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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
Senso-ji in Asakusa.
Senso-ji in Asakusa. (Irwin Wong/For The Washington Post)
CITY GUIDE

A local’s guide to Tokyo

Senso-ji in Asakusa.
Senso-ji in Asakusa. (Irwin Wong/For The Washington Post)
  • By Yukari Sakamoto
  • Photos by Irwin Wong
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Neighborhoods
Eat
Do
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The sprawling metropolis is so big that even lifelong residents will never really know certain neighborhoods. There is always something to uncover or a new area to explore.

The food is amazing, and it’s easy to eat like an emperor, even on a budget. There is respect for others, which explains why packed trains are quiet. The city is devoid of litter despite the relatively few trash cans. The country is so safe that 6-year-olds are expected to walk to school by themselves, and attention to detail is evident across the landscape, from how stores present items for sale to how food is packaged. It’s a peaceful society. Our transit-system cars are clean and frequent. And we have the best toilets in the world. It all makes visitors fall hard for Japan.

Meet Yukari Sakamoto

Born in Tokyo, raised in Minnesota and drawn back to the Japanese capital to be closer to relatives, Yukari is the author of “Food Sake Tokyo.” She offers tours to local markets and cooking classes out of her home. On her days off, she can be found relaxing in onsen, or hot springs.

Want to get in touch?

Email bytheway@washpost.com
Read more about Yukari
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IN THE ACTION
Shibuya
The “Shibuya scramble” crossing is the busiest intersection in the world and must be experienced — or at least observed. Young Tokyoites come here for food, fashion and secondhand music shops near this busy but very safe station. It is a short walk to explore other hip neighborhoods like Ebisu, Nakameguro and Daikanyama. Shibuya Station has many train lines (including two that many tourists will use: Ginza subway line and Yamanote JR line) that make it convenient for seeing the rest of the city. Find this neighborhood.
LOW-KEY
Tokyo Station
The area around Tokyo Station is surprisingly quiet in the evenings. Marunouchi, the financial district, has the luxury hotel brands Aman, Hoshinoya and Tokyo Station Hotel, while the opposite side, Yaesu, has business hotels that offer small and simple rooms. Yaesu is the gateway to the historic Nihonbashi district and the shopper’s paradise of Ginza. Being close to this railway station is convenient when you’ve arrived after a long flight, or for a planned trip beyond the city on the Shinkansen bullet train. Find this neighborhood.
Neighborhoods

