What NOT to do in Tokyo…

ken-sama

A perk of being a long-term resident in a country that is currently sitting atop most lists for “cool vacay destinations in the world”, is being asked on a weekly daily basis:

“So… What are your Tokyo/Kyoto/Japan tips and recommendations?”

To which I politely smile and internally try to decide whether the person asking is mentally diminished or just hailing from an Internet-free country. Because all I hear is “Could you google Lonely Planet’s Top 10 List of Things to Do in Tokyo for me?”…

Since there is clearly no useful or interesting answer to that question, and since it is a lot easier to be negative than positive1, I instead decided to compile a near-exhaustive list of places and things that you should stay away from, when you visit Tokyo.

You will notice an important overlap with aforementioned “Top 10 Tokyo whatever” lists commonly found elsewhere, and there’s a good reason for that: these are mostly places that were interesting/special at some point long ago or fit well-enough in the trite “Japan-be-crazy-yo” narrative, to make them ideal candidates for lazy tourist guides and other lists catering to the lowest-common denominator.

Rule of thumb: if you are the sort of tourist who loved their visit to London’s Piccadilly Circus, Paris’ Champs Élysées, NYC’s Times Square or SF’s Fisherman’s Wharf, this list of don’ts is emphatically not for you. In fact, you can even use it as a blueprint for your dream Tokyo visit. For everyone else, here you go:

Maid Cafés

aka Maido Cafés

Last cool/interesting: Never

Who goes there: 20% Japanese (otaku on the spectrum and/or sex-offence-on-minors-under-the-age-of-consent waiting to happen), 80% tourists that heard these things were super popular and cool in Japan.

Selling points: Bland overpriced biscuits served by pimply high-school students to awkward shut-ins and clueless tourists in a hastily-refurbished Akihabara apartment. Basically like Applebees, with more pedophilia and shittier food.

Harajuku’s Takeshita Dori

Last cool/interesting: 2004? 2001?… Whenever the dozen Japanese girls who used to buy their cosplay outfit there graduated from high-school.

Who goes there: 99% foreign tourists (about half Western tourists, convinced that the other Chinese/East-Asian half are authentic locals). 1% Nigerian guys pretending to be from Chicago to sell you authentic American hip-hop streetwear.

Selling points: Foreign otaku cosplay-freaks. Foreign tourists busy photographing authentic Tokyo cosplay-freaks who were seated a row behind them on the flight in. Souvenir shops for tourists. McDonald’s. Starbuck’s. Shops that sell wacky t-shirts that read “Stupid gaijin” or “Looking for Japanese girlfriend” in Japanese. Zero actual Japanese people cosplaying.

Cat Cafés

aka Neko Cafés

Last cool/interesting: when you last lived in a country where owning a pet was a technical impossibility.

Who goes there: Sleep-deprived undersexed OLs, Otaku too awkward for Maid cafés and tourists who hail from countries where cats do not exist.

Selling points: Get a chance to pet some stressed-out cats before they meet their ineluctable end in a metropolitan pound’s gas chamber a few years later when they’ve exhausted their financial utility to the café. Perfect if you think pet shelters would be the ideal hang-out place with the sole addition of overpriced instant coffee.

Roppongi

Last cool/interesting: 1930s Roppongi seems to have been a pretty cool place to hang out, if Mishima is to be believed. 1980s Bubble-era Roppongi was ridiculously overpriced and soul-crushingly materialistic, but at least would give one a glimpse into a truly unique slice of Japan’s history and an era of cheesy decadent excess, instead of being just overpriced and boring.

Who goes there: wealthy expats who can’t speak a word of Japanese (and don’t care for local food), older English teachers who can’t find Shibuya on a map, tourists who like travelling “abroad”, provided “abroad” looks and sounds reasonably like home. Also (at night): Nigerian touts who are your best friend and will definitely give you the best tips for that great bar where the grass is green, the girls are pretty and the drinks absolutely-not-at-all spiked.

Selling points: Japanese is hard, English is easy. High chances of bumping into your mates from LKF, Xintiandi or Nana Plaza. Most authentic kebab in town. Hard Rock Café Tokyo!

Robot Restaurant

Last cool/interesting: for about a week in early 2012, before anyone actually went there to figure out what the deal was with these creepy plastic doll “robots” they kept parading around town to advertise the place.

