Visiting Japan was never that high up on my bucket list. It’s not that I was opposed to seeing what it’s all about, but I definitely felt like I could take it or leave it.
Sushi, green tea, and Tai Chi? Eh, I can get all those things here in the US, what do I need to cross 14 time zones for?
My brother was recently hired by his company for a temporary (two and a half year) placement in Tokyo. Which meant, if I ever had any intention of experiencing the country of Japan, now would be the time to take advantage (free place to stay!)
When I was starting to feel seriously burnt out by my job by the end of 2017, I knew I needed a break. My soul and my sanity were screaming for a break. I was able to finagle a full month off of work from mid-January to mid-February, and I figured I’d take the opportunity to pack my bags and set off for Tokyo.
I believe that sometimes, whether we’re conscious of it or not, certain opportunities come about at just the time we need them.
Since starting a career in the airline industry four years ago, my life has felt like chaos. I uplifted my (sweet, Southern, Charleston) roots and, four years later, had still failed to plant them somewhere else. As a curious and adventurous human, I didn’t realize how huge of an impact that would have on me.
But Japan had a lot to teach me about being grounded (and so much more). Even in a gargantuan city like Tokyo (the biggest city in the world, mind you), there is an organization to the chaos. A quietness. Literally and figuratively. You shuffle into a subway car at 8 AM on a weekday, packed in like sardines, and no one is speaking.
I’ve been aching to find a sense of rootedness and peace in this life that I’ve chosen for myself. Yearning to figure out a way to make this lifestyle work, while maintaining my sanity.
Experiencing the dichotomy that is the city of Tokyo was a revelation to me. Tokyo is innovation, and it is tradition. It’s futuristic and it’s ancient. It is heart and soul and wisdom. It’s a quiet garden nestled within a bouquet of skyscrapers. If you can find quietness in a city of 9.3 million people, you can find it anywhere. Sometimes, you must search for it. And sometimes, you must create it.
If I haven’t yet made my point clear, it’s this: As a conscious traveler in search of places that will force you to reevaluate, I urge you to consider Tokyo (and the country of Japan, in general) in your travel plans. The politeness and the respectfulness of the locals, the food culture, and the exquisite gardens are just some reasons it has quickly become one of my favorite places.
Coffee & Tea
I stumbled upon this coffee shop/ private art gallery while exploring the neighborhood of Daikanyama (considered by many to be the “Brooklyn” of Tokyo), and decided to stop in for some java. Don’t let the name fool you, this place truly makes an art out of coffee and tea, and you can taste it.
Decorated with a vintage, “country” aesthetic, this is a lovely place to hang out and get some work done on your laptop over a matcha latte. They also sell an assortment of second-hand home goods and tchotchkes.
A hip, slightly tucked away coffee shop where you can enjoy espresso or matcha. They have free WiFi and you will find people here working on their laptops (like me).
This hipster coffee shop in the Shibuya neighborhood offers an assortment of beans sourced from around the world, and they employ a variety of different brewing methods. In their own words, it is a coffee shop “made by coffee lovers and for coffee lovers.” They also sell beans by the bag (I couldn’t resist taking some back home with me).
Another one of my favorite third-wave coffee shops in Tokyo, with several locations throughout the city, a nice ambience, and free WiFi.
Where to Eat
This upscale 100% plant based restaurant serves globally inspired dishes like enchiladas and hummus, all plated beautifully in a dimly-lit, modern environment.
This lovely little vegan restaurant is well-known for its vegan pancakes, though they serve a variety of healthy dishes including a plant-based take on Japanese curry.
Omotesando / Ginza
One of Tokyo’s buzziest brunch restaurants, with three locations throughout the city, Bills serves healthy and vegetarian-suitable dishes. The breakfast buckwheat bowl that I ordered was made from the simplest of ingredients but was incredibly tastey. The modern, light-filled interior makes it a popular gathering spot for friends and business lunches.
A healthy, macrobiotic style restaurant by the famous UK-based natural beauty brand, tucked in a beautiful, zen-like building in stylish Omotesando neighborhood.
When you just want something quick, cheap, and delicious, look no further than this Japanese curry restaurant chain, which has a 100% plant based vegetable curry on the menu.
The Tokyo natural beauty retailer Cosme Kitchen- with several locations throughout the city- has a healthy cafe/ restaurant located next to their Omotesando store. Come for nourishing drinks and dishes, including fresh-pressed juices, soups, and salads.
A dairy-free ice creamery in the trendy Harajuku neighborhood, Kippy’s makes for the perfect pit stop in between shopping and sight-seeing. Their ice creams are made from coconut cream and honey.
If you happen to be passing through Tokyo Station, it’s worth the wild goose chase to find this vegan ramen restaurant. Note: This restaurant is located INSIDE the terminal, so you need to either be coming/ leaving through Tokyo Station, or you could suck it up and pay the 100 yen platform fee (worth it).
2k540 Artisan Shops
A mini shopping mall with a variety of small shops by local artisans and designers. Maito sells beautiful clothing and accessories, which are hand-dyed using natural ingredients (like cherry blossoms). Ceramic shop TUKU sells some lovely, minimalistic style pottery.
Japan understands the health benefits of fermented foods like no other, and this eco-friendly shop in Daikanyama has a room devoted to fermented foods like miso and pickled vegetables. They’ll let you sample almost everything, so don’t be shy!
