Tokyo: A Seeker’s City Guide
I originally wrote this guide for a blog I created a couple of years ago called Three Lives, which was centred around bathing culture. It has since met the slow death of time-poverty as I’ve focussed my energies on other things, however I hope to bring my interest in all things bath-related back to this website eventually.
For now, I’ll keep it here amongst other Japan-tagged bits of writing and reflection. Soon I hope to follow it up with a Kyoto version.
This Tokyo guide has been compiled over the last several years of my living, working, visiting and playing in Tokyo. I first experienced Tokyo life when I moved to the little neighbourhood of Ohara in Setagaya-ku, the area of west Tokyo where much of this guide’s contents are drawn from. From the peaceful rhythm of quiet residential areas to the heaving intensity of its business districts, Tokyo is a layered and fascinating city that you feel you’re never quite keeping up with.
I often get asked for travel tips from friends, and collating a personalised list has given me the opportunity to share a range of places that are not only diverse and inspiring, but carry the added bonus of catering to a modest budget; a fact that often comes part and parcel with living in this city. It’s not that hard to travel on a budget in Tokyo – sure, there are cheaper places to visit, but as a city with such a broad urban sprawl you only have to head out on a train for 20 minutes and wander around to discover something uniquely appealing. High end shopping and fine dining tips are not the focus of this guide; instead I’ve chosen places, spaces and experiences that will make you want to linger and interact, immersing yourself in the real-world channels of Japan’s enlivening capital. Eating options have a vegetarian bent. I hope you enjoy it, and please let me know if anything on the list is no longer operating.
Accommodation • Eating • Bars & Cafés • Shopping • Galleries • Baths • Architecture • Outdoor & Day Trips
Hiroyuki’s Place, Airbnb
A unique hostel housed in a 90 year-old building, with a beautiful, light-filled interior. Shared and private rooms are available, with an excellent bar and common area. Its sister accommodation is Nui.
A beautifully designed boutique hotel in leafy Meguro-ku very worthy of its reputation. When my mother stayed here just after the Tōhoku earthquake, the concierge wrote a personal letter thanking her for visiting during such a difficult time.
A brand new hostel, café, bar & events space in the up-and-coming neighbourhood of Kagurazaka. It only recently opened (April 2016) and with its great, multi-floor layout and creative bent it looks set to be a neighbourhood fixture.
This hostel has a well-earned reputation for being a lovely place to spend time in, with its open plan bar/café/lounge area being a great space to meet people and chill out. Like Toco, it offers private and shared rooms.
Yassan’s Place | Shindaita, Setagaya-ku
Tomoki’s Place | Shimokitazawa, Setagaya-ku
Hiroyuki’s Place | Yanaka, Taitō-ku
Takumi’s Place | Koyama, Shinagawa-ku
Nakagin Capsule Tower | Ginza, Chūō-ku
Lily’s Place | Koenji, Suginami-ku
One of the best and most understated vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo also happens to be very conveniently located just five minutes walk from Shibuya station. Delicious set meals with a south/south-east Asian bent, and loads of books and magazines to flip through.
Royal Palace Shibuya 103, 15-10 Uguisudanichō, Shibuya-ku Map
Yamagata Izakaya やまがた
A cheap, cheery and no-frills joint serving the usual Izakaya fare plus Yamagata specialties. They have a large Japanese menu but a more limited English menu. You can always just eyeball someone else’s dish and ask for the same thing.
1−6−5 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku Map
Very solid North Indian vegetarian fare in a couple of locations around Tokyo, the most convenient being Aoyama. There’s a lot of excellent Indian eating around Tokyo if you know where to look.
The place to visit if you’re after a Japanese-style breakfast, which can be very tricky to find in the middle of Tokyo. Omusubi has a lovely atmosphere and the chefs are so proud of the culture & history of their humble onigiri, or ‘rice ball’. A really lovely dining experience.
Nice little Pho pit stop if you feel like a hot bowl in Harajuku.
Spot on and delicious Napoli-style pizza at great prices. The interior resembles something of a steam punk Tim Burton film set, but don’t hold that against them.
2-6-4 Kamimeguro, Meguro-ku Map
Nomin Café 農民カフェ
Wholesome farm-to-table lunches in a beautiful old building with the most lovely, cosy atmosphere. Their menu is in Japanese only, but the popular order is their delicous lunch or dinner plate, so you might see a few of those being tucked into.
