November in Tokyo is special. It’s autumn, and the city is transformed into a city of fire! The gingko trees flame golden yellow, and the Japanese maples dotted in parks all over the city spark a firey red. Pathways, streams, temple garden, city parks, and roof top terraces shower the city in a flurry of leaves. Japan may be famous for it’s Spring cherry blossom bonanza, but my favourite has always been autumn.
So it was this month that we planned a return trip to Tokyo. It’s been 7 odd years since we used to live and work in Japan, and we have been itching to visit and partake in it’s many delights again. Almost in-fact, since we left. November also happens to be my birthday month, and since Milos celebrates his in December we thought our trip a fitting birthday present to the both of us.
Since we had both visited the city before, we really wanted to immerse ourselves, and do all of the things we hadn’t had time for before, or revisit many spots that used to be our favourite hangouts. Live like semi locals. Relax, unwind, and enjoy our holiday.
We also planned to eat all of Tokyo.
If we could. We couldn’t.
With more than 150 000 restaurants in Tokyo alone, if we ate at 3 restaurants a day: Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner, it would take us 137 years to eat at them all. So it seemed unlikely that we would manage to eat all of Tokyo in one month. We needed to narrow down our list somewhat.
Our first week was spent in a cozy loft apartment just off famed cat street in harajuku. Tucked away from the main drag on omotesando dori the neighbourhood quickly cozys up, apartments and little prefab houses knock shoulders with tiny temples all looked down upon by towering glass and concrete lofts. The streets can only be described as cute. Flower pots flourish in the humidity – even in winter and street corners are crowded with curated gardens. The narrow lanes crisscross in a veritable maze and addresses are all numerical. Even Google has trouble getting around. This is no problem for the wandering tourist with time on their hands, and we got lost (but not really) for many enjoyable hours.
In an effort to systematize our adventure, we make lists of where to eat in Tokyo. Also what to eat. And coffee.
- Ramen noodles- As many different kinds as we can
- Soba noodles- ten zaru soba in particular
- Udon noodles- mountain mushroom style yes please!
- Sushi & Sashimi
- A michellin * restaurant (maybe)
- An Izakaya or two
- New and different Japanese food.
- Good Breakfast places
- Great coffee Bars
- Cute food
- A theme restaurant
We’re not too fussy, our palates not that refined, and so our journey is not that difficult. But our time is limited, and so we have to plan out a few things. We try to find a restaurant that checks one box on our list in each of the places we visit, so we can kill a few birds with one stone. It also leaves us open for a few surprises.
Our food adventure begins! Exploring all the hidden details of our neighbourhood for the week, the days are filled venturing out to sample Taco yakis (deep fried balls of batter hiding a piping hot morsel of octopus – the taco ) or delight in first class early morning eggs Benedict at Bills in the Tokyu Plaza. Good Breakfast spot. Check! We also perused the myriad second hand shops and boutiques secreted in ura-hara and were very pleased to have our apartment literally next door to The Roastery by Nozy Coffee. Each morning was a treat to smell the coffee roasting and brewing, and have a morning cup before heading out.
We treated ourselves to soba noodles, Japan’s buckwheat noodle, in a sophisticated restaurant, an elevator ride above the street lights and pedestrians. We followed this closely with a second noodle shop for lunch the next day. Gobbling up our first ramen of the trip in the fancy Omotesando Hills Complex before before hunting down the famed Omotesando coffee shop. Secreted away in a grid of suburbia behind the main roads, this coffee shop has open fields for neighbours. Also some modern houses, and this contrasts so wonderfully with the coffee shops tiny tatami room. The juxtaposition of city and country, old and new, amuse the senses just as the great coffee, by the barista holding fort at his bar, does. The pleasant aroma steaming from your cup as you take a sip in the ornamental garden, a delight. Although because of its popularity, omotesando kafe is a bit touristy, it’s still worth the adventure to track it down.
