Before your trip to Japan, ever find yourself looking for the “best”/“top” restaurants but not quite finding what you want? What if there was an actual spot you could visit, staffed by local concierges who will tailor recommendations to your fancy – and even make reservations for you?
Enter the Gurunavi Restaurant lounge in Ueno station: a helpful information center with a focus on seasonal trends that's catered directly toward foreign visitors to the Japanese capital. The multilingual staff (English, Chinese, Japanese) are fountains of insider knowledge and can guide you in the right direction to ensure you get the most out of your time in Tokyo.
Intro to the Gurunavi Restaurant Lounge
Seasonal shifts in Japan bring about notable—yet often short-lived—seasonal trends. With Gurunavi's restaurant lounge you can stay informed on said trends, get some hot culinary and sightseeing tips and receive Japanese support for booking restaurants, tickets and more. Much of the information here is either difficult to find on the web or non-existent in English (and other languages) so the staff here also act as immediate translators of that information. I got a chance to sit down with the amiable Nami-san to find out what the Gurunavi Restaurant Lounge is recommending for March 2019.
Just in case you needed reminding, Tokyo is a big place. The lounge's location is in Taito Ward's Ueno district which is one of the city's most electric northeastern suburbs. Located close by are the popular hangouts of Asakusa (home to Senso-ji Temple) and Sumida (where Tokyo's tallest tower, Skytree, resides). Given the variety of activities in the surrounding areas, the lounge information will focus mainly on what to do nearby as opposed to Tokyo as a whole. But as I came to find out, that is by no means to its detriment.
What to Do in Tokyo in March 2019?
Cherry Blossoms and Hanami
On asking Nami-san "what do you recommend for tourists in March?", I dare say it won't surprise you that the first two-words that came out of her mouth were "cherry blossoms". The cherry blossoms are set to appear around the 22nd of March in Tokyo, erupting into full bloom by the following weekend.
The sakura are popular all over the city but especially so in Taito ward. The reason for this is that Ueno Park is arguably the most popular cherry blossom viewing spot in Tokyo. 47 different strands of the cherry blossom genus decorate Ueno Park in beautiful pale pink boscage.
They align pedestrian walkways, brighten up the Shinobazu Pond area and spread their tendrils beyond to almost every area of the open greenspace. Given the popularity of cherry blossom viewing in Ueno Park, Nami-san immediately follows up with the caveat that "of course it will be very busy".
While this is invariably difficult to avoid, she does offer up three alternatives, namely Sumida Park, the area around Kanda Myojin, and Yanaka cemetery. The latter of these is likely the least busy, although as it's a cemetery, having a picnic and a couple of beers under the trees (in a tradition called ‘hanami’ - cherry blossom viewing) is not possible here.
That brings us to hanami, the age-old Japanese tradition of having a picnic under the sakura as they come into bloom. Ueno Park will open from 5am with the night-time sakura illuminations finishing at 8pm. In spite of the early opening times you would be surprised how quickly prize picnic spots get snagged by prospective viewers. It's common practice for new recruits at local salaryman companies to get sent down in the small hours of the morning to reserve a prime spot for their superiors who will join at much more reasonable times. So, what are Nami-san's tips?
Finding a quiet spot may be impossible, but she assures me that the area around Shinobazu Pond should be a little less crowded. She also recommends going into the serene gardens of the Tokyo National Museum which are located within the park's grounds. There are only opened twice a year to the public - once in spring for sakura, and once in autumn for the fall foliage! And, if you plan on hanging around after sundown, then bring a jacket. It may be coming towards the middle of spring but the evenings can still have a bit of a winter bite. Her last hanami recommendations are for local eateries where you can continue the cherry blossom experience, but, more on that later...