A two story shop in Ginza district, the first floor is a specialty grocery store, the second floor offers a variety of hand-crafted Japanese goods like pottery, hand towels, and coffee and tea making accessories.
With so many gorgeous book stores sprinkled throughout Tokyo, it can be a tease to find that most of them have a very limited selection of English books (fair enough, this is Japan after all). But, lo and behold, Books Kinojuniya just a short walk from Shinjuku Station (which happens to be the busiest train station in the world) carries predominantly books in English. Many of them relate to Japanese culture, so if you’re looking for Japanese fiction, a book about Japanese culture and history, or a cookbook that’ll teach you how to recreate that amazing meal you just had, this is the place to go.
Whether or not you came to Tokyo with the big bucks, this upscale lifestyle store makes for a lovely window-shopping experience. They sell fashion apparel from local labels, home goods, pottery, and more.
Come here for natural, organic beauty products from brands like RMS, John Masters, and EO. There are several locations throughout the city, and even a cafe/restaurant at the Omotesando store.
Shibuya / Setagaya
D&Department is a “design travel” publication, with travel guides to all the different districts of Japan. They are currently running a gift shop on the top floor of the indoor shopping mall Hirakie Hall. Their “Problem to Product” exhibit/ gift shop showcases a variety of products that seek to rectify social issues and support local makers. Head out to their main Tokyo store where you can have lunch or coffee on the first floor, then shop for furniture and home goods on the second-floor gift shop.
Journal Standard is a chain of retail outlets throughout Tokyo, and each has a slightly different product offering. This particular branch in Shibuya sells mostly locally made pottery, tea towels, and loose leaf and matcha tea.
Le Kagu is a beautiful concept shop housed in a large building with a warehouse-y feel, selling a variety of men’s and women’s fashion and home goods. They also have a cafe/ restaurant on the first floor. It’s experiential shopping at its finest, and they also host frequent events on their second story (although I presume they’re in Japanese).
A small gift shop in Daikanyama selling Japanese pottery and a variety of artisan-made goods.
A chain of selective second-hand stores that are so kempt and organized, you might just mistake it for an upscale designer’s boutique. Clothing is organized by designers, and you can score some serious deals on quality goods.
An extensive and beautiful selection of Japanese pottery and other Japan-made goods, like indigo dyed hand towels and Japanese paper.
For a mere 2850 yen entrance fee, you have access to a variety of saunas, hot spring pools, and lounge areas. Wednesday is “Lady’s Day” and the entrance fee goes down to 2400 yen. It’s also open 22 hours per day, from 11 AM to 9 AM the following morning, so there is literally no rush. There are spas located throughout the premises where you can pay extra for a massage or bodywork, as well as cafes and restaurants with healthy options. Pay the small extra fee for the “Healing Baden” which gives you full access to all the saunas and lounge areas. Come with a good book, and feel all your worries melt away in their various saunas, each made from different minerals which provide unique health benefits.
Studio owner Namita is fully bilingual in Japanese and English and leads a slower style yoga class that you will leave feeling relaxed and restored.
This yoga studio offers many English-language yoga classes. They have their own style of yoga which is quite different from the popular Vinyasa style that I (and most) are used to. Even though it’s not cardio-heavy, trust me when I tell you you’re going to feel it.
Things to Do
Masa, the owner of Chagohan cooking school, was the kindest most welcoming teacher (even though I showed up 15 minutes late after going the wrong direction on the train). There are a variety of classes to choose from, including a vegetarian sushi-making class and a ceremonial matcha class. This was one of my favorite experiences from my two weeks in Tokyo.
Reserve your spot for a ‘Five Tea Tasting Course,’ and observe tea master Shinya Sakurai as he prepares a variety of different teas with a precision and skill that is the result of 14 years of study. Small bites are served throughout the course, and you will finish off with a frothy bowl of ceremonial grade matcha. The small tea shop has an elegant, almost spa-like ambience that will instantly put you into a zen-like state.
Shop for pottery and kitchen goods at Kappabashi Kitchen Town
If you are like me and you have a slight obsession with pottery and cooking tools, you will feel like you died and went to heaven in Kappabashi Kitchen Town. The selection of pottery in overwhelming (in the best way possible) and you can also find other Japanese cooking accessories, like donabe (clay cooking pots), bamboo steamers, and Japanese knives, for much better prices than you’ll find at specialty retailers in trendier parts of the city.
Stroll Through Hamarikyu Gardens
Located on the edge of Tokyo Bay, the only indication you have that you’re in the midst of the world’s largest metropolis are the skyscrapers standing up behind the 300 year old pines. Stop at the tea house Nakajima No Ochaya for a ceremonial matcha served with wagashi (Japanese sweets). Sitting shoeless on the teahouse’s tatami (bamboo floor mats), sipping matcha, while overlooking the gardens is an almost spiritual experience.
Tokyo’s largest and most popular park, which is also where you’ll find the infamous Meiji Shrine. It’s one of the few places in metro Tokyo where you’ll forget that you’re in the middle of a metropolis.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Another beautiful garden in central Tokyo where you can decompress from the hustle & bustle of the city, and one of the best places to view the cherry blossoms in the Spring. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00- 16:30 with a 200 yen entrance fee.