My Tokyo advice for Scott Sumner

Eat both quality French and Italian food there.

They still have real CD shops, if that matters to you.

Spend some time in the underground/subway city parts, maybe Shinjuku station, a few others.

Not sure if the old fish market is still up and running, worth a visit if it is.

Get your iPhone ready for translate functions, print and voice.

Getting lost there is great, don’t obsess over sights.

National Museum. The Western museums are decent but also not essential.

Look for a neighborhood with immigrants.

Sample Tokyo at all possible hours, if you can.

Kinokuniya bookstore is quite good. Overall I don’t love the Roppongi part of town, though, fancy bars and restaurants for expats, though fun in its own way.

Visit a Japanese working class district, such as Ikebukuro, also a major subway stop.

Look for vending machines and collections of vending machines.

The arcades there, including for children, are pretty amazing.

Try Pachinko once.


Addendum: Here are the suggestions from Scott’s readers.


"They still have real CD shops, if that matters to you."
As opposed to false CD shops. They also have fax machines, if that matters to you. If you want to send an important message to 1980 about future President Trump, for instance.
"Look for a neighborhood with immigrants."
I suggest Greenpoint, NYC.
"Eat both quality French and Italian food there."
But avoid the Japanese food. It is not authentic.
"The arcades there, including for children, are pretty amazing."
Some people just did not gave a childhood, I guess.
"Getting lost there is great, don’t obsess over sights."
And that's why an economist's photo ends up on milk cartons. And didn't they make a film about people getting lost in translation in Tokyo?

The bakeries were really good in the Tokyo metro area.

Tokyo bakeries? If you enjoy seafood-themed desserts (yuk). They have a chain of Tokyo Bakery shops here in Manila, and it's an acquired taste.

I recommend Scott try the fugu. Done properly, a slight amount of poison is kept in the fish and when eaten will give the slightest sensation of paralysis. Of course, done're done for.

There are excellent Japanese bakeries in affluent Chinese cities. It could be that the ones in Manila aren't very good.

Maybe. I did like the hard boiled egg thin crust pizza I had in Japan when I visited many years ago (over 20 years ago, time flies) though I would not eat it again too often. And of course the sushi on little boats that float by your counter top. Atom Sushi I think was the name, a sushi chain that is 'fast food' by Japanese standards.


Was in Tokyo this weekend and had the best egg sandwich I have ever tasted in my life (by a considerable margin) at a bakery near Ebisu.

I had no idea bread could be that good....

Yeah, people don't realize how amazing the bakeries are in Japann. Actually, any food from one of the big underground food courts at the big department stores will blow you away.

I think the best part of Japan is its range as a culture and the way it tries to span so many different things, so I think the best approach might be a contrarian one to what you think.

Think Japan is a traditional exotic culture? Walk through the business or high-rise districts and be quite disappointed that most of Tokyo's architecture is blandly American.

Think Japan is a modern copy of Western countries? Visit Meiji Jingu and Buddhist temples to see that people still have a traditional culture and remain quite superstitious about charms and prayers. The Robot Show in Shinjuku and AKB or other girl group shows will show you things that could only happen in Japan and would never work in Western countries.

Want cheap Japanese food? Try a corn dog at a convenience store or kaiten sushi or ramen or curry or eat at any cafeteria. You can see how Japanese try to provide cheap food with a high calorie punch with some decent flavor.

Want expensive Japanese food? Any of the luxury hotels have fine dining and the Michelin guide can send you to a restaurant which will cost you an arm and a leg.

Want Japanese food in the middle? Kaiseki for seasonal crowd pleasers, Denny's or Gusto for a pretty good variety.

Want idiosyncratic Japanese food? For Chinese, Japanese like "ebi chili". For Korean, they like BBQ with higher quality cuts. For American, there's Blacows in Ebisu for a very decent burger. For Italian, try "Neapolitan" for spaghetti with ketchup and sausages. For French, croquettes are everywhere.

Think the Japanese are irrational? Look for some of the ways they solved problems that you didn't even know was an issue, from rice ladles that stand up to twist cap crayons. Stationary shops and book stores are little flashes of Japanese brilliance.

Think the Japanese are rational? Walk around Akihabara and visit the sex shop or talk to the girls advertising maid cafes.

Think the Japanese are polite? Try riding the metros through downtown Tokyo in the morning rush hour or anytime after 10 PM.

