On May 26, 2013Melinda Joe answered the question:Japanese people are extremely polite and will go out of their way to help. It’s not uncommon for someone to walk you to your destination if you are lost. But while it’s gotten easier to use English in major cities like Tokyo, it’s still not widely spoken here (although many people can understand it to an extent). So don’t be shocked.
Fortunately, signs and maps in train stations are written in English, and more restaurants are offering menus in other languages. There are also a few good English-language resources to help demystify the ordering process at Japanese restaurants. What’s What in Japanese Restaurants by Robb Satterwhite is a great place to start.
Still, it’s useful to learn a few basic expressions in Japanese: sumimasen (“excuse me” -- the phrase you’ll use to catch the server’s attention; to ask for the check say, "o-kaikei kudasai"), arigato (“thank you”) domo (“thanks,” “excuse me,” or sometimes used as a stand-in for “hello”), oishii (“delicious”), and kawaii (“cute” -- you will hear this word everywhere).
On May 25, 2013Melinda Joe answered the question:Tokyo’s dining scene is deliciously diverse. Obviously, you can’t go wrong with Japanese food, but in the last couple of decades, international cuisine has also flourished. World-class French haute cuisine? We’ve got it in spades. Tunisian brik? No problem. Nepalese curry? There’s a great place in every neighborhood. The only thing missing is real Mexican food (the city could also use more New-York-style delis and affordable, authentic Chinese food, but nobody’s perfect).
Although you can spend a fortune on eating here -- dinner for two at a top-tier kaiseki restaurant like Koju can cost about Y100,000 ($1000) -- it is in fact possible to eat well and inexpensively. One trick: hit the high-end places at lunchtime, on weekdays. Most regular restaurants offer simple lunch sets starting at Y1,000 or Y1,200. Sushi restaurant Matsue in Ebisu serves a fresh and satisfying chirashi-don (raw, sliced fish on rice) for around Y1,500 at lunch, while dinner will run you closer to Y15,000. If you’re willing to spend more, you can eat like a king, even at fine-dining temples like Quintessence. Sure, you’ll end up paying around Y8,900, but that’s a bargain when you consider the fact that dinner costs more than double that, not including the wine you will inevitably order (the menu boasts over 600 varieties).
On May 22, 2013Melinda Joe answered the question:Sake fans are spoiled for choice in Tokyo. If you’re new to nihonshu, as it’s called in Japan (the word sake actually refers to any alcoholic beverage), the one of the best places to get an introduction is at the Meishu Center in Hamamatsucho, a retail shop/standing bar hybrid which offers three-glass tasting flights starting at Y500.
If you’re ready to get more serious, head to Kuri in Ginza (or their newer standing bar in Shimbashi) for six-glass tasting flights. Shinjuku Moto Stand has a weekly changing menu of brews from small, boutique producers.
Although a lot of premium sake is meant to be drunk chilled, some varieties take well to heat. Check out hole-in-the-wall Fukube in Nihonbashi -- a very Tokyo experience. But note that they don’t serve cold sake. At all. In Shinjuku, there’s Kokoromusubi, a cozy, welcoming izakaya (sake pub) that takes great care in warming their brews.
For sake and fresh fish, go to Ippo in Ebisu or Azabu Juban (their list is written in English and Japanese). Aburaya in Roppongi is fantastically old school and has a great sake selection. Shokkan in Shibuya is more upscale with a well-edited sake list and contemporary izakaya fare.
On May 17, 2013Sandra Barron answered the question:The short answer is: you don’t. Haggling is not part of daily life in Tokyo. The price on the menu or on the artfully hand-lettered tag is the price you pay.
