There’s so much to be excited about in Tokyo for 2017: from the opening of the capital region’s first robot hotel to the continuing rejuvenation of formerly scruffy shitamachi neighbourhoods, the Year of the Rooster sure is looking sweet. But before turning our eyes to the future, we need to look back at 2016. OK, the year may have been dubbed an annus horribilis for Anglo-American politics and celebrity lifespans, but it was a pretty good 12 months for Tokyo: we got our first female governor, ground was finally broken for the 2020 Olympic stadium, and, uh, the pancake craze made a forceful comeback. Here's our full review of the city's culinary, cultural and creative highlights in 2016.
Hungry for noodles? Check out our roundup of the year's best ramen.
The best eats
Shizuoka-based matcha sweets purveyors Nanaya took the capital by storm this year, first setting up a gelato counter inside venerable Asakusa tea shop Suzukien, which was soon overwhelmed by Tokyoites on the hunt for the fabled Premium No. 7. Certified as the ice cream with the world’s highest matcha content, this creamy green creation proved so popular that its inventors had little choice but to start their own store – a step they took in August with the opening of Tea & Spoon Nanaya Aoyama. In addition to No. 7, it stocks six other varieties of matcha ice cream ranked in order of richness, as well as matcha daifuku sweets, matcha cookies and even matcha chocolate. If green tea is your cup of tea, so to speak, this one ought not to be missed.
Opened in spring 2016 but already something of a hub for the local creative community, Hongo's Faro is located on the second floor of a retro building from the early Showa era. In addition to speciality joe courtesy of Obscura Coffee, you can enjoy their daily lunch menu or the ¥500 morning set (8am-10am) with either toast or delicious granola and fruit. The café is also home to a neat little library, containing books on graphic design, illustration, art, architecture and much more.
Along with A Happy Pancake and Flipper’s, Osaka import Gram is one of the main culprits behind Tokyo’s ongoing ‘fluffy pancake’ boom. Having first landed in Jiyugaoka in April – when the capital’s sweets lovers went bonkers and queued outside for hours – the café now also operates branches in Harajuku and Kichijoji. Their made-to-order, almost impossibly airy ‘premium pancakes’ are only served to 20 diners during each time slot – at 11am, 3pm and 6pm every day. If you’re eager to get a taste of the melt-in-your-mouth delicacy, best pick out a good book or charge up your phone before braving the line, as you’re sure to be waiting for quite a while. Other noteworthy offerings include the Jiyugaoka-only Baked Apple and Black Tea Cream and the pleasantly spicy Chilli Bean.
The perfect hangout before or after a day out in Yoyogi Park, this bistro and café has grown into a local revelation over the past 12 months. For early birds breakfast and brunch – including their famous, super-fluffy Dutch Pancake – are served from 8am to 2pm. Get there early to secure a seat and wait around 30 minutes for this oven-baked delicacy, topped with uncured ham and burrata, to appear piping hot at your table. At night, you get to pick from natural wines, Kyoto-made craft beer and rare liqueurs to complement the beautifully plated but very reasonably priced (¥5,800 for a seven-course dinner) Italian cuisine.
Tokyoites’ love for everything New York shows no signs of cooling down – on the contrary, restaurants, cafés and shops from the Big Apple only seem to have intensified their efforts of conquering the Eastern Capital over the past year. The most obvious representative of this hard-charging bunch is Danny Meyer’s burger empire, which first spread its tentacles to Tokyo in late 2015. But the Shake Shack boom only took off for real over the past 12 months, when new outposts popped up in Ebisu and Marunouchi. The latter, a spacious set-up inside Tokyo International Forum, is particularly apt for exploring the oh-so-satisfying lineup of burgers, fries, hot dogs and the frozen custard desserts known as ‘concretes’ – one meal there and you’ll be broadcasting the Shack’s virtues to anyone that will listen.
