Touring in Tokyo

Apologies in advance, these next few posts are going to be heavy on the photos because my descriptions alone will not do justice to all the incredible things we experienced, saw, and ate. Our trip to Japan began just before New Years with 5 days in Tokyo. We were met with some challenges during the planning of the trip, not least of all was the fact that we weren’t certain when Japan would reopen to travelers post Covid. Thankfully the travel ban was lifted mid- October, so that was one less stress we had to deal with. The second issue was that our time in Tokyo coincided with New Years, when most businesses and restaurants are closed so people can spend time with their families. I sort of figured it was similar to the New Years long weekend in the US, but I was wrong. Japan really shuts down, it wasn’t until January 5th that everything returned to normal. Many of the renowned restaurants and most popular sites were closed the entire time we were there, or had a very abbreviated schedule. Ultimately we managed to schedule a whole lot of wonderful experiences and meals, but it was a challenge.

Getting down to the specifics….we flew to Tokyo from Los Angeles on All Nippon Airways (ANA) which is reputed to have one of the best business class products to Japan. Unfortunately we ended up with the “older” seats on the trip East which were indeed comfortable, but as we learned on the trip home, much narrower than the new seats they are upgrading to.

The service on the overnight flight was attentive and friendly, and the food was actually quite tasty.

With the time change taken into account we landed at about 9 pm the following day. While Japan is welcoming visitors, there are strict requirements concerning Covid vaccinations as well as a host of information needed to enter the country. This delayed immigration a bit, but all in all it was a smooth transition off the plane and into the car that was waiting to take us to our hotel, The Shangri-La. I have stayed in Shangri-La hotels in Singapore (a little dated) and Paris (amazing) but I had heard the property in Tokyo was in an excellent location (true) and was top-notch in service and amenities (also true).

The hotel is located in close proximity to both Ginza and Nihombashi as well as Tokyo Station. This proved to be incredibly convenient for exploring as the train system in Tokyo (all of Japan for that matter) is fantastic. Our suite came with access to the Horizon Club which allowed us to take advantage not only of free drinks and snacks throughout the day, but also the expertise and patience of the amenable concierge staff who never tired of checking restaurant request after restaurant request (and delivering the bad news that most of them were closed for the holiday). Ultimately they were successful in booking us at several excellent spots, including a fabulous sushi dinner.

By the time we settled in to our rooms it was close to 11pm, so we turned in for the night, hoping that we would sleep throughout the night.

While the bed was incredibly comfortable, we were not successful in sleeping past 4:30 am, so we decided to get ourselves outside and go explore the Tsujiki Outer Fish Market which was walkable from our hotel. This area used to surround the Tsujiki Wholesale Fish Market where one could witness the Tuna Auction on a daily basis, but that has since moved to the Toyosu Market in another area in the city. Currently tickets to the Tuna Auction are offered on a lottery basis, but alas it was not happening during the New Years Holiday.

We arrived to the Tsujiki market just as it was getting started, at about 5:15 am. Filled with locals who were sourcing every seafood related item you could imagine as well as grabbing an early meal, the energy at the market was amazing. After winding our way through the streets and marveling at the diversity of offerings we headed to nearby Ginza where we window shopped before ultimately making it back to the Shangri-La for breakfast at 7:00 am.

We had the option of dining either in the Horizon Club or the main dining room in the Hotel Lobby (on the 28th floor). We opted for the main dining room each day as the people watching was better. During our stay, the clientele was made up primarily of Japanese families who were gathering for the New Years Holiday. We stayed at the Shangri-La during the final night of our trip as well, and at that point there were a large number of business travelers.

The breakfast buffet (included in our Virtuoso rate) had extensive offerings, both Eastern and Western. We alternated between cultures each day, and both options were delicious. The service was incredibly attentive without being officious.

