OK, so if you follow me on Twitter (@kitchensense), you know that I am in love with Japan. Actually, I love Tokyo more than anything, but the food culture everywhere in Japan is so intense that I can’t seem to get enough. This was my sixth trip. I can’t wait to go back. (This was only Nate’s second trip, and he’s right there with me, though sometimes he finds Tokyo a little overwhelming. And he’s given up trying to like uni.) The problem is that each time I return I want to go to my favorite places from previous visits, but I also feel compelled to try new places that everyone’s talking about. This requires a lot of eating. Usually people go to Japan and lose weight. I gain it.
We are fortunate to have some very close Japanese friends who love to eat and who—more importantly—aren’t afraid to ask even the most ridiculously naïve and sometimes embarrassing questions for their gaijin friends. (That would be us.) This means we are able to have many experiences that we could never have on our own, such as a Kumamoto-style kushiage restaurant where you sit cross legged, the vegetables are listed on the menu with their names in local Kyushu dialect, and the server fries your skewers in a gas-fired, cast-iron cauldron of oil in the center of your table. (It also means our friends can overhear the conversations at the tables next to us, which in the kushiage case included two different tables of men having dinner with hostesses-for-hire.) We eat high and low, from the fanciest mountain kaiseki restaurant (at the Takefue ryokan, for example) to the most ordinary bento or curry chain (there’s almost always a Hotto Motto or CoCo Icihibanya nearby). I’m not afraid to have a meal from a local combini (convenience store), either.
We are also fortunate to have some western friends who once lived in and now visit Japan often so we can get up-to-date details on trends that might be of interest to westerners. I cannot thank Shun and Hidde and Rashid and Marcus enough for all of their help and guidance. We wouldn’t have had half the fun or delicious food had we been left on our own. Here are some of the highlights of our recent trip—new finds and old favorites.
(Note: At the end of this list of recommendations there are a couple of bonus travel tips that will improve your experience in Japan many fold. But you’ll have to read through to the end to get them.)
(Also Note: You can listen to my visit to Tsukiji Fish Market with a famous Japanese chef, a wholesale fish distributor and a translator on an episode of my radio show Taste Matters.)
Tokyo-to Shibuya-ku Shinsen-cho 10-2, Dai-Go Okazaki Bldg. B1F
On our first night, just after our arrival from Narita, our friend Hidde whisked us away to a tiny rathskeller of an izakaya (drinking restaurant) in the ‘hood near his home in Shibuya. It was a lovely welcome. Highlights included a delicious salty sauté of mushrooms and peppers, pork and ginger (a common stir-fry on menus around town), a haystack of garlicky sautéed bean sprouts, sweet grilled fish, fried chicken wings, and ice cold nama (draft) beer. One dish, tuna yukke, we saw on several menus during our trip. It’s raw tuna dressed with soy and sesame and topped with raw egg you mix in before eating that is based on a Korean raw beef dish. Yukke made with beef was outlawed in Japan in 2011 after a deadly outbreak of food-borne illness. Don’t let that scare you. The tuna version has become very popular, almost a trend, and is super yummy.
Tokyo-to 4-8-5 Jingumae Shibuya
It’s amazing how many ways you can consume tonkatsu (breaded and fried pork cutlet) in Japan: on its own, on top of rice, in a sandwich, even on a stick. (So much for dieting in Japan.) Maisen is widely considered the best, and it’s hard to argue. The 1950s décor in the original location, just off Omotesando Dori, hasn’t changed much, and neither have the uniforms of the servers. You can choose your breed of pig, from generic to producer-designated kurobuta. There are sweet and spicy sauces on the table (most people seem to use them to dress the bottomless shredded cabbage salad). With rice and pickles, it’s a deeply satisfying (and filling) lunch. Maisen also has kiosks all over town in depachika food halls and elsewhere, but the food and the experience at the original are best.
Takashimaya Times Square, 14th Floor
5-24-2 Sendagaya, Shibuya,
My other favorite tonkatsu place is Katsukura, which has several branches around town, though I always go back to the one atop the Takashimaya Times Square department store in Shinjuku, where Marcus-san first took me almost a dozen years ago. Similar deal as Maisen, though the setting is more modern and there’s a certain finesse to some of the accoutrements—yuzu in the cabbage dressing, barley in the rice, freshly ground sesame to mix with the tonkatsu sauces—that I warm to. They also fry a mean prawn.