Alright, when are these New Yorkers going to leave us alone? Having run his Café Habana for over 15 years in Lower Manhattan, Sean Meeman saw 2016 roll around and thought it was time to see how Tokyoites respond to Cubano sandwiches and grilled corn. The answer: we’re loving it. Meeman’s Shibuya venture started business in May and quickly attracted a loyal following with the pair of signature dishes mentioned above, plus Japan originals like a teriyaki chicken sandwich and grilled garlic tuna with rice and beans. Although the Cuban fare is very good throughout, nothing has been able to overtake Habana’s exquisite corn cob, served with mayo, cojita (a Mexican cheese similar to parmesan) and chilli powder with a spritz of lime – you won’t find anything like it elsewhere in Tokyo.
A mixture of shochu, club soda and lemon juice, the humble lemon sour (the Japanese kind, not the cocktail base) isn’t the sort of drink one would think merits a specialist bar. One would change one’s mind, however, after a visit to the Open Book, which opened on Shinjuku’s Golden Gai this spring. Mr Tanaka, the bartender, uses a double-chamber Randall filter to bring out the zesty best of the lemons while mixing them with power-packed shochu and homemade lemon syrup, resulting in a harmony of sweetness, sourness and crispness. If we had to pick one drink to start the new year with, this one would be a, well, strong candidate.
Who says an old dog can’t learn new tricks? In business since 1804, Matsuzaki Senbei is one of Tokyo’s most venerable senbei (rice cracker) purveyors. Their main store in Ginza obviously still caters to all your cracker-related needs, but the Matsuzakis have also started taking steps into the café business. Quietly opened along the charmingly old-school Shoinjinja-dori shopping arcade deep in Setagaya in April, their senbei restaurant and tea house serves both savoury and sweet delights.
When visiting in the daytime, don’t miss out on their organic lunch plate: curated by cooking expert Haruyo Inagaki, this colourful mixture is available to only 15 eager eaters every day and comes replete with fresh goodness that’s sure to fill you up – and boost your Instagram kudos.
At the shop, which is well on the way to becoming the area’s number two attraction after the eponymous Shoin Shrine, you’ll want to try the Shamido Kawara Senbei. This traditional sweet cracker can be ordered for dessert or as an afternoon snack. The beans for the excellent hand drip coffee come courtesy of Hayama-based speciality dealers The Five Beans.
And as its ’hood is popular with families, the shop is very kid-friendly – think spacious bathrooms and slopes for strollers instead of stairs. You can even bring your young ’uns to take part in a Kawara Senbei painting workshop – and reward them with some green tea kakigori afterwards.
Having made their name as a pop-up operation on the club and music festival circuit, the folks behind this quirkiest of curry shops set up their first permanent outpost in Koenji in March, only to see the building condemned and torn down within months. Not to be deterred, the spice squad swiftly secured an alternative location and were back in business by September.
Run by a fellow hugely obsessed with India despite never actually having visited the country, Negura is a result of the quixotic owner having let his imagination run wild. The menu features south Indian-style concoctions topped with very Japanese ingredients like asari clams and whitebait, plus original chai drinks – and there are heaps of psychedelia-tinged paraphernalia plastered all over the walls.
This isn’t the place for authentic Indian grub, but for the brave it is a curry mash-up trip to remember. Negura already draws in daily queues and is often forced to close early after selling out of the day’s batch.
A now-overflowing supply of ‘third wave’ coffee shops is spoiling Tokyo’s caffeine addicts, but green tea, Japan’s native pick-me-up, appears to have been left by the wayside. The list of matcha-flavoured snacks may be getting longer by the day, but no one is talking about a tea revolution – yet. Kichijoji’s Uni Stand café is here to provide the spark, offering matcha beverages made by the ultimate cha-rista (tea barista).
When Uni Stand’s owner began exploring the city’s coffee landscape with the aim of becoming a barista, he noticed that coffee beans were in the process of crowding out green leaves. To set things right, he abandoned his initial plans and opened a green tea café in spring 2016, even hosting workshops to revive the endangered art of verdant brews.
