I recently had the rare opportunity to fly from New York to Tokyo for 48 hours. (Okay, okay, maybe it was more like 60 hours—makes the 14-hour flight seem a little less cray, right?) I was flying over to be a judge in the Time Out Love Tokyo Awards (and check out Time Out New York's own Love Award winners if you missed them!), which meant nonstop running around to some of the city's very best restaurants, bars, shops and cafés (my job is so hard).
Overall, Tokyo reminded me a lot of New York, only more spread out: lots of vibrant nabes with distinct personalities (Harajuku feels like Williamsburg, Ginza like Fifth Ave), a super-comprehensive subway system and a serious nightlife scene. (Every morning my natural alarm clock was people—still in their office clothes—stumbling down the street at 6 a.m. Good for you guys!)
If you find yourself with some time to kill in Tokyo (try for more than 48 hours!), here's a list in no particular order of the places that left the biggest impression on this New Yorker.
This is your lifeline to the city. Main differences to NYC include how quiet the cars are, that you insert your card and it spits it back out as you enter and exit (like in the U.K.) and that it is HELLA confusing. The subways in Tokyo are owned by multiple companies, so you often have to transfer not just to another line but to another subway brand entirely, sometimes having to exit the station completely and walk a few blocks. That's nothing for pedestrian New Yorkers, but be ready. (Tokyo citizens walk as much as we do, and rarely hop into cabs. Impressive, considering the subway isn't 24/7.) If you get lost (you will!) ask someone for help. Many people speak English, and every single person I met was friendly and wanted to help. And hey, if you lose your way, that's part of the adventure, too!
This out-of-the-way Vietnamese joint (from Time Out Tokyo's 100 Best Restaurants list) was absolutely magical. An outdoor courtyard kitted out with miniature plastic seats in tables in primary colors made me feel like a giant at a children's restaurant—in a really fun way! The staff was friendly, and the small, affordable menu ended up netting me one of the best banh mi sandwiches and Vietnamese coffees I've ever had. Ecoda isn't a nabe you'll likely put on your list of must-visit places, but you should. If the weather's nice, sit outside. Goddamn delightful.
Maybe it's because it reminded me of places back home that I dug The Roastery, or maybe it was the really good (strong) coffee and milk-flavored soft-serve that did it. (Side note: Why don't coffee places in New York have soft serve?!?) Either way, this was the kind of place I could have sacked out all day to work on my laptop or people-watch. Nestled on the charming and crooked Cat Street, it's just a stone's throw from the main drag and a nice respite (with stores that are just as cool). Harajuku was one of my favorite neighborhoods (tied with Shibuya).
Let me start by saying that this was grandest, most special meal I've ever had. It's super traditional—you'll remove your shoes when you enter and sit on tatami mats in your own private room. Then you and your friends will be treated to nothing short of spectacle, as your chef first introduces you to your main course (hi, crab), then, well, murders him in front of you. I spent most of the meal worried that my pickiness as an eater would offend our hosts—I'll try anything once but I'm not very adventurous (I skew vegetarian easily), and it says something about the place that not only didn't they make me feel bad when I couldn't eat some of the courses (looking at you, sea urchin and crab heart), but I STILL enjoyed the meal. Dinner here ain't cheap, but for a true foodie, this is a must. An absolutely lovely night (and I somehow ended up full).
My very lovely guide suggested we check out Asakusa, to walk among the stalls of food and souvenirs, and make our way to the Buddhist temple. Do not miss this. As you make your way through the crowd to the temple, you'll come upon a place where you can pick a fortune, and then head into the temple, where you can throw a coin and say a prayer. There was really something magical about it, and truly unlike any of the other places we'd been in the city. It feels like a place stuck in time against the backdrop of a very cosmopolitan city. Incredibly special. (If you wander around Asakusa after, pop by Tokyo Hotarudo for great vintage. Make sure you know where you're going—it's hard to find, which makes finding it even more fun.)