Harajuku, Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Ginza Neighbourhoods, Tokyo
I have to be careful when I go to Tokyo. I tend to get so caught up in it that I find myself scheming up ways to move there as soon as possible. The aesthetics and pulsating energy are so unique that I can't help imagining what it would be like to be a part of that every day.
But perhaps the real reason is that when I'm in Tokyo for a couple of days, I know it's not even enough to scratch the surface. It's one thing to explore the physical vastness of the city, but it's the cultural framework that is the hardest to penetrate. To get around physically is easy - the metro, though complex, is simple to navigate. However, to exist culturally in Tokyo as a tourist is to live a parallel life to the locals. Eat their cuisine, navigate their transportation, share their sidewalks and follow their footsteps. There's no real tourist fabric to entwine yourself in, so you're forced to ingratiate yourself into the lives of Tokyoites, yet, you can still feel completely foreign and sometimes even socially unaware. It's an experience I haven't had in many other cities.
This is not to say that it's an exclusively uncomfortable or alienating experience. Not for me, anyway. It brings out my curiosity. Nobody minds that you're there, but no one gives you special treatment for being a visitor. This approach allows you to feel like you can enjoy yourself without stepping on the toes of the locals, and that your everyday experiences are more genuine than a place that thrives and relies on making tourists feel welcome. People are nice, but in a reserved way. People are polite, of course, in Japan. Come in, see what our city is like, see how you fit in - but we're not going to dedicated make space for this to happen.
I love coming up to a little resistance or struggle when we travel. In Tokyo, it happens subtly, but it seemed to happen often for us. How do we order ramen from this machine? Which side of the sidewalk do we walk on to keep the foot traffic flowing? How many times do we say thank you, and is arigatou OK, or should we say arigatou gosaimasita every time? We never felt like we were doing things exactly right. I always want to stay a little longer so that I might practice getting it right, and feel a little closer to that Tokyo energy which I enjoy so much.
I think that's what draws me in and leaves me wanting more. To know Tokyo is to love it, but time is needed to get to know it properly. It also needs time to get to know you.
HiSui Japanese Culture School, Ginza
Choose from 4 Japanese art classes and do a trial run with an expert: calligraphy, katana sword, tea ceremony, and kimono. We did the katana sword class and the exhilaration of slicing through the tatami roll with a razor sharp blade was well worth the price. Book ahead online.
Robot Restaurant, Shinjuku
Notably mentioned on Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown, the Robot Restaurant needs no introduction. I recommend spending some happy hour time in Golden Gai before to get in the right mindset for this outrageous show. Significant discounts can be found by booking online with companies like Veltra.
Harajuku Gyoza, Harajuku
This restaurant is an institution. They've managed to keep their prices low and their menu simple. Choose from 2 dumpling flavours, fried or boiled, for ¥290 per plate. The value is incredible for gyoza this perfect, and the atmosphere is vibrant. Expect to wait in line.
Gyoen National Garden, Shinjuku
For ¥200, you can find tranquility in the heart of Tokyo. The juxtaposition of skyscrapers reflected on glass-like koi ponds is the highlight for me, and you can also see sakura (cherry blossom) trees. It's a much-needed break from the city.