Tokyo: One last look … until next time

I know, this blog post is pretty delayed, sorry! I had to finish my Japan adventures before I could start on my new one.

Run! Godzilla overlooking Hotel Gracery Shinjuku. The rooms looking at his face are sold out.

I just wanted to show you some spots that I liked that aren’t totally on the radar, and you should know about them if you are headed to Tokyo. Of course, if it’s your first time there, do the touristy stuff first, and plan to do things like holes in the wall on another trip. Because believe me, you will be back. In the meantime, check out my travel tips for Japan.

Here’s a look at some of my favorite stops on my way through Tokyo, the last two days:

Matt Alt, left, with another American ex-pat, Dave Kracker.

I was honored to meet television personality Matt Alt of AltJapan and NHK World’s Japanology. He’s one of Deb’s longtime Japan friends who has made a name for himself in Japan, but I think more so in other parts of the world. Joyce Harada, who owns The Little Oven on King Street, is a huge fan.

Simple yakitori with veggies.

We went to Torikizoku, a very reasonable yakitori spot in Shinjuku. Not only is it reasonable, it’s familiar: its sister restaurant is Yakitori Glad on Kapahulu. Most items are about $3 or less, which makes it very popular.

Kanpai! They have reasonable drinks, too.

Chicken meatballs with cheese. Yum!

One of my favorites, wasabi yakitori. It’s got a little kick!

You can have as much shio goma cabbage salad as you want. Only Futago on Kapahulu serves this in Hawaii. Why?

Gotta have rice! This one has a teriyaki sauce drizzled over it.

This was like karaage chicken, but tempura style with a tartar sauce-like topping. Super good.

Order their special kamameshi rice in advance, as it needs time to steam at your table.

1-2-3 Kabukicho Shinjuku Tokyo
東京都 新宿区 歌舞伎町 1-2-3 レオ新宿ビル B1F

We ate at Torikizoku specifically because it was near Zoetrope, a whisky bar nearby. If you are into whisky, like really into whisky, this place is for you.

Zoetrope’s owner, Atsushi Horigami, is a former video games designer and created this hideaway to showcase his two great passions: Japanese whisky and American movies. You can watch silent movies from the turn of the last century projected on the wall, as he serves up about 250 Japanese whiskies from all the major companies as well as many smaller distilleries – plus more than 100 other bottles, including Japanese rum, Japanese vodka and even Japanese grappa. There are labels you may not even have heard of, unless you are a true whisky geek.

There are about six seats at the bar and maybe four small tables in the room, so try to go on a slow night, off hour, or whatever or prepare to wait. The one big drawback to this place? Gaijin have found out about it, so the clientele will not be as Japanese as you may like.

7, 7 Chome-10-14 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku, Tokyo 160-0023, Japan
+81 3-3363-0162

For a sweet treat if you have time, here are some spots we tried on my last full day.

The first part of the line at Bake, which zigzags in front of the order window.

We went to BAKE Kinotoya Cheese Tart, a famous Hokkaido bakery that makes cheesecakes the size of dim sum custard tarts using that famous Hokkaido milk. The line can be kind of crazy, no matter which branch you go to. We went to the one in Shinjuku Station, so the line breaks at one point and continues up the stairs nearby.

Me and Kalani Kaahanui, Jr., trying to stare people down in the stairwell to make them get out of line. Only one person left. By the way, I wanted you to see how we were dressed; it really wasn’t cold enough for much more, but Tokyo locals were bundled up as if a blizzard was coming! We were told that we looked “obviously from Hawaii.”

The Bake cheese tart.

Was the wait worth it? Actually, the line moved fast so I was happy. The tarts are absolutely wonderful, with a light-but-rich cheesecake filling that is lightly sweet and highly addictive. I was pleased to see that they are freezable, so you might consider this if you decide to bring some home.

Bake Kinotoya (several locations)
Ikebukuro Station: Near Meiji Street and the Marunouchi Line

Another item you may want to bring on the plane or bring home is the Takano melon pan, which has melon-flavored custard in the middle. Takano is a famous store in Japan that specializes in fruit confections, from jams and jellies to pastries and fresh desserts.

NHK’s Sayaka Mori showing me the famous Takano melon pan.

They are known for their honeydew melon as well as musk melon pan, and they have seasonal fillings as well. The outside is a fluffy bread (really, more like bread than cake) and the custard inside is not too sweet and not too rich, but lightly flavored with Japanese melons. Are these better than the cheese tarts? No. But they’re definitely more durable for a plane ride.

