnic blanket when you visit. We found a jumbo-size straw mat for under 500 yen (~$5) in a Family Mart (a local convenience chain store). It was a perfect disposable picnic/nap blanket for parks.
street vendors selling food along the river
night lanterns to illuminate cherry blossoms at night
The Westin Tokyo is a very old hotel (30+ yr) located in Yebisu/Ebisu, a southern district of Tokyo. Guestrooms are decently sized but the furnishings are a bit antiquated. We tried two different rooms during our stay, the first room on a lower floor and the second one on an executive floor (17th and above). The latter was a big upgrade in both decorations and amenities such as toiletries. Our executive room (#1911) faced northeast so we also got a decent side view of central Tokyo (Rooms 1903-1909 probably have the best views).
The hotel is a good 15-min walk to the nearest metro station - Yebisu Station. However, level B1 of the hotel connects with an underground path to Yebisu Garden Place which then connects with a covered pathway all the way to the metro station so you can walk the whole way covered.
Ebisu, a trendy but less touristy neighbourhood, is supposedly a good area to try the small traditional establishments called Izakaya. However, we struggled to find most of the places we researched beforehand because we had only the English names while the signage was all in Japanese.
We tried 3 places in the end. The first one is Imaiya Yebisu - an expensive chain specialized in Yakitori. We ordered 9 very basic skewers and a coke, and our bill came out to about 7,000 yen (~$70, so $7+ per skewer). We saw another nice-looking yakitori place nearby that charged only 100-150 yen ($1-1.5) per skewer. We later found out that Ebisu Imaiya is expensive because it only carries high quality organic meats. (Honestly, we couldn't taste the difference.)
Nakayoshi is the second place we tried in Ebisu. But we had our "lost in translation" moment in Tokyo when we stood right in front of Nakayoshi. We were not quite sure if the Japanese-only sinage, なかよし, indeed meant Nakayoshi. While we clumsily held up our phones and tried to take a picture of the signage to Google translate, two Japanese men walked right past us and took the last free table in the restaurant! We had similar troubles at a few other places because we did most of the planning in English.
The signage in Tokyo is often in Japanese only. Look up the names of the places (especially restaurants) you plan to visit in both English and Japanese to avoid similar "lost in translation" moments as we experienced.
The last place we tried in Ebisu is Bar Trench, a really cute cocktail bar tucked away in a back alley. The only downside: the place is quite small and they limit the number of guests inside so you might have to wait outside (which is not pleasant during the chilly nights).
Daiwa Sushi (大和寿司) and Sushi Dai (寿司大) are two most famous sushi joints in Tsukiji Fish Market (築地市場). We decided to go for Daiwa Sushi as we heard the wait would be less insane. Sushi Daiwa has about 20 seats in total that are split into two adjacent sushi bars. They turn seats every 15-20 minutes. So even if there are 60 people in front of you in the queue, your wait should be about an hour. Sushi Dai, on the other hand, has only 13 seats and every seating lasts ~45 minutes so a 60-person queue would mean a 3-hour wait. Both serve top-quality sushi from fresh catches of the day with Daiwa Sushi being slightly more expensive
Other than the sushi bars, we also walked around a bit to try other foods in the market such as grilled scallops, egg custard (玉子烧), and the famously expensive white strawberries (~$5 for a skewer of two strawberries). Everything we tried was delightful... we only wished we had bigger stomachs. We also find a cute Japanese plate/bowl shop. All the plates and bowls carried elegant and intricate patterns on them. Prices were very reasonable with small ones costing about $2-3, mid-size $4-6, and large ones $7-10+. We then strolled around further,
We arrived at Daiwa Sushi around 630am. Every sushi place already had a long line in front. A young staff member at Daiwa Sushi told us they temporarily closed the queue in order not to block the alley. He said we could come back to queue at 8am instead of waiting there. We didn't trust his words initially and thought the queue would only get longer if we left then to return at 8am. So we just stood there and kept trying to sneak in queue when he wasn't paying attention. It didn't work! So after making him promise that we could cut the line upon our return, we left to explore the rest of the market for an hour. When we returned, he did remember us and let us cut to the front of the still crazy queue. We then waited for less than 20 mins to be seated. We both did chef's tasting set (7 nigiri plus 1 roll) and ordered 5 additional a la cart pieces afterwards. The total bill came out to about 10,000 yen (~$100) for the two of us. It was worth every penny and the long wait.
traditional fish cake with red-bean filing
sushi plate 1
sushi plate 2
sushi plate 3
Kaminarimon ('Thunder Gate')
a buzzling street market
We planned to spend a whole morning in this famous old section of Tokyo. However, the walk around both Sensō-ji Temple and Nakamise Shopping Street took us less than an hour. (If you plan to do a lot of shopping at the market, maybe you can fill the whole morning.) Our lunch reservation at Waentei-Kikko was still two hours away so we decided to take another stroll through the area and search for the most popular restaurants/food stands based on queue length. We found the longest lines outside the Japanese-burger shop, Asakusa Menchi (浅草メンチ) and the 100+ year old tempura restaurant, Tempura Daikokuya (大黑家天婦羅). There are also traditional Japanese rickshaws for hire if you to tour the area in an old-fashioned way.