3-5-6, Kachidoki, Chuo-ku
The first time I went to Japan, I visited the Tsukiji fish market early on our first morning. Our visit ended around 8 am with an amazing breakfast at Sushi Dai. We went to the market again this trip, but now the line to get one of the 8 stools at Sushi Dai can be three or four hours long, so a meal there is out of the question. Luckily, an alum has opened his own restaurant, Sushi Kurami, not too far from Ginza. Shun-san led us there on our second night. We began with appetizers of seasonal vegetables, including raw vegetables to dip in miso, braised eggplant, and grilled peppers with bonito flakes. A beautiful arrangement of sashimi was part of the appetizers, and then the flow of perfect and delicious sushi began to arrive. The experience was incredible. Going with a Japanese speaker will help you make the most of this experience. Marcus-san warned us that if you just say omikase in most sushi restaurants, you’ll get the chef’s selection of sushi, but none of the delicious appetizers that might be available.
Tofu Cuisine Sarano
Sakuragaokacho 4-17, Shibuya
This unexpectedly lovely restaurant across the tracks from a train station serves a wide variety of tofu dishes that are reasonably priced and delicious. Thematic appetizers include yuba (tofu skin) sashimi, yuba gyoza (pan-fried dumplings), and a chunky vegetable salad tossed in a dressing made from tofu dregs (which tastes better than it sounds). Salty yuba chips were so addictive we contemplated starting a company to produce them in America. During the course of dinner, soy milk heats with nigari (potassium chloride) in a vat on the table to coagulate into a delicate tofu right before your eyes. In another vat, yuba forms on top of soy milk as it simmers. You pluck the film on the surface of the milk with your chopsticks every three minutes. Two yummy rice dishes, one with fresh tofu and the other with fresh yuba, concluded our meal. To drink, don’t miss a fresh soy milk lassi with mango.
As the name suggests (in a couple of different languages, you’ll note), this small shop with its casual restaurant in Daikanyama is a celebration of tomatoes. The tomatoes are sold fresh and also in various preserved products, such as juices made from single variety tomatoes grown in different regions of Japan. As part of a prix fixe lunch (with a few supplements) I had a tomato appetizer sampler that included chilled soup, ratatouille, tomato salad, and fluke sashimi with tomatoes. That was followed by a delicious spaghetti with tomatoes, ricotta, and mozzarella. The spaghetti with uni and tomato sauce is a favorite dish of my friend Judi-san. A tomato risotto was nice, too. I thought the most intriguing course was dessert, a trio of tomato sweets that included panna cotta with tomato gelée, tomato tiramisu, and tomato roll cake (sponge cake with whipped cream and tomato jam filling), all delicious. (Note, the restaurant is around the corner from Tokyo’s Eataly, which opened several years before the one in New York. It’s worth taking a look.)
D-11 Hill Side Terrace
29-9 Sarugakucho, Shibuya-ku,
Craving a slice of American pie to wash down all of that raw fish? Lots of young Japanese women appear to be. They keep this small bakery and café, run by Japanese baker Akiko Hirano, packed. Akiko met a friend from New England when she studied at the Culinary Institute of America who taught her how to make pie. It was a fortuitous encounter, as Akiko has turned her American pies into an empire that includes other cafés, books, and mail order. Matsunosuke is famous for a deep-dish sour cream apple pie, which sells out daily. The chocolate cream pie is pretty delicious, too. Everything is very American, except the staff and the clientele. Nice place for a break while shopping around Daikanyama.
Ginza 4-10-3, Central Bldg, 1F
Even with a second restaurant in New York, it’s virtually impossible to get into Ippudo to enjoy their superior Hakata-style ramen. Luckily, this top ramen chain has branches all over Japan and several in Tokyo. In Fukuoka, where the chain originated, we went to one of these joint ventures between Ippudo and the Japanese drum troupe TAO. Drumsticks are part of the décor, as are noisy videos of the troupe’s drumming performances. The menu includes a few special noodle dishes said to signify the drumming tradition. Everything we had was delicious, especially the tonkotsu ramen in pork bone broth, as well as two different cold noodle specials that helped take the edge off the oppressive heat.
