2. Tokyo Skytree & Lunch at Rokurinsha
4. Ramen at Ginza Kagari Honten
5. Bar High Five
6. Toranomon Koffee
7. Omakase at Sushi Kanesaka
8. Meiji Jingu
10. Souffle Pancakes at A Happy Pancake
11. Shabu Shabu at Zakuro
12. Rikugien Garden and Michelin-Starred Ramen at Tsuta
14. Teahouse in Jiyugaoka
15. Shibuya Crossing and Sushi Dinner at Sushi no Midori
1. Being a Tourist at Asakusa | 9 a.m.
Bright and early for the first day in Tokyo. The first stop is to Asakusa, which is a tourist attraction with the Buddhist temple, Sensoji. After getting off the metro and walking a few blocks, we were met by the Kaminarimon, which is the large gate which marks the entrance. This has become the symbol of Asakusa, and many people gathered to take photos and selfies.
Upon entering, there is a long street called the Nakamise, which is lined with a variety of traditional snacks and confections such as various mochi and dorayaki, as well as all the typical tourist souvenirs. The streets were really bustling and lively even this early in the morning, and it made it a ton of fun checking out the various stands to try the samples or to browse the different keychains, magnets, and folding fans offered. At the end of the street was the Sensoji, which was free to enter and offered a glimpse into a traditional Japanese temple. Despite the area being touristy, it was a great experience and definitely worth visiting.
2. Dipping Ramen and Matcha Sundae at Tokyo Skytree | 11 a.m.
A quick 10 minute taxi ride away was Tokyo Skytree, which is the tallest tower in the world and the tallest structure in Japan when it was completed in 2011. There were several layers of observations decks that you could access by paying admission, but we were actually there for the food and the shopping, which covered the bottom 7 floors. There was a large selection of international brands such as Zara and Diesel as well as Japanese brands like Beams and Urban Research. There were also many many confectionery stores like Qu’il fait bon, which made beautiful fruit tarts, and Tokyo Milk Cheese Factory, known for their famous cream cheese cookies. They even had a dedicated Tokyo Banana shop for fans of that snack. If you have kids, it’s also a great place because they had a Pokemon, Hello Kitty, and Disney store.
After browsing through all the shops, we made it up to the 6th and 7th floor, which were dedicated to restaurants. Our target was Rokurinsha, the tsukemen or dipping noodles which was famous and had extremely long lines which could be over an hour on Ramen St. in Tokyo Station. We had heard that this branch had much shorter wait times, and we were glad we came here as we were seated almost immediately. We ordered the tsukemen, and the noodles were very thick and bouncy. The bowl of dipping soup was super dense and packed with umami and almost a fish broth-like flavor. The soup really packed a punch and was very unique, although I found the noodles a little bit too thick and failed to absorb the soup to really mesh together. Overall, however, it was still a great meal and I enjoyed trying a new style of ramen.
Although we were stuffed, we couldn’t leave without having dessert. We walked across the floor to try the matcha sundae at Gion Tsujiri, a matcha shop founded in 1860 in Kyoto. There were a variety of sweets and teas, but we got the matcha soft serve with red bean and mochi. The ice cream was very rich with matcha flavor and the red bean wasn’t too sweet. It was a perfect end to the meal, as we sat in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city.
3. Shopping Galore in Ginza | 2 p.m.
From Tokyo Skytree, we took the metro to Ginza, which is the high end shopping district of Tokyo similar to Beverly Hills in Los Angeles. Luxury international brands like Hermes, Bulgari, and Tiffany & Co lined the main street, as well as large department stores such as Mitsukoshi, Wako, and Ginza Six. Amongst the more interesting stores to me was Itoya, which is a multi-level (18 floors!) stationery store. It’s hard to fathom the variety of pens and notepads that one could need, but this place had it all. Tokyu Hands was also very cool to explore as it was a very Japanese one-stop multi-level store offering things ranging from home electronics to travel products to toys to furniture. Back on the fashion front, GU was a large discount store owned by the same owners of Uniqlo and offered very fashionable basics at extremely cheap prices, especially by Japan standards. Speaking of Uniqlo, there is a 12 story tall Uniqlo in the heart of Ginza as well. The 4th floor actually connects to Dover Street Market, for those looking for more avant garde fashion like CDG, Undercover, and visvim. There are dozens of unique and fascinating shops on every block in Ginza, and we spent most of the day in the neighborhood.
4. Ramen Again? Best Ramen Ever? | 7 p.m.
Most of the ramen I’ve had in the past had been tonkotsu, or pork-bone based. For the rare ones that were chicken based, it was mostly a clean clear broth. When I had read about a creamy chicken based ramen that people were raving about, I knew I had to try it. The store is called Ginza Kagari Honten and is famous for the Tori Paitan Soba, or the chicken ramen. My quick and easy suggestion is to just get it, and don’t look back. I’m not a ramen expert by any means, but this dish was probably the best ramen I’ve ever had and was one of the most unique and memorable meals.
We got two versions - the more traditional soup ramen, and then also the tsukemen similar to the one we had for lunch. While both were great, the soup one really stood out to me. The chicken broth was so intense and creamy that it caught me by surprise, and every spoonful was amazingly flavorful. The noodles were cooked very well and matched perfectly with the broth. Maybe because it was so different (and better) than my expectations, that I enjoyed this meal so much. In many ways, it grows even fonder with time as I look back on it and wish I had a bowl right now.
5. Night Cap at Bar High Five | 10 p.m.
After dinner, we were still wide awake as we had gotten past the initial jet lag. As such, we decided to go to Bar High Five, which is usually regarded as one of the best bars in Tokyo, if not the world. It was nearby in Ginza, and luckily it was a weekday as we’ve heard that it’s close to impossible to get in on the weekends. It’s a very small place that sits only around 10 people, but it had a very friendly and cozy vibe. There is a 1,000 yen cover charge and drinks were quite pricey at around 2,000 yen each, but were well worth it. Note that there is no menu, but you can tell the bartender what flavors you like and they will craft something custom for you. A great experience overall and a quintessential Japanese bar.
6. Milkshake-like Coffee at Toranomon Koffee | 10 a.m.
Day 2 started with a visit to a coffee shop that is inside an office building and a bit of an isolated business area called Toranomon. However, it was completely worth the trip for any coffee lovers out there. The origins of the coffee shop was Omotesando Koffee, which had been inside a small Japanese house in Omotesando. However, that closed down a few years back and moved to this building now. The signature drink here is the cold cappuccino, which is remarkably creamy and smooth with a very fragrant coffee smell. The small pastries and snacks were somewhat forgettable, but the coffee will always linger in my memory.
7. High End Omakase at Sushi Kanesaka | 12 p.m.
For this trip, we wanted to try a high-end sushi place and decided on Sushi Kanesaka, which has a Michelin star. We went for lunch and had the 10,000 Yen option, which is around a third of the price of the dinner option. Upon stepping inside, we noted that it was very quiet and in sharp contrast to the places we've been thus far. Everything looked extremely zen and pristine, with a woodgrain theme. The service was also very attentive and polite.
The omakase had around 10 to 15 pieces, with each nigiri piece very delicately put together and in much more refined portions. Every piece was outstanding and the grains of rice also stood out. One of the highlights was the 3 pieces of tuna we had, starting from the leaner maguro to the fattier chutoro and finally to the otoro. It was great to taste them back to back to really notice the subtle differences across them. The only downside was that the place was really quiet, almost like a temple dedicated to the art of sushi. The chef also didn’t speak much to us besides saying what the fish pieces were, but perhaps he wasn’t too comfortable with English. Overall, we really enjoyed the meal and could tell the stark difference between this meal and sushi we've had outside of Japan.
8. Tranquility at Meiji Jingu | 2 p.m.
After lunch, we took the metro back to the west side and this time to Meiji Jingu, which is right by Harajuku. The entry into the shrine ground is marked by a large 40-foot high torii gate and a tranquil forest area that transports you away from the city. It is a long and wide calming path surrounded by around 100,000 trees. In the middle of the forest is the large shrine area, where people partake in offerings at the main hall, write their wishes on ema (wooden plates), or draw their fortune on omikuji and tie them around the tree’s branches. We were lucky to see a traditional wedding procession taking place with the bride in a kimono and hood. Meiji Jingu was a great way to escape the city for a bit and relax and absorb nature.
9. Streets of Omotesando | 3 p.m.
From the main shrine grounds, we headed back towards the crowded streets and exited to Harajuku. The streets were lined with teenage fashion shops, cartoon stores like Hello Kitty, a lot of crepe and fast food stands, and generally geared towards trendy teens. There were also a number of fashion boutiques including Supreme, Neighborhood, and A.P.C. Just south of Harajuku was Omotesando, which is one of the main shopping streets on Tokyo.
