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How To See Tokyo Like Anthony Bourdain

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Tokyo. It's mesmerizing. Intimidating. Disorienting. Upsetting. Poignant. And yes, beautiful.

Similar to Anthony, Tokyo was one of those places I could return to 100 times and still have no idea what I’m doing. Ever changing, constantly shifting and always an adventure. For the mind, the palate and the soul.

My husband and I were inspired to visit the neon metropolis as a kind of pilgrimage to the late travelling chef, as a way to pay our respects. Anthony wasn’t just a pop-culture figure to us, but an influence that would change our perceptions about travel indefinitely. His no bullshit attitude, brazen personality and appetite for the alternative encouraged us to travel deeper. To step outside the roped off facades and experience a country for more than it’s shopping malls and polished hotels.

What better way to explore Tokyo than through the eyes of Anthony Bourdain?

Tracing his exact footsteps, we made an itinerary to see what he saw and taste what he tasted, learning first hand what enchanted him so.

Have a Drink at the Park Hyatt Tokyo

New York Bar in Park Hyatt Tokyo

Made famous by Lost In Translation, the New York Bar is the perfect upscale bar to waste your hard earned money in. Bill Murray fans all over the world come to the top of the Park Hyatt hotel for an overpriced cocktail and exceptional view of Tokyo’s neon lights. Take the elevator up to the 52nd floor, order a glass of their finest brew just like Anthony did, and lose yourself in the soulful jazz band. Although it won’t be as quiet, civilized or magical as you imagine it to be in your mind, it’s a must-do for any bon vivant.

Tips for Visiting The Park Hyatt

  • They still allow smoking inside, so non-smokers beware as it can get quite cloudy
  • If you are a non-guest, be prepared to pay a $2500 YEN ($22 USD) cover charge per person after 7:00pm.
  • Bring your wallet. 2-3 alcoholic beverages can easily come in at $100
  • Dress code is in effect

Hit Up A Lawson's

Eat at lawsons in tokyo japan like anthony bourdain

The words ‘cheap’ and ‘Tokyo’ usually don’t go together, but Anthony showed us that when it comes to fast food, they can co-exist. If you need quick, easy food while walking the streets of Tokyo, you just need to pop into a Lawson’s.

Lawson’s is a convenience store chain that originated in the US, but now is totally Japanese owned. They have the kinds of pre-packaged confectionary items and bubbly sodas that you would expect to find at any gas station mini mart, but they also have cheap meals to-go.

Anthony professed his love for their egg sandwiches on an episode of ‘Parts Unknown’ saying:

At Lawson’s, you can dig into their unnaturally fluffy, insanely delicious, incongruously addictive egg salad sandwiches. I love them. Layer after layer after layer of awesome.

Because of Tokyo’s insane work ethic and culture, the demand for quick, cheap and easy meals are higher than ever. You won’t have a hard time tracking down a Lawson’s that is constantly stocked with meals ranging from $1-$3 USD. Even a large bento box filled with sushi, tempura, meats and edamame will only run you about $5, making Lawson’s insanely budget friendly. And don’t worry, everyone from Bourdain to Katy Perry raves about how good the food actually tastes.

Tips for What to Get at Lawsons

  • Chicken nuggets. Try the red ones. A 5 piece package should run about $2
  • Tamago (egg) salad sandwich for only $2.50
  • Onigiri rice balls. SO many flavours, only $1 each
  • Steamed buns filled with meat or red bean paste for around $1.50.

Bar Hop Through The Golden Gai

tips for visiting the golden gai like anthony bourdain

Lose hours of the night stumbling through the mismatched micro bars in the alleyways of Shinjuku. The Golden Gai is a collection of narrow bars and tiny taverns, clustered together down crooked streets. Japanese business men, curious tourists and jaded chefs alike squeeze into these tight bars for a drink and to escape Tokyo's hustle for a few moments. 

