Our next travel guide is ready and this time it’s all about Tokyo How did we do it? Simple! Thanks to Cindy, who is a jack-of-all trades freelance creative with a past lives as a biomedical researcher and a video producer. She spent her childhood straddling the two ends of the Pacific and she is now setting up camp for the first time in a land that dips below freezing – Tokyo, Japan.
Cindy was totally awesome and wrote this fun city guide designed specifically for digital nomad girls and slow travelers, so you would not feel lonely and struggle in the city. So, read on and enjoy! We hope this guide will be useful to many of you.
Tokyo city guide
When most think of Tokyo, they think of Shinjuku or Ginza: the neon light metropolis, the magnificent maze of subway lines. Salarymen, tourists, trendy kids, and occasional anime characters (read: cosplayers) taking the streets by storm.
Well, turns out there’s a slower side to Tokyo. If you’re a digital nomad or traveler in town for more than a few days, you can’t say you’ve seen all of Tokyo if you’ve spent all your time strutting between skyscrapers. Old Tokyo is sometimes collectively known as “shitamachi”, which literally translates to “under city”. No, not the under belly of the city. Shitamachi is the general term referring to areas in eastern Tokyo that have been spared by earthquakes and wars, and have somehow remain untouched by the rapid modernization that has swept through the city in the last century. Shitamachi is where you find austere temples, mom and pop shops, charming old alleyways where no cars can enter. Follow this guide to slow travel through Tokyo, you’ll appreciate this change of pace from the city center.
First the Business
Given how high-tech Japan is, wifi is surprisingly hard to come by in public areas. For immediate connectivity, try convenience stores, foreign chain restaurants, and sometimes public libraries. But hoarding Starbuck’s wifi is not the reason you came to Japan.
Many coworking spaces are clustered around Shinjuku and Shibuya, including the very global Impact Hub that now has over 80 locations around the world. Coworking offices are also your best bet for finding community and meeting fellow nomads since Tokyo is still very much a budding digital hub compared to some other locations in Southeast Asia. If you’re feeling adventurous, try coworking spaces further away from the cluster. For one, rates get friendlier as you move away from southern Tokyo. The community also becomes more local, and I find that I really enjoy working alongside Japanese freelancers. They’re incredibly courteous (that’s every Japanese person, really), and they tend to be happier to engage in conversations than the average person and can offer fun glimpses into their parallel digital life. I frequently go to Editory (full disclosure: I also do some work for them). It’s a unique space is tucked away in the quiet neighborhood of Jimbocho, Tokyo’s legendary town of books that is home to some 180 bookshops. Editory has a cozy, artsy vibe, and it’s no surprise that local editors, writers, and designers like ourselves congregate there. They also have a second space in Asakusabashi dedicated to makers and creators.
Also, tune into the startup scene to find other nomadic expats. You’d be amazed to find how many foreigners are choosing to build and operate their businesses in Japan. Startup Grind has a chapter in Tokyo, but there are local groups like BEAM that meet regularly to network. There are also a good number of workshops and seminars held in English, follow them out on this calendar.
While Tokyo is often compared to cities like New York and Paris, rent in the Japanese capital is lower than one would expect. Short-term rentals via Airbnb can go as low as $20 a day and it is entirely possible to find long-term shared dorms (meaning shared bathrooms and often shared bedrooms) for around $500 per month where you’re likely to be rooming with an internationals. Just heads up, though, the living spaces are tighter than you’re used to and walls can be quite thin, but you can expect your room to be simple and functional. Sakura House has rentals all over the country, offering furnished and female-only housing options. Remember, accommodation becomes more affordable the further away you move from the city, and it’s usually worth the slightly longer commute as long as you’re near a train station!
Now the Fun
Ueno is home to the famous Ameyoko Cho, perhaps one of the most iconic open markets in Tokyo. It’s a wonderfully rowdy and a true feast to the sense — vendors there tout everything from gaping, fresh fish to children’s socks. It can be difficult to finally pick a place for lunch so I’m going to direct you to my favorite. Katsusen serves up some amazing fried pork cutlets over fluffy beds of rice. My personal recommendation is the chicken cutlet with tart plum sauce. It will hit that spot in the stomach.
Head to Nezu for a different scenery. There you will find rows of old houses that stand no taller than two stories and locals moving at a stroll. You would not guess that the incredible Nezu Jinja has stood one these grounds for over three centuries. Try Kamachiku for an elegant udon experience at a rustic, communal table looking out to a Japanese garden. Consider pairing your lunch with a selection from the rice wine menu. It actually won’t break your bank.
For a good time in the afternoon, look no further than Yanaka. The area is dense with Buddhist temples — and also old buildings refurbished into cafes, gift shops, and other hip establishments (some of them no bigger than your bathroom back home). Yanaka Ginza is the lively, central market strip in the area, but I have to say it’s a lot more fun to get lost in the alleys. Visit HAGISO if you can manage to locate it. There’s so much to marvel at this quintessential Japanese hipster coffee shop, from the unusual menu to all the wonderfully tasteful details throughout. Be sure to also check out the gift shop on the second floor.
Dessert in Japan calls for its own guide but staying with the old Tokyo theme, I recommend starting with Taiyaki. It’s best explained as a crispy waffle shell filled with red bean paste… in the shape of a fish. Simple, and absolutely delicious when it’s done right. Yanagiya has been flipping fish in Ningyocho for over a century. Expect to wait in line to get your order, it’ll be coming hot off the cast. Ningycho (literally “town of dolls”) was the seat of puppet theater during the Edo era. Today it sits smack dab in the middle of Tokyo’s business district, but it defends its traditional look and feels wonderful.
Finally, there’s no better way to wrap up a busy day in Tokyo than with a hot communal bath. Fuku no yu is a bath house located in the quiet neighborhood of Honkomagome. It’s a simple, no-fuss establishment with separate male and female areas, and space got a hip upgrade since its artful renovation in 2011. So find yourself a spot in the tub, cozy up to the cozy grannies, and feel your fatigue simmer away in the bath. But not before a good shower and a thorough scrub down!