The Tokyo Plan (Part II)
Imagine the most densely populated, bustling place you have ever been. Now imagine that place with the volume turned down by about 75%, and a clockwork-like precision to everything you experience there, from the way people walk down the sidewalk to how and when trains pull into and out of their stations. A place whose hallmark is a quiet calm, but amidst a massive populous. That is Tokyo.
We arrived in Tokyo with relatively few expectations other than excellent sushi, authentic ramen, and, of course, an exceptional marathon experience. Our expectations on all three fronts were not only met, but exceeded.
Below are several highlights, captured day-by-day, from our trip to Tokyo:
DAY ONEGolden Gai
We ventured into Golden Gai on our first night in Tokyo, shortly after checking into our hotel. Golden Gai is a fascinating area in Tokyo, comprised of literally hundreds of shack-like establishments, most of which are bars and restaurants. It is a must-see, even if you do not choose to stay for a drink or bite to eat.
Ramen Nagi was our destination of choice in Golden Gai, as I was intrigued by their unique sardine broth. The impossibly tiny ramen joint is located one floor above street level, accessed by the steepest and narrowest of staircases. If the place is full, you line up down the alley and patiently wait for one of the only ten seats they have to become available. Inside, you choose your food by pictures on a vending machine (no, the food does not come out of the machine, but a ticket does, which you can hand to the server to place your order). Just minutes later, a massive, steaming hot bowl of ramen will be placed in front of you. Seats are arranged around a counter so you will be able to see everything going on in the kitchen while you eat. Don’t hang around, just slurp up that ramen and move on, there will be others waiting for your seat!
NOTE: I do not recommend you come here if you are a party of more than 2. It will create a headache for you, and for them, trying to squeeze in a party of 3 or more.
Tsukiji Fish Market
One benefit of jet lag: a super early wake-up time makes for a painless way to see Tsukiji Fish Market before it becomes overrun with tourists. We got up around 4:30am on our first full day in Tokyo, which some would argue is already late to be heading to the fish market. I would say this is only true in one of two cases: (1) you want to see the tuna auction or (2) you want breakfast at one of the two ultra-famous, line-around-the-block sushi places.
In either of those scenarios, sure, maybe you need to rise at 3am and be there by 4am, but otherwise, you can comfortably show up at Tsukiji around 6am and expect a relatively quiet stroll through the market. We explored from 6-8am and had an awesome time. There are countless stalls of food, some homewares, and many sushi places tucked away to explore. We ate sushi for breakfast (don’t argue, it’s amazing) and wandered from stall to stall checking out everything the market has to offer.
Hama Rikyu Gardens
Not far from Tsukiji Market are the Hama Rikyu Gardens. A beautiful outdoor expanse, which you can access for a small entrance fee, that features large gardens, water, and even an authentic Japanese tea house. It is a beautiful and peaceful spot for a long walk and to soak in the contrast between Tokyo’s bustling city streets and its quiet, zen-like outdoor spaces.
The expo is a bit out of the way, so if you go to Tokyo for the marathon, plan a decent amount of time to get to there and back. The location is deceiving on a map because it doesn’t look very far, but getting there by metro takes quite some time. Despite its somewhat inconvenient location, the Tokyo Marathon Expo was one of the most organized we have ever attended. When we entered, Ruth went in with the other runners and I went through the visitor line.
There was a designated area for supporters to wait, which made it easy to find runners once they had collected her bibs. We also easily found the Abbott World Marathon Majors area and took photos with their signature six-star signage. The merchandise area was massive, and stocked with a huge variety of runner gear.
Ramen Street in Tokyo Station
Tokyo Station, one of the largest train hubs in Tokyo, features unbelievable shopping and dining on multiple floors. If you travel under the first floor, the basement level is where you will find the infamous Ramen Street.
Featuring outposts of eight of Tokyo’s most popular ramen establishments, Ramen Street is an underground, condensed location for some of Tokyo’s best noodles. If you have a big enough appetite, you can even try to hit up more than one!
On any pre-marathon day, Ruth needs some good, standard American food for breakfast. The closest we could find in Tokyo was this adorable Hawaiian café, famous for their egg dishes and their pancakes. Like all things Tokyo, getting in required lining up outside and waiting patiently, but once inside, the menu was large and the food delicious. It was also our introduction to the Harajuku area, where we regret not spending more time.
