Think you know Tokyo? With so much to offer, from elegant department stores to eccentric cafes and endless helpings of first-rate ramen, be prepared to rediscover this dazzling city over and over again.
Where to go
Start in Ginza, where you’ll find glitzy jewellery stores rubbing shoulders with independent fashion brands. Unfortunately, the one thing they usually have in common is their sky-high prices. You can still get a taste of the high life on a budget, however, if you head to Ginza’s restaurants. Most of the good ones are tucked away on the upper floors of buildings, so keep a lookout for the vertical neon signs advertising them.
Shinjuku may be slightly faded, but can still compete with trendier neighbourhoods thanks to its array of department stores; Mitsukoshi, Daimaru, and Lumine all have long histories in the area. Be sure to also check out Takashimaya and Isetan; their products are fun and modern, and they’re both super easy to find (Takashimaya is immediately above the main station).
For something off the beaten path, try Yanaka. It might not yet be on your radar, but its quaint atmosphere makes it one of the hidden gems of Tokyo. Because it was spared from the destruction of the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923) and the worst of the bombings during the second world war, Yanaka is one of the last examples of old Tokyo’s shitamachi (下町) areas, places where the commoners lived. Its shopping street, which offers a variety of knick-knacks, is a sepia-toned look at the past.
If you’re in town during cherry blossom season, don’t forget to check out Yanaka Cemetery, which is one of the prettiest sites for doing some flower-gazing; you can also stop by the grave of Yoshinobu Tokugawa, the last shogun of the Edo period.
What to buy
Harajuku conjures up images of people in extravagant clothing and crepes with 30 different toppings; while this image is mostly true, Harajuku and its neighbour, Omotesando, boast many other types of shopping, such as clothes, bikes, and handicrafts.
Known for its giant multi-directional scramble (crossing), Shibuya also has more to offer than that. It is home to Yoyogi Park, which also features the Meiji Shrine, a Shinto place of worship. For shopping, however, Tower Records is a must-visit; with six floors of the best local and international music CDs, this store is so popular that even the music charts use its sales to measure how well a reocrd does. If you’re into fashion, on the other hand, upscale areas like Ebisu, Daikanyama, and Omotesando are also within easy reach.
Good ramen shops are literally everywhere, from the backstreets of Takadanobaba to the avenues of Ginza. However, because of their scattered nature, there’s no way you could eat ramen from one end of Tokyo to the other in a single trip. A convenient alternative is Tokyo Station’s underground mall, which has a Ramen Street that features every noodle from tsukemen (dipped in a bowl of soup or broth), to tonkotsu (pork bone in soup broth), to local style (curly in soy sauce).
If noodles in soup aren’t your thing (though they should be), good (and cheap) sushi can be found around Ginza. Any branch of Sushizanmai is recommended if only for the novelty of eating at the restaurant whose boss has paid the highest amount of money at the first Tsukiji fish auction every year for the past six years, including 2013, when he paid US$1.3 million for a single bluefin tuna fish.