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 positive1Exhibit A: over ten years of writing on this very blog., 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:
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.
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.
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!
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).
And then, a few places that aren’t (yet) as bad as the above, but still considerably overrated:
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 rooftop2I 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..
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.
Ask me where to find the cheapest beer, the best craft 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…