It’s dynamic, it’s diverse and it has something for almost everyone. This is a country that has been on the travel radar for quite some time, but somehow we just never made it. The question is, how has it taken this long to get there?
Better late than never!
Home for us was Nishi-Shinjuku, on the edge of the business and administrative centre west of bustling Shinjuku Train Station. Shinjuku covers a much larger area than I imagined, and is subdivided into very different neighbourhoods.
The Knot, where we stayed, overlooks Shinjuku Central Park on the western edge of Nishi-Shinjuku. It’s a convenient spot just 10 minutes on foot to Shinjuku Station, or about 5 to one of the metro stations.
Morethan Bakery, The Knot Hotel – 4 Chome-31-１ Nishishinjuku
Shinjuku Central Park
Aside from meandering paths, pretty gardens open areas, Central Park has the beautiful Kumano Shrine that’s worth seeing. The small Shinto complex is said to be founded between the 14th and 16th centuries, and is the spiritual protector of the area.
Wandering the gardens or shrine is a perfect start to any day. Free entry.
Kumano Shrine – 2 Chome-11-２ Nishishinjuku
Not too far from the shrine and The Knot – say 5 minutes walk away – is a tiny 3-level building that houses Counterpart Coffee Gallery. There’s espresso, pour over and a few specialty drinks unique to Counterpart – like Brown Fizz – a zesty and slightly sweet espresso tonic.
Take the narrow stairs up to two floors scattered with seating with views over the street.
Counterpart Coffee Gallery – 3-12-16 Honmachi, Shibuya-ku
Blue Bottle Coffee – 4-1-6 Shinjuku,
Any fans of Californian chain Blue Bottle Coffee would be pleased to find twelve outlets in Japan – ten of which are in Tokyo.
On the south side of Shinjuku Station is the starkly designed café tucked in the NEWoMan retail complex. There’s the full menu of espresso and drip coffee, and a few pastries to nibble on.
Just metres away is Le Pain de Joël Robuchon – a mecca for seriously good sweet and savoury pastries and dreamy breads. Pile up your tray with goodies to take away, or enjoy them in the adjacent café. The gold-dusted, slightly boozy brioche au marron et chocolate (¥410) is all kinds of wonderful, as is the pain de gorgonzola (¥356). Its easy to get carried away, as it didn’t take long for our bakery breakfast to amount to more than ¥3,100 ($40).
Le Pain de Joël Robuchon – 1F, 4-1-6 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku
For somewhere less French and much cheaper, I’d say seek out Kobeya Bakery in the underground Nishishinjuku Metro Station. We stumbled upon this joint as we navigated our way out of the station, which was perfect timing as we needed some afternoon snacks.
The bakery itself is nothing to look at, but the selection it has trumps many similar train station bakeries we encountered. That melted chocolate danish (¥300) and chocolate baton (¥250) were quite something, as was the raisin bun (¥210).
Kobeya Bakery at Nishishinjuku Metro Station – 6 Chome−7−５１
Metropolitan Government Office Observatory Deck – Nishishinjuku, 2 Chome−8−１
Nomura Building Observatory – 1 Chome-26-2 Nishishinjuku
There are many places to head for lofty views over the city, but many of them set you back considerable yen. For the frugal amongst us – and anyone that happens to be in Shinjuku – there are two free observation decks.
The Metropolitan Government Office building in Nishi-Shinjuku has a deck on both towers 45th floors. Only one is open each day, so you’ll find out which one when you arrive.
Several blocks away is the Nomura Building with its relatively unheard of observation deck on its 50th floor. On a clear day you can even see Mt. Fuji.
The corporate vibe of Nishi-Shinjuku west of the station is a stark contrast to the more upbeat, action-filled Shinjuku-Nichome. This is where you’ll find Japan’s largest gay district that’s filled with bars, clubs and specialty stores. Many of the venues are hidden inside small buildings tucked in backstreets and passages, so it pays to dig deep if you want to discover something new.
Several blocks away are two eateries definitely worth seeking out. The first is a ramen restaurant called Hakata Tenjin – an in-and-out joint that dishes up some deeply rich and creamy tonkotsu over its ramen.
There’s an English menu for those of us that don’t do the lingo, but there are pictures to help. Within a minute of sidling up to the laminate counter and choosing one of 11 ramen combinations, it’s made and delivered.
