Best arts in Tokyo
This bar-and-stage venue has become the epicentre of English-language spoken word events this year. With Perfect Liars Club, Stand Up Tokyo's weekly Wednesday night comedy shows, Nerd Nite, Space Cafe, and more, there seems no stopping Good Heavens as the place to be for English-language aficionados. And from 2017 they'll be screening Golden Age Hollywood movies too. With their drinks, British-style food, and second hand bookshop, this venue seems to have it all.
Despite its cool architecture, cheap prices, and intriguing seasons of unusual old films in a range of languages, Japanese people seem to somehow be keeping the National Film Centre a secret: I've rarely seen foreign people here. But in a city where old English-language films are hard to find, I've seen some of my favourite films of the year here. Whoever curates the films has great taste.
There is something rather delightful about entering Ginrei Hall - it feels like a cinema experience in days of yore. It's no frills but in a city where most movie theatres are modern and lacking in much personality, Ginrei Hall has it in spades. Plus your ticket buys you a double bill of often arthousey, intriguing films, and you can buy year-long passes. They screen films in a variety of languages, and usually have the same double bill for a fortnight. I'd estimate around a third are in English. They also do quirky things like their all-night Charlie Chaplin marathon. Wish they had popcorn though...
The biggest film festival in Tokyo may have been the International Film Festival but it was fraught with booking problems, meaning that it was difficult to get to see many of the films, and the selection was not as inspiring as we might have hoped. Meanwhile, the surprise hit of the year was Rainbow Reel Tokyo International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Really interesting, inspired programming, with some genuinely outstanding films, all subtitled in English and Japanese - not to mention a great buzz and ambience with associated art shows and other fringe events that truly made it feel like an occasion.
This was a thrilling exhibition that showcased the diversity of the Japanese contemporary art scene and explored the question of identity in the 21st century. Rarely have we found an exhibition to be so thought provoking. It had interactive elements. It had funny, sad, quirky, charming and participatory elements. And it provided us with conversation fodder for hours.
There's a lot of comedy in Tokyo which is great, but fewer attempts to create well-curated, smart comedy shows that go beyond stand-up sets. Stand up Tokyo have quietly developed Comedy Sumo Slam to fill this gap. In the style of TV comedy gameshows like Mock the Week, Comedy Sumo Slam aims for topical, intelligent comedy where the performers are witty on the spur of the moment and you never have to hear recycled jokes. And yet this is an underground, irregular event, in a little venue, with inexplicably few attendees. Get over there, Tokyo: this is surreptitiously becoming one of the best events in the city.
Improvazilla is clearly not overlooked: this venerable and extremely high quality improv show enjoys a full house every month. And yet we've found that most people we mention it to have never heard of Improvazilla. People should be lining up for tickets for a show this well produced and executed, and in such a great venue. Happens on the last Friday of the month.
English-language rakugo can be tricky to track down (luckily at Perfect Liars Club we do what we can to find it for you). This is Japanese-style storytelling and it is funny and sad and interesting and a fantastic night out. We think Shinoharu Tatekawa does it best.
Best food and drink in Tokyo
Soranoiro is an unassuming but perfect little ramen joint. You order from a machine, the tables are cheery and comfortable, everyone wears bibs, and the food is outstanding. The restaurant was endorsed by the highly prestigious Michelin guide. It's not a vegetarian restaurant by any means, but I'd say it does the best veggie and vegan ramen in town. There's also a branch in 'Ramen Street' in Tokyo station.
Many Indian restaurants get great reviews and disappoint in Tokyo, but Dhaba India is the real deal. Delicate, delicious, beautifully balanced dishes, including some great dosas, in a charming, convivial and attractive dining room make this our treat restaurant. We went before it got its first Michelin star, so feel extra smug.
Marugo Grande in Shinjuku has a great selection of outstanding cheese, and we've been consistently impressed with its achievements in this city where the hunt for a good cheeseplate is a danger-sown quest for a rare and exciting prize. This Italian bar/restaurant just across the road from Wald 9 (thus a good post-cinema stop-in) manages to delight. Just remember you need to order the bread separately (potentially two portions).
