These are some notes about places we really liked in Japan, mainly Tokyo, between two trips in a couple of years.
Beer & Cocktails
Codename Mixology: Definitely definitely definitely go here! This is probably the best cocktail bar we’ve ever been to EVER. In fact, we still talk about this place and can’t wait to go back. The staff is very pleasant and they really know their cocktail shit. It’s not the cheapest but it wasn’t too far off from cocktail bars here in NYC. The food here is supposed to be good, but we went to Matsuya Ginza’s basement for take-home dinner.
Craftheads: This place has a great tap list comprised of some interesting Japanese brews and some hard to find foreign brews. We met a nice couple from Colorado here a few years ago so I think it’s a popular destination for Americans. They have a wide selection of craft beers. I wouldn’t go here for food so I would suggest eating somewhere else before or after. The owner speaks fluent English.
Mikkeller Tokyo: Mikkeller is Danish brand that has exploded worldwide. They have a bar in every interesting city on the planet. That said, each one is different and interesting. We popped in after a day of walking and sat by the huge window. Mikkeller’s beers are some of the technical best in the industry (maybe only rivaled by the owner’s brother’s label).
Far Yeast Brewing: Coedo is one of my favorite Japanese breweries that I can get stateside and Far Yeast is by the same folks. This tap room is small and cozy. They serve a bunch of different kinds of bao in addition to their namesake beers. Recommended.
Beer Pub Popeye: This place is pretty famous in the Tokyo craft brewing scene for their wide selection with more than 70 taps, a combination of Japanese and imports. It was very crowded and loud when we went, which is not a great Japanese experience. Still, it’s not terrible.
Nihonbashi Brewery: This place looked really nice and had decent beer, but it is unclear that it is actually a brewery. It has some sort of relationship with one of my favorite Portland breweries, HUB, from which they have a custom-made house beer and a variety of other HUB brews on offer, plus pizza and other food. It’s worth a stop if you’re in the area; I only came here because it is a few minutes walk from my aunt-in-law’s apartment.
ØL by Oslo Brewing Co.: Oslo is a world-renowned brewery that produces great adult beverages. I didn’t expect to find this place on my solo stroll around Shibuya while my better half was having a dinner with an old high school friend (to which I wasn’t invited). They have 20 taps composed of their own brews and of other Japanese ones. I liked this place because it was laid back and there was seating outside.
Star Bar Ginza: This is on the World’s 50 Best Asia, so we paid a visit. We entered in the early evening to a totally empty bar save for one dude at the end of the bar. We were offered literally the worst seats in the house, asked if we could sit elsewhere, and were denied. We had a pretty traditional, uninspired drink and left. This place is uppity, uptight, and not recommended.
Ichiran Ramen: You walk in and you will see a vending machine where you can pick the type of ramen you’d like to eat. When they hand out a piece of paper in Japanese, don’t forget to turn it over& they might have the translation in English. You’ll be able to pick the thickness of your ramen noodles, the spiciness of your broth from a scale of 1-10, the type of scallions on your ramen& you name it. Key thing to note here is that they have separate foldable partitions for each customer. It’s almost like you’re sitting at a booth and eating your ramen by yourself. There’s a chance you might not be able to sit next to each other. A visit it worth it just to see how efficient a dining experience to be, plus the ramen is top notch.
Takechan: Hole-in-the-wall yakitori place. It’s family-run and has been going on for 3 generations. It was super cute to see the grandfather, son, and grandson working side-by-side. I highly recommend this place. Avoid the raw meat.
Ramen Street in Tokyo Station: This place is a little hectic but very fun! It’s in the basement of Tokyo Station and you can find many ramen shops here. It’s also next to Character Street where each store is dedicated to a popular character like Totoro, Snoopy, Hello Kitty, etc.
Department Store Basements: The major department stores in Tokyo are Isetan, Mistukoshi, and Matsuya. I hardly ever go clothes shopping but you MUST visit the basement floor of each of the department stores! That’s where you can find bakeries, cafes, grocery stores, ornate bento lunch/dinner and gifts. In the evening just before the stores closes, the food shops try to get rid of their inventory so they’ll have deep discounts. Eric and I came home with quite the spread one night.