Takano Fruit Parlor
〒160-0022 3-26-11 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo

Speaking of omiyage to bring home! I’ve covered this in past trips to Tokyo, but here’s my long story to a great omiyage store.

I started my day with convenience store musubi and Star Wars canned coffee. You think the merchandising is strong in the United States? Go to Japan, right now. There’s Star Wars on everything, in kokeshi doll sets, in soda, everything. No, I didn’t bring this home, I drank it.

With Emi Umeda at Nicolai Bergman’s cafe.

I met my client Emi Umeda at a gorgeous cafe/flower shop called Nicolai Bergmann in Omotesando. Bergmann is a florist from Denmark known for his über-chic, contemporary flower arrangements, but he also has a gorgeous Scandinavian cafe flowing seamlessly from his flower shop. Lesson one from Emi: All the truly desirable stores and restaurants in Omotesando are on the side streets, not the main drag.

A couple of the holiday arrangements at Nicolai Bergmann. This kind of box arrangement is a style that Bergmann is known for, although there are displays that are upright or hanging.

The cafe has a few lovely lunch options, and we both chose the sandwich lunch set which comes with the soup of the day, a small salad, drink, and a choice of open-faced sandwich for 1470 yen. At the top is Emi’s avocado sandwich, and the bottom is my shrimp sandwich — both on special Danish toast rounds. Both were very nice, especially with the micro greens and edible flowers adorning them, but here’s the funny thing: Emi felt her avocado was too salty, which I liked better, and I thought my shrimp mix was too creamy, which Emi liked better. I’d totally have either sandwich again, though.

Nicolai Bergmann
1F, 5-7-2, Minamiaoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan

After leaving Emi, I took her advice and wandered the side streets of Omotesando as I made my way back to the subway station toward Harajuku. There are exponentially fewer people on these back streets, but the boutiques are definitely cuter.

One shop that caught my attention (and my time) was appropriately and clearly named “The Awesome Store.” Why had I not ever heard of this place before?! It was difficult to get a good shot of the interior and the goods without making it all look like crap, so I’ll just tell you: It was full of trendy goods from household accessories to gift wrap to nail polish and jewelry, all at super cheap prices. I guess if I had to describe it in one phrase, it was as if IKEA met Daiso.

Needless to say, I went crazy in the store but had to exercise restraint, since I knew I was already at my luggage weight limit. I’m still using the stuff I bought that day, and am full of regret that I couldn’t buy more, since it was all so cheap, yet stylish and useful.

The Awesome Store
5 Chome-8-7 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan
+81 3-6450-6021

My last meal with Deb before heading home was actually at a vertical mall called PARCO because, oddly enough, we couldn’t find many good restaurants open on a Sunday night. But our dinner at Den Rouen Tei was good enough that I felt I should tell you about it so you can try it if you find yourself in the area.

Yuba! Yuba! Yuba! I had to have one last taste of Japanese yuba, this time dried into large chips that looked like sails, to serve as croutons for a salad. This was perfectly balanced with sweet and tart with a few other textures like crisp and chewy thrown in.

I had the wagyu katsu, which I guess is the Japanese version of chicken fried steak … only better. Usually people will tell you to do as little as possible to wagyu, so as not to ruin it. Maybe this is a lower grade of wagyu, I’m not sure. But it was flash-fried so the meat inside was still pretty rare, and you could see the marbling. It was tender, juicy, and meaty, with all the goodness of anything breaded and fried, but it wasn’t greasy. Too bad no one can do this at home.

Deb had the pork, which was tender and moist with a light, sweet-tart shoyu sauce. I was a little bummed out that this didn’t come with some kind of rice or starch, though, and the waitress never offered any as an option.

And for dessert, their signature ice cream with black honey drizzled on top and a sprinkle of kinako. A perfect ending to the meal.

Den Rokuen Tei
〒150-0042 Tokyo, Shibuya, 宇田川町15-1 PARCO1, eighth floor
+81 3-6415-5489

Me and Deb on a popular pedestrian overpass in Shinjuku, where many superhero photos are taken. Photo by Matt Alt.

And that was it! I know a lot of you are planning to go to Japan in the coming months and had asked for more tips and photos, so there you go. For general travel tips, especially first-timers, click here. Or just ask me anything in the comments below. I’ll probably return to Japan in 2016, since the Shinkansen has opened up a route from Tokyo to Hokkaido (my favorite Japan destination).

For more photos from this trip, click here.