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Splurge vs. Steal: A Tokyo Trip on Two Budgets

By Katherine LaGrave

03.12.20

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The bedroom at Trunk (House), with an artwork by Alex Dodge.

Photo by Tomooki Kengaku

The bedroom at Trunk (House), with an artwork by Alex Dodge.

Whether you’re on the hunt for an over-the-top escape or an affordable getaway, we’ve got you covered.

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With a new crop of world-class hotels, more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city, and an enviable mash-up of old meets new, Tokyo is ever evolving. Ahead of its turn as the host of the 2020 Summer Olympics, here are two ways to experience Japan’s capital.

SPLURGE

Where to Stay

Trunk (House)

If you tire easily of other hotel guests, then Trunk (House)—with just one bedroom—is the hotel for you. Located in the vibrant, historic Kagurazaka neighborhood, it’s a former geisha house and traditional ryotei restaurant, reborn: Though its discreet exterior looks much like it would have 70 years ago, with rice-paper window screens and a noren, or fabric divider, blocking the view of the entryway, the interior has been renovated and redesigned by studio Tripster.

Downstairs is an open kitchen with traditional black walls and a long oak table where professional chefs cook a kaiseki meal for guests, as well as an office where two butlers trained in ikebana, winetasting, and matcha-making stay to make sure you have everything you need. (One of them, unprompted, even took me on a tour of the neighborhood.) The services of the two chefs, two butlers, and the kaiseki meal are all included in your room rate. On the first floor, there’s also Tokyo’s smallest disco, with a curved bar, glittering disco ball, karaoke machine, and $6,000-a-bottle whiskeys. Head up the narrow black staircase, and you’ll find the master bedroom, living room, and tatami tearoom with a sunken fireplace. The highlight, though, might be the tiled bathroom, which is anchored by a massive cypress tub. With designed amenities from l’Officine Universelle Buly, furniture by Stephen Kenn, and lighting by Jean Prouvé, the little things here, too, make a big difference. 

Price: $4,270 for two

Eating & Drinking

Koffee Mameya

A visit to Koffee Mameya isn’t anything like a visit to your typical coffee shop. For one thing, you should be prepared to talk: Once you reach the front of the (no doubt lengthy) line, you’ll be asked by white-coat-wearing baristas to describe what flavors of coffee you like. What method you usually use to brew your coffee. What equipment you have, and what temperature you like your coffee. You’ll be given a taste, if you like, and can choose to sip your coffee at the blond wood bar. The 20 varieties of beans at Mameya rotate about every month, so even if you return to the shop on every Tokyo trip (like, say, yours truly), it always feels new.

Price: Between $19 and $50 for a 150-gram bag and around $8 a cup

An omakase dinner at Julia comes with wine pairings.

Julia

Tokyo has more than 150,000 restaurants, counting everything from Michelin-starred sushi to pizza places among them. But in a country that ranks 121st out of 153 countries for gender parity, according to the World Economic Forum, few of its restaurants are helmed by women. One outlier is Julia, which chef Nao Motohashi opened in March 2017 in Tsukuba. Now based in Jingumae, the 10-seat restaurant serves what’s best described as contemporary American fare with a Japanese twist.

On a recent visit, chef Nao plated up dishes like wagyu beef from Okinawa with a celery root puree and tapenade of tomato and olives; monkfish with satsuma mandarin sauce, and a dish I’m still dreaming of: stewed venison from Hokkaido with a balsamic reduction and dill chimichurri. (The two desserts—homemade ricotta mousse and hazelnut ice cream with burnt pie—were also exceptional.) Each bite in the 2.5-hour, 10-to-12-course omakase meal is paired with a wine by sommelier (and Nao’s husband) Kenichiro Motohashi, which means you’ll leave the meal floating—in more ways than one. 

Price: $185 for a tasting menu, drinks included

Bar La Hulotte (no website)

Sandwiched on the southern side of the city, between Roppongi Hills and Minato City, Bar La Hulotte is not easy to find. And why travel all that way for a place that doesn’t technically have a menu, anyway? Chalk it up to always-dressed-to-the-nines owner-bartender Akiyoshi Kawase, who is a walking encyclopedia of drinks thanks to his training from legendary Tokyo barman Koji Ozaki, formerly of Radio, a bar in Aoyama. There’s also something to be said for the ambience: a gorgeous wood bar, beamed ceilings, rough stone walls, dripping candles, and old books.

Kawase doesn’t speak much English, but he is exceedingly polite to all who walk through his door, and his attention to detail in everything he does—from preparing drinks to placing senbei snacks in front of you—add up to a bar experience that remains hard to come by. (Note: Like many places in Tokyo, Bar La Hulotte allows smoking indoors.) 

Price: Around $20 a cocktail, depending on the selection

Culture

Attend a Baseball Game

A baseball game in Japan is so different from a baseball game in the United States that it can sometimes seem like the actual rules of the game are the only thing in common. A few of the differences? Each player has his own cheer, which fans sing with enthusiasm. You’re allowed to bring your own food and drinks into the stadiums, which most fans do. There are cheerleaders.

