Regarded by many as one of the world’s epi-centres of dining, Tokyo is a mecca for food lovers, many of who fly into Japan’s capital with the sole intent of eating their way around the city. From the freshest sushi in the largest fish market in the world to the atmospheric izakayas lining the tiny backstreets, here’s our pick on the best culinary experiences to have in Tokyo.
1. Best sushi in the world
If you think you’ve had good sushi, it’s nothing compared to what awaits you in Japan. With over 5,000 sushi restaurants in Tokyo, sushi isn’t just a favourite cuisine; it’s a way of life. From tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants in the Tsukiji Fish Market to conveyer belt sushi trains, there’s as much variety in sushi as there is in the number of sushi restaurants scattered across the city. The popular Umegaoka Sushi no Midori in posh Ginza is a favourite with locals who happily queue in anticipation of a generous yet reasonably priced sushi set of exceptional freshness.
Umegaoka Sushi no Midori, 7-10-8 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo 104-0061
2. Wagyu steak with the best views in Tokyo
For an unforgettable dining experience that celebrates Tokyo in all of its magnificence, reserve a table at Salvatore Cuomo Bros. La Griglia at XEX Atago Green Hills. Located on the 42nd floor of the Mori Tower in Minato-ku, the spectacular views of the glittering Tokyo skyline with Mt. Fuji in the distance will almost be as impressive as the meal itself. Almost. Expertly fusing Japanese and Italian ingredients, a meal here won’t be one easily forgotten.
To sample the best that Salvatore Cuomo Bros. La Griglia has to offer, we recommend ordering the full tasting course. Settle in with a glass of Moet champagne before ordering an appetizer plate (the yellowtail tuna is to die for). As a second course, the homemade tagliolini with fresh sea urchin and tomato sauce is perfectly delicate and the Okinawan wagyu beef fillet with truffle sauce and wasabi as a main is melt-in-your-mouth, next level perfection. The dessert sampler of orange sorbet, tiramisu and yuzu coulis is the perfect palate cleanser to finish with as you linger over the sparkling city views below.
Salvatore Cuomo Bros. La Griglia, XEX Atago Green Hills, 2-5-1 Atago Minato, Tokyo 105-6290
3. Slurp Tokyo’s distinctive Tsukemen ramen
In Japan, each region (and indeed, each shop) has its own distinctive take on the country’s most popular fast food, ramen, and Tsukemen ramen is Tokyo’s specialty. For a bowl of this unique variety, head to one of Tokyo’s most popular ramen eateries, Rokurinsha, which can actually be found inside Tokyo station in the famed “Ramen Street”. This is not any ordinary bowl of noodles. The broth, rich, thick and distinctively fishy flavoured, is served in a separate bowl to the firm, thick noodles, which are at a cooler temperature compared to standard ramen. Dip, slurp, repeat. Our tip is to line up before 11am before the queue grows enormously (it’s that popular) with the lunch rush.
Rokurinsha, Tokyo Station Ichibangai B1, Tokyo Ramen Street 1-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda, Tokyo 100-0005
4. From ocean to plate: Tsukiji fish market
Trace the source of your sushi with a visit to the world’s largest and busiest fish market, the Tsukiji fish market. At once chaotic yet at the same time exceptionally organised and efficient, this is where all the magic happens. Set your alarm for 3am and aim to reach the market by 4am to register to watch the fascinating and energetic live tuna auction, which begins about an hour later. Afterwards, spend some time wandering the narrow lanes of the fish market, where an estimated 17% of the world’s total fish catch is traded. Watch the fishmongers expertly carve up enormous tuna and marvel at all the colourful, fresh and squirmy seafood on sale. Grab a sushi breakfast at one of the many sushi restaurants surrounding the market where you’ll be treated to the freshest and best sushi of your life.
Tsukiji Fish Market, 5 Chome-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo, Tokyo 104-0045
5. Gyoza in hip Harajuku
In many restaurants, gyoza appears as a side dish, but if you head to Gyoza Lou in hip Harajuku, these Japanese dumplings steal the show. You won’t find anything else on the menu at this no-frills eatery, located in the backstreets off Omotesando Road, except for a couple of side dishes like bean sprouts with meat sauce and miso cucumbers, but you really wouldn’t want to eat anything else anyway. Popular with locals, expect a line on weekends, but once you’re inside, sit back and watch the chefs work their magic. Order a couple of plates each, either steamed or fried, and be sure to sample both the original pork as well as the vegetarian garlic and chives.