There is one exception I can think of: flea markets. Flea markets and antique markets are wonderful places to explore on weekends. Many local temples have them on a specific weekend each month. Check local English listings or ask at your hotel. These are a great place to find everything from Japanese toys, cameras and electronics from the 80’s to antique silk, scrolls and ceramics. And more. So much more. Things you never imagined existed and whose purpose you can only guess at are neatly laid out on tarps, and used clothing in pristine condition is hung from rolling racks or the sides of minivans. Sure, there’s plenty of junk, but there are also treasures to be found. And when you find something you like, it never hurts to ask for a little bit of a mark-down. Respect (as always) is key in this interaction. After the proprietor says the price, smile and say, “Sukoshi makete kuremasen ka?” (“Could you please reduce the price a little?”) They may round the price down or throw in an additional item at the same price, but they won’t play games about it. Don’t walk away expecting them to call after you and halve the price on the spot - usually, the original price will be fairly close to the final price. Whether the price cut you get is small or large (and you just may get a great bargain toward the end of the day), be sure to express your gratitude. Stay calm and friendly, and you just might walk away with a one-of-a-kind souvenir at a price you love.
On May 16, 2013Sandra Barron answered the question:The Tokyo Metro is a modern wonder of efficiency. It has some of the most-trafficked train stations in the world - by some estimates, Shinjuku station ushers through over 3 million people per day. At the same time, trains are almost always on time; conductors make repeated announcements apologizing when a busy subway is running one or two minutes late.
Don't be intimidated, though. Despite the sheer number of trains and volume of people, Tokyo’s subway and train system is surprisingly simple to navigate. Though there are technically three different train systems in Tokyo, you can ride all of them seamlessly with a single card, which you can buy as soon as you arrive and recharge with cash at a machine in any station. Simply tap the card at the turnstile on your way in and out. All station signage in the city will have English as well as Japanese.
One trick for making your trip as simple as possible is to know your exits. Zoom in on the map of your destination until you see small exit numbers appear around the station. (Paper maps and the large color maps inside the train station will have the exits marked, too.) Bright yellow signs within the stations will point the way to each numbered exit. Stations are sometimes so vast that going out the right exit can mean the difference between ascending to street level right at (or even inside) your destination or walking a quarter of a mile on a busy street to find what you’re looking for.
On May 16, 2013Sandra Barron answered the question:
The most in-demand place to take in the view right now is Tokyo Skytree, the tallest tower in the world. The futuristic glass tower and the shopping area surrounding it turn a year old in May 2013. The complex can see more than a million visitors over holiday periods. Plan to reserve your tickets in advance for busy days!
Before the Skytree replaced it as a broadcast beacon, the orange and white Tokyo Tower had been the tourist tower of choice since it opened in 1958. The attractions in the lower floors, including a wax museum, could be described as a bit retro. Unlike the Skytree, you have the option of walking up the 531 steps to the top, and getting a certificate to prove it.
Right in the middle of the Shinjuku “skyscraper district” is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building, known in Japanese as the Tocho, or City Hall. The observation deck is free. There are signs in Shinjuku station to point you in the right direction - but if you get lost outside, just look for the building’s distinctive double towers. There is tourist information in several languages in the elevator lobby. There is also a cafe at the top that sometimes has live piano music.
The best option for getting a dose of culture with your view is the open-air roofdeck of the Mori Tower in Roppongi. The ticket includes admission to the Mori Art Museum a few floors below, which hosts contemporary art shows by well known international and Japanese artists. At the top, staff will snap a digital souvenir picture of you that you can purchase on your way out, and they will also happily take your picture for your with your own camera or cellphone for free.
On May 14, 2013Sandra Barron answered the question:Tokyo's bartenders are famous for elevating the art of the classic cocktail to new levels of icy perfection. Experience the unbelievable attention to detail, with precision in every element from the bartenders’ bowties to the rythm of their trademark shakes, at Ginza mainstays like Bar High Five, Star Bar, and Orion. In the domain of these award-winning bartenders, understated old-world elegance and manners are the rule.
A new breed of cocktail connoisseurs are mapping out fresh territory with more experimental approaches. Key among them right now is Gen Yamamoto and his flights of muddled fruit drinks at the bar that bears his name. Fuglen is bringing a twist of Scandinavian novelty to the scene.
At last, locally brewed craft beers are rising to prominence next to the endless drafts of Sapporo and Asahi in Tokyo. Relatively new bars like Devil Craft in Kanda and Goodbeer Faucets in Shibuya require reservations on busy nights for their long rows of taps. Still under the radar but just as good is Watering Hole on a quieter stretch of Meiji Dori in Shinjuku.