The owner of Waentei-Kikko , Fukui Kodai , combined his passion for traditional Japanese music, cuisine, and sprits into this little hide-away restaurant near Sensoji Temple. He is a highly accomplished player of the traditional Japanese instrument, Tsugaru Shamisen . We got to enjoy a freshly prepared set lunch with a Shamisen performance by the owner and his students. The owner speaks decent English and made extra efforts to make us feel comfortable upon knowing we were visiting from New York. Overall it felt like a very authentic local experience and we were the only foreigners at the lunch.
Make a reservation in advance for Kikko. The restaurant only prepares enough food based on the reservations they have. We saw the owner turn away multiple people without a reservation despite having empty space.
We heard from a few sources that Ueno Park was a great spot for cherry-blossom viewing. Disappointingly, the cherry trees in the park were late bloomers so there were very few blossoms when we visited. Despite the lack of blossoms, the park was packed on a Tue afternoon. The main feature of the park was a center promenade lined with cherry blossom trees on both sides. There was very little lawn area to sit/rest compared with Shinjuku Gyoen (新宿御苑), so the concrete promenade was filled with picnic mats where locals were drinking, eating, and playing cards under the yet-to-blossom cherry trees. It was a little too crowded for us so we took an early exit to get a massage.
Raffine Yebisu Garden Place is not a real spa. The massage beds are separated by sheer veils instead of real walls. Nonetheless the place is very clean and our therapists far exceeded our expectations. We each enjoyed a 40-min foot plus 40-min body massage for 8,100 yen (~$80 vs. a 50-min body massage at the hotel spa would have cost 13-15K yen).
We had our best meal in Tokyo at Sushi Matsue (松栄) . Both the food and service were impeccable. Plates flowed naturally one after another, perfectly paced to our eating speed. We were lucky enough to have the head chef, Kanda-San , serve us. He customized the Sushi pieces to individual customers but you can also make certain requests. Our bill came out to ~$250 total including drinks for two (very reasonable considering the exquisite quality). We both thought it was the best Sushi meal we had ever eaten in our life!
We initially came up with a list of 20+ highly-rated Sushi restaurants when we tried to research the best spots in Tokyo. Sushi Matsue wasn’t even among our top choices at first. We tried to get reservations at a few other places (about a month before our visit) but they were all booked out 2-3 months in advance. Among the available ones, Sushi Matsue (松栄) became our final pick because of its more local appeal and its proximity (~20-min walking) to our hotel. We were actually a bit nervous before our visit due to the limited number of reviews online (only a handful on Tripadvisor and Yelp ). We were pleasantly surprised by how good our experience turned out to be. Maybe we were lucky...or maybe Sushi making is just at another level in Tokyo that you can’t go wrong with any of the top 50 Sushi restaurants here. We will have to come back and try more Sushi restaurants to test that theory!
Make reservations a couple of months in advance for top Sushi restaurants in Tokyo (even earlier for the most popular ones to be safe). Leverage your hotel concierge to make such reservations as English is not widely spoken.
Tsutaya Books (蔦屋書店) is more like a design store than a bookstore. We loved the store interior and wished that New York would have a cool bookstore like this one. The store has a few cozy seating areas where you can leisurely browse any books. The 2nd floor of the bookstore is the fancy-looking Anjin lounge which houses a large selection of vintage magazines and serves coffee, drinks, and desserts. You are even allowed to bring books from the bookstore downstairs to the lounge. If you are a book lover, this is a must-visit in Tokyo.
literally a hole in the wall
#1 item on the menu
A local friend took me to this restaurant - I had the best vegetable dip ever! The dipping sauce was so savory and the vegetables were so fresh and artfully presented!
We visited Shinjuku Gyoen twice during our trip because it was such a lovely park. The park is divided into three distinctive gardens: 1) Japanese Traditional; 2) French Formal; and 3) English Landscape. All three are wonderful on their own. There is also a greenhouse with over 1,000 tropical/subtropical plant species. The park is very spacious and it can easily take a whole morning/afternoon to explore all the grounds. There are also a few large open lawn areas to sit down and relax (we even took a nap!). During the cherry blossom season, you will see many locals gather and picnic under the cherry blossoms.
specializes in okonomiyaki
every strawberry dessert looks tempting
every strawberry dessert looks tempting