1. The Manners
For as bustling and crowded as Tokyo is, its people are incredibly considerate. Everything from the subways to the sidewalks is clean. You’ll notice that there are hardly any trash bins in the city, yet no one really litters. It’s considered standard to take your trash home with you in your purse or bag and throw it away there (that definitely took some getting used to — the purse I brought was way too small). People organize themselves into straight lines while waiting for the jam-packed subways, and there are even female-only cars for ladies who might feel uncomfortable standing super close to men on the extremely crowded days. But for me, the ultimate symbol of the city’s devotion to decorum was the restroom etiquette. “Bathroom sounds” are considered rude in Tokyo, so many toilets are equipped with little control pads that offer musical options for you to play while you go so that others don’t have to hear anything (I’m not kidding). My favorite was the “Jazz Piano” button because I’m old-school, but I tried out the “Wind Chimes” and “Waterfall” sound bytes as well.
2. The Fashion
I found that millennial fashion in Tokyo is a bit more playful and costume-y than in America. “Cosplay” (or “costume play”) is much more common among young people, and they often use it to pay homage to favorite anime, movie, or comic book characters. You’ll see some intricate and impressive ensembles, especially in the hip, edgier Harajuku district. Cosplay is a trend found mostly in the younger generation, though; generally, adult Japanese fashion is very classy. Suits, dresses and heels are standard daywear, and I often marveled at the impeccably dressed Audrey Hepburn-esque women I saw running around doing errands and catching trains.
For more upscale clothing, spend a day in the designer stores of the pristine Ginza district (the Beverly Hills of Tokyo) or the architecturally stunning Tokyo Midtown Center. I’m more of a bargain shopper myself, though, and the city did not disappoint. The Harajuku district is absolutely brimming with trendy, affordable stores, including a massive Forever 21, adorable boutiques, and a plethora of wacky cosplay shops. And don’t get me started on the dollar stores. Tokyo dollar stores (or “100 Yen Shops”) are more like insanely affordable department stores; you can find quality-made anything there for a ridiculously cheap price. For example, I once went bra-shopping at the giant dollar store near the Harajuku Station, and I still wear that bra. It’s one of the nicest ones I own.
3. The Cuisine
The food in Tokyo is fresh, rich, and delicious, and the sheer amount of options is overwhelming. For the budget-conscious traveler, there are shops on every corner that serve traditional noodle dishes like udon and yakisoba at very affordable prices, and most shopping areas have massive food courts (usually underground) that offer an unbelievable array of culinary options for shoppers on the go. The attention and precision the Japanese bring to their cooking is incredible; even the simplest of dishes are mouthwatering.
One of my favorite restaurants in the city is the famed Tonki in the Meguro district. Beloved by locals and tourists alike, this institution keeps their menu simple and delicious — you won’t find any frills or distractions at this joint. They only serve one thing: their classic “tonkatsu” — cutlets of tender, breaded pork slow-cooked to perfection. Don’t be deceived by this restaurant’s simplicity — it’s one of the most revered in the city, and both diners and chefs alike compete for seats there. Another definite must-see is the fun, crowded, and Hollywood-famous Gonpachi Nishiazabu, or as many call it, the “Kill Bill Restaurant”. You’ll recognize this charming, energetic spot from the film’s bloody battle scene, during which Uma Thurman kills a bunch of Tokyo underground criminals. While the actual fight scene was shot on a set, Tarantino copied the restaurant’s layout almost exactly after visiting it, and even held a wrap party there after filming was completed. The food is delicious and the portions are great for sharing. They also have a wide array of less common options for the more adventurous diner; I remember eating raw shrimp heads there for some reason — I think I was trying to win a bet (I don’t recommend). After dinner, see if you can sneak upstairs for a peak at the beautiful top-floor garden area.
4. The Fast Transit
Tokyo public transit is fast, crowded, and sprawling. The metro is currently the world’s busiest subway system, with over six million people riding each day. But don’t let the masses of people overwhelm you; as chaotic as the stations are, the transit line layout is actually very efficient and easy to navigate. The 14 lines (and 882 stations!) run quickly, smoothly, and quietly. The trains are also immaculately clean, air-conditioned, and almost always on time. Passenger etiquette is very important, so be sure to line up with everyone else at one of the marked spots on the platform. Loud chatter, eating, and talking on the phone while riding are definite no-no’s, but dozing, reading, and texting all seemed to be very common and accepted pastimes.