Who goes there: 99% foreign tourists looking for the “real crazy-Tokyo experience”, 1% local Japanese businessmen bringing their foreign clients after hearing that foreigners are really into that crap.

Selling points: Possibly the largest density of LEDs and mirrors you can put in a non-descript Tokyo basement the size of your parents’ garage back home. Vaguely-titillating, no-nudity, show for married 40-somethings who would rather not deal with an actual strip-club. For people who think off-Strip Las Vegas naughty revues could do with less production values and more papier-mâché dinosaurs mounted on motorcycles…

Tsukiji Market Sushi Restaurants

Last cool/interesting: some point in the mid-2000s, when it was still known as a way to get dirt-cheap, if not particularly exceptional, sushi made from unsold fish at the end of auctions (which were still open to the public).

Who goes there: Foreign foodies who want to eat the “freshest” sushi in Tokyo but couldn’t get a last minute reservation at Jiro’s.

Selling points: Something to do after you’ve wasted most of your night queuing to enter the tourist-dedicated tuna auction, realised it was just a bunch of guys yelling in an incomprehensible language in front of large dead fish (and that most of the actual action happened in the non-public auctions). Queuing and eating with other tourists. Lukewarm service. Tourist prices. Tuna that has travelled 500 metres less than the one sold for half the price at regular sushi places outside the market area.

Note: the above is about those 4-5 restaurants located inside the market (Sushi Dai, Daiwa Zushi etc), not the perfectly fine normal restaurants all over the Tsukiji neighbourhood (thanks, unknown stranger, for bringing the possible confusion to my attention).

Honourable Mentions

And then, a few places that aren’t (yet) as bad as the above, but still considerably overrated:

Omoide Yokochō

aka “Memory Lane”, aka “Piss Alley”

Last cool/interesting: about 5-10 year ago, when it was still known as a place where old Japanese geezers went to get their fill of cheap mystery-meat yakitori and equally cheap beer/whisky at the end of their dreary salaryman day.

Who goes there: (increasingly fewer and fewer of the) aforementioned salarymen. Lots of foreign tourists looking for the True Secret Tokyo Street Experience™.

Selling points: Overpriced half-burnt yakitori, bad beer and hidden charges (places that will overcharge unsuspecting tourists are easily recognisable as the ones that will not tell you “sorry, no foreigners here” when you try to sit down). Albatross bar, aka the coolest hidden gem in Omoide Yokocho that only you and all other readers of Lonely Planet have heard of.

Tokyo Metropolitan Building Observatory

Last cool/interesting: 15 years ago, when none of the other buildings with better view existed yet.

Who goes there: Cheap tourists who travelled 10,000 km to Tokyo, but would rather save ¥1,500 on the price of admission to the Mori rooftop2.

Selling points: Free panoramic view of the whole northern, less interesting part of the City (wedged between crappy souvenir stalls and pushy Chinese tourists). FREE!

New York Bar at Park Hyatt Tokyo

aka the Lost in Translation Bar

Last cool/interesting: Mostly in early 2003, for about a week, when Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson actually hung out there. Maybe a few more years after that, with exponentially diminishing returns.

Who goes there: 90% western millennials who like to fancy themselves characters in a Sofia Coppola film, 10% actual clients of the hotel: staring at their iPhones in Evisu jeans and gold lamé sneakers.

Selling points: A chance at some of the most overpriced drinks in Tokyo. All the atmosphere and glitz of a US domestic airport lounge bar, with grottier-looking leather couches and fading carpets.

In conclusion

Ask me where to find the cheapest beer, the best handmade gin cocktails, an anything-goes fetish party, those plastic replica of food items you see outside Japanese restaurants, the best chashu ramen, the best rooftop biergarten with a view, the best park for an impromptu picnic… I’ll sort you out.

But ask for generic recommendations and you will get generic (and often horrible) recommendations.

In the case of Tokyo (/Japan), this is made exponentially worse by the combined power of modern online “journalism” (aka every last moron with a website and an Adsense account) and Western people’s boundless enthusiasm for anything that fits their preconceived notions of Japan as that wacky country exclusively filled with weird sex fetishes and neon-lit robots.