There are many French bakeries in this highly competitive category but for the perfect balance of flaky and sumptuous, with just the right balance of chocolatey goodness, Factory in Kudanshita takes the gold medal. This charming neighbourhood breakfast place/lunch cafe/casual bar has many outstanding options but the pain au chocolat is what keeps us coming back for more.
What can I say: we got addicted to Sweetgreen and Chop't in the US. It took a little hunting but we found several good contenders in this category... and it was clear that Salad Stop in Omotesando has it all. In their bright, attractive casual restaurant they offer a gloriously wide array of fresh and delicious salad ingredients - design your own salad, or choose one of their recommendations - and have it in a bowl or as a wrap. (runner up: Crisp Salad Works)
I'm going to be controversial here and suggest that the best cocktails we have had this year did not come from any of Tokyo's venerable cocktail establishments (of which we sampled many), but rather from the newly opened Greek restaurant Apollo. We sampled several and found them inventive, beautifully balanced, charmingly presented and overall impressive. (Note: while you're there it would be folly not to try their Saganaki Cheese dish too).
It is surprisingly difficult to find an excellent flat white coffee in Tokyo - which means that New Zealand coffeehouse Mojo Coffee is a particular treat. Creamy, with just the right kick, this is the real deal. Lovely coffeeshop too.
Good Morning Cafe is a lovely cafe with a large outdoor deck (perfect for taking a dog walking break). It offers breakfasts and lunches, but their stand out item is their little breakfast fruit smoothies. Wish they were double the size, but they are divine.
Again, some solid competition in this category but Dominique Ansel bakery wins out as the stellar example of the genre with their 'Soho sandwich'. Fight your way past the massive lines for cronuts and head upstairs to a lovely restaurant and prepare to have your avocado toast dreams come true. Crispy, delicious sourdough bread. Generous avocado. Tangy pickled radishes. And a glorious helping of creme fraiche. Only annoying thing is they require you to buy a drink to accompany it and they're all just a bit more expensive than you want them to be.
Call them tarts, call them quiches... regardless, Rose Bakery has the pastry down to an art. These little squares of delicious perfection are so tempting I have been known to go massively out of my way to procure one for my lunch. They're all vegetarian. Luckily there's quite a few outlets, usually attached to a Comme des Garcons boutique. My favourite is in Marunouchi. (Note: also great cakes and bread.)
The best okonomiyaki is something of a personal choice, but Bochi Bochi, a slightly obscure-to-find okonomiyaki restaurant combines old-time charm with some outstanding okonomiyaki: fresh, soft yet crisp, flavoursome and painstakingly made (don't go here when you're in a hurry!). They have an English menu too.
Have you tried Paletas delicious frozen fruit bars on a stick? They are not only refreshing, with a range of exciting flavours, buying one feels ridiculously indulgent - the champagne of the frozen dessert world.
Best place to get a dog (or cat)
Best touristy activity that locals should try
Best place to escape tourists in the middle of the city
Things we did to help make Tokyo even more amazing in 2016
- Launched Perfect Liars Club Tokyo - one of the most fun shows in Tokyo (if we do say so ourselves).
- Supported the launch of Space Cafe - one of the most intelligent and fascinating events in Tokyo.
- Launched LGBT book group - provided a platform for LGBT people in Tokyo to read, learn and chat.
- Encouraged University English Lit Professors to launch a Facebook page to tell us all about public literature and history events in Tokyo
- Published a weekly what's on guide to encourage us all to get out there and make the most of the great things Tokyo has to offer.
Three wishes for 2017
- Theatre producers in Tokyo to start providing English supertitles for their productions to widen accessibility and enable us to enjoy and expand the Tokyo performing arts scene.
- An expansion of English-language book events in Tokyo (including the international book festival which we hear on the grapevine is not likely to happen this year).
- More comprehensive listings to ensure wider information about events (and their language accessiblility) in Tokyo.
If you want to help make our 2017 wishes come true, let us know if we can help!
Why no best bar? We didn't fall in love with any specific bar this year, despite dedicated hunting. Looking forward to further research and to adding the category for 2017.