How to Navigate a Solo Wander Through Tokyo
One of the great perks of my job is travelling internationally but I'm often hesitant to add extra days to my trip to explore around on my own. Adding time to the front or back-end of a trip is a no-brainer in theory but if things are busy at work, or if I'm tired of being on the road, I try to return home as soon as I can. That was not the case on my recent trip to Japan. I've been wanting to travel to Tokyo for as long as I wanted to travel anywhere and I wasn't cutting this experience short.
I've learned to really love and appreciate the challenge, and the peace, that comes with solo travel. Don't get me wrong, there's no one I'd rather travel with than Joe but it was such an incredible experience to explore a totally new destination, completely out of my comfort zone and entirely on my own. I was only in Tokyo for three days so I didn't have a chance to get homesick, even though there was often something insane or hilarious that I really wish I could have shared with someone else. It's also impossible to take cute travel photos without a photographer, but I digress...
So let's start from the beginning. The flight was long, as you can imagine, two hours from Denver to Dallas Ft. Worth and then 14 hours to Tokyo's Narita Airport. God Bless Bose's Noise Cancelling Headphones. There are two major airports that serve Tokyo -- Narita and Haneda -- and if you're traveling from North America you're likely to arrive into Narita which is about 40 miles outside of the city. Due to intense traffic and a city known for very expensive taxis, I did some very thorough Googling to ensure I could take the train from the airport to Shinjuku, where I was staying. Thankfully there are a lot of websites that help navigate Tokyo's rail system and I relied on Rome 2 Rio pretty heavily because I obviously couldn't read the signs or ask for directions. It's a very intense feeling to be jet lagged, hungry and aware that your options to ask for help are very limited due to a language barrier.
So I haul my luggage and my tired self onto the Keisei Express, transfer at Nippori Station and am really damn proud of myself for finally arriving at Shinjuku Station an hour later because my little map tells me this station is just a few blocks from my hotel. I pull my luggage off of the train and quickly realize that I'm in waaaay over my head. None of guide books told me that the Shinjuku Train Station holds the Guinness World Record for the busiest train station in the world and has over 200 entrances and 36 platforms. WTF. It’s actually hard to describe just how big this train station was -- it was like a mini city underneath Tokyo and ending up being much farther than just a few blocks from my hotel.
So I pop out above ground in the middle of Shinjuku and it's truly the modern Tokyo that you dream of. I'm in Blade Runner. Everywhere I turn it's a futuristic -- neon lights, towering skyscrapers, huge electronic stores and gaudy pachinko parlors. It has the same bustling atmosphere of Times Square but taller, brighter and just more. So much more. After a lot of pointing and hand gestures, I'm able to not only hail a cab, but direct the cab driver to my hotel, the insanely beautiful Park Hyatt Tokyo.
The Park Hyatt Tokyo is a bit of a splurge but 100% worth it. Not many hotels can boast the immortalization that comes with being a supporting character in a movie like Lost in Translation and while there weren't any Bill Murray sightings, there was swanky mood lighting and a mini bar full of expensive Japanese whiskey waiting for me. It's way more expense account than authentic Japanese experience but toward the end of my stay, after full days of new flavors and new sounds, it was pretty great to come back to some familiarity and a Western breakfast each morning.
The real show stopper at the Park Hyatt is New York Bar which sits on the 52nd floor of the hotel. That high up, the views are phenomenal but first, you have to find your way there, which is intentionally difficult. It's a bit of a maze but I strongly believe that anything good must be earned and oh, is this place good. The views are wonderful, the champagne is ice cold and there's live jazz every night. It's an experience.
In a city this large, hotels run from the wildly luxurious Aman to the super cool Trunk Hotel to tons of economy choices in between for budget travelers. I looked at a lot of different options and given my short stay, I knew that I wanted to be centrally located and close to a lot of trains. Finding the right hotel fit really all depends on where you want to be, what you want to see and how much you're willing to spend.
It's time to talk about food because trust me, there's a lot to say.
For a quick idea of scale, New York City has around 30,000 restaurants while Tokyo has an overwhelming 160,000. But Tokyo’s hold as the world’s most exciting dining destination isn’t a quantity thing: it’s all about quality. There are a dozen factors that make Japanese food so special—ingredients, technical precision, thousands of years of meticulous refinement—but chief among them is one simple concept: specialization. In the Western world, miso-braised short ribs often share menu space with cobb salads whereas in Japan, the secret to success is doing one thing and doing it really well. The concept of shokunin, an artisan deeply and singularly dedicated to his or her craft, is at the core of Japanese culture. Tokyo is the city of ten thousand shokunin and if you come to Japan to eat, you come for them.
