Tokyo by night: bars and views to cherish for a lifetime

tokyo by night cityscape

There are 3 very Japanese things you can do in Tokyo at night (in addition to going to a Kabuki show): visit a local bar, sing in a karaoke and enjoy the cityscape at night.

While I was in Japan last week for work, I had mostly evenings to discover Tokyo and these are some of the best spots I encountered which I’d like to share with you.

Check out my recommendations of the best restaurants in Tokyo if you feel hungry too!

Tiny bars and karaoke clubs in Tokyo

Bars in Tokyo are pretty safe, and from experience, night life ends relatively early, although I hear there are also areas where you will be able to party until dawn – and longer.

Here are 2 bars and activity I found really really special:

Bar Thalia

I don’t even know the address of this bar because we bumped into it by chance while walking through Minamiazabu, the embassy district in Tokyo. It is close to the Minamiazabu post office, I hope this helps the most adventurous among you.

In this very small bar you will be transported back to the 1950s and 1960s. It is full of memorabilia from those periods and the bartender is a 70-year old lady in traditional kimono that serves divine spirits, including some she prepares herself, such as ananas-infused vodka. Don’t expect hype cocktails here, it’s all about spirits.

And she plays equally fantastic music, when we were there it was excellent flamenco. It is so incredibly odd to find this in Tokyo, which makes it all the more precious. East meets West in the best possible way. She closes at 1pm but let us stay longer, because we were so talkative 🙂

Gen Yamamoto

Another tiny bar, another out of this world moment, much closer to what you would expect from top notch hotel bars, but with a definitely Japanese flair: Gen Yamamoto (by the name of its owner).

I only tried one Japanese whisky (Al Koji) as I’m not a whisky fan, but it was the whole service around it and the atmosphere that made this experience quite unique.

There are only 8 seats so probably best to book or go either early or late.

Address: Anniversary Building 1F, 1-6-4 Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku,

Karaoke night

If you are in Shinjuku, Shibuya or Ginza you won’t have any trouble finding good karaoke bars. You can book rooms for you and your friends or family for as long as you like and you pay by the time you spend there. The beer is cheap and there is a lot of fun to be had.

I’m not a big karaoke fan but this is definitely a must-do when in Japan (and Asia in general). Big Echo is a chain of karaoke bars and they have decent prices and bars in all the areas I mentioned above. 

Tokyo from above

The list wouldn’t be complete without some recommendations of where to enjoy a view of Tokyo at night from above. If you think this is a tourist thing, you are right, it absolutely is! Yet it is an incredible sight that will remind you of how big Tokyo really is, and make you feel all tiny and insignificant.

You have two places to choose from basically: Tokyo SkyTree and Roppongi Hills skydeck or city view (I did the latter as the skydeck was closed)

I’m sharing all these adresses in the hope that it will inspire you to go out and explore Tokyo, but also to hear from others about their favourite things to do at night in Tokyo. I missed out on some good jazz I believe, and of course should add kabuki or any traditional show to my list for next time, so if you have good tips, please, send them my way.

What is your favourite place to hang out at night in Tokyo?

Tokyo’s vibrant restaurant scene: go out there and explore

Best restaurants in Tokyo

I spent the past week in Tokyo for work, and while most of my days were spent inside an office building, I used the evenings to discover Tokyo’s incredibly diverse night life, much aided by the great colleagues of the EU delegation in Japan who warmly welcomed us and introduced us to some of the city’s more interesting spots.

The choice of restaurants and bars in Tokyo being so humongous, there is no point in pretending that the addresses and tips I am sharing below are some of the highlights of any Tokyo trip. Rather you should see them as pointers to help you go out there and discover for yourself what Tokyo has to offer, based on your own tastes and interests.

You can also check out my recommendations for what to do in Tokyo at night.

Here are 5 addresses I can heartily recommend:

Gonpachi Nishiazabu, Minato-ku

Gonpachi is the restaurant in which Kill Bill’s sword fighting scene was shot. It is therefore totally iconic, very touristy but also had good food for a decent price. As it’s also extremely photogenic I really enjoyed my time there, although I must have been a bore for all my colleagues!

Bonus: observe the badass grilling experts while you sip on your cold draft beer at centre stage bar.

Address:  1 Chome-13-11 Nishiazabu, Minato, Tokyo 106-0031, Japon 

Tofuro

Tofuro is a traditional izakaya (Japanese inn) in the heart of Tokyo’s very popular Ginza district. It’s interior decoration will remind you of all those samurai and geisha movies you’ve seen. The food there, especially the seafood grill and the sushi, were incredibly refined, again for a very modest price compared to most Western European restaurants. If you go there as a group you can even enjoy a whole room to yourselves.

The various sake brands they have are also quite good, and the service impeccable.

Bonus: if you don’t feel like seating in seiza position all evening, they have rooms catering to tourists, who can let their legs dangle under the table while still having the impression they are eating the traditional way as their table is so close to the ground.

