The hidden Tokyo

Any visit to Tokyo is a feast for the senses. There is just so much to take in – both old and new – whether you are in the city for the first time, a regular visitor or even a resident. Such is the beauty and charm of Japan’s capital that, however well you think you know the city, there is always so much more to discover. Of course, certain experiences will always be a big draw to tourists, whether it be visiting the Meiji Shrine, walking the Shibuya crossing or watching Sumo wrestling. But what about the hidden side of Tokyo? I caught up with some experts from the Japanese travel industry to share with you some hidden gems to the city and here are just some of their suggestions.

Yanaka Beer Hall – as suggested by Andres Zuleta, President, Boutique Japan

Andres has lived in Tokyo for years and, having spent years arranging luxury travel to Japan, one slightly out-of-the-way gem that he finds always delights first-time — and repeat — visitors to Tokyo is the charming Yanaka Beer Hall. Located in the quiet streets of the old-fashioned Yanaka neighborhood (a short walk from the much busier Ueno district), “beer hall” is an amusing misnomer.

They do serve craft beer, and tasty pub snacks with a Japanese twist, but the real standout is the atmosphere. The tiny beer hall is located within a beautiful traditional Japanese-style house. Downstairs you’ll find tables and chairs, and there’s also a small patio (lovely in Summer), but if your legs are flexible head upstairs to drink beer in a traditional Japanese-style room.

Jyakotsuyu Onsen – as suggested by Alastair Donnelly, Director, InsideJapan Tours

‘Hadaka no Tsukai’ is a Japanese expression which can be translated as ‘naked companionship’ and refers to the breaking down of barriers offered by hot spring or ‘onsen’ bathing and is an integral part of Japanese culture. If you wanted to get to grips with Japanese culture, then hot spring bathing is a pretty good start.

Onsen baths can be found all over Japan with perhaps the best onsen experiences found at a favourite ‘Ryokan’ guest house or a ‘Rotenburo’ outdoor bath, overlooking the mountains or bubbling up through a river deep in a forest setting. Wherever you go for your onsen, there are certain common characteristics – natural hot spring water and rules around bathing (for example, wash thoroughly before entering the bath). They are very relaxing and a place to forget about the ‘every-day’ and just enjoy the moment.

Believe it or not, amongst the thirty-odd million people of neon Tokyo, there are also ‘onsen’ allowing the chance to join the locals in a bit of relaxation. The Jakotsuyu bathhouse is tucked away in the back streets of the old Asakusa district of Tokyo, and if you didn’t know it was there you would never just stumble across it. The bathhouse has a history dating back more than one hundred years and in that time a lot has changed. The original buildings are gone but it is the same tea coloured brown natural spring waters that continue to supply the baths. You will find all manner of different baths in here – ordinary hot baths, Jacuzzi baths, even a bath with a mild electric current running through it, designed to gently stimulate and massage your weary limbs and an outdoor cold plunge pool for cooling down after the hot baths.

Even though this place is a stone’s throw from the famous Asakusa Shrine, it’s unlikely that you will see tourists or indeed, other foreigners in here. There are no English signs in the surrounding streets, to suggest that this place exists, but if you are lucky enough to find this bathhouse, you will be quietly welcomed by the ticket vending machine with English instructions. Pay your 460yen (£3.20), remove your clothes, wash yourself, enter the bath, sit back and relax with the locals… and exhale. Welcome to a different Tokyo.

Arakawa Furusato Museum – as suggested by Satomi Shintani, Director, Authentrip.jp

A top tip for a quiet and out of the way part of Tokyo is the Arakawa Furusato Museum. It’s about a ten minute walk from Minami-Senju Station and is hardly ever visited by overseas visitors. This could definitely be considered Deep Tokyo!

This museum provides a chance to see Tokyo through the ages, warts and all. Artefacts are not decorated or dressed up to be something they are not. There are shell mounds from centuries past and a living room from the Showa era among other exhibits. They are here to experience just as they were in times gone by. This little museum is rarely busy so it’s nice to just spend some quiet time there.

The new Tokyo Restaurant Bus – as suggested by Kiyoshi Katsume, CEO of All Japan Tours

Tokyo’s thousands of wacky, unique attractions and cultural sites draw millions of visitors each year — for better or for worse. Even during slower seasons or early in the morning, you might find yourself wading through the crowds in some of Tokyo’s most popular sightseeing spots. Thankfully, the new Tokyo Restaurant Bus not only provides a chance to avoid the crowds but also to enjoy an exquisite meal.

Boarding the double-decker bus from Marunouchi Station, you’ll notice something unusual: a chef preparing your meal in a fully functional, mobile kitchen. On the upper deck, the tall windows and sunroof give unobstructed views of the city any which way you turn. The servers offer a wide variety of soft and alcoholic beverages to choose from, and the bus sets off for the two-and-a-half-hour tour. As the guide leads you through Tokyo’s most distinguished locales, an array of delectable French-inspired Japanese dishes is brought out before you.

Appetizers featuring seasonal and local ingredients pair with the Tokyo Imperial Palace. The Tokyo Tower passes by while you nip at your fresh-cut salad and sip a bit of soup. Sizzling entrees carry you over the Rainbow Bridge where you’ll drink in the twinkling neon lights from Tokyo Bay and Odaiba. Dessert and coffee come out as you pass the glitzy Ginza and the turn-of-the-century architecture of Tokyo Station. Finally, you return to Marunouchi feeling satisfied for two reasons: you’re well-fed with both food and the experience of Tokyo. The Tokyo Restaurant Bus offers both dinner and lunch tours for your convenience.

