Let’s talk FOMO: I don’t have it.
I remember very clearly the year I decided to jump off the train of feeling like everything was happening wherever I wasn’t. I was a junior in college, surrounded by options, and realized that I spent every party planning the NEXT party. Switching majors. Wishing I were abroad (and then, once abroad, wishing I were home). Chasing after some idea of a better time happening in the house next door, without realizing that you ARE the party. Fear of missing out was so boring and wasteful and I hated the way it made me feel inadequate no matter what. I woke up on New Years Day and swore to myself that I would make bold enough choices to never feel FOMO again.
And I didn’t!
But then Tokyo happened.
This little towwwwwn, you guys. Literally not enough minutes in a lifetime to see every corner. To even begin to scratch the surface of this wild, multi-dimensional world. To understand the complexity of one of the world’s most civilized cultures with one of the wildest underbellies (check out Anthony Bourdain’s Tokyo After Dark episode of Parts Unknown to have your mind blown). Japan was a sprawling matryoshka doll and perhaps you’ve heard, but Tokyo is a big girl. Close to 10 million people and a subway system that’s like deciphering a brick of dry ramen.
You could spend years and years there and barely scratch the surface– so like all our travel guides, we’re not trying to present a comprehensive list of every possible thing to do see eat smell wander absorb. Just the shit we liked and the things that grounded us to a city, kept us riveted. The things we’d go back to do again and that would make us so happy if you tried too. These photos were taken over the course of six weeks in Japan way back in 2016, I double checked that our recs were all still open. Some, like the restaurant Beard, have closed, but otherwise these are the classics that will be there when you get there. So GO already.
(Oh, and the most FOMO I felt throughout our whole time in Japan was for a simpler time when we weren’t the largest bumbling white people in any given space. When you go to Japan, go with a respectful spirit and a pedicure– from clothing shop dressing rooms to many seating areas in restaurants, shoes are a no-no. And you can just assume that you’re doing everything wrong, but they’ll be too polite to tell you, GOD LOVE EM.)
Women-only subway cars so men will stop bugging us for once in our lives. Genius. But mostly, we walked for endless hours.
Our first rec: Sakurai, the tea shop to end all tea shops. This isn’t walking into some Teavana in the Tacoma Mall and getting upsold some sugary mess- this is witnessing a master at work. In Japan, you can study a craft for half a century and still call yourself an apprentice. If you do something, do it carefully and meditatively. I was half in a trance and half in love with this man as he performed a tea ceremony with our gyokuro. And we ate the wilted tea leaves with ponzu, maybe the best salad I’ve ever had, a little umami bomb with flavor as intense as a steak. This experience is worth every penny.
Out in Ginza night after night. Back on the crowded subway daily. Rush hour at 11 pm, when the businessmen head home en masse, requires train station attendants to physically smush people into subway cars.
That charred wood that absorbs light. Cannot get enough. So much about Japanese use of tones, lines and architecture has forever changed our ideas of what good living looks like. One of our favorite books, In Praise of Shadows, took shape in our brain in the most tangible ways and we highly recommend reading it as you travel through Japan.
locomotion of all stripes.
I’m a museum addict: every city we’ve ever been to, we make a serious point of going to the museum that most represents what that place has to offer the world. And one of my all-time most impactful and memorable everrrr was the Edo-Tokyo Museum, and I kind of want to cry just thinking about it. In a country that tears down buildings casually in their relentless pursuit of modernism, this is a careful, loving restoration of buildings from throughout Japan’s history, made all the more meaningful because of the rapid change in cities all over the country. That someone would take the time to carefully restore samurai farm houses and 1950s corner shops and communal bathhouses and laundromats, fully stocked with products preserved from every era, an open-air wander through real architecture, just makes you want to do all things with great love. If you do anything besides drink green tea and eat ramen in Tokyo, make it the Edo Museum. What a time to be alive.
a bathhouse, Wes Anderson style.
Our corner ramen shop, walls lined with manga to borrow while you eat.
Alone in the subway! Unthinkable and short lived.
Our most favorite kissaten: Cafe de L’Ambre, open since 1948. Its owner is over 100 years old and you can still see him there, roasting beans that are older than we are with care and diligence. “Sekiguchi is a man who has constantly searched for a better way. If he saw an opportunity to improve a process, he took it. If a tool was needed, but didn’t exist, he made it.” AKA how I want to live my life. Bomb coffee from all over the world in a spot that hasn’t changed its decor since the 1960s, with an owner who invents new kettles if his options aren’t good enough. Read the interview with him linked above, go visit him, and take your time. It’s only right.
Bar Lupin, a classic speakeasy from the Prohibition era of Japan, boasts waitresses who have to be close to 90, strong drinks, plenty of businessmen chainsmoking, and deep, cozy booths.
Welcome to Harajuku. The precise opposite of the neutral toned, understated aesthetic that underpins Japanese culture. Freaking WILD. This is where you come to hang with young Japanese hipsters, have your street style knowledge blown out of the water, drink craft beer if you’re missing it, and people watch.
Contrasted by the gentle peace of wandering up to places like Papier Labo, a few minute walk from the intense central core of Harajuku, simple design and sweet paper goods (which are a little more our speed honestly… boring? Sorry).
If you time your stay right, you’ll surround yourself with cherry blossoms on all sides at all times. The contrast with stark cement architecture is so dreamy. We didn’t even realize how much of our future aesthetic was being built throughout our weeks in Japan.
Speaking of aesthetics, our first introduction to our most favorite architect Tadao Ando was here at 21 21 Design Sight, a collaboration with Issey Miyake. We might have forgotten to really check out the exhibits, we were so enthralled with the stark lines and unapologetic cement brutalism. Please dear God let a place like this be our future home.
Yeah, DEFFO didn’t stay long in the exhibits– but did spend quite a while in this exit hallway taking double exposures.
My view for six weeks: gorgeous shadows, a husband on the move, characters we can only guess at.
Oh I forgot to mention we also discovered our dream car: nearly every Tokyo taxi is the Toyota Comfort, actually one of the most perfect and beautiful cars in the world, and nearly impossible to get one shipped to the States (WE TRIED).
G. Itoya, a vast century old department store in Ginza that perfectly exemplifies Japanese design perfection. Endless options- with separate floors for everything from calligraphy pens to a hydroponic garden- this place explains so much about Japan. We had a friend in Okinawa tell us that in Japan, if something isn’t working, the problem is with YOU, and this pursuit of design perfection spills into everything we touched.
Shinjuku Golden Gai, the collection of tiny bars in a six block section of Shinjuku, each with juuuust enough room for maybe five people. Be ready to get turned away at many of them, as this is also an old-boys neighborhood with a tightly knit group of artists and many only accept regular customers, who have to be introduced by a current patron. But be brave. Plenty of tiny little watering holes in Golden Gai will welcome you, and it’ll be a welcome relief from the wild chaos surrounding you on all other sides in Tokyo.
“Tokyo was an origami city folded over and over until something was made of virtually nothing.”
So much more to come from this land of wonders.