As any girl growing up on Sailor Moon and Japanese animation (anime) would tell you, visiting Japan was a dream come true. Tokyo especially seemed like some mystical city that could delve into your dreams and birth them into reality and have people stream by it like it was part of ordinary life. Japan was one of the few countries that lived up to expectations – which I partly believe is because of the fairly accurate representations via anime. Their verbal and physical expressions, traditions and food culture are not exaggerated in Japanese media, unlike Hollywood’s fantasy of America. It also doesn’t hurt that our very first time in Japan was during April for sakura season, or cherry blossom season.
What to Eat in Tokyo
As big (raw) sushi fans, we can’t possibly stress the importance of eating sushi in Japan, where you’ll get the freshest and highest quality of fish that will make it very difficult to eat sushi anywhere else in the world. Whether you opt for a conveyor belt sushi, ready-packed bento box, or a fancier sit down restaurant – the sushi game is so strong you’re not likely to hit a bad spot – though of course it’s always better to look for spots that are busy and not simply touristy. One of the best places to get sushi, despite the recently moved fish market is the Tsukiji Market, where the outer market remains and you’ll find the most concentrated amount of sushi restaurants within a block.
If you’re traveling with folks that aren’t sushi fans – you can try one of the sit-down restaurants like Sushizanmai which offers cooked food. Make sure to try some sweet tamago or the egg skewers from the egg stall Yamachou Matsue, who specializes in egg – best 100 Yen you’ll ever spend. There’s also a stall that offers wagyu skewers, though it’s quite pricey. Just around the corner from it is a mochi skewer stand, try the roasted green tea, mild in flavor and not sweet but super soft! Another good general strategy for mixed food cravings is to pick up bentos like a sushi set from Chiyoda Zushi in Taito and then grab chicken skewers from across the street – or whatever else for take out that folks crave.
Izakaya: Beers & Skewers
Another delicious past time is getting something grilled and drinking a beer: drop into any of the numerous izakayas – go early though as they tend to run out of space quickly. Unfortunately language can be a barrier and hinder your full experience, but don’t let that stop you from dipping your toes. For a spot a little more familiar to the more Western inclination, try Yanaka Beer Hall, a delightful and very popular bar cafe that serves beer flights and some light snacks, all very tasty.
For those more adventurous and not afraid to venture where there are less English menus – head towards Harmonica Alley where you can wander through narrow streets crowded with eateries, many offering more to drink than to eat. We waited for a spot at the busiest looking izakaya, Harmonica Kitchen, where we spotted a guy completely knocked out sleeping on the table while his date sat across from him on her phone. We attempted to Google Translate the menu when we sat down, but luckily the server noticed and handed us an English menu – much to the amusement of the man and woman sitting next to us. It was a limited menu but a good starting place nonetheless. They offer tasty craft beers but the popular drink is actually a shoju and tea mixer that you pour together yourself, unsurprisingly it goes well with all the skewers.
The alternative go-to meal in Japan would be ramen, which is perfect during the brisk spring nights. One of the fun parts of many ramen shops are the ticket machines where you pay and order your meal prior to taking a seat. If you’re near the Shibuya Station, give Shinbusakiya Ramen a try. Their ramen noodles are thick and chewy and the special miso broth is creamy and a touch smoky: it’s a fairly big portion for about $10 so it’s a great deal. However if you’re looking for more protein in your meal, try a katsudon restaurant like Kyoto Katsugyu for some very tasty beef katsu, medium rare and crispy!
Something you might not expect to want to try in Japan are pancakes. Erase the sad and skinny flapjacks you’re picturing in your mind and instead, build a soaring, wobbling tower of fluffiness that tastes like cakes of cloud. A ‘Gram worthy spot is Happy Pancakes, which have a couple of locations and offer reservations in case you don’t want to wait in line. You’ll find mostly fellow tourists eating them nowadays and the pancakes take a while to make, but Happy Pancakes makes particularly pillowy and eggy pancakes that leave you full all the way through the lunch hour.
