During my 2-month internship in Tokyo, I explored the city solo and with friends. I stayed happy in a tiny, clean room at Hotel Kizankan next to the University of Tokyo, a convenient 2 mins away from the Hongo-sanchome subway station near Ueno. Most Japanese people don’t speak English or are very hesitant to speak it, but they are incredibly friendly and helpful. I pointed a lot and managed to scrape by very well for myself. The fish is incredibly fresh and you must eat takoyaki (octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (savory Japanese pancake – perhaps Hiroshima-style?)! Unlike America, it’s common and socially acceptable to eat alone – tons of designated areas for single eaters. Surprisingly, my most favorite meals were small, homey, non-touristy places that specialized in a specific type of Japanese cuisine (e.g. ramen, eel, udon, okinomiyaki, bento, fluffy pancakes); don’t be afraid to eat off the paved online path.
Tokyo is the cleanest city I’ve visited, having not seen a single piece of trash on the streets for two months and when I finally saw one, it was picked up by a government worker within minutes. Tokyo is also very safe. I was regularly out at 2AM to hit up three nearby convenience stores in search of the best, most special, unheard of ice cream; I ended up with a small cup of purple Häagen-Dazs and a cookies & cream one on the next night. Jet lag.
Each Tokyo neighborhood or city ward is distinctively unique: Roppongi for bars and clubs with foreigners, Ginza for luxury shopping and expensive tastes, Shinjuku for commerial shopping and business, Shibuya for fashion highlights, Taito/Ueno for Old Tokyo and less city tastes, etc. I recommend hitting up all of them and then some suburbs outside Tokyo.
Read up on Tokyo transportation before you go as their dense network is confusing. The JR train network runs in Tokyo and Tokyo outskirts, while the Tokyo Metro subway network runs mostly within Tokyo proper. You’ll find a station with a similar name as the one you want, but you might be at the wrong company. Now, here are my highlights:
What to See & Do
- Tokyo Imperial Palace: Pretty old palace. Cool moats, walls, and fortresses.
- Tokyo Central Railway Station: A major metro station that is simply huge and amazing with its food court and shopping. Worth a scheduled stop in during your trip, plus pick up souvenirs.
- Tsukiji Fish Market: Most famous fish market. Wake up early if you want to see the most expensive tuna (toro) sell in an auction.
- Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingu): Beautiful, large, red-painted gates.
- Hachiko Statue in Shibuya: Famous loyal, faithful dog statue.
- Gardens and parks: Try Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Yoyogi Park, or Ueno Park
- Traditional Tea Ceremony: Try to schedule doing a tea ceremony or maybe at least viewing one in a park.
What to Eat Sweet
- Mister Donut: Adorable Japanese donut chain. It’s all over Asia with cute donut characters. Green tea/red bean flavors, different shapes, and more toppings than Western donuts. I love their donut hole sampler the best.
- Hara Donut: Unlike American donuts that are huge and sweet, these boutique donuts are small and light in weight, flavor, and after-effects. Hara donuts’ website design is better than the donut’s taste, but I would still go again anyway. Plus, I want some yummy Hara rolls. Skip Doughnut Plant in Tokyo; it’s from NYC.
- Tomi (トミィ): If you like pancakes, watch this old man makes it in front of you in a tiny, cozy shop in the middle of nowhere. Cheap and delicious, these pancakes are the fluffiest I’ve ever seen and eaten. Check out photos here!
- Cacoa Sampaka: Originally from Spain, this artisanal chocolate maker company makes my favorite chocolates ever and the once known as the best restaurant in the world El Bulli got their chocolate from them. It is expensive in Tokyo and much cheaper in Barcelona, Spain but go check out the ritzy Chiyoda neighborhood and building Cacoa Sampaka is in!
What to Eat Savory
- Small list because I used Tabelog to find the best place for the food I was craving.
- Convenience stores! 7-11, Lawson, Family Mart, Circle-K, etc. Check out all the snacks and bento boxes. Drink anything with Hokkaido milk as it is whole milk that is unbeatable in taste. I love Natural Lawson as it is especially built for the modern, natural, organic-selecting woman.
