Tokyo Prefecture Guide: Explorations in Shibuya
Shibuya & Harajuku
What to do, where to go, and what to eat.
Out of all 23 prefectures of Tokyo and the five I visited, my favorite was Shibuya. Shibuya can be described as the millennial town. There's more hole-in-the-walls, izakayas, record stores, and coffee shops than you can imagine. What Shibuya also had to offer was a part of Tokyo that was less crowded, less city like, and more homey. We stayed in Shibuya, and we stayed in Shibuya. There was just so much to do, so much to eat. It made it harder to leave.
WHERE TO STAY
Searching for a place to stay in Tokyo in general was immensely difficult. We wanted to stay somewhere that was a central access point to all the important sites we wanted to see. Unfortunately that's harder to do when everything is so spread apart in the prefectures. We ended up choosing a quaint AIRBNB in Shibuya that was close to the Gymnasium and also near a graveyard. We really loved our BNB and would probably stay here again as it was in a quieter area away from the city noise. There is a bit of construction from the nearby Olympic Dome site, but in a couple years, this is gonna be a great place to stay to get Olympic access. Most restaurants and places to hang were within a ten minute walk, including Bird & Ruby and some bars.
If an AIRBNB is not your choice of residence, there are several hotel options including Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel. It's conveniently near the Shibuya Station for easy transportation and boasts an amazing view of Tokyo from the top plus a classy cocktail bar. For a cheaper hotel option, try the capsule hotel The Millennials. This is a new hotel that is almost like a hostel but fancier.
what to eat
Since Shibuya is known as the young people's town, there are lots of trendy restaurants, hole-in-the-walls, and cafes to try. I only spent a little time venturing out to eat in Shibuya, but every meal I had was great. Since I love curating lists, I'll recommend some places to eat that I may not have visited.
Pancakes in Japan are its own category. They are extra fluffy, melt in your mouth, and stack like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. While I tend to call myself a waffle connoisseur, I still daydream about the fluffy pancakes from Rainbow Pancakes. Tucked away in the back streets of Harajuku, you'll find this colorful little cafe. The fluffy pancakes here tower with cheer and flavor explosion.
I was on a mission to visit Cafe Gram, since this was apparently the place to go for the fluffiest. However, the place seems to be always packed. It was a wait to get inside, and then when we do order, they remembered one of three orders only.
OTHERS TO TRY:
cotton candy & crepes of harajuku
When you venture out to Harajuku, you'll notice people walking around with giant sticks of rainbow cotton candy. It's kinda overwhelming, but also a pretty sweet experience in Harajuku. Totti Candy Factory is the main source of this giant cotton candy. I don't think the taste is any more special than cotton candy in the US, but you won't find the giant rainbow edition anywhere else.
I didn't get a chance to try the crepes, but Angel's Heart's display of fake crepes had me intrigued. I'm for sure trying one next time.
OTHERS TO TRY:
I have successfully tried one ramen shop in every prefecture that I visited, which is why I'm only recommending Afuri Ramen on this list for Shibuya and giving you some curated options . If you're a vegetarian or halal like me and can't eat ANY of the pork based ramen that is served basically at every stall, then AFURI is a great option for chicken-broth based ramen or a veggie broth ramen. Make sure to come early because the vegetable ramen sells out pretty fast.
Obviously there are many places to try, but also many types of ramen to try. Traditional ramen you'll find is shio (salt based broth), shoyu (soy sauce based broth), miso, and tonkotsu (pork bone based broth). You'll also find tsukemen which is when the broth is separated from the noodles, and you have to dip. My favorite type of noodles is soba, buckwheat noodles that can be slurped up cold.
OTHERS TO TRY
HAYASHI - Only one type of ramen, but heard the wait is worth it
USAGI - Organic tsukemen type noodles with non-pork based soup
KAMAKURA - Has non-pork ramen options
GONPACHI - Has soba and vegetarian ramen
I love sandwiches and Japan has a knack for making the simplest the tastiet, which is why I found myself picking up to-go sandwiches pretty frequently.
BIRD & RUBY
If you're an early bird traveler like me, Bird & Ruby is a perfect place to go at 8am in the morning to grab a to-go lunch and some coffee. Their sandwiches are banh mi style and perfect for an afternoon picnic at Yoyogi Park.
DEUS EX MACHINA
Mentioned under coffee shops too, but they had the best chicken thai chili sandwich I've ever had. I still dream of it sometimes. Deus Ex Machina also makes you feel like you're part of a secret biker gang as well.
BUY ME STAND
This cute turquoise shop serves specialty grilled cheese sandwiches that look super tasty. This place was recommended to me by my Japanese acquaintance Yu, so I know for sure it's a great spot to hit up.
SHIBUYA CHEESE STAND
For cheese lovers, if you'd like to try some authentic mozzarella that will change your life, go to the Shibuya Cheese Stand. It's cheese made with utter love and care on sandwiches, pizza, and or just in its natural form.
I didn't actually try sushi when I was in Tokyo. I know I suck, but I'm not a fan of seafood and vegetarian sushi isn't really a thing when you can get fresh fish sushi pretty regularly. Any way here are a few options: Sushi Nobu, Kurosaki, and Hidezushi Shibuya Dogenzaka, Gonpachi has vegetarian sushi!
RED ROCK HARAJUKU
I don't think you can go wrong with food in Japan at all. Red Rock is known for its piles on piles of kobe beef in their signature beef bowl. Plus it's a reasonable price. You won't get finer beef in America, so this place is great for those who love their protein.
GOOD MORNING CAFE
Good Morning Cafe is the perfect way to wake up in the morning. The restaurant is like an industrial garage that lets you enjoy the morning light and a scrumptious Japanese breakfast featuring fluffy scrambled eggs and toast.
SHIBOOYA FOR COFFEE
If you're from the U.S. there is an everlasting grainy, bittery taste to all coffee THAT YOU DON'T NOTICE TIL you try Tokyo's. Coffee in Tokyo will be a life-changing experience. shibuya just has the best ones.
The first coffee I had was at Lattest, tucked away in the Omotesando neighborhood of Shibuya. The space is an open industrial type area with a long table taking up most of the sitting space. One cool thing to note about Lattest is that they only have female baristas creating coffee. Lattest is also known for latte art penmanship. It's pretty precise. The latte was so smooth, with little to no bitter notes and welcomes you with an energized spirit without the jittery feelings.
Nozy Coffee can be found on the crowded Cat Street of Harajuku, but stands out thanks to its dark contrast. Nozy is an open air cafe with dark wood interior. The baristas share space in the center of the cafe to focus on making rich espresso all around. They also have soft serve fortunately.
DEUS EX MACHINA
My favorite cafe/food place to visit was the Deus Ex Machina store in Harajuku. While not exactly a local Japanese haunt, this place is pretty badass. It's definitely a moto vibe with a surf shop design. The building is three stories tall featuring a gallery and sitting in the basement, cafe and bar on the first floor, and a clothing store on the second. Cool art pieces are hung everywhere, and the baristas are just as cool. The coffee tastes just as badass, but it's hard to sit down and enjoy when there's so much to explore inside.
Ratio & C
While walking around, I randomly stumbled upon Ratio & C, a bike store that doubles as a coffee shop. What essentially drew me at first was the fact the shop was open at 8am. Tokyo is a hard place to find anything that opens before 10am, so Ratio & C was a rare blessing. I ventured for my first cold brew in Tokyo here and also chatted up a cute guy, who happened to be interning for famous architect Kengo Kuma. Kuma is one of my favorite architects (you'll find out why below). I like to think fate aligned us crossing paths that day. Though I forgot his name immediately, so I guess fate was also like psychhh. Hope you're doing well, cute guy interning for Kengo Kuma.
My favorite to visit in Shibuya/Harajuku was Streamer Coffee, which I dub as the coffee tower for Rapunzel. The inside interior lacks horizontal space, but you can climb the flights of stairs to sit in small rooms with floor to ceiling windows. Streamer is known for their award-winning latte art (pictured above), you can effortlessly precision even in a tiny cup.
Omestando Coffee was raved as an underground treasure until it closed. It was recently revived as Coffee Mameya and still keeps to air of mystery. You only have two options: coffee & espresso. Though if you let them know how you like your coffee, the barista will recommend one of their signature roasts for you.
Bird & Ruby
An off-shoot of Bread & Espresso, this little store has great to-go sandwiches and coffee, much like its parent. Grab a quick bite and quick coffee before an early morning trek. They open at 8am which is nice.
things to do
Whenever you need a reprieve from the city life, just remember that Yoyogi Park is pretty easy to find in Shibuya. The park is serene and takes you away for a moment to relax. I was able to take a quick visit before heading to my next destination. You can also stop by the small and cute little coffee shop Little Nap Stand. If you're in the area during cherry blossom season, Yoyogi Park is a great alternative place to see the blooms instead of Shinjuku National Garden.
While you're near Yoyogi Park, take a moment to visit Meiji Shrine. No prefecture is complete without at least one shrine visit.
One of my favorite past times when I go anywhere is sifting through records at small shops. It's just a calming effect of searching for some great gems even if I don't end up leaving with anything. Shibuya is filled with finely curated collections around each corner.
Tower Records was a cool experience though, and it stands at nine stories high. Each floor is dedicated to a different genre AND a dedicated stage to show off some local musicians. The top floor features the sky garden, an alternative to the Tokyo Skytree for an aerial view of Tokyo.
OTHERS TO CHECK OUT:
Since Shibuya caters to the more edgier and trendy styles of Tokyo, which is why the museums and art galleries in this prefecture are more niche and modern. Bunkamura is a must-see when you're in Shibuya. Bunkamura is ingenious as a creative and cultural space. It triples as a museum, theater, and music venue, but also includes a bookstore and cafe inside.
OTHERS TO CHECK OUT
Nezu Museum (Cute guy who interns for Kengo Kuma recommended this, so it's a must see)
Everyone in Japan seems to be always impeccably dressed, thanks to the plethora of unique boutiques and specialty stores. Whether you're in the mood for Superdry, Aesop, or maybe a whole store dedicated to white t-shirts, there's something for everyone. I love the endless amounts of style inspiration that Shibuya has. Stores all are superbly curated and well designed.
You might have seen Style Nanda online at Asos, but Style Nanda also has a location in Harajuku now, which should be on your list to check out.
OTHERS TO SHOP:
Photo Ops at Shibuya Crossing & Tokyu Plaza
I didn't end up taking a signature photo at Shibuya Crossing and just walked through it, but boy is it busy. This is a given, since it's the busiest intersection in the world. Herds of people are continuously walking the wide streets maneuvering through the constant light changes from all directions. It is an amazing site to see and also be a part of. A good landmark to find this area is Shibuya Station and also a Starbucks that gives you a nice view of the scramble. Also near Shibuya Station is the famous Hachiko Statue.
Tokyu Plaza is another very busy spot but very cool because of its mirrored entrance. As you go up the escalators, mirrors are reflected an an arch around you. Once you enter, you'll be greeted by a vast amount of stores inside. This is a very popular area for tourists and locals alike.
Just as you can divide Tokyo in several ways, you can divide Shibuya into different neighborhoods. Just a ten minute walk from Shibuya Crossing, Daikanyama unveils a brief relief from the city into a sophisticated neighborhood. Daikanyama is also known as Tokyo's version of Brooklyn thanks to its trendy, but hipster spots and charming boutiques. You'll find many record shops, open air cafes, and skate shops.
PLACES TO GO
Walking the Streets of Harajuku
Harajuku is a very popular region of Shibuya and more known for its funky styles and unique people that occupy mainly one street. However, there's also plenty to do in Harajuku. So much in fact, it's better to explore one street at a time. Cat Street is a great place to start thanks to its compactly organized shops and restaurants. Mixed in with high-end boutiques are vintage shops, you'll find more locals here and many chances to buy some unique souvenirs. There's a few stores that sell kimonos at a cheaper price if you wanted to leave Tokyo with a souvenir.
While walking around, we found a small store that sold light bulb sodas. I was on a mission to find this even though it's just really an overpriced gimmick. But it's super cute to drink out of and I had the best lychee soda ever. I ended up keeping the bottle and sometimes I still drink out of it for fun.
Another street to explore is Takeshita Street. Takeshita Street is basically where all the pink lined stores are and the many Harajuku style clothing emanates from. It's still more of a tourist destination now, but you'll find Totti Candy Factory, Angel's Hearts, and Style Nanda here.
Catch a Show
As a music fiend I love finding out about the local music scene and where to catch a show. While whether or not I make it out really depends on how tired I am by the end of the day, I still like to keep up with who's playing nearby. It's also worth mentioning that Shibuya has the best live music venues in Tokyo - for both Western music and Japanese music. I was in town while Jimmy Eat World was there, just a day behind. I mourned my loss by requesting The Middle at Spincoaster at the expense of everyone around me. Anyway if you're interested, here are some venues to visit:
Bars and Clubs
When you're in Japan, you'll hear about izakayas a lot, which are small bars with a few seats that businessmen and women go to after work. You'll find cheap drinks and a lot of fun at these establishments. Shibuya has one narrow road of izakayas famously called Drunkard's Alley, much like Shinjuku's Golden Gai. When we went to Drunkard's Alley, most places were already pretty packed and didn't have as much Japanese to get by with. It's stll fun to join in on a local favorite that's semi-touristy.
Izakayas tend to favor Japanese-speaking individuals, so you might be more interested in visiting dive bars, clubs or cocktail bars. When I was searching up bars, the one thing that really jumped out to me was the small, modern style dive bars that are dedicated to music-listening. I was intrigued and wanted to at least visit one in Shibuya. Spincoaster ended up being our choice after paying a hefty cover charge. The place was no bigger than your bedroom and housed DJ, bartenders, a record wall, and, at the most, four tables. An Ipad is passed around where you can queue up a song (also for a charge) and enjoy the music. The drinks weren't too expensive and were also pretty delicious. I developed a love for Yuzu Honey lemon sours.
EST was another fun night time place of fun. EST is a late night bowling and ping pong place that gave you something to do besides the usual. You can literally play till sunrise.
OTHERS TO TRY
the landscape in japan is any architect's dream. the usage of modern styles paired with natural structures can only be expertly done in japan. shibuya was endless amount of unique buildings placed around a bustling grey towers. Some streets boasted a bountiful of color. it is amazing to walk through.
Dear JINJUMAE BUILDING
This building feels like a random oddity of nature for buildings. You have a basic white building incapsulated in wavy silver metal. The Dear Jingumae building was designed by architect Yoshihiro Amano and his team. The Amano team renovated an old office building by deconstructing the outer parts and adding a unique wavy metal shelling around it. It's meant to stand out among the apartment buildings that surround it, but also has a strange way of fitting in. The building has a modern 3D character that brings more attention to the neighborhood but also feels understated.
The building at night is pretty impressive as they illuminate the metal giving a florescent effect.
Sunny Hills was my probably my #1 to visit in Shibuya and still remains my favorite part of Japan. A Kengo Kuma designed building, Sunny Hills stands prominent among its neighboring structures. The wood covered building sits at the corner of a neighborhood street and stands out from a mile. I was blown away with the wood outer structure and even more awed by how the glass wall interior brings the outer shell to life and creates a shadowy effect inside. What's more exciting is the free tea and Taiwanese pineapple cake they give you inside.
Come for the unique architecture and stay for the cake.
STREAMER COFFEE CASTLE
Streamer's Coffee Tower makes another appearance under architecture. Great coffee and a great looking building. The coffee tower resembles a dark version of Rapunzel's tower with it's narrow space and vertically challenging stairs. I loved the eerie feeling. When you first enter, you're immediately welcomed to the barista and to order your coffee. Follow the black stairs up and feeling of adventure travels with you till you get to the first floor. It's all open windows onlooking the bustling streets and concrete walls and floors.
Chateau Ameba Or DIALOG IN THE DARK
I'm referencing Dialog in the Dark as the landmark to a super cool hotel next door, which I believe is Chateau Ameba. I didn't catch the name of this place unfortunately and have had terrible luck in determining what the name is. Google Street View was kinda helpful as much as it could be. Any way, this was worth mentioning because of the way it holds its vast space. From the outside, all it looked like was wide grey columns with narrow slits, but then when you head up the small steps you are lead into a huge area of industrial grey stone in a pyramid style. The ceiling was tall meeting at a sharp triangle. It felt like a regal prison almost.