Tokyo is a dizzying hub of sights and sounds and was also the first destination on this 2.5 week trip to Japan for my mom’s special birthday. While I have been exploring this city over the past 10 years, it was her first time in Tokyo, I created this truncated itinerary to give her the best flavors of Tokyo in a relatively short duration and I’m excited to share it with you.
Day 1: Arrival into Narita Terminal 2 and the Shibuya Scramble
We arrived on Japan Airline at Narita Terminal 2 in the early afternoon and proceeded to procure a pocket Wifi. This was very important as we needed the data service for navigation throughout the country. I went to the J Wifi and JAL ABC counters located on the first floor and Softbank Global Rental and XCom Global counters located in the basement level near the train platform to search for the best data plan. (see Terminal 2 map) After getting my exercise running around the terminal, I concluded that J Wifi had the best pricing for the high speed (150 mbps) unlimited data plan for 18 days costing approximately $160, while others had data or user limitations. Don’t be sticker shock, this is Japan after all. It was worth the high price for reliability and convenience. If you have 2 or fewer people, it may be more cost effective to get the individual SIM cards.
Next, we headed to the basement level to purchase tickets for the JR Narita Express as it was the fastest way to get to Shinjuku Station, near the hotel’s location. The process was quick and efficient at the automated machine as I was used to Japan’s train system. If needed, flag for help. I would recommend getting reserved seats; otherwise you will need to find the unreserved train car – another tiring step after a long flight.
We decided to make Shinjuku Station our subway hub so we booked 2 rooms at Hotel Gracery Shinjuku. Unbeknownst to me, it was also known as “Godzilla’s hotel” since it was owned by the production company and had a giant Godzilla head on top of the building. I only found out from my Tokyo friend after I mentioned where we were staying. At least Godzilla made it easy to spot the hotel from any direction. There were some pluses and minuses to the Hotel Gracery Shinjuku as listed below:
- A relatively new hotel in the heart of Tokyo
- Very central and minutes to Shinjuku Station
- Very small room (typical of Tokyo) for approximately $200/night
- Braving the massive Shinjuku crowd every day to and from the hotel
After settling in, we made our way to Shibuya for dinner at Matsukiyaki, a suriyaki institution in the area. As the owner expertly cooked our A-5 wagyu beef over a cast iron pot filled with a bubbling soy based broth, I could not help but admire the concentration and effort of the simplistic action. The comforting dinner was a perfect way to power through our jet lag.
Next, we navigated among the sea of people to the Starbucks located on the second floor of Tsutaya shop, which is known for its great view of the famous Shibuya Crossing. It was fascinating to see the organized chaos once the light turned green and everyone scrambled to the other side of the street. They don’t call it the Shibuya Scramble for no reason. I could have watched this mesmerizing traffic dance for hours. We ended an early night by wading through crowds of revelers in Shinjuku as we made our way to the hotel from the subway. If you thought Time Square was bad, it’s practically wide open spaces compared to the heart of Shinjuku.
Day 2: Eating our way through Tsukiji Fish Market, Ginza 6 and Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho
Our second day in Japan started with a street food tour at Tsukiji Fish Market. The main wholesale market has moved to the new location but the street vendors are still at the original location. I followed a combination of recommendations from Paolo from Tokyo’s YouTube channel and other web sites. This was a great introduction to Japanese street food for my mom and a satisfying way to experience a different kind of dining.
Places to try at Tsukiji Fish Market:
- Kitsuneya – This is an institution at Tsukiji, so I had to try their Horumon Bowl made with beef innards. The thick savory and sweet sauce over rice was divine and worth the long wait.
- Maguroya Kurogin – This is the place to try various tuna bowls at relatively affordable prices. I would recommend the assorted tuna-don.
- Get freshly grilled baby octopus and other seafood at the street stall next to Maguroya Kurogin
- Saito Suisan – Try the freshest oysters in the market, especially the large ones, at this seafood stall. You will recognize it by the crowd it attracts.
- Hamada Shoten – Uni bun! When I watched Paolo introduce this luscious bun filled with uni and uni cream, I just drooled. The uni bun was as tasty as it looked and I still think about it today.
- Yoshizawa Shoten – The Matsuzaka Beef Menchi Katsu is the ultimate katsu made with one of the top 3 beef in Japan. As you bite into the extremely hot katsu, the beef juice just overflows and the meat melts in your mouth. Chewing is optional.
- Eat grilled crab “crap”, a delicacy and one of the best renditions I’ve had so far. The stall was unmarked near Yoshizawa Shoten.
- Try the grilled eel skewers stall next to Yoshizawa Shoten.
- Tsukiben – This is a inarisushi spot where you can get some creative options. We had the uni and toro sushi and the crab, uni and salmon roe sushi – both were delicious.
- Marutake – Tamagoyaki or egg skewer that makes a perfect snack at the market.
After we ate until our stomachs protested that we need to stop ASAP, we walked to Ginza 6 to check out Tokyo’s newest department store. I visited when it first opened in 2017 and not much has changed since. I was still dazzled by the architecture and shops at this glamorous mall. First, we took the elevator to the rooftop where there is a small, but gorgeous, garden that offers a respite from the concrete jungle. It is also a good place to watch tourists and office workers during their lunch break.
My other favorite attraction at Ginza 6 is the Tsutaya Books Shop that made me wish we still had real bookstores in the US. The architecture, the merchandise selection and rotating exhibits makes it a must visit at Ginza 6. Another hidden gem is the Mori Art Museum, a small art gallery that showcases new and interesting exhibitions, and admission is free for the public. The basement food floor is also another interesting place for foodies to buy gifts or explore all the decadent food.