Other recommendations: walk around Tsukiji to see the best example of Japan's zoning laws, where you have a research university, a fish market, two chemical factories, and a farmer's market crammed onto the same city block. Try a squat toilet instead of their Star Trek display toilets. Visit Yasukuni shrine and the museum next to it, especially for the uncomfortable exhibits where they proudly display howitzers and machine guns that killed Americans. Try to pick out non-Japanese Asians, from the Western ones to the Asian tourists to the immigrants trying to assimilate and fit in to Japanese society. Go to a bank teller and see the odd ways that Japanese banks operate.

"Think the Japanese are polite? Try riding the metros through downtown Tokyo in the morning rush hour or anytime after 10 PM."

This, more than anything, is why I think of the Japanese as polite! I mean, I've taken the NY subway and the DC metro at those hours . . . it is actually incredible what a difference there is.


I get your point- you won't get the random naked, drunk, homeless guy running between trains; or the guy who takes a crap on the train. But still, there is a lot of weird behavior on the subways late when the drunk salarymen get on board, specifically that directed toward women.

You'll also commonly find men openly reading pornographic manga, something I have never seen on the NYC subway (I'm sure it's happened before, but I don't believe its common like it is in Japan).

Excellent AJ

Nice sample of ethnocentric racism when talking about Japanese being "irrational" for not subscribing to Jewish-Christian sexual mores.

"Nice sample of ethnocentric racism..."

I'm glad MR has you around. This place needs a politically astute individual to tell us the rules we're supposed to follow. Some of us might have missed that obvious example of "ethnocentric racism" without your keen eye and wit. Keep up the great work! Without your tireless efforts, there's no telling what the internet would be like.

Ikebukuro is okay, but for a nice "shitamachi" flavour, I recommend Asakusa, Ueno, and the neighbourhood around Yanaka Ginza instead. Incidentally, Ikebukuro isn't just a subway station -- it is a huge JR train station with at least two or three big department stores attached. There is a concert hall right across the way outside the west gate too. Honestly, it doesn't strike me as particularly working class. The stretch over to the Sunshine Tower on the east side is a broad tree-lined boulevard (looking less lush in Google maps than I remember it) and generally seemed like a nice, modern development. Once you get further out, towards the university on the west side, it gets a bit rougher looking, but the charm of Tokyo is you can turn a corner from a shiny new development and find some old early postwar construction looking shabby and well-used. It is all quite safe.

I'd say Ikebukuro is more like lower middle class, right? That station is the primary entry way for commuters from Saitama prefecture, which we all called the New Jersey of Japan. One nickname for Saitama is 'Dasaitama' with 'dasai' meaning boring. There are definitely more working class neighborhoods, but still Ikebukuro does have a slight, rundown, unglamorous feel. Maybe like the area around the port authority in Manhattan?

But I also recommend Ueno. At least when I was there in the early 2000's there were a ton of south american immigrants hanging out near the park and station. Gave it a different feel for sure. The park is OK too.

A classic tourist thing to do in Tokyo is to ride the Yamamote line around, Akihabara-Ikebukuro-Shinjuku, which are mostly dense shopping districts for out of towners. Ebisu and Roppongi are night life districts, I think it helps to have a specific destination in mind, e.g. a restaurant meeting or a club night. Any stop on the JR line will have nightlife though, there's tons of little restaurants and open-air markets tucked right under the tracks. Ueno and Ginza are a weird combination of high-class during the day (well, Ueno isn't really high class, but it has Tokyo University) and HUGE red light districts at night Ueno Park might be the nicest park in Tokyo, especially at this time of year.

My favorite underrated neighborhood is Koenji on the Chuo line. It's a little quieter and more residential, but with a DIY spirit - lots of vintage clothing stores, cafes and record stores. It's considered the birthplace of punk in Tokyo, definitely worth a visit if you want a break from the crowds (if it hasn't gentrified too much - I haven't been back for a few years).

My second time in Tokyo we stayed part of the time at a small guest house in Ueno and enjoyed that quite a bit. Completely different experience from staying in Shinjuku.

Also, can't recall the neighborhood (maybe Ashakusa) but came across a festival where many guys where carrying a huge shrine down the street that was pretty interesting

Also, gardens. The Koishikawa Korakuen, by Tokyo dome, is a particular favourite, although this is probably not the best time (the plum blossoms have already faded this year, and other flowers haven't yet begun to bloom).

I would skip the national museum, honestly. It is nice enough, but if you only have limited time, you aren't missing much by skipping it.