Daikanyama Tsutaya Books
17 Sarugakucho, Shibuya-ku,
This may be the coolest, most elegant, and interesting book store on earth—it’s actually an award-winning, mixed-use architectural concept called T-Site—and central to the development and shop is a stunning bar and lounge that you must plan on visiting for a drink. (They are open from 7 am to 2 am daily.) The store sprawls over three interconnected buildings that include a few different places to eat, a great cookbook section, a coffee bar, gifts, a combini, music store, DVD shop, and other areas to wander around. Just being there makes you feel cool.
Shiodome City Center, 42F
1-5-2 Higashishinbashi, Minato-ku
Back in NYC I’m a fan of Brasserie En, a chic izakaya in Greenwich Village with very good food. So when I realized that we were staying a few minutes from the flagship of this Japanese chain, I had to check it out. Glad we did. The setting is stunning, atop a tall office tower, and almost every table is positioned for a great view of Tokyo’s city lights. The seasonal izakaya food and the restaurant’s specialties were all delicious. Particular favorites were the giant asparagus spears served on a bed of ice with a dip of mayonnaise and chunky hishiho miso, and a warm salad of crab and cabbage that was umamilicious. The fried young chicken was also great. A fine selection of Japanese drinks, including yuzu sours, kept us there late. The only drawback, as with many izakayas, is that diners can smoke. Luckily, the smokers in our area left early.
1-10-23 Naka-Meguro, Meguro-ku
For our final meal in Tokyo we opted for yakitori. (No more tonkatsu!) As it was a national holiday and a Monday, several of my friends’ favorite places were closed. We settled on this small, interactive yakitori restaurant where we had to do our own grilling. It was delicious and fun. We began with several appetizers, including a pile of crispy chicken skin (aka gribenes) and chicken namban (which sounds exotic but turns out to be chunks of fried chicken smothered in Thousand Island dressing). Both disappeared fast. But the most eye-opening appetizer was a bowl of Osaka eggplant that is so sweet and tender it’s eaten raw (dipped in spicy miso). Mind blowing. Next, our tabletop grill with smoldering coals arrived and our table vent was lowered. Trays of raw, seasoned chicken appeared: neck meat, back meat, thigh meat, ready to grill. If you need help, the staff will take control of the tongs.
During all my previous visits to Japan, I never really ventured into a Chinese restaurant, save for one weird experience in a Disney-like installation that featured animatronics and costumed servers. (Don’t ask.) But this trip it seemed that xiao long bao, Shanghai soup dumplings, were a bit of a trend, and after being enticed into one restaurant, we enjoyed them so much, we took a friend’s recommendation for another. Glad we did. Note that Chinese food is not cheap in Tokyo, but the quality of the ingredients and the delicacy of technique is evident in the dishes. And the xiao long bao are superb.
Paradise Dynasty Ginza
Ginza Glasse Building
3-2-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku Tokyo
On our way to a Japanese eatery after an evening of shopping in Ginza, we came across this shiny new, brightly lit Chinese restaurant. Normally I would have walked on by, but the photos of Shanghai soup dumplings were enticing, as were the chefs working noodles and dumplings in the window. Also, the place was packed. We walked in, were directed to the basement level for an immediate table (in a large, beautiful, restaurant) and proceeded to have a very lovely Chinese meal. The scrumptious soup dumplings (xiao long bao) were clearly a specialty. They came in eight varieties and so we ordered the colorful sampler set and were given specific instructions on how to eat them. The flavors were, in order they were to be consumed: Original, Steamed Ginseng, Foie Gras, Black Truffle, Cheesey, Crab Roe, Garlic, and Sichuan Peppercorn. Also delicious were the la mien noodles served in bone soup (the Chinese antecedent of ramen). The other items we tried, chilled cucumbers in garlic, spring rolls, dry roasted string beans, were also excellent. It wasn’t cheap, but it was a satisfying meal I’d have again.
Din Tai Fung
Caretta Shiodome B2F
After telling a Chinese friend back home in NYC who had lived in Tokyo for several years that we had sampled a delicious array of xiao long bao at Paradise Dynasty Ginza (above), he told me I ought to check out the Tokyo outpost of this Taiwanese restaurant that is famous throughout Asia for its soup dumplings. In his opinion, they were the best he ever ate. To our surprise, the restaurant was in the same development as our hotel so we headed over for lunch. The xiao long bao were indeed exemplary. You could watch the dumplings being made in the window (also a trend in town). The wrappers were thin and delicate. The fillings light but flavorful and full of juice. These dumplings didn’t coat your mouth with an unctuous film the way they do at home. The selection was more traditional than at Paradise Dynasty, limited to pork, pork and crab, pork and scallop, and pork and crab roe. But they were every bit as satisfying. The other food, including a chilled drunken chicken , steamed pork buns, radish cakes, and sautéed water spinach, were all excellent, too.
