Local's Guide to Tokyo

Here, chef Yukari Sakamoto reveals where to find Tokyo’s most innovative food and fashion.

MEET YOUR GUIDE

Chef, sommelier and shochu advisor Yukari Sakamoto is author of the guidebook Food Sake Tokyo and can usually be found guiding chefs and foodies through the markets of Tokyo. The Japanese American trained as a chef at The French Culinary Institute, and was a sommelier at the Park Hyatt Tokyo as well as at Takashimaya’s flagship store in Nihonbashi.

Living in one of the world’s greatest food cities is amazing. Seasonality is celebrated, so much so that even fast-food restaurants often offer seasonal menus. However, while there are plenty of great eats to enjoy, finding them can be tough when you’re a visitor, as navigating the city is even difficult for locals. Most streets don’t have names, and addresses are not based on any logic. My suggestion is to rent a mobile wi-fi unit so you can search while traipsing this great metropolis.

Your first stop should be the world’s largest seafood market, Tsukiji Market, which is where you’ll find me most mornings. Don’t bother getting up early for the tuna auction, because once you’ve seen it you’ll be asked to leave. Instead, arrive at 9am, when visitors are allowed to enter the wholesale seafood section, or jonai shijo (inner market) - this is where the true action can be found. Try to go before the end of next year, as the inner market is moving in November 2016 and tourists will no longer be able to wander around inside. Finish your visit at Turret Coffee; owner Kiyoshi Kawasaki is known for his intricate latte art and serves espresso in vintage sake cups.

To get a sense of how Tokyoites manage in the big city, take in the mesmerising Shibuya Crossing, more commonly known as ‘The Scramble’. Up to 3000 pedestrians manage to navigate this intersection each time the lights turn green. There is a nice vantage point from the walkway that connects the Shibuya Mark City building to Tokyu, a popular department store in the area.

Nearby is Harajuku, where trend-watchers come to witness the future of fashion. This area is the heart of kawaii (all things cute) and Japanese pop-culture evolves here. Peruse the narrow pedestrian-only street Takeshita Dori to see young girls dressed in frilly Lolita-style outfits all the way through to gothic-inspired ensembles. Take a well-deserved break at Harajuku Taproom, where you’ll find some of Japan’s best craft beer on tap, made by American Bryan Baird. Pair it with grilled chicken skewers.

In the neighbouring Omotesando area you’ll find accomplishments by world-renowned architects. Don’t miss Tadao Ando’s impressive Omotesando Hills, Herzog & de Meuron’s futuristic Prada store and Kengo Kuma’s timeless Nezu Museum. The spacious museum showcases a vast selection of Japanese and Asian arts, and its grounds include a traditional garden with a pond and tea houses - a rare quiet spot in the heart of the city.

Tokyo is a city filled with shokunin, artisans who dedicate their lives to doing one thing to the best of their abilities. To see this firsthand, head to the elegant neighbourhood of Kagurazaka. On the back streets is Tenko, a temple to tempura. At thecounter, watch and listen as chef Arai dips seafood and vegetables into a thin batter and deep-fries it, serving it fresh from the oil, with a delicate crust that is light and ethereal.

A hotspot for cocktails is Gen Yamamoto, an eight-seat bar where seasonal ingredients such as kabocha squash and winter cherries are simply mixed with one spirit or sake and presented in exquisite glassware. So sophisticated.

Rub elbows with the locals at a tachinomi (standing bar) in the Shinjuku district. Kick off the night with a drink and an order of beef tongue as well as the chef’s selection of grilled offal skewers at the friendly open-air Nihon Saisei Sakaba.

Spend the rest of the evening exploring the vast array of sakes at Musshu Mizuki, in the basement of a back-street building in Ginza. The owner, Mori-san, is a sake sommelier and has put together an excellent list. Ask for the omakase menu and the staff will bring a parade of small bites (think sashimi and pickles paired with seasonal sake).

Tokyo has a hit list of hotels to choose from. The Park Hyatt Tokyo in Shinjuku is timeless, and tourists love to have a drink at its New York Bar made famous in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation. I prefer to indulge in a Wagyu steak at the adjacent New York Grill. The Japanese marbled beef is mind-blowing, especially when paired with views from 52 floors above the city.

If your trip to Tokyo is short, there’s no better spot than the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi. Since the sleek hotel is just steps from Tokyo Station, the staff will meet you on the platform when your train arrives from the airport to escort you to your room. Mandarin Oriental, located in historic Nihonbashi district, has a strong culinary offering, with a number of Michelin-starred eateries (earlier this year it also hosted a culinary residency by Noma, four-time winner of ‘The World’s 50 Best Restaurants’).

Kichijoji is a hip neighbourhood with countless boutiques and a lively shōtengai (shopping arcade) selling pantry staples and kitchenware. At night, Harmonica Yokocho is boisterous thanks to its casual drinking and eating spots, including Min-Min, known for its juicy gyoza. While you are here, visit the nearby Ghibli Museum, which documents master animator Hayao Miyazaki’s work. Just make sure you secure tickets well in advance.

Before you leave Tokyo, stop by a depachika, a glorious epicurean floor often found on the basement level of department stores. I worked at a depachika for two years and I’m still impressed when I visit one. And, for one-stop shopping, nothing beats Shinjuku’s Takashimaya. Peek at the outrageously expensive muskmelon and other fruits before picking up a bento box for lunch. Eat it in the rooftop garden - a spot that most locals don’t even know of.

Remember that while Japan may seem like a difficult destination to visit, once here many find that the hospitality of the locals breaks down any barriers. 

Words by Yukari Sakamoto - Published in Voyeur Published in Voyeur September 2015
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 12,500,000
Time Zone GMT + 9 hours
Languages Japanese (national)
Currency Japanese yen (JPY)
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