The most expensive – roast pork & spring onion ramen – only sets you back ¥900. That soup sure is a winner. There are many other outlets around Tokyo.
Hakata Tenjin – 2 Chome-6-２ Shinjuku
Further down the street is somewhere which sees a queue of punters on any night of the week. Don’t just join the line at Gyōza no Fukuhō – which I think translates to “Gyoza Gift Box” – but write your name on the list.
The gyoza (20 pieces ¥870) may be the hero in this coveted spot, but I’d urge anyone to get stuck into the side dishes, as well. They’re so cheap!
Fried squid with original spice (¥250), impossibly light and airy tofu with spicy sesame (¥250), marinated bonito (¥290) and rice with soft egg & minced pork (¥250) are all delicious, especially that pork.
Gyoza no Fukuho – Shinjuku, 2 Chome−8−6
Omoide Yokocho – nicknamed Piss Alley post WW2, due to the lack of toilets in the area – is a precinct I was looking forward to seeing. What was once a social hub for eating and boozing at hostess bars, it’s now very much just about the eating and drinking.
Yakitori runs supreme, as well as simmering pots of nikomi (beef tendon, veg and intestines etc) can be spotted in many of the minuscule kitchens.
The precinct becomes increasingly popular after 5pm, with locals and tourists jostling for seats at one of more than fifty eateries crammed into the area. Where there are tourists, there are higher prices, so you can expect the bill to quickly rack up, especially with the surcharge that most of the eateries include.
Our choice was Isuzu & Komatu, a very narrow joint that’s just 10 seats downstairs, and 20 upstairs. A 5-piece skewer set will set you back ¥500, with choices like chicken, heart, liver, intestines etc. There’s a bubbling cauldron of giblet-filled nikomi at the entrance, too.
Draft beer and sake is up for grabs, as are some sours, or chūhai – a blend of shochu, soda, citrus juice, umeshu or tea.
Isuzu & Komatu – 1 Chome-2-7 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku
Between the main train station and Nishi-Shinjuku is a compact grid of streets that’s all about discount shopping and fast eating.
Matsuya was where we dropped in for a quick grilled pork bowl (¥450) feed. Simply put your money into the vending machine, tap on whatever you want, take the ticket and grab a seat at the U-shaped counter. A few minutes later your food is delivered, along with a complimentary bowl of miso. This franchise is quick, convenient and cheap!
Matsuya – Nishishinjuku, 1 Chome−13−3
Over in Nishi-Shinjuku on the basement level of the Shinjuku Center Building is Tendon Tenya, another fast food franchise that specialises in tempura.
Depending on your choice, it can be an inexpensive feed, with dishes starting at ¥400. The Tendon set (¥1040) – my choice – features prawn, lotus root, pumpkin and okra tempura set upon rice. There’s an udon soup and miso on the side, and for an extra ¥60 you can toss in a soft egg.
The downside was the flaccid tempura itself – where I’m assuming it’s pre-cooked at some point, then reheated. It’s a practice that seems pretty common in joints like this.
Tendon Tenya – B1-26-2, Shinjuku CB, 1-25-1 Nishi-Shinjuku
Walking distance from Shinjuku Station is the tiny and very popular Shin Udon. Lining up seems like a common activity of this 10-seater that offers traditional and a little more unusual bowls of udon.
The udon is made in-house – first rolled by hand, then fed into an industrial roll-cutter that produces perfect strands.
I went straight for the carbonara-inspired udon with raw egg, parmesan, butter, pepper and bacon tempura (¥1200). There’s a divine “chew” on the udon, and once mixed together, there’s a definite Italian flavour going on. The crunch on the tempura is just the way it should be.
The cold udon with soy, yuzu pepper jelly, daikon and chikuwa (processed fish cake) tempura (¥1250), was another winner with much simpler flavours.
Shin Udon – Shibuya-Shinjuku 2 Chome−20-1-6
One area that really draws the hoards is Asakusa. Here you can dress up in a kimono and shuffle about the streets, take a rickshaw ride, join the throngs of people and browse Nakamise-Dori for its souvenirs and snacks or check out a museum, or two.
That’s just for starters.
The heart of the action would have to be Sensō-ji Temple – the city’s oldest Buddhist temple. Gawk at the gorgeous architecture, get snaps of the five-storey pagoda and waft about the complex, its stone bridges, trickling streams and manicured gardens.