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Eat

BREAKFAST
Yakumo Saryo
It’s a bit out of the city but worth the train ride for the morning tea and traditional savory breakfast of rice, fish and vegetables that finishes with wagashi (a traditional sweet). Its Sabo teahouse offers a chance to escape from the city and nourish yourself with a healthful start to the day in a quiet sanctuary. Follow the restaurant’s request to live in the moment without trying to sneak a photo. Also, dress up a bit; don’t show up in shorts.
BTW: Reservations are required. And If you’re a coffee drinker, have it before you arrive. This place is all about tea.
Yakumo Saryo, Meguro-ku, Yakumo 3-4-7
BREAKFAST
Koffee Mameya Kakeru
Located in a former warehouse, Koffee Mameya Kakeru is reminiscent of a sushi counter, with baristas in sharp, white lab coats and black bow ties serving behind the bar. Owner Eiichi Kunitomo works with roasters from around the world to source beans for the shop. Coffee aficionados can taste nuances of the same bean in flights (or a la carte cups) of cold brew, espresso, lattes and mocktails. Bite-size sweets come from nearby pastry shop Un Grain. High ceilings and a sleek interior keep a customer’s focus on each drink.
BTW: Kakeru also serves enticing coffee cocktails, so think about returning for predinner drinks. Reservations are required.
Tokyo-to, Koto-ku, Hirano 2-16-14
LUNCH
Taniya
Handmade flour noodles are cut in the front window of this casual udon shop, whose noodles have a rich, al dente texture. Aficionados will tell you they prefer the cold noodles over hot. Be sure to order some tempura with your noodles, such as kashiwa-ten chicken, soft-boiled egg, lotus root or a minty shiso leaf. The owner, Tani-san, is from Kagawa prefecture, famous for its udon.
BTW: Ningyocho is a neighborhood worth exploring. Walk up and down the Amazake Yokocho street lined with shops.
Taniya, 2-chōme-15-17 Nihonbashiningyōchō, 中央区 Chūō-ku, Tōkyō-to 103-0013, Japan
LUNCH
Sougo
Chef Daisuke Nomura collected two Michelin stars at his family’s shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian) restaurant Daigo before opening Sougo in Roppongi. Following the same principles — including a no-waste philosophy that encourages cooking with every part of a vegetable — Sougo’s contemporary shojin menu is healthy and sustainable. Lunch is typically either a vegetable curry or a set of a few small dishes with rice, soup and pickles. Multi-course kaiseki meals are available at dinner or midday.
BTW: Sougo makes some dishes with a fish stock, so request in advance for a completely vegetarian meal.
Tokyo-to, Minato-ku, Roppongi 6-1-8, Roppongi Green Building 3rd floor
DINNER
Tempura Arai
Tempura Arai is the sister shop to the famous Kagurazaka Tenko tempura shop and is about half the price. This newer, intimate restaurant is hidden on cobbled back streets. Twelve seats surround an open-counter kitchen (to snag one, best to make reservations) where you can watch as the chef dips the seafood and vegetables into batter before deep-frying in a copper pot. Part of the dining experience is listening to the tempura as it fries.
BTW: After your meal, get lost within the network of back streets.
Tempura Arai, Shinjuku-ku, Kagurazaka 4-8
DINNER
Kitchen Nankai
Curry is comfort food, as is tonkatsu (breaded, deep-fried pork cutlets). Kitchen Nankai is where these two dishes first united as katsu curry, and the combination of rice, crunchy cutlet and spicy sauce is winning. The curry is an intense, almost black color, rich in spices. This old-school cafeteria draws Japanese foodies from all over the country.
BTW: The sweet red fukujinzuke pickles on the table will tame the curry’s heat.
Kitchen Nankai, Chiyoda-ku, Kanda Jinbocho 1-5
LATE-NIGHT
Tsurutontan
Japanese people tend to eat on the early side (about 6 p.m.), so many restaurants close earlier. But Tsurutontan is an udon noodle shop that stays open later. Its udon is presented in huge bowls that surprise even the locals. The menu has a big selection of hot and cold noodles as well as small, seasonal dishes for sharing (tempura, sashimi, sushi and pickles).
BTW: There is also a branch in Shinjuku with the same business hours.
Tsurutontan, Minato-ku, Roppongi 3-14-12
LATE-NIGHT
Takano fruit parlor (Shinjuku)
Japan is the land of the $100 muskmelon (for gift-giving), and when it comes to shops and restaurants, only meticulously cared-for — or “high-end” — strawberries, peaches, grapes and other seasonal fruits are used in desserts, either served as-is or in a larger creation. Specialty fruit shops such as the Takano chain offer cut fruit, parfaits and juice, as well as savory sandwiches. Only unblemished specimens will make it to this brightly lit, white-walled flagship parlor.
BTW: The epicurean basement floors of major department stores have fruit dessert counters and juice bars.
Takano fruit parlor, Shinjuku-ku, Shinjuku 3-26-11
(Tokyo illustrator Shinya Nakahara for The Washington Post)
LOCALS THINK YOU SHOULD KNOW
  1. Consideration for others, especially in public spaces, is valued. Be quiet on the train and in restaurants, and carry your backpack in front of you during rush hour.
  2. Morning trains are crowded beyond your imagination. Don’t even think about traveling with your suitcases during rush hour. Use a luggage-delivery service to avoid that situation.
  3. Leave the ripped jeans and beach sandals at home. In our more-formal society, well-dressed tourists will probably be better received at restaurants, tourist sites and stores.
(Tokyo illustrator Shinya Nakahara for The Washington Post)