A couple tips for eating your way through Tokyo (or Japan in general) – prepare for lines! Any decent enough restaurant will have a wait during the typical dining hours, so try to time around it or learn to have a little patience. Some will have a queue while others will provide a sign in sheet. Many restaurants only take cash, so never leave home without some. Most will leave your bill on the table as soon as you’re served your food and you simply take that up to the register when you’re ready to pay. Learn the handy phrase Eigo menyu wa arimasu ka? or “Do you have an English menu?” – it’s helped us countless times.
Things to Do in Tokyo
Places to see Cherry Blossoms in Tokyo
One of the best things to do in Tokyo in April is to go hanami or view the cherry blossoms. We were in Tokyo the first week of April which was still on the early side of the sakura season, especially as Tokyo is still winter-jacket chilly, but despite being a highly cosmopolitan city there are plenty of places to catch cherry blossoms in bloom.
Nezu Shrine is one of the quieter (read: more peaceful and less touristy) shrines and a good place to snap some photos of cherry blossoms with the miniature orange torii lined pathway. If you time it right you might also be able to catch the Bunkyo Azalea Festiva, which happens mid-April. Even if you don’t, you’ll likely catch flushes of azaleas all over the place just walking the streets. Also on the eastern side, you have the two neighboring gardens Hamarikyu Gardens and Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden. Hamarikyu Gardens is the larger of the two but Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden has a lovely little grove of cherry blossoms that makes the garden extra special during this season. Make sure to get the combo ticket if you plan on visiting both gardens! Out quite a bit to the west we walked around Inokashira Park while visiting the Ghibli museum in Mitaka. Inokashira Park has a large pond where you can rent swan paddle boats and locals gather to picnic under a huge expanse of cherry blossom trees.
Another popular area for viewing cherry blossoms is the along the Meguro River, known as the Meguro River Cherry Blossoms Promenade. I personally preferred the gardens over the river, as the river walls are not that attractive, but the sheer length of the tree path was quite impressive. The Sensō-ji temple, Tokyo’s oldest temple, is also a popular photo spot for those renting kimonos or hunting blossoms.
Our list for parks and gardens included Yoyogi Park and Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden as well, but we didn’t make it this time around. Let us know in the comments below if you know how the cherry blossom viewing is at these places.
Animal Cafes & Shopping
Japan is the land of the kawaii or cute, and there’s no end to the beautiful, adorable, ingenious products you never knew you needed. Shopping centers are mainly centered around train stations, but you can find boutique shops everywhere, like the lovely handmade card store Nakazawa. In the states we’ve lost the art of stationery, but you’ll find a plethora of stores carrying paper craft goods in Japan.
Though I have mixed feelings about any business related to wild animals, I’ve had this great fascination with owls that I’ve always wanted to be able to interact with them, so we visited mohumohu (mofumofu), which is an owl “cafe” with no food and no frills where you can book an hour to see his 11 owls. We came right at opening which allowed us to feed the owls for 200 Y each and we had most of the hour to ourselves. It was magical. And slightly scary but fascinating being so close. Japan has animal cafes for all sorts of small animals, from hedgehogs to dogs – most offer (sometimes require purchasing) beverages and food while others are strictly no food.
Visit the Ghibli Museum
Diehard fans of Ghibli animations should make a visit to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka in the west side of Tokyo. You’ll need to plan ahead and purchase your tickets online through either a tour company or by testing your chances with the lottery system on the Lawsons’ website. Base price for tickets are about $8 if you buy through Lawsons but if you want to hedge your chances or even want a guaranteed ticket and time, then you’ll have to pay extra with a tour company like GoVoyagin to purchase your tickets for you. Tickets go on sale the 10 of each month for the following month on Lawsons. I was lucky enough to get a pair of tickets timed during our short stay in Tokyo, but I’ve heard it’s pretty challenging.
