Tokyo is hardly a city that requires an introduction; while travel trends seem to fluctuate every year, this is one city that never seems to go out of style. With one foot proudly in the past and the other in the distant future, it appears that the world’s fascination with the Japanese capital—and its endless possibilities—has no end in sight. It’s no wonder we named it one of our Top Travel Destinations for 2020.
Once called Edo, a name revered for its association with Japan’s most peaceful and culturally productive years, Tokyo became the country’s central hub in 1868 with the start of the Meiji Restoration. This moment marked an end to 200 years of isolation in Japan—an incubation period that allowed Japan to establish the distinct cultural and artistic identity it’s known for today, but which also required an intense game of catch up with the rest of the world.
As the country strove to modernize, Tokyo’s social, economic, and technological engines accelerated—and the city hasn’t slowed down since.
One of our top 12 destinations of 2020, our love for Tokyo doesn’t disappear when we’re back at home. Bursting with food, art, history, and culture, this is a city that gets better and better the more you learn before you go. Below, find the books, movies, TV shows, tunes, and podcasts to check out and learn recipes to make along with the people, art, language, history, and etiquette to study up on before your next trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Well, of course! There’s no better place in the world to try your favorite raw fish dish than in the place that invented it. Many of the globe’s top-tier sushi spots can be found in Tokyo, including Sukiyabashi-Jiro, often considered the world’s best sushi restaurant. Although you may not have a lifetime to master the art like Sukibayashi’s owner (more on him later!), you can still try your hand at making sushi at home—even if you don’t have a mat.
Triangle-shaped rice balls stuffed with fillings like tuna, salmon, prawn, or ume (pickled plum) and often wrapped with a seaweed shell or dusted with sesame seeds. The best place to buy these snacks is—surprisingly—convenience stores, where they’re made fresh and served piping hot, but it’s also relatively easy to make them at home.
Another classic. (We see you eyeing the 99 cent instant ramen packages in your cabinet right now, thinking “Eh, not the same.” You’re right, but adding upgrades to your noodles makes all the difference.) For a slightly heartier meal, also try thick, chewy udon noodles, or slurp up some thinly-sliced soba noodles for a dish best served cold.
Fried puffs filled with diced octopus and coated in a healthy layer of bonito flakes, green onion, and Takoyaki sauce. Dip this beloved street food into Japanese mayo for a taste of pure heaven.
Essentially, charcoal-grilled chicken on a stick. Hard to argue with that! Make your own with just a few simple ingredients, and enjoy with generous amounts of Sapporo beer for best and tastiest results.
Veggies and seafood coated in a thin layer of batter and deep-fried to perfection, this crispy, flaky recipe is one of the easiest to make on your own—it requires just three ingredients.
Red bean paste
To the unfamiliar, you may expect this flavor to be savory, but one bite into mochi or taiyaki (two Japanese desserts not to miss) and you’ll find that this common filling is actually semi-sweet.
Get your blood pumping with Raijo taisō
Raijo taisō, or radio calisthenics, have been a staple of Japanese fitness since the first broadcast in 1928. Lasting under five minutes per session, thousands of participants of all ages get moving and grooving with light music and a few simple aerobic exercises that stretch the limbs and get the blood flowing. Although many mass raijo taisō classes take place in public parks, you can give it a go on your own at home with a virtual class (no Japanese listening skills required).
Take a tour of Tokyo’s best museums
The National Museum of Tokyo, the oldest museum in Japan and the sixth largest museum in the world, offers a virtual tour of over 100 selected artworks from the museum’s collection online through Google. The Yamatane Museum, which specializes in traditional Nigonga watercolor works, and the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum, one of the largest privately-owned museums in the country, offer tours through Google, as well. Familiarize yourself with some of Japan’s most renowned art, then return here to get acquainted with some of the artists who created them.
Learn a little Japanese
Considering the Japanese language has three alphabets—two of which are relatively simple, but the third of which has over 2,000 characters— we hope you’ll get to visit before you’ve mastered it all! Still, you can get started on the basics with the wide range of lessons available online via apps like Duolingo, podcasts like JapanesePod 101, and Japan Society on Youtube. We’d also recommend trying Human Japanese, whose inexpensive courses are not only educational and in-depth, but funny, too.
