I always leave my heart in Tokyo.
The midnight vending machine run; the beguiling sense of order and chaos at Shibuya Crossing; the meticulously wrapped fruit and stationery; the simple fact that you can find good ramen on every street corner; and the way not many Tokyo-ites can hold a conversation in English but always try to – even if it means walking you 500m to the nearest subway station when you find yourself lost in this incredible labyrinth of a city.
Truth be told, I love Paris for its architecture and New York City for its old-world, well-mannered grandeur, but I love Tokyo for everything. There is no other city that comes even close and no other place I could definitively say I love most.
As with my other travel journals, my guide to Tokyo is by no means definitive. I’m the non-tourist tourist – I prefer to spend my afternoon at a café sipping coffee rather than line up for hours at a major tourist attraction. So with that in mind, the recommendations I’ve shared below is a snapshot of how I like to spend my time travelling.
This is my Tokyo.
Ippudo Ramen – in my opinion, some of the best ramen in Tokyo is right here. I’ve been countless times and it’s such a different experience to the chains in Sydney and New York.
4-10-3 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo
Ichiran Ramen – ramen in your own booth, ordered from a vending machine. It’s a tiny restaurant in a basement and its main aim is to minimise customer contact as much as possible for the sake of efficiency. A classic and compulsory Japanese experience. If you have trouble finding it, it’s just a few doors down from Zara.
1 Chome-22-7 Jinnan, Shibuya
Japanese the locals love
Maisen Tonkatsu – life-changing tonkatsu, not even kidding. Maisen has ruined eating tonkatsu anywhere else in the world for as long as I shall live.
4-8-5 Jingumae, Shibuya
Harajuku Gyoza – cheap but cheerful gyoza and, in my humble opinion, the best in Tokyo. Remember to order the mince beansprouts and pickled cucumber with your dumplings! Also, try to go for an early dinner or late lunch as queues form quickly here.
6-2-4 Jingumae, Shibuya
Bread, Espresso & – people queue up for the French Toast and understandably so – it’s served in a cast-iron skillet (enough to share between two so for 650 yen it’s a bargain) and it’s also to die for. I did read somewhere, though, that it’s only served on the skillet for the 3pm run. In any case, I’d jump on a plane to Tokyo just for this. The French Toast is only served before 10am or after 3pm and not in between so don’t try getting a table at 2:30pm then ordering the French Toast when it hits 3pm. You’ll be refused and told to go back outside to line up. It’s a Japanese thing, I think.
3-4-9, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
Café Kitsuné – I love the matcha lattes here. Pricey at $6 a pop but it’s surprisingly difficult to get matcha lattes anywhere else in Tokyo (even from a vending machine).
3-17-1 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku
Nicolai Bergmann Nomu Café – this breathtaking space is a sight for sore eyes. It’s a florist and café in one. Order the Scandinavian lunch set.
1F, 5-7-2, Minamiaoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Shozo Coffee Store – the cutest little store (try their famed madeleines) with an amazing courtyard at the back. Don’t miss it!
3-13 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Sadaharu Aoki – Japanese pastry chef who honed his craft in Paris. Make sure you try the eclairs!
Shinkokusai BLD, 3-4-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
Rose Bakery – for the carrot cake, of course. Be sure to do a little window shop at Uniqlo and Dover Street Market after!
7F, 6-9-5, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Onigiri from the corner store – my most favourite part about visiting Japan is the convenience stores! I’m obsessed with having onigiri for breakfast. It’s hard to miss, but look for a Lawson, Familymart or 7-Eleven.
See my five must-visit spots in Tokyo on vogue.com.au.
Meji Shrine – a beautiful shrine in the middle of a forest in the middle of Harajuku. An experience like no other when in Tokyo.
Mori Tower – an amazing 360 view of the Tokyo skyscapers. On a clear day I think you can see Mount Fuji.
Sensō-ji Temple in Asakusa – go on Sundays when all the food stalls are peddling everything from Doraemon cakes to takoyaki.
Get lost in Omotesando – the best thing. I could spend hours walking around and dropping my jaw at all the architecture here.
Get lost in Daikanyama – one of my most favourite neighbourhoods in Tokyo. There are so many small cafes and shops hidden at every corner. Go here before everyone else does.
Ghibli Museum – I’ve only seen (though really enjoyed!) a few Miyazaki films, but this one is definitely something you shouldn’t miss if you’re a huge fan.
1 Chome-1-83 Shimorenjaku, Mitaka, Tokyo
Cherry blossoms – refer to my Hanami section below.
Hanami in Tokyo
‘Hanami’ is Japanese for ‘cherry blossom viewing’ and it’s one of the most magical things you’ll ever experience if you visit Tokyo during March and April. It’s the happiest and most exciting time of year in Japan. The season doesn’t last long – two or so weeks tops, so it pays to research the best time to go!
When should I book my trip?
As far as Tokyo goes, the last week of March to the second week of April is generally a safe bet. I have visited Tokyo for the past two cherry blossom seasons and found that full bloom peaks around the 26th-28th March give or take a couple of days. This year, I was in Tokyo 26th-31st March and full bloom fell the day or two after I arrived.
