Tune in Tokyo with Sean Agnew
There aren’t a lot of “must sees” in Tokyo. Japan is one of the most foreign and “different” countries on the planet in every way imaginable, especially in Tokyo. Best advice: Just walk around and pop in and out of any place that looks interesting to you. It’s more about experiencing Tokyo/Japanese culture than it is seeing specific things.
However, you should definitely try and do these things:
You absolutely have to go no matter what - most amazing and confusing place - worth every cent ($50). It’s basically a Vegas style show with women in weird futuristic bikinis fighting each other while riding dinosaurs and giant robots. The owner paid $90 million dollars to build this place. So dumb/funny/strange.
Yep. This is where they started. A tiny all wood cocktail lounge on the second floor of a building that sells bicycles and drinks. Another bar that has a rare mix of foreigners and Japanese. Located in the quiet and cool Nakameguro district (about 15 minutes from Shibuya). This area is often referred to as “The Williamsburg of Tokyo” but that’s early 2000s Williamsburg (with way less coke bars).
The most hidden and difficult bar I have ever had to find but well worth it. It’s on the third floor of a nondescript office building. You’ll swear “this cant be it” until you stumble upon this warehouse / loft space with some couches and lounge chairs and a tiny counter bar. Just enough space to dance without it feeling like a “club”. When I went it was filled with a bunch of models, Japanese artists and pretty great music. The owner makes/distributes his own brand of Club Mate. If you want to make it a big night, make sure you order one with a shot of Jaeger (they’ll mix it for you in the bottle).
No Website (Pro tip: search for Berry geo-tagged pics on Instagram.)
A “cool” dive-y bar in Shibuya. Go around midnight on a weekend. It’s a rare mix with of Japanese + foreigners. Lots of music, art and fashion people hang out there. The legendary Katoman is the manager there. Most bands that play Tokyo will stop by for a night or two. It’s the kind of place that has Cat Power DJ’ing till 6 in the morning. Lots of people you probably know have been here.
Beat Café doesn’t really have signs, so it can be tough to find and it’s also located on the bottom floor of an office building across from Shibuya O-West. Look for some signs for “Alcatraz” (which is an insane asylum themes bar where they put you in a jail cell and “sexy nurses” delivery your drinks in various syringes. It’s kind of amazing/definitely the worst thing ever). Beat Cafe is in the basement of this building.
Jazz Blues Soul is a small bar that seats about 15 people. The owner Mr. Koboyashi is a legend and has over 5,000 records behind him. He’s not going to come at you with conversation, but if you make some comments about the music, ask some questions about what is playing, you’ll soon have him digging through the shelves for him to play music that he recommends based on your comments. Totally amazing. I stayed late one night as he told stories about seeing Digital Underground in the 90s. A+
Tiny bars that only seat 3-5 people, so cool. There are 200+ bars all next to each other in Shinjinku. Each one has a theme, there is a punk one, a horror movie + death metal one (named Death Match) etc. You typically have to pay a $5-$10 cover charge because the bars are so small, so it gets expensive to bounce around from place to place. Try 2 or three before settling on the one you like. I HIGHLY recommend one named, Nightingale. They play really cool music. All vinyl. Every song the bartender played was super sick and weird. Would have gone back every night if I could, learned so much about new music. Great to do after Robot restaurant since they are close.
Best Meal: Kaikaya
This was the greatest meal I ever ate in Japan. Actually in my life. Don’t order from the menu. Just ask for the “special set”. Everyone that was with me freaked out about how good it was. We couldn’t believe it and it was only $40 for about eight courses that filled everyone up. They have two restaurants, try and go to the one further down the street. It’s way more “hip” and filled with younger waiters and cooks wearing Yankees hats. Way more fun. Lots of loud cheers’ing and free drinks to go around. It’s located in Shibuya, so it’s easy to get to.
Prepare yourself for the greatest record shopping on the planet. After a few trips you realize that no one takes better care of their vinyl than the Japanese. There are hundreds of specialty shops littered all over Tokyo, A good place to start is with the popular independent chain, Disc Union and their locations in Shibuya and Shinjinku. I’m not sure how or why, but the rarest punk, rock, hiphop, disco, soul and jazz all somehow ends up at their stores for cheaper than E-bay prices. There are about 20+ locations located within a 40 minute train ride of Tokyo. Not much English is spoken but you won’t need it as the majority of the signage will be in English.