Take a streetwear tour
You may have heard of Harajuku—the heart of fashion in Tokyo and, arguably, the streetwear capital of the world. The one-of-a-kind, imaginative outfits often spotted in this bustling neighborhood have inspired decades of style-setters to stop worrying about what others think and go for a new, bold look—establishing Tokyo as one of the world’s best fashion cities. Learn all about the capital’s fashionable rise to fame in this online history of Japanese streetwear and fashion culture from 1980 to 2017.
Explore the Tsukiji Fish Market
If something seems fishy about this recommendation, it’s because the rumors are true: the inner wholesale market closed in 2018 and relocated to Toyosu. There, vendors continue to bring fresh seafood to locals and curious tourists alike—and you can see it all for yourself through this online tour.
Adrift in Tokyo (2007)
In this indie film, a student who owes nearly 8 years of student loan debt finally meets his fate when a debt collector arrives on his doorstep. When he reveals that he can’t pay up, the debt collector makes him a deal: He’ll cancel the debt if the student will join him on a walk across Tokyo so that he can turn himself in to a police station for a past crime. Together, they embark on a journey through the streets of the city—and, as you can imagine, friendship and shenanigans ensue. Rent it on Youtube or Google Play.
Lost in Translation (2003)
Although some parts of this film haven’t aged incredibly well, the cinematography is unrivaled. Themed around the loneliness and mesmerization we all feel when navigating a large city alone, it’s almost guaranteed to ignite any traveler’s desire to see the city’s neon billboards and share a drink with a mysterious stranger at the top of the Park Hyatt. Check it out on Hulu, Prime, or Youtube.
Set in a dystopian 2019, sleeper hit Akira follows the leader of a biker gang, Shōtarō, and his childhood friend, Tetsuo, who gains telekinesis after a motorcycle accident and becomes a government target. This sci-fi cult classic garnered so much popularity in the U.S., many credit it for paving the way for anime and Japanese pop culture out west. You can watch it for free on Tubi or find it on Hulu.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
Remember that sushi restaurant we mentioned earlier—the one considered the best in the world? This documentary tells the story of its owner, 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono, and his two sons, who are up-and-coming sushi chefs themselves and set to take on their father’s legacy. Check it out on Netflix or Prime.
Studio Ghibli flicks
Although the majority of their films take place in magical villages or small towns, there are few things better than a Studio Ghibli film to transport you to another world. These animated masterpieces directed by legendary storyteller Hayao Miyazaki—a Tokyo-born icon himself—are sure to brush off any parts of your imagination that have been collecting dust. (Plus, their easily-recognized and mouth-watering animated meals will send you soaring to the top of this page for recipes.) For first-time watchers, we recommend taking award-winning Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle for a spin. Outside of the U.S., the entire collection is available on Netflix; within the U.S., viewers can rent either on Youtube or Prime.
[For more international flicks that’ll transport you to your favorite global cities, check out our film critic-approved list.]
A Beginner’s Guide to Anime
So you’re ready to try being a big nerd. Welcome to the club! For a few (editor-vetted) shows that will transport you to the streets of Tokyo, sit down for a binge session with Death Note, Tokyo Ghoul, Paranoia Agent, or Terror in Resonance—all narrative masterpieces in one-season, 28-minute intervals. (Don’t let the names spook you; the stories are often dark but beautifully animated and addicting to watch!)
The premise: A group of six complete strangers moves in together. Friendship, romance, and drama ensue. A simple but fail-proof formula that’s made this Japanese reality television show both a domestic and international hit. Compared to most reality shows, however, the theatrics are way dialed down; cast members still go to work and class, making the show genuinely based in reality.
Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories
This series takes place inside Meshiya, a small eatery that only operates between the hours of midnight to 7 a.m. The customers come not just to enjoy a late night bite, but to visit the owner, known only as the Master, who doles out comforting companionship alongside comfort food during the wee hours.
In this series, Japan-born food writer and director of the New York Japanese Culinary Academy Akiko Katayama gives her international audience a window into Japanese culinary culture. In each episode, Katayama digs into the history of famous dishes like ramen, sushi, and yakitori; educates on topics like Japanese spirits and specialized kitchen tools; and interviews experts like chefs and sake masters for a deeper look into the world of Japanese cuisine.
Ever wondered about Japanese pizza or hamburger culture, the story behind their eclectic vending machines, or how themed cafes became so popular? If you hadn’t, now you will. Japanese subcultures and the more obscure parts of everyday life all come to light in this clever English-language podcast hosted by two expat friends living abroad.