Crossing Nakamise-Dori just south of the temple is Denboudin-Dori, a small shopping and eating street that’s worth poking around. It’s here we spotted a line of people patiently waiting to pick up something from a small food vendor.
Asakusa Menchi pumps out piping hot menchi-katsu – a croquette, of sorts. The golden, crunchy and oily crust gives way to a soft filling of Kanagawa pork and sweet onions. At ¥250 each, they’re pretty cheap considering the tourist location.
Asakusa Menchi – 2 Chome-3-3 Asakusa
The streets west of Asakusa Station have an old world feel about them, despite most being rebuilt in the 1950s after the devastation of WW2.
It’s far less touristy than the temple precinct and is easily navigated on foot. Plenty of little eateries, cafes, independent stores and residential homes all in one.
Narita – 1 Chome-12-10 Asakusa, Taitō-ku
We filled our tummies at Narita, a local place that dished up some rather unremarkable pork & chicken tempura (¥980) bowls. The flavours were bang on, but that flaccid tempura (yes, again!) was a real let down.
For those with a penchant for kitchenware, ceramics and beautifully forged knives needs to head to Kappabashi-dori, or “Kitchen Town.” This is the restaurant supply store mecca of Tokyo, if not Japan, and you could easily spend half a day walking the streets and browsing the stores.
Kappabashi-dori – Kitchen Town
Looking down the side streets in the area it’s hard to miss the imposing Higashi Honganji Temple, the head temple of the Higashi Honganji sect of Jôdo Shinshû Buddhism.
Higashi-Honganji Temple, Asakusa
The popular shopping neighbourhood of Harajuku is the city’s hub for Japanese pop culture. Whether it’s cool, cute or downright wacky, you’re bound to find it here.
One of the best known – and possibly most crowded – streets in the city is Takeshita Street. Numerous fashion stores, crêperies and novelty shops selling all things kawaii. Whilst it’s not to everyones taste – including mine – it still is an interesting spectacle to see.
The quieter backstreets and nearby Yoyogi Park were more my scene!
The neighbourhood of Aoyama has a more grown-up and glamorous feel to it, with high end shopping, bookstores, health clubs and boutiques.
Closer to Omotesandō Station is Commune 2nd, a collage of indoor-outdoor spaces complete with kiosks offering craft beer, Brooklyn fries, German fast food, a fish shack, Hawaiian-style vegan food and more.
For a coffee fix head to Shozo Coffee Store for a pour-over or cold brew fix, or head next door and upstairs to Blue Bottle Coffee for the same, plus very good single origin espresso.
Commune 2nd – 3-13 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku
Blue Bottle Coffee – 3-13-14 Minami-Aoyama
If there’s a neighbourhood in Tokyo that I can most relate to, it would have to be Shimokitazawa. There are so many things about it that remind me of our neighbourhood at home, in Sydney. Coffee shops, vintage and indie fashion, used record and bookstores and live music venues -all wrapped in a bohemian vibe.
We thought we’d head out there early, but quickly discovered everything opens after 11am. So much for a breakfast at a cute cafe. Instead it was nigiri and a can of cold coffee from a corner convenience store!
It was well worth waiting for Bear Pond Espresso to open at 11 as, quite frankly, it was the best we encountered in all our Japanese travels. Syrupy, chocolatey and seriously intense.
Mediocre Starbucks, this is not.
Pancake cafes are a dime a dozen in this town, and despite them not thrilling me too much, I was intrigued by the pancake pies that Flipper’s was offering. Think a small pancake and cream sandwiched between two discs of pastry.
These guys are known for their airy pancakes, but the one used in the chocolate orange pancake pie (¥400) dense and cakey. Probably a good thing we didn’t queue for this one.
Bear Pond Espresso – 2 Chome-36-12 Kitazawa
Flipper’s – 2 Chome−26−２０ 1F
North of Shimokitazawa Station has a real village feel to it, whereas the south side feels much more boisterous and commercial. Still, there’s much to see on this side of the tracks.
You can pick up your coffee beans and accoutrement at Moldive, get boozy at Cage or dose up on seafood at Jackpot Oyster Kitchen.
