On some days, this blog takes a brave stand and encourages its gentle readers (or as I prefer to call them, Internet Strangers) to visit a place that a little obscure, a touch hidden, a wee bit off the beaten track. But that day is not today. Today is the day I present the wonders of Tokyo.
Tokyo is the most populous city in the world, according to the always-accurate Wikipedia. It is the capital of Japan. If you start listing major cities of the world (New York, London, Paris…) and Tokyo isn’t in the first five, you have counted wrong, son. So I’m sure I hardly need to persuade you to join me today as we drink morning sake, eat some babies, and party with some strangers. Just like Godzilla, we’re about to attack the city of Tokyo.
Morning: Shinjuku Tour
I’m about to give the single greatest travel tip this blog has ever given. Are you ready? No. I can tell you’re not ready. Get ready. Then we’ll talk.
Okay, here it is. The city of Tokyo gives free walking tours given by volunteers of the exciting Shinjuku area. You’re not even allowed to tip the volunteers. (They offer other tours that do charge a fee. You can see these listed on their website.) All you have to do is register in advance online and show up at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building at 10 AM. Further instructions about the meeting point will be in your email confirmation.
In my case, I was greeted by two friendly Japanese women who informed me that I was the only person who booked the tour that day, so I was getting two guides for the price of zero. That is what I call living the high life!
three fun facts about shinjuku
1) Shinjuku used to be an entirely separate city from Japan. The “shin” in Shinjuku means “new” and the ‘juku” means station. So Shinjuku started as a new station for freight trains just outside of Tokyo. It didn’t became part of the city of Tokyo until 1920. Even today, the “new” part of the neighborhood’s name applies, as the area is home to more neon lights and skyscrapers than anywhere else in Tokyo. We spent most of the tour examining the famous ones like the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building pictured above.
I said this was sort of like my hometown New York City, which is five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island–aka Little Jersey) combined into one. The tour twins asked me how many people live in NYC and I answered, “Between 8-9 million”. The tour twins looked ever so slightly smug and said, “Tokyo has about 14 million”. I said, “You beat us!” and they giggled.
2) The most hidden gem that these ladies showed me was Suehirotei, which is a rakugo theater hidden on a side street in Shinjuku. Rakugo is a kind of Japanese comic one-person show performed with a folding fan as a prop. The tour twins told me that this theater was built right after World War II, where it became a popular place for Japanese people with no money to go for entertainment. (One-person shows are generally rather cheap to put on.)
The guides told me that I would be welcome to go see a show at Suehirotei if I wanted to, though the performance will be in Japanese. One guide even assured me that I would be “much more welcome at the rakugo now” than I would have been just after the war ended, and that is a bleak joke worthy of the Travelerette. I regret not going, but I don’t speak Japanese well enough to understand a comedy show in the language. Perhaps I will go back someday when I am fluent!
3) The last place we visited on the tour was Isetan Department Store. This beauty is famous for having the most famous depachika, or basement level food court, in Tokyo. Do not be food by the mundane-sounding term food court. A good depachika is stuffed to the brim with gourmet eats and treats. The tour twins did all the talking for me and I was able to get food samples of rice crackers, many different kinds of seafood, and best of all…
Travelerette Treasure: The morning sake tasting was the highlight of the walking tour. I got to sample several different kinds of sake (one sweet, one dry, and one fruity) and there was no pressure to buy anything. My favorite was the Kamotsuru brand’s Diginjo Tokusei Gold sake that President Obama drank with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe when Obama visited Japan. I’m pretty sure I got offered this because I am American, but I did not object in the least.
The sake salesman asked me if I wanted a sample of a fourth sake, and I said that three was enough for me before noon. “AHAHAHAHAHA, CERTAINLY!” boomed the sake seller as if I was telling a joke, but I was deadly serious. “Never have four sakes before noon” is my life’s only motto.
At this point, the tour twins walked me to the exit of Isetan and wished me farewell. I wish that I could have tipped them, but as I’ve said before, tipping is simply not done in Japan. Now it is time for us to do a little exploring in Shinjuku on our own.
Address: 3-32-5 Shinjuku
Would you like to eat lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant? How about a Michelin-starred restaurant that costs less than 10 dollars? Of course you would. That’s why we’re going to have lunch at Nakajima. You have to go down these creepy steps to get there, but don’t worry! No one is waiting at the bottom to murder you! They just want to feed you sardines.
