Tokyo travel tips, day 2: busy Takeshita street and quiet alleys of Harajuku

Carla and I took a one-week trip to Tokyo. It was my sixth visit to Japan's capital, and it was my favorite so far. For the next few days, I'll be writing about recommended things to do there. See them all here.

After walking around peaceful Yoyogi Park, we crossed the street and entered one of the busiest pedestrian streets in the world: Takeshita-dōri. This youth-oriented strip has fashion boutiques, restaurants, candy and ice cream shops, and the (now commonplace in Japan) cat and owl cafes, where you pay by the hour to spend time with animals. The crowd on Takeshita-dōri is made up of about 20% tourists and 80% Japanese teenagers. There are long lines to get into some of the stores and restaurants. The longest line was for a place called Johnny's. At least 100 people were waiting to get in. Every person in line was a Japanese teenage girl. The line was broken up into two separate queues. One line was in front of Johnny's. And another line was down the street, next to Harajuku station. The girls were waiting patiently for a uniformed guard to escort them into the main queue in batches. We thought Johnny's was a clothing store, so we decided to go back in the afternoon when the crowds had thinned to see if there were things to buy for our daughters, but when we went inside it was just a big maze-like room with thousands of small photographs of teenage boys taped to the walls. The photos had numbers on them and the girls were all carrying clipboards as the studied the photos and made marks on the clipboard. As far as we could figure out, the photos are of teen idols, and the girls were choosing which photos to buy once they reached the cashier at the end of the line.

For some reason, there was a long queue for the lackluster American chain restaurant, Eggs N Things:

We wouldn't have eaten there even if there was no line. Instead, we walked a little further and found a place called Eco Farm Cafe 632 (open 9am – 11pm). It looked good inside. When we entered, the server asked if we didn't mind sitting in the smoking section, because the non-smoking section was full. As there were no people in the smoking section, we said OK. I'm surprised Japan still allows smoking inside restaurants.

We ordered a set meal, which included coffee or tea, a croissant, ham, salad, and an egg in a bowl of polenta. It was delicious. The meal for the both of us cost about $15. They have a lot of tasty looking pastries. The coffee is roasted on the premises and the vegetables come from the restaurant's organic farm.

We spent most of the rest of the day wandering around the streets between and around Omotesandō and Takeshita. The streets are small, twisty, and slightly hilly. Surprises in this quiet neighborhood — which has a mix of houses, apartments, cafes, bookstores, antique shops, and clothing stores — are around every corner. We found tiny stores with closed metal doors that you had to open to see what was inside. Some of the doors were only five feet high so we had to duck to get in. We visited Rockin Jelly Bean's art gallery, Erostika (12pm – 8pm), and a steampunk gothic lolita fashion store with custom outfits that looked like they weighed 20 pounds with all the hoses, straps, and brass things attached to them.

In the same area is a place called Koffee Mameya (10am – 6pm) , which I'd heard about before we left the US. It's in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It's a black wooden box with a short door and no sign to let you know what it is. When you step inside, the box has another door that lead to a small, dimly lit room with two uniformed men behind a counter. The men are standing in front of small bags of coffee. There's an espresso machine, a grinder, and a pour over coffee set-up. The men spoke English and gave me a sheet of paper that had the different kinds of coffee available that day, arranged in order of how darkly they'd been roasted. I picked one in the middle and asked to have it served as espresso. It cost 500 yen (about $4.50). It was very flavorful, so I bought a 150 gram bag of beans for 2000 yen (about $18). The barista asked me what kind of grinder and espresso machine I have at home and he filled out a small form with information (weight of beans, water temperature extraction time) about how I should make the coffee using my equipment. Koffee Mameya was one of my favorite experiences of a day filled with wonder.

For dinner, we went back to our neighborhood and ate at Tanbo, a wonderful and inexpensive place where you mix rice, grilled food, and green tea in a bowl. Read a review at the NY Times: In Tokyo, Lots to Eat For Very Little.

Tomorrow – day 3!