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10 Things No One Tells You About... Tokyo

Feb. 26, 2017
11 min read
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Social media, anonymous postings and "insider" guides all claim to tell foreign guests about Tokyo, but the real skinny is famously hard to find. But if you ask a local what will make you feel at home in this massive and overwhelming city, they'll tell you what I'm about to tell you now, 10 tips that'll take you a little closer to the beating heart of Japan's vibrant capital.

1. It Looks Like a Taxi, It Moves Like a Taxi, But It's Not Quite a Taxi

Getting a taxi in Tokyo starts out the same way as in any US city — at the train station or airport, you line up, wait your turn and step in; on streets, you put out your hand and wave a cab down. Once you're in the taxi, though, it’s completely different. Don’t touch the door while you're getting in or out: It closes automatically and the driver, usually wearing immaculate white gloves and a cap, won’t like it all if you touch his car.

You can expect the driver to speak little or no English, so if you're going to a restaurant or some other location, have your hotel concierge print out the name and a map to give to the driver — even Edokko (native Tokyoites from established local families) have a hard time finding many addresses here. As you're giving the driver your destination, you might try to add “onegaishimasu” (meaning, very roughly, "please, and thank you for this favor you're doing me") for good measure. But once you're inside, don’t talk to the driver and don’t expect the driver to talk to you. And no tipping: The driver is providing expert service and a tip is considered to be insulting.

Hailing a cab is the easy part. It's what happens once you're inside that can get tricky. Image courtesy of elkor via Getty Images.

2. Get Booked at Maruzen

Established in 1869, Maruzen is a stunning and famous bookstore in the heart of Nihonbashi, a district of Tokyo renowned for its many artisanal shops — the shop is so well-regarded it even makes cameo appearances in several Japanese novels. On an upper floor, long aisles are packed English-language books written by sometimes hard-to-find Japanese authors, and you can also find great books in English on Japanese society and history. Coming here is a cultural must, as you soak up the reverential atmosphere created by Japanese customers.

Some books at Maruzen are from not-so-hard-to-find authors, like J. K. Rowling. Image courtesy of Junko Kimura via Getty Images.

3. Think Paper, Notebooks and Business Cards

No country prizes paper more than Japan, and although it is a world leader in electronics, the country continues to hold true to its traditions. Itoya, located just off the main drag in Ginza, is the best stationery store not just in Tokyo, but on the planet. Two stores with multiple floors offer exquisite notebooks, sketchpads, pens, pencils and appointment books, among other things.

And since no encounter in Japan is complete without exchanging meishi (business cards), you can have yours made here in both English and Japanese — just be sure to ask your hotel to write out the Japanese you want written, and give yourself a couple of weeks for the order to be completed. With literally hundreds of typefaces and kinds of paper to choose from, you can truly make these cards your own.

Always use both hands when exchanging business cards in Japan. Image courtesy of Johnny Greig via Getty Images.

4. Learn About the Fabric of a Nation

Japan used to be a top silk producer, and while synthetics are more emblematic of its industries these days, the country still has amazing silks to choose from. Add cotton, and you'll find that these two natural fibers are the perfect remedy to all that’s artificial in the world.

Nuno, which means "fabric" in Japanese, is a beautiful shop located inside the Axis Building in Roppongi; there's also a small satellite shop on the seventh floor of the posh Matsuya department store in Ginza. Established by Reiko Sudo, Nuno offers stunning clothing that seems to be part of nature itself. Sudo-san’s work is displayed in museums globally — she also has bolts of fabric at the main shop, and you can purchase everything from curtains and coverlets to wall hangings.

Fabric is an art form in Japan, as is evidenced by the attention paid to making and buying tenugui, an all-purpose printed towel or cloth square. Image courtesy of Helovi via Getty Images.

5. Venture Beyond Ramen and Sushi to Unagi

Ramen is kid stuff in Japan, and attracts cult-like followers in their teens and twenties. The very best sushi restaurants will set you back $1,000 for a couple; that is, if the chef lets you in.

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You should add to these culinary experiences by enjoying unagi, or freshwater eel. Grilled over charcoal (known as bincho), unagi, served on perfectly cooked, small kernels of rice and washed down with barley tea (mugi chai) or a draft beer, is one of the most pleasurable eating experiences you can have in Tokyo. Depending on the size of what you order, it’ll set you back about $30 per person but can cost much less at inferior establishments — the cheaper unagi often comes from China, though, so it's really your call.

One of the best unagi restaurants in Tokyo is Bincho, located on the 12th floor of the Marronnier Gate shopping center near Ginza Station. Here, the eel is finished with Nagoya-style tamari-based sauce. Another terrific place is Miyagawa Honten, which has a branch on the eighth floor of the Matsuya department store in Ginza. Be prepared to wait as long as 45 minutes before eating: The eel are slaughtered and grilled to order.

