11.6.2016 – 11.10.2016 || Tokyo || Japan
We spent a total of 6 nights, 7 days in Japan but I will be breaking it into two parts and will cover Toyko and Kyoto separately.
One week in Japan? Sure! Looking back at this trip I’ll admit it was aggressive to try and cover the many sights of Toyko in 3 days, 4 nights but I love a good challenge and a week was the amount of time we could get away. We created an action packed itinerary that included walking and eating our way around Tokyo.
The overnight flight from Washington Dulles to Toyko landed in the afternoon so by the time we arrived at our hotel it was close to dinner time the following day. We were dragging but wanted to adjust to the new time zone as quickly as possible. #champagneonplanes
As a frequent business traveler I was able to use points for our stay at the Conrad Tokyo located near the Shiodome station in the Financial District. We had a fantastic view of Hamarikyu Gardens and Toyko Bay. #hiltonhonors #diamondmember
After checking in and picking up our pocket wifi rental from the front desk we went to the Executive Lounge at the Conrad to enjoy their afternoon happy hour. While there we asked the concierge for a dinner recommendation.
We were eager to have our first authentic sushi experience and wanted something nearby so Sushi Zanmai it was! This was our first experience navigating the expansive Tokyo underground transit system without having to take a train or exit to the street level until we were practically at our location. It was so orderly, quiet, and rather straightforward thanks to our pocket wifi rental that allowed us to use Google maps for walking directions.
We had a reservation for two corner seats at the sushi bar. I was too busy eating nigiri and taking in the scene to take pictures besides this one when we were leaving. I kept it pretty simple and stuck with salmon and tuna nigiri for the first night but it certainly tasted much fresher in a “melt in your mouth” kind of way than any sushi I’ve had at home, but maybe that was the jet lag setting in.
The next day we set out for the famous Tsukiji Market but we didn’t get up in the middle of the night to make it over in time for the tuna auction that happens before sunrise. We had access to a really nice breakfast at the Conrad (#diamondmember) so we had a leisurely breakfast before heading to the fish market around 9am.
It was still bustling but it was obvious that we missed the main action of the day.
Not quite sure we were in the tourist areas at certain points but nonetheless we explored the various part of the market. It was interesting to watch the various chefs and home cooks shop for their protein and produce since this is not something we see on the regular in the Washington DC area!
Next on the agenda was Ginza, the shopping mecca of Tokyo. We read about the department stores being a massive establishment for designer fashion, boutique grocery stores, markets, dining, and more so we wanted to check it out. We decided to go into Matsuya to see what it’s all about.
It was a shoppers paradise with floor after floor of merchandise but we went right for the food market in the basement of the building. There were so many vendors selling everything from the daintiest desserts to freshly prepared meals. I ended up purchasing this sushi hand roll which we took to the rooftop to enjoy al fresco. It was also our first time trying to use a vending machine without really knowing what some of the options were. Milk tea is hot tea with a ton of sugar and milk, while that seems pretty straightforward, it wasn’t the option we thought we were selecting.
After our morning snack we set off for the Kite Museum that was along the route that we planned on exploring. It felt more like someone’s attic with decades of souvenirs but there were some impressive kites from all around Japan, and many from the States.
The interesting thing about Japan is that most restaurants only specialize in one meal so if you are in the mood for sushi, everyone has to be in the mood for sushi. We both agreed that a big bowl of ramen noodles sounded good for lunch. The challenge was finding a place that had vegetarian or vegan based broth since most dishes are made with pork.
Kyushu Jangara was a couple of blocks from our current location and didn’t have a line. Most ramen noodle shops (or restaurants in Japan) are rather small and generally only have seating for a dozen or so people at a time.
After refueling we headed towards the Imperial Palace but didn’t read that the grounds are closed on Mondays so we admired it from the perimeter. #rookiemistake
We decided to give our feet a rest and jumped on the train en route to Shibuya, the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world, or at least in Japan! You can get a look at the scramble crossing from up above after getting off the train station or from the second floor at Starbucks. We did both while also crossing the scramble twice. Despite sending people in every direction possible when the light changes, it is organized chaos at its best.
We wondered around Shibuya for awhile before heading back to the Conrad. We walked nearly 12 miles over the course of the day!
The next day we had our sights set on Asakusa, Ueno, and Anime. We took the train to Asakusa and walked the rest of the way to Sensoji Temple. Senoji is one of Tokyo’s oldest and most colorful temples. It is also very popular and was incredibly crowded when we arrived around 9am.
A group of school kids came up to us as we were trying to get our bearings at the thunder gate entrance near the big red lantern. They were so exited that we spoke English since they had an assignment to interview English speaking tourists while at the temple. They were adorable and super polite. After helping them with their assignment we were off!
Between the main gate and the main hall there is a stretch of vendors selling souvenirs and snacks. Before getting to the main temple, there are a couple of opportunities to explore customs and Japanese traditions.
The main temple was striking and had some intricate designed doors that were perfect for glam shots.
Finally snapped a photo of the vending machines that were artfully displayed under empty sake barrels.