2-27-8 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku Map
This rowdy izakaya/smokehouse has a fantastic atmosphere; you’re guaranteed a good time here. Their logo is a chicken riding a pig, so naturally, yakitori and meat dishes are plentiful. They also offer up a decent range of fish, salad and veggie dishes however, and the Japanese menu features a few helpful photos. A warning or suggestion depending on your status – everyone smokes in here.
2-15-3 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku
Dandadan Sakaba ダンダダン酒場
A cheery, laidback izakaya specialising in fried and boiled gyoza, with a variety of other pan-Asian sides and salads on the menu. A great option for a quick bite right near Shimokitazawa station.
2-10-10 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku Map
Behind its minimal exterior and linen ‘noren’ (door curtain) you’ll find this quiet little restaurant on the road between Shimokitazawa and Sangenjaya. Try the Kenchin soba (soup with vegetables & meat) or Yamamake soba (soup with grated mountain yam). If you’re hungry, go for the large size at an extra 300 yen.
4-42-8 Daizawa, Setagaya-ku Map
Excellent organic restaurant & deli serving up simple, superb dishes and lunchbox takeaways at great prices. They are conscious about using additive and pesticide-free goods directly from the producer.
Marushō Ariku マルショウ-アリク
A casual little izakaya specialising in oysters, seafood and vegetables sourced from small-scale regional farms. With excellent sake to compliment their dishes, this place is a lovely dining experience. Japanese only menu.
Isshin ごはんや 一芯
Unbeatable value-for-money Japanese lunch sets where you can choose between cuts of fish, veggie tempura and chicken served alongside a great selection of pickles and side dishes.
Daikanyama Twin Bldg. A B1, 30-3 Sarugakuchō, Shibuya-ku Map
A constantly changing menu based on seasonal product and home-cooking styles from around the world. Their concept is beautiful and if you have a bit of Japanese under your belt, it’s worth reading their blog to find out more about how they choose and create their dishes.
A tiny seafood ‘kappo’ (traditional food) restaurant dishing up exquisite regional and local cuisine but without the stuffiness of more expensive restaurants. Japanese menu only, but if you’re adventurous, just ask for an ‘osusume’ (recommendation).
1-9-1 Tsukiji, Chūō-ku Map
Traditional Japanese vegetarian & vegan ‘shojin-ryori’ (in Buddhism, devotion cuisine) can be hard to find at a reasonable price when you’re not on retreat up a mountain. This place will sort you out with tasty, wholesome vegetarian plates.
Bars & Cafés
The Open Book
One of the latest additions to Golden Gai, The Open Book is a tiny but beautifully designed three storey space with a separate tatami area and small Japanese book collection which you can borrow from.
When a secondhand book store meets a bar in the cosy space of a former machiya (townhouse), you get Cocktail. A laidback, communal place that feels like a friend’s loungeroom. Look for the old shelves of books and ephemera out the front and you can’t miss it.
Rain on the Roof
A beautiful bar in a thoughtfully converted old banquet hall. Leather armchairs and full wood interior make it wonderfully inviting. Renovation Planning are a hospitality design group who create perfect spaces to eat and drink – do also check out Mois Café & Gallery Conceal.
My preference for a coffee fix is this micro roasting company & café in Sangenjaya.
A really bright, spacious and well-designed café located in a former residential building. Thrifted furniture, huge warehouse-style windows and parquetry flooring make this a very unique space in Tokyo. A great spot to work, write or while away the hours.
Tiny basement bar that’s been playing rock on vinyl since it opened in the 70’s. Sink into a dimly lit booth with a companion and a whisky and discuss where your life’s going into the wee hours.
Conceal serves a dual purpose as both a cafe and gallery space with its light, whitewashed interior and quiet ambience. You’d barely know it existed, hidden away a few floors above one of Shibuya’s more rowdy areas.
This peaceful café in a very old, converted machiya (traditional town house) is tucked away just a short walk from Shimokitazawa station. Its pared back interior with minimal decorating makes it inviting and serene. Wind down here with a book, laptop or hushed conversation.