Following breakfast we found our way to the Kichijoji neighborhood, a trendy and highly desirable western suburb outside of central Tokyo to meet our guide for our Culinary Backstreets Tokyo tour. If you are a frequent reader of my blog you know that if there is a Culinary Backstreets tour offered in a city I am visiting, I sign up for it. In this case I booked a private tour for our small group so that we would be able to tailor it to our specific likes and dislikes.

Our guide Dennis was an American who has lived in Japan for over 20 years, so he had a great perspective to share with us. The folks from Culinary Backstreets advised that December 31 was the only possible day for our tour, because once the holiday started. we would be out of luck finding local spots that were open.

Our first stop was a very popular sushi restaurant just across from the Train station, Tachi Sushi Yokocho. Tachi refers to the fact that it is a standing Sushi restaurant, but we were lucky enough to grab a table in the rear. There was a long line extending down the street so we knew it had to be good. The Japanese seem to love waiting on lines, it is always a good sign to find an establishment with people waiting outside (in an orderly fashion). Dennis asked how adventurous we were feeling and we let him know we were game for whatever he was offering.

I didn’t count on the fact that my first bite of sushi in Japan would be Shirako, also known as Milt in English, the sperm sacs of any large fish (in our case Cod). This is a real delicacy in Japan and to be honest was quite tasty and briny. Thankfully our serving pictured below was for the five of us, so I only had to sample one piece, but as they say… when in Japan!

All of the sushi we sampled was delicious, and seemed quite tame following the Shirako.

Our next stop was a fourth generation owned Rice Cracker shop called Hanami Senbei where each one of the rice crackers are baked by hand in the large oven in the back of the store. Most beloved are the crackers shaped in the character called Inokashira which you can see being made in the middle photo below (by the great grandson of the shop’s founder). The family who ran this shop could not have been friendlier, and the crackers were absolutely delicious. We purchased quite a few packages to bring home and they are almost all gone already.

We were back to adventurous dining at the next stop, Genpin, a small chain of Japanese restaurants that specializes in Fugu (also known as puffer fish) which can be deadly unless prepared properly. Our guide assured us that there had been no casualties on any of his tours so we somewhat confidently dug in to some Fugu Sashimi as well as fried Fugu skin all washed down with Sake prepared with Fugu fin. The food was tasty, but it was more of a novelty surviving our lunch.

Fugu Fin Sake

Following Fugu we took a walk over to Soybean Farm where a fourth generation soybean farmer not only sells his artisanal array of Miso pastes, but also prepares dishes for you customised to your favorite Miso flavor profile. We learned all about the health benefits of a daily dose of Miso, and watched as customer after customer stopped in to buy some. In the US we are accustomed to seeing just white or the more flavorful red available in the supermarkets, but there is a whole world of Miso paste available. Similar to a cheese tasting we were able to sample a dozen varieties ranging from mild to very bold.

An extraordinary variety of Miso

Following our Miso extravaganza we headed to Toriyoshi for Tebasaki (chicken wings) as well as Yakitori (chicken heart, skins, and meatballs). My adventurous spirit only took me so far, I was not interested in the chicken (by the way Japanese chickens seem much skinnier than American ones judging by their wings). Interestingly enough, my oldest son who rarely eats fowl of any kind deemed the wings and Yakitori to be quite good.

Our last stop with Dennis was Harmonica Yokocho for a steaming bowl of Oden Stew which was as delicious and soul warming as it was atmospheric. Harmonica Yokocho (or Alley) is a collection of tiny shops and dining establishments that are as local as you could imagine. The proprietor/chef was excited to learn we were visiting from the US, and we got into a lively conversation with the other patrons as well.

We all loved this chef and his tiny establishment. The stew was hearty and delicious as well.

We parted ways with Dennis at the end of the day, and witnessed crowds of people getting their last errands in before the New Years Holiday. Japan does not celebrate with huge fireworks displays or big parties, in fact we were really stumped as far as someplace we could go to ring in 2023. As it turned out we decided to “wing it” which is completely against my nature (or better judgement).

