4 days in tokyo



DAY 1

Bellies full of Okameya bread, we take the bus to Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport. I recommend walking around before going through security, because this airport has the craziest fucking shops I have ever seen. From giant crabs to (more) cheesecake to fried fish balls, this airport is a legit food market. Joyce’s biggest regret is not trying the corn ice cream. Sorry for reminding you, Joycey.

Our 1.5 hour flight to Tokyo passes by quickly, and Joyce and I realize it’s our first-ever flight together. We’ve shared a couple overnight Greyhound rides between New York and Montreal, but a plane ride takes our relationship to a whole new level. Arriving in Tokyo is a tad overwhelming, mostly because getting from the airport to the neighborhood our hostels are in seems complicated. Luckily, we get some help from the information desk, and somehow manage to get to Akasaka in one piece. From the Akasaka subway station, it’s a short walk to Joyce’s capsule hotel, 9-Hours. The capsule hostel has an inhouse café, Glitch Coffee, where Joyce tries an incredible drip coffee. In fact, it’s so incredible that I ask her to buy me a bag to bring back to Cyrus the next day.

Once Joyce is settled in, we make our way to my hostel, which is a few minutes away (the walk much more hilly and physically demanding than either of us expected). Kaisu Hostel is similar to Hostel Yuyu, perhaps even more zen. Its wooden bunks are very cozy and the lobby area is a great hangout spot.

We’ve got a few hours left in the day, and decide to walk to the nearby 21_21 Design Sight, Tokyo’s first design museum. 21_21 is located in a low, contemporary concrete building designed by Tadao Ando. On the ground floor, there is a design-oriented gift shop with products related to the current exhibit. The latter is entitled “Insects: Models for Design”. Full disclosure: I hate insects. I don’t mind looking at them dead, however, which is perfect because the exhibit does not feature any live specimen. Indeed, “Insects: Models for Design” focuses on the incredible diversity of the insect family, and explores what we can learn from these creatures in order to create better designs for humans. The exhibit includes impressive works by designers, architects, artists and engineers, such as sculptures inspired by the structure of larva nests. It’s a very original theme, especially for a museum that I thought would be exhibiting a more straightforward collection of contemporary art. Joyce can correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m fairly certain 21_21 Design Sight is her favorite museum we visited the entire trip.

After the museum, we take a walk through the visibly wealthy neighborhood of Aoyama. Aoyama is filled with high-end fashion stores such as Louis Vuitton, Comme des Garçons, Issey Miyake, and Miu Miu. The Prada store, designed by Herzog and de Meuron, is perhaps the most famous of them all. Its façade looks a little bit like the top part of a mattress — as if the glass were quilted. Even if we don’t enter inside a single building (they’re intimidating), this walk makes for an inspiring architectural experience.

As we walk toward Shibuya, we stop at MUJI Found, a special kind of MUJI store that aims to highlight craftsmanship. From handwoven baskets to hammam towels, it sells more unique, less minimalist items than its regular stores (it’s also more within our budget than the luxury boutiques of Aoyama).

A few minutes’ walk away from the busy streets of Shibuya, we find Nagi Shokudo. This warm and welcoming vegan restaurant that shows up on nearly every best vegetarian restaurant list in Tokyo, and for good reason. On the menu, you can choose between a few Japanese teishoku (meal sets), or order dishes à la carte. At 1,000 Yen, the teishoku are amazing deals. We both order the Nagi A Plate, which includes soy meat karaage (Japanese fried chicken), miso soup, brown rice, and three small sides. The whole thing is beautifully presented, and despite being a tad over-salted, the meatless karaage is divine. I hear Nagi Shokudo’s desserts are also worth trying.

Stores in Shibuya are open pretty late, especially since it’s a Friday night, so we visit a few stores after dinner. Highlights include Itoya, a nice stationery store, and Village Vanguard, a bookstore that also sells a number of random things sorted by theme or fandom (e.g. poop, cats, Miyazaki, and Harry Potter). If there were a Village Vanguard in NYC, it’d be my go-to present shopping destination. There’s actually a J-pop concert about to take place while we’re there, and teenage fangirls are taking over the aisles (which is our cue to start heading out).


DAY 2

I have a very zen breakfast in Kaisu’s mid-century modern café area, and meet Joyce at the nearest subway station. From there, we take the green and brown lines to the Daikanyama stop. Located between Shibuya and Nakameguro, Daikanayama is a peaceful and curated neighborhood full of design-y cafés and boutiques. Its main attraction, which we of course get to see, is Daikanyama T-Site. Located inside a beautiful, modern building, this giant bookstore is essentially an elevated Fnac. It has everything you need to keep yourself entertained: books, records, headphones, magazines (SO many magazines), all sorted by department (for instance, there’s a food magazine section, and a separate design magazine section). We probably spend over two hours in there. I specifically recommend the “pet architecture” section, where I learn (through images, since the text is in Japanese) a few ways to make your house a cat-paradise.