Another expat-run venture, host Kevin O’Shea launched this podcast in 2007 to explore his favorite parts about relocating from Canada to Japan, giving outsiders an intimate glimpse into life as an international arrival. (For tourists, episodes like How to Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese may be particularly helpful.)
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Originally split into three parts, this tome of a book by one of Japan’s modern masters of literature will hold your attention from cover to cover. Set in an alternate-reality Tokyo where two moons hang in the sky, the story follows two characters—one a dispirited writer, the other a skilled assassin—as they attempt to navigate a parallel universe, get to the root of various mysterious occurrences, and find their way back home.
The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura
In this crime novel, a thief known as Nishimura aimlessly wanders the streets of Tokyo, pickpocketing the city’s elites to make a living. When a ghost from his past arrives to recruit him for a grand scheme involving a high-ranking politician, things begin to go haywire—especially when Nishimura’s fate becomes accidentally entwined with that of an impoverished woman and her son.
“That’s what the world is, after all: an endless battle of contrasting memories.” –Haruki Murakami,1Q84
After Dark by Haruki Murakami
We’re putting two Murakami recommendations on the list because he’s just that good. All of After Dark unfolds between the hours of midnight and dawn, following a series of strange events that could only take place under the cover of darkness. Although the novel’s isolated situations sound mundane—a couple chatting in an all-night diner, the comings and goings of sex workers to a hotel, a woman in bed asleep—nothing in Murakami’s world is ever quite as it appears.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
One of the more quotidian aspects of Tokyo that you’ll come to appreciate is the ubiquitous konbini, or convenience stores, full of Japanese treats and necessities. Convenience Store Woman is a moving portrait of a 36-year-old konbini worker who struggles with ambition, the passage of time, and human connection in a confoundingly modern and fast-paced world.
For a new kind of girl group: AKB48
J-Pop is a massively mainstream aspect of Japanese culture, but AKB48 stands out. Named for Tokyo’s electric Akihabara neighborhood—a mecca for fans of video games, anime, television—this all-female idol group reconceptualizes the concert experience. Rather than going on tour, fans from around the world come to Tokyo to see AKB48’s members perform in a stadium created exclusively for their shows.
For fans of classical music: Yoko Kanno
The music of Yoko Kanno first gained a cult following in 1998 with the debut of Cowboy Bebop, a show critically-acclaimed particularly for its jazz-centric, moody soundtrack. Since, her exceptional compositions have backed groundbreaking shows like Terror in Resonance and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex—elevating her to genius status in the worlds of composing and anime, but flying under the radar for the general public.
For laid-back beats: Nujabes
Once relegated to the underground scene, hip hop in Japan rapidly gained traction in the 90s and early 2000s. As DJ Hiroshi Fujiwara paved the way for the genre and acts like King Giddra found commercial success, the country’s artists departed from classic American-style tracks and developed new sounds of their own. Of these pioneers, among the most influential is late producer and DJ Jun Seba.
The father of Japanese “chill-hop,” Seba—who released records under the pseudonym Nujabes—helped define a subgenre of music that still garners international popularity to this day. Born in Tokyo, Nujabes’s atmospheric, jazz-infused hip hop tracks have since been replicated by internet-based artists and celebrated through Youtube radio stations like ChilledCow.
For those looking for something different: Yellow Magic Orchestra
Inspired by experimental acts like Kraftwerk, this early-80s electro-pop group established itself as one of the pioneers of Japan’s electronic music scene. With a name that riffs on the western fascination with eastern culture, YMO’s high-energy, high-tech tracks reminiscent of a dance-worthy video game soundtrack turned them into a cult classic.
For the hipsters: Lucky Tapes and Yogee New Waves
Both based in Tokyo, Lucky Tapes’s upbeat tunes have made them stars in Japan’s indie circuit, gaining attention with their easygoing vibes and hip-swinging, jazzy trumpets and piano. Yogee New Waves, who debuted in 2014 with full-length LP Paraiso, sounds like hazy summertime memories feel.