Because we were still full from our day long eating adventure we decided to find a local Izakaya where we could enjoy some drinks and small plates. There was no luck in booking something fancier. As we wandered the darkened streets we realized we might have to settle for sustenance rather than anything special. We came upon one restaurant that specialized in chicken that was mobbed. It clearly had the biggest crowd so we figured it had to be ok. Mind you my fowl averse son had fulfilled his chicken quota for the year (so he just had beer) and luckily I was still satiated so I had a bowl of white rice.

That left my husband and youngest son to devour a bowl of fried chicken as well as a cabbage chicken stir fry that we made at the table. I wasn’t going to even include this restaurant in the post because it was so unremarkable, but it goes to show that sometimes even the best travel planner can have a miss. This will be memorable simply because it was the most below average NYE imaginable.

The cooking of this dish at the table provided some entertainment.

New Years’s Day in Japan is typically spent visiting shrines and making wishes for the coming year. One of the most popular shrines to visit is Meiji Jingu in Shibuya, so that is where we went along with throngs of others. As with everything we had witnessed so far in Japan, everyone was orderly and respectful and patiently waited for their turn to make an offering and say a prayer.

Everyone waited their turn

Following the offerings we found ourselves in the midst of food stall heaven just outside the perimeter of the shrine. The food stalls fill the bellies of the hungry worshippers because so many of the restaurants are closed for the holiday. This was a tiny sampling of the offerings available, the grilled mochi were especially satisfying. The vending machine below is one of thousands all over the city and it dispenses both hot and cold beverages.

One interesting fact is that it is people are not allowed to eat or drink while walking around the city. It is expected that if you purchase something at a food stall you will enjoy it right there and dispose of the trash immediately. The same goes for drinks. There are virtually no trash cans on the streets of Tokyo, just some recycling containers near to the vending machines. Needless to stay the streets are just about spotless, as are the train stations.

Lunch on New Years Day proved to be a challenge as well. After exploring the mostly empty streets of super-hip Harajuku (we saved a lot of money by just window shopping) we found a conveyor belt sushi restaurant that had just opened. We were not alone in discovering it, there were masses of people waiting for their numbers to be called. Kura is a Japanese chain that actually has outlets all over the US as well; it is certainly not fine dining, but it is very entertaining. When the sushi train pulls up to your table it is very exciting. Once we were seated we managed to try a large array of dishes as well as some Japanese Whiskey and rice cola.

The delivery was the highlight!

After our entertaining lunch we found our way to Team Lab Planets Tokyo a super cool immersive experience that had been recommended to us by many people, the best part was they had ticket availability on New Years Day! If you do plan on going, be sure to book your spots well in advance, this is a popular attraction. The exhibit consisted of multiple experiences to walk through including several water features. It was essential to be barefoot and be able to roll your pants up to knee level so you did not get soaked. There were also several rooms with mirrored floors, so there were shorts available to rent in case you were wearing a skirt and didn’t want to reveal too much.

This was a lot of fun and really engaged all of your senses (except maybe smell, though there was a strong scent of chlorine to ensure all germs and bacteria were taken care of). There were many laughs as well as highly Instagram-able moments. I would most definitely recommend this if you find yourself in Tokyo.

We enjoyed this while laying on the floor on our backs; it was mesmerizing

We played it safe for dinner by booking a celebratory New Years Day Kaiseki Feast at the Shangri-La. New Years Eve was so depressing (food-wise) that we took advantage of the Hotel’s special holiday menu. This was the first of several Kaiseki meals we enjoyed during our trip, and at the time we were dazzled by the presentation and quality of the food, but when we look back upon all of our dinners this one was actually the least impressive, though the service was outstanding.

A sampling of the dishes are pictured below. The dining room was filled with Japanese families enjoying their dinners, and we were happy to be all dressed up and in a celebratory mood.

January 2nd was still a day for Shrine visits and prayers for a healthy New Year. We decided to go to the Asakusa Shrine to seal in our good fortune. This Shrine was a little less crowded, but no less festive than the Meiji Shrine. It dates back centuries, and the area retains the atmosphere of historic Tokyo. Along with giving our donation and good wishes, a highlight was the very adept performing monkey who dazzled the crowds.