- Point Et Ligne: An upscale French bakery in an upscale neighborhood. I tried all the top-rated bakeries in Tokyo and Point Et Ligne in the Shin-Marunouchi Building B1 (gorgeous building!) was the best bread I had.
- Mos Burger: Like the McDonalds of Japan, Mos Burger is chain that has some burgers with rice buns instead of bread buns.
Where to Stay
Staying near the Tokyo Metro or JR stations is good. I was next to Ueno station at Hotel Kizankan but that’s because it was next to the University of Tokyo. I thought it was great though for a lone student traveler.
Outside of Tokyo
- Mount Takao: Small simple hike on a mountain with shrines on the way and plenty of stops on the paved trail to buy yummy and cute souvenirs. Free and worth a trip!
- Great Buddha of Kamakura (Kamakura): Located at the Kotokuin Temple in Kamakura, the Great Buddha (Kamakura Daibutsu) is a bronze 13.35 meter statue of Amida Buddha and the second tallest bronze Buddha statue in Japan. Kamakura is less than an hour from Shibuya Station by commuter train. Kamakura has two hiking trails and a Pacific ocean beach.
- Mount Fuji: Spend the day and hike Mount Fuji up and down. You have to wake up EARLY and PLAN AHEAD. If you don’t leave for the summit early enough, you will have trouble coming down in the same day because there are no lights. Fuji climbing guide here.
- Fuji Five Lakes: Five beautiful lakes surround Mt. Fuji. Bike around them if you don’t have the time, energy, or interest climbing Mt. Fuji in a day. Plenty of lavender fields (with lavender soft serve!), gorgeous swimable lakes, and cute cafes along the lake edges. One of my best travel experiences to date.
- Before it closed, I went to Cafe M, a cutesy, serene cafe tucked away in no-man’s land of paradise. Right next to a lake, we parked our bikes, had a meal, and browsed their quaint and delicately decorated gift shop. I miss you all the time, Cafe M. You were what Hollywood portrayals of lakehouses dream of being.
Ideas for Japan Souvenirs
- Daiso: Equivalent of the dollar store in the States, Daiso is a Japanese chain that is so much more like Walmart, selling everything household to pretty much everything else. You gotta make a trip to pick up some bargain items for yourself and friends.
- MUJI Japan: Brandless brand. How is that possible? Muji is what minimalists build their life around. Clean, simple products with no brand labels – just quality products from pens, notebooks, clothes, socks, luggages, foods, and more.
- Japanese Kit Kats: Japanese kit kats are supreme in their uniqueness. Japan offers loads upon loads of unique flavors
- Tokyo Banana: Like a Japanese banana flavor version of an American twinkie, the Tokyo Banana has the visual packaging that will delight and a taste to ponder. Perfect for friends and coworkers.
- Cerfeuil Jam & Confits: Cerfeuil is a French word for the herb chevil. The one I shopped was at a Matsuzakaya shopping mall in Ueno right next to Ameyoko (likely on the 1st floor) but there are multiple locations. They have premium pudding milk jam, green tea jam, and Earl Grey milk tea jam, all of which I just ADORE.
- This is perhaps the most life-changing website for me, possibly the reason why I write about my online travels, and it doesn’t exist anymore. Thankfully, the Wayback Machine takes snapshots of the web and here it is: http://thisisnaive.com/?page_id=737. This simple but comprehensive Tokyo guide of where to hang with the cool kids is done through beautifully stunning lo-fi, hipster photography. I used this guide religiously to determine where to spend my limited days.
- Want the Japanese version of Yelp? It’s Tabelog and it’s crazy good with Japanese reviews, food rankings, and photos. Check out Tokyo: http://tabelog.com/tokyo/. I lived off this guide and ate at all the top bakery and dessert places, many of belonging to world-known, award winning chefs. Just just Google Translate to read the site.
- If you would like to see my environmental internship in Tokyo blog, visit http://sustainabilityabroad.blogspot.com/.