JBS – as suggested by Ben Julius, CEO, Tourist Japan

A tiny jazz bar tucked away in the heart of the Shibuya district called JBS is a unique, soulful joint selling more than just drinks. Jazz is the main dish and the owner Kobayashi knows just how to serve it. Seating is limited, and guests are there to listen to music more than anything else. Jazz aficionados, vinyl collectors and people who appreciate the passionate and cool feel of jazz and blues will be amazed at the extensive collection of vinyl jazz records.

Kobayashi somehow knows the exact placement of all the thousands of records situated along the wooden shelves and plays whatever he likes. Like a librarian scouring archived books, he knows exactly where to find each strategically placed vinyl; he selects the music based on the vibe of the room and somehow always gets it just right. Drinks are fairly priced (mostly whiskey and beer) and the decor is reflective of the music, with a wooden wall and the records visibly taking up most of the space. If you are looking for an intimate evening devoted to feeling the spontaneous rhythm of jazz and blues, look no further than JBS. The place fills up quickly, and closing time changes every night.

JBS is located at 1-17-10 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo, Japan but can be tricky to find – look for the JBS sign; it is open 7 days a week. Times change but usually open from 7:00 pm – 11:00 pm.

We hope you enjoyed hearing about these hidden gems in Tokyo. Of course, it is only the scratching the surface. If you have comments on any of these or, better still, even some hidden gems of your own to share, please leave them in the comments below – we would love to hear from you!

Disclosure: This content was also delivered as a presentation at World Travel Market. I would like to thank the Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau for inviting me to talk at their event.

Comments (18)

  1. Liz says:

    As someone who has lived their life in the West, I sometimes find it hard to get a grip on Japanese Culture. Friends who have visited Tokyo have admitted that they haven’t known where to begin their travels. Exploring a city of 30 millions souls is daunting.

    The fact that some of these recommendations are for small venues where you have an opportunity to get to know Tokyo folk intimately – (particularly st the Bath house) – is a good way of dipping your toe into the water.

    I am yet to make it to Japan but I think this post will help me to put together an itinerary. The Restaurant Bus sounds unmissable.

    • Paul Johnson says:

      My recommendation for a first-time visitor to Tokyo would be to get a guide. There are many excellent guides to the city and it’s a great way of understanding different customs, as well as learning about the history and culture.

  2. Leo says:

    Craft Beer! Restaurant Bus! When’s the next flight???

  3. Andy says:

    I feel that there ought to be a reverent documentary coming soon on JBS. I couldn’t stop myself from doing some online research. The place is a labour of love for the owner Kobayashi, he opens 7 days a week. Basically, his record collection outgrew his home and the JBS Bar that’s Jazz, Blues and Soul was the next step. There’s no cover charge and he just closes when the evening is done. Come on Sky Arts get a camera crew on that plane to Tokyo.

    • Paul Johnson says:

      As I mentioned in my talk, the Tripadvisor reviews for JBS also make for quite interesting reading. It doesn’t sound like customer service is necessarily one of his strong points. If he decides he wants to close, he closes – regardless of whether people have just got drinks, it seems.

  4. Vanessa Dixon says:

    I caught the second half of your talk when passing the Tokyo stand at World Travel Market this afternoon. It was so interesting to hear about JBS especially – when I am next in Tokyo, I will definitely look that place up!

  5. Carolyn B. says:

    I would say that there are a lot more hidden spots in Tokyo than would fit a list. In particular, places to eat and cafes, like those in the backstreets of Kagurazaka and Asakusa.

    • Paul Johnson says:

      Hi Carolyn – of course, there are many, but my talk was only 15 minutes long, so designed to give just a flavour of some of the kinds of things you could encounter. If you have any specific suggestions, please feel free to share them. Kind regards, Paul

  6. I loved this article on hidden Tokyo. Japan has long been on our bucket list, we almost made it in 2011 but unfortunately the Tsunami changed our plans.

    Will definitely keep these destinations in mind when we get there.

    Many thanks :)

  7. Anna Udagawa says:

    I attended your talk at WTM London and thoroughly enjoyed it. The main sights in Tokyo are of course well known but it is worth going off the beaten track and discovering hidden sento or Japanese bars to get more of an insight into Japanese culture. This talk/article mentions examples of these but of course there are many more aspects of life in Japan to be discovered. One area we love is Togoshi-Ginza – it is on the Tokyo Ikegami Line two stops from Gotanda (Yamanote Line). The road outside the station is a shotengai (shopping street) and it is a wonderful place to explore though admittedly some of the independent shops that used to be there have closed.

  8. Sam Axon says:

    A fantastic blog post backed up by a wonderful talk at the World Travel Market in November 2018. Can’t wait to try out JBS!

    • Paul Johnson says:

      Thank you, Sam… glad you enjoyed it! It was interesting to receive the questions and comments at the end… JBS certainly seemed to pique people’s interest perhaps more than any of the other items in the list! :-)

  9. Fred says:

    More and more when I arrive in a new city I took a bus tour. You get to find out what’s worth returning to and what’s not worth another visit. Also if there’s commentary you get some background on the place, often with a real local flavour. The restaurant bus takes this one step further – local food too – BRILLIANT!!!

  10. Will says:

    Before I do “Hidden Tokyo” I need to discover the Tokyo that is right in front of my eyes. I’ve never been to Japan so I would concentrate on knocking off the Too 10 sights. Maybe at next year’s World Travel Market you could do a talk for Tokyo beginners like me? Though this was a great taster.

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