Photograph by Christopher Groenhout, Getty Images
From day to night, culture and cuisine come together in tantalizing Tokyo. As you experience stunning shrines and bustling markets, bright lights and big-city skyscrapers, take the time to savor superb sushi and sashimi, as well as rice, noodles, soups, stews, and Kobe beef, accompanied by beer, tea, or the native nectar sake.
Senso-ji Temple (also known as the temple of Asakusa Kannon) is a spectacular compound on the Sumida riverbank that honors Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. Pass through ornately adorned gateways to enter a tranquil setting featuring statues, Shinto shrines, art-filled halls, and a bamboo water garden.
Classic food option: Tempted by tempura? Exit Senso-ji's Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) and head to Daikokuya for a tendon bowl: tempura (golden, batter-dipped fried shrimp or veggies) over rice. Nearby Nakamise Street is another option. Snack from stalls as you stroll, sampling senbei (rice crackers) or ningyo-yaki (small cakes filled with sweet bean paste, custard, or jam). If you enjoy tea, book ahead at Nadeshiko, near Asakusa Station, where you can experience a reasonably priced traditional tea ceremony featuring matcha tea served with kashi (Japanese sweets)—kimono optional.
Trendy food option: Prefer beer? Seek out the golden-flamed, Philippe Starck-designed building on the Sumida riverbank. Across from the temple sits the headquarters of brew king Asahi. The 22nd-floor Asahi Sky Room serves beer at a great price with an optional bite, complemented by an awesome city view.
Unexpected food option: At Sometaro, a casual tatami-mat eatery near the temple, ooh over okonomiyaki, a pancake creation likened to an open crepe or pizza. Its name literally meaning "to fry as you like," okonomiyaki can be personalized and cooked by guests at the table. Toppings vary, and price per person is by ingredient quantity.
Here, the sky's truly the limit. At almost 2,100 feet high, Tokyo Skytree is Japan's tallest structure, with the Solamachi shopping complex at its base. Technically a communication tower, Tokyo Skytree houses observation decks, an aquarium, a planetarium, restaurants, food stalls, and shops galore. There's even a Japanese Experience Zone (East Yard, fifth floor). Modern-day curiosities and souvenirs—from funny and fashionable to kitschy and collectible—can be found on the fourth floor.
Classic food option: Every type of bite is on hand in the food court. Go for classic choices such as udon (wheat) or soba (buckwheat) noodles in hot or cold broth at Udon Honjin Yamadaya (sixth floor). Uoriki (West Yard, second floor) has reasonably priced sushi, and Hasegawa Saketen (East Yard, first floor) is a sake shop with a standing bar for sipping too.
Trendy food option: You can take your pick of trendy treats from over 25 specialty sweet shops in the complex. Baumkuchen (tree cake) is a spongy, cream-filled cake introduced to World War I-era Japan by a German baker. Nenrinya (second floor) puts the cake on a stick. Chocoholics will rejoice at the 100% Chocolate Café (fourth floor), which features over 56 chocolate varieties to choose from, along with specialty chocolate drinks.
Unexpected food option: A sip or bite at one of the observation-level restaurants is well worth it and not as touristy as anticipated. Unfavorable weather might obscure views during the day, but a nighttime visit is sure to include a glistening city vista. The Skytree Café offers tea, coffee, and ice cream, while refined Sky Restaurant 634 (Tembo Deck) serves impressive Franco-Asian fare. Reservations here are a must.
Photograph by Thomas Linkel, laif/Redux
Pretty and pristine Ueno Park is home to temples and pagodas, foliage and flowers, the country's oldest zoo, and soothing Shinobazu Pond. It also features diverse museums, including Tokyo's National Museum—which showcases artifacts and treasures ranging from kimonos and sacred scrolls to woodblock screens and shogun warriors' armor—and the National Museum of Nature and Science. Learn about the Edo era's shitamachi culture at the Shitamachi Museum, and for contemporary works, visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.
