After two months savouring a seriously relaxed pace of life, it was time to shift gears… radically, and head for the opposite of ‘somewhere slower,’ the mega-city of Tokyo. Visiting Asia was always part of our plan for this year away and though Japan’s capital did not fit our main criteria, we were all dying to see it. We also hoped to expose our kids to significantly different cultures during this year of travel and Japan felt like an easy place to begin.
Figuring out where to stay or what to do in Tokyo, however, wasn’t easy. There are just too many choices. Travel articles and top ten lists abound on the internet and Michael’s head was left spinning every time he tried to narrow things down. Thankfully we had a couple of friends living there. Timo and Jopsu Ramu and their cute daughters consider Tokyo their second home. Lucky for us, Timo and his daughter Mimi were free to tour us around during our first two days. We particularly loved Shibuya, Daikanyama and Naka Meguro–regular haunts for this cute Finnish family. Many of the recommendations below are in these wonderful neighbourhoods.
Michael’s friend, Phil Robertson, also lives in Tokyo and owns a translation company, Honyaku Plus (a good friend to have when one speaks barely a word of Japanese). Phil and his wife, Ayaka, were able to make many more suggestions and toured us around their neighbourhood on the weekend. We also called upon Japan travel specialist, Inside-Japan, who have a great website and great customer service. They were especially helpful when it came time to plan our transfer into the city from Narita. In a town where everything is the minimum size necessary, getting six people and all of our luggage to our apartment was no small feat.
Eating and drinking were definitely our favourite activities in this buzzy town. Our kids are adventurous eaters and were begging for ‘real Japanese’ sushi as soon as we touched down. During our seven days we enjoyed some delicious Japanese cuisine and, in a city busting at the seams with restaurants, managed to eat Italian, French, American and Australian cooking as well. When the Japanese set out to do something, they aim to perfect it. Hence queuing for pizza at Savoy was not as absurd as it seems. Whether it was coffee, pizza, croissants or doughnuts, we found the Japanese incarnations not only faithful to the originals, but sometimes better.
We also took in some sightseeing of course. A visit to the top of Roppongi Hills for an aerial view of the heaving metropolis and a peaceful stroll through Meiji Shrine were among our favourites. Really though, we just enjoyed being in this complex and frenetic city. If you can look past the masses of people surrounding you at all times, the language you cannot speak and the signage you cannot read, you realise that Tokyo is not that hard to navigate. We walked nearly everywhere, and took taxis or jumped on a train when the distances were just too great. After a couple days we could find our way around our neighbourhood without following a blue dot. We also found the people extremely warm and welcoming of tourists.
By the end of our week our palates were sated, our legs were sore and our minds were ready to slow things down again, but we were all really glad we came. Tokyo, we really like you!
- Garden House Crafts (Log Road): A fantastic bakery, breakfast and lunch spot. A tasty alternative if you desire something other than fish, soups or rice in the mornings. (We watched through the window as the team of pastry chefs meticulously folded croissant dough each morning. A fine art!)
- Mamma Luisa’s Table: Abigail Terrien brought us to her family’s favourite Italian and it was one of our most memorable dinners in Tokyo. We’re still drooling over the delicious Tuscan fare served up by the friendly owner Pietro!
- Tenoha in Daikanyama: Another Italian with tasty pastas and wood fired pizzas.
- Ivy Place in Daikanyama: Set in the wonderful T-site complex, this is one everyone recommended we try for breakfast or lunch… but we never managed to make it (other than to snap photos of Ivy next to the sign!). Next time!
- Motoya Espresso coffee van outside of Daikanyama train station: This friendly chap serves up delicious coffee straight out of his miniature van. If you normally go for a flat white, a ‘double latte’ is what you’ll request here.
- Paletas in Daikanyama: Tasty ice lollies with a selection of intriguing Japanese (and western) flavours.
- The Roastery by Nozy Coffee in Shibuya: A friendly café along a hip shopping street. They also serve beer and ice cream. What else do you need?
- Bill’s: not very Japanese, but we were happy to eat healthy salads and seafood from this famous Australian chef.
- Savoy: an intimate 13-seater pizzeria around the corner from Roppongi Hills serving the best wood-fired pizzas we’ve ever eaten!! We’re told these guys studied the craft in Italy and perfected it in Tokyo.
- Hiroba at Crayon House in Omotesando – located in the basement of Crayon House, you’ll find an all-you-can eat organic buffet serving healthy Japanese salads, soups, rice and fish dishes in a relaxed family-friendly environment. (Crayon House also has a great toyshop and bookstore – with a selection of English books too!)
- Maisen in Omotesando (Japanese Tonkatsu): We enjoyed lunch in this classic Japanse restaurant known to have the best Tonkatsu in town.
- Il Boschetto in Meguro: good, simple wood-fired pizzas.
- Meiji Shrine: An oasis in the middle of bustling Tokyo. Here you’ll find a gorgeous shrine and peaceful gardens to stroll around. A must-do on the tourist trail.
- Tokyo City View from the top of the Roppongi Hills tower: take the lift up to the 52nd floor for 360-degree views of this enormous city.
- Ueno Zoo: A decent city zoo with some Asian animals like Pandas. It’s set in Ueno Park, which is a vibrant area with other activities and museums on offer.
- Shinjuku Gyoen National Park: We hoped to catch the tail-end of the cherry blossoms here but arrived five minutes too late on the day we tried to visit. It seems these and other gardens close at 4pm. Looked beautiful from outside the gates. Next time.
- Miraikan Museum /Science Center in Daiba: A fascinating museum of science and technology. We especially enjoyed the giant globe installation and a live demonstration of Honda’s famous robot, Asimo.
- Tokyu Hands: a one-stop, Japanese DIY shop with literally one of everything you can imagine – from cool stationery to travel gear to kitchen gadgets to home wares.
- Saturdays Surf Shop in Daikanyama: this beautiful shop offers a curated selection of surf boards, wet suits, accessories and stylish men’s clothing, but it was their café serving good coffee and delicious donuts that won us over. Enjoy them outside on their decked roof terrace – a little oasis in the middle of a bustling city.
- Tsutaya Bookstore: This is one of the most beautiful bookstores I’ve ever been in – with three different buildings and a beautiful café inside. If I could read Japanese I might have never left!
- Kodomo Beams children’s shop: A wonderfully curated selection of children’s brands from all over the world, including their own branded products.
- Tokyo Midtown Shopping Centre: A shopping centre with a good grocery store in the basement and lots of other specialty shops. There’s also an art gallery called 21_21, a pretty park and a cute playground behind the building.
- Caramel, Bonton, Bonpoint,– these well-known (and gorgeous!) children’s shops from London and Paris have shops here too. As with all Japanese outlets of foreign brands, the selections are perfectly curated.
- BorneLund toyshop in Daikanyama: a great little toy store with a selection of beautiful toys, many on display to test out and play, plus a super friendly staff. They also have a play area and bookstore for restless little ones.
- Kiddyland: If you like kooky, cutesy or classic Japanese characters, it’s worth a stroll through this multistory shop.
- Airbnb: We rented a tiny apartment in Shibuya (near to Daikanyama) with just enough space for four double mattresses on the floor! It was perfectly comfortable though, and we were really hardly there except to sleep and shower.
- Japan Experience: Another Japan travel specialist, these guys offer houses to rent in Tokyo and other cities.