Tokyo with Teens
There are so many places on my travel bucket list that I generally assume I will never visit the same place twice. Much to my surprise and delight, I found myself back in Japan just a few years after first visiting. We LOVED Japan the first time, to the point that my daughter talks about it nonstop and is already hatching plans to live there as soon as possible.
One of the wonderful things about living in Bali for a year was that we met amazing people from all over the world. But on the flip side, we really miss these friends now that we are living back in America. We hatched a plan to meet up with some families in Tokyo over our Thanksgiving break, as one of my son's best friends is now living there. Families came from Australia and Bali and we created a great week-long mini reunion.
This trip was vastly different from our first visit. I'm glad that we had the experience of a more traditional visit the first time and am happy that the kids got to experience the freedom and fun of traveling around this insanely safe city with their friends this time.
My son and his friends (ages 14 and 15) were pretty much let loose on the city. I only saw him a few times, mostly looking like he'd barely slept for days. I think their agenda consisted of thrift shopping and eating lots of onigiri from Family Mart (a convenience store.)
I roped him into a great sushi making class, Buddha Bellies Sushi Cooking, which was taught at a local apartment. We had such a blast making beautifully designed vegetarian sushi. Incidentally, our instructor's husband is a traditional sushi chef so they also offer proper (fish) sushi classes as well. The class was held right behind Ueno Park, which was a perfect meeting spot for all the families. Tokyo is beautiful in the fall, so not only was it lovely to walk around, but we also got a kick out of pedaling the swan boats around the pond.
The other activity that united the parents and teenagers was the incredible, Epson teamLab Borderless exhibit in Odaiba. Everyone loved the multiple rooms with amazing technicolor graphics, lights and sounds. I definitely recommend getting tickets ahead of time and going when it opens. Thankfully the exhibition space is huge, so even with lines wrapping up and down the stairs to get in, it doesn't feel crowded inside. I heard from some friends that the Borderless Planets exhibition is also stunning.
We also did an overnight trip to Nikko, see after all Tokyo info for more details.
With my son off with his friends, I basically got the gift of a girls trip with my daughter. Here are some of the things that we enjoyed:
OneWORLD International Hair Salon for the head spa. I also got the most incredible haircut and could not recommend this whole experience more.
We walked and walked and walked. Harajuku, Shibuya, Omote-sando...
Tokyo Hands. Yes, we are obsessed with this multi-level wonderland of everything a person needs and wants in their life. Like 900 beautiful ball point pens and a good foot massager.
A friend of mine mentioned that we should also check out Loft while in Tokyo, which turned out to be an amazing recommendation. It's sort of like a grown up Tokyo Hands. Floors and floors of beautiful things like pens and paper (the obsession is real), home and beauty supplies, food, etc. It's a great place to go if you're looking for gifts, too. We went to the Ginza location, but I believe there are several.
Shiro Hige's Cream Puff Factory for the most adorable Totoro cream puffs. Our phone navigation system went berserk, so we spent a frustrating amount of time going in circles in the dark trying to find this place. It's actually not particularly far from the (Setagaya-Daita) subway station, though we wandered all over the area, which is incidentally jammed with cool vintage stores so it's worth exploring. We also stumbled through many pitch black alleyways as well and I was incredibly grateful that Japan is so safe because had I been in another city, I probably would have been very afraid in this situation. To be clear, the cream puffs were delicious and so cute- well worth the effort.
Nezu Museum. This beautiful museum had a tea ceremony exhibit on display when we were visiting. The exhibit was interesting and lovely, but nothing really compared to the incredible gardens behind the museum. The fall foliage was in full bloom and the trees were extraordinary shaded of green, yellow, red, and orange. I highly recommend an hour here to restore you to your full zen potential.
Food in Tokyo
Truly it is hard to eat bad food in the city. You would probably have to seek out an American chain like Hard Rock Cafe or something if you wanted bad food. As mentioned, my son subsisted on a diet of mainly convenience store food for a week and was still standing. If you're traveling on the train or need a quick pick-me-up, I honestly recommend the mini marts. Family Mart was their favorite for onigiri. The cleanliness of these marts will be a shock to any westerner.
But for real food...
There is no shortage of Michelin starred establishments and you could definitely have some exquisite foodie experiences in Tokyo, if this is your thing. I am a little simpler and am perfectly happy with clean, good food that doesn't break the bank.
Afuri. Our local friends recommended this and I was so grateful because it was very close to our hotel. It's the typical "order from the ATM type machine" store and the line moves quickly. The vegan ramen was delicious, so much so that we ate here twice. My daughter got the more traditional ramen with pork and hard boiled egg and was very happy.
Azabu Kawakami-an. This was a repeat from our first trip to Japan and it was as good as we remembered. It's in Azabujuban, which is within walking distance of Roppongi. We loved the cold soba with dipping sauce, tempura vegetables, and the tofu.