Though Uni Stand also serves coffee – got to be realistic, right? – we suggest you try out the Uji Matcha Au Lait, made by the master himself. Since no additional sugar goes in the drink, you can taste the flavourful bitterness of the matcha, perfectly complemented by the creamy milk. Serious tea aficionados will want to go for the Single Origin, which features a different kind of leaf every month.
For some unknown and surely mysterious reason, Tokyo has been gripped by a kind of herb-induced madness. And no, we’re not talking about that herb: the plant in question is coriander, also known as cilantro and pak chi. Restaurants focused on southeast Asian food have started to incorporate the bright green shrub into an ever-increasing selection of dishes, while some maniacs have gone as far as to establish eateries dedicated entirely to coriander. Pak-chee Village, opened along Shinjuku’s Yasukuni-dori in July, is one of these quirky specialists. Their wonderful but slightly terrifying assortment of herby dishes is headed by a massive coriander salad (¥1,490) seasoned with fresh onion dressing – one for the dedicated pak chi enthusiast – while you’ll also find creations like coriander potato salad, coriander lassi and gyoza with coriander and shrimp on the menu.
It can’t be coincidence: 2016 gave birth to not one but two eating hubs centred around America’s greatest culinary export. At Kuramae’s The East, the protagonist is McLean, run by a chef who honed his patty craft at eternal favourite Burger Mania before breaking out on his own this spring. Set up around his joint are a barber shop, a gallery and a coffee house run by Tokyo ‘third wave’ pioneers Kenji Kojima and Yasuo Ishii. Meanwhile, at Ebisu’s Brick End, acclaimed patty-pushers The Great Burger are neighbours with a casual izakaya and an Indian curry joint, all of which look out over the Yamanote line tracks.
2016 was the year of the ‘bean to bar’ chocolate trend in Tokyo, with artisanal choc-makers popping up like mushrooms after the rain. Standing out among the barrage of newcomers is Dandelion Chocolate, an import from San Francisco that’s found a home in Kuramae, a once gritty area currently transforming into a hotbed of hip ‘made in Tokyo’ stores, trendy eateries and specialist coffee shops.
At Dandelion, where you can buy treats from cookies to hot chocolate, the chocolate is made only with cacao and cane sugar. You can take a factory tour or participate in a workshop that gives you a behind-the-scenes look at the entire process, including selecting the right beans, roasting them, removing their skins, grinding them into cacao nibs, combining them with sugar, and tempering the finished bars so they don’t melt too easily. And don’t worry – there are plenty of chocolate tasting opportunities at every step of the way.
The best in art and music
Spending a day in Ryogoku became even more of a necessity from November, when the neighbourhood that already houses the Edo-Tokyo Museum and the Kokugikan saw the opening of a museum dedicated entirely to ukiyo-e superstar Katsushika Hokusai.
The museum building itself was designed by world-renowned architect Kazuyo Sejima and stands out with a modernist facade juxtaposed with Hokusai’s iconic works, while the collection is composed of art amassed by Sumida Ward along with one of the world’s leading Hokusai collectors, the late researcher Peter Morse. The addition of pieces gathered by Muneshige Narasaki, a leading expert on ukiyo-e, tops off the collection.
In addition to viewing rarities such as the the ‘Sumida River Banks Picture Volume’, a set of elusive original drawings that were presumed lost for over 100 years and depict the old Yoshiwara and the Sumida River, you can admire high-definition replicas of crowd favourites like the ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’ and the ‘Hokusai Manga’. The exhibits provide a fascinating overview about Hokusai the man, his life in Sumida and what the city looked like between 1760, when Hokusai was born in Katsushika, and 1849, when he died and was buried at Seikyoji Temple in Asakusa.
Rabid fans of the little white doggy from ‘Peanuts’ have been raving about Roppongi’s Snoopy Museum ever since its opening in April, and for good reason: a temporary (until September 2018) satellite branch of the Charles M Schulz Museum in California’s Santa Rosa, the facility is jam-packed with original drawings and Snoopy-themed art, plus a number of Mr Schulz’s early works and rare collectibles, all of which are rotated every six months.