New Wave Coffee
Years before anyone was talking about Portland or Brooklyn, Tokyo was home to elaborate and expensive coffee. I recall my first experience in 2000 (already old news by then): the freshly roasted beans were weighed and ground to order for each cup, transferred to a linen filter, and saturated with hot water dribble by drop. Yes, it cost $15, but you could sit in a lovely garden and enjoy it all afternoon. It was so exotic. Who could have imagined that would become a norm in certain parts of the U.S.?
Now there’s a new new wave of beautiful little cafés in Tokyo that take their cues from America’s west coast, but they do it up with Japanese attention to detail and style. We even saw a magazine that solely reported on west coast coffee culture.
4-15-3 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
Perhaps my favorite coffee experience this trip was this beautiful, tiny coffee shop off of the fancy shopping street Omotesando Dori. It was a pop-up in a little tea house that took and is now permanent. The coffee is lovely, the setting is charming, and the little square canelés they serve are delicious.
Sarugakucho 25-1 Edy Daikanyama 1F
Also charming is this thin strip of a shop that specializes in mocha coffee, the beans for which arrive direct from farmers in Yemen. Shopkeeper Maiko Miyake was married to a Yemenite man who made special arrangements to ensure a unique supply of plantation-designated Yemen beans. Her husband is now ex, but the coffee is still coming. She serves it in her mother’s collection of fine English china cups along with cakes and pastries her mother bakes.
Some of my favorite nights in Tokyo have been spent in tiny, elegant cocktail bars. Just as I first experienced highly articulated coffee culture in Tokyo before it came to New York, cocktail culture first seduced me at Bar Tokyo, a six-seat bar in Ginza where white-jacketed bartenders carved ice cubes with silver picks and mixed drinks in cut crystal glassware. I’d never seen anything like it and I’ll never forget the feeling of elegant indulgence I felt.
Bar Mons Rex
8-7-11 Ginza Chuo-ko
For our last night this trip Shun took us for a drink at Mons Rex, a swank bar in Ginza opened about 18 months ago by an alum of Bar Tokyo, who owns a few other bars in the area. This was the first time I’ve ever sat in a private bar, that is, our own portion of a larger bar, sectioned off with a door and partition so that it’s as though you are totally alone with your bartender. Like a private dining room, only better. What fun! A menu of fresh fruit available was set before us. We watched as giant peaches, watermelon from Kumamoto, fresh passion fruit, and other seasonal goodies were muddled and shaken into stunning and delicious cocktails before our eyes. Extra drinks were divided among us so we could all sample the tastes of the season. Halfway into our first drink, snacks started arriving: a chilled soybean and leek soup full of umami, a bowl of thickly shaved dried bonito and wasabi peas, candied kelp. I had to drag Nate away after his second cocktail. (After a third he’d have to be carried.)
Other Places of Gastronomic Interest
I would highly recommend that you spend some time wandering around the shops of the Tokyo Midtown development in Roppongi. The bottom floor is chock-a-block with top-quality food shops, from the most elaborate (and expensive) gift fruit you can imagine (pictures of the fruit growing at different stages are part of their marketing), to an incredibly beautiful wagashi tea sweets shop and cafe, to a top-quality Japanese condiment shop (soy sauce, salt, sesame seeds, dressings, and thousands of more items). There is lovely sake shop, as well. There are also many restaurants and take-out food kiosks, as well as outposts of some of my favorite French bakeries—Aoki and Kayser both have busy shops here. There’s a 24-hour upscale grocery store called Precce. And you can eat at Union Square Café or a very popular Neapolitan pizzeria (called Napule, which is Japanese for Napoli) if you are craving a taste of the west. The four floors of clothing and lifestyle stores above the food floor are really interesting too. There’s an international kitchenware shop on the very top. This is a great one-stop place for gifts. Bring someone who can read Japanese labels with you, if you can. Plan on spending several hours.
