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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
Customers enjoy snacks and coffee at Re:gendo.
Customers enjoy snacks and coffee at Re:gendo.
CITY GUIDE

A local’s guide to Tokyo

Customers enjoy snacks and coffee at Re:gendo.
Customers enjoy snacks and coffee at Re:gendo.
  • By Yukari Sakamoto
  • Photos by Irwin Wong
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Neighborhoods
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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
Honnoriya
Inside Tokyo Station’s Yaesu Central Exit, you’ll find this quick-serve spot serving onigiri — rice balls stuffed with savory ingredients like spicy cod roe, pickled greens and ikura salmon roe. Pickled vegetables, spinach in a sesame dressing, salads and miso soup round out the menu. Health-conscious diners can go for the 10-grains option of rice balls. Open at 6 a.m., this shop is perfect for travelers catching an early-morning bullet train.
BTW: Check out the seasonal menu first and be sure to order a side of karaage fried chicken.
Honnoriya, Chiyoda-ku, Marunouchi 1-9-1, Tokyo Station
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, like 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 historic shops.
Taniya, 2-chōme-15-17 Nihonbashiningyōchō, 中央区 Chūō-ku, Tōkyō-to 103-0013, Japan
LUNCH
D47 Shokudo
At D47 Shokudo, floor-to-ceiling windows overlook Shibuya Station. A shokudo is a cafeteria, and the menu at D47 changes monthly featuring regional foods from about a half-dozen of Japan’s 47 prefectures. The colorful lunch “sets,” typically with a main and sides, are served on a wooden tray with dishware from famous domestic kilns. D47 has a curated boutique on the same floor as the restaurant selling kitchenware, tableware and some pantry items. If you liked a plate from your meal, it may be available at the shop.
BTW: Order a flight of sake to see how regional differences are reflected in the local drink.
D47 Shokudo, Shibuya-ku, Shibuya 2-21-8, Hikarie Building 8F
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. (Temporarily closed)
Kitchen Nankai, Chiyoda-ku, Kanda Jinbocho 1-5
LATE-NIGHT
Tsurutontan
Japanese 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 queuing 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
Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center
Located between Shinbashi and Toranomon stations is a sake and shochu education center, open only during weekday business hours. There is a long menu of sake, shochu (which is distilled, and more potent), fruit liqueurs and other fermented beverages available in small pours. Try some of the fruit liqueurs and amazake, a probiotic drink that is naturally sweet but without added sugar.
BTW: Call in advance to reserve the free sake class in English.
Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center, 2-chome-1 Uchisaiwaicho
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’ll 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
Suigian
An intimate dinner theater in the heart of the old merchants’ district of Nihonbashi. Traditional arts such as noh drama or nihonbuyo dancing, rarely seen so close up, are presented with live music. Any language barrier will quickly be overcome by the engaging costumes, music, and performance. The sushi meal is from Sushiei, one of the country’s oldest Edo-style sushiya, having opened in 1848.
BTW: Splurge for the seats near the stage. (Temporarily closed.)
Suigian, Chuo-ku, Nihonbashi-Muromachi 2-5-10 B1
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