Once you’re done with the displays, do consider exiting through the gift shop: the Snoopy Museum’s in-house store is almost as big as the galleries and carries everything from the usual fluffy toys and postcards to limited-edition rarities and items created in collaboration with big-name Japanese brands.
And at nearby Cafe Blanket, you can dine on ‘Peanuts’-themed sweets and savoury treats, all courtesy of Nakameguro’s Peanuts Cafe. All in all, the Snoopy Museum is well worth a visit even for non-fans. Just note that tickets are sold for specific time slots and remain very popular – see the museum website for all the details in English.
Formerly known as the Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Tokyo’s premier photography showcase was re-opened as the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum after a period of seemingly never-ending renovations. But the two-year wait sure appears to have been worth it: the new TOP (who came up with that abbreviation?) Museum boasts a 33,000-piece permanent collection and brings in leading lights of the photography world for short-term shows. Found in the basement, the small Images & Technology Gallery presents a multimedia history of optics, featuring tricks such as morphing, and the occasional media art exhibition.
2016 sure was an eventful year for Japanese music, with the return of Hikaru Utada, the will-they-or-won’t-they commotion surrounding the end of eternal boy band SMAP, the arrival of streaming service Spotify and the abolishment of the ‘no dancing’ law grabbing the biggest headlines. But for us, the grooviest change had to be the rise of domestic hip hop, a revival led by the likes of Kandytown (pictured).
Although the scene has well over two decades of history in Japan, the newfound popularity of freestyle rap battles – spurred on by a popular TV show on the theme – saw it take a big step forward. No longer a curiosity, Japanese rap is firmly establishing itself as a channel for the nation’s youth to voice their disillusionment and disappointment with the deteriorating economic climate and the new generation’s lack of representation in politics.
The best in shopping
A collection of six different stores shoved into a 60-year-old, expertly refurbished house that exudes a charming retro ambience, Urasando Garden is quickly becoming one of Tokyo’s unlikeliest shopping spots. Each outlet has been made as small as possible to allow for a yokocho-style common area, which encourages comfy mingling and furthers the owners’ stated goal: to introduce shoppers to traditional Japanese culture and crafts, from green tea to artisanal stationery.
Highlights include hitting the tea store on the ground floor to try your hand at preparing matcha, getting your dose of caffeine via some coffee jelly over ice cream at Cafe Facon and browsing for wagashi-shaped inko incense and incense burners at Juttoku on the top floor. Lastly, make sure to check out Kakimori, a stationery dealer selling ink, pens and paper, along with notebooks that can be customised to your liking. More shops are set to join the collective in the months to come, giving you an excuse to keep checking back.
It could be said that Tokyobike is the design embodiment of the Yanaka mindset. The company have been knocking out simple, attractive bicycles, just a hop and a skip from Nezu Station, since 2002. The concept is simple: comfort above speed (Yanaka in a nutshell), ideally put together for the local life. The minimalist brand has been such a success in its home city, it has spread its wings and now has outlets in London, New York, Berlin and Singapore.
Their latest outpost, opened in May 2016, offers both same-day and overnight rentals but you need to book in advance. The reservation website is only in Japanese, but can be navigated even without advanced language ability – just scroll down to the ‘reservation’ button to secure your ride for as soon as the following day. A one-day rental costs ¥2,500 and each additional day will set you back ¥1,500.
As far as we’re concerned, there’s no better way to see the neighbourhood than by bike, and Ueno’s parks and museums are just a short pedal away. If you fall in love with one of these stylish bikes en route and would like to make it your own, head straight for the nearby Tokyobike Gallery store.
New bookstore openings are few and far between in these print-hostile times, even in a city as committed to physical media as Tokyo. Having started business in January, Ogikubo's Title bucks the trend with its beautiful, 10,000-title collection of tomes and magazines on subjects from philosophy and pressing social issues to everyday life.