Do

Tsukiji Market
This wholesale seafood market has moved to Toyosu, but contrary to popular belief, Tsukiji Market is still open with about 400 shops and restaurants. Bring your passport if you plan on shopping, since some shops are duty-free. Popular items include knives, Japanese tea, kitchenware and dishes. While most tourists here are lining up for sushi, locals are here for the offal stew at Kitsuneya or chicken and egg oyakodon at Toritoh.
BTW: Start your morning at Turret Coffee, at Tsukiji 2-12-6, before heading into the market.
Tōkyō-to, Chūō-ku, Tsukiji 2-12-6
Sakurai Tea
On the fifth floor, in a dim, moody space over a dark counter, a tea master in a white lab coat carefully brews each cup to draw out the best flavors. Explore the many types of Japanese tea: a savory gyokuro, smoky bancha or a toasty roasted hojicha. Select a wagashi sweet to pair with your drink. There are only eight seats so be sure to make a reservation.
BTW: If cocktails are your preference, order the flight of tea spirits.
Sakurai Tea, Minato-ku, Minami-Aoyama 5-6-23, Spiral Building
Kappabashi Kitchenware District
Home cooks will be pleasantly inundated with the colorful variety of tools and decor at Kappabashi, the wholesale district for restaurateurs. Tableware shop Dengama is the unofficial gateway to a long street lined with more than 150 stores specializing in everything needed to open a restaurant. Popular souvenirs to bring home include chopsticks, Japanese knives, teapots and bento lunch boxes. Realistic plastic-food replicas are available as refrigerator magnets, keychains or phone covers.
BTW: Kappabashi is a short walk from the historic Asakusa district and Tokyo’s oldest temple, Sensoji, dating back more than 1,300 years.
Dengama, Taito-ku, Nishi-Asakusa 1-4-3
Sugamo shotengai (shopping arcade)
Shotengai are pedestrian arcades traditionally lined with mom-and-pop shops. Many in the metropolis are slowly disappearing, but the Sugamo shotengai is still popular and busy. A visit here feels like stepping back in time. Here you will find seafood markets, butchers, sweets and traditional Japanese coffee. Peruse the shops for sticky mochi cakes stuffed with azuki bean paste, rice crackers, pickles and local souvenirs.
BTW: Have some soba noodles at Kikutani, or breaded and deep-fried seafood lunch sets, or combos, at Tokiwa Shokudo.
Toshima-ku, Sugamo 3-14-20
Kadokawa Culture Museum
Manga and anime fans will be familiar with the publishing house Kadokawa, also known for its novels. The museum, a monolithic structure of 20,000 granite stones, draws architecture fans to the suburbs to appreciate Kengo Kuma’s design. Inside is a repository for 50,000 books on shelves that stretch nearly 30 feet high. The campus includes the modern Musashino Reiwa Shrine (also designed by Kuma), an anime-themed hotel, Kadokawa offices and the company’s cafeteria, which is open to the public. The museum started requiring reservations during the pandemic.
BTW: Digital-technology art house teamLab has a permanent night exhibit of glowing acorn-like objects in a small forest on the grounds.
Kadokawa Culture Museum, Saitama-ken, Tokorozawa-shi, Higashi-Tokorozawa Wada 3-31-3
Niwa no Yu onsen
Our island nation is home to active volcanoes, so the country is blessed with many onsen — hot springs — used for relaxing and health. If your travels outside of Tokyo don’t take you near an onsen destination, then be sure to hit up one in or near the city: Niwa no Yu, in the suburbs, is the perfect choice. Sourced by an all-natural spring, this one has a variety of water features and saunas, an outdoor bath, a bar and a Japanese restaurant. You could park yourself here for an entire half-day.
BTW: Schedule a massage and allow time for a nap in the relaxation room after a long soak.
Niwa no Yu onsen, 3-25-1 Mukoyama, Nerima-ku, Tokyo
Yukari Sakamoto
Born in Tokyo, raised in Minnesota and drawn back to the Japanese capital to be closer to relatives, Yukari is the author of “Food Sake Tokyo.” She offers tours to local markets and cooking classes out of her home. On her days off, she can be found relaxing in onsen, or hot springs.
Irwin Wong
Irwin is a contributing photographer to The Washington Post based in the madhouse that is Tokyo. Though an Australian transplant, he has spent his entire photographic career in Japan and specializes in portraiture and documenting subcultures and ancient traditions. His favorite thing about Tokyo is how vast and unknowable it still seems, even after all this time.

CITY GUIDES