Because it’s the most popular time of year to visit Japan, it’s typical for hotels to book out a year in advance. Book your accommodation and flights as early as possible if you’re planning a cherry blossom trip.
Where is the best spot to see/photograph cherry blossoms?
If you don’t mind crowds and have a whole day to spare, Ueno Park is beautiful, vast, and jaw-droppingly gorgeous. It seems everyone and anyone in Tokyo is here at any one time!
For cherry blossoms with a lake view, visit Inokashira Park and Chidorigafuchi Moat of the Imperial Palace. Both of these parks also give you an opportunity to hire a row boat. I love photographing Inokashira after everyone’s gone home and as the sun’s setting – just before 7pm.
Nakameguro is probably my most favourite spot for hanami with its cherry blossom-lined canal and shops/cafes on either side. It’s packed with tourists during blossom season though, so bear this in mind.
Omotesando – shop your Chanel bags, Church’s boots, and Dior earrings here. Don’t forget to comb the backstreets for cool little boutiques.
Minami Aoyama – Prada, Miu Miu, Diptyque, Acne Studios and tons more (including amazing architecture).
Found Muji – located near Omotesando, it’s the most inspiring and incredible place to shop a curated edit of one-of-a-kind Muji homewares. APC is also just around the corner if that’s your thing.
Margaret Howell – the Ginza store is beautifully merchandised and the sales ladies here are always so lovely!
Rag Tag – Japanese consignment stores are seriously amazing. I’ve found archival pieces from Balenciaga and Isabel Marant here for heavily reduced prices in immaculate condition as well as designer handbags for so low. It’s also shoe heaven here if you’re a size 36-38. For the best and largest designer handbag selection (think Celine, Chanel, Balenciaga, Prada, LV, Hermes), head to the Harajuku and Ginza outpost. For accessories and jewellery, Ginza wins. The Harajuku store is by far the biggest though in terms of all designers. Rag Tag Shinjuku has the most range of pre-owned Acne Studios. As you can tell, I’m such a discount shopper!
Nakameguro and Daikanyama – you can find all the indie boutiques here, stocking everything from Bassike and Isabel Marant to local Japanese labels.
T-Site – the most incredible bookshop in Daikanyama, Tokyo. It’s so easy to spend hours here.
Muji – no Japanese retail experience is complete without a visit to this iconic and quintessential Japanese store. I love stocking up on wearable and chic wardrobe basics (Breton striped dresses and linen skirts) from Muji as well as stationery.
Kyoto – it’s an easy Shinkansen (bullet train) ride to and from Tokyo. For me, two days is enough but I’m not fanatical about shrines as others! Arashiyama (the beautiful bamboo forest) and the surrounding parks/markets can be done in a couple of hours.
Hakone – a beautiful and serene escape from Tokyo, which you can combine with a trip to Mount Fuji. I’d love to stay at Hakone Ginyu next time, but it always seems to book out at least a year in advance during peak season!
Mount Fuji – I’ve done the Mt Fuji/Lake Ashi Viator day tour and highly recommend it. It’s about 13 hours in duration and it’s easy to get to and from Tokyo. It was inclement weather to go up to the 5th station but the sky was clear enough to see Fujisan in all its symmetry!
Visit an onsen – I’ve stayed at Manza Onsen Hotel and although it’s nothing overly fancy, it offers a truly authentic and charming Japanese experience. The all-you-can-eat Japanese buffet was a highlight, haha. The hotel offers bus transport to and from Tokyo from a bus terminal in Shinjuku.
ESSENTIALS IN TOKYO
Suica/PASMO metro transport card – budget around 1500 yen per day for moderate metro use. These cards can be purchased at all train stations or at the airport upon arrival.
Portable wifi – I’ve used Global Advanced Communications twice for my trips to Japan and highly recommend it. Order it a month online before your trip and have it delivered directly to your hotel on the date you arrive. The wifi works throughout Japan. I order the ECO Pocket WIFI 21mbps + extra battery. The cost was around AUD$70 for 11 days. It might sound expensive, but it’s really not as Tokyo is hugely difficult to navigate without the benefit of having wifi with you at all times – this far outweighs the cost.
Google Maps – absolutely essential when in Tokyo, but you will obviously need wifi to power it.
Basic grasp of the language – learning how to say thank you goes a long way in Japan!
WHERE TO STAY
My favourite areas to stay include
Shibuya – a distinctively youthful and frenetic part of Tokyo that never ever sleeps. Close to all you’ll ever need, really.
Shinjuku – quite similar to Shibuya, home to the giant department stores, and a great base to explore Tokyo.
Shinbashi – an affordable option if you want to be close to Ginza, Asakusa, and the Yamanote line (to get to and from the airport).
Omotesando – close to boutiques and some of the coolest cafes in Tokyo. I’d try and book an airbnb here as there’s probably not much in the way of hotels.
Hotels I’ve stayed at + recommend
Park Tokyo (Shiodome), Granbell Hotel Shibuya, Granbell Hotel Shinjuku, Sunroute Shinbashi (no-frills, tiny, but a great location). For those of you lucky enough to be not on a budget, try Claska or Park Hyatt.
Photography by Michelle Lau with OM-D E-M1 | in partnership with Olympus Australia
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