2007年02月16日 金曜日

Where to go in Tokyo

by Mizuko Ito

Features, Japan

Probably because many of my US-based friends are academics and technologists, many of them visit Tokyo as part of their professional circuit. I often get requests for recommendations for places to stay and visit while in Tokyo. Usually these requests are coming from busy people who are travelling primarily for business meetings or to give a talk, and might have one or two days free to explore the city. Over the years, I've composed many emails to my friends with somewhat lame attempts to recommend the best places to go. In honor of a few of my friends visiting Tokyo later this month, I've decided to go back over these emails and publicly post my recommendations. It's not nearly as extensive as what Justin did, but it is one idiosyncratic viewpoint (from a bicultural, pop culture and technology obsessed academic). I hope others will add to this.

I still consider Tokyo "home" though I haven't really lived there for almost five years now. It is still the city I know best in the world, and I breathe an emotional sigh of relief when I step onto the streets of Shibuya or Shinjuku after many months away. I love to see what shops and restaurants are still there from my childhood, as well as new arrivals on familiar street corners. The city is layered with memories and personal history for me. So I always struggle to imagine what it must be like to visit Tokyo cold, and only for a day or two, and what I could possibly recommend to people as a way of experiencing the best of "my" city. Unlike Kyoto or other cities that are accessible to the casual tourist, newcomers to Tokyo will often experience it as a overwhelming and alienating megalopolis. The city is so huge and so variegated, and there are very few obvious "sights" and city centers to go to that could give a short-term vistor a sense that they have "experienced the city." But here is just a bit of what I love about Tokyo.

Most recommended resource on Tokyo:

Bilingual Tokyo Atlas

Tokyo does not have an addressing system that actually works for navigation. Only large streets are named. Most people navigate by landmarks and subway/train stations. A bilingual atlas of the city is a must if you are going to do any serious exploring. This the book you want.

Location Transit Location: Finding the right hotel

Most big hotels in Tokyo are fine. Some have better food and more fawning service than others. All will be clean and pleasant. They are all fairly expensive. You can get deals in smaller hotels and weekly residence type hotels. But I can't really help you there. That's very local and detailed knowledge.

When I shop for a hotel in Tokyo I base it exclusively on proximity to a major station that I want to use as my transit and shopping hub. That would be Shibuya or Shinjuku for me. My ideal hotel is within the station building. Second choice is across from the station building. Third choice is within a 5 minute walk. The thing about Tokyo is that everything revolves around train and subway based transit. And I shop like crazy when I am there. I want to be able to train it to and from wherever I need to be, including the airport, and avoid car based transit as much as possible given the horrible traffic.

Given this, and budget willing, my three top hotels are:

The Shibuya Excel Tokyu
Shinjuku Southern Tower
Shibuya Cerulean

If you want a taste of traditional Japan and aren't going to have time to leave Tokyo:

Unlike Kyoto or Nara, Tokyo does not have a lot of traditional tourist spots. Most people will probably point you to Meiji Shrine and Asakusa Temple. Meiji Shrine is located in the youth district (next item) so a good stop if you want to hit both pomo and trad culture in one pop (see below) but Asakusa will give you a feel for "old" or "shitamachi" Tokyo.

Any tour book of Tokyo will give you pointers to Asakusa. You'll find a pedestrian walk lined with shops selling touristy traditonal Japan items (think fans, happi coats, and fake katana). At the end of it is a large temple complex. Nearby (meaning a short train ride away) is the Kappabashi restaurant supply district that sells plastic food among other things - a nice alternative to more standard gifts to bring home.

Youth Culture Overdose: Harajuku

When I was a teenager in Tokyo in the eighties, the Harajuku area around Yoyogi park emerged as the youth street fashion center of the country. Since then, the fashion scene has gotten much more diverse and highly distributed around different parts of the city, but Harajuku is still one of the best areas for fashion watching for teens and is an incubator for new designer. It also has the benefit of being one of the few pleasant walk avenues in Tokyo (similar to Ginza for an earlier generation) thanks to the Tokyo Olympics.

If you get out at Harajuku station (or Meiji-jingu station of the subway) you can make a visit to Meiji Shrine before hitting the fashion roads. If you make it there on a Sunday you'll see the street bands performing around the park area, and the goth lolita girls walking around that area. After enjoying the shrine and Yoyogi park, walk back to the station, to the left down the street past the Snoopy shop, until you hit Takeshita Street on your right, and walk down that towards Omotesando station.

Takeshita-dori is a wonderfully cluttered kid fashion street It exits onto Meiji Street. Take a right back towards Omotesando, the main tree-lined avenue. On the way, you will see Laforet, across the street from the Gap complex. Laforet is where youth fashion brands are piloted before going national. This area is ground zero for Japanese youth fashion. When you hit the main intersection, turn left and enjoy the walk down Omotesando. Kiddyland, which you'll pass on your right has a lot of cool toys and character merchandise.

Boutique Heaven - Aoyama (and Daikanyama)

Eventually, you will hit another big street, Aoyama Street. This area is more where you have the fancy upscale boutiques. If you continue on Ometesando across Aoyama Street (where it gets much narrower), you'll see the flagship stores for famous local brands like Comme des Garcons and Issey Miyake. The little streets off to the right have lots of nice little eating places. Along this strip you'll also see the main boutique for the famous Yoku Moku pastry shop, done up in blue tile.