Just down from the station is Rojiura Curry Samurai, a brilliant little restaurant tucked on the second floor just off the main street. The moment you head upstairs and step into this cosy eatery you’re met with the heady aroma of curry soup.
It seats about 12 and has a small menu, making choosing a swift process. Take them up on the offer of a paper bib, as you’re bound to splash yourself with the deliciously muddy, spicy curry broth.
Servings are generous and packed with vegetables. We tried the spice ramen (¥1400) which was an extravaganza of vegetables, burdock root, roast pork, soft egg and nori. Not the cheapest bowl of ramen in town, but it sure is delicious.
Rojiura Curry Samurai – 3 Chome-31-１4
The area around Tokyo Station is as interesting as it is varied. Yes, there are the obvious office towers, but it’s at street level where the appeal lays.
Grand old buildings like Tokyo Central Railway Station and Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, shopping and eating at the Maru Building, KITTE and Bic Camera electronics, or just sniffing about the railway viaduct and Yurakucho Station just south of Tokyo.
Yurakucho is packed with yakitori and izakaya joints, bars, outdoor restaurants and even more tucked in Gado-shita – the vaults beneath the old railway viaduct.
Our appetites were taken care of at Hanteji-ya, a busy Korean eatery beneath the tracks. It’s a mixed bag of home-style cooking, street food and samgyeopsal-gui – stone-grilled pork belly.
The decor echoes a street food set-up, complete with roller doors and street signage, and all orders give you free access to the small salad and drinks bar.
We ate a rather tasty rice bowl with pork (¥1000) and piping hot bibimbap (¥900).
Hanteji-ya – ２丁目-1-5 Yūrakuchō
Whilst you can’t get right up close to the Imperial Palace, you can snap a photo of it with Nijubashi (Double Bridge) in the foreground. To get there you have to walk through Kokyo Gaien, which is a vast park of perfectly manicured pine trees.
I absolutely loved wandering the stunning Kōkyo Higashi-gyoen (Imperial Palace East Gardens) – the only part of Imperial Palace that’s accessible to the public.
Meandering along its numerous paths reveals samurai training houses, old castle walls, a tea house, koi ponds and beautiful gardens. Entry is free.
Imperial Palace East Gardens – 1-１ Chiyoda
If time permits – and it happens to be winter – a day trip out to Shiga Kogen is worth considering. This is the largest ski field area in Asia, and the rest of the year it’s a natural wonderland of watersports, hiking, cycling and even fruit picking.
We were there to see one of Japan’s most iconic sights – those Japanese macaques with their rosey faces.
Kobeya Kitchen – 1 Chome−２２−６ MIDORI長野 １F
Our first stop, after the shinkansen sped us to Nagano, was a quick bite at the JR station. Bakeries are always a convenient choice, so Kobeya Kitchen looked after our stomachs.
All breads and pastries are baked on-site, and the selection is extensive and decent. Plenty of pre-made sandwiches and French-style baguettes – and, of course – that karepan you can see above. It’s basically deep-fried bread with a curry filling.
Once we were all dosed up on breads and sugar, we were ready to witness those monkeys soaking in sulphurous spring water, and frolicking about the rocks and snow. They’re used to sharing their space with humans, but they have a knack of swiftly grabbing any small bags you may be holding. Beware the monkeys!
Entrance into the park is ¥800 per person, half that for kids.
For first-timers to Japan, it’s probably best to grab yourself a JR Pass (Japan Rail), offered from one of many train companies in the country. The 7, 14, or 21 day pass must be purchased prior to arriving in Japan, and it’s a huge money-saver if you plan on using trains numerous times. Intercity train travel isn’t cheap, so head here to order your JR Pass.
Additionally, purchase a SUICA Card online before arriving in Japan, or head to the black ticket vending machines at JR stations, to grab one. The card lets you tap in and out of any train stations that aren’t covered by your JR Pass. It covers the Metro, many busses and can be used to pay for goods at any stores displaying the SUICA logo, as well. Simply top up the credit at the SUICA vending machines at train stations, when it runs low.
The shinkansen gets you to Nagano in about 90 minutes, and from there you need to get a local train to Yudanaka Station, which is another 50 minutes and not covered by the JR Rail Pass. From Yudanaka is was a very short local bus ride to the edge of the park. It’s then a 10-20 minute walk into the forest to see the monkeys.