I am guessing you have a perception of Tokyo already in your head: fast moving, crowded, busy, bathed in neon, and a tad overwhelming.
All of this is true to a degree, but the beauty of Tokyo is that all of this is coupled with an impressive order that gives the city a peaceful and gracious air. Even the busiest intersection in the city is organized chaos. This makes the city a pleasure to explore as it seemingly operates like an orchestra with no conductor. There are directions and rules posted on floors, walls and signs and they are amazingly followed by all.
I am not going to regale you with a list of where to go and what to do (at least not in this post). The internet isfull of this information, but I will provide a primer of sorts of what I learned that may inform how you spend your time in Tokyo.
Tokyo is the cleanest big city I’ve ever visited. We laughed thinking about how the comfy upholstered subway seats would go over in New York City. We gawked at the sparkling white walls of the subway tunnels. Even the constructions sites were neatly organized after a day’s work. This propensity for cleanliness makes the crowds, the pace and the bright lights that much easier to enjoy and endure.
One oddity to this fact is that trashcans can be hard to find. Ironic right? I took an empty coffee cup on tour with me for a solid 30 minutes before I encountered a small trash can in a bathroom. Another observation: Smoking is a very popular pastime in Tokyo yet we spotted not one single cigarette throughout our time there. Also a mystery and something I would love to see the US embrace!
Food is off the charts expensive in Tokyo. We had heard this but we figured that since we are from NYC that the prices would be just be slightly more insane than we are used to. We were wrong. On the first night after a multi time zone trip we like to eat in the hotel in case anyone falls over in exhaustion and needs to be escorted to their room. When presented with the menu we thought we may have stumbled into a Thomas Keller hidden gem in the Hilton Tokyo (we didn’t). Choose your restaurants wisely, but be prepared to PAY abnormal sums for your meals. Expect it and consider it part of the experience.
7/11’s are pretty awesome in Tokyo. 7/11’s in Tokyo are not one bit like the corner 7/11 in the good old US of A. The variety of food available in them is impressive. We took to walking past the breakfast buffet at our hotel ($40 a head) and walking to the local 7/11 every morning. Each person in the family grabbed what they wanted, spending about $25 in total vs. the $120 the hotel breakfast would have cost us.
It was a relief to have at least one decent priced meal a day and we loved our various outdoor breakfast picnics. You could get away with having many a meal at the 7/11 and live pretty well. They sell decent sake and wine too.
Cherry Blossoms are universally loved. We felt very lucky to be in Tokyo at the height of the Cherry Blossoms blooming. So much so that my kids got a little tired of me saying “aren’t we so lucky to be here when the cherry blossoms are blooming!!??” Cherry Blossoms are everywhere in Tokyo and the locals clearly find them just as magical as the tourists.
We joined the locals in line to view the cherry blossoms on the property of the Imperial Palace. The grounds are opened to the public twice a year for one week. Our visit coincided with the first day of this special occasion.
I think I enjoyed seeing the local’s obvious joy over the blossoms as much as I loved seeing the blossoms myself. Their beauty and the significance of their arrival as the start of spring are an irresistible combination.
Get a guide. I highly recommend finding a guide to help you navigate and teach you about this city. We found our guide through the recommendation of a friend who’s taste I trust. His name is Atsuo but he goes by Mike. Over a lot of back and forth via email Mike gleaned our interests and set up a day according to what we wanted to see and then added some things on the second day that he knew we had to see. He helped organize two very special dinners and one night took our kids out so the husband and I could enjoy a sushi dinner.
Mike was unassuming and pleasant and had a thorough answer to every question we threw his way. He bought us subway passes and taught us how the subway worked. When one child didn’t find what he wanted in an Anime store he found more stores to bring him to. When he saw me bending down to pet every dog in our path he added a visit to Hachiko to our itinerary. What was I thinking not having Hachiko on my list??
He knew secret places to grab a cup of coffee or take in the view and was just all around easy to be around which is key when you are spending hours with a person. I would highly recommend Mike and offer his contact info here.
Sushi consumption in Japan requires some consideration. If you go for sushi when in Japan there are some things you want to consider and rules you want to embrace. We like to order Omikase which is chef’s choice. Unlike in the US we were able to select a price for our Omikase. That decision is at your discretion, but spend as much as you can afford, maybe a tad more. Once that decision is made you watch and you wait.
First to arrive will be your Sashimi. The preferred method of adding wasabi to your sashimi is to dip your chopsticks into the wasabi for a dot of the green spice to be added to your fresher than fresh sliced fish. This is as opposed to what is common in the US which is to swirl your wasabi around in your soy sauce dish. That’s a no no.
After the sashimi course your sushi will begin to arrive. IF the sushi has a glistening hue to it this means it has already received a special sauce. Like this piece of glistening tuna here.
If this is the case you are NOT to dip your sushi into the soy sauce and it would offend the chef if you did. My seat mate and husband caught me before I almost made this errant move. Phew. When you do receive a piece of sushi that has not been sauced you can dip that into your soy sauce. IMPORTANT: do not let the rice touch the soy sauce. Turn the sushi over and dip the fish into the soy not the other way around (like what I have always done in the states). Follow these considerations and all will be well.
When rectangles of egg arrive that is your signal that the dinner service is complete. Good luck! On our sushi dinner evening we were lucky to be seated next to an english speaking local who frequented the restaurant often. He tapped my shoulder within minutes of us sitting down and said “Please ask me any questions you want.” So we did and our evening was that much better for it. Side bonus to the conversation was the look of delight on his face with every piece of sushi he devoured. His gleeful joy was contagious made the experience that much more pleasurable.
Our group thoroughly loved our time in Tokyo. While the city is bright and crowded and chaotic much like NYC, the town we call our home, it is other worldly and offers such a contrasting and refreshing interpretation of city living that was a privilege to experience. Highly recommend you grab your group and go to Tokyo too.