I first visited Tokyo in middle school, on a trip from Okinawa, where I grew up. I loved everything about the city, immediately: the hustle, the bustle, the lights, the food, the noise, the unrivaled mix of old and new. Since then, I’ve returned to Japan’s capital again and again, with friends, family, coworkers, my husband, and more friends. This past January, I traveled there for the first time solo, and spent nine days diving into the city on my own.
Each time I visit Tokyo, I feel like I fall more in love: In the world’s largest city, something new is literally always just around the corner. And though it will be some time before I’m back in Tokyo, that doesn’t mean I can’t celebrate some of the best of what the city has to offer. With the help of some local chefs and experts, here’s how to live a day in Tokyo at home.
8 a.m. Fish for breakfast
Nope, not sushi. I’m still dreaming of the shiozake, or Japanese-style salted salmon, that I had when I bunked at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo this winter: It was flaky, soft, and fatty—perfect with a bowl of expertly steamed rice. Although a traditional Japanese breakfast most typically includes tsukemono (premade pickles), nori (seasoned dried seaweed), kobachi (vegetable side dishes), and miso soup, they’re supporting actors to the salmon, which gets top billing.
I like this recipe from Serious Eats for a single piece of salmon; if you’re feeling ambitious and have a whole fish, try Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s recipe from her 2015 cookbook, Preserving the Japanese Way: Traditions of Salting, Fermenting, and Pickling for the Modern Kitchen. Note that the fish, even if it’s a single piece, has to rest in salt overnight, so be sure to prep it the day before.
9 a.m. Dance it out
Like pop music the world over, synth-heavy Japanese pop music (J-Pop) is innocuous and unsubstantial—but that doesn’t make it any less fun. Press “play” on this dedicated playlist to get your heart rate up to some of the country’s all-time greats (like Utada Hikaru and Ayumi Hamasaki) and slow down, just a bit, with artists including Back Number and King Gnu. You don’t even have to get out of your pajamas.
10 a.m. Do the Shibuya scramble
Shibuya Crossing is often compared to Times Square: the bright lights, the throngs of pedestrians, the stores taking advantage of prime real estate with can-you-believe-it prices. At various intervals throughout the day, some 3,000 people walk it, making it one of Tokyo’s top tourist attractions.
I actually enjoy crossing Shibuya at its busiest, when it can feel like you’re in concert with the city just by putting one foot in front of the other. But I also appreciate walking Shibuya Crossing when it’s at its emptiest, which is typical these days. Don’t just take my word for it: Tune into this livestream of the crossing and watch as the lights change, taxis glide by, and a few people stroll from one side of the street to the other. It’s oddly soothing.
10:30 a.m. Visit a konbini . . . by book
Convenience stores, or konbini, are threaded into the fabric of Japanese life. Open at all hours, they stock everything from underwear to egg-salad sandwiches (more on that later). Three of the most popular companies are 7-Eleven, Lawson, and FamilyMart, and everyone has an opinion about which one is tops. FamilyMart is my personal favorite, thanks to its strong selection of ready-made meals and seasonal items, like cherry blossom–themed mochi, a sticky rice cake.
Dive into a konbini by picking up a copy of Convenience Store Woman. A winner of Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize, the novel from Sayaka Murata captures the mundane and magic of a fictional Tokyo convenience store that reads all too real. It’s no wonder: Murata herself worked at a konbini for 18 years.
12 p.m. Celebrate with a konbini lunch
Continue with the konbini theme and make a tamago sando (egg–salad sandwich) for lunch. Yep! Traditionally made with shokupan, a milk bread, these sandwiches are so uniformly soft and squishy that they’ve been lauded by everyone from David Chang to Anthony Bourdain. (Soft white bread will do in a pinch.)
Making an egg-salad sandwich seems simple enough, and it is. But it’s the other details that set a tamago sando apart from a run-of-the-mill meal: For more tang, use Japanese mayonnaise in the mix—you can feel bad about the MSG later. (Psst, it’s available from Amazon.) Be sure, too, to cut the crusts off your bread. This step-by-step video will have you making your tamago sando in no time.
2 p.m. Shop for an only-in-Tokyo souvenir
Tokyu Hands is one of the most iconic Japanese department stores and an excellent place to find affordable souvenirs (including stationery and face masks) and things you’ve never heard of (foldable kettle, anyone?) Good news: You can now get goods from the store delivered to your home, thanks to its online shop. Better news: Your significant other is getting a foldable kettle!
3 p.m. Bend and fold (then repeat)
One of AFAR’s contributing Tokyo writers, Yukari Sakamoto, suggests getting into the spirit by turning to origami, or the art of paper folding. “Orizuru, the Japanese crane, is a classic,” she says.