The museum itself is quite small and disappointingly in Japanese with no translations. The primary concept of the exhibits is to show how animations are made, so if you already have an understanding of the process, you won’t need the explanations as much. There’s a showing of a museum exclusive short (with no subtitles), a surprisingly un-themed cafe and the large museum shop which does offer some exclusive products. Besides the museum, Mitaka is a quaint town with plenty of eats and the beautiful Inokashira park.
With just 4 evenings in Tokyo we barely began to explore the lively city, however with the high accommodation prices for us staying as a family of four, it seemed like a good starting point. Browse our photos for inspiration or read on for more things to know before going to Tokyo like logistical information or jump down to the details on all the places we recommended.
Where we stayed in Tokyo, Japan
We stayed Sai, Tokyo, which is a small 5 apartment hotel with self checkin and no receptionist. We really enjoyed our stay there, it’s a little tight on space but was comfortable and fully equipped for 4 adults. The location was fairly central with easy access to the Tawaramachi and Inaricho metro stations. The wifi was a small portable one but with rather slow speeds and a daily cap. Note that the elevator is small and fits two people max.
It’s worth noting that while it’s getting better, the free public wifi is fairly limited so we recommend getting a sim card if you’re one to need internet constantly or if you plan to rely on Google Translate as it doesn’t work offline for Japanese. For fellow digital nomads, keep in mind that working in a coffee shop or cafe is not as widely accepted in Japan. When booking AirBnBs, check if they have Wifi and specifically if it’s a pocket Wifi: they’re convenient but usually provide minimal data and speeds.
An extraordinary fact not to be taken lightly is that there are always plenty of clean public toilets everywhere in Japan. Most have toilet paper and soap but not all have paper towels or drying methods, so like most other Asian countries, it’s a good idea to carry some tissue and a small hand towel or handkerchief for drying your hands.
In Japan it’s best to travel light as there’s not a lot of room anywhere – on buses, trains, in accommodations, etc. Many AirBnBs don’t allow luggage storage and coin lockers are expected to be used, which will cost you about 500-700 Yen a locker depending on size.
Vaccinations: Routine Vaccinations
Mosquito problems: None while there
Problems for tattoos: Japan has a history of caution around tattoos as they were a sign of the yakuza, or local gangs. While tourism has created an understanding that foreigners with tattoos are not associated with gangs, those with very large and highly visible tattoos should still be aware that there may be caution or discomfort from the more traditional folk. Many onsens or public baths will also restrict those with tattoos, so ask ahead if you plan to visit one. With my forearm sleeve I did not experience any issues, though April was still a bit brisk and I walked around with a light jacket most of the time.
Traveling as a woman: Standard Precautions
Getting Around in Tokyo, Japan
Tokyo is a huge city and it may come as a surprise to visitors that getting around will take more time and money than anticipated. Luckily their public transportation is super convenient, though rides will quickly add up. To save on your budget, avoid taxis and walk as much as you can. If you plan to use the trains or buses a lot, we recommend picking up an IC card – either Suica or Pasmo, there’s not a huge difference and both are widely accepted throughout Japan. We grabbed IC pasmo cards and would top up as needed. Metro is fairly straightforward, plenty of signs, does add up. Average trip is at least 130 – 600 yen depending on how many times you transfer and the train you take. The Hyperdia app requires internet and is not the most intuitive, so cross-check with Google. It is easy to screenshot and use to ask station personal they’re willing but plenty do not have good English at all and won’t understand. Some tram or bus trips average around 200 Yen as a flat fee, though if you travel far you’ll definitely pay for the distance.
Be aware that some of the JR lines have cars that require reservations. You can prebook those using the smartEx mobile app, purchase tickets at the station or even while on the train; though you can save by booking seats earlier online. If you’re traveling with large luggages you’ll want to book a reserved seat as there will not likely be room in the regular cars.
