For the aesthetically inclined and design conscious there is probably no better place on earth than Tokyo. And for science fiction fans it’s probably the closest thing to encountering another humanoid civilization – things are similar enough and foreign enough in Tokyo to make it all the more exciting, even though in the last couple of years the intractable march of globalization of culture has left an indelible stamp on the city. I’ve been to Tokyo three times and by now feel confident enough to write a guide of sorts. Because there is so much to do and see here, I decided that the best approach is to break the guide down by neighborhood rather than make a list of places, because there are too many of them. Tokyo is vast – don’t even think about spending less than a week here. I’ll list the neighborhoods more or less in order of preference and/or proximity to each other. Aside from these recommendations, the best advice I can give you is to get lost in the wonderful maze of Tokyo’s streets – because the best spots are often in the back alleys off the main thoroughfares. You’ll need your GPS.
To keep with the spirits of the times, I took all pictures with my phone. Also, I will leave it to you to google the addresses on your own.
This is the place to shop. Most of the flagships of Japanese brands are concentrated here. Within several blocks of each other you will see shops of Comme des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto, Undercover, Sacai, Kolor, and The Soloist. But I’d start with the Nezu museum – its wonderful traditional Japanese garden is serenity itself, and will charge you for the onslaught of shopping. Next door to Nezu is the Rick Owens flagship, so you might as well start your shopping there. Then cross the street, go up the stairs to see the Grocery Store, which is actually the Soloist flagship. Turn the corner and you’ll encounter the Yohji Yamamoto shop. Then loop around the Prada building and sneak into the Undercover flagship. If you are into Sacai or Hysteric Glamour, those are also nearby. Make your way back to the main thoroughfare and check out Omotesando Hills. Yes, it’s a mall, but it’s a mall built by Tadao Ando. A side note is that the best buildings in Omotesando are often occupied by the worst stores – my favorites are Hugo Boss, Moncler, and Tod’s. Sad but true. You don’t need to spend a lot of time at Omotesando Hills, unless you want to get lunch there. There is a newly opened Y’s store there as well. Walk further and cross the main thoroughfare back by an overpass and make your way to the Gyre building, which has the Comme des Garcons Trading Museum the CDG Good Design Shop, and the Visvim flagship that’s on two floors. If you are ready for a casual snack, you couldn’t do better than the octopus balls from a stand across the Opening Ceremony building. You can end your Omotesando adventure by sneaking into Laforet. It’s another mall better suited for teenagers but you don’t have to linger there long – the first store as you walk in is the Undercover MAD Store, which carries some items the flagship does not, and which should be your first and last stop in the building.
If you have energy left, Harajuku is immediately above Omotesando. It’s a maze of streets with shops and cafes. The offerings skew heavily towards streetwear, but the neighborhood should still be experienced. Make your way slowly up towards the upper Harajuku. The Neighborhood flagship is perhaps worth stopping by – it was for me. Recharge yourself with coffee from Deus Ex Machina – it’s a cool space, painted black, and even their La Marzocco coffee machine is murdered out, so you kinda have to. A side note about coffee in Tokyo – it’s outstanding and there are plenty of places that make a good cup. You really don’t have to go out of your way and stand in line at Bearpond or Flugen just because they are in every goddamn hipster Tokyo guide (I had one of the best cappuccinos of my life in the Mercedes-Benz store, so…). Around the corner from Deus ex Machina is United Arrows & Sons and they carry a good lineup of Japanese brands. By now you are in upper Harajuku and away from the madding crowds. If you fancy, stop by Union, the cult store from LA that recently opened a Tokyo outpost. It’s a beautiful space.
If you get sick of looking at stores, you can loop around to the Yoyogi park. Despite being mobbed by tourists, it’s still a peaceful place. Check out the Meiji shrine, and than walk up and left to reach a pond, which is pretty and few tourists make it up there.
These two lovely areas are next to each other and a complete antidote to the two above. They are busy but not crowded and have a decidedly more village-like feel. Daikanyama is a posh area whose equivalent is probably TriBeCa or West Village. You can start at T-Site, a sprawling branch of the bookstore chain Tsutaya. It carries a large selection of art and design books and seemingly every magazine under the sun. If your brain is about to explode because you are unable to choose which of the fifty Daido Moriyama books to buy (has the talented son-of-a-bitch ever took a photograph and not published it?), you can walk across the street and have a coffee on the back terrace of Saturday’s Surf, one of many NYC exports to Tokyo (apparently this is a successful business model, as evidenced by the mobs in front of Luke’s Lobster and Blue Bottle, and an outpost of Guerrilla Coffee that looks more like a flagship Starbucks). Continue down the main drag until you come to The Address, which houses Lift Etage and Lift Ecru. You’ll probably want to hit up both, but Lift Etage is the main draw. You’ll want to see the gorgeous design of the store itself, which really gives justice to the large collection of Carol Christian Poell the shop carries, along with m.a.+, memoria, Munoz Vrandecic, Ann Demeulemeester, and more.
From Daikanyama you’ll want to walk downhill to Nakameguro. Its main draw are the several peaceful, cherry tree-lined blocks by the Meguro river, which largely house independent shops, restaurants, and art galleries, although you’ll want to also walk into the Nakameguro branch of Aesop, one of its best. Have another coffee or a sandwich at the Sidewalk Stand, which seems to be creative expat central (I ran into Nigel Cabourn there one morning), or cross the main drag and eat at any of the myriad of tiny restaurants on the sides of the Nakameguro train station. I recommend Afuri for ramen, though you really can’t go wrong there. Nakameguro is probably your NoLiTa, if you need an NYC reference.