More March 2019 Activities
The Edo Traditional Crafts Center is another popular recommendation at the lounge. Located just a stone's throw away from Asakusa Station (Tsukuba Express) it functions as a kind of museum-in-action. Here you can watch and speak with local artisans while they craft a variety of trinkets inspired by the Edo period of Japanese history (1603 – 1868). They include silverware, bronzeware, ornate wooden furniture, traditional paper lanterns, bamboo ornaments and edomokuhanga wood block prints. Although its popularity is still growing, Nami-san has been herself and informs me that is indeed "very interesting".
Visiting the Sumida Aquarium is always popular tourist activity, but this March there is a special jellyfish and cherry blossom-themed exhibition. The aquarium's jellyfish tank is filled with holographic sakura petals. According to Nami-san "the cherry blossoms are projections but the jellyfish are definitely real". I enquired if it was similar to the TeamLab interactive art exhibitions which are the flavor in the month of Japan these days, to which she replied with an air of excited recognition "exactly!". If this is the case then it's certainly worth your patronage. The event starts on March 16th and will run through to April 25th.
Tokyo food trends this March
Sticking with the theme of cherry blossoms there are a couple of local restaurants that will get into the seasonal spirit this March with a variety of sakura-themed menu options. Kotekichi in the Ueno Park area offers okonomiyaki and desserts that are made with the flavors of the sakura. Whereas the nearby restaurant called Kamakura will unleash a full set menu using sakura ingredients in every dish.
As I alluded to earlier, Nami-san also has 3 suggestions for local restaurants and izakaya where you can prolong the hanami experience after a picnic in or stroll through Ueno Park.
Unatetsu is an unagi ("eel") restaurant in Asakusa that's nestled on the banks of the Sumida river. It comes highly recommended as the shop windows provide a clear view of the cherry blossom trees along the river banks. However, this means that tables are a hot commodity! So try to plan accordingly.
Nami-san also recommends Ryuka, which is on the doorstep of Ueno Park. It specializes in Okinawan cuisine from Japan's tropical southern prefecture. Mozuku seaweed is in season in March and is a bit of a local specialty on the island. You can sample this off-beat dish here which is flavored with vinegar and spices. Other popular options include the jimami peanut tofu and umi budo, a particularly flavorsome type of Japanese seaweed.
Umezono is a little take-out spot near Sumida Park which gets serious business during the cherry blossom season. Japanese desserts are the order of the day here, including anko sweet bean paste, mochi sticky rice and Nami-san's special recommendation of anmitsu which is a little selection pot of jelly, anko and fruit.
Strawberries are one of the quintessential elements of Japanese spring cuisine and in March many hotels and restaurants around Tokyo embrace this fact. Places like the Hilton and Keio Plaza will offer up eclectic strawberry buffets.
A local option is Daichi no Okurimono at Ueno-Okachimachi station. From now until March 31st they are having a strawberry buffet fair featuring the famous Amao strawberry variety from Fukuoka. This fair includes everything from strawberry drinks and cakes to strawberry fondue and even strawberry pizza. They also have a range of other savory options from various types of Japanese cuisine and a 2 hour nomihoudai all-you-can-drink option at a discounted price of ¥3,790 (about $35) with a Gurunavi coupon. The alcohol options are plentiful including beer, wine, sake, spirits and 100 types of umeishu plum wine!
While these are Nami-san's top recommendations for March she also reminds me that there is information in the Restaurant Lounge for over 40 different types of restaurants including around 180 individual shops. Simply tell her or another member of staff what you're in the mood for and they will try to find the right place for you and complete the booking there and then in the lounge, hassle free.
There are also some fun little extras in the lounge too. They have male and female yukata (traditional Japanese formal garments) which you can try on free of charge—and of course get your picture taken. They also have materials to make some handmade postcards which you can subsequently send home to friends and family. While these are afterthoughts, they are a nice way to round off what is a convenient, efficient and altogether very friendly and informative tourist information experience.
If you're in the Ueno area this coming month, be sure to visit Nami-san and co. over at the Gurunavi Restaurant Lounge. You never know what lucrative insider info they may have in store for you!
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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