Sound on

Our good fortunes (hopefully) sealed, we pointed ourselves in the direction of lunch. January is right in the middle of Japan’s snow crab season and we had plans to take advantage of that with our lunch at Kanifuku Ginza a small family run restaurant that specializes in Okanimeshi (crab rice). This was a simple restaurant, and they could not have been nicer. The food was very tasty and we had the added pleasure of a large party next to us who were clearly enjoying themselves, and hoped we were as well.

We actually had hoped to dine at Ginza Kitafuku which is a Michelin starred Crab Emporium, but it was closed for the holiday so our concierge booked us at this more informal (and less expensive) alternative. In any case, it was really good and homey. We will try Ginza Kitafuku next time!

Once we had some energy from our crab lunch we headed back to Harajuku to do some shopping at the Yayoi Kusama x Louis Vuitton Pop-Up. The collection launched in Japan several days earlier than anywhere else in the world, and I was happy to wait on line and claim some of the pieces that were only available in Japan. This was almost as exciting an immersive experience for me as Team Lab Tokyo.

Next stop- Shibuya Crossing, one of the busiest intersections in the world. Keep in mind that much of Tokyo was still off celebrating the New Year’s Holiday, this was relatively empty!

Green Light

Another highlight in Shibuya is the tribute to Hachiko just outside the station. Hachiko is celebrated for his remarkable loyalty as he continued to wait for his owner to return home on the train for nine years following his owner’s death. The statue has become a very popular spot for people to meet as well as photograph. His life has even been made into two movies, including one with Richard Gere.

Hachiko faithfully waiting for his owner outside Shibuya station

Our much anticipated evenings’ plans took us to the Hotel New Otani where we would have a seat at the highly acclaimed sushi restaurant Kyubey. After tremendous perservance, the hotel concierge was finally able to make us a reservation at Kyubey and we were thrilled. There are several Kyubeys in Japan, the most famous being in Ginza but our reservation was made at the Otani. I have a hard time imagining our dinner could have been any better at their Ginza location.

At the sushi bar there were seats for about 14 people, and each party had their own sushi chef. Watching the choreography behind the sushi bar was fascinating, but it didn’t compare to watching the artistry and skill of our chef. We decided to go for the full experience which included about 16 pieces of sushi/sashimi as well as soup and dessert.

Perfect slices

Our chef had a twinkle in his eye with each bit of fish he offered to us, and was thrilled to see how much we enjoyed it. It really was the best sushi we had ever had. I have about a hundred photos, but I think the videos below are worthwhile. I was not expecting to eat live shrimp during our evening, but it was surprisingly delicious.

We had to say a little prayer for these guys

The flip of the tail really got me.

You can hear me saying no, no, but I forged ahead.

There were so many more dishes, and they were all outstanding. We were lucky that Kyubey was open during this extended holiday time, and that we were able to get a reservation. It was a winner and I would absolutely recommend it if you are planning a trip to Tokyo.

Our total trip to Japan was actually two weeks (you will read about our next destinations in subsequent posts) but following our travels we ended up with one more night in Tokyo which I will include here.

At the tail end of our trip my son was craving food other than Japanese and had heard about an Indian restaurant that was supposed to be outstanding. We arrived back in Tokyo on the bullet train, dropped our bags at The Shangri-La and headed straight to Dhaba India which has received recognition from the Michelin Guide as a worthwhile place to dine in Tokyo.

It was a small unassuming place packed with people enjoying the South Indian lunch specials. Dosa’s are one of my favorite Indian dishes and theirs was light and airy. Combined with a spicy lentil curry and rice it was a nice respite from Japanese food.

Our plan for our last evening in Tokyo was one I was really anticipating. We were able to secure tickets to day three of the Sumo Wrestling Championships at Ryogoku Stadium. There are tournaments just three times a year, so we were fortunate that our last night coincided with the action.

