Total Tokyo: Locals share their tips on Japan's premiere city
Updated 5:06 PM ET, Sun April 2, 2017
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It doesn't matter how many times you've visited Tokyo. It doesn't even matter how many years you've lived there.
There's always something new to discover in the most populated city on the planet.
To get a true insider's perspective on Japan's capital, we reached out to bloggers from the worlds of food, fashion, cycling, music and photography.
Here, they take us on a tour of their favorite neighborhoods and offer some valuable insights on how to make the most of this amazing city -- particularly if you're a first timer.
Yukari Sakamoto, Food Sake Tokyo
Yukari Sakamoto, author of "Food Sake Tokyo," has earned a huge following by keeping her readers updated about Tokyo's culinary trends via her blog of the same name.
But what about those who are new to the city and hesitant about diving into the dining scene?
Sakamoto says department stores are actually a great place to get started, offering plenty of tastes under one roof.
"They usually have restaurant floors on their upper levels often with plastic food samples outside the shop," she says.
"Here you can point and order. The restaurants at the department stores are very good, or they would not be there. It's nothing like food courts at large malls as can be found in other parts of the world."
Among Sakamoto's top picks is Ginza Matsuya department store, located in one the city's most upscale neighborhoods.
That said, don't be afraid to go into local eateries, she says.
"If the staff are friendly and wave you in, take a seat. If they are not so welcoming, then close the door and move on."
To experience the tastes of Japan's regional cuisine, hit up an "antenna" shop.
"We have 47 prefectures, kind of like states in the US, and each prefecture will have a store in Tokyo where you can go and buy regional food products and crafts made in that region or in that prefecture," she says.
For instance, the Okinawa antenna shop is famous for having a huge selection of awamori, a type of distilled spirit.
A CRASH COURSE IN JAPANESE
Sakamoto recommends arming yourself with a few words before you set out.
For instance, "arigato" for thank you, "oishii" for delicious and "sumimasen" for excuse me will go a long way.
When it comes to dining, two helpful Japanese words are "omakase" and "osusume."
"Omakase means that you leave it up to them to bring you their recommended dishes," says Sakamoto. "This is best at restaurants where you will eat many small plates.
"Osusume is good for casual restaurants that serve a set meal."
At the end, if you enjoyed it, tell them it was "oishii."
SAKAMOTO'S TOKYO TIPS
"If it is your first time to Japan I highly recommend staying at a hotel," she says.
"For a first-timer you really need to rely on a concierge to help you with so many things from restaurant reservations to how to use the train and so much more. Your experience will be significantly better."
Here a few other tips for first-time visitors:
- Wi-Fi is not readily available, but it is easy to rent mobile Wi-Fi units to carry around.
- The Japanese dress formally. Definitely inquire about a restaurant's dress code.
- If you are lost, look like you are lost. Someone usually will come to offer assistance, even if they do not speak your language.
- There's no tipping in Japan.
Most importantly, she says, just savor it all.
"There is no country like Japan. You will be overwhelmed with so much. Bring along a journal and take notes of some of what catches your attention."
Byron Kidd, Tokyo by Bike
Byron Kidd is the editor of the Tokyo By Bike blog. He's been living and cycling in Japan for the past 20 years.
"Every time you go out on a bicycle, you see something new," he says. "I think that's best way to experience the city."
That said, it's worth bearing in mind the city's infrastructure really wasn't designed with cyclists in mind.
"Do not expect dedicated cycle lanes or an abundance of bicycle parking," says Kidd.
TOKYO CYCLING TIPS
Tokyo doesn't have a bike sharing system like other global cities. But there are a few companies offering rentals.
Kidd outlines a few of them on his blog.
Though he doesn't want to dissuade first timers from renting a bike, he says there are a few things to consider.
"I'd suggest getting slightly familiar with a map before cycling in Tokyo," he says.
"Learn where the major centers are in relation to each other then you will never get lost."
As for all that traffic, though it may look threatening Kidd says the majority of drivers are relatively courteous and friendly.