You have three choices for lunch: fried sardines, boiled sardines, and raw sardines (aka sardine sashimi). I ordered the sashimi. It comes with sides of rice, miso soup, pickles, and tea, and the whole thing will set you back 800 Yen (about 8 dollars). I was happy with my order of the sashimi because you could really taste that powerful, oily sardine flavor. It was garnished with the merest sprinkling of sesame seeds on top and barely needed any soy sauce at all.
The other clients were all Tokyo businessmen clearly on their lunch break, and we were all hustled in and out of the restaurant fairly quickly. I imagine the eight dollar lunch deal must be pretty popular in an expensive city like Tokyo. So after I was done, I wanted a leisurely place to sit with a dessert and a cup of coffee. I was lucky to come across Gontran Cherrier at Yoyogi 2-2-1, Southern Terrace. This is a French bakery run by a French pastry chef (Gontran Cherrier himself) that makes French-Japanese hybrid pastries.
At this point it had begun to rain, so I settled in at the counter with a cup of coffee and some sakura melon bread. Melon bread doesn’t need to have melon as an ingredient. It is called melon bread because it has a squishy doughy interior with a crispy cookie exterior that mimics the rind of the melon. Melon bread comes in many flavors, including melon if you are feeling overly literal, but I chose sakura/cherry blossom because it would be perfect for spring. The best part of the melon bread is the sugary, crunchy exterior, which went perfectly with the coffee.
Afternoon: Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
Address: 2 Chome-8-1 Nishishinjuku
Hours: North Observation Deck is open from 9:30 AM to 10:30 PM
According to all sources, the greatest sight in Shinjuku is the view from the top of Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office, or TMGO to its friends. The observatory is on the 45th story and it gives a great view of all the high-rise buildings in Tokyo, as well as Mount Fuji if the weather is clear. (As you can see, it was not clear on the day I visited, but I think the fog has its own charm.) Best of all? Unlike much of Tokyo, it is free, free, free. That’s right, the best view in Tokyo will set you back zero dollars.
I like a good view but I wouldn’t call myself a view aficionado. I tend to pay for fancy-pants views when I’m traveling and one of the many “Top _____________s You Should __________________in ______________________” lists I like to read recommends it. I enjoy the Top of the Rock and some of the other great views that I’ve seen. but at a certain point it feels silly to pay so much just to look at buildings from the sky. That’s why I was so jazzed that the TMGO was free. All of the great views, none of the guilt about blowing twenty bucks.
Travelerette Treasure: On top of lack of pecuniary compensation required, the view from TMGO is sick and I mean that in the best possible way. You get unique views of the avant-garde buildings that litter the Tokyo skyline, including my personal favorite: the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower that looks like a webbed thumb and has a name that sounds like one of Mothra’s lairs. I choose to believe that it is Mothra’s lair.
Travelerette Tip: Before leaving the Metropolitan Gov’t Building, head to the Japanese Prefectural Tourism Promotion Center on the 2nd Floor. This is where you will find booths advertising the charms of each of the 40-something prefectures (regions) in Japan. If you get lost, look for this sign:
Many of the booths have food samples and you should taste as many of the samples as you wish. Some of the booth attendants speak English and some don’t, but they’ll do their best to communicate either way. It’s their job to get you to try their food and want to visit their region, so don’t feel guilty. You’ll find everything from flavored tofu to cookies. My favorite booth was run by an older man with samples of dried fish. He showed me a medium-sized dried fish, and then some teeny tiny fish that appeared to have been fried.
“Fish,” he said, pointing to the larger fish. “Fish babies,” he added, pointing to the tiny fish. “EAT THEM!” he suddenly yelled with enthusiasm. “EAT THE BABIES!” I was afraid that this noise was going to attract the attention of the authorities so I popped some of the baby fish into my mouth and I ate them. I ate the babies. They were salty and delicious.
Evening: Tokyo After 5 Tour
Meeting Time: 5 PM
Duration: 3 Hours
Price: 104 Dollars
As I’ve said several times on this blog, I believe that there are only three things that are not fun for a woman to do on her own: clubbing, bowling, and going to a bar. I don’t think there’s anything weird or shameful about a woman wanting to drink alone, but in my experience, unless we’re talking about a bar/music venue combo, the risk of being hit on by a terrible man is just too damn high.
