We have always been drawn to Japanese food. Simple and high-quality ingredients assembled into the most delightful dishes. And yes, Tokyo is busy – there are about 32 million residents in the greater area. But you can forget about the clichés falsely reducing this megalopolis to overworked masses being pushed into crowded metro carriages, karaoke craziness in neon-lit private clubs and teens in overly dramatic manga-costumes. Instead treat yourself to its enormous range of restaurants, food stalls, delis and markets and let yourself be swallowed up in the process.
Ready for a treat?
Serious case of drooling and amazing amount of alliterations ahead!
Please notice – we do not speak Japanese. So any observation relies heavily on google translate, people watching and reading up on certain culinary and/or cultural matters.
Prepared to precision & decorated to delight
When talking about Japanese food, there are two key attributes that come to mind. Whatever you might order, your food will be assembled with precise concentration and it will look absolutely stunning. Also whatever you are having will, whenever possible, be handed to you with both hands, utmost care and will almost always come with a certain aura of pride by the person who made, prepared, wrapped or serves it.
We could go on endlessly about Japanese delicacies, but decided to limit ourselves to the most common ones, that we think we know, but then realize that we actually don’t really. So this list comes by no means with any claims of completeness and we are totally aware of the tremendous variety of other tasty treats the Japanese cuisine has to offer.
Oodles of noodles
Best Japanese noodles? (Attempt to) Choose yourselves. A noodle is a noodle is a noodle? Guess again. Though there are for sure many more, here are our “favorite four”. First, there are ramen. (ramen vs. hunger, anyone?) Sure, we’ve all eaten this super-filling Japanese signature dish, wherever we reside. Ramen are literally everywhere in Tokyo.They are thin and made from wheat usually served in super tasty broth, pork mostly. If you like it even chewier you might want to try udon. These look pale white and taste rather neutral, so the broth that they are served in is usually very umami.
Somen are the Japanese version of vermicelli, and surprisingly they can be served with warm or cold broth. Cold noodles might sound weird to you but is definitely worth trying. (We visited Tokyo in August, where cold somen are the obvious choice.) Last but not least – soba, made from a combination of buckwheat- and wheat flour. They also can be enjoyed hot or cold. Soba are often dunked into a broth made of salty dashi and as well as into one made from walnuts. Delicately grated daikon as well as chopped scallions make this dish perfect.
The thing about noodle dishes is…expect some serious slurping. Surely it is something you’ve already came across, whether from reading about it or from someone’s experiences, but it is a whole other level to have somebody sitting next to you in a noodle place noisily diving into his or her (yes, the ladies do it too) favorite dish. Make sure not to giggle and have a try yourselves. We swear, it makes any noodle dish even better!
Sushi is everyone’s favorite, right? And we all have this one little place in our home town that serves the best. Haven’t we. Contrary to popular belief sushi is not an everyday food for Japanese people, still every tourist, who visits Japan, comes hungry for the perfect bite. And yes, they will find it, from upscale unaffordable expensive restaurants to more affordable versions, best served in or around Tsukiji Fish Market. There, you famously wait for hours but are rewarded with the most beautiful and exquisite raw fish you will ever eat.
A little side note: The traditional Tsukiji fish market was closed last September only to be re-opened as Toyosu fish market in a location actually not too far away in early October. Much cleaner and more modern than the old market with its charming vendors and hustling and bustling atmosphere the new ground, close to Shijomae Station, is still worth the visit, especially to indulge.
You can check out the famous tuna auction, now via huge glass windows, if that is your thing, or have super fresh sushi for breakfast from about 6 o’clock onwards. Many of the 40 food stalls available at Toyushu have moved from the old market into the new area, so a little bit of the former spirit has been transferred. You can also still visit the old location if you feel like soaking up some of the old atmosphere wandering between all kinds of stands offering food, sweets, souvenirs and other nick knacks.
Bits and Bites
This is where the fun comes in, because you’ll not have heard of most of the food that will be handed to you. Takoyaki is a street food that can be found on Tokyo’s high streets, originally from Osaka, it is very popular at fairs and festivals. Basically it is a ball made of savory pancake batter filled with grilled octopus or tempura bits, scallions and/or ginger. Okinomiyaki is often called Japanese pizza, but we find it to be nothing like the Italian staple, except its roundish shape. It tastes like a savory pancake mostly made out of shredded cabbage, spring onions, soy, mirin and any kind of seafood and is roasted on a hot plate or frying pan.
If you want something to go, try some scrambled egg on a stick, called Tamagoyaki. This street food, tamago means egg and maki is Japanese for roll, can be enjoyed as a beautiful mini breakfast or just a snack in between. Since we are always here for a sweet bite, Taiyaki is one of our favorites. Shaped like a little fish made of pancake batter and filled with a paste containing either chestnuts, sweet red beans, vanilla or matcha is not only kawaii (supercute) but also warm and satisfying to fit in while discovering the city.
