Before arriving in Tokyo, I had attempted to plot out my meals. I had enough time for seven. But as I researched the city, a place that has the most Michelin-starred restaurants than any other destination in the world, I began to feel overwhelmed. The best sushi in Tokyo was upwards of $200 per person and closed on Sundays, one of the two full days that I would be in Tokyo. And how did I narrow down the ramen spots? What about kaiseki?
Many of you might be reading this and saying things like, “Just go to the first Outback Steakhouse you see.” Or “Isn’t sushi just sushi. I mean it’s fish on rice.” If you are one of those people, I think it be best we part ways for now. It’s like one of those if-you’re-listening-with-children podcast warnings, it’s best you tune out.
For those still with me, I spent a few sleepless nights before the trip, trying to decide between the next few 529 investments for my daughter’s college and a single sushi meal. Trying to figure out if Monday would be best for an izakaya in Shimbuya or the one in Setagaya. And if so, which one? And what would I order? The Internet was no help, cluttered with every writer’s personal preferences, and more top-five-Tokyo-restaurant lists than I could count, none of which brought a reader to any consensus. My search became obsessive and then maddening.
I knew that I was left with two choices: seek therapy or abandon all advice and just get lost in Tokyo.
Seeking Out The Best Thing to Do in Tokyo Without Notes
When I arrived in Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, while waiting for a train to the city, I asked a local for an izakaya recommendation, which is essentially a bar with a chef who takes pride in his work unlike the cooks at a pub getting as complicated as burgers with cheddar or burgers with swiss. She suggested a place in Shimbashi.
I dropped my bags off at the hotel and found myself later that evening in Shimbashi. The area was empty, except for a few ladies who were suggesting massages and men in suits trying to corral the few people stumbling about the district into their bars or restaurants. Most places were dark and the izakaya that had been recommended to me was closed.
I figured I would head back to the hotel and go back to my research, abandoning the plan to abandon my plans. But as I made my way to the station, a wood-framed restaurant was slightly abuzz with life. I slid open the door and sat at one of the box stools along the bar. Behind me a few diners sat on tatami mats, picking at the creature that had been hiding and was now cooked in its turban shell. The izakaya was called Tanuki–named for the raccoon, a creature that represents prosperous business in Japan and is less associated with garbage-tipping and rabies–and statues of the critter sit atop the bar.
I ordered a beer and asked for sashimi and then asked the men to my left a question. This led to a boisterous conversation, where we relied on short English fragments and translation apps. I think he was trying to tell me about the bony white fish that he had allowed me to pick at with my chopsticks, but his phone read: “Or American capital is to eat whale.”
The waitress delivered a pile of tuna chunks to me. They were dark ruby red and wonderful. The men next to me winced at the amount of wasabi I added to my soy sauce and nearly cried heresy when they saw how I dunked the fish in the mixture.
The next morning was squandered to a few housekeeping items–getting my rail pass, realizing that I needed a passport to activate it, returning to the hotel, repeating the attempt again. After all that was taken care of, I found myself consulting my food list again, which I had jotted down during those maddening days when I thought plotting out my eating itinerary was the best approach. I asked the concierge at my hotel to help me find the restaurants that I was considering. But all of the places were closed, too far, or too costly, and the return to my list just ended up wasting an hour.
I was starving and asked a random person for a food recommendation. They pointed me to a ramen shop down the hill. The area was under construction and I couldn’t see it from the street, but when I walked down into the cement alcove beneath the train tracks, there was a line of people out the door. I walked over to the ramen machine, inserted my yen, and pressed a button on the electronic menu the way one would select a drink from a soda from a machine. I grabbed my receipt and joined the queue. The ramen was phenomenal.
Stuffed, I figured I would do some sight seeing. All of the guidebooks had pointed me to the districts most illuminated at night and most shopped by day. But since I hate shopping and anything resembling Times Square makes me experience reverse peristalisis, I headed for the third recommendation on my list, the ancient Asakusa area.
When I arrived in Ueno, the train station that is one stop from Asakusa, instead of transferring to the subway line that would take me directly there, I decided to walk. But every time I asked someone to point me in the direction of Asakusa, they all looked horrified. “It’s too hot out. Take the train,” they all would say, reproaching me for considering a walk that each person estimated to be between 20 and 90 minutes. Regardless, I set off on foot to Asakusa and it wound up being the highlight of my day.
First, in desperate need of coffee, I passed an alley with the hood of a van sticking out from a garage. There was a furled flag, which looked to contain a familiar word; the word was “Coffee” and a tall Japanese man sat hunched over in a brown van brewing espresso. It was the tastiest latte I had ever enjoyed (perhaps improved by the afternoon heat and my need for caffeine to assuage the pounding in my head).
With my drink, I stumbled down the road and found all sorts of other unplanned treasures, like the very site where Judo had been born and the Kappabashi Hondori, a kitchenware district in Tokyo, selling everything from ramen strainers to plastic sushi for restaurant display. But the greatest find was a small izakaya area, just before the Asakusa District, called Hoppy Street. Dozens of straw mats helped shade the drinkers sitting outside and the sunlight made the red lanterns a little more transparent. I sat and enjoyed a beer and another large pile of tuna sashimi.
I moved on, into Asakusa District, and stayed there long enough to take one picture, having to abandon the attraction because the rush of tourists and the line on the temple steps was unappealing.
That night, after reading about Shinjuku in my novel, I asked for a map of the area. The concierge suggested I explore the streets of Kabuki Cho. But when I arrived, I was being solicited aggressively for some of the less conservative things the area is known for. So I exited in search of a meal, which is when I found the two alleys of Omoide Yokocho, where two alleys of small izakayas and narrow eateries filled the night air with barbecued meats. I had more beer, more sashimi, and of course, the people at my table, offered up good conversation and some of their roasted octopus and potato.
The best thing to do in Tokyo was to ignore all of the advice.