The Tokyo Marathon puts on this really cool, pre-race day event called The Friendship Run. Marathoners are welcome to participate as are any spectators traveling with them. It is a short, 2-mile fun run, and many people show up in costumes representing their country or culture. Lots of families participate, including kids, and it is a great way to get the whole family involved in the pre-marathon hype!
A must-see in Tokyo, for both its history and location within Yoyogi Park. The entrance is marked by an enormous torii gate (some poor stranger had to back up about 100 yards just to get a picture that included us and the full gate), and once within the park you will find several fascinating sites. About a ten minute walk in you will find the main complex of shrines. Be sure to do the ritual cleansing before entering – it is part of the cultural practice and you will see many people lined up at the troughs of water. Follow their lead!
Pizza Strada, Roppongi
Again, in keeping with Ruth’s pre-marathon meal preferences we steered away from Japanese food for the day before the marathon, and instead filled up on unbelievable pizza at Pizza Strada. We sat at the counter and got to watch pie after pie go in and come out of the blazing brick oven. Not too cheesy, and with that perfect brick-oven crust, this place is to die for if you are a pizza lover.
The Tokyo Marathon is a massive event. I have never seen so many spectators crowded along a course before. What is odd though is that the spectators are quieter than in other cities. Not lacking enthusiasm by any means, their presence is their show of support more so than their voices. I stuck out like a sore thumb at each spot where I was shouting, “GO RUTH!” But I did get some appreciative looks and even a few high-fives from fellow spectators who also seemed a little befuddled about the low volume of the locals! Most importantly, this race marked Ruth's sixth of the six Abbott Marathon Majors, so she received the coveted six-star finisher's medal at the end.
Ramen Zundo-ya, Shinjuku
After a one day break pre-marathon from this quintessentially Japanese cuisine, we were back on the ramen train in the hours following the marathon. We chose Ramen Zundo-ya primarily for its proximity to our hotel, but ended up pleasantly surprised (read: thrilled) by the quality and selection of the ramen once we went. It is cash only, so go prepared. And beware, some of the spicy ramen here is super spicy. Like, mouth-on-fire spicy. Worth it though.
East Gardens of Imperial Palace
If you’re traveling to Tokyo, the Imperial Palace is a “can’t miss” spot. Located a short walk from Tokyo Station, the East Gardens are open to the public and you can either wander on your own or sign up for a formal guided tour. Within the grounds you will find original moats, guardhouses, and beautiful gardens meticulously landscaped. What you won’t find are the original castle buildings, as those burned down in the late 1800s.
Anagura Sake Cave, Asakusa
Asakusa is where you will find the Senso-ji Temple, which will no doubt be on your list of must-see attractions in Tokyo. While you’re in the area, take some time to visit the Anagura Sake Cave. You can enjoy free sake tasting, and I highly recommend buying a bottle or two of their recommendations! We did, and we didn’t regret it.
Views from Park Hyatt Hotel
For some of the best views of the city of Tokyo, head to the top of the Park Hyatt Hotel. The bar has enormous windows overlooking the city, and if you get there on the early side, you may be able to snag a seat by the window and watch Tokyo transform from day to night. We chose to celebrate the marathon with a glasses of champagne and whisky from this spot.
This hidden away, subterranean establishment is well worth finding. Located in Shinjuku, Kuriya features a diverse and surprisingly inexpensive menu of everything from tempura to sashimi to fried chicken, and was one of our favorite non-ramen meals in Tokyo. Be sure to look on TripAdvisor for reviews and photos of the outside since this spot can be hard to find if you don’t know what you are looking for.
Tiny, immaculate, and quintessentially Japanese, 365 is a bakery that will make you question the quality of any breads and pastries you’ve ever tried before. Located within walking distance of the Yoyogi-Koen station, we stumbled upon this spot by accident and then were extremely glad we did. We each selected a few different pastry products to try, and while we have no idea what we ate, they were all spectacular.
Magical Trip Tour
We signed up for a food and drink tour on a whim, deciding that it would be fun to spend some time with a true local. The tour started in the evening and lasted a couple of hours, during which our tour guide, Moeka, enthusiastically led us around. We ate, we drank, we took the metro together, we were treated to a table-side magic show…it was unusual and unforgettable and we would do it all over again! There were only three of us on the tour, which made the experience informal and overall it felt like a casual night out with friends.