Omoide Yokocho (Memory Lane) was my favorite street in Tokyo, and truly a must-see thanks to an old No Reservations episode with Anthony Bourdain raving about these yakitori stalls. What started as an illegal drinking quarter in the mid-1900s is now one of the grittiest lanes in Tokyo. Tucked behind Shinjuku Station, Memory Lane is home to a collection of tiny yakitori and noodle stalls that feel like Japan back during WWII. I won't pretend that it's not intimidating to walk into a six-seat bar where you can really only point at things on a menu, but this is where you find the good stuff—a place where the chef and the staff are unwaveringly dedicated to their craft. Memory Lane is dark and moody with red lanterns lighting up the alley and yakitori smoke filling the air but you've gotta go. You have to. For Bourdain.
Choosing a ramen place in a city like Tokyo is daunting so to make it easy, I just went with a name I knew - Ippudo. I spent more time than I'd like to admit waiting on the curb in the East Village waiting for a table at the NYC Ippudo, why not in Ginza? The Classic Ramen, also known as Shiromaju Motoaji, is pork broth with slippery soba noodles and it's just delicious. The restaurant serves mugi tea instead of water which sounds odd but the bitter aftertaste of the barley tea enhances the pork flavors of the ramen broths, somehow sharpening the richness. It's the ultimate comfort food.
I'm also a rabid dumpling fiend and have taken my #dumplinghunter efforts to four continents now so I had to try out Harajuku Gyoza. A total casual place, they've perfected the art of Chinese-style dumplings. The menu is simple: pan fried dumplings or steamed dumplings with your choice of original or garlic and leek in addition to other snacks like sliced cucumbers in miso sauce. Where else can you get six freshly made, perfectly cooked dumplings for only $2.50? Did I also mention it was open until 4:30AM everyday but Sunday? If there's better drunk food, I can't imagine.
I was also really surprised to find out that coffee culture is a huge thing in Tokyo. Cafe Kitsune is endlessly chic (it's owned by Parisiens so, obviously) and the fusion of French elegance and the attention to detail is amazing.
Also located in Omotesando is Koffee Mameya. Koffee Mameya ain't a Starbucks, let's just say that. The staff call themselves 'coffee sommeliers' and they take that role very seriously. Their sole purpose is to find the ultimate beans from around the world, roast them to perfection and then advise you on how to brew the perfect cup at home. It's so specific and so Japanese.
The Robot Restaurant is hands down the most touristy thing I've ever done, but its also the greatest show I've ever seen. It's 90 minutes of sheer bizarre insanity with robots, dragons, ninjas, blue-haired dancers, drums, a whole lot of neon lights and frenetic, loud music. It’s not good in a New York Times Theater Review sense of the word but, if you let go and let God, you may find yourself reaching a new plane of understanding and aesthetic appreciation for the sheer maniacal exuberance of it all. Pro tip: it's called a 'restaurant' in name only, you don't want to eat here.
I love to throw in my earbuds and wander through a new city and trust me, just walking around Tokyo was interesting...and hard. What made things confusing is that the majority of small side streets aren't named, addresses refer to a series of concentric areas, streets are sometimes numbered according to when they were built rather than their location and taxi drivers respond to landmarks not street numbers. It's maddening. I learned very quickly that before setting out, it was a good idea to have maps queued up on my phone with point-to-point directions. That said, just strolling through Ginza and Harajuku was fantastic with amazing contemporary architecture and photo ops around every corner.
Surprisingly, some of my favorite wandering happened around Tokyo's shrines and temples. I couldn't believe how peaceful and amazingly well-preserved they were. As places of worship, an underlying sense of reflection fluttered through the hustle of people and even among the selfie-sticked tourists.
Sensō-ji was my first stop. It's the oldest Buddhist shrine in Tokyo, founded in 628, and according to legend came about after two brothers fished a statue of the goddess of mercy from the Sumida River and built Sensō-ji as tribute. You know, as one does. You first enter the complex by passing through Kaminari-mon (the Thunder Gate), where a massive red chocin lantern hangs above everyone who passes. Beyond the gate, Tokyo's largest souvenir market, Nakamise-dōri, bustles with stalls selling trinkets and treats from crafts to pancake-like sweets filled with red bean paste. Through the shops, another beautiful gate stands in front of the temple's main hall and a five storied pagoda. This was baby's first pagoda so my jaw literally dropped as soon as I saw it. It's stunning and an absolutely must-see.