Harajuku has changed since I was last there. The bridge connecting the neighbourhood to Yoyogi park and the entrance to Meiji Jingu no longer teems with teen cosplayers on Sundays. But the shopping streets are still ever popular and fashion still the main driving force behind the thriving area. Fashionistas and trendsetters march to and fro, laden with shopping bags, and it’s not an odd sight to spot bloggers flagging down cat streets denizens for impromptu street style photo shoots. Models are discovered on the streets, and decora remains popular. Gothic Lolita’s still can be seen petting push chairs of Persian cats but More fun for me to see this time, was all the pooch fashion. The dogs of Japan wear jeans and jackets. Furry onesies and hats. Sunglasses. The Japanese still retain their effortless style.
Even more evident in Daikanyama, where we breakfast at Ivy’s Place. We are worried that we won’t make the opening times, and have some trouble finding the door, as the Breakfast section is different to the lunch and dining room of the restaurant. We sort of wander in circles for a bit, our normal navigational senses hampered by lack of eggs or cereal. Finally, before we get too hangry we find the right entrance, and are ushered into breakfast heaven. There are only seats at the bar, but this suits us fine, as we don’t plan on a leisurely brunch. The cafe is cool and classic, tones of brown, and black. European Flavoured, it even has a tiny terrace area, where folk bundle up in blankets with their coffee. The coffee is supplied by Nozy, and so we feel right at home.
Luckily Ivy’s has breakfast brunch options every day, and as we were not there on the weekend, we did not have to wait in a dreaded queue.
The Japanese, on a side note, love a good queue. Queuing at 5am for a pastry is not unheard of, and ( as we experienced later) you sometimes have to queue to get into another queue. Luckily having lived in both Africa and Spain my tolerance for things taking time is very high, add this to being a pretty non- stressed tourist with time on my hands, and the queues didn’t bother me one bit. Especially if there was going to be food on the other end!
For a change I opt for the yogurt and muesli breakfast, but all of the choices on The menu look scrumptious. Ivy’s was full of the same ladies who brunch as we experienced at Bills. It becomes quite apparent that the men in Japan are going to work, while their wives socialise with friends, sometimes babies in tow. Milos was one of the only males in the restaurant at that hour, no doubt the weekend looks very different at Ivy’s Place.
Daikanyama is an upscale trendy neighbourhood. Leafy boulevards shade the homes of dignitaries and secret a number of the international Embassies. It’s home to the beautiful and famous T-site, a Tsutaya Bookstore. And bookstore of note it is! The architecture itself is fantastic to behold. Made up of thousands of “t”s, spanning two buildings connected by glass encased bridges. You can spend hours inside looking at all the books. I would have brought back a suitcase load if I could have! Our bellies full, we happily immersed ourselves for some time, paging through hard to find magazines and gorgeously edited cookbooks.
Later our adventure whirlwind twirled us away and we explored more, taking in some beautiful architecture and unique boutiques dotted near Hachiman Dori, each one perfectly curated. We stopped in at the Former Residence of the Asakura Family, a Japanese Taisho construction featuring a stately old wooden home and tranquil gardens. It dates back to the great Kanto Earthquake and is now an important cultural property. The tatami screened rooms each offered a different view and connected in a raised wooded passageway. The ceiling are low, and the sun filters in through the windows. We admire fittings and panellings and wonder how they kept the home warm, since it felt more cold inside than out! It was freezing!
We stopped at Soso for tea to warm up: And had some fantastic Dango – pounded rice balls, sweetened with sesame, which we barbecued ourselves on tiny table top grills. This was combined with some green tea. Then we continued our wander through the streets towards Ebisu where we eventually stopped in at Blacows for some delicious Black Wagyu beef Burgers. I could have stuffed my face with twenty of these burgers, they were so yummy. After finishing my burger, I realised that my eyes were waay too big for my stomach and as much as I wish, I couldn’t possibly have squeezed in a morsel more! As usual in Japan, the staff were friendly and attentive, and we enjoyed watching all the chefs at the kitchen counter pound the patties by hand.