Address: 8 Chome-2 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo 104-0061, Japon

Sushi Iwase

Did you know sushi is from Tokyo, or at least the nigiri sushi version? If you are lucky, you can secure one of the few tables at Sushi Iwase in Shinjuku, a favourite among both locals and tourists since after WWII.

I was alone so I didn’t stay very long but the sushi I had were divine, and really quite different from those you get in European ‘Japanese’ restaurants, which are most of the time managed by people from China or South-East Asia.

Do book in advance and avoid weekends if you want a chance to try them out!

Address: 4-1-9 Shinjuku, Shinjuku Youth Bldg. Pax 6FShinjuku 160-0022, Tokyo Prefecture

Higayashi

If you are curious about Japanese tea and sweets called ‘wagashi’, you can either go to one of the traditional and expensive tea houses for a proper tea ceremony, or you can head to Ginza’s super modern and sleek Higayashi tea bar.

I went in the early afternoon and tried a selection of green teas and wagashi as I wasn’t sure what exactly I wanted to try. And while the wagashi sweets were absolutely delicious with many new and interesting tastes, I was a bit less impressed by the tea. But that’s because I’m a big big tea drinker and am quite demanding 🙂

Bonus : the interior decoration itself is worth a visit!

Address:   1 Chome−7−7,  Ginza, Chuo, 104-0061 Tokyo, 

Your friendly local izakaya

Wherever you are in Tokyo, you will find a local friendly izakaya which doesn’t even have a menu in English, but serves lovely typical food. The one we tried on our first day in Tokyo, near Hiroo station, served ‘oden’, a tasty mix of vegetables and tofu.

We loved the fact that no one really understood us and that we just picked what looked good on the counter, without knowing what it was and how much it cost.

Bonus: if you are lucky a friendly local with some English will let you in on the secrets of that izakaya. Try to spot the bottles of sake that people own and leave at their favorite restaurant, for example!

While the more famous spots in town offer an incredibly entertaining environment that will certainly tick the boxes of what a proper Japanese culinary and cultural experience should look like, you might actually discover that it’s in the small, unknown restaurants in the middle of nowhere that one tastes the best Tokyo food. 

Now I’m looking forward to your suggestions for my next visit to Japan.

What is your favourite restaurant or type of food in Tokyo?

Sampling Italy in a week with the kids? Challenge accepted!

Positano

One day when our son was 7 we promised we would take him to Pompeii in Italy. 5 years later, as we return from our kids’ first trip to Italy, that promise has been kept and our son has learned the value of patience as well as a great deal about the Roman Empire 🙂

So if you only have a week in front of you and you want to give them a taste of Italy, here’s an itinerary that worked very well for us and our two kids aged 12 and 8. We walked a lot, but it was well worth it. And do consider going in November, as we did: we skipped most of the queues (except for the Coliseum) and still had a lovely weather. We even visited Pompeii in tees and shorts!

Eternal Rome

Start with Rome as the city will both impress your kids from an architectural point of view and offer them a snackable sample of Italy’s best culinary experiences – I’m thinking pizza and gelato of course, but also many different varieties of pasta and more exotic dishes like fried artichoke. For the latter, head to Gigetto near the Portico d’Ottavio for the best ones!

In Rome your kids will be fascinated by Roman history. Actually, who isn’t? As we’re French, we played a game with them that kept them busy for almost an entire day. We asked them to look out for ‘SPQR’ signs around Rome (on statues, pavements, etc.) and we first explained to them that it

 meant « Sono Pazzi Questi Romani », which means « these Romans, they are crazy ». This is the sentence that Asterix and Obelix keep repeating in the famous French comicbook when talking about the Romans they like to beat. In reality it means « Senatus Populusque Romanus » which translates as « The Roman Senate and People » and now represents the local government.

We created two teams, the parents and the kids, and whoever got the most points would win a bigger ice cream. And guess who won? And since you can’t go wrong with ice cream in Rome they got what they deserved: a deliciously creamy and tasty natural gelato in the area of Cavour, a very nice district away from the tourist crowds with a vibrant local life.

The next day, with the kids’ grand-parents, we visited the Coliseum, the Roman forum, the catacombs of St. Calixthe, the Caracalla thermal baths and they liked each and every visit. We took our picnic to some of these places because the weather was gorgeous, and it is quite something to picnic amidst over 2,000 years old ruins!

We also rented two scooters one day and took them on a more extended tour of Rome, to Trastevere and the Vatican, back and forth across the Tiber river and they loved it! We didn’t stop at the Sixtine Chapel as the crowds there were even scarier than at the Coliseum, but they were impressed to know about the history and political situation of the smallest State on the planet. And they laughed very hard at the ‘clown parade’ of the Swiss guards, as they liked to call them.