Classic food option: Located near the zoo, Innsyoutei is a charming, rustic restaurant serving traditional specialties. Sit on zabuton (floor cushions) to dine on sashimi, sushi, tofu, chicken, and fish dishes, served with bowls of unlimited rice and cups of green tea. The reasonably priced Tsuki Flower Basket Lunch is their prettier version of a bento box.
Trendy food option: On the east side of the park, near the National Museum of Western Art, panda-themed Café Hibiki has a big patio and is a fun place to grab a unique bite while enjoying the pretty setting. Panda-shaped buns and cakes feature savory and sweet fillings, while iced frothy drinks like green tea or mango are refreshing. The Park Side Café, smack dab in the middle of Ueno, offers surprisingly good traditional sandwiches, a trendy concept among locals.
Unexpected food option: Exit the park on the southwest side and walk to Ameyoko, a lively, open-air street market that is a sight unto itself. Nibble on fresh fruit shish kebabs or on sheets of dried nori (seaweed). For lunch or a snack, choose a stall with a red lantern. Daitoryo is an excellent izakaya (casual eating place) that grills up yummy yakitori served with sweet or spicy sauces. Wash it down with beer or chilled or warm sake.
One of the most visited and respected imperial shrines in Tokyo, Meiji Shrine honors Emperor Meiji, the country's first modern emperor, and his wife, Empress Shoken. Courtyards, cedar groves, gardens, halls, and annexes make up this complex, which was rebuilt in 1958 after being bombed in World War II.
Classic food option: Before or after visiting, stop at Café Mori No Terrace at the Torii Gate entrance for a green-tea latte amid the foliage. Move along to casual and popular Harajuku Gyozaro for gyoza (dumplings) with a variety of fillings. The line moves fast.
Trendy food option: The Shibuya and Harajuku districts are trendsetting areas. Bars, creperies, and pachinko (pinball) parlors abound. Crepes are cool, cheap, and filled to the brim with fruit, ice cream, and sauces, or with savory choices. Try Marion Crêpes or Angels Heart. For beer and tapas instead, go to Harajuku Taproom.
Unexpected food option: For a quiet respite from big-buzz surroundings, have a leisurely lunch or dinner featuring Japanese or international specialties at the peaceful and stylish Blue Garden in Shibuya.
Photograph by XPACIFICA, National Geographic Creative
Tsukiji Fish Market and Ginza Shopping Area
Make it an early morning and a late night. The world's biggest fish market, Tsukiji is also the place to watch fishmongers and sushi masters strut their stuff. Wholesalers only auction fish from dawn until 9 a.m. in the Inner Market. The restaurants are in the Outer Market. Most are cash only and close by 2 p.m. For an about-face, hit the glitzy Ginza shopping district a few streets over.
Classic food option: A breakfast of superb sushi and sashimi is just reward for rising early. Don't assume that hyped, more expensive eateries like Sushi Dai or Daiwa Sushi are the only ones worth trying (as their long lines may indicate). Take note of well-priced Nakaya for its donburi (sashimi rice bowl), toro (tuna), or uni (sea urchin). Sushi Maru has generous omakase (chef's choice) dishes. For ramen, go to hidden hideaway Wakaba.
Trendy food option: In the afternoon sip coffee at a kissaten (coffee shop). Escape the shopping bustle and head to Ginza's Tsubakiya, located on the second and third floors of the unassuming Sugawara Denki Building. A Zen teatime awaits at Higashiya Ginza. Before or after dinner, sip sake at Kuri, a tucked-away gem that features over a hundred varieties of the beverage.
Unexpected food option: For lunch or dinner in the heart of Ginza, veggie lovers will want to try Nagamine, a mostly yasai (vegetarian) restaurant. Carnivores can enjoy Kobe beef for dinner at well-priced Shotaien Ginza, which highlights Japanese-style barbecue.
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