My nine-year-old niece, who goes to a Japanese immersion school, is my preferred origami tutor, but since she doesn’t have any more consulting sessions available, I suggest you start with this guide and move onto other animals once you’ve got it down.
4 p.m. Head to the top of the Tokyo Skytree
The “world’s tallest tower,” the 2,080-foot Tokyo Skytree opened in March 2012 with observatories at 1,150 feet (with a capacity of up to 2,000 people) and 1,480 feet (with a capacity of 900 people).
Though the Tokyo Skytree Panorama app might not give you the same sense of vertigo, it does offer better views and a number of super-cool functions: a “night” button that switches the view to after sunset, a panoramic view that corresponds to the direction you’re actually facing, and pins highlighting the city’s major tourists spots. Click the pins, and they’ll not only show you a photo of the site and info about why it’s famous but also the distance from the Tokyo Skytree. It’s a fun way to zoom around the city, unencumbered.
5 p.m. Visit Tokyo’s most stylish cocktail bar
Bar Benfiddich resembles a basement apothecary, thanks to shelves of herbal infusions and potions; that bartender and owner Hiroyasu Kayama is always clad in a white jacket only adds to the effect.
Though you may not be able to visit the world’s 17th-best bar in person, it’s easy enough to dim the lights and tune into Kayama’s Shinjuku bolthole via YouTube: In this ASMR video, Kayama quietly prepares a root beer and bourbon cocktail. Kayama’s root beer is homemade, but it’s perfectly acceptable to use some bottled craft root beer and call it a day. Now look in the mirror and toast your accomplishment with a kanpai—cheers! You’re already seeing double.
6:30 p.m. Make an at-home Japanese classic
In her 2016 cookbook, Tokyo Cult Recipes, writer and chef Maori Murata demystifies Japanese at-home cooking. One of the recipes she recommends for these stay-at-home-days is hiyashi chuka, or cold ramen.
1 boneless chicken thigh (optional) 2 x 3 mm (⅛ in) slices of ginger, unpeeled 2 eggs pinch of sugar toasted sesame oil 1 cucumber 4 packets of dried ramen noodles (linguine will do in a pinch) assorted vegetables, sliced in spears (cucumber and zucchini work well)
½ leek (white part) 3 cm (1¼ in) ginger, chopped finely 4 tablespoons soy sauce 2 tablespoons rice vinegar 2 tablespoons tahini (optional) 1 teaspoon tobanjan* 2 tablespoons chicken stock 1½ tablespoons sugar 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
*can substitute 1 teaspoon brown miso and 1/2 teaspoon mild chile flakes
“Bring a saucepan of water to the boil, then add the chicken and slices of ginger. Reduce the heat to low and cook for about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and let the chicken cool in the cooking liquid. Beat the eggs with a pinch of sugar, then fry in a frying pan with a little sesame oil to make a thin omelette. Cut the omelette into 3 pieces, place the pieces on top of each other and cut into very thin strips. Slice the cucumber on the diagonal, then cut into matchsticks. Cut the chicken into 1 cm (½ in) strips. For the sauce, chop the leek and ginger very finely, then combine with the other sauce ingredients in a bowl.
“Cook the noodles for the length of time indicated on the packet. Drain and rinse well under cold running water to remove any excess starch—this is very important for getting the right texture. Place the chicken, omelette, and cucumber on the noodles and pour over the sauce just before serving.”
8 p.m. Binge the best show on television
I tend to take on a crazed look when I discuss the merits of Terrace House. A Japanese reality show found on Netflix, its premise is simple: three men and three women, all strangers, move into a house together and leave when they’ve found love or, uh, just can’t handle it anymore. Compared to American reality TV shows, the “drama” here simmers rather than sizzles, but the look into the lives of Japanese millennials—plus the panel of actors and comedians who introduce the show and come in halfway to comment on the episode thus far—make it light-years better than anything else on TV.
The show’s location changes with each franchise, so for scenes of Tokyo, it’s best to binge the 2015–2016 series, Boys & Girls in the City. Once you’re done with it, start on the 2019–2020 franchise, which is also set in Tokyo.
11 p.m. Wind down like a samurai
Light a ha-ze candle, made with wax squeezed from a Japanese sumac tree. According to legend, these candles reached their peak popularity during the Edo period, when they would provide light to important samurai families after the sun set. The candles themselves are light and bright, and they burn with very little soot, almost no drip, and a clean, citrusy smell. Blow it out right before bed and get ready to visit the city again the next day—there’s still so much left to buy at the konbini, after all.
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Katherine LaGrave Katherine LaGrave is a deputy editor at AFAR focused on features and essays.