A brand new specialty coffee & pastry pit stop on the Setagaya cafe circuit, selling brewing accessories and a few other select products – some of which come from the jewellery studio out the back! Their scones alone are worth a visit; chocolate, jam, cheese, matcha….
Hodaka Kissa 喫茶 穂高
A delightfully retrograde ‘kissa’ (traditonal coffee shop) that wouldn’t be out of place in a Wes Anderson film. Settle into green velveteen booths and treat yourself to a hot tea or coffee with toast & marmalade. Like many kissa, it seems to have had a dedicated clientele for the last 50 years.
Ochanomizu Hotaka Bldg. 1F, 4-5-3 Kanda Surugadai, Chiyoda-ku Map
Cha Cha Koubou
A delightful little specialist tea shop and café hidden in the back streets of Waseda. A great spot to taste some fine quality Japanese tea, and I recommend topping your sipping off with one of their delicious tea-based desserts.
2-21-19 Nishi-Waseda, Shinjuku-ku Map
You can find loads of tiny, ramshackle bars nestled close to or often along the train lines at many major stations around Tokyo. Some of my picks are –
Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya | 1-25-10 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku Map
Sankaku Chitai, Sangenjaya | Area between 2-13 and 2-15 Sanganjaya, Setagaya-ku | Map
Gado-shita, Koenji | Under the tracks on the west side of Koenji station. Turn right directly from the south exit and you can’t miss it. | Around 3-69 Kōenjiminami, Suginami-ku Map
Nostos carries an fine, well-curated range of art, design and essay books from the sixties through to the nineties.
Another bricks and mortar store complimenting an extensive online archive, Bohemian’s Guild offers a huge and diverse selection of multi-language finds with a more hodge-podge approach to collecting. You’re bound to stumble upon something interesting here.
A mega-store and visitor’s favourite, carrying an extensive range of design books and magazines from around the world. Where the other book stores will satiate your hunger for vintage finds, T-Site has everything new release and limited edition under the sun.
An excellent used vinyl institution, stocked to the brim with new and rare finds in experimental electronics, chillwave and eclectic world genres. For a listen, go here.
This record store has a few locations around Tokyo, carrying an unparalleled collection of retro Japanese offerings alongside its well-curated local and international new releases.
A serene pit stop just a step from the mayhem that is Takeshita Dori. Doubling as small retail/art book store and exhibition/performance space, it’s a great place where emerging local talent rubs shoulders with established artists. David Byrne had an exhibition here a few years back.
A small but wonderfully curated collection of obscure vintage objects, textiles, clothing and art by Hiroshi Takeda who has a real eye for period finds.
I’ve been coming to this store for years as I used to walk past it on my way to the train station. A delightful collection of Japanese retro furniture and bric-a-brac from the mid Shōwa period (roughly 40s to early 70s).
Ameya Yokocho might take the cake for Tokyo’s biggest bargain shopping strip. Stretching for what seems like infinity, you can find street food, cafes, bars, fruit stalls and people flogging antiques, clothes, plants and more.
6-11 Ueno, Taitō-ku Map
One of the best stores in Kappabashi Street (かっぱ橋道具街) to pick up specialised Japanese kitchen ware. If you’re looking for something to chop better with, you’ll be spoilt for choice here.
3-7-2 Nishi-Asakusa, Taitō-ku Map
Antique & Flea Markets
Tokyo has some of the best (and most frequent!) flea markets in the world. Whether you’re on the hunt for antiques, secondhand clothes, food, plants or whatever ephemera takes your fancy, there are markets to satisfy all tastes. You can find a full PDF list via JNTO here, but some of my favourites are –
Yasukuni Jinja, Kudankita | Two Saturdays every month |3-1-1 Kudankita, Chiyoda-ku Map
Shinjuku Central Park, Shinjuku | Saturday, around once every two months | 2-2-11 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku Map
Edo Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum
One of Tokyo’s landmark museums where you can experience the 400 year history of Edo Tokyo through original objects, art and incredible replica buildings.
Hara Museum of Contemporary Art
One of the oldest museums of contemporary art in Tokyo, the Hara was originally a private residence of a business tycoon before it was turned into an art gallery in 1979. It’s an impressive venue showcasing domestic and international work.
Possibly the oldest apartment block in Ginza, this incredible building from the 1930s was converted to around 20 tiny galleries in the early 2000’s, with the main venue being the Room 306 Project. It’s so fun exploring the labyrinthine floors of this building – a very different gallery experience.