If you are into upscale fashion, the other district to go to is Daikanyama. You'll find the Jean-Paul Gaultier flagship store there, as well as a bunch of smaller and offbeat boutiques. The fancy Address Building and La Fuente opened up there a few years ago, and what used to be a quiet residential area has turned into one of the main destinations for fashionable tourists visiting Tokyo.

Shop 'til you find a coin locker, and shop some more

I think most Tokyoites have one or two shopping districts that they know like the back of their hand and where they do most of their serious shopping. Mine is Shibuya. Even though it doesn't have the biggest electronic stores, the flagship boutiques, or the fanciest food, it has most everything I could need. And it was my backyard as a teenager during my peak consumption years, so its left an indelible imprint on my shopping habits. I buy 90% of my clothes in Shibuya even though I don't live in Japan anymore. Go figure.

Shibuya is dominated by two department store groups - the Saison Group and the Tokyu Group. The Tokyu group has the cluster of shops and department stores in the actual station building, Tokyu Plaza a the West exit, 109 at the Hachiko exit, plus the Tokyu main store which is a 10 minute or so walk from the station. They also have Tokyu Hands. The Saison group has the Seibu cluster of department stores a stone's throw from the Hachiko exist of Shibuya station, plus LOFT and the PARCO stores.

Tokyu Hands and LOFT are the two multi-storey "variety" shops that sell things like stationary, knick knacks, craft things, sporting goods, etc. They are super fun to browse around in. Hands has the more serious hobbyist gear including electrical and plumbing supplies and that kind of thing, but also fun silly things like weird flavored toothpaste, bags, and party goods. LOFT is more compact, more polished and trend setting, and has less of the hard core craft and hobby gear.

The department stores feature the usual assortment of fashion brands, and generally over priced but high quality stuff. Little side streets like Spain-zaka have cheaper streety stuff. Pop into 109 if you want a taste of gyaru (Shibuya street girl) fashion. Walk down Center-gai, the pedestrian street on the other side of the big intersection from Hachiko. Stop in on one of the game or purikura sticker picture spots along that road and take some pictures to stick on your keitai.

The other way to deal with shopping, with less serendipity but more efficiency, is to go to one of the new mega complexes that have been cropping up in different parts of town over the past decade. These are one stop desinations that will have everything you need. Dining, shopping, entertainment etc. Some examples of these are Roppongi Hills, Marubiru, or Shinjuku Times Square. My personal favorite in this category is Shinjuku Times Square even though it is not the newest or hottest because it is the most comprehensive and easiest to navigate. It also have a great bookstore which is a big plus for me.


An important subset of shopping: gadgetry. In Tokyo there a few well established brands of electronic stores that you'll see around - BIC Camera, Yodobashi Camera, and Sakura Camera, as well as a number of other stores that you'll only find in speciality areas like Akihabara. If you are looking for something relatively mainstream, you can find what you need at a BIC or Yodobashi or Sakura in Shibuya. The electronics shops in Shibuya and other city centers that don't specialize in electronics will have relatively compact shops that carry 80% of what most consumers need.

One step up is the electronics district on the West side of Shinjuku station. I make almost all my electronics and gaming purchases at the suite of Yodobashi Camera stores in the Shinjuku area. There are maybe 6 different building specializing in cameras, computers, games, etc. where I can generally find what I need. For the even more hardcore electronics needs, the next stop is Akihabara, but that is over my head (see below).

Otaku Heaven: Akihabara and Otome Road

I think this may be a separate entry at some point in time when I have the energy to dive deep and poll those those who are more expert than me. I still need a guide during my visits to these districts. My two-liner on this is that if you are intersted in boy otaku culture, go to Akhihabara, and for girls' otaku culture go to Otome Road in Ikebukuro. But most importantly, find yourself an otaku guide.

Food Food Food Food

If there is one thing I think EVERY visitor to Tokyo should experience, it is the basement of a large department store. This would be the food department. Get yourself to a Seibu, Tokyu, Isetan, or Takashimaya department store in any major shopping district and go to the basement. Drool. Enjoy. Buy a gift to take home that will be the very palest reflection of the glory of the food floor.

Restaurants... this is a really tough topic for Tokyo. There is just way too much good food. And resturants change very fast. For our of town folks who are willing to spend a bit, I often recommend Inakaya which is a fun Japanese BBQ place. It's very pricey, but you can go for a late night drink and just order masu-zake (draft sake) and one or two dishes.

I love the Tsunahachi tempura place in the bowels of Shinjuku station. If you can find it, you deserve to eat there. But there are just so many wonderful places to eat in Tokyo, I hardly know where to start. You can pop in almost any place, from a noodle dive under the train tracks to a hotel French restaurant, and expect decent to extraordinary food. Bento.com is a great resource for English language visitors looking for restaurants.

Other local excursions:

The Studio Ghibli Museum is fun if you are a Miyazaki or Takahata fan. Tickets need to be purchased in advance.

The Tsukiji fish market really is worth it if you are a foodie and jetlagged. You need to go early. Sushi for breakfast! Yum.

Posted by Mizuko Ito at 2007年02月16日 23:15


This is fantastic! Thank you Mimi - I have never made it out to the Ghibli Museum, but I hear this is a magical place. Reading this made me miss Tokyo! I feel like I know it, but it's been a few years since I was there and the city can change so rapidly. I guess there are some core characteristics that change more slowly, that you've described here.

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