Fascinating, moving, endearing, puzzling, those words are not enough to describe how amazing Tokyo is. Fall is one of the best seasons to visit, the weather still allows you to take naps in sunny parks under green, golden and red trees.
Here, you’ll sometimes feel like you’re on another planet and a bit in France also curiously, as it’s not unusual to see bakeries and boutiques carrying french names (spelled in a funny way).
I won’t lie, I spent more than 3 days in Tokyo, incidentally scenic beauty remains on my mind. In my experience, here’s some of the best of what this incredible city has to offer. A 3 day journey as complete as possible.
DAY 1 - Early breakfast Sushi and old Tokyo promenade
Start the day with an early breakfast at the must-visit Tsukiji Fish market. Stroll unhurriedly around Asakusa (Senso-ji thunder god temple), Ueno Park and Yanaka neighborhood to catch the best of old Tokyo.
Tsukiji fish market
This place could make the Sashimi addicts collapse. Tsukiji is a market where you’d spend hours. First of all if you choose to eat at the renowned and famous Sushi Dai or Sushi Daiwa you’re likely to literally queue for hours (especially if you go at dawn). But besides, wandering around the stalls, fish or not ( there’s even a cheese boutique) is a must do in Tokyo. For the completely addicts, you can attend the tuna auctions at 5 am. If not, going for breakfast at 8 or 9 is early enough.
ASK : your way to Sushi Zanmai to avoid a long queue. Here no translation necessary as you pick plates from a conveyor belt. Spot the “Otoro” the best part of the tuna. A bit more expensive but where else in the world would you eat this quality of fish (fresh off the boat)?
Senso-Ji & Asakusa
Asakusa neighborhood might remind you of some stereotypes seen in classic japanese movies or Miyazaki animation films. Old Tokyo is here, with the souvenir shops in bonus. All of that on you way to the impressive Thunder Gate and the Senso-ji (the city’s most visited temple) surrounded by beautiful little gardens.
ASK : This is where to buy Kimonos, Yukatas (the summer version of kimono), flip flops… Those are not so easy to find elsewhere in Tokyo.
Ueno Park is simply beautiful and has a lot to offer. Walk around the temples (Tennoji, The five storey pagoda..) and couple your visit with a museum or two, (Tokyo national museum, Tokyo metropolitan art museum or The National Museum of Western Art designed by Le corbusier…) It’s huge, there’s even a Zoo here, and in spring you’d get a perfect picture of Hanami (Cherry Blossom).
Lunch in old town Yanaka
Yanaka is a must-visit after a walk in Ueno Park. This beautiful neighbourhood that carries the traces of old Edo with its numerous little temples and traditional houses has survived the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and damage from World War II. Its inhabitants have been fighting the disappearance of historic buildings ever since. Here, even the Yanaka Cemetery has got charm. The best way to discover the area is to explore randomly, but you’ll certainly need some breaks, here are 3 eating and chilling landmarks.
Kayaba Cafe, revamped Kissaten
Mirror ceiling and retro decor coupled with the traditional design of an old kissaten (tea room) give a unique atmosphere to this coffee shop. The place was recently transformed but first opened in 1938 and local people of all ages are regulars. You might wait a tiny bit for lunch but the homemade dishes (2 choices that change everyday) are worth the try.
ASK: For the white chocolate and green tea cake. Goes well with the (too?) strong coffee they make.
Masami Shiraishi wears two hats, owner of the renowned “SCAI the bathhouse” gallery, (he was one of the firsts to show Takashi Murakami’s work), he also fullfills his passion for food by owning Kayaba Cafe and Kayaba Bakery. Just opened in spring, this little gem shares premises (think wooden houses from early 20th century) with a yoga room, a craft beer bar and an olive oil shop. You’ll essentially find bread here, fougasse type. Nothing Japanese except the fact that they are made by a Japanese Baker.
ASK: For the little Olive and cheese bread.