3331 Arts Chiyoda
Located in the grounds and buildings of a renovated junior high school, 3331 Arts Chiyoda provides a unique space for a very broad spectrum of artistic events and exhibitions by leading local & international figures.
SCAI the Bathhouse
A visit to this converted 200-year-old bathhouse ensures you’ll catch some of the most exciting and sophisticated contemporary art coming out of Japan.
Taro Nasu Gallery
An exciting contemporary art gallery working across representation, public events, publishing and interior consulting.
Sophisticated art, furniture, textiles, craft & object design in a bright two storey space, curated by Playmountain’s Shin Nakahara. The exhibitions are excellent but can be irregular – best to check before you turn up.
A popular and refreshingly casual bath house with enthusiastic owners that enjoy hosting the odd event in the building. Go from hot/cold bathing to a milk or fragrant salt bath. Hand made, cascading ceramic water faucets complete the lovely picture.
Utsukushi no Yu
A little further west on the Inokashira line, Utsukushi offers a larger indoor/outdoor bath setup in a more ‘super sento’ environment.
Kichi no Yu 吉の湯
Hidden away in a quiet residential area, Kichi no Yu is another larger bath house featuring three types of jet bath, an outdoor electric bath, sauna and medicinal bath.
1-14-7 Naritahigashi, Suginami-ku Map
A delightful bath with lovey staff. Amongst the usual baths, you can also enjoy their bubble, ultrasonic and medicinal baths. Laundromat service and massage chairs top it all off.
3-25-1 Koenjiminami, Suginami-ku Map
A quiet little local bath nestled within the winding streets of Higashi-kitazawa, a walk from central Shimo-kitazawa.
3-12-8 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku Map
This Taisho era bath is one of the oldest and loveliest in Tokyo, set in a classic building with a courtyard garden, patio and koi pond. Gaze out the window at blooming flowers as you scrub your troubles away. All the usual baths, however, a word of warning – one of these is filled with the hottest water I’ve ever experienced. Goes to show how old school this place is.
3-22-3 Higashi-Nippori, Arakawa-ku Map
A sixty year old bathhouse with a florist out the front. The temperature decreases from the deepest bath to the shallowest bath, allowing for a very relxing & effective experience. Great medicinal and herbal soaks.
4-12-25 Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku Map
Fuji no Yu
Come for the charming iris garden mosaics, hand carved wooden owls and fake indoor pavillion, stay for the hot water. One of the very few baths in Tokyo to have a traditional cypress tub.
2-1-16 Tamagawadai, Setagaya-ku Map
A bright, popular bath with a 150 year old history. Their lovely tile frescos depict frolicking koi (can fish frolick?) enjoying the seasons of spring and autumn.
Konparu Bldg. 1F, 8-7-5 Ginza, Chūō-ku Map
Fuku no Yu
Entering this sento feels a bit like being in the ancient divinity wing of an art gallery. With an interior decor blending elements of Feng Shui with imagery derived from the ‘Shichi Fuku Jin’ or Seven Lucky Gods (七福神), you certainly won’t be at a loss for visual stimulation whilst having a soak.
5-41-5 Sendagi, Bunkyo-ku Map
Daikoku Yu (a confusingly common name for sento) has one of the most diverse ranges of baths in Tokyo. It’s home to hot and cold baths, daily medicinal baths, an outdoor carbonated spring, large rotenburo, jet baths, sauna, salt steam bath and more. Head here if you want the most elaborate bathing experience possible.
This Daikoku Yu offers a far different experience, with its nostalgic interior of orange changing booths and bamboo forest murals that I’d say hasn’t changed a bit since the seventies.
4-14-5 Nishi-Shinkoiwa, Katsushika Map
A delightful sento with gorgeous mosaics depicting cranes in flight and underwater coral reef scenes. Inexplicable photos of New York, Monaco and other cities line the walls. Features hot and cold baths, medicinal baths and a sauna.
San Mall Honma 1F, 10-11 Kitaminemachi, Ota Map
Nakagin Capsule Tower
Jiyu Gakuen Girl’s School
An impressive example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s civic work in Japan. Along with Yodokō Guest House in Ashiya, the school is the only other building of Wright’s in Japan to retain its original appearance.