The Sumo Wrestlers are stars in Japan, each one had their own following, and the cheering for certain matches reached a fevered pitch. Although everything was in Japanese there was a program printed in English so we knew who the Wrestlers were. The family next to ours helped explain a little regarding the favorites, and the fiercest match-ups.

Abi Masatora was the crowd favorite
Yikes

This was the final match of the night. Please watch with the sound on. There was an opportunity to bet on these matches, but we felt we didn’t have quite enough knowledge. If you happen to be visiting Japan in January, May or September, do try and get tickets. It is a unique experience you won’t regret.

After watching all the Sumo action we were ready for dinner (and to switch back to Japanese food). We decided to go for Soba and Tempura at Kyourakutei which we discovered on the Eater 38 Essential Tokyo restaurants list. The chef has the reputation of being a perfectionist with regard to the sourcing of his ingredients as well as his finished dishes. This reputation is well deserved as the food was absolutely perfect.

Our flight home was booked at 11 pm so we really had the opportunity to enjoy a full last day in Tokyo, and getting a late check out at the Shangri-La made things a little easier. We set out to explore Mitsukoshi’s main store in Nihombashi, the flagship in the chain which dates back to the 1600’s. The store is gorgeous, and the sales people could not be more attentive. or friendlier. The Food Hall in the basement is beyond compare. We busied ourselves for an hour admiring each and.every offering. Of course they have every single high fashion designer boutique as well, but it is the food that really held our attention.

Fresh Strawberry Mochi

After browsing Mitsukoshi we were off to revel in the Dior show at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art (which will run through May of this year). While there have been Dior retrospectives in many other cities, this one had a real Japan focus which made it so enjoyable. The show was visually stunning, and incredibly delightful. If you are a fashionista, you might want to secure tickets.

Following our dose of Couture we made our way back to the Shangri-La, had a quick snack in the Horizon Club and then packed up our suitcases. Upon checking out we asked the hotel to store our bags until our car came to take us to the airport. We did some more wandering and shopping (Hankyu Men’s Store was a particularly successful stop) and then my guys voted for Ramen for dinner. We happened upon Kikanbo which prides itself on super fiery Ramen which delights all your senses. Coincidently once we were there I recognized that it had been featured on the Tokyo episode of Somebody Feed Phil. Upon arrival we placed our order at the ticket vending machine outside the shop. We seemed to arrive just in time, there were about 15 people who lined up behind us.

While I was unable to eat the Ramen, I enjoyed the spicy broth enormously. I was happy to share the noodles and meat with my guys and they ate every drop. It may not have been the best choice to eat right before a 10 hour flight, but it was good going down. The service was quick and friendly, and they definitely have an enthusiastic following.

Although this isn’t my final blog post about our Japan trip we did end up flying home from Tokyo so I will include my rave review on the ANA flight. As mentioned at the outset, the seat on our flight to Japan was fine, but the seat home was HUGE, as was the TV screen. My Japanese breakfast was just ok, but the service was very professional. If you are considering ANA check with your travel agent when booking to see whether the new seats are available on your itinerary.

Tokyo was an incredible city; sophisticated, clean, crime-free, orderly, modern with pockets of traditional Japan. The transit system is efficient, organized, and safe. Everyone is polite and respectful. There is a dignity in each person we came in contact with- whether a shopkeeper, food service professional, or a train station attendant which is something that is unfortunately missing from many interactions at home. Flying back to LAX ( and I love LA) was like being dropped into a bad dream after being in such a systematic, spotless, composed city. There was not an inch of graffiti, an overflowing trashcan, and most significantly not a single mentally ill drug addict or homeless person we encountered during our time there. Clearly their exceptional healthcare system is something that should be emulated as well. While Japan is not a perfect (nowhere is) we could all benefit from a little of the respect they have for themselves and others, as well a dose of their thoughtfulness and dignity.

Stay tuned for adventures with the snow monkeys in Nagano and much more.

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