Every place we visit, I take photos that I think capture the everyday magic of a place. Here are my picks for Tokyo—the last of our 4 month Asia trip! Enjoy.
Our last day in Tokyo, we still had most of the day to kill. We still had not tried out any soba yet, so we sought out a soba placed called Narutomi in Ginza. Thanks to Amit for the recommendation! I’d read that the soba here is different because the noodles are made from 100% buckwheat versus the standard 20%. We ordered two soba sets at 800 Yen each ($10) and a vegetable tempura set. Soba came out was really good, but I guess I’m not much of a soba expert, so I couldn’t tell you how different it was from other soba I’ve had.
The mistake was probably the vegetable tempura set. While it was really good and included a fried shiso leaf (yum!), we ordered it at the waitress’s recommendation without asking the price. $15…not too bad I guess but all told it turned out to be a pretty steep lunch for not a ton of food. Probably a better bet to get ramen and be full!
Our last night in Tokyo, we decided to splurge on dinner in Shibuya. We originally were going to look for a sake bar, but upon arriving at our destination, we thought maybe it was too much of a splurge…There are plenty of restaurants in Shibuya so we just wandered around until we saw a lively place filled with young people. It was an izakaya wine bar called Baru and was our best meal in Tokyo. Talk about stumbling on a gem! We ordered whatever they recommended and had a lot of fun chatting with the chef who spoke some English.
The first thing that came out was their beef tendon stew with daikon radish. A-mazing. It was packed with fragrant spices, hint of nutmeg, and the tendon was cooked until it was super soft. I wish I had gotten two!
Then came out their special of the night, which was grilled Hotate scallops. This was Mike’s favorite. We’ve never had scallop like this before. Grilled to perfection. It was so tender and usually you don’t eat the outside surrounding the scallop, but here they were so tender and even more flavorful than the center! I could eat a ton of these.
Beef carpaccio was next, but the twist was that it was sushi style. Really tasty and so much more interesting to eat than regular beef carpaccio. Topped with garlic puree and wasabi.
Don’t forget the sake!
The hunt for delicious ramen continues…There were definitely a few ramen places I wanted to check out such as Bossanova and Ivan, but they were a little bit more out of the way and with our limited time, I chose Nagi ramen near Shinjuku. They have a few locations, each focused on a different specialty, but their Shinjuku location is known for their tonkatsu style ramen, which is our favorite. We frequent Ippudo a lot in New York which is tonkatsu style (Ippudo started in Tokyo but we chose to try a different ramen place while we were here). Poor Mike, I always drag him to strange out of the way places for the hunt for good food!
Well, it didn’t fail us! The broth was rich and creamy and oh so good. After you order from the vending machine, you are given a form where you can customize the oiliness of your broth, how much garlic, spiciness, and more. It’s really nice to be able to suit your own taste.
The pork was melt in your mouth. Perfectly cooked noodles. To compare it to Ippudo, the broth isn’t as heavy and thick at Nagi. So if I were going for a one time ramen meal, I’d probably still pick Ippudo. But if you were going to eat it on a regular basis, I would choose Nagi so you don’t get that I’m-so-full-I-feel-sick feeling afterwards.
We only got 4 hours of sleep, but we dragged ourselves out of bed to leave at 3:30am for Tsukiji Fish Market. In order to watch the big tuna fish auction, you need to get there early since they only allow 120 visitors. Registration opens at 5am (sometimes at 4:30am if there are a lot of people) but our hotel told us in order to be guaranteed a spot you should be there at 4am. A $40 cab ride later (flag drop is $9 in Japan!), we got to the Fish Market at 4am and were the 12th people in line. Doh! I think we probably could have used that extra half hour of sleep.
After registering at 4:30am, we still had to wait an hour in the holding room before we could go in and see the fish auction. I took a short nap on the floor hehe. Even though it was so early, the fish market was hustling and bustling. All these men were walking around in galoshes and trucks were whizzing around filled with Styrofoam boxes filled with seafood. Tsukiji is the world’s largest seafood market. In the tuna auction room, all these enormous tuna are on the floor and tagged. Men walk around inspecting the fish very thoroughly. They slice off a chunk of the tail and the inspectors come by each fish to pick a chunk out, rub it, and look at it closely with a flash light. They can tell the quality just by looking at it and feeling it. It was funny because most of the men kept coming back to a few select tuna—they must have been the ones that would get the most competing bids.
