Tea is indispensable in Japanese life. One of my favourite cafes is Kosoan, set in a traditional house built over a century ago – the antique furniture adds to the refined decor. Busy Tokyo feels a world away as you gaze at the lovely Japanese garden. It’s a soothing stop for a bowl of matcha. Also try Cha Cha No Ma in Harajuku, where tea “sommelier” Yoshi Watada serves teas from all over Japan, accompanied by homemade sweets (chachanoma.com). If you want to buy sweets, visit Mizuho in the same area; it sells two things: mame daifuku, mochi rice cake stuffed with red bean paste, and monaka, wafers filled with bean paste.
• Kosoan, 1-24-23 Jiyugaoka, Meguro-ku, kosoan.co.jp
Gardens and temples
Tokyo is a hectic city, but there are many temples, shrines and gardens to offer refuge from the crowds and neon lights. Hamarikyu Gardens, near Ginza (1-1 Hamarikyu Teien), was owned by a feudal lord during the Edo period and is protected as a historic site. The water that runs through the garden comes directly from the sea, so you may even spot jellyfish. Shinjuku Gyoen national garden in Shinjuku-ku (11 Naitomachi) is a great place year round, with cherry blossoms in spring, crape myrtles in summer, red and gold leaves in autumn, and plum blossom in late winter. Among the most beautiful temples are Manganji Temple Todoroki Fudoson, in Setagaya-ku near Todoroki Keikoku gorge, with more than 150 cherry trees in the grounds.
Tokyo is an amazing place to shop – from cool designer clothing stores to pretty stationery emporiums. You can find good vintage too, though – I like Pass the Baton, which has branches in Marunouchi Brick Square and Omotesando. It sells pre-loved and upcycled clothes and accessories. Much of the stock was previously owned by people in the fashion industry. For pared-down, modern Japanese womenswear try HYKE in Shinjuku, launched by two local designers in 2013: there’s lots of khaki and black but it’s never boring. Men could head to Studious in Harajuku area, which only stocks clothes by Tokyo brands, including Miyahara Yasuhiro and Undercover, as well as emerging designers. The depachika food halls are definitely worth a browse; they sell everything from varieties of bento to beautifully packaged cookies and Japanese sweets such as dorayaki (small pancakes with bean paste). Tokyu Norengai, opened in 1951, was the first one, though the location has slightly changed (tokyu-dept.co.jp).
DiCE Ikebukuro in Toshima-ku is the largest manga kissa – similar to an internet cafe – in Tokyo. They stock about 180,000 manga titles on eight floors (1-11-11 Higashi-Ikebukuro, diskcity.co.jp). You pay an hourly rate, and there are PCs, shower rooms and bars. There’s even an ice-cream machine and a karaoke facility. Nakano Broadway (5-52 Nakano, Nakano-ku) is a must-see if you want to experience Tokyo’s subculture. Here you can find newly-published manga and rare first-editions as well as figures and trading cards. You may find collectibles of anime characters that you watched on TV when you were a kid. It can be pricey.
Fukube sake bar
While this izakaya (Japanese-style pub) in Marunouchi in the heart of town has been in business for more than 80 years, its selection of sake hasn’t changed much since the early days. They serve around 40 brands of sake (an ochoko – a small cup – is about 600 yen or £4). In Japan, people eat while they drink, so food is just as important as the quality of the drinks in a bar. The owner goes to Tsukiji fish market every day to buy the catch of the day, and the varied menu includes grilled fish and oden (a type of pot dish). Other good options include Kuri, a small bar in Chuo-ko (6-4-15 Ginza) which serves up to 100 brands of sake and 20 brands of shochu, and Utou in upmarket Nishi-Ogikubo (3-31-10 Nishiogi-Kita), said to serve the best warm sake in all of Japan. The oden with a ginger and miso paste are also excellent. You can visit Koyama Shuzo, a sake brewery in Kita-ku established in 1879, to learn about the brewing process.
• Fukube, 1-4-5 Yaesu, Chuo-ku
To appreciate the scale and madness of Tokyo, see it from above. There are several great free observation platforms. In Shinjuku, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observation Decks on the 45th floor have unobstructed views of Tokyo from 202 metres (2-8-1 Nishi-Shinjuku, metro.tokyo.jp/). It’s open on weekends even though the offices are closed. Nearby is Yebisu Garden Place Tower Sky Lounge, in a complex of commercial buildings on the site of a former beer brewery (gardenplace.jp). The lounge is on the 38th and 39th floors – on a clear day you might even be able to spot Mount Fuji.