Kadowaki Washoku: This is a neighborhood restaurant near my aunt-in-law’s apartment in Higashinihonbashi. If you happen to be in the area, it is worth a stop. This small 15 seat restaurant puts out delicately delicious food in a kaiseki format.
Today’s Special: We took a stroll down the Todoroki Ravine, which was unimpressive, but came here for lunch after. This is actually a small, kitchy department store, with a restaurant on the top floor. The menu is local- and vegetable-focused and ornately prepared.
Bento Boxes in Train Stations: We don’t understand why the concept of having really good Japanese food with lots of variety of tastes, colors, and textures, and placed into a to-go box doesn’t catch on in American transportation hubs. (Instead, we’re left with whatever TV chef bid the highest to the airport.) There are typically multiple stalls at each train stations selling differently focused boxes full of deliciousness. Some of the stalls are better reviewed or even particularly well known than others, but we’ve never ordered incorrectly without advanced knowledge.
Sky Restaurant 634 (musashi): The tallest tower in Tokyo is not the Tokyo Tower, an old radio beacon, but the Tokyo Sky Tree, a big American-style mall that is also the tallest tower in the world. Still, this restaurant, located near the top of the tower, offers both stunning views and well-prepared cuisine.
Shokkan: This is the restaurant to which I wasn’t invited. Yuko liked it, though.
Nanaya Gelato: This place is well known for their seven levels of matcha gelato. Get the strongest one, #7, and anything else, especially if “anything else” is hojicha. They really know how to do ice cream well.
Rainbow Pancake: This pancake boutique (a term I just invented) churns out super cute pancakes and pancake accessories. The pancakes are not American-sized but are tiny, artisanally crafted disks of fluff. When we visited, a local variety show was doing a spot about the restaurant and the line was out the door. You’ll definitely get some Instagram +1s (or whatever they call them).
Bake Cheese Tart: This bakery sells variations exactly one item: a one- or two-bite cheese tart. I only got two and was disappointed when they both disappeared.
SunnyHills Pineapple Cake: We didn’t actually have any of this Taiwanese brand’s wares, but the architecture alone is worth visiting for. They actually have a free tasting of pineapple cakes, after which you can opt to buy some to take home.
Coffee & Tea
Aoyama Flower Market Tea House: You are surrounded by hanging plants and roses and it feels like you’re sitting in a garden. Even the food they serve incorporates flowers (i.e. Eric’s waffle was topped with edible flowers). Definitely go here! Eric had a great time. We recommend getting there early on a weekday.
Glitch Coffee Roaster: This is one of the most unique coffee roasters in existence. Despite my love for dark, bitter coffee. They focus on extremely light roasts, with the result that becomes more of an elixir than a cup of joe, with lots of sour cherry and citrus notes. They also have very knowledgeable and skilled baristas who can help you make a decision. They roast within their tiny shop, making a warm, aromatic environment. We took a bunch of small bags of different roasts home and were sad when they were depleted.
Nissan Crossing: This is the café where they take a picture of you and use a fancy machine to draw your faces on latte foam. It’s inside a Nissan showroom which was interesting to see. Definitely an Instagram-worthy spot.
Fuglen: This is the second outpost of an Oslo-originated cafe. The interior design is mod 50’s and 60’s, but the winning move is to sit outside on a nice day. They really care about getting your espresso drink correct; this was the only time in my life that I was explicitly asked how much milk I’d like in my macchiato.
Omotesando Koffee: This place, down a winding street just steps away from the busy high-fashion shopping avenue, is serene. It had become Tokyo’s favorite espresso joint, with each drink prepared with precision. Then, it inexplicably closed, only to reopen with a focus on selling whole beans. It might still be worth a stop; they now serve non-espresso coffee. The owner also has Toranomon Koffee nearby, which also might be worth a stop.
Bear Pond Espresso: Shimo-Kitazawa is the Williamsburg of Tokyo and this place is emblematic of that fact in its pretentiousness. Service stops at 2pm because after that, “too many people come and I cannot make consistent coffee,” says the owner. Raw espresso is only served until 1pm, and only 10 are made a day. That said, this guy really does care about every single drop of coffee that comes out of that white Marzocco. He’s also clearly a bit crazy. If I were to come back to the neighborhood, I’d try Coffea Exlibris instead.