Once the auction starts, a man stands on a box and goes through each fish in a sing-song voice. I guess they talk extremely quickly in every auction? As soon as the bids are settled, the fish are all tagged with pieces of paper and then get moved to another room to get cut up and shipped to wherever their destination is.
A quick 30 minutes in the auction area and that’s it! We woke up at 3:15am for that. Well, it was a once in a lifetime thing…I probably wouldn’t do it again but it was good to see it once. My classmates went when we were in Japan in 2007, but that was back when I was 25 and up all night partying. =) Afterwards, we headed to the sushi restaurants at the market that are known for their extremely fresh fish and you get an omakase set for 3,500 Yen ($45) each. Sushi at 6am? Sure! There was already a long line outside of Sushi Zanmai, which is the most famous. We didn’t feel like waiting in line so we snagged a spot at Sushi Daiwa a few doors down, which is supposedly just as good.
The sushi was pretty amazing. It’s tough coming from New York though, where you have the best of everything. I still think the sushi at our favorite place in New York, Ushiwakamaru, is king at its price point. By the time we left, there was definitely a line outside—good thing we snuck in early.
After breakfast, we walked around the market which sells everything a normal market has: fruit, vegetables, meat, plates, knives and more.
We thought maybe we would have enough steam to keep sightseeing after the fish market, but we were exhausted from such little sleep. So back to the hotel we went to take a long nap before getting up again!
There were a couple of things that were must eat in Tokyo and one of them was yakitori, which is grilled meats on skewers. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but Japan has it down to an art form. There is usually one chef overseeing the skewers on a tiny charcoal grill and he carefully seasons each piece with salt and turns the skewer with precision. It’s hard to explain, you just have to see it. Each piece is perfectly cooked and packed with flavor. We researched on Chowhound and found a place called Fuku a couple of subway stops away. It’s hidden in a small cute neighborhood with a tiny sign out front. Good thing I looked up photos of the place beforehand or else we would have walked right by it.
We had our hotel call ahead of time and they were all booked up for the night, but they said if we came at 8:30pm, we could take a table that had been there since 6:30pm. Turns out when we arrived that it would be another 30 min before they left—they must have had an epic 2.5 hour dinner! So we sat down around 9pm, bad news since we would have to get up at 3am for the Tsukiji fish market the next day. C’est la vie.
So we indulged ourselves and ordered skewers galore! Mike’s favorite was the chicken neck, and I loved the chicken thigh and shitake mushrooms. They were so good and we had some good sake to wash it all down. Since it’s a small grill and the chef gives you one skewer at a time, dinner is stretched out over a long time. Now we know why each table stays so long. We also noticed that here, unlike the ramen place, Mike and I were gobbling down our skewers as soon as they came out and other diners still had a lot of food in front of them. It looked like most tables were here for the long haul and just kept drinking!
We loved watching the chef manning the grill, he’s the only one that gets to cook the meats. Even when he sprinkles salt on each skewer, he has this waving hand motion that’s almost like a little dance. We had probably around 6 skewers each and were stuffed by the end. So much fun.
Harajuku is the fashion district for the young hipsters of Tokyo. While at Kellogg (business school) back in 2007, I had written a 20 page research paper on the Japanese sneaker and urban retail industry. Our class was on doing business in Japan so it culminated with a 2 week trip to Japan to finish your research. So of course the research for my paper included wandering around Harajuku and hunting down the hard-to-find exclusive brands. If you come on a Saturday morning, you’ll see kids lined up as early as 7 or 8am for a 11am limited edition release of a sneaker or a shirt. The clothing operates more similarly to an entertainment release model with different levels of exclusivity.
Walking around, I felt ages apart from my 25 year old self! Wow, could 30 really be such a huge difference from 25? Yes, yes it is. I felt terribly uncool hahaha. The streets looked unfamiliar to me and I had forgotten where all the hard-to-find stores were. In 2007, I was lucky enough to be there the day the Undefeated Tokyo store opened in Harajuku. To get into the store, you had to pull a ticket out of a box that told you what time you could get in. Of course I was leaving for our flight that day, so I convinced the door guy by explaining that I was from the US and leaving today so I hurried in and snagged an opening day sweatshirt for $150. Yes, that was during my fanatical phase. I had also purchased a $300 Bathing Ape hoodie that week and explained that some girls spend money on purses and I spent my money on hoodies and sneakers (I still don’t spend money on purses).