Many of them have cycled themselves at some stage of their life, "so they know how cyclists react and how they like to be treated," he says.
"But you're free to cycle on the sidewalks if you feel uncomfortable on the roads ... it's how the locals cycle!"
Fortunately, the majority of road signs are in English.
"You can explore at will and when you find yourself hopelessly lost a sign will point you towards a location you've memorized so you won't be lost for long," says Kidd.
"When you get on a bicycle you realize Tokyo really is a small city and those distances you used to travel by subway easily walkable -- and more easily cyclable."
Looking for a unique neighborhood to explore?
Among Kidd's recommended bike routes is a tour of Suginami, as highlighted in the above map.
The journey takes in Okinawa Town, several cafes, shrines, a temple and Eifukucho Shopping Street.
Brian MacDuckston, Ramen Adventures
There are a lot of ramen fans in the world, but few are as passionate about the Japanese noodles as Brian MacDuckston.
He's written nearly 1,000 entries since starting his blog "Ramen Adventures" back in 2008.
"Everyone has something to say about ramen," he says.
"Rich, poor, young, old...everybody has some connection to it. It's kind of an every man's food. The price is never more than $10 -- 1000 yen."
MacDuckston's ramen obsession has given him a unique perspective on Japan.
"For me I combine traveling with ramen," he says.
"I have been all over this country. There are hundreds of styles of ramen. it's a cure for loneliness -- come to a shop, make some friends. It's Japanese comfort food."
MACDUCKSTON'S RAMEN HUNTING TIPS
- When you arrive at a ramen shop with a ticket machine, go for the upper-left button. 99.9% of the time it's the shop's specialty.
- Many great ramen shops are one or two stations away from major stops, so exploring ramen has shown me a much more local side of Tokyo -- and Japan.
Proving this last point, MacDuckston took us to enjoy a rather unique style of ramen -- shio tsukemen -- at tiny restaurant Toka in Tokyo's Yotsuya neighborhood, just east of Shinjuku.
"Shio" means salt and "tsukemen" refers to the dipping noodles, which are served separately from the soup.
"A lot of people say shio ramen is a test of true ramen chef," says MacDuckston.
"If they can achieve a good bowl with just salt, they've done it."
Lee Chapman, TokyoTimes.org
Another long-time Tokyo resident, Lee Chapman has been living in the city since 1998.
"I love taking photographs," he says. "It's something I want to do whenever i have free time."
Over the years he's seen the city go through radical changes -- many of which he's documented on his photography blog, TokyoTimes.org.
This includes the gradual modernization of the city's older, less glamorous districts.
"Same story in regards its shabby side too. It's progress, I guess, but personally speaking it makes Tokyo less interesting. Once gone, the character of those areas can never be recaptured."
Among the neighborhoods he's keen to document before it changes forever is Hikifune, an area overlooked since 2011 by Skytree, a giant broadcasting tower.
"This area has changed a lot since Skytree was built," he says.
"Lots of new houses, lots of shops have disappeared, new ones have appeared. You can see Skytree almost everywhere from here. But then you see the old houses and people still tending [to them]."
CHAPMAN'S TOKYO TIPS
- Tokyo's train system is incredibly convenient, but try and walk as much as you can. You'll see so much more.
- The city is friendly to photographers. Lots of different people about, plus it's pretty rare for subjects to get overly angry or offended.
"Tokyo has so many different parts, different environments, different atmospheres... So I think it's important to explore them," says Chapman.
"Often I go back to the same place; by doing that I am meeting people, seeing different things. Basically I will choose maybe a start point and then an end point of a particular area and just walk."
One change that English-speaking tourists will likely welcome is the increase in the number of signs and notices, he says.
"That's only increasing as the 2020 Olympics gets closer as well. Shop and restaurant staff are also generally accommodating and keen to help. So the language barrier really isn't something you should be all that worried about."
Melodee Morita, lifestyle vlogger
It's impossible to lump YouTube lifestyle and beauty vlogger Melodee Morita's videos into a single genre.