On our way to the station through the darkened streets we eyed out the glowing windows and doors full of Ebisu’s bars, yaki tori shops and izakayas, and made notes to come back another night and try a few more places. The lanterns swinging from the odd lintle waved us on our way home for the night
The second part of our trip was spent visiting Hakone. An area south of Tokyo, particularly volcanic and famous as an onsen (hotspring) retreat. Lakes fill extinct volcanoes and these are in turn surrounded by by a bubbling cauldron of active mountains. Hotels, B&Bs, Ryokans and other guest houses pipe steaming hot waters directly into baths or pools for guests, and spending a relaxing hour or two soaking in the mineral baths immerses you in a centuries old Japanese pastime. The region is well known as an Autumn leaf viewing spot, and so many of the onsen are cleverly designed, so that you can relax in an outside bath or rotemburo with a perfectly curated autumn scene: a descending mountain slope scattered with red, orange and yellow swathes. A mist could roll in, or clouds scud across your vista, and you sigh and unwind with a little towel on your head, and wonder why you are not spending more time here. A crow cries across your picture perfect view, and steam rises from your rocky tub, the sun sets, and you realise it’s almost time for dinner!
We opted to spoil ourselves (oh why not, a trip to Japan is a luxury anyway, may as well go all out!) on staying at the famous Fujiya Hotel. A truly unique hotel stuck in time, built in 1891, you feel as if you have woken up on a set of a Wes Anderson movie, from the telephones with circular dials, red carpets, green house, everyone in hotel livery, white gloves, and little hats, to all the fixtures that seem pulled from a page of a 1960s or 70’s interior magazine. It consists of both Japanese style architecture and more modern western buildings. It has hosted a number of famous guests to Japan over the years from Charlie Chaplin and Helen Keller to John and Yoko Lennon. Staying here is an experience like no other, and so we had to try all the food!
We dined in their tea house, overlooking the koi ponds, on little puff pastries and tea. We visited their bakery downstairs, and ate their famous apple pies, we enjoyed french toast Ala the Fujiya for Breakfast in their stunning dining room, and most wondrous of all, we luxuriated in a private Kaiseki Dinner, and Japanese style breakfast in their Japanese Wing the Kikka-so Inn.
Food tended to be a bit tricky to find outside of hotels in Hakone, especially if you didn’t time it right, but we managed to check off more items on our list by trying a food we had never eaten in Japan before: Yams!
The dish was served as a sort of pounded out porridge and came with various other items, like grilled fish and meat and other veggies. Purported to be incredibly healthy, I guess I would label it as a side, sort of like mashed potatoes. It was more sticky and runny and I think it has a bit of an aquired taste. I may have preferred it served sweet? It was a curious meal however, filling, and served in an interesting cafe built above a ravine near our hotel. We were afforded stunning views of the valley in all their autumnal glory and so the experience was very pleasant.
Another hakone food experience had to be the sulphur boiled eggs. They happen to be one of the tourist must do’s in Hakone, which is typical in that the area is full of various sights and museums all of which make up the tourist circuit. We had rented a car for the duration of our trip, but we joined the hordes who had taken the cable car up the mountain to visit the active volcanic areas. The mountain bubbled and hissed, coughing out clouds of stinky sulphur steam and gas, making th area quite surreal. At the top you can sample the boiled eggs, which are cooked in cages lowered into the sulphuric pools. The temperature cooks them up very well, and also turns their shells pitch black. Apparently the blackness of the egg shell varies depending on the day and (I presume) the amount of sulphur in the water.
We bought our bag of 5 eggs and sampled a few, sprinkled lightly with salt as we hiked back down the mountain in the drizzle to our car. They ended up being the perfect roadtrip snack, as we wound along all the forested roads ogling the magnificent autumn trees.
Back in Tokyo, the second part of our stay was spent in Shimokitazawa. North Shimo, to be exact. The neighbourhood is split in two by the train station, which is currently undergoing a huge overhaul. The area has been a popular and rather underground neighbourhood, famous for it’s live shows, band performances and general counter culture. It still retains a distinct Japanese suburby flavour, and you will come across traditional tatami shops juxtaposed with hipster coffee shops. It is a veritable vintage clothing paradise with heaps of shops scattered through the streets. Being a couple stops on the train from Shibuya, and still pretty cheap, it’s full of young creatives and families. I felt right at home and can totally see why it’s so popular.
We tried a number of coffee shops and restaurants in the area, including probably my favourite ramen of the trip at Yajirushi Ramen. The ramen was perfectly al dente and just what the doctor ordered on a slightly cold and rainy day. We tried to revisit this noodle bar three times after initially exposing our tastebuds, but it proved so elusive, almost reminiscent of a studio ghibli mystery moment, and was closed every time we passed by. The door shuttered away, and sign removed so that we back tracked various times to try to figure out if we were in the right spot! At the end of a non-descript alley way, it’s hard to find but definitely worth a look!