The Japanese are clever. Tetrodotoxin prevents batrachotoxin from having lethal effects and vice versa (I'm skipping some details here) according research cited in Death in Venice Beach, about a Goldfinger/Dr. No type meglomanical serial killer who is trying to reestablish Imperial Japan's dominion over the world. He's not even Japanese, but go figure. It's fiction, but the part about the tetrodotoxin and batrachotoxin seems to be true, based on google scholar. Anyway, true enough for 2018.

In July/August, you can actually climb Mt. Fuji. It's the way down that is all the fun though, taking giant steps across pitch black volcanic stones.
In Kyoto, try Osaka. Less touristy but more high tech which is really what makes Japan. Get lost in the huge malls and pachinko parlors there. An overnight stay at a Ryukan in Koyasan is full of sights, too. Also get an Okonomyiaki in a specialized place in Kyoto.

Tyler starts well, though I second the "go to Asakusa/Ueno/Akihabara not Ikebukuro" approach from other readers. Bakeries in Japan are amazing--though shrimp or something may show up from time to time, they are everyehwere and quite good. Don't assume you can get into them early though-many only open from 9. Make sure you have lots of battery power in your phone, as using GPS to go everywhere is going to burn through it quickly...

Some other things that are worth doing in Tokyo and Kyoto:

Bamboo forest (a grove in Kamakura, one in Kyoto) is a unique experience, where wind going through creates a natural, large scale wind chime effect. Asakusa is fun for casual Japanese tourist shopping, though don't know how crowded it has become--it never used to be crowded on weekdays.
The robot restaurant in shinjuku is a blast--but plan to go out for dinner afterwards. Can also enjoy lots of bladerunneresque Shinjuku stuff, as Kabukicho is a very Japanese night life area. Golden Gai is an experience as well for bar hopping.
Studio Ghibli museum in Mitaka (Tokyo) is fantastic--a mix of Ghibli movie stuff plus history of photography. Not far from central Tokyo.
Edo-Tokyo museum a bit north of town is the best one to go to for general history.

Rent a bike to move around Kyoto.
Mario Karts (go kart riding through Tokyo streets dressed up as Mario characters) seem to be popular with every tourist visiting now, but not my cup of tea personally.
Walk across the rainbow bridge to Odaiba.
Enjoy the calmness of Ginkakuji (silver pavilion,but famous for it's sand sculpture).
Go to Himeji castle (not far from Kyoto)--it's been cleaned recently and is gorgeous.
Have Tonkatsu at the counter in Tonki in Meguro (Tokyo) and compare it with Maisen in Omotesando (Tokyo).

"Mario Karts (go kart riding through Tokyo streets dressed up as Mario characters) seem to be popular with every tourist visiting now, but not my cup of tea personally."

PLEASE DO NOT DO THIS. Even as a pedestrian I find these super annoying, and it is wonder to me that the government hasn't just banned them. Isn't the governor of Tokyo an extreme right-wing borderline fascist? I mean, she's not Ishihara, but she's pretty rightist, no? Nippon Kaigi and all that?

Japan's regime is fascist.

Also, I second Kamakura -- it sounds like Sumner is going to Kyoto anyhow, but Kamakura has a charm all its own, and the bamboo grove at Houkokuji, while not particularly large, is quite beautiful. There are actually just a lot of very nice gardens attached to the temples.

Within Kyoto, the Arashiyama area to the west is particularly fine -- there is a largish bamboo forest there, a nicely kept garden that used to belong to some actor, a number of temples (like any other place in Kyoto), and up to the north, a neighbourhood with a lot of traditional-ish houses that is pleasant to walk through. One can go boating along the river too, which is fun. Packed with tourists, though. When I went, there were lots and lots of Chinese taking the opportunity to dress in Japanese yukata (it was summer).

Arashiyama is OK, but like you mention with the Chinese trying on yukata, it is a bit of a tourist trap. And swamped with people. Another option for a pretty Kyoto suburb is Ohara to the north. There are some gorgeous temples there as well an onsen that I recommend (can't recall the name off the top of my head). Particularly in the fall, Ohara is beautiful.

And another option for a daytrip from Tokyo is to Nikko. Gorgeous setting in hills and lakes with some beautiful temples of its own.

Don't bother to go to Tokyo before May 13 when the next Grand Sumo tournament there begins.

Yes, if you can time it for a sumo tournament you should. A great day out if you have any interest in sports. And even if you don't I think it's interesting. Each individual sumo bout is so short that you don't really get bored.

