We decided to visit Japan again this year for our third trip to Tokyo, and we are as much in love with city as ever! We chose to visit during sakura (cherry blossom) season and holy smokes, it was magical. The window for viewing the blooms is very narrow (about 7-10 days), and having booked our trip months in advance, we had no way of knowing if we would get to see them or not – but we LUCKED out catching them in full bloom in both Tokyo and Kyoto. Of note, we were in Tokyo April 5-8 and the blooms were in and just passing their peak, we left for Kyoto and Mt. Fuji for April 8-14 and when we got back to Tokyo on April 14 the blossoms were completely gone!
We took a wonderful, direct flight from Houston to Narita airport in Tokyo, hopped on the Skyliner to Ueno, transferred to the Yamanote line and arrived at Shibuya Station about 15 hours after leaving our home. We stayed in Shibuya on our last visit in 2017 and loved the central location, nightlife and people watching so we decided to stay in this district again. We preferred the accommodation of our last trip (here) over the one from this trip (here); this one was sufficient but a little further from the station and in the Dogenzaka (love hotel) area which is a little more seedy. We also stayed two nights at a hotel in Ginza on the back end of this trip and probably wouldn’t stay in Ginza again; it’s a little more pretentious and doesn’t have as much liveliness as other districts. After this trip we will probably consider the Ebisu or Akasaka neighborhoods for our next accommodation.
We spent our first evening in Shibuya trying to stay awake and acclimate to the time change (14 hours ahead of Houston, TX). We started with a couple of beers at Goodbeer Faucets which is a tap house with friendly waiters, a fun spot to look out over the streets of Shibuya, a good selection of craft beer (Baird being the most common local beer on their menu) and some decent snacks. Afterward we grabbed dinner at a spot down the street from our Airbnb called KusiTok which is a kushikatsu restaurant where the chef chooses what he serves each guest; it’s a variety of skewered veggies and meats that are lightly battered and fried in front of you one-by-one as you eat. The chef is extremely friendly, he doesn’t speak much English but he gives it his best shot and seems pleased to welcome foreign guests. We had a lost-in-translation moment which resulted in us being served shochu on the rocks for the first time and we surprisingly enjoyed it enough to order many more times on this trip. We wandered the streets of Shibuya to take it all in, it is lively at almost every hour as it is home to the busiest train station in the world. We ended up at Ottotto Brewery for a couple of beers and laughs before calling it a night.
The Meguro River in Nakameguro was the highlight of our first full day in Tokyo, this is where many Japanese locals come to practice “hanami” or the Japanese tradition of celebrating the transient nature of flowers (I can’t believe this is a word, I told Ryan it is my spirit word -Amanda). The river banks are lined with cherry blossoms which all bloom simultaneously. We took a ton of photos but none of them truly capture the magic of the sakura. The air is brimming with giddiness and joy all over town during this special week. There are street vendors along the river banks as well selling carnival type foods – one particular favorite appeared to be “cheese hotdog” which is a corndog but the hotdog part is replaced with a cheese stick (see photo). There are plenty of stalls selling sparkling rose in plastic flutes filled with strawberries, locals were snapping these up as photo props all afternoon. (One thing we missed is checking out Meguro River at night when they light lanterns and illuminate the cherry blossoms all along the river.) We took a lunch break at Afuri ramen and loved their shoyu broth, this was our first experience ordering ramen from a ticket machine and it went fairly smoothly considering the machine was only in Japanese.
The weather was perfect today so tons of people were crowding the river after lunch, we made our way over to Ebisu neighborhood which we found to be hip and lively but not too crowded. There is a neat spot called Ebisu Food Hall which has food, drinks and a coffee shop with a nice little outdoor seating area. After a coffee break, we hopped the train over to Harajuku station where we walked by Takeshita Dori and on to Yoyogi Park. We’ve visited Yoyogi Park twice before, but we specifically wanted to see the sakura and hanami celebration – it was even better than imagined! The park was filled with people picnicking and enjoying the beautiful weather and blooming trees, just a completely jovial atmosphere throughout the park; it would’ve been fun to grab some supplies and join one of these parties for the afternoon.