Harajuku Gyoza Lou, 6-4-2 Jingūmae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0001
6. Spicy ramen that will knock your socks off
For the spiciest ramen in Tokyo, head to Kikanbo in Kanda, but be warned, this is not for the faint hearted. Roughly translating to “ogre’s iron club”, Kikanbo is famed for it’s spicy, mouth-numbing miso ramen. Place your order at the vending machine and choose your spice level. Be conservative though – even the “regular” spice level packs a punch! Take a seat at the counter, give your ticket to the waiter, and then sit back and watch it all be prepared in front of you. When your bowl is served, remember to slurp your soup loudly – this tells the chef that you are enjoying your meal and the intake of air makes it even more flavoursome.
Kikanbo, 2-10-10 Kajicho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 101-0044
7. Squeeze into a spot in Memory Lane
Just a few minutes from Shinjuku station (the busiest train station in the world) lays Memory Lane, an atmospheric alleyway lined with close to sixty tiny izakayas and bars. Dating back to the 1940s, this little laneway, wide enough for only two to pass remains almost the same as it once did during the post-war era in Tokyo. Thick smoke billows out from the open windows of restaurants grilling yakitori over coals and the red lanterns lining the lane will beckon you inside.
Although commonly referred to as “Piss Alley”, don’t let this unsavoury nickname scare you off. In times gone by, Japanese businessmen would duck out of the tiny eateries to relieve themselves in the laneway after one too many beers, but thankfully this is no longer common! With room for only 10 or so seats along the counters, squeeze in amongst the locals and order some yakitori and a Sapporo beer.
Omoide Yokocho, 7-13-12 Shinjuku, Tokyo 160-0023
8. Tonkatsu to take you to pork cutlet heaven
Crispy breaded pork cutlet, deep-fried to a golden-brown and served with shredded cabbage, miso soup and rice. Couldthere possibly be a more delicious meal? A meal at Maisen Tonkatsu in Tokyo’s Aoyama district will convince you that there couldn’t possibly. Often acclaimed as the best Tonkatsu in Tokyo, Maisen Tonkatsu is in a class of it’s own. Serving some of the best quality pork in the city for over 50 years, the restaurant is housed in a former WWII public bathhouse and has kept many of the original design details including the high ceilings. The famed Okita Kurobuta Pork Loin Cutlet, which comes from a free-range black pig raised on a farm in Kyushu’s Kagoshima prefecture, makes the long wait in the queue entirely worthwhile.
Maisen Tonkatsu, 4-8-5 Jingūmae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0001
9. Glimpse Japan’s culture at a dark and cosy izakaya
Settle in amongst the locals at one of Tokyo’s many cosy, low-key izakayas (Japanese pubs) for a lively and tasty meal and a bonus cultural glimpse. Remove your shoes, take a counter seat, order a bottle of sake and watch the chefs in the open kitchen prepare meals that are designed to be shared: yakitori, sashimi, okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancakes) and gyoza. Izakayas are busy, loud and efficient – bang your fist on the counter and yell “Sumimasen!” to catch your waiter’s attention to order second rounds. Head to dark and smoky Jomon Yakitori in the buzzing Roppongi district for a delicious range of charcoaled, skewered chicken and pork delights.
Jomon Roppongi, 1F Fujimori Building, 5-9-17 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0032
10. Explore the food halls of Tokyo’s department stores
The basement food halls of Tokyo’s department stores offer just about every kind of delicious delicacy you could ever imagine. From rows upon rows of yakitori sticks, entire counters dedicated to salted plums, to whole sections for roasted soybeans, Tokyo’s department stores are the very definition of foodie heaven.
In the past, the Japanese would stop off at these “depachika” to pick up high-end Belgian chocolates or expensive sencha tea, but things have changed a lot since then. Today, these subterranean food halls are stocked on average with 30,000 items and offer up anything you could possibly wish for. Grab some takoyaki (octopus dumplings) or a freshly packed bento box and on the way out, admire the most expensive fruits on earth, including the world famous muskmelons that can sell for over three hundred dollars. These basement food halls can be found all around Tokyo, but the ones in trendy Ginza, such as Mitsukoshi, are a highlight.
Mitsukoshi, 4-6-16 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-8212