Whiskey drinkers will feel right at home in Tokyo. Zoetrope near Shinjuku Station is a wonderful place to cap off an evening with a sip of something old and rare. The bartender is happy to help navigate the hundreds of whiskey bottles lining the wall.
On May 7, 2013Nicholas Coldicott answered the question:Napoli-style pizza rules in Tokyo, and though there are restaurants all over town, the four big names are Seirinkan, Savoy, L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele and Pizzeria da Isa. All serve pizzas with charred, chewy crusts and a lovely sloppy topping. The former three go traditional and serve nothing but marinara or Margherita. Seirinkan’s marinara is a masterpiece, and da Michele probably wins the Margherita crown. Da Isa, run a multi-award winning pizzaioli Hisanori Yamamoto, offers a whopping 33 varieties, though most are just an ingredient or two away from the classics. It’s wise to book seats at Seirinkan, Savoy or da Isa. If you want to eat at da Michele, the sister of the Naples’ joint featured in Eat, Pray, Love, then you’ll have to be prepared to line up.
For a completely different kind of pie, try Devilcraft, a craft beer specialist in the Kanda district. The top floor of the multi-story pub is a kitchen that turns out great Chicago-style deep dish pizzas. Devilcraft has barely had a seat spare since opening day in late 2011, so be sure to call and reserve.
On May 7, 2013Nicholas Coldicott answered the question:Good news for herbivores: There’s been a boom in vegan-friendly restaurants in Tokyo over the past 5 years. And since dairy was never a major part of Japanese cuisine, vegetarian restaurants are usually also fully vegan. Most are casual, cafe-style eateries targeting health-conscious young women, though some offer gastronomic multi-course meals.
At the luxury end, the shojin ryori restaurants offer rarified zen-influenced cuisine. Itosho in Azabu Juban is the best place to try it. Many guidebooks also mention the Michelin-starred Daigo, but beware: the chefs there use fish stock.
Fucha ryori is a similar style of dining, but with a stronger Chinese influence. You can find that in the photogenic Bon restaurant in Iriya, northeast Tokyo.
Tokyo Station is home to T’s Tantan, a restaurant that specializes in a spicy vegan ramen with mock meat.
In the Omotesando region, both Brown Rice Cafe and Pure Cafe are fully vegan. The former serves Japanese-style meals, the latter offers multi-ethnic soups, salads and tapas. The Eat More Greens cafe in Azabu Juban is a spacious vegan cafe with a terrace that makes it ideal for summer evenings.
Falafel stores have been popping up recently. The best of the bunch is Kuumba du Falafel, near Shibuya, though Los Barbados in the same district also makes a great meze with falafel and vegan kibbeh (and offers about a dozen other vegan dishes, clearly marked with a green leaf).
And if you’re elsewhere, check www.vege-navi.jp for a comprehensive guide.
On April 30, 2013Nicholas Coldicott answered the question:It depends whether you want to relax or play. For relaxing, you’ll want an onsen. Tokyo’s best genuine hot spring is 15 minutes west of Shibuya in Futako Tamagawa. It goes by the official name Sanga-no-yu and the semi-official name Seta Onsen. It’s a large complex of baths, some indoor, some outdoor, some exclusively for male or female guests, and two communal baths (swimwear essential for those.) Posters on the wall list all the purported health benefits of the various minerals in the water, but it’s probably just the deep relaxation that does you the most good.
The Oedo Onsen Monogatari calls itself a hot spring theme park, and that’s a pretty good description. It’s set in a dining and entertainment complex built to resemble the Edo period (1603-1868). It has two baths of volcanically heated water, and five more that are artificially warmed. It also has unusually generous opening hours: 11am-9am.
For more excitement in the water, head north from Tokyo to the adrenaline-filled town of Minakami in Gumma Prefecture. In the warmer months you can go canyoning, white-water rafting or bungee jump over a lake. See www.canyons.jp