Imported old school: Jazz clubs in Tokyo
The maze-like alleyways found throughout Tokyo contain endless hidden treasures. Some, like restaurants and small shops, are more obvious finds—but the city’s jazz scene also awaits here, in basement bars and clubs just out of sight. Jazz first rose to prominence in the 1910s and 20s with the arrival of American ships—and their orchestras—in Japan. Today, the capital remains the authority on jazz in Asia—as demonstrated by the abundance of clubs dedicated to the genre strewn throughout town. For a sample of what you might catch—or who you might meet—on an evening excursion, check out this interview with Shoji Sugawara, the owner of Tokyo’s Basie Jazz Club.
Outposts for audiophiles: Tokyo’s listening bar culture
Another trend that stays discreetly tucked away in Tokyo’s alleyways, record bars, or “listening bars,” are also beloved throughout the city. Similar to jazz, this nightlife staple has retro roots: During the 1950s, dedicated music fans would gather here to listen to otherwise-unavailable imported records. Although the globalizing power of the internet has since caused a slight decline in these bars, the quest to locate them and the intimate crowds make them even more enjoyable. This short doc from Resident Advisor is a great introduction to the dedicated characters behind these outposts for audiophiles.
Masters of Ukiyo-e
You may already be familiar with ukiyo-e, woodblock prints still closely associated with the peaceful nature of Japan’s Edo period. Of its many talents, the two most widely recognized are Hokusai, whose series Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji resulted in the famous Great Wave off Kanagawa (look familiar? 🌊), and Hiroshige, whose series The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road cemented his status as a master of the art.
Another woodblock artist to study up on, Tōshūsai Sharaku regularly depicted art within art. (Meta, we know.) He often focused on painting kabuki actors, whose dramatic facial expressions and elaborate costumes and makeup inspired artwork just expressive as the subjects they were based on.
Japan has a storied history with both horror and erotic art, and Toshio Saeki was a modern master of both. His works are simultaneously beautiful and off-putting, combining sexual fantasy and nightmare in a style reminiscent of the ukiyo-e masters.
Born and bred in Tokyo, Takashi Murakami’s vibrant and often larger-than-life art rose to international acclaim after he designed the cover of Kanye West’s 2007 album Graduation. His work, recognizable for its repeated motifs, including his iconic smiling cartoon flowers, has garnered him a massive following in the worlds of both art and fashion.
Originally from Nakatsugawa, a city halfway between Tokyo and Kyoto, Junji Ito is the contemporary kingpin of all things horror. Well known for his psychologically twisted tales, check out Ito’s most notable works, Uzumaki and Tomie, for some visually-stunning nightmare fuel you’ll love to hate.
If you haven’t seen Yayoi Kusama’s enormous spotted pumpkins or dazzling infinity rooms, it’s likely you haven’t checked social media in the past five years. Kusama’s colorful sculptures and installations have made the 91-year-old artist an icon of modern art.
Study Up on Tokyo
Konnichiwa / Sayounara
The former is used in greeting, the latter to say a polite goodbye.
‘Thank you very much.’ Arigatou also works for a briefer, more casual thanks.
Itadakimasu / gochisousama deshita
Use itadakimasu before eating and gochisousama deshita afterward to signal your appreciation for a good meal.
Kudasai vs. onegaishimasu vs. douzo
All three of these phrases translate as “please,” but are used in different contexts. Use kudasai when you’re asking for something (i.e. mizu-wo kudasai for “water, please”). Use onegaishimasu to politely ask a favor. Finally, use douzo as an invitation (“go ahead,” “here you go,” and the like).
Commonly known as Japanese bullet trains, shinkansen are some of the fastest trains in the world. If you decide to travel from Tokyo to other cities in Japan, trips that may have taken several hours by train in the past were cut nearly in half by the introduction of this high-speed railway.
In a pinch, you may find the phrase “Sumimasen, Eigo-ga wakarimasu ka?”—“Pardon me, do you understand English?”—to be pretty useful.
Take a bow
Whether in greeting, in apology, or in thanks, people in Japan show respect for one another by bowing. For more casual encounters, a low nod of the head is fine; the deeper the bow, the more dignified the greeting. (For example, meeting a new coworker or acquaintance might call for the former, whereas meeting a high-ranking figure would call for the latter).
Take the midnight train going anywhere
…because it might be the last one for the night. Before you depart for a night on the town, remember that many of Tokyo’s trains stop running around 12 a.m.
You can’t speak, but you can still eat
Worried about running into a language barrier at restaurants? Many eateries display plastic versions of their menu items in the window. This way, you know what options you’ll have before you walk inside.