If you find the fast-paced nature of Tokyo overwhelming, you can catch a bullet train (called “shinkansen”) to quaint, scenic Kyoto in about two and a half hours. The bullet trains are surprisingly spacious and comfortable, and the view on the Tokyo-Kyoto trip includes a stunning Mount Fuji drive-by.
5. The View From The Mori Tower Observation Deck
The Roppongi Hills Mori Tower is a 54-story high skyscraper that houses companies like Google Japan, Pokemon, and The Mori Art Museum. The gorgeous observation deck offers a breathtaking 360-degree view of the city skyline, and the Sky Deck/helicopter pad on the roof of the building is the only open-air observation deck in the city. A ticket up to the helicopter pad runs at about $18 (absolutely worth it) and includes entry into the art museum, which houses everything from Andy Warhol galleries to installations from the hippest modern artists around today. Afraid of heights? You may want to skip the trip up to the open-air platform (it’s more than a little daunting), and grab a cocktail at one of the many swanky restaurants nearby. Be sure to get a picture with Louise Bourgeois’s famed, gigantic spider sculpture, “Maman”, at the base of the tower.
6. The Temples, Shrines, and Gardens
For such a highly urbanized city, Tokyo actually has an unbelievable amount of beautiful gardens and shrines for anyone seeking a peaceful respite from the hectic environment. The ‘Central Park’ of Tokyo is a lovely place called The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, where over 1,500 cherry trees bloom every spring to create an absolutely stunning landscape. For those seeking tranquility as well as rich religious and historical context, the Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are must-sees. One of my favorite spots in the city is the Shinto shrine Meiji Jingu, which is more like a shrine-meets-forest right smack in the heart of Tokyo. Established a hundred years ago to house the souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, the shrine is now a nationally-protected space that houses numerous endangered plants and animals. Enjoy a quiet, meditative walk through this beautiful place, and be sure to pay your respects at the main shrine building by bowing, rinsing your hands at the fountain, and placing a few coins into the offertory box. And don’t forget to make a wish! Legend has it that prayers are answered at this shrine.
7. The Gadgets
Need something but can’t put your finger on what it is? Tokyo knows what you want, and probably has it waiting for you right now. I’ve never seen more amazing gadgets in my life. A cup-holder that attaches to your windowsill? Yes please! A watch that beeps when you’re close to a cop car? I’ll take it! Like most things in Japan, the gadgets and technology are not only impressive but incredibly well-made. My favorite toy-and-gadget store in the city is a magical place called Hakuhinkan Toy Park in the Ginza shopping district. Set aside a solid hour for this treasure trove, and be prepared to spend some money on unique, inventive items that also make for great souvenir gifts.
8. The Nightlife
Tokyo nightlife is pretty much insane. During my trip, I encountered four main attractions: packed dance clubs, upscale bars, karaoke lounges (that are surprisingly competitive), and an abundance of strip clubs. It’s almost impossible to escape cover charges in Tokyo, but they’re often worth it — especially if you’re partying in the Roppongi district, where hordes of foreigners, expats, and younger locals flock to dance, drink, and meet new people. The mix of people you’ll see at clubs and bars is truly amazing, and never really makes sense. For celebrity-spotting, head to clubs like Le Baron de Paris or New Lex Edo in Roppongi (the model-to-normal-person ratio in New Lex Edo is absurd. Do you know how many Russian models there are in Tokyo? A lot.). If you’re prepared to navigate through the crowds, avoid shady strip club promoters, and get freaky on the dance floor, then you’re ready to party in Tokyo.
9. The Fireworks
Fireworks are an integral part of Japanese culture and history, and hundreds of dazzling shows and festivals are put on throughout the year. The biggest celebrations are in the summer, though, when the weather is breezy, warm, and perfect for relaxing outdoors. My most vivid firework-related memory was of the Katsushika Festival in July, which is basically a straight hour of ridiculously intricate, stunning explosions. I was lucky enough to view the show right from the water; friends took me out sailing in Tokyo Bay, and we spent the night right under the sparkling spectacle. While sailing might not be an option for everyone, I highly recommend getting a spot as close to the water as possible.