While you might think this is a great tourist attraction, it's traditionally been a hangout for locals. You might see a few signs saying ‘locals only' and for good reason. Because this district is a place for locals to unwind, they obviously don't want it over-run with selfie-happy tourists. With over 200 bars to choose from, pick ones with English on the signs.

Tips for Visiting the Golden Gai

  • Some places have a cover charge to sit inside, over and above the cost of drinks. Bring some extra cash.
  • If you are bothered by cigarette smoke or small spaces, stay out of the Golden Gai
  • Some places only sit 3-4 people (at most, upwards of 10) so best for couples or small groups of friends.
  • Busiest time for the micro bars is usually 10pm to 3am

Stay in A Ryokan & Onsen

Onsen Tokyo - Stay in a ryokan like Anthony Bourdain

Why stay in a normal hotel when visiting Tokyo? Ryokans are traditional Japanese inn's, complete with futons, tatami mats and sliding paper doors. They started popping up in 800 AD making them the oldest type of hotel in the world. Plus, they are the best place in Tokyo to unwind and relax. 

Most Ryokans also have an onsen. A pool of naturally hot spring water with healing powers that you can soak in. There are a few top rated onsens in Tokyo, but you'll find the best ones just outside the city.

The Japanese often bear a heavy burden of responsibilities, societal expectations, family obligations, tradition, work. But when they relax, they really do it well. They are better than anybody.

Tips for Staying in a Ryokan & Onsen

  • Wear the provided yukata robes during your entire stay. You will never feel more comfortable
  • Yes, you go into the onsen completely nude
  • Stay at a ryokan that has an outdoor onsen for the most unique experience

Get Tickets To Robot Restaurant

Robot Restaurant Anthony Bourdain

I'll admit I was most skeptical about this stop on the Bourdain itinerary. I figured it would be nothing but an overhyped, half-assed, bawdy performance. I was wrong. Never in my life have I seen performers so dedicated to their character. These guys were serious. As serious as duelling robots and honey-eyed creatures can be.

Everything from start to finish was either so bad it was good, or so good it was phenomenal. The bad translations, cheesy story line and excessive use of theatrical fog set the stage for what Anthony called the greatest show in the history of entertainment”.
We stuffed ourselves with overpriced popcorn, tater tots and ice cream sundaes, all while soaking in the anime, carnival clash of a production. It was all we could have hoped for and more.

We could immediately see why Bourdain was so enraptured with Robot Restaurant. It went against every rule of what a show should be like. Anthony loved anything that was crass and blatantly defiant.

Tips for Visiting Robot Restaurant

  • Book ahead on sites like Voyagin for the best deal
  • Head to the 5:00pm show so you can go out for dinner afterwards
  • Dress appropriately. It’s HOT in there, so wear breathable clothing

Eat A LOT of Sushi

The best Sushi Tokyo

No brainer, right?
You can't see Tokyo like Anthony Bourdain without eating your way through sushi joint after sushi joint. Bourdain was quoted many times that he'd like his last meal to be Sushi, but one time he gave us the exact restaurant.

Ideally, my last meal would be at Sukiyabashi Jiro, a tiny sushi bar below street level in Tokyo. It serves some of the finest quality sushi anywhere on the planet

While we couldn't get a table at Jiro during our stay in Tokyo, that didn't stop us from trying other top-rated sushi all over the city. Follow your instinct and you can't go wrong. Any place that is busy with locals and tourists alike is going to serve incredible tasting sushi.

Bourdain travel Japan
Photo Cred: CNN

Thank You Bourdain…

We only had 48 hours to see the city and Bourdain’s Tokyo was the exact version we wanted to experience.

Just like so many, we’re absolutely heartbroken about his passing earlier this year. He laid out the groundwork for us, as well as thousands of other fans, in destinations around the globe. His twisted sense of curiosity and explorative journalism inspired us to go against the grain in life, filling our life with experiences over things.

Anthony Bourdain Tokyo Itinerary

Thank you to Go Tokyo and JNTO for helping to support my trip to Tokyo in order to create this article.
Cover credit photo: Joe Brier, for USA TODAY