Absolutely, sumo tournaments are great fun. Plenty of action, culture, snacks and a chillaxed vibe.

On a darker note, I'd also recommend the Yushukan war museum at the Yasukuni Shrine, just to remind yourself of how the delusional the Japanese can be about their own history. Plus they have fantastic ice cream in the cafe.

If you see an American who works there, they are likely US military or a US military contractor. You would think 7-Eleven was a Japanese invention, but it isn't, but it is worthy of a visit to see how its done right.

Observe a monoculture of conformity and status signals based on clothes, jewelry, and smell. Follow the path of young men in black suits parading to work and carrying closed umbrellas, even though there is only a five percent chance of rain.

Observe a monoculture of conformity

You mean like the average arts-and-sciences faculty?

Get a Suica card.

Take the Narita Express to/from the airport.

Do your food shopping in the basement of department stores and major train stations.

Go to Kamakura and Nikko.

If you need to kill time at Narita Airport, go to Shinshou-ji.

Learn just enough kanji and hiragana to figure out the controls on a washlet.

Also learn the kanji digits, so you can read the prices in small restaurants.

Buy tickets for the Ghibli Museum before you get to Japan.

Plug your ears if you go near a Yodobashi Camera. You'll thank me later.


All good advice but this is a must:
Do your food shopping in the basement of department stores and major train stations.

"Go to Kamakura and Nikko."

Nikko is an excellent suggestion -- you can get there easily by an express train leaving from Asakusa. Takes about two hours. You could actually do a day-trip of it. Take a morning train up, walk or bus up to the Toshogu, see some of the other temples around there, visit the Imperial villa, and then hit a couple of the waterfalls perhaps. Or take a peek at Lake Chuzenji instead. And then return on a 5 pm train to take dinner back in Tokyo.

The best part of Tokyo is how each neighborhood is like it's own little city with it's own distinct culture. So you can get the old time Tokyo in Asakusa, jump on the subway, and then get the neon blade runner thing in Shinjuku, then the next day wander through Shibuya to check out the youth culture and people watching. You'll always be near somewhere great to eat, and if you wander a bit you'll probably find some weird store catering to an interest you never thought there'd be a store for.

The bad of Tokyo is that the architecture in general is boring and dull. Lots of concrete and steel- really not that different from the downtown of a modern US city. Also the sites aren't that interesting on their own. This isn't Europe or even Boston or NYC. You can walk by the imperial palace but not get close, and other than that.... there's the giant tower called Tokyo Skytree but I wouldn't fly all the way to Tokyo for it. Meiji Jingu shrine and Senso-ji temple are both very cool, but honestly there are much more impressive buildings outside of the city (whereas in London, Rome, Paris, Moscow, Beijing, Bangkok... you'll find monumental, stunning historical buildings that don't exist outside of the capital).

Also there are no can't miss museums which is disappointing considering all the amazing artwork created in Japan the last 2000 years (the national museum is serviceable, but pretty disappointing in both presentation and the collection on display). The Edo-Tokyo museum is an exception, but if you're not into Japanese history I don't know if you'll get much out of it.

To like Tokyo you have to enjoy urban experiences: particularly shopping, eating, drinking and people watching. It's a wonderful place to be single in, but as a married guy you're going to miss a lot of the charm of wondering what that next bar may hold for you as you continue bar hopping until sunrise. Those are my best memories of Tokyo for sure.

I have to disagree. We recently spent just under a year in Tokyo, and the museums were one of the highlights of our time there - and we didn't make it to the main exhibit hall at the National Museum even once. There are dozens of gems scattered throughout the city - The National Museum of Modern Art with its rotating exhibit of art stretching from the early Meiji period to the post-war era (and one gallery devoted to seasonally appropriate art) offers a brilliant and sometimes moving insight into the early confluence of Japanese and Western art styles. The related Crafts Gallery offers brilliant special exhibits featuring Japanese crafts (and craft-inspired art). The Japan Folk Craft Museum, one of my favorites, is in a stunning pre-war building designed by Yanagi Soetsu, the founder of the Japanese folk craft movement, and features rotating exhibits of the work of artists in that school - and others - in pottery, textiles, bookmaking, etc. Nezu Museum is stunning. The Yamatane Museum of Art showed me that nihonga can be high art.

