Food and Fun in Tokyo, Japan
Tokyo was everything I thought it would be and more.
I was so very happy to go on a week-long trip with my family to Japan last month (read about my first impressions of Japan here). We spent five amazing days in Tokyo and as all great vacations go, five days didn’t seem like enough! There were so many things to see and do (and too many things to eat) but we managed to do plenty (and eat more than enough). I had the time of my life and would love to do it all over again.
We arrived in Tokyo via the shinkansen or the bullet train, so-called for its appearance and speed. Those high-speed trains are really impressive – they’re spacious, clean, comfortable, super fast, plus it reminded me of some scenes in The Wolverine. Traveling from Kyoto to Tokyo during the winter gave us some pretty sights, and it was cool seeing the landscape change as we entered Tokyo, with the bright lights and big city feel.
I always imagined Tokyo to be bustling and filled with people, very much like Times Square, and while that was definitely true for some areas (like the Shibuya district pictured above, which is one of the busiest areas and known for the affordable shopping and great night life), there are also other parts of Tokyo that were just quiet and serene (like the Nihonbashi district, where we stayed).
I also always imagined Tokyo to have incredibly delicious food, and that is something that I can personally say is absolutely correct.
On our first night, we went to a kaiten restaurant, or conveyor belt sushi. These are casual restaurants where plates of sushi are in a rotating conveyor belt. You just pick up whatever plate you want before it moves past you, and the bill is tallied by the number and color of plates you have. Technically this is considered fast food and yet everything was so good!
Some tips to remember when eating at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant: 1) most kaiten restaurants are now modernized with individual touch-screen order tablets, where you can order special items like uni, or street urchin, and bacon sushi. Yes, bacon. 2) the green powder is NOT wasabi; it is matcha green tea. Please do not sprinkle it on your salmon like I did. 3) Japanese fried chicken is very good. 4) If you see a plate with scorched salmon nigiri with a strip of mayo on top, get it. Get it fast and eat it good.
(One other tip for Tokyo in general: Read up! One of my favorite “guide books” was Pretty Good Number One and it really helped me prepare and know what to expect. Except for that part about mistaking green tea for wasabi…)
Over the course of five days, we were able to take in a lot of beautiful sights in while partaking in some touristy activities:
Number one was seeing the majestic Mt. Fuji. We went on a day trip from Tokyo (I highly recommend this one), and it included a visit to Mt. Fuji, a cruise around Lake Ashi, and a cable car ride.
Number two was the shopping or more specifically: visiting the department stores. I mentioned in my previous post that the department stores in Japan are huge, and the ones in Tokyo are especially dazzling. I found my happy place in Mitsukoshi, which is like Barney’s on steroids. It has designer goods on several floors, a food exhibition hall at the top floor, an Eataly, a depachika (a gourmet food hall in the basement) and an entire floor section dedicated to chocolates and pastries.
We also ate a lot of soft serve ice cream. And by we I mean just me and my sister Monica, because my parents and Patty thought it was too cold for ice cream (winter? psh!)
We went to The Sky, a new revolving restaurant on the very top floor of one of the major hotels, which gave us great panoramic views of Tokyo. At first I thought I would get dizzy, but it was rotating pretty slowly and the food (buffet style) more than made up for any initial fears of dizziness and height. Just thinking about the tender steak grilled to order and sashimi sliced on the spot is making me want to come back there immediately. But primarily I want to come back because I could see how much my two sisters loved it. Monica, in particular, even though she couldn’t see the sights, really enjoyed feeling the restaurant “move” – she would stand at the center area where the buffet stations are located because that was stationary, and put out her foot to touch the floor so she could feel the restaurant revolve around her. She thought it was so cool, so I did, too. Aren’t vacations made even better when you can see your travel-mates so happy?
We also checked out another popular tourist spot, the Tokyo Sky Tree, which is entirely different from The Sky restaurant. The Sky Tree is the tallest building in Japan, and actually the tallest tower in the world!
So far, we’ve covered sushi, shopping, ice cream, and tourist spots, so what else is missing in a Tokyo vacation? Sake and yakitori, of course. Yakitori means grilled chicken, but it’s also a common term for grilled and skewered meat. I met up with Maiko, one of my friends who used to live in Boston, and we went to a small yakitori bar called Tori Suzu.
We had a couple (several) drinks, and I downed some (a lot) of cocktails made with sake. We ate boiled spinach topped with bonito flakes and tried different parts of the chicken: grilled chicken thighs, chicken tails, chicken “hamburg” (basically chicken meatballs), chicken heart, and chicken neck. You read that right: tail, heart, neck. All delicious. However the best thing I ate at the yakitori restaurant was not grilled, it was boiled. The boiled chicken livers, sprinkled with sea salt and chives, were so so creamy and rich, very much like foie gras. It was easily one of the best things I ate in Tokyo.
And THE best thing I ate?
This. A traditional unagi (eel) bowl with broiled unagi served on top of rice, and an egg quiche with slivers of silken tofu and more eel in the center. We went to this tiny restaurant, Unatomi, which only serves eel. There’s no menu, so you just specify either small, regular, or large. Specializing in just one thing (i.e. eel, sushi, udon, yakitori) lets the restaurant really hone in on making things perfect, and this really was perfect.
Ultimately, my enjoyment wasn’t so much because of the destination, but because of who I was with. Going on vacation with my family meant the world to me. I loved spending each and every day with my sisters and my parents, taking photos of them and with them, eating together, helping each other navigate the unfamiliar streets, even going to Family Mart (ah, Japanese convenience stores… that’s another thing of marvel). Tokyo was extra special because of that.
And obviously I really loved all the food. (Even the fake plastic food looked delicious!) If you’ve been to Tokyo, what was your favorite thing about it?
If you’d like to read more of my travel adventures, please check out my Travel Page.
PS – there’s still time to enter my Stuffed giveaway!