As we had been walking for hours at this point, we settled in for afternoon tea at Nakamura Tokichi, a branch of the famous Uji’s tea shop founded in 1854 specializing in matcha. Their popular snacks are matcha-inspired desserts in addition to the numerous tea options. We opted for the popular jelly dessert with red beans, mochi and matcha ice cream, and it did not disappoint. The high quality tea housed in the elegant shop was a much needed energy boost for us. We spent the remaining afternoon at the JR counter at Tokyo Train Station in order to purchase our tickets for Shirakawago and Kyoto, the next leg of our trip. This ordeal took over 1 hour and required a lot of patience as the JR attendant didn’t really understand English – a normal thing in Japan.
After a quick rest at our hotel, we met up with an old friend, Yutaka – a Tokyo resident- for dinner at one of the stalls that line the historic Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho. This narrow alley is also called Piss Alley due to lack of toilets in the olden days and Memory Lane as the area is reminiscent of the post-war atmosphere. There are a total of 81 restaurants in the Yakitori Alley area and we settled on the one with the longest line of locals. Japanese are born foodies so whenever there is a line, it usually means it’s worth the wait. Luckily for us, Yutaka was our guide to this yakitori restaurant as there were zero sign of English. As we devoured the expertly grilled skewers and a cold glass of beer, we chatted about our chance meeting 10 years ago and how we have not aged too badly. In the smoky and hot restaurant, I appreciated that we were able to feel like the locals sitting along the bar catching up on their day rather than being the typical tourists.
Day 3: Temple Time and Yanesan
Our first stop of this day was an early visit to Senso-ji Temple, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Tokyo. Racing up Nakamise Street as vendors were opening their shops, I thought we would have arrived before the swarm of tourists. Wow, was I wrong?! Even by 8:30am, it was already crowded once we arrived at Hozomon Gate, the guardian gate of Senso-ji Temple. We jostled with the crowd to take Instagram pictures and ultimately, the tourists’ onslaught and heat got the best of us. Luckily, we were able to witness a religious ceremony as part of the Sanja Matsuri Festival, which is held in celebration of the three founders of Sensoji Temple who are enshrined in Asakusa Shrine next door to the temple.
As we wandered around Denboin-dori, a side street filled with authentic eateries, shops, and great shutter art. Shutter art is street murals painted onto the protective shutters of the store’s entrance and can only be seen when it is closed. As we were admiring the various shutter art, a parade of portable shrines (mikoshi),in which Shinto deities (kami) are symbolically placed and paraded about the streets to bring good fortune to the local businesses and residents. These mikoshi were carried by teams of at least 8 people with crowds in matching traditional outfits chanting as they made their way up to Senso-ji Temple. We didn’t realize that we were visiting during the Sanja Matsuri Festival and were delighted to witness this fascinating communal event.
Next, we walked toward Suriya Street, a covered outdoor mall in search of fried chicken and beer. We finally came to Karaage Yukari Asakusa, which had the best fried chicken. Nothing feels better than a cold glass of beer and crispy chicken in the middle of a hot day. After a short snack break, we strolled toward the Orange Street, where the road is painted orange, for a nice photo. Upon seeing that it was 11am, I led my family to Unatoto for grilled eel. Others had the same idea as we ended up in line outside the small restaurant for about 1 hour- just enough time to digest the karaage. By the time our number was called and ordered our meal via a machine, we were famished. The wait was worth it as the eel was grilled over charcoal to perfection and my mom remarked that this was one of her favorite meals in Tokyo.
After a morning exploration of Asakusa, our next destination was the East Garden of Tokyo Imperial Palace for my mom. This was equivalent to Central Park for New Yorkers, but there wasn’t really anything special that caught our interest and we left after a walk around the garden. It seems like every plot of flora or trees has some major historical significance. For the common folks, it just looks like a bush of flowers. I think she thought the visit would be similar to visiting palaces in England or France. I would recommend applying for the palace tour to make the visit worth it as we did not plan for it.
I had read about Yanesan, where the shitamachi atmosphere, an old town ambience reminiscent of Tokyo from past decades, still survives. I was not disappointed as we wandered along the Yanaka Ginza, its main street filled with shops, street food and cafes. The area embodies the nostalgia of Tokyo in the 1970s. We took a tea break at this tiny quaint cafe called Yanaka Kenshido. The 6 seater cafe on the second floor overlooks the bustling street and serves the popular Water Amitsu (jelly) dessert with green tea. This was a perfect spot to people watch and rest our weary feet before heading back to the hotel.
For our last night in Tokyo, we had a reservation for omakase at Sushi Nakamura, a one- Michelin 12-seater restaurant. Masanori Nakamura-san, the unassuming chef, is a tuna specialist and one of the best in Japan. His omakase was well-balanced and the tuna nigiris were the best I’ve ever had. The buttery melt-in-your-mouth taste was very special and I doubt I could get this umami flavor and texture in the US. (Check back for an in-depth review on Sushi Nakamura). Sushi Nakamura is also one of the hardest reservations to book and dinner will set you back ¥23,000 per person before drinks. Even so, all the effort was worth an unforgettable dinner in Tokyo. Our short stay was fast paced, yet my mom was able to get an insightful snapshot of Tokyo with its kaleidoscope of sights, sounds and tastes.
- Dinner at Matsukiyaki
- Shibuya Scramble
- Coffee at the Starbucks in Tsutaya Bookstore
- Street food tour at Tsukiji Fish Market
- Ginza 6
- Dinner at Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho
- Senso-ji Temple and Asakusa
- East garden of the Imperial Palace
- Dinner at Sushi Nakamura