Tokyo (like many places) is not a place where you go and tick a list of landmarks and must-see spots. By far the most interesting thing to do in Tokyo is to pick a random neighbourhood (or possibly less random, based on your sensibilities), walk around, explore and get drunk with the locals.

PS: feel free to share your recommendations for awesome Tokyo tourist-traps, in the comments section…

  1. Exhibit A: over ten years of writing on this very blog. []
  2. I will happily concede that this one serves a purpose for penniless backpackers for whom every yen counts, hence the ‘Honourable Mentions’ category. But if you are paying ¥15,000/night for a hotel room and staying 3 days in Tokyo, you have absolutely no excuse. []

22 comments

  1. pretty sure robot restaurant opened somewhere around 2010-2011.
    also the metropolitan building has 2 viewing towers nth and south. South looks toward meji shrine, west and east, and nth tower looks toward nth east and west with good views in the middle of nishi shinjuku.
    Roppongi hills offers great views of the south city but not all of it. 1/4 of the view are not public viewing windows.

  2. @tokyoknow: Robot Restaurant opened in 2012 (2000s was a typo, of course. was supposed to read 2010s).
    And regarding the metropolitan building observatory: even the southern one is way north of the city and, imho, very inferior to Mori (or even Skytree) both for the view and for the quality of access. I think your estimate of 1/4 of the view at Mori is a bit overstated, but in any case, there’s also the rooftop, which has an even more impressive view, without windows in between.

    I realise the Metropolitan Building is one of the more controversial pick in that list: it’s not horrible and it’s free (which is a decent argument for some travellers), but I still think it’s overrated for most people.

  3. @Mel: ha, you know what: I might have got a bit ahead of myself on that one, because the best chashu ramen I know is in Kyoto, and I’m still looking for a good challenger in Tokyo. My neighbourhood joint does a pretty decent kyushu-style ramen, but I’m not sure I would recommend people make their way from the other side of town for it.

    For the record, I have nothing against Ichiran (had many a post-night-out fix there): despite the above rant, I am not that much of a jaded gaijin that I can’t appreciate a decent, if slightly overrated, ramen chain (it’s good ramen, but maybe not 1h-queuing good). My only beef, is with places that are wildly off the mark in both quality and fair pricing, and yet somehow perpetuate themselves in the collective unconscious of tourists as “places to go in Tokyo”… Aside from that, I am far from an arbiter of good taste.

  4. Thanks! With the limited time I have next week, I’d probably just duck into an Ichiran when there’s no queue anyway. Or the nearest McDonald’s, haha.

    I’m also interested where to get my hands on those glossy plastic food things that are probably made in China. If for nothing else, I want to see how many friends I can fool into taking a bite.

  5. @Mel: if you want to try something else than Ichi-ran (and don’t feel confident picking a place at random), this blog and this one (plus a few others) generally have a bunch of pretty good recommendations.

    As for the (possibly Chinese-made) plastic display food, that one is easy: it’s in kappabashi… An entire alley of shops sell them (they aren’t cheap, though).

    1. That’s extremely easy… But unfortunately you’re too late by a month. They all close by the end of September 🙁

      During Summer, there really are too many to list: every other tall building in Tokyo will have one. I generally pick, based on location, food options and availability…

  6. I live in Tokyo 8 years and still spend 1-7 months a year here (am here now)

    Maid cafe’s: Everyone goes once. Even Japanese people. No reason not to go for the experience. I suppose you won’t get a good experience unless you speak Japanese and go far off the beaten path.

    Takeshita Dori: Is still the shit. Like WTF are you talking about? Every Japanese high school tourist from other parts of the country still go there. It’s still 90% Japanese if not more. It’s still an amazing spectacle in the same way say Venice Beach, CA is a spectacle. By all means Go!

    Roppongi: Still has some of the best restaurants in Japan, especially if you’re looking for some variety. It’s also got several amazing museums. The Mori Museum, the Toyko National Art Center, 21 21 Design Site and one of the best international meetups, Pechakucha Night. Sure parts of it are skanky but that’s part of it’s charm.

    Robot Restaurant: Been twice. Will go again. It’s fucking amazing. The same way a Vegas show is amazing. You can’t see something like the Robot Restaurant anywhere else in the world. It doesn’t matter that it’s the most gaudy ridiculous thing ever made. That’s exactly what makes it so awesome.