Right next to T-Site are two other stores that are also worth visiting: Borne Lund, a curated children’s store, and Green Dog, a refined pet shop whose toys could work well for cats. Nearby, there’s also Bonjour Records, a concept store selling coffee, hip clothing I can picture Olympe wearing, and records.

We then walk over to King George, a sandwich bar that had been recommended to me by a blog. King George is clearly a popular spot, as we need to wait a few minutes to get in. The interior is quite charming, and the sandwiches are certainly fresh, though not very flavorful (especially for the price $$). Their smoothies do look quite good, however.

Our next stop is Log Road, a group of shops and eateries located on the old site of the Tokyu Toyoko line tracks. Log Road’s manicured landscaping reminds me a little of the High Line, but otherwise it’s far from crowded. On the far end of the site is Garden House Crafts, a California-inspired café and bakery where you can get pricey avocado toast and similar Cali dishes (you get the picture). On the other end is Spring Valley Brewery, a small brewery that’s actually owned by the giant brewery company Kirin. In addition to its six house brews, Spring Valley also offers food, which can be enjoyed outside or inside, for a view of the fermentation tanks. If only I were into beer.

Ironically, seeing the brewery makes me crave bubble tea, and since Joyce has been not-so-subtly hinting that I should try The Alley, that’s where we go. My first brown sugar bubble tea experience is life changing. As someone who’s never really cared for bubbles, and who mostly orders milk tea without them, brown sugar bubbles are a revelation. Having the tapioca be marinated in brown sugar syrup adds so much to the drink. There’s no going back. The Alley has forever altered my boba experience.

We then take the subway north to the Watari-Um Museum of Contemporary Art. This museum’s on the smaller side, so it’s perfect if you’re not ready to commit to hours of art-viewing. The exhibit we get to see, “Visible Nature / Invisible Nature”, is a collection of Austrian artist’s Lois Weinberger’s reflections on nature. Neither of us enjoy it that much, but there are still a few noteworthy pieces, including a cactus with glued-on googly eyes.

Before dinner, Joyce and I manage to find the famous Takeshita Street, a crowded street with an overwhelming amount of people and shopping options. The clothing stores have different fashion aesthetics, so whether you’re more Lolita or granola, you’ll surely find something to your taste. I try on a few cute patterned dresses, which end up fitting strangely, but it’s worth the experience of having to wear a mandatory mask over my face (to prevent makeup smears).


DAY 3

Today, we decide to start exploring the eastern part of the city, and Tsukiji Market is our first stop. This seafood market is comprised of dozens of booths, all concentrated within a few narrow streets packed with people. Some places sell whole fish and shellfish, while others offer portable street foods such as skewers and rice bowls. Joyce tries a sea urchin, which she thoroughly enjoys. Even though I don’t eat fish, I still find the displays quite beautiful, especially those with the colorful skewers.

Just outside the fish market is Tsukiji Honganji Temple, whose unique architecture is inspired by ancient Buddhist styles. Joyce and I step in to see inside, and once seated at the pews, we quickly realize we’re witnessing a funeral ceremony. We’re pretty surprised the temple hasn’t been closed to give family members some privacy — I know I’d be weirded out if groups of tourists were hanging out at a funeral I was invited to.

Joyce notices the National Film Archive of Japan on Google Map, and we head over there to check it out. It turns out there’s a museum on one of the upper floors, where we get to learn about the history of Japanese cinema.

For lunch, we wait in line with the locals at Okonomiyaki Kiji, which has been rated the 8th best okonomiyaki place in Tokyo and happens to be conveniently close. This popular lunch spot is filled with a mix of business people on their lunch breaks and travelers killing time before their departure from the nearby Tokyo Station. Joyce orders some meaty dish I can’t recall, and I get a corn okonomiyaki because, you know, I must try the 8th best okonomiyaki in the city. It’s pretty different from the one I had back in Furano, but it’s equally delicious. Plus, it’s fun that there’s a hot plate keeping it warm in front of us.

It’s sweltering hot as we walk through the Kokyogaien National Gardens, the largest green area in Tokyo. We try to find some shade under the meticulously trimmed Japanese Black Pines (there are 2,000 of them!) of the Garden Plaza, but it’s still unbearable. Luckily, we soon enter the Imperial Palace East Garden, which, in addition to beautiful landscaping, also has an air-conditioned rest area.

We’re both very excited to visit the National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo (MOMAT), since there is currently a retrospective exhibit on Takahata Isao, a master in Japanese animation. Takahata, who was born in 1935 and passed away recently, in 2018, is one of the pioneers of animation in Japan. He produced the popular children’s shows Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974) and Anne of Green Gables (1979)  — both set in Europe — before focusing on making films set in his home country. Indeed, in Downtown Story (1981), the infamous Grave of the Fireflies (1988), and Pom Poko (1994), he portrays Japanese peoples’ experiences during and after World War II in touching ways. Takahata’s works have a natural charm to them, and I find him especially talented at depicting people’s everyday lives. He also worked with Miyazaki (Miyazaki actually worked for Takahata early on in his career), which comes as no surprise. Joyce and I come out of the exhibit very inspired.