List of locations in English :
Totally insane 13 story Japanese future style mall in Harajuki — the weirdest clothes EVER. The famed “Harajuku Girls” don’t really exist these days, but if they did, this is where they would go.
Harajuku Vintage Shops
Greatest vintage stores EVER. All along Harajuku Street (and another street right alongside it). You are going to pay for it, but where else can you purchase original Black Flag tour shirts, bootleg Gucci sweatshirts, vintage Jordan’s from the 80s or every imaginable skate shirt from the 80s.
Sushi from Tsukiji Fish Market
This is arguably the freshest sushi in the world. You can see the tuna auctions at 5am which is super crazy and fascinating, but it requires waiting in line for 90 minutes starting at 3am. Might be best just to get breakfast around there. Here is a good guide that recommends where to eat.
Meiji Jingu Park/Shrine
Really pretty park with historic temples and the like. Basically the Central Park of Tokyo. It’s 15-20 minute walk or just one metro stop away from Shibuya. Good place to get away from the crazy city life. Grab a bento box from Food Show (see below) and take it here for a nice afternoon in the park.
Shibuya Food Show
This is in the basement of the Tokyu building right next to/attached to the Shibuya train station. There are about 100+ little stalls selling all sorts of Japanese food. It’s take out only so you can’t eat there, but you can grab some amazing snacks or treats on your way to other places or to take back to your room.
Awesome City views
To get a great view of the city in Shinjuku, visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjinku. It’s free! In Shibuya, go to the top floor/bar of the Cerulean Hotel (very close to Grandbell Hotel). Drinks are kind of expensive, but it offers an amazing view of the “famous” Shibuya crossing. Really pretty just before/after the sun sets.
It can be super intimidating because most Japanese residents do not speak English, but Japanese people are so nice and friendly and are willing to try and work it out. It’s worth learning a few quick Japanese phrases. I phonetically wrote out the phrases for: “Do you speak English?”; “Do you have an English menu?”; “Check please.”; “Thank you”; etc and kept a picture of it on my phone. It came in handy many times and I was able to eat at some restaurants that would normally turn western people away because I gave it a little bit of effort.
The most frustrating parts of Tokyo (besides not many people speaking English) are: no western address system (as in 145 Belmont Ave); none of the streets have names; and none of the buildings have numbers. It can be really tough and confusing to find places. Try and research locations as much as possible. Make sure you find out what exit to take out of a train station (sometimes different exits for the same station can literally be almost a mile apart). Thankfully Google has done an amazing job of mapping out the city and linking it to the train schedules. If you’re not sure what your foreign data plan is like, look into renting a SIM card or an entire phone if your phone is not unlocked. Google Translate and Google Maps is SOOOOO valuable in Tokyo. I recommend this place. The owner is from America and speaks perfect English and can help with any problems for about $10 a day.
Make sure you convert a decent amount of your currency into Japanese Yen. 99% of the ATMs will not work with American cards. All shops and the nicer restaurants will take credit cards – but there are a lot of places that do not (such as the subway, trains, taxis, cheaper restaurants, almost all bars). It’s good to always have cash. Japan/Tokyo is so safe – you don’t need to worry about theft or muggings.
Another piece of advice: consider leaving Tokyo for a day or two and visit another part of Japan. Tokyo is a gigantic, loud crowded city – there are other parts of Japan which are so quiet and peaceful and are really worth seeing. It’s very easy to get around with their famous bullet trains. However it’s QUITE expensive, but as a tourist can buy a “rail pass” which allows you unlimited trips on most of the trains (and metros and subways) at a greatly discounted price. You can also use it for a free ride to/from the airport (which is typically $40 r/t). You have to buy the rail pass while outside of the country and they will mail it to you. If you are not leaving Tokyo, there is no need to get it. You can find out all the info about the rail pass here: http://www.japan-rail-pass.com
Sean Agnew lives in Philadelphia and has been putting on punk/indie/rock shows as R5 Productions since the late 90s. He loves world travel and all things Japanese and Southeast Asian. Follow him here: https://instagram.com/fagnew/