This is part 2 of 2 and a continuation of Part 1, which covered the top 4 unusual experiences, must-learn suffixes, budget-saving and healthy fast food, and more.
Below I explore choosing location, 5-star food for 2-star prices, drinking, and day trips from the concrete jungle of Tokyo…
Living on the Pulse: Yamanote or Chuo?
Choose accommodation close to major subway or surface lines, with first choice as Yamanote line and second choice as Chuo line. Shibuya is an excellent base for Shibuya/Harajuku/Shinjuku/Roppongi/Akasaka, and therefore cheap to get around and back to, even late at night. It has direct train lines also to Ginza, Asakusa, and numerous other places.
If you’re adventurous and without family, consider www.globalfreeloaders.com or other couch surfing options for free housing and a genuine local experience. If not, look at Tokyo rentals on Craigslist as a starting point for speaking with brokers and individuals.
Getting 5-Star Food for 2-Star Prices: Senmonten vs. Jack-Of-All-Trades
The best restaurants in any price range are those that specialize in just one type of food. Besides getting the true taste of each as it should be, you can experience the unique atmospheres (e.g. robatayaki restaurants are quite different from sushi places). Look for—and ask for—areas with noren, small curtains hanging from horizontal poles in the restaurant doorways, which shows the specialties of each.
Noren curtains (Photo: yomi955)
Look for one at dusk busy with young people, just as people get off work to drink and dine with friends. It’s the most fun time of day in Tokyo, and one that foreigners miss by eating at hotels or formal restaurants. Here are nine variations to start with. If in doubt, ask someone where you can find “many noren restaurants” or a “[fill in type below] senmonten,” or specialty shop:
* Yaki-tori: chicken and veggies on skewers, grilled. Ask for true meat items like sho-niku, momo, mince, and other low-fat, low-skin items.
* Robata-yaki: charcoal grilled meat/fish/veggies. Cheap friendly environment usually.
* Tonkatsu: pork deep fried in special batter. Hirekatsu is the lean fillet.
* Tempura: deep fried at very high temperatures. Fish and veggies.
* Sushi and sashimi (the former can include almost anything atop vinegared-rice, but it’s generally sliced uncooked fish)
* Teppan-yaki: meat/fish/veggies grilled on hot plate.
* Nabemono: fish & veggies cooking in water in a pot. Suggest yose-nabe, a typical nabemono dish.
* Shabu-shabu: Japanese fondue with thinly sliced beef (ask for low/no fat)
* Suki-yaki: beef in pan in very sweet stock. Ask for low/no fat, or go for shabu-shabu instead. Dip in the raw egg provided, which should be whipped in a bowl.
The last 3 of these specialties are often found at one restaurant that specializes in these 3 types.
How to Not Look Like an Idiot While Drinking
If you dine or drink with someone, watch their glass because … you pour theirs and they pour yours. Pour for older men first. Offer to pour again when their glass is half empty, and lift your glass off the table when they pour. If you don’t, it’s like treating them as a server or someone of lower status—not recommended. To stop drinking, leave your glass at least half full and decline top-ups.
Bite-Size Escapes from the Concrete Jungle
One of the best places to roam around for a look at the older, cultural side of Japan is the leafy, historic town of Kamakura, nestled among green hills, one hour by suburban train from Tokyo.
It’s a wonderful counterbalance to the concrete and cars of Tokyo. Some good spots there are Zeni-arai Benten (take a cab there and tell them to wait so that you can move easily on to the next place), Daibutsu (Giant Buddha), Hachimangu-Shrine, and Komachi-dori shopping/dining street, especially at dusk.
There are about 128 million people in Japan, and at least 100 million of them are happy to help foreigners learn to know and love Japan.
Just start a conversation with ‘sumimasen’ (excuse me) and then ask the question when you have them listening. Finish with ‘domo arigato’ (thank you). If you want to keep chatting with someone friendly a bit longer, ask them if they want a cup of coffee. You buy the coffee, they write down more suggestions, you both swap name cards, and go on your way.
Tokyo is like NYC but full of Mr. Rogers-like eagerness to help… if you make the effort with a few words of Japanese first.
The most important thing to remember is: Don’t be afraid of Japan.
It is a joy to get lost and have to ask a stranger where the koban (police box used by everyone for directions) is. If you’re not uncomfortable at least once a day, you aren’t experiencing Tokyo fully or interacting with the locals. Step outside the norm and INTERACT WITH JAPANESE PEOPLE. The worst that will happen is someone latches on to you to practice English. The guaranteed result is stories that you will have for the rest of your life.
Special thanks to Japan expert Philip Ashenden for his help with this two-part series.