Getting From Narita Airport to Tokyo
Plan ahead as the ride from the Narita airport to Tokyo city center takes about an hour. Avoid taking a taxi as it will cost you severely. We took the Airport Limousine Bus which was straightforward. You can pay online and get a mobile ticket or purchase them at the airport counters. Right outside of the ticket counters are the bus stops with very clearly marked signs.
Currency: 1 Yen = 0.0094 USD
For such a technologically advanced country, it may be surprising but cash still remains the preferred exchange. You will need cash in most restaurants and also for public transportation, though ATMs are available via convenience stores or train stations everywhere. Tipping is not an accepted practice in Japan and service people will chase you down to give you back any change you leave. To show your appreciation, simply say thanks!
$100-130/person: This was for 4 evenings in Tokyo in an apartment in the Taito area. We cooked a couple of meals, got breakfast sandwiches and snacks at Lawson’s and went to a handful of restaurants. We walked and used the train system every day.
Your accommodations will likely take up most of your budget, though if you can manage with a hostel or capsule hotel you can save yourself a pretty penny. As we were with Carl’s parents, we tried to stay in more roomy and Western style (sized) accommodations. Note also that Tokyo has 2 airports, Haneda and Narita. If you fly into Narita Airport, factor in the journey to get to city center as it’s quite far.
Some typical costs
- 2 orders of pancakes at A Happy Pancake: 2500 Y
- conveyor belt sushi lunch at Gansozushi: 2754 Y
- sim card from BIC store at the Narita Airport: 1988 Y
- Visit to Owl Cafe Mofumofu, including owl feed: 1700 Y
- Studio Ghibli ticket, bought online through Lawsons: $9
- airport limousine transfer pp: $25
- IC PASMO card: 2000 Y
- Stay in Sai, Tokyo for 4 adults: $140/night
Taiyaki of Nezu, twitter.com/taiyaki_nezu, 1-chōme-23-9 Nezu, Bunkyo City, $-$$ – Get freshly made taiyaki here, just be prepared for a significant wait! Their English is limited but the owners are extremely friendly.
Bakery & Cafe Yamazaki, 1 Chome-1-17 Nishiasakusa, Taito City, $-$$ – Get freshly made breads daily, makes for a great breakfast or snack. Note that there’s no English, so it’s a bit of a guessing game but everything we tried was delicious. Conveniently located near the Tawaramachi Station.
A Happy Pancake, magia.tokyo, Shinjuku Moliere Bldg. B2F, 3-33-10 Shinjuku, $$ – One of the many famous Japanese style fluffy pancakes, made by steaming and then baking, which gives you the most amazing dense and eggy yet pillowy pancakes ever.
Gansozushi, gansozushi.com, 2 Chome-8-5 Yoyogi, Shibuya City, $-$$ – Excellent conveyor belt sushi that won’t break the bank!
Yamachou Matsue, yamachou-matue.jp/index.shtml, 4 Chome-16-2 Tsukiji, $ – Famous tamago stall, make sure you try the sweet one!
Sushizanmai, kiyomura.co.jp/shops/detail/1, 4 Chome-11-9 Tsukiji, Chuo City, $$-$$$ – Sit down restaurant in the old fish market, a good option if you have those a group that loves and also doesn’t eat sushi. Their tuna nigiri set was bomb!
Tsukiji Market, kiyomura.co.jp/shops/detail/1, 5 Chome-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo City, $-$$$ – The famous old fish market, now just the collection of the “outer market” with some fish sellers and other food stalls.
Chiyoda Zushi, chiyoda-sushi.co.jp, 3 Chome-12-8 Tsukiji, Chuo City, $-$$ – Affordable and tasty sushi togo spot for an easy sushi meal (or snack)!
Yanaka Beer Hall, facebook.com/yanakabeerhall, 2 Chome-15-6 Uenosakuragi, Taito City, $-$$ – Delightful little beer hall for craft beers and tasty snacks. Service is extremely pleasant.