Harajuku Church 原宿教会
The unconventional, space-age design of this church by Ciel Rouge features an amazing ceiling of acoustic wave forms. Across the road is World Breakfast All Day, if you’re keen on breakfast at any time of the day.
An incredible feat of timber engineering by Kengo Kuma that is worth seeing from both inside and out. It’s not the first time someone’s said it, but it really does feel like you’re standing in a matchstick castle.
Kameki Tsuchiura Residence
This former residence is tricky to find and isn’t much to look at on the outside, but I’ve included it because it holds an important place in Japan’s architectural history. Tsuchiura was a disciple of Wright’s and brought much of his efficient style to the modernisation of Japanese housing.
2-6-14 Kamiōsaki, Shinagawa-ku Map
Nakagin Capsule Tower
Try and see this important piece of Metabolist architecture before it’s lost to the sands of time/bureaucracy. It has a few years to go before it can qualify for heritage status – let’s hope it lasts until then.
Ginza chūgin 16 Bldg., 8-4-6 Ginza, Chūō-ku | Map
Tokyo Bunka Kaikan
It’s worth checking what’s on and trying to see the inside of this celebrated concert hall, designed by Kunio Maekawa, as its striking interior is somewhat of a civic dreamscape within Tokyo’s unforgiving concrete centre.
Tama Art University Library
If you feel like venturing further out to the suburb of Hachioji, you can spend time reading and researching in this inspiring space designed by Toyo Ito.
Outdoors & Day Trips
Hokokuji Temple & Bamboo Garden
Get out of Tokyo and visit Hokokuji Temple and the dense, tranquil bamboo grove behind its main hall. Linger and enjoy a cup of matcha from the teahouse in serene silence of this towering forest.
2-7-4 Jomyoji, Kamakura, Kanagawa-ken Map
Also known as the Temple of the Hydrangeas (Ajisai-dera), this spot is wonderful to visit when its famous hydrangea garden is in full bloom.
189 Yamanouchi, Kamakura, Kanagawa-ken Map
Kamakura Museum of Modern Art
The Kamakura MOMA is Japan’s oldest, and one of its best modern art museums – surprisingly unfrequented by tourists. The building’s architecture is excellent, and it hosts around four major exhibitions and plenty of events throughout the year.
Hiking in the Bōsō Peninsula
Nokogiriyama (or ‘saw-tooth’ mountain) is around 3 hours away on the southern tip of Chiba and offers some primo walks and staggering views over the Sagami-nada Sea. If you’re in need of a break from the endless concrete of Tokyo, it’s the perfect antidote.
Mt Nokogiri, Kanaya, Futtsu, Chiba-shi Map
Kitamoto Atelier House
If you’re ever up Saitama way, stop in at Kitamoto Atelier House. This beautiful indoor/outdoor space is home to a café, shop, produce garden and design spaces. They regularly host community lunches, markets, workshops and other events.
A really easy and highly enjoyable day trip from Tokyo is Enoshima, a tiny island just next to Kamakura and jutting out into Sagami Bay. You can walk from the train station directly to the island, walk to the top and enjoy the great views and leafy surrounds.
1-9 Enoshima, Fujisawa-shi, Kanagawa-ken Map
The best beach getaway this side of Okinawa, Shimoda lies at the tip of the Izu Peninsula roughly three hours by train from Tokyo. Beautiful white sand beaches and onsen make it a great weekender.
Shimoda, Shizuoka-shi Map
Kyū Hyūga Bettei
This 1930s two storey villa, designed by German architect Bruno Taut, is the only one of his famed buildings left in Japan. With its beautiful modern-classic interior, full of bamboo and warm light, it’s a delight to visit.
8-37 Kasugacho, Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture Map
With its splendid views, manicured gardens and enormous variety of flowers and greenery, Himenosawa is a fantastic park to visit during Japan’s colourful seasons of Autumn and Spring.
8-37 Kasugachō, Atami-shi, Shizuoka-ken Map
A volcanic island paradise in the Philippine Sea that’s strangely part of Tokyo prefecture. One of the Izu Seven Islands, it’s just over two hours by jet boat from Takeshiba Sanbashi Pier in Tokyo. Camping, swimming, surfing, barbecues and onsen are the only priorities here.