One of the cooler buildings along Omotesando was Trading Places, which was a multi-story building housing smaller sections for Chanel, CDG, Margiela, visvim, as well as Museum of Modern Art design store. Omotesando Hills was also worth looking at for its unique architecture. As you walked down the street, you see it becomes lined with international luxury fashion brands. In addition to the classic brands like Louis Vuitton, Prada, etc. there are also the more trendy brands like Off-White, Alexander Wang, Thom Browne, etc. There are also a number of Japanese brands like Undercover, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, and the flagship Comme Des Garcons.
10. A Happy Pancake or Just Happy? | 5 p.m.
In between shopping, we of course had to stop for some food. One of the biggest craze now is soufflé pancakes, which has prompted a lot of these dessert stores opening worldwide. The 3 most well-known ones in Japan are Flippers, Gram, and A Happy Pancake. We decided to try the last one, which is just off Omotesando. The wait was around half an hour, but we were able to observe the chefs preparing the pancakes behind a window, which helped to pass the time quickly.
When we finally sat down, we ordered the original and the chocolate pancakes. Most of the time, the food never really lives up to the hype. This time, however, it met and exceeded all my expectations. The pancake was incredibly soft and light and almost melted in my mouth. It wasn’t too egg-y or flour-y, but was done just right. It was a world of difference compared to those I’ve eaten elsewhere around the world – perhaps due to the ingredients, technique, or effort. As we were watching the chefs earlier, they were extremely diligent about the timing and preparation, and perhaps that makes the greatest difference. If time permits, I would highly recommend trying one of these in Japan to taste the difference.
11. Shabu Shabu to Warm the Night | 8 p.m.
We walked around the neighborhood some more before going back to Akasaka in central Tokyo which is where our hotel was situated. We wanted to try a different type of Japanese cuisine, so decided to opt for Shabu Shabu. We went to the Akasaka Biz Tower, which actually hosts the large broadcasting network TBS. In the annex, there are two floors of restaurants. We decided on Zakuro, which specialized in Shabu Shabu or hot pot.
There were several choices at a fairly large range of price options if you want to opt for the high end Wagyu beef. We ordered one of the lower end sets along with a Sukiyaki set. The large pot of hot water came quickly as well as the plate of fatty beef. The meat was very tender, and while not the top grade melt-in-your-mouth Wagyu, still tasted amazing especially in the cool evening. The service was also attentive while not being overbearing. As such, it was a very pleasant meal - one that may not be worth a special trek for, but definitely a solid choice if you're in the neighborhood.
12. Peaceful Escape from Tokyo and Third Ramen's a Charm | 8 a.m.
One of the restaurants we had marked down as a must-visit in Tokyo was Tsuta Ramen (Note: Moved to Yoyogi Uehara in Dec 2019), which had been the 1st ramen shop to ever win a Michelin Star. As such, we got up early and took the metro to Tsuta, which was on the outer edge of Tokyo. The system at Tsuta is that you had to go and get a ticket early in the morning for a specific time to return later. We got there around its open at 8am and were able to get a spot for 11am. After securing the ticket, we got a quick breakfast at a nearby coffee shop while waiting for Rikugien Garden to open.
Rikugien Garden is often considered one of Tokyo’s most beautiful garden with a large pond and flowering trees and blooming shrubs. Especially in the autumn time, there is a row of maple trees to admire the fall foliage amidst the crisp air. In the spring time, there are a few cherry blossom trees as well as azalea bushes. While there were a good number of tourists, the garden is quite spacious and never felt crowded. If anything, it felt very much like an oasis and escape from the hustle and bustle of the city life and allowed one to walk and think peacefully and enjoy the serene environment. The garden allowed us to experience a side of Japan that is normally not associated with Tokyo, and we were appreciative of the calm and tranquil time we were able to spend there.
After strolling through the garden, we went back to Tsuta and waited a short while before entering the ramen shop. Similar to many other ramen places, there was a vending machine at the front to place our order, and then we sat at the small counter which fit around 10 people. One difference we noted very quickly was that this place was very quiet. It was as if everyone wanted to fully concentrate and admire the food. As such, we talked in whispers as not to disturb others. Our food came fairly quickly, and we had ordered the Shio and Shoyu variations of the ramen which are its signature.
The question we always get is, is it worth the Michelin Star? The answer is a definitive yes. So why is it deserving? I think from a technical perspective, everything was done perfectly. The ramen had the right amount of firmness and spring to it. The soup was light compared to those used to tonkotsu style broths, but was complex and had a deep flavor behind it. The chashu also was very good and had the proper amount of fat. As such, I can see why the ramen has such high praise and is deserving of such. It’s very likely in my top 5 of ramen, but I would probably put Ginza Kagari above it out of personal taste more than anything else.