In one video you'll see the bilingual Japanese American ballet dancer doing fitness routines for those looking to lose thigh fat, in the next she's going shopping for kitchen utensils.
Though Morita lives in New York, she travels frequently to Tokyo.
Like food blogger Sakamoto, Morita says first-time visitors to Japan should really make an effort to learn a bit of basic Japanese, "because a lot of people in Japan become shy or intimidated when someone comes up to them and speak in English all of a sudden."
Regardless of whether you're a first-time visitor or a long-term resident, you'll want to download some of Tokyo's train station/subway apps.
"Since I grew up in the states my entire life and don't know how to get to every place in Tokyo, I use the apps all the time when I am visiting.
"Even people in Japan use them daily because it shows you various route options as well as suggestions according to the lowest pricing, less transfers, travel time and more."
MORITA'S TOKYO FAVORITES
Though Morita grew up in LA and New York, it wasn't long before she fell in love with Japan's style.
"Up until high school, I used to be a very 'SoCal' girl wearing a simple shirt, shorts and flip flops. But ever since I made my first visit to Shibuya at the age of 17, my style greatly changed.
"I still visit Shibuya/Harajuku every year for fashion and lifestyle inspiration because everything is very fast-paced and trendy there.
"I don't cover myself up in trendy fashion from head to toe, but I love to be inspired by the latest styles and incorporate certain pieces into my outfits to enjoy fashion that evolves over the years."
"Now that I'm in my 20s, I like shopping around Ebisu too because it has a more sophisticated vibe with hidden shops.
Among her favorite Tokyo haunts?
The wild Kawaii Monster Cafe, in Harajuku, which has to be seen to be believed.
(Fortunately we have a video. Check it out above.)
"Kawaii means cute in Japanese. and it doesn't necessarily have to be like super girly cute," she says. "It can have edge to it."
Another priority for Morita is nail care. And we're not talking about your average mani/pedi.
Tokyo salons provide mini pieces of art work, featuring wild designs and tiny gems.
"So the first time i came to Tokyo I had my nails done because I'd watched a lot of Japanese dramas and movies...I was very inspired by how everything was so stylish -- including the nails."
Among the best places to go for killer nails is Joli Nails, in Tokyo's Roppongi neighborhood. According to the owner, one of its nail designers won first place at last year's Nail Pro Cup in Las Vegas.
Mademoiselle Yulia, Designer/musician
When it comes to exploring Tokyo's wild side, there's no finer guide than Mademoiselle Yulia.
Born and raised in Harajuku, the fashion designer/DJ has seen the famed neighborhood change through the years.
"Harajuku is really known for fashion," she says. "This street has lots of vintage shops."
But on a recent tour of the neighborhood with CNN, she had a miniature fashion icon in mind -- Barbie.
For vintage toys, Yulia recommends Harajuku shop Spiral.
"I've been collecting Barbies maybe more than 20 years. I have more than 300. She's the most fashionable lady in the world. It inspires me a lot when I'm making clothes. For me fashion is really important to express myself."
However, she says Harajuku's vintage scene is slowing down as the big department stores move in.
Among her favorite vintage clothing stores is Nude Trump -- try to block any mental images the name might conjure -- in Shibuya.
"Japanese people love to wear colorful things and some people who are into fashion, they don't really care about what's mainstream or what [other] people wear. So they find own style."
KARAOKE WITH FLAIR
It wouldn't be a legit Tokyo guide if we didn't offer a suggestion on where to get your karaoke fix -- which just happens to be a passion of Yulia's.
She took us to a new Shibuya joint -- Rainbow Karaoke.
What makes this special is there are even instruments to include in your act.
"i really love karaoke and I come quite a lot," she says.
"I think most Japanese people love Karaoke because you can shout or you can do whatever you want. There's no stress.
"I am a really shy person, but when i go to karaoke, I can be not really shy. So it's really good way for me to communicate with people."
Rainbow Karaoke; 1 Chome-21-3 Jinnan; Shibuya-ku; Tokyo 150-0041