Run by a former manager of the Libro chain, who aims to recreate the kind of friendly neighbourhood atmosphere that characterised Tokyo’s bookshops of old, Title also houses a small café and an upstairs gallery, while events aimed at reintroducing both locals and visitors to the joys of print are held regularly. It’s the kind of place we’d like to stop by every day – if our bank balance would allow.
Although level railway crossings are still very much part of life in suburban Tokyo, elevated tracks have become the norm closer to the city centre. And why not: besides the obvious safety reasons, moving train traffic a few stories above ground opens up acres of oh-so-scarce inner city land to be used more, well, profitably. In 2016, notable re-development efforts led to the opening of clusters of eateries, bars and art spaces under viaducts in Shimokitazawa (‘Cage’), Shinjuku (‘Sanagi’) and, most notably, Nakameguro (‘Koukashita’). Doing away with old stereotypes, these newcomers are converting Tokyoites to the belief that maybe life under the tracks isn’t so rough after all.
The best hotels
Tired of choosing between the lure of the big city and a bit of rest and relaxation when you visit Tokyo? Now you can have both. Hoshino Resorts, who operate a string of high end resorts and hotels, have brought the luxury ryokan experience to the capital with Hoshinoya Tokyo. Opened in July among the office towers of Otemachi, it invites you to experience a ryokan and onsen without the burden of travelling away from town.
Strolling through the concrete jungle of high-rises near Tokyo Station, you’d be forgiven for doubting the authenticity of an urban ryokan experience. True, the 17-storey tower edifice that Hoshinoya Tokyo occupies is a far cry from the squat, wooden inns we love and cherish so much. However, once you step in through the entrance, you’ll realise that appearances can be deceiving: the staff will welcome you kneeling and request that you remove your shoes before stepping on the tatami mat floors.
The tatami theme continues in all 84 of Hoshinoya’s traditional-style rooms, which come with luxury versions of the familiar foldable futon. Each floor features a shared Ochanoma (tea room) Lounge, exclusive to guests staying on that floor. Japanese breakfast is served here in the morning, tea and snacks take over during the day, alcohol is on offer at night – and everything’s included in the room rate.
And don’t worry, we’re just getting to the bathing part: the hotel has its own onsen, a defining feature of every ryokan worthy of the name – the only difference is this one is a true state-of-the-art facility that draws on the area’s first natural hot spring, tapped in 2014 and unsurprisingly dubbed Otemachi Onsen. The spring is even siphoned all the way up to the rooftop for your alfresco bathing pleasure. Sure, you’ll have to fork out quite a bit for the right to experience it all, but for traditional opulence in the heart of the city, there simply is no better alternative.
Combine your budget stay with dance tunes and craft coffee at this new Hatchobori hostel, which sits right above the station and promises a dawn-to-dusk party atmosphere. In addition to the usual dorms (from ¥3,600) and private rooms, Wise Owl, opened in July 2016 and named after the resident concierge Hachi, a Belgian-born Eurasian eagle owl, offers furnished apartments and houses the underground Howl bar.
Here, music by sound specialists Hidemaro Shimoda, Komatsu Sound Lab and Yosi Horikawa hoots (sorry) from the speakers while imbibers explore the specialist sake bar. In the morning, your day of exploring Tokyo is sure to start well with a cup of the hostel’s coffee, made with beans from Sangenjaya’s Obscura.
All you train aficionados out there are sure to sleep well at this one-of-a-kind hostel, opened in December and accessible directly from Bakurocho Station. Named after the defunct Hokutosei sleeper train, which operated between Tokyo and Sapporo for 27 years before being retired in 2015, it boasts an interior that faithfully recreates the train’s cabins – think bunk beds, aluminium ladders and dark curtains – made entirely with materials from the Hokutosei carriages.
In addition to the usual dorms, they offer ‘private rooms’ that are about the same size as your regular sleeper train cabin. Prices start from ¥2,500 – a bargain compared to the moving Hokutosei’s minimum rate of ¥6,300. OK, you’ll still wake up in Tokyo after a night here, but at least the ride is unlikely to be bumpy.