I arrived in Tokyo early one morning after almost 12 hours in the air. I was typically dazed and confused, and had entered a universe which didn’t seem much different to the West at first, but one where toilets played music, there was a vending machine for everything, and where the metro system seemed to mimic a giant spiders web.
At first, Toyko seemed like this big, brash, chaotic mega city. A city where the sky was almost permanently grey and space was increasingly limited. It took me a while to settle in, to realise that Tokyo was much more than this, or any of the other cliches you see in the movies. Tokyo might be big and brash in appearance, but inside it is deeply complex. That spider’s web of metro stations soon became a spider’s web of emotions; neighbourhoods, personalities and contrasts.
I spent most of my mornings at the Tsjuki Fish Market, wandering the narrow lanes between giant frozen tuna fish and boxes of wet shrimp. Days walking through forested temples, cafe hopping and vintage shopping and losing my legs at walking so much in the hot, beaming sun.
But it was at night when the city blossomed and flourished the most. Shinjuku is the heart of it, and when I finally managed to find the right metro exit, I stood surrounded by a sea of neon lights, robot restaurants and mega malls. In the veins of these streets – Golden Gai or Memory Lane – I found 5 seater bars and lanes of Yakatori grills dishing up edamame beans, skewers and cups of Sake.
I spent my last night in the city sat high on the Sky Deck of Roppongi Hills; above a city of twinkling lights, away from the faceless suits and neon seas. I saw the Tokyo I had fallen for, a city of contrasts that I had only just begun to understand.
The Home of Sushi: Tsjuki Fish Market
Located just outside central Tokyo, the Tsjuki Fish Market is a micro-city of it’s own. Made up of an inner and outer market, the place is a sprawling mess. On first visit, it can be difficult to know where to go, but take your time to explore and you’ll be opened up to hundreds of treasures, and a unique and honest portrayal of Tokyo life.
The outer market is the place to get some of the world’s best sushi, as well as a whole other host of popular dishes, from green tea ice cream, Japanese omelette or Ramen. It gets very busy here around lunch time so be prepared to queue if you’re seeking one of the more popular restaurants. I also found this area one of the best for souvenir shopping, particularly for picking up traditional pottery and table wares.
Despite the delights of the outer market, it’s the inner market that’s really the highlight of the Tsjuki Fish Market. A sprawling indoor market of seafood and fish stalls, it’s a brilliant portrayal of local life and a photographer’s dream. The public are allowed to enter the market from 10am, and things are pretty much over by midday. Walk to the furthest corners of the hall to find secret scenes away from the prying eyes of tour groups. If you’re a photographer, this place is a heaven to shoot, although it is important to be respectful and allow the traders to get on with their work without distraction or intrusion.
Neon Seas: Shinjuku & Shibuya
If you imagined Tokyo to be a Kaleidoscope of neon lights, shopping malls and all night crowds then Shinjuku and Shibuya are what you’ve always dreamt of. This area can be overwhelming at first, but find your feet, explore a little and there’s some real gems to be discovered – away from the overwhleming neon streets.
Seek out Golden Gai , a series of alleyways lined with bars, each only serving around 5 people. Most have a cover charge of around 1000 yen but many will serve snacks while you drink and the atmosphere around here is unbeatable.
Not far away, Memory Lane, or Yakatori Alley as it’s also known is another series of small alleyways filled with restaurants and Yakatori grills. Come here for some authentic Tokyo food with English menus and a vibrant atmosphere. Share some edamame beans, choose your Yakatori skewers and wash it all down with a glass of Sake. I also found this area good for vegetarians.
Silent Temples and Eccentric Youth Culture: Meiji Temple and Harajuku
The area around Harajuku is known for its youth culture and shopping. It’s one of Tokyo’s most famous areas, and it is indeed home to some of the weird and quirky things that make Tokyo unique. Here you’ll find cat cafes, clothing stores, animal-themed restaurants and a whole lot more. It’s a fun area to explore and there’s plenty of hidden gems, great vintage shopping and a variety of cafes and restaurants to keep you busy for most of the day. See if you can find Beams Records, a friendly record shop in a quiet area off the main drag. One of the area’s best vintage shops is Chicago Vintage, as well as Flamingo Vintage. Grab lunch at the lovely Re:nature, a vegetarian cafe with a set menu of Japanese delights.
Quite a different site sits nearby. Just a short walk away from the mayhem of Harajuku, Meiji Temple is located in 70 acres of forest. Walking towards the main buildings, you can hardly believe you are still in central Tokyo. Water features mark the entrance, and the area is silent, peaceful and spiritual. Go early in the morning to beat the crowds and find yourself only with the most dedicated early risers.
Street Food and Tourist Traps: Senso-ji Temple and Asakusa
Asakusa, in the North East of Tokyo is one of the cities more popular tourist areas. The area is based around the giant red structure of Senso-ji Temple, but it’s the sprawl of alleyways surrounding it which define this area and make it one of Tokyo’s most accessible for foreigners. Here, you’ll find English menus almost everywhere, souvenir shops and a bunch of sites within walking distance. While it does somewhat reflect the Khao San Road, it also has a great atmosphere – vibrant and bustling. This area is best explored at night, when the Tokyo Sky Tree fades into the dark sky and the backstreet restaurants and bars really get going.