Ramen Shinbusakiya 炙り味噌ラーメン 麺匠 真武咲弥 渋谷店, samurai-noodle.jp, 2 Chome-10-３号 Dogenzaka, Shibuya City, $ – Delicious ramen spot in Shibuya. Use the ticket machine outside to make your order. Service was very understanding and accommodating despite the minimal English. Special miso ramen: Ramen noodles are thick chewy and yellow, the broth is creamy and a little smoky. Fairly big portion for about 10$ so really good meal.
Sushi Go-Round Restaurant 海鮮三崎港 吉祥寺ダイヤ街店, kyotaru.co.jp/shopsearch/shop/17553.html, 1 Chome-1-1 Kichijoji Honcho, Musashino – Affordable and tasty sushi conveyor spot.
Harmonica Kitchen ハモニカキッチン, hamoyoko.jp/menu/kichijoji_harmonicakitchen/, 1 Chome-1-2 Kichijoji Honcho, Musashino – Popular izakaya in the Harmonica Alley. They have a limited English menu but folks were really friendly despite the language barrier.
Kyoto Katsugyu, kyoto-katsugyu.com, 1-1 ヨドバシAkiba8F Kanda Hanaokacho, Chiyoda City, $-$$ – Affordable and tasty beef cutlet chain throughout Japan.
owl cafe mofumofu, mohumohu99.jp, 3 Chome−35−2 5F, Shinjuku, $-$$ – Little owl “cafe” that does not serve any food. It is a little shop space that is for the 11 owls to perch. You pay for the hour allotment to go in and pet and see the owls, you may also purchase food to feed them if the timing is right.
Bic Camera, biccamera.co.jp/language/forec/english.html, multiple locations, $$-$$$ – Japan’s chain super store for everything from cameras and electronics to home goods or supplies.
Nezu Shrine, nedujinja.or.jp, 1 Chome-28-9 Nezu, Bunkyo City – One of the older shrines in Tokyo with its own miniature tori gates tunnel. It’s not as grand but also a quieter and more enjoyable visit.
Sensō-ji temple, senso-ji.jp, 2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito City – Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple that was destroyed during WW2 and rebuilt.
Hamarikyu Gardens, tokyo-park.or.jp/teien/contents/index028.html, 1-1 Hamarikyuteien, Chuo City, $ – You can purchase a combo ticket with the Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden if you’re planning to visit both.
Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden, senso-ji.jp, 2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito City – Smaller of the two gardens but excellent during spring for its grove of cherry blossom trees.
Shibuya Crossing, 2 Chome-2-1 Dogenzaka, Shibuya City – Tokyo’s busiest pedestrian intersection made famous by many movies. Depending on the time of day it may appear lack luster. For the best above ground viewing spots, try Starbucks or any of the shopping malls on the corners – also try inside the Shibuya station.
Inokashira Park, kensetsu.metro.tokyo.jp/jimusho/seibuk/inokashira/index.html, 4-chōme−1, Inokashira, Mitaka – Beautiful and popular park with pond area. During spring the park crowds with folks picnicking under the cherry blossoms.
Meguro River Cherry Blossoms Promenade 目黒川の桜並木, city.meguro.tokyo.jp/gyosei/shokai_rekishi/event/sakura.html, 2-chōme-6 Nakameguro, Meguro City – Walkway that hugs the Meguro river and is lined with cherry blossoms.
Nakazawa, nattyzone.com, 1 Chome−7−17, Nishiasakusa, Taito City, $-$$ – Lovely little stationary shop with delicate handmade cards.
Ghibli Museum, ghibli-museum.jp, 1 Chome-1-83 Shimorenjaku, Mitaka, $-$$ – A museum dedicated to the Japanese animation studio Ghibli. Tickets must be purchased online via a tour company or Lawsons a month prior to the month of your desired visit. Note that there is very little English translations provided throughout, though if you are a big Ghibli fan it is still worth a visit.