Zoetrope Whisky Bar
We named our dog Whiskey, so suffice to say, finding some good whiskey when we travel is a must. Japanese Whisky has been gaining popularity stateside, but we wanted to wait until Japan to really experience it. Zoetrope is a relatively hidden, and extremely small, whisky bar featuring over 300 kinds of Japanese whisky. Tucked upstairs on the third floor of what looks like an office building on the outside, the bar is windowless, dark, and made for the perfect night-cap.
Bullet Train to Kyoto
No trip to Japan would be complete without taking at least one bullet train journey. Traveling at a maximum speed of 320km/hr (around 200 mi/hr), the bullet train can whisk you out of Tokyo and off to any number of destinations across Japan within a relatively short time. We opted for a day and a night in Kyoto, and the journey took around two hours total. The ride is unbelievably smooth, and happens to pass right by Mount Fuji! We had the good fortune of sitting across the aisle from a lovely, elderly Japanese couple who, as soon as the mountain came into view, jumped up and insisted we slide into their seats to have a better look.
Tip: Book seats on the righthand side of the train if you want the best view of the mountain!
Solaria Nishitetsu Hotel Kyoto Premier
We loved our hotel in Kyoto. It was the perfect place for a one-night getaway from Tokyo, and featured an onsen-like spa in the lowest floor. Our room came with modest loungewear that we could put on before traipsing down to experience the baths. Baths are a big part of the culture in Japan, and I would encourage that you try to experience an onsen at some point in your trip. Be aware, they are separated by gender, and if you have any tattoos you may be refused service as tattoos are indicative of gang-affiliation in Tokyo.
If you search for sushi places in Kyoto, you will find nothing short of an overwhelming number of options (even though the city is better known for its beef). To be honest, of all the 4- and 5-star rates establishments, Kinbe only rose to the top of our search because it was a short walk from our hotel. And we are so glad it did! The sushi chefs are very friendly and welcoming, and they recommended some amazing sake to us that we have no idea how to find back here in the U.S.! And most importantly -the sushi. The fish itself was among the best we have ever tried.
DAY EIGHTGolden Pavilion
One of the most magical aspects of Kyoto is its historic and breathtaking temples. We made a point of getting to several different ones, but the Golden Pavilion stood out among the rest. Truly bright gold in color due to being covered in gold-leaf, the temple is situated lake-side, creating an unforgettable reflection in the water.
Bamboo Forest (& the Kardashians?!)
We visited the bamboo forest and marveled at its never-ending, incredibly high shoots of bamboo as we wound along the charted paths that have been cut through the forest. We noticed several tourists had opted to ride through via rickshaw, which looked touristy, but so fun! And then, just as we were exiting the forest, a massive van pulled up to the entrance. It immediately stuck out because it was a larger vehicle than any other we had seen in our week in Japan. Next thing we knew, camera crews were wandering around and handlers were pushing back the crowd. Ruth and I stayed out of curiosity, and I casually commented, “My god, you’d think the Japanese version of the Kardashians have arrived.” And I kid you not, two seconds later the van door opens and out pops the actual Kardashians. I lived in Los Angeles for six years and never saw so much as a hint of a Kardashian, but here I was in Kyoto running smack into them at the entrance of the Bamboo Forest. If that wasn’t already the best part, we couldn’t help laughing when the young Japanese guy next to us looked at the Kardashian sisters, and then asked us in confusion, “Who? Who?” and made a punching motion with his arms guessing, “Fighters?”
Sake Scene Masufuku
To finish off our spectacular trip to Tokyo, we had a special final evening at Sake Scene Masufuku. Owner Yukari Yanaba speaks English beautifully and is an unbelievable host when you visit Sake Scene. She patiently chatted with us throughout our visit, recommending various sakes (hot and cold) for us to pair with our food choices. An intimate, modern setting, with inventive French-inspired food, this is one of those spots we would choose to return to again and again if we find ourselves in Tokyo in the future (which we hope we will!).
And that’s a wrap on Tokyo. I am forever grateful that Ruth’s pursuit of global marathon running has taken us to so many incredible cities around the world, possibly our favorite of which so far has been Tokyo!