It was getting close to lunch time so we headed towards Asakusa to explore the shops and the many side streets. Asakusa is known for tempura so that’s what was for lunch. We managed to find the top rated tempura place, Masura, and landed two seats at the counter.
We were the only Americans in this tiny restaurant. It happened to be Election Day 2016 so the chef couldn’t help talking politics when he found out that we were Americans. The translation app that we downloaded was super helpful!
There were only two options – shrimp tempura or eel tempura. There is a combo option as well and all are served over rice and come with miso soup.
After lunch we walked to Ueno, which is comparable to the National Mall in DC. It was a bit dreary outside and a ton of school field trips so we mostly stuck to an outside walking tour.
Before calling it a day and heading back to our hotel to get ready for dinner, we walked through the part of the city that is known for anime or animation. So many building filled with video games, comic books, etc. for all ages and interests.
After walking another 10 miles on day two we were ready for the main attraction of the day, counter seats for an omakase meal at Sushi Yasuda! We’ve watched documentaries on the art of making sushi and after doing some research, landed on Sushi Yasuda for a once in a lifetime experience while in Tokyo.
Reservations are a must and book up quickly as far out as two months in advance and require flight information in addition to other personal information to secure a spot.
The chef’s counter sat approximately 8 people. The chef made minor alterations based on 1-2 items that you loved and 1-2 items that you wanted to avoid but otherwise, you sat down and were fed and entertained by the chef himself.
There was a minimum of 14 pieces when selecting omakase. We had no problem getting there but probably should have stopped before having 27 different courses. It was all SO good and like nothing we’ve ever tasted, even if over the top!
The meal ended with a photo op with the man himself, who is an avid body builder in addition to a world-renowned chef!
After an indulgent sushi meal the night before, we set out for Yoyogi Park to start our third and final full day in Tokyo. We intended to explore the Meiji Shrine and walked from torii gate to torii gate while checking out the inside temple.
The main hall was rather open and is often a favored landmark for wedding ceremonies.
We weren’t in a hurry so we paid the entrance fee to explore the inner garden where I tried so hard to take a normal picture at the wishing well.
The Meiji Shrine is near Harajuku so we headed that way to explore the colorful street art and fashion scene. It was really crowded but we didn’t see any Harajuku girls in costume.
As the day was winding down we had a couple more items on our Tokyo check list. One of them being a bird’s eye view. The New York Bar at the Park Hyatt that everyone knows from the movie Lost in Translation didn’t open until early evening (which is pretty common in Japan for bars to not open until 6pm) so plan B was to head to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building to check out the view.
There are two observations towers on the 45th floors of each tower. It wasn’t too crowded so we first went to the top of the South tower for a city view, and then ascended the top of the North tower for a view of Mount Fuiji in the far distance. After taking in the views we grabbed a drink at the North tower bar before making our way back down to the street level.
The last activity of the day was a stroll through Golden Gai, a popular compact area with tiny bars among narrow alleys. Another fail since most bars don’t open until 6pm.
We walked close to 12 miles on the third day in Tokyo for a grand total of 37.48 miles. We didn’t have a goal or plan to walk so much but it was the best way to explore such a fascinating city while walking off bowls of ramen, tempura, and loads of sushi.
None of these dishes will ever be the same again or be close to the meals we experienced in Japan so hopefully our travels will take us back to Tokyo!
Stay tuned for the rest of the trip and the three days that we spent in Kyoto.
- Tsukiji Fish Market
- Sensoji Temple
- Meiji Shrine
- Toyko’s popular neighborhoods – Shibuya, Asakusa, Ginza, Harajuku, Ueno
Notable Food Experiences
- Sushi Bar Yasuda – see tip below regarding reservations
- Masura – a popular tempura restaurant in Asakusa
- Kyushu Jangara – a ramen noodle shop with a vegan offering on the menu
- Sushi Zanmai – a popular sushi chain with multiple locations (we ate at Shimbashi SL Square)
Notable Drink Experience
- TWENTYEIGHT – bar at the Conrad Tokyo where we stayed is a great spot to admire the view from the 28th floor or listen to live music
- Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – enjoy a full view of Tokyo from 202 meters above the ground from the bar at the the North Observation Deck
- Before you go, arrange a pocket wifi rental to be waiting at your hotel upon arrival. This was a lifesaver and something we relied heavily upon to look up directions, navigate to a point of interest without having to ask someone for help, and for general research on the go.
- Buy a JR rail pass in advance. It is a cost effective way of traveling if you plan to visit more than one city. It is also good for travel to and from the airport.
- Download apps before you arrive in Japan. We used apps for navigating public transportation. The most important app we downloaded was a translation app!
- Secure sushi reservations in advance. There are so many sushi restaurants throughout Japan but some of the well known ones like Sukiyabashi Jiro and Sushi Yusada, are nearly impossible to get into unless you reserve well in advance and give them your flight information, a deposit, etc. I set a calendar reminder in order to secure our reservation!
Below is a snapshot of our day by day itinerary and where we stayed in both Tokyo and Kyoto. Check out what we did in Kyoto!
Total mileage walked for Tokyo and Kyoto: 65.65 miles!
Question: I loved the sushi and ramen experiences in Tokyo. What’s the best thing you ate in Tokyo? And from where?