Another top notch winner was the izakaya Shirube. A rowdy crowd, and fun atmosphere, full of locals and foreigners alike. It’s definitely worth making a reservation and going with a few friends. The all you can drink courses are deceptively dangerous, and I wish I had focused more on the Delicious tapas that seemed almost never ending rather than the delicious sake served in a huge bamboo stem. I wished this often the next day!! And the next!
A highlight is the Darwin cafe. This place rocked my world, not so much for the food – I only sampled a coffee and a cookie, but the cafe itself. Located in a building swarming with ivy and creepers, it’s filled to the ceiling with books and artefacts. A true Darwinian experience. You can browse all the items from taxidermied fauna and fowls to beautiful full colour plates with wondrous artworks. Fossils, gemstones, diagrams of mushrooms, and living plants, all spotlighted in a cozy and welcoming environment, make you want to peer into every nook and cranny with a magnifying glass.
On another day, for lunch, another memorable meal in Shimokitazawa was enjoyed at a delightful little soba noodle restaurant that Milos discovered hidden away in the hills behind the centre. Dashin Soan. We wandered up through the suburbs, diligently following directions on google maps past secret shrines and japanese prefab homes. Eventually a little doorway revealed a tiny garden path leading to the front entrance of a very pretty restaurant. Simple elegant lines, beautiful crockery and windows revealing perfect snippets of the garden beyond made us feel like we had landed in a calligraphy painting. The restaurant also had the soba noodle making machinery on display and I recalled how I had learned to make the buckwheat pasta back in koriyama when we were living and working in Japan. Our noodles were delicious, and we easily gobbled them up, dipping them in the provided broth. I could go back right now!
Further afield we sampled the hugest oysters I have ever seen in Kagurazaka in a teeny tiny little bar at the top of some narrow stairs that made us feel as if we had somehow been transported to the dining saloon/galley of a pirate ship. A walk around the old neighborhood delighted us with little gardens, pebbled pathways, the smallest double decker garage and a teeming high street full of restaurants and traditional shops.
Friends of our treated us to a delicious home cooked meal and on another occasion invited us to try Tsukemen – a type of ramen that is dipped into a very thick stew-like broth. The Flavours were thick and strong, a rich blend of pork and fish. I think, a great meal for chilly weather, but also quite a “punch to the stomach” and not for the faint of heart. We gobbled up ours at Tsukemen Enji at th busy counter before heading to a bar around the corner.
On the scale of ridiculous Japanese things, the theme restaurant that has been garnering all the attention lately, tipped the scales to “over the top” is non other than The Robot Restaurant. Of course we had to give this a try. Theme restaurants in Japan can be silly and fun. On previous occasions we enjoyed the Ninja restaurant, The Lockup – where you are locked in jail, Christ On – a religious themed tapas restaurant and a number of others. The robot takes the cake however and is an insane whirlwind of neon, glitter, robots, giant sharks, leather, dancing girls, monsters, samurai, bikes, and did I mention the robots? We had heard that the food was dismal, so just opted for taking in the show, no meal included. We munched on chips and beer that various scantily clad women served between robot fights and had our eyeballs blinded by lazerz and smiles. The experience is difficult to describe, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the audience opposite with their mouths hanging open, not quite sure what to make of the mayhem. It’s certianly something that you have to take light heartedly to enjoy! A few drinks help you get into the swing of things and before you know it you are yelling along with the dancers and wishing you could ride the giant glitter unicorn.
Our minds and ears shattered we spilled out into the streets of Shinjuku afterwards and made our way to “piss alley” – of course this is just the nickname for a cluster of tiny streets next to the station full of mini bars and counter restaurants which serve late night clients or salary men heading home on the last train. Each shop can squeeze in any number from 1 to 7 or so, so sometimes you have to wait for a spot to open up, dash in, chug down your beer, and slurp up your meal before someone takes your spot. There were lots of yaki tori places ( grilled chicken kebabs) and we found ourselves shoulder to shoulder with some very friendly Japanese business men, being served little chunks of meat and vegetable which was broiled in a huge vat of mystery ingredients. After marinating in there for a bit, each piece was skewered and then grilled before being hungrily devoured by us. I have no idea what it was called but it was delicious! Eventually we dragged ourselves back to the metro and made our way home. Ready for another day of eating!