On your way renting a bike at “Tokyo Bike Gallery”, you’ll find this lovely boutique selling little antiques, japanese crafts and ceramics. Yanesen neighbourhood doesn’t lack of cute little places but this one has the advantage of combining cafe and shop. Kokonn is located in the epicentre of the old temples area. A great place to chill and relax.
ASK: For the green tea matcha french toast or an ice cream from “France dessert”.
DAY 2 - Mori Museum, Tokyo City View and trendy Omotesando
Start the day with a museum overlooking the city in Roppongi. Then lunch, shopping and dinner in the trendy Omotesando area.
Mori Art Museum & Tokyo City View
A Murakami exhibition runs until march 6th 2016.
In the heart of Tokyo, this city observation deck perched on the 52th floor of the Mori Tower is one of Asia’s greatest. First because it’s incredibly cosy (they installed a library and even a Ruinart champagne bar with a glass at 15 euros). If you’re lucky enough (mostly on clear winter days), you’ll catch a sight of mount Fuji.
And 2nd because the ticket also gives you access to the very modern Mori (contemporary) Art Museum on the 53rd floor. Within this two floor experience, relax with a coffee at Cafe The Sun and shop some design souvenirs at the museum boutique.
ASK : Before or after your visit, Don’t forget to pass by “Maman” the Louise Bourgeois monumental spider sculpture.
Lunch at Maisen
Maisen… well simply the best tonkatsu I ever ate. Since 1965, they have been serving this deep fried breaded pork cutlets. You can actually get a bit lost with all the varieties on the menu, if so just order the Kurobuta Tonkatsu (black pork), their signature dish. I’ll go for the fillet. You can also opt for the donburi (rice bowl), though the meat is less crunchy. For this unique pork experience, prepare to queue at pick hours.
ASK : For the Tonkatsu sauce they sell at their delicatessen.
Owner Eiichi Kunitomo, a Barista since 15 years, revamped a 1950 japanese home into a tastefully minimalist styled espresso and coffee kiosk. Zip the delicious coffee on a bench in their tiny tiny garden.
If Omotesando Koffee is too crowded, The Airstream Garden garden nearby is a good alternative. Opposite Decor and atmosphere though. Choose to have your coffee inside or outside a trailer. Nomad american philosophy in Tokyo, why not!
Still have some room for dessert after Maisen? une crêpe chez Breizh then? This french institution has actually opened its first outlet in Tokyo in the 90’s first.
ASK : For the crêpe suzette or how not to feel guilty eating alcohol.
Around the metro Meijijingu-Mae, start shopping at Laforet Harajuku. This multy-level department store gathers brands by japanese designers mainly. Eccentric fashion but not only. It’s gigantic, so you might need to take a break at some of their indoor cafes.
Continue towards Chicago for vintage kimonos, dresses and jeans. Then wander around Shibuya Cat, the trendy street where you’ll find the concept store United arrows (for high quality lifestyle as they say), W Closet for women casual, and Brand my star or Ragtag for other vintage hunting (more likely luxury brands this time).
ASK : Your way to Ray Cassin & Germe my favs for girls at Laforet.
Ramen dining - Oreryu Shio ramen
A Tokyo foodista experience wouldn’t be complete without a stopover at a ramen vending machine. Here they have unusual ramen varieties.
ASK : for the pork and lemon ramen, dreaming of it right now.
DAY 3 - Boho brunch, minimalist aesthetics and true Japanese experience
Start with a Boho brunch at the Farmer’s market (weekend only), drop by the Pool Aoyama on your way to the magnificent Nezu Museum. Bath like a japanese at Shimizu Yu Onsen and fill your stomach at Itasoba Kaoriya to finish the day.
Farmer’s market at UNU
This market pops up every weekend from 10am to 4pm. Around 60 smallholders from all over the country gather to sell their organic and pesticide free products. Love the food trucks.
You’ll also be able to find ceramics and other handicraft gems, and japanese stalls with french names (of course).
ASK : to taste everything, this is foodie paradise.