13. Fashion in Daikanyama | 2 p.m.
After lunch, we took the JR Line for around 35 minutes to the Daikanyama district far in the southwest portion of the city beyond Shibuya. The area is very quiet and feels like a small neighborhood. However, it has a few boutique stores with a focus on men’s fashion. There were a few international brands such as MHL. and Maison Kitsune and these often carried Japan exclusive items. There was also an A.P.C. Surplus which carried last season’s clothing at a discounted price. While small, the upstairs was filled with racks of clothes and much more extensive at similar shops in New York City and Paris. There were also a few Japanese brands such as Okura/Blue Blue Japan and Hollywood Ranch Market, with a strong focus on worksman and denim gear. The selection is very unique and would be hard to find elsewhere in the world. The appeal, however, was really in the neighborhood and the relaxed laid-back vibe it has.
14. Serene Tea House | 5 p.m.
The reason we had gone so far to Daikanyama was that we were actually aiming to go the traditional teahouse of Kosoan, which was another 20 minutes southwest in Jiyugaoka. By this time, we were farther away from Tokyo center that you get a better sense of everyday life. The walk from the station to the teahouse was lined with small shops and restaurants, but did not have the skyscrapers and shopping chains you’d normally see in city-center. And instead of tourists, businessmen and office ladies, it was mainly students and families wandering about, which gave us a new perspective.
When we reached Kosoan, we saw that there was a stone path that led it to a small garden in the front. Beside it was the old tea house, which was a large room with people seated on the floor with mats. It was again a very serene feeling and felt like we had been transported to Kyoto. When we went inside, the servers were extremely friendly and helped us to order the matcha tea and wagashi, which are Japanese confectionery typically made of mochi. The tea was very rich, with a mild bitter but very smooth and creamy taste. Even though it was so far to get here, we felt it was really worth it and is a one-of-a-kind zen and peaceful experience in Tokyo.
15. Shibuya Crossing and Last Sushi Meal | 7 p.m.
From the tranquility of the teahouse, we headed to the polar opposite and one of the most crowded and busiest places in the city. We made our way by metro to the Shibuya crossing, which is a sprawling intersection right outside Shibuya station with huge television screens mounted on the buildings covered with lights and advertisements. It’s often recognized as one of the busiest crosswalks in the world, as pedestrians scramble in all directions once the light turns green. To me, this is the most recognizable landmark of Tokyo and it has appeared in films such as Lost in Translation and Fast and Furious. In Shibuya, you really get to experience the lights and bustle of Tokyo that dwarfs the major cities in Europe and Americas. The entire neighborhood is a large commercial area with large shopping malls like Marui (or more recognized as 0101), Seibu, and Shibuya 109. There are also a ton of shops and restaurants all with bright lights. It’s an area for the younger generation to hang out at night and is often still packed even after midnight.
We walked around the area checking out the many stores and absorbing all that was going on around us. As it got later, we decided to go to Sushi no Midori for dinner. This was recommended by a friend who lived in Tokyo, but we had also seen it in a lot of online blogs and reviews. It’s noted for being very reasonably priced while still being extremely fresh. The Shibuya location is on the 2nd floor of Shibuya Mark City. There is a computer in the front to get your number, and then seats along the side of the wall to wait for the queue. It was around an hour wait for us, and looking back, it probably would’ve been a better idea to go to its other locations such as in Akasaka where the line would’ve been a bit shorter. However, the wait was still worth it. We ordered the set, which was only around 3,000 to 4,000 yen, but had super fresh nigiri pieces such as toro, uni, amaebi, and a handroll. Everything tasted amazing, the cuts were very generous in size, and the meal likely would’ve cost at least double the price anywhere outside of Japan. We ordered addition pieces of the ones we really liked, and left with both our stomachs and our wallets full. While the decor and delicacy of the meal contrasted completely from the sushi meal at Kanesaka, it had its own charm. Both restaurants were great in their own way, and it depends on a matter of personal taste on which is preferred.
With the end of the meal, we walked around a bit more as the city truly never sleeps and is always bustling with things to do. However, after 3 days here in Tokyo, it was the end of our stay here. In the short amount of time, we had done so much, but we definitely felt that we could've spent at least another 2 more days here. However, it was time to depart, and tomorrow be the start of another journey.