    Omoide Yokochō: Is also great for shopping. Amazing hand crafted leather goods. Amazing Wagara Clothing for men. All the cool Japanese men shop there (where as maybe the pretty boys go to Men’s OIOI or Harajuku). A great place to by hats and bags too.

    1. Hey Gman (Greggman?)

      As I wrote: there’s no accounting for taste and there are no universal likes and dislikes. The places mentioned above will definitely appeal to a lot of people and that’s absolutely fine. If they are listed, it’s precisely because they tend to sit at the top of most recommendations lists and I find them overrated at best. If there was a strong consensus, there wouldn’t be much to write about.

      When I mentioned “Roppongi”, I meant the neighbourhood as a whole. It’s understood that specific destinations in Roppongi are perfectly fine and worth going to (it’d be silly writing off an entire part of Tokyo altogether): I even mentioned Mori tower as a superior (imho) option to the Metropolitan Building. There are a lot of decent places in Roppongi to eat or see things, but I wouldn’t call them great sightseeing. And this is about sightseeing and short-term visitors.

      About Omoide Yokochō: I think you are confusing it with some other place. Definitely no shopping to be done there.

  7. Where in Kyoto can I find this best chashu ramen you mentioned?

    Also, any recommendations for a good Izakaya place (that’s budget friendly, ~1500yen per person) in Asakusa?

    1. My favourite chashu ramen in Kyoto is called Taihō Ramen and is a bit hard to find. I wrote about it here a while back.

      My main recommendation for izakayas in Asakusa would be to put a minimal distance between you and Sensoji’s tourist shops, walk around and stop wherever looks interesting/nice. Possibly have a look at the menus or inquire about prices and charges beforehand, if you are worried about budget, but most of Asakusa is pretty cheap. I have had awesome nights there, simply picking places at random and going for drinks or food, surrounded by local ojisans and obasans. If the weather isn’t too cold, there are a number of streets behind Sensoji (toward the awesome Hanayashiki amusement park) where izakaya set up tables outside and offer decent prices (but this might still be a bit above regular Asakusa prices, on account of nearby touristic attractions).

      For anything more specific, I’m afraid I don’t know that part of Tokyo well enough (all the izakaya I know there, I only know by sight and couldn’t even give you a name for). In a bind, the Torikizoku chain isn’t half bad. Prices are hard to beat (for both drinks and food) and the Asakusa one honestly does not look like it would be part of a (small) chain.

  8. That’s better.
    Metropolitan buildings are still the best view from that side of the city though. Yes looking west you get a view of sprawling endless suburbs, which is a relevant thing to understand about tokyo, and the views over shinjuku and meji shrine are pretty nice. good points about who you have to share the rest of the room with though. always some tour group shoving you out of the way. unfair to criticise it for it’s location. it is where it is, and mori tower is over priced for what it is, but the rooftop platform is bloody good.
    you should have mentioned how all the foreigners coming to eat ramen was over rated. Japanese spaghetti. boring.

    1. It’s funny that the Metropolitan building has been by far the biggest (/only) serious grip some friends and locals have had with that list 🙂

      Unlike all other items in the main part of the list, I do not feel strongly about it, just thought it deserved a mention, since I feel it sits way too high on the “Must Do” lists of many visitors. It is indeed not (just) the location, but a whole: access, noisy crowds, subpar set-up (it feels more like a large mall with windows, than a proper observatory floor) etc. I actually don’t think the Mori is such a bad deal, provided you have any interest in modern art (their temporary exhibits are consistently extremely high quality). If you go just for the observatory, it is indeed a bit overpriced, but not in any way that matters to the grand scheme of a week-long trip to Tokyo.

      About food fads etc: we could probably write a whole other list, but I think that one would be even less consensual, and meet a lot of vociferous opposition on all sides (I, for one, really like ramen :-P).

    1. That one is easy: Ben Fiddich (ベンフィディック) in Shinjuku probably has the most interesting handmade gin cocktails (and many other herbal concoctions). Prices aren’t cheap, however.

  9. I am heading out to Japan in about a week. Where can you find the anything goes fetish party? I am super Canadian and I don’t speak a lick of Japanese. I suspect that might make it more challenging, but I am familiar with my local “scene”. I am interested in having fun, not just “oggling”.

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