Tokyo has two teams in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB): the Yomiuri Giants and the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. The Giants are akin in stature to the New York Yankees and play their home games in the covered Tokyo Dome. The Yakult Swallows, meanwhile, play in the outdoor Meiji Jingu Stadium and are—to put it politely—not as revered, though famous Japanese author Haruki Murakami is a diehard fan. Buy tickets ahead of time for the Giants, as they sell out quickly and are nearly impossible to obtain on game day.

Price: From $30 to $110 per ticket

Note: Japan’s sporting events are currently being held without spectators in order to curb the spread of coronavirus. For the latest, be sure to check on the individual team site ahead of a visit.

Insider Pick

Cutlery Tsubaya (no website)

For fans of cooking, it’s entirely possible to spend half a day browsing the wares of Kappabashi, a shopping area between Ueno and Asakusa dedicated entirely to the culinary trade. There are shops solely for glowing restaurant signs and others for smocks and toques. For a splurge, head to the legendary Cutlery Tsubaya, one of the oldest knife stores in the city. Helpful staff will ask you a number of questions, so it’s best to come prepared with some idea of what you want and will use the knife for: dicing, paring, carving, or slicing? Fish, chicken, vegetables? Left- or right-handed? Though your eye may wander to a chef-grade knife (more than $500), the staff won’t try to upsell you; rather, they’ll encourage you to pick up any of the more than 1,500 knives on display and see how it feels. They’ll also remind you, kindly, to please pack any purchased knife in your checked bag.

Price: From $50 to $1,200

Rooms at DDD are compact but neat.

STEAL

Where to Stay

DDD

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DDD opened quietly in November 2019 in the Bakurocho area of East Tokyo, and already, travelers seem to be buying what it’s selling. On a recent visit, the bright, elegantly austere lobby was crowded with guests helping themselves to the hotel’s breakfast buffet, but take the elevator up a few floors to your room, and it’s dim and quiet. This design, from minimalist Koichi Futatsumata, is intentional: The 122 rooms, although comfortable and contemporary with forest green wood panels and jalousie doors, are not meant to be the place you spend most of your time. (To that end, you won’t find any TVs.) Instead, the hotel encourages travelers to get out and explore the city and, if not that, to walk through its on-site Parcel gallery or sit around the fireplace in the lounge area. 

Price: From $88 without breakfast

Eating & Drinking

Onigiri Asakusa Yadoroku

The oldest onigiri store in Tokyo, Michelin-starred Onigiri Asakusa Yadoroku has been serving just one thing since 1954: hand-shaped onigiri, or white rice wrapped around a filling. On any given day, there are 10 or so fillings, including ikura (salmon roe), ami (small shrimp in soy sauce), and my personal favorite—shisozuke, or Japanese basil pickled in salt. Set lunch menus come with two onigiri and miso soup and run you around $6.50; you’ll pay $9 for soup and three onigiri. (Note: The 16-seat restaurant will close early if they run out of rice. To be safe, get there ahead of opening hours and put your name on a list.) Yosuke Miura, the shop’s third-generation owner, runs the restaurant in the afternoons and, thanks to his affable nature, the place feels like a party. 

Price: From $6.50 to $9; cash only

Ponipirica

First and foremost, Shimokitazawa is known for being a hipsters’ haven. Visit, and it’s easy to see why. But the cool quarter is also considered something else: the curry hot spot of the city. In particular, soup curry—though originally from Hokkaido—reigns here. At Ponipirica, some three minutes by foot from Shimokitazawa Station, choose your soup type and protein; decide on your heat level (anything after a two out of seven will cost slightly extra); and add on vegetables and more meat from there. Lunch sets include rice, salad, and a drink.

Price: From $9 up

Ant ’n Bee

Housed in the bottom of a nondescript building off the main thoroughfare in central Roppongi, Ant ’n Bee doesn’t quite look like a center for craft beer lovers. But pull up a stool at the bar, and you’ll find 20 or so craft beers on draft—all from Japanese breweries. As a result, beer here is a bit pricier than you’ll pay around town, and will run you some $12 a pint. Still, the service, variety, and hours (open until 6 a.m.) add up to a destination worth a drop-in. 

Price: From $8

Culture

Daikanyama T-Site

Most things in Tokyo seem elevated to a level of effortless cool, and Daikanyama T-Site is no different. Comprising three interlocked buildings in the shape of a—you guessed it!—T, the site is a book lover’s paradise, replete with six book departments and a library and lounge with rare books and 30,000 magazines from around the world. T-Site also has a music hub (with a jazz concierge), travel desk, stationery store, video department, and branches of Starbucks and FamilyMart. All of it comes together for what designers Klein Dytham Architecture envisioned as something of a “library in the woods.” 

Price: Free

Insider Pick

Watch Sumo Practice

Sumo tournaments are held every two months around the country but only three times a year in Tokyo. Tickets can be purchased in advance, but they often sell out quickly (they’re also expensive). That doesn’t mean all hope is lost for a sumo experience: You can still visit an official sumo stable and watch a morning practice (asageiko) through windows on the street at places like Arashio Beya. The Japan Sumo Association has a list of sumo stables on its website; some require English visitors to attend with a Japanese speaker.

Price: Free

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