Unaju is unagi on rice served in a lacquered box. Image courtesy of Kosei Saito via Getty Images.

6. If Eel Isn't Your Thing, Tokyo Does Great Grilled Chicken

Back in the day, yakitori used to be served in smoky hole-in-the-wall joints and served with draft beer, cheap sake or high-alcohol shochu, a Japanese drink usually made from barley, sugarcane or sweet potatoes. Over the past decade or so, yakitori has become first-rate, and from famous places like Bird Land, a one-star Michelin restaurant located right next to Jiro, the famous sushi chef, to impossible-to-get-into Souten, yakitori is one of the most fun, delicious and reasonably priced ways to spend an evening in Tokyo with friends.

Four wonderful places to try it are Fuku, Toriko, Seo and Hachibei. Each one is intimate and sophisticated, with a range of chicken parts to choose from. You can stay Western by ordering wings, breasts or thighs, or opt for more traditionally Japanese options like chochin (fetal eggs still attached to uterus and Fallopian tubes). Either way, these places have wonderful wine lists as well as top-tier sake. Needless to say, reservations are necessary.

You can't go wrong with the chicken at a place called Bird Land. Image courtesy of City Foodsters via Flickr.

7. After Dinner, Calm Your Stomach With Tea...

The tea ceremony is central to many aspects of Japanese culture. Inspired and shaped by the rigidity and repetition of Zen Buddhism, this ritual gives you a glimpse of the pleasure and pain of conformity.

One of the best places in Tokyo to enjoy this is at Toko-An, three ceremonial chambers inside the Imperial Hotel. This hotel, originally designed by Frank Lloyd Wright — although little of his architectural masterpiece remains after a 1968 renovation — was Japan’s first upscale Western-style hotel. For about $20 per person, anyone, not just hotel guests, can travel back in time through the tea ceremony. If you’d rather stay in this century, Aqua Lounge, on the 17th floor, has an afternoon tea as well. Here, you will observe the fanciest ladies of Tokyo, as well as majestic views of the city.

The Japanese tea ceremony is reverent, meticulous and totally worth the experience. Image courtesy of Brian Kennedy via Getty Images.

8. Or Drink Away Your Woes With Great Japanese Whisky

Japanese whisky is a victim of its own success. After winning numerous international competitions in the aged single-malt category, the country’s top producers ran out of all the whisky at that level — maybe there will be more from other vintages in time for the 2020 Olympics. Until then, you simply cannot buy a bottle of the good stuff.

But don’t despair. It’s still possible to get one-ounce pours in Tokyo, if you know where to go and are willing to spend $18 to $200 a glass. Zoetrope is a tiny bar in Nishi-Shinjuku where the cinephile owner (whose English is limited) has more than 300 bottles on display of rare-to-very-rare whiskies. A trip to New York Bar, high above the city inside the Park Hyatt Tokyo gives you two experiences for the price of one: stunning views of the city from the 52nd floor as well as a chance to be on what was basically the set of the film, Lost in Translation. And speaking of classics, you ought to go to Old Imperial Bar, which is dark and atmospheric, and feels like you're in a film noir where bartenders serve the country's best whiskies in silence.

Whisky has become serious business in Japan. Image courtesy of DAJ via Getty Images.

9. All That Jazz

For a country that values ritual, rules and classical music, it’s surprising to discover that the Japanese also love the spontaneity, depth of rhythm, improvisation and sheer vibe of jazz. At performances, audiences often sit in silent awe, taking it all in, absorbing the music until a tune ends and they applaud and cheer wildly. Blue Note Tokyo and Cotton Club have top international acts (for top dollar), New York Bar has “unplugged” sessions on Sunday nights featuring undiscovered performers, and Black Sun, Kenny’s Bar and the Pit Inn are beloved old-time favorites. You’ll find both Japanese and Western musicians transporting audiences in each of these venues.

When in doubt, head to the nearest jazz club. Image courtesy of Kent Wang via Flickr.

10. Tokyo Is a Hip-Hop City

Tokyo is at the forefront of music, modernity and being ultra-cool, and while previous generations have their sentiments about the culture of the past, the youth of this city have embraced the future. Hip-hop culture, style, mentality and music are now deeply rooted in Tokyo, neither as homage nor imitation but as homegrown responses to the challenge of living in 2017. Four of the best clubs in town to enjoy hip-hop and meet Tokyoites who share that passion are Harlem, Circus Tokyo, Vision, Club Asia and The Room.

One thing the people of Tokyo and the US have in, er, Common? A love of hip-hop. Image courtesy of Jun Sato/WireImage via Getty Images.

What are some of your favorite things to do in Tokyo? Tell us about them, below.

Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto