Maybe you’ve heard the story of Hachikō, the dog that waited at Shibuya station for his human to get off work every single day. He was so famous for his ever-present to folks in the neighborhood for his unwavering attitude that when he passed they built a statue of Hachikō, waiting in his spot.
Shibuya is probably the area that you think of when you picture Tokyo in your mind. It’s like times square on some sort of intense Japanese drugs that they only have in anime movies. Everywhere you look there are giant ads, giant building, and millions of people everywhere. The day I was at the famous intersection across the station enjoying my matcha latte at Starbucks, I even saw a bunch of people driving go-carts dressed like all the characters from Mario Kart, Luigi, Toad and the Princess were all there. They say the intersection is the busiest in the world and it’s super interesting to watch the lights change and see it swarm with people.
Aside from the many stores and coffeshops, (one has a David Lynch theme!) there are plenty of vegan options. We tried Afuri which was very different than other bowls of ramen in Japan because it was positively swimming with bright, colorful vegetables. It was very tasty and I recommend it for sure. There are a ton of other options and many are open late so check Happy Cow and Yelp to see what’s what.
When we found a David Bowie-themed Airbnb it soon seemed like Shimokitazawa was the neighborhood for us! We were so glad to find this spot which I can’t imagine will be around for very long. Unlike everywhere else in Tokyo in Shimokitazawa everything is human-sized. Through the main section they don’t even allow cars, it’s just narrow little streets with hip young Japanese people heading to and fro. It’s not at all overwhelming like the other neighborhoods but there are tons of cafes and vintage shops.
Our first stop was for, you guessed it, ramen and gyoza. We were very excited to get to order from a vending machine at Chabuton. It was pretty tasty but probably the least exciting of the bunch. We loved the gyoza though!
We also got to try a couple of coffee shops. The weird part about Shimokitazawa is that most places don’t open until 11am, even coffee places! I later found out there was a spot with a ham and cheese crepe called blank but we couldn’t work it into our schedule. There was one Australian style coffee shop, Frankie Melbourne Espresso, that I ordered a soy chai from and it was literally the best chai I’d ever had in my life. When it came out, it was still steeping so there was a little hourglass on the tray to let me know exactly when it was done. So adorable.
For late night I loved the bar Mother. It was also very close to our airbnb and was made out of cob painted gold so it resembled a super fancy tree house and had a super cool vibe. They had vegan options marked so I had to try the Okinawan noodles to go with my ume plum & shiso cocktail. It was delightful!
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Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world and its vastness can truly overwhelm you when you are first starting to plan your trip. It took me forever to make some sense of the neighborhoods and districts and even now I’m not entirely sure what is supposed to be where! For example, I have Harajuku listed as it’s own page but it’s a part of Shibuya which is listed separately. Shibuya has many neighborhoods inside! Generally, I’m going to categorize places by what seemed right to me but when you are planning, it’s easy to figure out by looking at the train stations.
And speaking of trains, the whole system is vast and confusing. The bigger the station, the more likely that you will find a tourist desk for English speakers but if you can’t, no worries. Like in New York, the best way is to often ask a stranger! People in Japan were incredibly helpful everywhere I went. Learning a couple phrases like “Do you speak English” and “Thank you very much” will get you far. You will end up spending a lot of time on trains and in the station so it’s best to plan where you are going to eat based on what train station you are already going to be near.
The most recommended vegan restaurant in all of Japan, T’s Tan Tan, is actually located inside Tokyo station. So, it’s a great first stop on your way in from the airport if you are staying near the station or transferring through. I read MANY accounts of people saying that they would plan all of their routes through Tokyo station just so they could keep on eating at T’s. Even though it’s a tiny restaurant, lots of people had big bags that the staff allowed for storage in the entryway so don’t stress about that, but every station has tons of lockers which you can also store your bag in. I read that finding the T’s in Tokyo station was difficult but really it wasn’t so bad because I followed the directions on Happy Cow to get to Keiyo street which is inside the station. I had more trouble finding the location in Ueno station. Really, I should have just asked someone sooner because I wasted a lot of time wandering around. The key is to just find the big food court and then from there as someone who looks like they work there. The ramen at T’s is unsurpassed, I tried multiple versions and they were all the best ramen I ever had! Everything is vegan and best of all, if you are traveling on a holiday, they keep their social media up to date so we could find out that they were indeed open on New Year’s Day which was one of the most exciting things that happened to me while in Japan because everything is closed around New Years.
Other things to note about Tokyo, if you put money on a PASMO card at the subway you can use it throughout the city and Kyoto for subways and trams and you can keep adding money as necessary. There is also an unlimited tourist rail pass. We used google maps to find our way around and, in my opinion, it’s pretty important to have an International SIM card or Pocket Wi-Fi. We had the latter from Pupuru which worked fantastically. You can pick it up at the airport when you land and then drop it off in the prepaid envelope in a mailbox inside the airport before you take-off. Note that the mailboxes are outside the security after check-in. I’d also recommend getting a powerbank to keep your cell and wi-fi charged up. When you run directions and google translate all day it can really drain the battery. And once your battery is drained, your completely screwed! Note that they don’t have Uber in Japan. And lots of places take cash so make sure you get a Yen infusion at the ATMs in the train station whenever you start to get low.
Google Translate is one of the best things that ever happened to vegan travelers. I had heard people say that, but I didn’t understand until my friend explained the camera capability. You just take a picture or point your camera at the list of ingredients and like magic it will try and figure out what the words are! You can easily tell if your onigiri is filled with red bean paste or tuna! Sometimes the translations are a bit tough though, I assumed that “rice flower floating in wind” was vegan. Usually, animal words are obvious. And that is my final tip about Japan. Everything is really expensive and getting around can take lots of time so the ubiquitous 7-11s and Family Marts on every single block are a godsend! We ate so many rice balls and chips when everything was closed at breakfast time or late night. The options are way better and totally different than in the US. Check out my friend Jojo’s post for more info on what’s what at convenience stores and lots of tips for travel and vegan restaurants. And watch the video for how to open the convenience store onigiri, the design is magically Japanese.
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