We take the subway close to the museum and set out to explore Shimokitazawa, located on the other side of the city. Also known as “Shimokita”, this hip neighborhood is saturated with vintage and independent clothing stores, bars, and cafes. It’s similar to the Harajuku area, but less touristy. We explore some of the vintage shops, such as Ocean BLVD and Flamingo, and there are so many choices it’s a little overwhelming. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen this many vintage clothes in the same spot, even when I lived in San Francisco.

Joyce and I are both pretty hungry, and after trying to find a non-touristy place (or at least, as non-touristy as possible), we end up at Chabuton, a ramen joint known for its vegetarian option. Joyce is super into ramen, whereas I’m not so much, but she’s on a mission to convert me. My veggie ramen are really tasty and comforting, so I think it’s fair to say Joyce has accomplished something here.

After dinner, we make a quick stop at Chicago, a vintage shop that is known for having unique and affordable Japanese ceremonial clothes, such as yukata, kimono and obi (sash). I find a beautiful blue yukata (casual kimono) for Cyrus, which he ends up being super happy about and wears way more than I could have ever hoped he would!

Our evening ends at At Ease, a quiet and kawaii bubble tea place on the upper floor of a small building in Shimokita. This place has some of the more adventurous boba flavors we’ve seen on our trip so far, including Oreo, which I obviously try. My favorite thing about At Ease is that you get to pick which color straw you want (I’m all about the little things).

On our way back to the subway, we briefly stop to watch locals celebrating the Kitazawa Hachiman Shrine Festival, wearing traditional garb and carrying Omikoshi (portable Shinto shrines) throughout the streets of Shimokita.


DAY 4

This morning, we wake to find out that there was a typhoon during the night, and a couple of train lines are out of order. With its winds of up to 129 per hour, little Typhoon Faxai caused a lot of damage. It woke me up throughout the night, but turns out Joyce slept right through it (which I guess is a testament to her capsule’s robust insolation).

It’s our final day in Tokyo (and together), so we decide to take it easy. After successfully purchasing my Shinkansen tickets for the following day, we take the subway to Roppongi and have lunch at Veganic to Go. This place is known for its burgers, which are truly delicious. Joyce gets the avocado tofu burger, and I the teriyaki burger. The homemade buns are definitely our favorite part.

We then visit the National Art Center (NACT), which is a very short walk away. This museum only has special exhibits, rather than a permanent collection, and is a great spot to discover contemporary artists. The curved lobby area is beautiful in and of itself, and reminds us a bit of BANQ (one of our go-to spots in Montreal). Joyce recommends the chairs for a power nap.

At NACT, we see an exhibit called “Image Narratives: Literature in Japanese Contemporary Art”. Featuring six artists, each with their own dedicated room and completely different subjects. We were most struck by Yuichiro Tamura’s exhibit about cars crashing into McDonalds’ restaurants, and Chikako Yamashiro’s humorous short film examining the impact of American military bases on life in Osaka.

“As the title suggests, the theme of this exhibition is literature. But in this case, the word does not refer to literature as an artistic genre - i.e., literary works that take the form of a book. Rather, it indicates narratives made up of images that exist within the context of contemporary art.”

Pleased with our artistic experience, we walk through Roppongi on our way to the giant discount store Don Quijote. I’m pretty sure Don Quijote carries anything you would ever need, from groceries and makeup to headphones and sex toys. GREAT place to head to right after a zombie apocalypse. Also, I don’t notice this at all while we’re in the store (probably because I’m so overwhelmed by the merchandise), but apparently the store has its own theme song called “Miracle Shopping”, which plays 24 hours a day. Oof.

Joyce then takes me to her favorite bubble tea place, Chunshuitang, the Taiwanese joint that allegedly invented the bubble tea. We struggle a little to find the place, but once we do, it’s oh so worth it. The bubbles aren’t crazy impressive, but the milk tea is A++. Not sure if it’s the quality of the tea, or the way it’s brewed, or how it’s mixed with the milk...it just tastes a lot more refined than most milk teas I’ve had. Joyce is relieved to find out that I approve of her favorite.

We’re not too far from Akasaka, so we decide to walk back to Kaisu from the tea place. On the way, I notice a secluded area that turns out to be Akasaka Hikawa Shrine. According to legend, this shrine was founded in the 10th century. Shaded by trees, Hikawa Shrine is a peaceful spot that almost makes us feel we’ve left Tokyo.

Back at the cozy Hostel Kaisu lobby, I do some reading while Joyce tries to get work done. It’s soon dinnertime, and because it’s our last night and we’re tired, we get dinner at the closest udon place we can find: Tsurumaru. This no-frills restaurant has solid udon game. The udon portions aren’t huge, so I’d definitely recommend getting one of the giant pakora-like veggie fritters sold out front.

Joyce and I go to 7/11 (or was it a Lawson?) together one last time before Joyce leaves for the airport. I’m sad to leave my incredible travel partner, but I’m hoping the next time we see each other won’t be in three years.















































































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