For a small bite chose something of the four above or anything really when it comes on a napkin, paper plate, stick or in a bun, we promise, it will all be delicious. Also, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a bowl of freshly whisked matcha often served with a little sticky rice cake on the side. For matcha you don’t have to pay loads, it is often served in the small teahouses you`ll find in many of the beautiful parks and gardens across the city.
Japanese people come across as shy, but you will never be left abandoned to your own fate when food is involved. Even if you don’t have a common language, people will literally show you how to enjoy your food. Whether to use chopsticks, cutlery, hands, or any other tool that will be handed to you, for example little strainers to get something out of steaming soup. You will attentively be introduced on how to bite it, mix it, drink it or where to dip it in and informed about the right order of menu or just about which peace on your plate goes best with the other. Awesome, right?
If you are an adventurous foodie and a lover of special treats, go for omakase, for example at a sushi place. This is when you allow the chef to select your dishes and make recommendations, based on whatever you like. And don’t worry. Not only will they be delighted by you being interested in trying out real Japanese food, but they will, if there is no translation available, show you whatever they’ll recommend you eat. Veggie (often vegan) options are always available.
Array of aesthetics
Japanese aesthetics are defined by contrasting juxtaposition and often by a natural and effortless combination of rather extreme opposites, conjoined into one well-crafted image. You will find the most overloaded food stalls as well as the most minimal bars next to each other. Neon-lit goes easily with monochrome, school uniforms accompany cosplay costumes, business attire meets kimono – furthermore, elegant is just on kawaii’s other spectrum. And somehow it all fits together.
You are likely to see an elegant women dressed meticulously in a tailored dress and a high quality coat, with her hair and nails done to perfection only to witness how she pulls out a squeaky pink bedazzled phone of her very tasteful and neutral-colored bag. Also, from the outside, Japanese department stores and supermarkets are rather harsh and sparsely decorated buildings. The inside though will often surprise you with a burst of colorful shops, vending machines and very likely an amazing variety of – guess what – fabulous and fresh food.
Navigating Tokyo can be a challenge, but an awesome one. We suggest you simply dive in and get a little taste of everything. To help you just a bit, here are some ideas for your culinary agenda:
Start the day
For those, who would like to try out sushi for breakfast, here is your safe bet. Yamazaki used to be located at the old Tsukiji, but moved its location to the new Toyusu fish market. They offer sushi sets, but you can also choose single pieces. To get a seat at this tiny gem’s bar expect some waiting time, that will absolutely be worth it. If you are more into a western breakfast including the likes of granola, avocado toast and eggs benedict, order your flat white in one of the beachy-looking branches of Bondi Café, that can be found in various locations all over Tokyo.
If you are looking for a savory lunch try Abura Soba in the lovely district of Hiroo, often called the heart expat community. You order via vending machine and in no time a bowl of steaming deliciousness will be standing in front of you ready to be devoured. If you only want a little snack for your taste buds on the go, try out the marvelous food floor at Takashimaya, a huge department store near the famous Nihonbashi bridge.
Whether you like sweet or savory snacks Chachanoma, near the famous shopping street Ometosando, will not disappoint. This tiny but super-modern tea house serves delicious cakes and sweets as well as savory dishes. The helpful staff will explain how to pour your tea over your rice-dish and thereby enhance all the right flavors. A tasty and an aromatic endeavor.
Though most of the food you’ll find in Tokyo will be of good quality and reasonably priced, we would also like to recommend two restaurants on the pricier side. Maybe you have an occasion or something to celebrate while you are there, this is where we would suggest you go. The first place is Imahan. This chain of beautiful traditional restaurants serves juicy Shabu Shabu (a hotpot dish, were thinly sliced meat and veggies are boiled in soup) and authentic Kaiseki (traditional multi-course Japanese dinner). The kimono-clad stuff is remarkably nice and will make your evening a true Japanese dining experience.
If you would like to indulge in omakase, as mentioned above, a menu assembled by the chefs recommendations, do yourself a favor and try Abe Sushi in Minamiazabu district. This small and family owned-sushi place will charm and simultaneously spoil your for all lower quality sushi for the rest of your life.
Choice of drinks
Tokyoites like their Prontos. These Italian-style Caffé & Bar chain serve smaller and bigger (Italian-inspired, we would say) plates and a big variety of whiskey highballs, which is basically a small whiskey mixed with a large soda. Casual and smoky.
The bar Trench located off an alleyway near Ebisu station is a super beautiful bar that serves the most delicious cocktails from a wide range of ingredients often accompanied by certain Japanese favorites such as yuzu, a very tasty and also super healthy citrus fruit, or sugar made with cherry blossoms.
Hopefully this little tour-de-delicious through Tokyo inspired you to put the Japanese capital on your travel map. But one last to be aware of: once you tasted a little bit of Tokyo, you’ll be coming back for more.