But the special exhibits are, I think, what set Tokyo apart - and explain why we visited over 70 exhibitions in our time in Tokyo and still couldn't keep up with all the exhibits we wanted to see. Overwhelming but wonderfully curated exhibits of Zen art, of works from Kasuga Grand Shrine's collection, of the eccentric works of Buddhist priest Sengai, of 250 works by Dali brought in from museums around the world, of the Slav Epic by Mucha (the first and probably only time those works will be shown outside of the Czech Republic), of scroll picture books from the 10th to 19th centuries, of popular culture in Beijing and Tokyo in the 17th through 19th centuries.

Half the fun is watching the obsessiveness that the Japanese public brings to their viewing of art - we stood in line for almost two hours to get into the Dali exhibit, and the Mucha exhibit drew well over 600,000 visitors during its three months in town (the Met, with its entire collection, drew under 7 million over twelve months a couple years ago). I still remember at a tea bowl exhibit at Nezu Museum seeing a burly guy who looked like he had just stepped off the set of a yakuza movie squatting in front of one particularly stunning bowl, staring at it for almost five minutes. At nearly every exhibit we saw folks viewing the works through opera glasses, from a foot or two away - the better to examine the technique of the artist.

How do you find these exhibits? Well, it's not that hard. Put away the guidebook and look around - nearly every museum has a rack near the entrance or exit with fliers for current and upcoming exhibitions around town (and often in outlying regions as well), and many of them are advertised conspicuously on large posters in train stations and on smaller ones in the trains themselves.

And finally, speaking of Tokyo, Ian Buruma has a new memoir about his time in the city in the 1970's. I have not read it, but anything by Buruma on Japan is worth your time. I learned so much about Japanese culture through his books before my first stay in Japan.

In fact, I would love to listen to a conversations with Tyler with Ian Buruma! And maybe a review on this blog of the new book perhaps....

It must be nice to be a tenured professor. Not too much teaching, lots of international travel.
Meanwhile, we marginals ...

It's even nice to be a retired professor, as Scott is, who has saved a lot of money.


"Look for a neighborhood with immigrants." Is that a wry remark or just a rather dull instruction?

If you would like to see every Japanese stereotype within a small, walkable area, please go to Akihabara.

I've often wanted to visit Japan. However, the big difficulty is that my wife is allergic to soy, and so she avoids anything Asian as a matter of course. She'll try things if I can show her that they really don't have soy, but that's hard enough in America. Also, she doesn't trust seafood in restaurants while on vacation.

Of course, not going with my wife is not an option.

In honor of Mr. Sumner, I will provide the link to this:

Thanks everyone, great advice.

Jeff R, Actually, I am staying in Ebisu, so I'll try to check out that bakery. Orange County (where I live) has some very good Japanese bakeries.

Rafael, Yes, and I'd add that one of the things I like best about Japan is that it's one of the least religious countries (as least in the Western sense of religion). When I travel somewhere, I want it to be different from home. The stranger, the better.

Tyler, Given that I eat in Chinese restaurants in Italy and France, I suppose I should do the reverse, as you say.

Ebisu is a great part of the city. Fantastic spot for bar hopping in the evening. You’ll have a blast.

Ebisu is great. Also try to get down the road to Nakameguro, which has seen the area under the train tracks redeveloped with some amazing restaurants and one of the most ingeniously designed pop-up bookstores I've every visited. And if you like art and design books, get to the Tsutaya in Daikanyama, which is close to my ideal design for a large-ish bookstore - one of those places that felt like home the first time I saw it.

For Italian, one excellent choice is Effe, near Tamachi station. The Japanese chef's absolute devotion to craft shines with nearly any cuisine (though sadly not Mexican, for some reason). Best pork roast I ever had was in a tiny Basque restaurant in Aoyama or Azabu (I'd never be able to find it again).

Re: "Eat both quality French and Italian food there."


Best Italian & French is NOT in Italy and France. It's in Tokyo.

+1, though I might disagree about it being in Tokyo. Best Italian meal I ever had was in a half shuttered pedestrian mall in Iga-Ueno, a declining town most famous for its ninjas. Japanese chef who had spent several years in Italy decided to come home, and produced dishes that brought tears to the eyes.

A council set up by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and businesses said Wednesday a new site to replace the famed Tsukiji fish market will open in the Toyosu waterfront area on Oct. 11, 2018. Worth a trip, but very early morning. A 5 AM tour and sushi for breakfast is recomended

Nobody has mentioned it so I will that I enjoyed watching baseball games in Japan both live in the domes and at a neighborhood bar. Very different fan experience than the US or Latin America

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