Rebecca Milner moved to Tokyo for “just one year”… 15 years ago. She was drawn by the city’s larger-than-life image – all those bright lights and busy streets – but was surprised to discover just how liveable Tokyo really is. She spends her days wandering the back streets, tracking down new restaurants and writing in cafes. 

Rebecca Milner - Local's guide Tokyo.jpg
Writer Rebecca Milner and her husband outside a cafe in the mountains of Nagano © Rebecca Milner / Lonely Planet

When I have friends in town... I always take them to the shrine Meiji-jingū, not too far from where I live. I get a lot of visitors so doing the touristy things can get a little routine after a while, but I’m always excited to go Meiji-jingū. I love that it's this big patch of forest right in the middle of things. The shrine sells these charms (called omamori) for safe travel that I often send to family and friends before they hop on a flight. If the weather’s nice, we might spend an afternoon walking the grassy park Yoyogi-kōen, too.

I like to shop at... the consignment shop Ragtag in Harajuku. You can find stuff there from Comme des Garçons, Vivienne Westwood etc that’s in pretty good shape. I also love a good trawl through the secondhand shops in Shimo-Kitazawa or Kōenji. And I can't pass Akomeya without stopping in: it's a gourmet deli for the Japanese kitchen – all these beautifully packaged jars of miso and other seasonings. I've been picking up a lot of gifts for friends and family back home from here lately.

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A large group of people walk across a crowded street in Harajuku shopping district
The busy Harajuku shopping district © Takamex / Shutterstock

When I want to splash out... I'll go with my husband or friends to a restaurant in the Aoyama neighbourhood, or to the strip of bistros and bars running between Tomigaya and Shibuya. I always have a long list of places I'm keen to try, but Narukiyo and Ahiru Store are two of my standbys. Narukiyo does a gorgeous take on Japanese pub fare. The menu is illegible – my husband, who is Japanese, has trouble making it out – but we know we're in good hands leaving it up to the chefs. Ahiru is the perfect little French bistro, which just happens to be in Tokyo. It has a fun vibe but it's tiny so it's hard to get a spot. The terrace at Two Rooms is no secret, but I love it just the same for a sundown cocktail. There's a great view of Harajuku's rooftops from here.

To get away from the crowds... I'll often work through the weekends so I can take time off midweek to go see an exhibition. I'll meet up with friends during the week, too. Shinjuku Station on a Friday night is the stuff of nightmares!

Onigiri (rice balls) on display at Natural Lawson convenience store
A konbini (Japanese convenience stores) is a great spot for cheap eats © Rebecca Milner / Lonely Planet

For cheap eats... or when I'm on the go, I hit up the konbini (convenience store). Not the healthiest, I know! My go-to snacks are the tamago sando (egg salad sandwiches) and the onigiri (rice balls) stuffed with ikura (salmon roe). Konbini egg salad sandwiches have a cult following actually: people have strong opinions about which convenience-store chain makes the best one (I’m partial to the ones at 7-Eleven). I also like curry-pan, which are deep-fried doughnuts stuffed with Japanese-style curry. You can get them at any Japanese bakery chain.

One thing I hate about Tokyo is... that it's a smoker's city. Many restaurants (and almost all bars) allow smoking. It's awful for staff – I worked in a typically tiny, poorly ventilated Tokyo bar for years, so I know how it can get.  On the other hand, smoking on city streets is against the law and it’s rare to see cigarette butts on the ground.

People in Tokyo... are pretty chill. Even when it’s hot and humid and the trains are packed, it’s rare to see someone snap. There’s hardly ever any pushing or shouting. Most people are buried in their smartphones half the time. 

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A pair of women dressed in yukata (cotton kimono) at a summer festival in Tokyo
Summertimes are for festivals in Tokyo © Benoist / Shutterstock

One thing I love about Tokyo... is the summer festivals. All over the city, throughout the summer, there are evening fireworks displays, folk dance parades and neighbourhood carnivals. A lot of people wear colourful yukata (lightweight cotton kimono) and there are vendors selling cheap food, like yaki-soba (fried noodles) and beer. Summers are hot and humid in Tokyo, and during the day this can be overpowering, but summer evenings are perfect for being outside.

When I want to get out of the city... I head to Nagano. My mother-in-law’s side of the family is originally from there, so we take a family trip every summer. The closest part of Nagano, Karuizawa, is just two hours from Tokyo. We usually take the car so we can stock up on fruits and vegetables at farm stands – so much cheaper than Tokyo! I also love Kamakura, on the Shōnan coast, an hour’s train ride south of Tokyo. It’s famous for its temples, but it’s also a laidback beach town – it actually reminds me a bit of where I grew up in southern California.

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I know Tokyo is home... because I can navigate the subway on autopilot. Sometimes I don't even remember changing lines, but there I am, at my destination. That said, I only recently learned of a not-at-all-well-signposted tunnel in a corner of Shinjuku Station that leads directly to the Narita (airport) Express tracks. Seriously, the city feels like a video game sometimes.

I'm useless in the morning without coffee... so I'm more than pleased that my area of town kicked off Tokyo's indie coffee scene. Many a morning starts for me at Fuglen, which is open nice and early. Incidentally, Fuglen also does really great cocktails.

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This article was originally published in August 2017 and updated April 2020. 

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This article was first published Aug 24, 2017 and updated Apr 2, 2020.

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