With the 2020 Olympics on the horizon, Tokyo is beginning to change dramatically. If you want to experience the best of the city, a mosaic of neighborhoods that each feels like a city unto themselves, now is the time. Change has already begun: The historic Tsukiji Fish Market is moving to a newer, more tourist-friendly facility, for example—but there’s plenty of time to experience today’s Tokyo before the massive facelift begins. Learn from our experiences—and some of our faux pas.
1) Learn the lingo
Don’t be that guy—the one who shows up to Japan and orders his sushi in English. Tokyo may be a cosmopolitan city, but most people don’t speak English. Like, any. No matter what, it’s always good travel etiquette to at least learn a few basics in the country’s language. It’s a considerate gesture and sign of respect. A few tips: In Japan, it’s pronounced Tok-yo, not Tok-E-yo. And no matter what your guidebook says, no one says arigatou; they use the more formal greeting, arigatou gozaimasu. Say kampai to make friends at a bar (it means cheers).
If you’re from San Francisco, a ramen tour is probably at the top of your to-do list. In Japan, good ramen is everywhere—just follow your nose and the lines. Ordering ramen is a delightfully different in Tokyo than in San Francisco (hint: you’re not going to find it for $13 at a food truck window). At many ramen shops, you’ll place your order at a machine in front of the shop, which will dispense a ticket to place on the counter inside. You’ll hit several color-coded buttons to design your perfect bowl: noodle firmness, toppings (think a half-boiled egg or thinly-sliced pork), and fat content preference for the broth. Often, you’ll eat standing at a counter or on a stool with dividers between patrons. And don’t dawdle—you’re expected to be in and out as soon as you finish eating (and don’t forget to slurp).
3) Where to find the best views
The special observatory at Tokyo Tower (Japan's Eiffel knockoff) may reach 820 feet, but consider this: You’ll be surrounded by crowds and screaming children. If you want a view and ambience, Tokyo has a few great hotel-top bars where a craft cocktail rings in slightly cheaper than a Tokyo Tower ticket. The bar on the 52nd floor of the Andaz Tokyo Toranoman Hills, which opened earlier this year, has comfortable seating, floor-to-ceiling windows and what’s easily the most dramatic view of the skyline. A recent sake-fueled night there also revealed that it’s a prime place for people watching—Japanese businessmen in ties smoking cigarettes and a group of kimono-clad women sipping Dom Pérignon were among the most intriguing groups to watch.
4) The Tsukiji Fish Market
This is one of the rare super-popular tourist attractions that is actually worth the hype. One of the largest fish markets in the world, it is a model of organized chaos—old, salty men smoking cigarettes in rubber trousers blaze through narrow alleys on turret trucks, hacked-up tuna carcasses rest on fresh ice, and everything from Japanese knives to vegetables to animal pelts are stacked neatly in the front of roll-up shops. To see the famous tuna auction, you generally have to be there by 4:30am—before the trains even start running—to make the lottery (that’s right, you’re not even guaranteed to see it if you wake up that early). If you decide to miss your chance to catch the auction like I did, still get there early—most of the action takes place between 6 and 8 a.m. Bonus: sushi for breakfast! Hurry, because there’s not much time left to see this historic market, as it moves to a new space in spring 2016.
5) Get weird
That’s the real reason why you came here, isn’t it? Tokyo is one of the best cities on the planet to check out varying shades of strange. Pull up a seat at a cafe in Harajuku for a curbside fashion show of the district’s famously odd style (terms like Vampire Lolita, Fairytale Fantasy, and Gothic Geisha come to mind). Enjoy dinner with electro-pop neon bikini-clad robots; or, if you’re feeling lonely, go to a “host” or “hostess” bar, where you pay by the hour for the opposite sex to talk to you and make you feel interesting (seriously).
6) Explore beyond central Tokyo
Any guidebook can break down the most visited neighborhoods for you, but instead, try out something more obscure: Shimokitazawa. About a half-hour from Tokyo Station, on the fringe of the city, it’s the Silver Lake of Tokyo. Its pedestrian-friendly alleys are bustling with pastel cruisers, Japanese artisan clothing and jewelry shops, bakeries, live music venues (note: shows are usually early in Japan, from 7–10 pm), and single-origin coffee shops. Sound like a local and call it “Shimokita.”
7) Pre-required reading
It’s true: Much is lost in translation in Japan. Sometimes things that can’t be directly translated are best understood through stories. A couple of recent books by Japanese authors—“Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs: The Best 21st Century Short Stories from Japan, ”a collection of modern fiction from some of Japan’s best contemporary authors, and “1Q84” by Haruki Murakami, one of Japan’s most celebrated contemporary authors—make for great plane reading.