The best part of walking around Harajuku is the people watching. If we were to liken this neighborhood to one in New York, the closest would be Williamsburg but it still definitely doesn’t really compare. I love the eccentricity and boldness of their fashion sense. Makes me want to go out and buy crazy clothes. 😉 What I noticed also is that Japanese women (and men) are much more liberal with their hair dye. Most people have their hair dyed and many with crazy colors. There is a light brown/blonde craze and in Harajuku there is a lot of pink. Even the Forever 21 poster has a girl with pink hair. Hmm…so now that I’m unemployed should I dye my hair a crazy color?
After walking around for the entire day, we were pooped. There are a ton of crepe shops everywhere, so we stopped at Angel Heart for a treat.
Banana with chocolate ice cream and whipped cream—like an ice cream sundae in a crepe! Yum.
After walking around Shibuya, we headed north to Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine. Yoyogi Park is supposed to be the place to be on Sundays, but unfortunately we didn’t get in to Japan until Sunday night. On a Monday afternoon it’s pretty peaceful with moms and their babies sitting around and random kids practicing martial arts. The dog run was pretty cute though, reminded us of New York with all the little dogs in this city. No one has enough space to have big dogs!
Next to Yoyogi Park on the northeast side is Meiji Shrine. There’s a huge pathway leading to the shrine and large signs telling the story of the Meiji Restoration and the last real emperor of Japan. Good thing Mike had seen the Last Samurai on our hotel TV the night before ha! It was beautiful grounds. Since we had walked around a ton already that day though, we didn’t do the entire circuit of the gardens and visited just the shrine.
Before you go pray at the shrine, you can wash your hands and mouth at a small water fountain station. I snapped this hilarious pic of Mike looking serious and a young girl excited to be in the photo.
Once you get up the shrine, you throw in a few coins and go through the Japanese prayer ritual. This involves putting your hands together in prayer position, clapping twice, saying a silent prayer and then bowing. I liked the clapping twice and adding sound the usual silence of prayer. You can also buy wooden placards and write your prayer on it. Tons of these placards were hanging up around a tree in all different languages. It was cool to see the juxtaposition of Japanese, Thai, Arabic, English, and Chinese.
After people watching in Shibuya, we went on a mission to find a good small ramen spot. Ideally it would be counter seating only filled with local business people. And we found it! At first we were intimidated, but we snagged the last two seats after paying at the vending machine.
In Japan, a lot of small restaurants have vending machines where you put in money and push the button of the item you want to eat. The machine spits out change and you hand your ticket to the cook/waiter. This makes so much sense because it automates all money handling and decreases order error. Takes all the waiting time out of ordering too so restaurants can have faster turnover. We need to implement this in the US! Though it works best for places that don’t have many options on the menu. These ramen places just do ramen and they do it well. Too many options in the US.
The place had miso and shoyu style ramen and we both ordered the miso ramen. Our personal favorite style is the tonkotsu pork bone broth but we’ll save that for a later ramen hunt. It was super good and everyone around us was slurping away. We noticed that we eat really slowly compared to everyone else! People just came in, slurped, and they were on their merry way again. What I love in Asia are the perfect soft boiled eggs everywhere. Even the packaged ready-to-eat eggs in 7-11 are soft boiled. Amazing! I would tell you the name of the place, but there was no English name. From looking at the Chinese characters, I can tell you that it probably starts with “wa”? =)
Tokyo! This city wasn’t originally on our itinerary but when we saw that we had to do a layover in Tokyo, we discovered that the flight cost would be the same if we took a 3 day layover in Tokyo. Mike’s never been and I loved Japan the last time I went in 2007. This would definitely kill our budget, but it was essentially a “free” flight stop in Tokyo, so we took advantage of it.
Our first day, we walked around Shibuya and people watched at the famous crosswalk from the second floor of Starbucks. Thanks to Matt for the great viewing tip (and for the many other helpful tips for Tokyo)! We splurged on some pricey Starbucks and took at seat by the window.
It’s fun during the day but much more beautiful at night. There’s tons of shopping and food in the area.