Streamer Coffee Company: A Japanese chain of perfectly good third-wave coffee shops.
Maruyama Coffee: I noticed this was in between the Todoroki Ravine and our lunch spot and we decided to stop in. Here is another place that really cares about coffee, but luckily provides a warmer, more supportive environment. They focus on selling beans for drip coffee here and have a large menu of items to choose from. Several of the baristas are world award-winning too.
Tokyu Hands: You could practically spend all day here which is what we did one rainy day in Tokyo. Each floor is dedicated to a very specific hobby and you can find some quality items. We stumbled upon random products ranging from portable pee bag to expensive dog accessories. There are multiple locations. I would save this for maybe a rainy day when you want to stay indoors.
Cat Street: This is a neat, pedestrian-friendly street with a mix of international brands and local boutiques. Worth a stroll if you’re in the area.
Asakusa: Eric didn’t end up going here but I’ve been a few times. A little touristy. It’s a Buddhist temple with lots of little side shops.
Meiji Shrine: We never made it to this but I heard it’s pretty good.
Meguro Parasitological Museum: I love places off-the-beaten-path and this fits the bill. This museum is a collection of parasites of all different types in jars. The exhibition is two rooms of separate floors with many display cases. I highly recommend visiting this unique museum and picking up a t-shirt.
Blue Lug: Blue Lug is an icon in the world of cycling, both as an independent producer of wares and as a good bike shop. They have a couple of outposts around Tokyo; the main one in Hatagaya is far away from anything, but is worth a visit. Their inventory is very interesting. I had wanted to visit their bar in the same area as well.
These places are outside of Tokyo. Highly recommend going on the Shinkansen (bullet train) at least once. It’s really quite the experience Don’t forget to get a bento box and beer for the ride!
Mt. Kusatsu-Shirane (Gunma): If you want to see some cool turquoise-colored acidic lake, go here.
Onioshidashi Park (Karuizawa): This is another volcanic Park in Gunma. This place was very cool and wish we had more time to explore and walk around. There’s a food hall here but don’t go there. It’s terrible.
Kamikochi National Park: This national park is in a valley along the crystal clear, glacier blue Asakusa River; it sort of felt like a scaled-down version of Yosemite, but with fewer cars, as they aren’t allowed in the park, and with monkeys roaming around thinking they own the joint. The bus ride from Matsumoto and back was gorgeous. The Japanese are very keen on hut-to-hut hiking, and there are a few huts available in the area to string together a couple of days of hiking. Day hikes are limited here and can involve traversing fixed chains and scrambling up ladders. The hike up to the Dakesawa hut (fully stocked with hot food and even beer!) was a good couple of hours and a couple of thousand feet of elevation. This guide had good tips about how to get to Kamikochi. We stayed at the Kamikochi Lemeiesta hotel which we wouldn’t necessarily recommend.
Nara Park: Big deer park! In true Japanese form, the deer at this park bow to you before receiving deer biscuits. Although, some of them might get a little impatient and nudge/gently bite your jacket/chase you.
Other places we want to go, but haven’t
We have a giant document of a ton of links of places we want to go on some trip. Tokyo in particular is so large that there is an endless supply of awesome and weird. Here are some of the ones we most look forward to in an upcoming trip:
Ivorish: Japanese artisanal french toast. Looks and sounds amazing.
Various places in Karuizawa: Yuko and are are fans of the Japanese reality show Terrace House, which is sort of like the American Big Brother but where everyone is generally very pleasant toward each other. The latest season is set in this town, which is known as a ski destination in the winter. The places they go all look great, such as the Trick Art Museum Karuizawa and SASA, a soba restaurant owned by the father of one of the cast members.
Samurai Museum: While I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Japanese history (it filled in the gaps of my Japanese history because I didn’t pay attention in Japanese school), the location of this museum is a little suspect. I’m pretty convinced that it’s owned by the Japanese mob. It wasn’t a terrible museum at all but is it located in the red light district of Tokyo.
Tokyo Imperial Garden: Boring. Don’t go.
Tokyo Whiskey Library: Not that great and expensive.