It is possible to grab a cheap meal in Tokyo – look for a “one-coin” menu (500 yen or around £3.50). In Shibuya Dogenzaka, Isari’s (1-6-5 Dogenzaka) offers Isari Don, its signature dish, a bowl of rice topped with sashimi marinated in a soy-based sauce, served with miso soup and pickles. The other lunch menus are slightly more expensive but still affordable. In Ebisu is Ichiyoshi (1-4-1 Ebisu), an izakaya that offers a 500 yen lunch of mushidori no yakumi kake (steamed chicken topped with relish and aromatic vegetables). Kintaro in Shinjuku (5-18-16 Shinjuku-ku) has a set meal of sukiyaki (thinly-sliced beef cooked in sauce) for 500 yen. It comes with miso soup, salad, pickles and a bowl of rice. The quality and price mean it’s always jam-packed during lunch hour.
21_21 Design Sight
Pritzker Prize-winning Tadao Ando is one of Japan’s most influential architects and visitors can spot his buildings around town. 21_21 Design Sight in Tokyo Midtown is a design museum created with fashion designer Issey Miyake with several galleries and a striking concrete and steel exterior. The Tokyo Art Museum is another example of his work, on what is known as Sengawa Ando Street, which has several buildings designed by Ando as part of an urban planning project in Sengawa. Among other smaller museums (and not by Ando), my favourite is Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum in Minato-ku. It was the home and studio of the avant garde painter and sculptor – his best-known work is the Tower of the Sun in Osaka – who died in 1996. There’s also an excellent cafe.
• 2121designsight.jp; tokyoartmuseum.com; taro-okamoto.or.jp
Bars in Kabukicho
It might sound strange but the concept of Tachibana Shinsatsushitsu, a bar in Shinjuku-ku (1-1-8 Kabukicho), is a hospital waiting room. The staff wear nurse uniforms and the cocktails have hospital-related names. If you don’t understand Japanese, ask the nurse. But be warned, some of the names are rather racy! Also in the area is Bar Uramen (1-1-7 Kabukicho), a themed otaku bar (a Japanese term for people with obsessive interests, often in anime and manga). Here you’ll find a collection of electrical appliances and digital gadgets as well as retro games. Enjoy drinks with a game – they have roughly 600 FamiCom cassettes – while listening to some weirdly cool music.
For good, inexpensive sushi (around 2,000 yen, excluding drinks), try Roppo Sushi, near Jinbocho subway station (1-11-8 Kanda Jinbocho Chiyoda-ku). The pickles they serve between dishes are equally delicious, and you can watch the chefs work while you eat. There are only 12 counter seats, so it can get very busy very quickly. Alternatively, Sushi No Midori is one of the most popular sushi restaurants in Tokyo, with branches in Shibuya, Ginza and elsewhere. Its signature Ganso Anago is a whole conger eel on top of rice. Check in online so you don’t have to queue (sushinomidori.co.jp). Or try 468 in Taito-ku (3-23-14 Nishi-Asakusa). Their name is pronounced “yo-roppa”, the Japanese word for “Europe”. This small sushi restaurant has only six seats and serves bo-sushi or “loaf sushi”, prepared by layering fish and rice in a long, thin wooden box. You can also order takeaway by phone.
This is an extract from The 500 Hidden Secrets of Tokyo by Yukiko Tajima (published by Luster Publications, €16.95)
Way to go
British Airways, Japan Airlines and All Nipon Airways fly direct to Tokyo from Heathrow from about £600 return. Indirect flights via Europe or, say Hong Kong, can be cheaper. Tokyo has two major airports: Narita (45 miles from the city centre) and Haneda (16 miles).
When to travel
Avoid Golden Week (late April/early May) when prices increase drastically. The cherry blossom season (mid-April) is spectacular but prices also rise – but more so in Kyoto than Tokyo. Instead, visit in mid-March to catch the other spring highlight, plum blossom. The rainy season (mid-June to mid-July) is cheaper and less crowded. August is the hottest month with average highs of 29C. January and December are the driest months with rain on three days, but average highs are at around 10C and lows are 2C.
£1 = ¥149
Beer (pint) from about £4
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