We cleaned up then headed to Tokyo Midtown where there is a street of cherry blossoms illuminated at night, it’s beautiful! We grabbed a drink on the 45th floor bar of the Ritz Carlton Tokyo which was fancy with amazing views. We had reserved dinner at Sushisho Saito through TableAll reservation service about 2 months in advance so we walked through Akasaka to find it. Sushisho Saito is an incredible experience, everyone is seated together at an 11-seat counter and served bite by bite from the chef’s omakase selection. We were the only foreigners and appreciated the Japanese customs of respect and reverence shown to the chef by all patrons. The nigiri pieces were exceptional, but the offerings got a little more exotic with a few different fish organs having textures we weren’t prepared for or used to consuming. We certainly pushed out of our comfort zone, but I think some of it must be an acquired taste. Overall we loved this special experience, but would probably choose something more like Narisawa where every bite does it for us if we’re dining at this price point again.
After an action-packed day of Sakura, we took it a little slower on the following, rainy day. We grabbed Starbucks and sat up on the second floor to check out the Shibuya Scramble for a bit before catching the train to Roppongi Hills. Roppongi is notoriously the expat neighborhood of Tokyo where foreigners of all nationalities congregate, it is home to Mori Modern Art Museum with 360 degree observation area Tokyo City View – to be honest we came for the art museum but were more impressed with the sweeping city views. We stopped later in the afternoon for a caffeinated pick-me-up at the restaurant on the 52nd floor to savor the views a little longer. Prior to visiting the art museum, we managed to be first in line at opening time for Savoy Pizza which is crazy good Neapolitan style pizza served in two varities – margherita or marinara. The chef cranks out personal pizzas in record time at this 10-seat counter and Ryan proclaimed it one of the best pizzas he’s ever eaten – perfect crust, little salt, lots of olive oil, amazing sauce. We stumbled on “Sakura Street” in Roppongi, another couple of blocks lined with cherry blossom trees that were just past their peak and raining delicate little petals down on us as we strolled. We were able to find this street from above when we went up to the Tokyo City View deck!
We closed out our day at Kurand Sake Market which is a BYO food to all you can drink sake tasting. We found this idea to be genius – the shop has 100+ bottles of sake with a pamphlet of tasting notes for each one, you pour as many little cups as you want to sip at one time and can keep refilling as much as you want. We grabbed some dim sum and bao from Tokyu Foodshow at Shibuya Station to bring to Kurand and had a blast! We sampled a dozen or more sakes each and were impressed by the wide variation in flavors. We would definitely return to Kurand Sake Market on a future trip.
We purchased a 7-day JR Rail Pass a month before our trip and activated it the day before we left for Kyoto so that we could use it for the Shinkansen. We also purchased reloadable Suica cards for use at the rail stations which made the already simple Japanese rail system even quicker. On Tuesday morning we took off for Kyoto and Mt. Fuji for about a week before returning to Tokyo Sunday afternoon for our final few days in Japan.
Upon our return to Tokyo, we left our luggage at our Ginza Hotel then walked through the high-end shopping district which is closed to vehicles on weekends before landing at Mixology Salon which specializes in “teatails” or cocktails made with tea infused spirits. Ryan tried the Gyokoru cocktail tasting set, Gyokoru is the highest quality green tea imparting an intense umami flavor and a viscous consistency; while Amanda went for the teatail tasting of 3 unique tea infused cocktails. This establishment is definitely worth a visit if you’re looking for unique flavors and inviting hosts.
We reserved Sumibi Yakiniku Nakahara, a wagyu beef omakase restaurant, through Pocket Concierge; it can be difficult to reserve restaurants in Japan as a foreigner, many establishments won’t allow hotel concierges to book for patrons, so we’ve found that paying to use concierge services like Pocket Concierge and TableAll are the best shot at getting coveted reservations, though even this route is not always successful with top establishments that choose only to cater to local patrons. This restaurant is worth the cost and hassle of booking, it is amazing how tender and perfectly cooked every bite is. The meat is cooked on a small charcoal grill at the table, the staff cooks it so you don’t have to worry about ruining it. The staff at this restaurant is incredibly friendly and chatty making the whole experience memorable. We are so thankful that we were able to dine at Sumibi Yakiniku Nakahara, it was a highlight of our trip and we intend to return on our next visit to Tokyo!