Food Halls, depachika, are incredible wonderlands in Japan. We got lunch three different days at Isetan (Shinjuku), Mitsukoshi (Ginza), and Tokyo Food Show (Shinjuku). You can sample food and choose your lunch from one of many stalls offering different specialties. There are also grocery stores if you want fresh fruit and things like that. The only tricky thing is there isn't usually seating directly in these halls, so you have to take your food to the roof deck or another floor where there is seating.
Tsuru Ton Tan. My daughter and I were craving udon and this was not too far of a walk from our hotel. Apparently there is also one in New York, but I will pretend that it was a little local shop. The delicious bowl of udon was gigantic and I was grateful that we had decided to share it.
Kurosawa. There is some relation between this restaurant and the famous Japanese director by the same name. I never quite got the full story, but the food here is so good and it was directly across the street from our hotel, which was a great relief after a long day of walking around the city.
Onibus. A great little coffee stand in Nakameguro, which we stopped at after wandering around Daikanyama.
Blue Bottle. Coffee that we love in LA is also here in Tokyo.
Dean & Deluca. I know. It's kind of pitiful to resort to American standards when traveling, but one thing I do find difficult as an American is the Asian breakfast. My body is just used to a bowl of granola or oatmeal or... avocado toast. My daughter and I ate the overpriced hotel breakfast on day one and then we found Dean and Deluca, where we went every day for avocado toast and cappuccinos. I'm pleased to report that is was frequented by 99% locals.
Note: Japanese restaurants are small, so reservations are recommended if you're eating some place other than a ramen shop or something very casual. We actually didn't make reservations at any of the above, but I do think we were lucky in getting a seat since we were only 2 people. Occasionally we did have to wait for a little while, like at Tsuru Ton Tan.
Trust Me: For the love of god, please try the matcha Pockys when in Japan. You can thank me later.
Where we stayed
Grand Hyatt Roppongi. We chose this hotel because it was within walking distance to our friend's house. It ended up being a great location for everything that we did. It is right next to a subway station, which made maneuvering around by mass transit a breeze. It was also within walking distance to virtually all of the areas that we wanted to explore. It's large, to be sure, and the lobby is a hive of activity due to the size of the hotel, so it's definitely not a quaint little Japanese boutique hotel. But the rooms are incredibly comfortable and well- appointed, so I highly recommend this hotel if you want something nice in a good area.
In an effort to see my son and celebrate Thanksgiving, I planned a quick getaway to nearby Nikko. We actually stayed in Kinugawa Onsen, which is a 2 hour train ride from Tokyo. We spent the afternoon in Kinugawa and the following day in Nikko, which is a 45 minute bus ride from the hotel. We stored our bags in a locker in Nikko so that we could take the shinkansen train directly from Nikko to Tokyo. I organized the train tickets while in Japan, but I had booked the hotel ahead of time.
The ryokan hotel, Kinugawa Kanaya Hotel, was exactly what I was hoping for... quiet and supremely relaxing. I was a little sad that the weather was so grim that we couldn't explore the area around the hotel, which includes hiking, a river cruise, and a suspension bridge. But after we found a delicious local noodle shop for lunch, we hunkered down in the hotel for the remainder of the day. The onsen was incredible and we were not the least bit sad to spend the day in our robes in this gorgeous hotel. Dinner and breakfast were included, as is customary at ryokans. We were given our own little room for both meals, and the food that was presented over the course of several hours was exquisite. Everything about this hotel was impeccable and I'm so glad that we were able to enjoy a night here.
Nikko is a historical town that provides a counter to Tokyo's intensity. Serene and brimming with history, this is a perfect getaway if you don't have much time in Japan and need a break from Tokyo.
Nikko has the only nationally designated natural monument and historical site, which is Cedar Lane, the world's longest tree-lined road. There are approximately 12,000 cedars, which date back to the early Edo period.
The UNESCO Heritage sites in Nikko consist of two shrines and one temple, Nikko Tosho-Gu, Rinno-ji, and Futarasan Jinja. These are a reminder of Nikko's past as a center of Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship. In addition, we enjoyed seeing the Five-Story Pagoda, which was bustling with children on a field trip.
It was a freezing cold day when we were walking around Nikko and the truth of the matter is that I really wished that we'd booked a tour guide or joined a tour to explore Nikko properly. Due to the cold and the inability to read any of the Japanese signage, I feel like we did not get the full Nikko experience. I also wish that we'd planned to spend two full days (and 2 nights) in this area. The weather really prevented us from doing much the first day, but better planning and an additional day would have allowed for us to see and do a little bit more, like the beautiful Kegon Falls and Lake Chuzenji. I guess there has to be a next time.