The main attraction around here is Senso-ji Temple. I found this place to be the most touristed in the whole city, and it can feel a little over crowded with selfie sticks and ladies in dress-up kimonos than the peaceful spiritual atmosphere of Meiji Temple. But there’s no doubt though that this structure is incredibly impressive, and the surrounding gardens are also pleasant to explore. At night, the crowds disperse, the tourist tat stores close their shutters and the temple is lit up. It’s a perfect time to admire it, before hitting the bars of Asakusa.
Tokyo’s Young Cool: Shimo Kitazawa
Tokyo’s answer to London’s Shoreditch or Brookyln’s Williamsburg is Shimo Kitazawa. Full of trendy coffee shops, some of the best vintage shops I have found anywhere in the world and a heap of veggie friendly cafes, Shimo Kitazawa is a must explore for coffee fanatics and vintage lovers. The area is quieter than a lot of Tokyo, made up of small car-free streets, plenty of bicycles and leafy plant-covered shops. You could easily spend an entire day here; hopping between cafes and pancake houses, rummaging through all the well-stocked vintage shops and exploring the quieter lanes.
Little Trip to Heaven was one of my favourite vintage stores, specialising in women’s vintage, unique designers and with a quirky interior and a stereo that seems to permanently play The Beatles. The huge New York Joe Exchange is also worth a trip for some weird and wonderful bargains and Rainbow Vintage has a great selection of vintage kimonos. One of the prettiest record shops I have ever seen is just around the corner, Otonomad Record Shop, which has a great selection of records from both Japanese and international artists.
Shimo Kitazawa is also a good place to eat, particularly if you are vegan or vegetarian. Drop by Deli & Bakery Co. where they do a Vegan Deli Plate for 1,150 yen. They also serve cakes and Sunday brunch. Pancake House is worth a stop-by for its delicious pancake pies.
Green Parks and Small Town Atmosphere: Ueno
The leafy district of Ueno feels like you’ve stepped outside of Tokyo into small-town Japan. The highlight of the area is the Ueno Park, the largest green area in Tokyo. It contains a huge boating lake, temples, walkways, hundreds of dog walks, a giant lily pond, some of the most famous museums in Tokyo and the occasional weekend festival. In Spring, it’s also one of the best areas in the country to see the Cherry Blossom trees in bloom.
After a morning of park explorations, the nearby Yanaka area is waiting to be explored. The atmosphere here continues the old-town Japan vibe, with lots of street food, boutique shops and winding lanes. One spot not to miss is the Ueno Sakuragi Atari, an intimate collection of spaces including the Kayaba Bakery, Oshi Olive cafe and the charming Yanaka Beer Hall. Each is housed in old Japanese wooden buildings and surrounded by greenery. If you’re in the area, it’s a beautiful space to have lunch or spend a few hours sipping Yanaka beers.
The Best View of the City: Roppongi Hills
On one of my first nights in Tokyo, I headed to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building to see the free view from the top. It was free, yes, but also majorly disappointing. Not only are you completely obstructed by glass, but the view doesn’t show any of Tokyo’s famous landmarks. So on my last night, I paid to go up Roppongi Hills. It was expensive but definitely worth it. The Sky Deck is an helicopter pad with a beautiful 360 degree view of the whole city. From there, you can see the Tokyo Tower most visibly, sticking out like a sore thumb (or a red Eiffel Tower). I went up before sunset and stayed until the cities lights twinkled all around. It’s something I’d recommend to anyone visiting the city. It costs 2,300 Yen for access to the building and Sky Deck.
Transport: The best way to get around Tokyo is on the extensive metro system. Buy a Pasmo or Sucia card when you arrive and you can top it up throughout your time in the city and use it for every journey. Grab an English metro map and you’ll find that the whole thing is much easier than it might first seem! In each neighbourhood, walking is the best way to see as much as possible. You will walk a lot in Tokyo – so wear comfortable shoes!
Money: Japan’s currency is the Japanese YEN, and 100 YEN is around £0.70 or $0.90. Despite much of the advice I heard before I arrived in Tokyo, I didn’t actually think it was that expensive. Sure, it’s not as cheap as Thailand or India, but it’s a lot less expensive than cities like London, New York or Paris. Meals average around 600-1000 yen, and you can get very cheap food in convenience stores across the city. The metro is very reasonable and things like souvenirs and clothes are a lot less than in the west. I found the biggest cost to be accommodation. I stayed in a hostel in Tsjuki and it was around $30 for a female dorm.
Stay: I stayed at Wise Owl Hostel which is near to the Tsjuki Fish Market Area. It was a little off the beaten track for tourists, but in a great location to access the city, with a metro right outside the hotel and only one stop from Tokyo central station. The hostel was extremely clean and private. It felt more like a hotel than a hostel to me.