When I’m in Tokyo, I feel somewhat similarly to how I felt when I first moved to New York City. It’s pure overstimulation, in the best way possible. The streets are exhausting, but then, almost anywhere you go—other than in department stores—there’s this sudden moment of instant chill. Often, you’ll find yourself in a neutral-toned interior with jazz playing. You can take off your shoes, hang out at a low table, and suddenly be drinking sake. Tokyo is this great combination of chaos and Zen.
My first trip to Tokyo was in 2003. I had just gotten out of college at NYU, and I went there with a classmate whose father was then the Singaporean ambassador to Japan. She had invited me, I thought it sounded amazing, and so we went. We stayed in the embassy, a big house in the Roppongi area of the city where most of the Westerners in Tokyo live—especially the diplomats. I remember it was summer, and it was crazy-humid. There were enormous crows flying around—it was seriously strange how large they were. In the Harajuku area, we bought some vintage T-shirts. The clothing was so overpriced—I found a Mickey Mouse one from 1985 for $300, for example—but it was still fun to just check out. One night, we went out to a bar and saw Julian Casablancas from The Strokes sitting there. There was a festival in Tokyo happening at the time—probably Summer Sonic or Fuji Rock. We didn’t say anything to him. We just sort of stared at him, and he was like, “Yeah, yeah, it’s me.”
I’ve been back six times—two for touring, four for pleasure—because I love it so much. When we go as a band, we stay at a hotel in Shibuya because it’s cheap and central. In 2015, because I was doing a travel-writing assignment, I got a media rate to stay at the Aman Tokyo hotel—which was insanely awesome. It’s in the Financial District’s Otemachi Tower. It isn’t the coolest area, per se, but it’s near the Imperial Gardens. The top floors of the skyscraper are spas. If you really want to throw down, stay there. I’ll probably never get a room there again, but it was definitely a highlight. Usually I’m just like, “What can I find that’s cheap?”
I especially recommend the Tokyu Hands department store. It’s my favorite place ever. It has the weirdest stuff. I’ll bring back these bizarre-but-affordable souvenirs from there for my friends. There’s an area of vending machines that you put money in, and they spit out plastic Gudetama figurines of melancholy eggs on top of rice. I’m not kidding. Yes, they sell practical stuff, like notebooks and coasters, but a lot of what they offer just culturally doesn’t make any sense, at least to me.
Because I usually stay in Shibuya, I have a Tokyo ritual now. It started with a meal with my friend Hisham Bharoocha at what’s now my favorite restaurant there, Nana, located inside a train station. They serve grilled meat and fish, soft tofu, and pickled tomatoes. It’s more of a light protein-and-vegetable situation than a ramen spot. The place is so hard to find. Every time I get to Tokyo, I’m really cracked-out from jet lag, and, because I’m usually staying near the train station, I’ll decide to go. It’s on the second or third floor, down a back hallway, and behind a door. There are hundreds of restaurants that look similar to it, so you have to know exactly where it is. One time it took me an hour and a half to find it. It’s the kind of place where moms who like to shop go to eat—Hisham’s mom, for example, loves it. But I love it, too. I guess I’m like a Japanese mom who loves to shop and eat at Nana.
The author is a founding member of the band Grizzly Bear. The group’s latest album, Painted Ruins, comes out from RCA on Aug. 18. He lives in Los Angeles.
Below is the just-released official video for the song “Mourning Sound.”