After 3 days it was time to move on and drive south – we rented a car which proved easy and cheaper than any other transportation mode., that is if you can cope with the Italian driving style 🙂

Tips for Rome with children:

  • Rent a scooter if you are comfortable driving, it’s the best way to get around and a real adventure for the kids. We loved the service at Bici Baci.
  • Sample the local food, it’s pretty decent in most places, but avoid the busy piazzas which are just too crowded and expensive. We even discovered a mortadella with truffles at a mini Carrefour market that was to die for, so no need to go for a 3* restaurant!
  • As much as possible book your tickets to visit the Coliseum and other monuments in advance, it helps to skip some of the queues (but not all unfortunately).
  • Visit monuments in the morning and keep the afternoon for hanging around in parks where kids can run and chase pigeons (and SPQR signs), or for scooter rides.

Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast under the autumn light

We spent the next 4 days in a small village near Sorrento where we had rented a small and cosy Airbnb house overlooking the sea, with a garden full of lemon and orange trees.

Everyday we would venture out to a different coastal beauty: on the first day we visited Sorrento, overlooking the bay of Naples and the majestic Vesuvius volcano, and the small villages around it, full of delicious pastry shop serving the local delikatessen, including sumptuous lemon tarts and baba au rhum.

On the second day we drove along the Amalfi coast, sampling some of the best villages along the way: Positano of course, where the kids even dared to bathe in the sea (I chickened out at the last moment), but also Amalfi, Atrani and Ravello, where we had the best gelato of our trip!

The weather was a bit mixed but the late autumn light and the mild weather made it all the more special. Lemons growing everywhere in the hinterland reminded us that this is THE place to taste and buy the famous limoncello.

Kids tagged along to most of the activities and were genuinely interested in both the natural and architectural landscapes. It was a lot of driving though, but we were rewarded at the end with a superb sunset along the coast on our return.

The next day we dedicated to Pompeii. We left our cars at home and took the bus and then train, which was really cheap and convenient because parking around Pompei is complicated and very expensive (5 EUR/hour).

As we arrived before 11am there were no queues and the sun was shining brightly. A perfect day to walk 6 hours among the ruins, and I could have stayed on, honestly!

Luckily the kids enjoyed it almost as much as the adults, they had lots of questions, and were really grateful for the presence of their grandmother, a former Latin and Greek teacher. They even played games in the ruins – kids will be kids 🙂

On Sunday we decided to relax, and ‘only’ climb on top of the Punta Campanella, where it is said Ulysses resisted the song of the Sirens. We reached a white chapel after a steep walk along a windy and rocky path that lets you look at both coasts, the Sorrentino and the Amalfi Coast, as well as Capri.

Despite the stormy weather, it was one of the highlights of our trip, because the atmosphere there was very mystical – and our son is called Ulysse, so we shared stories about the hero he is named after which he had never heard of.

Tips for Pompei and the Amalfi Coast with children:

  • Take at least one day for Pompeii and make sure you know about the history of the place, if your kids already go to school, they will be fascinated. Come early and by train to avoid the crowds and the parking fees.
  • Drive or take the cheap buses from one little town to the next on the Amalfi Coast. Plan your journey from West to East so that you enjoy the sunset on the sea on your return.
  • Stop for dinner at Lo Stuzzichino, a delicious restaurant in Massa Lubrense which has a lovely atmosphere and is run by a charming family preparing incredible sea food.

  • Try the local specialties made from lemons – limoncello (for the adults) and lemon sorbet or cake (for all).

Naples inferno

The only thing we didn’t like in our entire trip was Naples. We made the mistake to stop there on our way back with the cars, which was the worst idea in the world. Neapolitan traffic is crazy, they park their cars everywhere and it’s pretty chaotic, even by Asian standards! We only stayed half a day, because the kids felt insecure and found the city very dirty and uninteresting.

I have to admit that apart from the must-see chapel of San Severo which boasts the most exquisite marble sculptures I have EVER seen in my life, the rest was not memorable. Even the famed sfogliatelle and the ragú (local tomato sauce) didn’t meet our expectations.

 

And then of course, it started to rain, which was the perfect excuse not to miss our flight back to Brussels, where – surprise – the sun was shining, for once.

The royal court of Tiebele in Burkina Faso

Tiebele royal court and village

Last weekend I spent a day with a Prince in his court. If this conjures mental images ‘a la Disney’ then you’re quite off the mark, because the Prince I’m talking about is the son of the King of Tiebele in Burkina Faso and his court is a village deep in the African bush with little sign of its royal status other than the ornate luxury of its wall paintings. Continue reading “The royal court of Tiebele in Burkina Faso”

Back to my favourite place in the world

I usually never travel back to the same place I’ve already been abroad – with the exception of Bangkok. But this year we decided to go back to the house we rented near Ubud in 2011, when we started our monthly stays abroad with the kids during winter. The house we rent in Lodtunduh, just south of Ubud is part of a compound of 5 traditional thatched roof houses called T House Kaja. Continue reading “Back to my favourite place in the world”