It’s not that I hesitate to recommend Shibuya – it’s such a Tokyo icon – but just know what you are getting into. It’s a teenager and tourist mob, but you gotta do it once. Go in the early evening, after the sun sets to experience the full effect of Shibuya’s lights. Start at the Shibuya crossing, as you must, and slowly (well, you’ll have no choice) make your way up. Breathe deeply and go with the flow and you’ll be fine. If you are into vinyl or CDs, your first stop should be Disk Union and its five floors of goodies. If not, stop by Loft to load up on amazing Japanese stationary. It’s also a one-stop shop for all the little gifts you may want to bring from Tokyo. I favor Loft over Tokyu Hands, which is in most guides – Loft is nuts enough. There is also the Muji flagship, though I don’t necessarily recommend it, as we have the same stuff. Instead, cross the main thoroughfare, walk by Tomorrowland and turn into a side street that will eventually bring you to Omotesando. If you are into leather products, there are a couple of independent shops like SOT, that do brilliant work. A bag, a wallet, or even a key holder from those two will make a nice treat.
Not the cheesy Roppongi you might have heard of that’s full of lame bars and douchebag banker expats, but the part that’s above it, whose epicenter is the Tokyo Midtown Tower. In the said tower the main draw are the interior design shops. If you are into Japanese ceramics, knives, and so on, this is the place. The shopping complex is also home to a slew of great restaurants, from casual to not so casual. I recommend the tonkatsu place, though you really can’t go wrong. You can also grab some dessert from Sadaharu Aoki, the Paris-trained Japanese patisserie maker. Eat there, or if the weather is nice, grab the food to go and eat it in the adjacent park. In the same park you’ll find 21_21 Design Sight, an art gallery designed by Tadao Ando for Issey Miyake. Hopefully, there is a good exhibit on. Check out the clothing shop Restir if you have time, more for its architecture than the fashion hipster-heavy selection. You may also be tempted to walk into Barneys, but don’t waste your time. Instead walk half a block to the aforementioned Mercedes-Benz store and have an outstanding latte from Downstairs Coffee, whose barista has won an international competition a few years ago. If you are in luck, the National Arts Center will have a good exhibit on. Last, but not least, one of the neighborhoods hidden gems is Ramen Gogyo, which serves Kyoto-style burnt ramen. It’s incredible, and you won’t get that in New York or London.
Ginza is the Tokyo equivalent of Fifth Avenue. It’s old glitz and glamour, and you should do it only if you have time. On the one hand I want to recommend going there on the weekend, on the other hand you should probably start by having sushi in the neighboring Tsukiji market. Forget the myths about waking up at 4 a.m. for the market – that’s only if you want to see the tuna auction (personally, I fail to see the attraction). Go in late morning and pick any sushi restaurant – you don’t have to wait online for those that have made it into Western tourist guides. Chances are your sushi will be divine, and you’ll never want to have it anywhere else again. Make your way to Ginza from there. Your first stop should probably be Dover Street Market. No need to explain that one. Why I am not putting it down as a must-visit is because you probably won’t find anything there that you can’t find in Aoyama. Just saying. Around the corner from DSM is the new luxury mall called Ginza Six. Perhaps it’s worth checking out for some interior design shops and its restaurants. There is also an Undercover corner and one for Descent, a line of Yohji Yamamoto bags, which I don’t recall being sold outside of Japan (if you have two grand, I highly recommend the gorgeous carryon). From there walk a couple of blocks to the Mitsukoshi department store and take the escalator down to its food hall and stock up on sweets. Tokyo department stores food halls are the eighth wonder of the world, and an absolute must. Your head will spin in wonder until you can’t take it anymore. You’ll want to buy one of each for the gorgeous packaging that in Japan is an art form all unto its own. If you have strength left, walk into Itoya for more stationary.
If you have to go to one department store to shop for clothes, make it Isetan. The rest don’t come close. Bar Martha in Ebisu is my favorite vinyl bar. It’s a beautiful experience if you are into music. My two favorite izakaya restaurants are Narukiyo in Shibuya and Tatemichiya in Ebisu. Both were amazing, though if you are not brave enough, I recommend going with someone who speaks Japanese.
You will need Internet access at all times. If you cannot use the GPS on your phone, you will get lost – guaranteed. You can rent a portable WiFi hotspot at the airport, or if you are renting an apartment, chances are it will come with one.
Use the subway. Unlike Tokyo’s notoriously hard to navigate streets, the subway system is easy to master, has all signs in English, and is incredibly efficient. Buy a Suica or a Pasmo card right away and load money on it. Not only it’s accepted by all Tokyo metro lines (which are run by different companies, which make buying one-time tickets even more annoying), but it serves as a de facto debit card that you can use at convenience stores, luggage lockers and more.
Forget about finding the best ramen shop or a tonkatsu spot. There are simply too many good ones, and you don’t need to make the extra effort. If you need a telling sign that a place is good, it will probably be full and there will be a line to get in. Waiting in line for food is a thing in Japan, so get with the program.
Learn how to say “thank you” in Japanese. It will get you far. Contrary to popular belief not many Japanese speak English, though you will be more or less Ok in central Tokyo. If you need something, point. In many restaurants menus come with pictures. In general, be polite and for god’s sake don’t be a dumb loud American. Don’t talk on the phone on the subway and you are not allowed to smoke on the street.