The only thing we were unable to accomplish on our list was the Michelin starred restaurant. Milos spent a good hour on the phone trying to arrange a visit to a sushi restaurant but it proved trickier than it was worth and we decided to forgo the experience for a number of reasons. First off making a reservation is difficult, in Japan it is customary to charge clients a fee if you don’t arrive at your designated table on your designated day. For this to happen they require all manner of personal information, including your address. As we were renting an airbnb apartment we couldn’t fill out vital details, like the name of the owner of our apartment. We eventually gave them our friends name, and his home address, and then went through a whole back and forth of trying to get the table itself. No easy feat. Of course, we had probably left it far too late. Next time these sorts of booking would have to be arranged before we travelled. In the end we were able to get a seat, but it was in an annex restaurant and we felt that we would miss out on the whole experience of seeing the food being prepared. Since we are no experts on the umami of sushi and our palettes probably on par with snails we figured it wasn’t worth the effort or money. Besides, we thought, we live in Barcelona. There are plenty of Michelin Stars floating around here, and we have an address, the language and time on our side.
If you are considering visitng a michelin restaurant, just plan ahead. There are agencies which will help you with the language barrier and make your booking for you. Also some hotels will arrange a reservation for you as well.
I will save all the cute food and more details on our coffee adventures for another post. The only thing I wished I had eaten more of is udon. We only managed to get one bowl in on our trip and it didn’t really live up to my expectations. Finally I have to mention our love affair with all the convenient stores in Japan. I think Milos and I could have probably eaten mountains of prepackaged onigiris, bento boxes, corn covered bread and weird hot dogs mixed with the tiny veggie stick containers, milk tea and Boss coffee for a week. Plus they sold a huge variety of strange kit-kats(melon anyone?) and pocky chocolate. If I could transport a Japanese seven-11 to my neighbourhood ( and a 100 yen store) I would be so happy! Fat, but so so happy. 🙂
Listings in this post:
- Soso Address: Daikanyama First Bldg. 1F, 1-34-28 Ebisunishi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
- Blacows Address: Japan, Tokyo, Shibuya, Ebisunishi, 2 Chome−11-9 Phone:+81 3-3477-2914
- Fujiya Hotel
- Picot Bakery Address: 359 Miyanoshita, Ashigarashimo-gun, Hakone-machi 250-0404, Kanagawa Prefecture +81 460-82-5541
- Kikka-so Inn
- Ivy’s Place Address:16-15 Sarugakucho, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0033, Japan +81 3-6415-3232
- Bills Address:4-30-3 Jingumae, Shibuya 150-0001, Tokyo Prefecture +81 3-5772-1133
- Nozy Coffee Address:5−17−13, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0001 +81 3-6450-5755
- Omotesando Koffee Address: 4-15-3 Jingumae, Shibuya 150-0001, Tokyo Prefecture +81 3-5413-9422
- Kamakura Matsubara-an Keyaki Soba Restaurant Address: 1-13-14 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo Prefecture +81 3-3478-7444
- Ramen Yajirushi closed on Tuesdays, open weekdays from 11:30am to 21:00pm Address: Setagaya-Ku, Kitazawa 2-28-7 +81 3-3468-1538
- Shirube 汁べゑ 下北沢店 Address:〒155-0031 Tokyo, Setagaya, Kitazawa, 2 Chome−18−2 +81 3-3413-3785
- Dashin Soan closed on Tuesdays, open weekdays from 11:30am to 15:00pm and 17:30pm to 21:30pm; from 11:30am to 21:30pm Address: 3-7-14 Daizawa, Setagaya-Ku +81 3-5431-0141
Of course we ate at plenty of other places too, the most delicious sushi, some wonderful organic food at a restaurant in Omotesando, some amazing places in Koriyama on our return visit to Fukushima…. perhaps I will write more soon… but it’s lunchtime now and I am getting hungry!