With the wedding and a new job, David and I haven't had much of a chance to travel this year, which means we've been reminiscing a lot about our last big trip abroad. And as anyone who's been to Tokyo can attest, it's a wild, crazy place that captures your imagination and doesn't let go.
When we went to Tokyo a year ago we had a few things that we knew we needed to check out, but it would have been helpful to have a little guidance beyond what we could remember from the Tokyo episode of Parts Unknown.
So to help satisfy our own Tokyo craving and to encourage you all to visit this weird and amazing city, we pulled together a brief guide to a few of the coolest places and neighborhoods to hang out in Tokyo.
Things to Do
Walk around: First of all, don't hesitate to just walk around and explore. You never know what you'll find if you just turn the corner here; a great ramen spot, a cat cafe, a shop selling cool gear.
A great spot to just explore, particularly at night, is Shinjuku. This district is what comes to mind when you think of Tokyo. Neon signs plastered to endless blocks of multistory buildings. Crowds of people everywhere you look, and trains zipping by overhead. It's Blade Runner come to life. Shinjuku is home to the city's best nightlife and some of its best shopping.
Tour the Meiji Shrine: Tokyo is the epitome of the concrete jungle; its densely packed with buildings with little green space in sight. So it was a bit of a relief to head over to the Meiji Shrine, which lies in the heart of the city close to Harajuku and Shibuya. It's full of long paths with nothing but trees in sight, and the shrine itself is a place of quiet contemplation. It even has 'shrine maidens' (a job that is so un-Western- I love it!) who maintain the space.
Hit up a 7-11: I'm not kidding. it's the same 7/11 you used to stumble into when you were stoned in college looking for Combos. But here in Japan, the convenience chain is stocked with delicious, unique foods and have excellent service. I loved the pancake sandwiches - essentially two pancakes stacked on top of each other with a dollop of maple syrup in between. They're everywhere in the city, so just stop by one of them when you're looking for a quick snack.
Check out a Cat cafe: David did not want to do this but I had heard so much about it I felt compelled to check out at least one. The experience wasn't exactly cuddly, to say the least... there are a lot of cats in one space and there are attendants to keep them from fighting each other. Many of them really look unhappy to be there. But they are adorable and can be lured by a piece of string or a small bit of cat food. And after all, what is a visit to Japan without exploring a bit of its weird cat obsession?
Gallery-hopping in Ginza: The upscale district of Ginza is totally worth a visit. There's a lot of shopping here, and we loved the Tokyo outpost of the Dover Street Market, but the real draw are the galleries. In true Tokyo style, they're stacked on top of each other and nestled in every nook and cranny, so it's a safe bet to just walk around and stop in to any gallery you find.
Tsukiji Fish Market: This is in all the guide books but it bears repeating. If it's 3am and you can't sleep, don't toss and turn - just get up and grab a sashimi breakfast here! It's cheap and delicious and gives you enough fuel for the day.
One of the first things David said when we arrived was that this was the best dressed city he had ever been to, and while I'm no fashion expert, I can tell you he's not kidding - basically everyone dresses well, and in their own unique way.
Harajuku/Omotesando: There's great shopping everywhere, but David and I probably had the most success in Harajuku. Yes, this area is also famous for the uniquely dressed schoolgirls, but it's real draw is the shopping. Some of the area's most high end stores are on Omotesando, including Opening Ceremony's Japan outpost (and there is literally no foreign outlet more suited to Tokyo than this store). David loved Beams and United Arrows, both lifestyle brands with an Americana-meets-Japan aesthetic.
Nakameguro: This neighborhood abuts a small, tree-lined canal, and by Tokyo standards, it's almost quiet. It's supposed to be Tokyo's answer to Williamsburg, but I think it's actually Tokyo's answer to Berlin; full of creative energy and just a bit of posh. There are cool stores on each bank, like Vendor, 1LDK, and Roots to Branches, both with a great selection of sleek minimalist clothes with tremendous attention to detail.
Isetan: So, language barrier be damned, service in Japan is amazing, no matter where you are. Unflinchingly polite and gracious. And it always comes with a bow, the act of which is so addictive I found myself bowing for days after our trip ended. There are a lot of great department stores in Tokyo, all with great service, but Isetan stood out for its unique, sophisticated selection of wares. David could've lived in here, but unfortunately (for him) we had other plans. If you need a break from shopping, stop by the restaurant, which has great cocktails.
Robot Restaurant: I know it's super touristy but honestly, you have to go to the Robot Restaurant. Don't eat here, just knock back a few beers and enjoy a show that makes absolutely zero sense. Highlights include: woman riding horse made out of disco balls singing Lady Gaga's 'Telephone', and camouflaged robots battling with light sabers. I think there was a robot fart joke in there as well.
Shinjuku-nichome: The Tokyo queer scene is a bit tame and the language barrier can make socializing tough. The micro-neighborhood of Shinjuku-nichome is chock full of gay bars though, all keeping late hours. We distinctly remember walking into a tiny bar with harsh lighting, and being greeted by a drag queen wearing her finest Ann Taylor Loft business casual who seemed to be making fun of us. We had one drink with this 'business queen' (as I called her) and hit the streets looking for something less awkward. We had the best time at Arty Farty (the name alone is worth the visit), which had the classic combo of cheap drinks, pop music, and plenty of room to dance. Being a 6' 2'' tall white man with good Tokyo style, David was basically a celebrity by the time we left the bar.