A Food Lover’s Weekend in… Tokyo
Tokyo. There is quite simply nowhere on earth like it. Sashimi, sake and sensory overload, you will never want to leave. It would be quite easy to spend 48 days in this mega metropolis (it’s the biggest city in the world), but here’s what to do if you are squeezing it in as a stopover, or you just have more air miles than holiday time…
Try to time it so you land in the morning, so you can sleep on the plane and arrive fresh. Plus, given the allure of Tokyo’s nightlife, this might just be your last long stretch of sleep for a couple of days.
By the time you’ve made your way through either of Tokyo’s big airports and into the centre, it will be just about lunchtime. Tokyo Station (confusingly named given the number of other main stations the city has) is a convenient way in, and handily close to what might just be the best conveyor belt sushi in town.
Don’t be put off by Hanamaru’s shopping centre setting — the sushi is sensational, the whizzing coloured plates are plentiful and varied, and given the stack of them you’ll accumulate the bill will be a pleasant surprise. Just be prepared to queue for a short while if you hit rush hour — the locals know how good this place is.
When you leave, you’re handily close to Tokyo’s Imperial Palace should you want to intersperse your eating with some sightseeing.
Tokyo loves a good themed café even more than London does, and it also loves anything to do with animals. Which is why you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to places that serve up cute cat, bunny or owl experiences alongside your coffee. Among the most adorable and accessible is Harry Hedgehog Café in Roppongi, where you can hold baby hedgehogs (so young their spikes are still soft) in your hand while sipping a drink.
If you have just two days in Tokyo, you have to make it count. And that means fitting in as many meals as possible. Start your evening with an early dinner at Butagumi, which is not only close by but also serves the best tonkatsu in Tokyo. If crisp breadcrumbed pork so tender it melts is your bag, don’t miss it.
A bar to die for
Just a few minutes’ walk from the restaurant you’ll find large, multi-tiered and moody-looking izakaya Gonpachi. It inspired the famous fight scene between Uma Thurman and Chiaki Kuriyama in Kill Bill, so film buffs will find it familiar, but it’s just as recognisable for its bustling atmosphere and stellar sake selection. Go for a magnum if you’re feeling bold (or are in a group).
Bars and bites
You’re just a 10-minute cab (or 45-minute walk) away from Ginza, one of Tokyo’s prime restaurant and bar areas. Start your crawl near Shimbashi Station and walk north along the railway arches towards Yurakucho. Along the way you’ll find countless hole-in-the-wall bars and cheap and cheerful yakitori joints, not to mention many drunk locals. Make a beeline for Marugin for umeshu, whisky highball cocktails and succulent meat on sticks. But remember that this is what the Japanese call a standing bar. Do not sit down or you WILL get shouted at.
If it ends up a heavy night (as nights in Tokyo do tend to) make sure you call by the nearest vending machine on your way home (they’re on pretty much every corner so that shouldn’t be too hard) and grab a couple of bottles of appetisingly-named Sweat or a similar isotonic drink — one for now and one for the morning. Your head will thank you for it.
One of Tokyo’s must-visit areas is Harajuku. It is pink, fluffy, sugar-coated and eccentric, and has no shortage of cosplayers, crêpes or cat cafés. Once you’ve had your fill of breakfast time bubble waffles and pancakes from the plentiful streetside stalls, dive into Gyoza Ro for a sneaky plate of dumplings. The only choice is between fried and boiled and with or without garlic (go fried and with, obviously) and you will not be disappointed.
No, that wasn’t lunch. Ten minutes away you’ll find a scenic, picturesque park with the famous Meiji Shrine at its centre. It’s dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife and is an impressive site — a glimpse of old Japan in the middle of modern Tokyo. The walk is also good for rebuilding that appetite…
Close by you’ll find a branch of popular ramen mini-chain Afuri. Go in and have a bowl of its trademark yuzu-shio ramen made with thin wheat noodles, pork belly and chilli. Rather than ordering and then paying the bill, you buy a ticket up-front from the vending machine outside. If you’re liable to fill up, then share a bowl because there’s plenty more to try yet.
Early evening exploring
Continue on your way to Shinjuku. Walk if you can as it gives you the chance to soak up more of Tokyo as you go. You’ll know when you’re there because you’ll be surrounded by more neon than you ever thought possible. Shinjuku is Tokyo’s answer to Soho and it is bright, buzzy and bewildering in the best way possible.
Spend the evening exploring its criss-crossing streets, try and win a Pikachu in one (or more) of the many arcade game complexes, and bar hop to your heart’s content… or at least until dinner.
Pop in to Jip along the way to sample an array of Japanese wine (both sake and grape-based). Track down the discrete door to 8Bit Café, where you can enjoy cocktails and beers while playing on vintage computer games. Or call in to American-style bar Brooklyn Parlour for Tokyo-brewed craft beers and a lively vibe.
Whereas in the UK we have pubs, in Japan they have izakayas — informal restaurants where youngsters flock to eat, drink and make merry. Nowhere is better to experience them than Shinjuku, and few could be better than Chirinbou. Make yourself at home and tuck into homely tempura, braised tofu and meat-stuffed dumplings while the sake flows.
Alternatively (or, if you’re feeling adventurous, as well as) head to the marginally more formal Uoshin for some of the freshest fish dishes around. The menu is handwritten in Japanese, but the staff will do their best to understand and thankfully you can’t really go wrong whatever you order.
With your stomach lined and your party mood primed, head to Shinjuku’s Golden Gai area. An almost ramshackle maze of more than a hundred teeny tiny bars, it’s a tad touristy but totally worth it. It’s ideal for a crawl, but be prepared to pay a cover charge (usually around a fiver) each on top of the price of your drinks, for which you’ll receive some small bites of food. There’s no need to plan — in fact, you shouldn’t — but do head up random staircases to find the most local (and most lively) options. Oh, and the door which says “Narnia” on it — definitely go in there.
Now, the night is yet young (because you’re not going to bed — you’ll see why later). So what else to do but… karaoke. You’ll find no shortage of venues (seriously, they are everywhere) but for best results look for these key words: 24 hours, bottomless, fancy dress. Oh, and ask for the English language songs because you haven’t done Tokyo properly until you’ve screeched Wonderwall into a microphone in the early hours.
A fishy finish
Now this is why you stayed up. You’re going to the biggest fish market in the world. Wrap up your singing, get in a cab and arrive around 3.30–4am to ensure you are one of the lucky few to get in and see the tuna auction action an hour and a half later. It is closed on Sundays and some Wednesdays, but otherwise you’ll be fine.
Once you’ve seen the spectacle, have a wander around the stalls which sell every seafood imaginable from urchins to octopus. And it would be plain rude not too tuck into some while you’re there, after all it may just be the freshest fish on the planet. Hit up Ginzamaguroya, a stall in the outer section of the market, which serves superb and incredibly good value sashimi. Tokyo’s perfect parting gift.
On the way to the airport
Finish up your sashimi, head back to your hotel and pick up your luggage then jump on the train. When you’re waiting at the station, explore Tokyo’s weird and wonderful vending machines one last time and grab a matcha ice cream for the journey. Board your plane and plan your return, because there’s no way you won’t leave this city wanting more.