Like Tokyo Midtown, this is another large, mixed-use development in Roppongi. But unlike Tokyo Midtown, this one is full of western luxury brands and western style restaurants. It is luxe but uninteresting, in my opinion. The one thing I recommend is the Atelier de Joël Robuchon bakery, which I’m tempted to call the best French bakery in a city full of great French bakeries. (I certainly haven’t tried them all, but I’m working on it.) Robuchon has other branches of his bakery around town, but this one seems to have the widest selection and many items are warm from the oven. You should think of buying a selection to make a picnic lunch (maybe adding some fruit and veggies from the grocery store); you can sit outside at the tables and chairs provided by Roppongi Hills (there’s free wifi there, too). I had a delicious croque monsieur with Provençal vegetables and a beautiful Breton cake with prunes. Otherwise, I’d recommend you belly up to the counter in Robuchon’s restaurant, where prix-fixe lunches range from $30 to $65, a bargain for an exceptional Robuchon experience. It’s packed and fun.
The basement food halls of Tokyo’s department stores, called depachikas, offer perhaps the most impressive displays of Japanese food culture. They are huge and bustling, with different sections for gifts and special items, food to eat and take away, and grocery items. What I wouldn’t give for one of these in New York. Among my favorites are the recently refurbished depachika beneath Mitsukoshi Ginza (4-6-16, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, Tel 03-3562-1111), and those beneath Isetan (3-14-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, TEL 03-3352-1111) and Takashimaya Times Square (Shinjuku 24-2-5 Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku TEL (03) 5361-1111). The Takashimaya depachika has a branch of the Kinokunya grocery store, that is a good place to find inexpensive gifts, too. As an added bonus, most of the gift kiosks in depachikas will let you taste what they sell. This is fun for you and an effective sales tool for them. On our last day in Tokyo, walking through the Takashimaya dapachika, a woman handed us a little rice cake. It was unexpectedly delicious and we bought 20 of them in 8 different flavors to give as gifts. I know it makes me sound like a wus, but walking around the depachikas, looking at the beautifully displayed and prepared foods, watching the respect and care that goes into them and the adoring clientele literally lined up for fresh breads, hot cakes and other specialties, literally brings tears to my eyes.
You’ve made it this far. Here are your tips.
Bonus Travel Tip #1: Since the time of my first trip to Japan over a dozen years ago, so much has changed, especially in Tokyo. The city has tried to make itself more accessible to foreigners, adding English to most subway signs and in-transit recordings. More importantly, Google was born and it has evolved to include maps that give you detailed walking and subway directions (complete with prices for tickets) and a very useful translator app. These make navigating the city 1,000 times easier than it used to be. But although Tokyo is totally wired for cell phones—which magically work in subways, in underground passages, in elevators, and just about everywhere you might find yourself in this labyrinthine city—there isn’t much free wifi to be had. That’s why Marcus-san recommended we get a mobile wifi or mifi device. It was the best money we spent.
You can order your pocket wifi online from either Global Advanced Communications or Rentafone Japan. Book in advance because they do run out. You pick your pocket wifit up at the airport post office when you arrive (there are post offices at both terminals at Narita and Haneda) and when you do, the wifi is charged and ready to use. For about $85, we had two weeks of unlimited free wifi (over the 4G LTE network) that worked all over Japan all the time. (Cheaper and better coverage than adding data roaming to your phone through your US carrier.) The battery lasted almost 24 hours on a charge. You can use up to 5 devices on the wifi at one time (so your iPad and laptop can work off of it, too). And when you are done you just put it in the self-addressed and stamped envelope they give you and drop it at the post office at the airport before you go through security. Amazing.
Bonus Travel Trip 2: You may notice on trains around Japan that the Japanese seem to travel very lightly, without much luggage. That isn’t true. But they do not travel with their luggage, they send it along by courier. This is one of the great thrills of travel in Japan, to be free of your bags. It requires a little planning because you have to allow 24 hours or so to get your bags where you want them to be. But on this last trip, for instance, the day before we left, we sent our bags to the airport the day before we checked out and they were waiting for us at the terminal by the Delta check in when we arrived. No need to schlep them on the subway or on the Narita Express. And it only cost $10 to $20 a bag. Every hotel can do it for you. (The forms are usually in the desk drawer in your room, but the front desk can take care of it for you.) In the past, I have shipped my bags to my hotel once I landed at Narita, too. So far, we’ve used the service (there seem to be three main providers, all trustworthy) about half a dozen times and it has worked perfectly. I would recommend you give it a shot. Be sure to have your address written down in English and Japanese because we’ve yet to find any courier who speaks English. But they all know what they are supposed to do.