The Pool Aoyama
Calligraphy, painting, sculpture… Nezu Museum hosts an important collection of japanese and asian pre-modern art. 7 items have been designated as National Treasures.
This former home to a wealthy industrialist collectionner is also worth the go for its coffee shop overlooking a beautiful garden. Minimalist design embraces traditional Japan. Architect Kuma Kengo’s intention was to create an experience of Wa, that stands for harmony.
ASK : For the cake of the day after a look at the outstanding pieces of art. Checking the museum’s boutique might also be useful to bring some presents back home.
Shimizu Yu Onsen
Bathing naked with strangers might sound like a funny thing to do… But sinking into japanese hot springs (believed to have healing powers) is an incredible experience if you’re not too shy to do so.
Shimizu Yu Onsen is not far from downtown, and features indoor baths and an outdoor bath with water with a different mineral composition and temperatures (a gold one and a black one). How delightful to relax on the long chairs outside after bath.
ASK : to rent towels or buy soap at the reception if you’re not bringing yours. And be careful to follow the whole protocol before bathing.
Shop at the Onsen
Soba dinner at Itasoba Kaoriya
Time has seemed to stop in this chic noodle canteen. All wooden and simple, this Soba paradise located near Ebisu MRT is a hideaway from bustling Tokyo. And everything is about details, like the peanut that serves as a chopstick holder.
ASK : for the soba with the sesame dipping. Dreaming of it right now.
And for the “Soba you” (the hot water used to boil the noodles). Poured into the rest of your dipping it’s now a broth for you to drink.
Hotels in Tokyo are expensive, so unless you’re willing to stay in something not so tastefully designed or pay for a Palace downtown, here’s an alternative : Claska. Located within 10 minutes walk from Gakugeidaiku MRT in Meguro, this 1969 building was converted in 2003 into Tokyo’s first boutique hotel, contemporary with a japanese twist.
Plus, they rent Tokyo bikes. Don’t forget to visit their shop and gallery called “Do”. And to go up to their wide terrasse, from where you can see the Mount Fuji in winter, well if the weather allows…
ASK : For a DIY room. Handmade by a japanese designer, from construction to design. (around 110 euros for a double).
ONE LUNCH ONLY OR TEA TIME ?
If you had time for only one lunch in Tokyo, besides going for Tonkatsu at Maisen, I’d recommend Higashiya in Ginza. For a refined lunch in a modern style tea house. Part a confectionery shop, the atmosphere here is so serene you could levitate. The typical menu (less than 30 euros) includes 2 types of tea, 2 starters, a main dish, brown or white rice, pickles, miso soup and a wagashi (the famous japanese confectionery). Products are seasonal here, meaning you won’t enjoy a strawberry mochi in november but most likely a candied persimmon.
ASK : for what alcohol goes best with your wagashi if you’re not too “tea”.
La brasserie de l’Institut Français
Surrounded by a peaceful garden, this brasserie bistronomique for lunch or brasserie gastronomique for dinner would fulfill a french meal desire. Jean-Jacques Garnier, director of the french institute has put all his heart in creating a great menu with Chef Yujiro Kaneko. Here’s “scallop pudding”, “Terrine” or Kaburi beef in shallot sauce for you. Many specialities with fish as well.
Plus, l’Institut Français is only a 100 metres away from Kagurazaka, known as Tokyo’s french neighborhood.
ASK : For the Pain Perdu (French toast), it’s Jean-Jacques’s “péché mignon”. Other desserts like the Mont Blanc are also worth the go.
Also ask for the special events they host like wine tastings. And look out, Guest Star Chefs might pay a visit ( Amélie Darvas, Jean-Paul Hévin…)
Closed on Mondays. Sundays lunch only.
Bar & Disco : New Sazae
Located in the colorful gay neighborhood of Nichome/Shinjuku, this is certainly a place where you’ll have fun. Around since 1966, This little disco is a classic now.
If you’re looking for something more sober, there’s always the Lost in Translation New York Bar at Park Hyatt….