You may have already seen clips of Mori Digital Art Museum’s TeamLab Borderless on social media, this was the big event for our last full day in Tokyo. Ticket reservations open about a month in advance and sell out fairly quickly so if it’s a must-see on your trip, make sure to book early. This interactive, digital art museum is captivating, completely mesmerizing to walk through – but it is also a selfie kingdom, everyone is nose-to-phone the whole time which is a little frustrating when trying to navigate some of the narrow rooms. The exhibits include projected light, LED strips, sounds, textures and illusions. TeamLab Borderless has an “athletic forest” on the second floor which holds the most interactive exhibits, we almost missed this as the whole place is kind of a maze with changing walls making it hard to tell where you have and haven’t been. The Mori Digital Art Museum is on the manmade island Odaiba next to the Toyota MegaWeb exhibition. We walked through the Toyota MegaWeb exhibition which mainly had their current vehicle lineup and virtual reality test drives, but we were hoping to see more tech/concept demonstrations, so we didn’t stay long.
With an unplanned afternoon, we opted to head to Akihabara, we always love the weirdness around this part of town. We started at a small ramen shop by the train station which was full of salarymen on their lunch break (Ramen Shokudō Iki na Isshō), the ramen was delicious with thick noodles and creamy broth, it was also cheap at about $6.50 each. We wandered back through the main drag of Akihabara to Hitachino Brewing Lab. Hitachino Nest is a Japanese craft brewer that distributes to the states and has some great beers with unique flavors. We tried a yuzu lager, a red rice pale ale, an IPA and an espresso stout. The brewpub is in a neat brick tunnel along a canal, the tunnel has some interesting shops along it which are worth poking through. We walked from Hitachino to an arcade where we watched some new aged Dance Dance Revolution type game which uses a pressure-sensitive, fiberglass, light-up floor pad; a decent upgrade from the original foot pad with the 4 arrow buttons. It was fun to watch the young gamer guys nailing 100+ combos and adding their own flare while still nailing the cues, they definitely enjoyed the attention too!
We cleaned up back at the hotel before our last dinner in Tokyo, Manten Sushi in Marunouchi. Manten Sushi is a fantastic 25-course sushi omakase with only young chefs behind the counter and only about $60 per person. Media consensus is that no one knows how or why they charge so little as this omakase would easily book up at twice the price or more. There is a relaxed atmosphere in this establishment, and we would highly recommend for bang for buck. After dinner we walked a couple of blocks to Yurakucho station where we met up with one of our friends that we met on our previous trip to Tokyo. Yurakucho Station is in central Tokyo with connections all over town, under the railway there are many izakayas where salarymen gather after work for a drink, or too many drinks that they miss the last train home in some cases! The atmosphere is carefree and let-loose and we were thrilled to be able to meet up with our old friend down here. Kana picked an izakaya that was very inviting and helped us select different sakes and shochus, we had so much fun with Kana and her friend Jensen and we look forward to scheduling a meet up sooner on our next trip so that our other friend, Aya, might be able to join us too! We stayed out late at Yurakucho, grabbing one more drink after Kana and Jensen left for the last train; this area is so much fun, sort of like Golden Gai, but more approachable, would recommend checking it out for a good time with the locals.
After a late night, we moved slowly in the morning, finally making our way to Tsukiji market which is the former site of the tuna auction and massive fish/produce market until the relocation a few months ago. The tuna auction and many of the market stalls and surrounding restaurants have moved to Toyosu market a few miles away, but some of the vendors who were unable to make the move have stayed in Tsukiji. We visited Tsukiji in 2017 so we just popped through quickly to see how it’s changed before making the trek over to Toyosu. We decided to walk to Toyosu because it was a beautiful day, but it is far, over 2 miles. I can see where small vendors who live near Tsukiji may not have been able to just up and move their small business miles away. With that being said, the Toyosu Market is modern and nice. It is constructed with the large-scale market and tuna auction on the first floor and a glass wall viewing area overlooking from the second floor so that tourists are out of the way of the action. While it is super organized and clean and nice, it doesn’t have the charm and appeal of the chaotic street market. The restaurants that have relocated are laid out nicely inside, even having some seating for the queues. We waited less than 10 minutes at Daiwa Sushi and the quality was every bit as good as we recalled from our previous visit. Overall we might visit Toyosu to eat sushi (though there is excellent sushi all over town) but no longer find the appeal in the market from this super structured setup.
On the train back from Toyosu we saw many of the 2020 Olympic sites being constructed which was neat, looks like a lot of the action will be focused down around Odaiba on the manmade islands. We grabbed our stuff from the hotel and hustled to the Narita Express train as we cut our departure a little too close for comfort.
This itinerary is focused around sakura and food. Some must-see Tokyo attractions we would recommend if you’re building a first-time itinerary would include: Meiji Jingu, Asakusa and Sensoji Temple, Golden Gai, Edo-Tokyo Museum and Tokyo Metropolitan Building Skydeck