That’s why I was so excited to see the Tokyo After 5 tour advertised on the Urban Adventures website. I’ve had really good experiences with this company before, so I tend to book their tours if they offer one in a city I am exploring. This tour would allow me to visit a Japanese bar-style restaurant and meet some friendly strangers without having to worry about being hassled by creepy strangers.
Travelerette Tip: The tour meets at 5 in the Ginza neighborhood, and you’ll probably have some time to kill beforehand. Ginza is famous for its great shopping, so I recommend hanging out in the Tokyu Plaza Ginza Shopping Center at 5-2-1 Ginza. They have many stores and restaurants to choose from, but my favorite was a shop called Birthday Bar, which sells just about anything you might want to choose for a friend, be the friend male or female, for their birthday. What a charming concept for a store! I bought some lovely rose-scented hand cream for myself and nothing for any of my friends.
Our enthusiastic guide, Ikumi, met the tour right on time, and we headed off for an evening of food, fellowship, and knowledge. I can’t share the food with you because I ate it all. And I can’t share the fellowship with you because the rest of the people on the tour went back to their homes, and I don’t remember any of their names. But I can share…
three fun facts about japanese bar food
1) Japanese cocktails are often mixed together just using two ingredients. One popular cocktail was plum wine mixed with soda, and you can also try this using yuzu wine. Another popular cocktail is made by mixing fruit juice with shochu, which is a Japanese liquor distilled from sweet potatoes, barley, rice. I tried both the wine spritzer and the shochu cocktail over the course of the evening and found them to be very refreshing, though the shochu drink was much stronger.
2) One of the most popular Japanese bar foods is yakitori, which literally means grilled chicken, though yakitori can be made with just about anything. The most famous place in Tokyo to get Yakitori is the appropriately named Yakitori Alley. I was a little alarmed when Ikumi told us that some of the restaurants in Yakitori Alley serve horse.
But then I remembered that I don’t like horses because one bit my shoulder once, so I stopped caring.
At our yakitori place, we were treated to several kinds of vegetarian yakitori: ginko nuts, mushroom, shishito peppers, and tofu, as well as various meats from white meat topped with plum sauce to chicken wings, to meatballs. They were all delicious, but the juicy white meat topped with the sweet plum sauce was my favorite.
For a yakitori challenge, Izumi brought out some chicken gizzards and chicken hearts to see if we were up to snacking on them. As you can see, our group did not “chicken” out from eating them. I enjoyed the rich flavor of the chicken heart, but the chicken gizzard was a little rubbery for my taste. Still, I was proud of myself for trying!
3) I’ve already extolled the wonders of okonomiyaki, but Tokyo has a similar specialty called monjayaki, which is a lot like okonomiyaki, only as you can see, there is more liquid in the batter, so it is runnier. You cook it on the same kind of grill you cook the okonomiyaki, though. This tour was fun because we kind of got to cook our own monjayaki, with some careful guidance from Izumi. First we got a bowl full of ingredients…
Then we cooked the monjayaki by mixing it around with two little spatulas until it was cooked. When it was done, it looked like this:
So…basically vomit. But it tasted great and very similar to okonomiyaki. It was the perfect accompaniment to my apricot juice/shochu cocktail.
Next we to make okonomiyaki. This okonomiyaki was Osaka-style, with the ingredients already put together in a cake.
You grill it on one side until it is done, and then you flip it. (Thank goodness for Izumi telling us when.)
When it is done, top with sweet okonomiyaki sauce and mayonnaise…
Last, add fermented fish flakes!
Now you are ready to eat!
Travelerette Treasure: For a sugar gremlin like myself, the best part of any food tour is the dessert. We stopped at a real classy joint called Ginza Akebono to chow down on some daifuku, which are rice cakes filled with red bean paste. Ikumi told us that the fillings change with the season, and since this was spring, strawberry and apricot daifuku were being sold at the store. I chose apricot to go with my apricot shochu cocktail. The lightness of the rice cake combined perfectly with the sweetness of the apricot. It was as full of spring as a boiled Easter bunny stuffed with crocus plants and ramps.
And That’s How to Have a Perfect Day in Tokyo!
What would you do with one day in Tokyo? Would you rather eat horse or chicken hearts? And how would you react if someone yelled at you to EAT THE BABIES? Please leave your thoughts below!
I am here to provide perfect travel itineraries with 24 hours, 3 fun facts, and 1,000,000 laughs! I hope that I can motivate you to get out there, see the world, learn something, and have a sense of humor about it all.