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Where to eat in Tokyo, and other tips for Japan

July 11, 2015

I went on a short 9-day trip to Japan last week with some old friends. Thanks to Google Drive, we’d planned an epic gastronomic itinerary, complete with custom maps and spreadsheets (if anyone wants access, let me know). Our itinerary was Tokyo – Kyoto – Tokyo and it was exhausting but brilliant and I’ve already started looking at flights for 2016. I’ll list some of the restaurants we tried, as well as some tips for eating out in Japan at the end.

Ramen

While I went to two ramen places during this trip, I really wish I’d gone for more late-night ramen munchies. There is an entire world of ramen to explore in Tokyo and I am deeply regretting I only tried two. But there’s only so much my stomach could handle! I would also note that while I remember where we had Ramen #1, I have no recollection of its name or street address. We’d just stumbled across it after walking from Kiddy Land near Meijijingumae to Shibuya. So although I had many ramen shops on my List To Try, I also highly encourage just walking into any random ramen shop, because 90% of the time it will be better and cheaper than anything you could get in London. No guarantees for other parts of the world.

Kyushu Jangara Ramen (Harajuku branch)

It’s touristy, it’s located in a touristy area in Harajuku, just a few minutes’ walk from the famous Takeshita Dori shopping street, but it’s a damn good bowl of noodles – we’re talking less than £6 for a massive bowl. Their most popular is the Kyushu Jangara ramen, with a blend of pork and chicken soup. The base is still creamy from the pork bones but has a lightness to it from the chicken. It comes with mentaiko (spicy cod roe) which dissolves and gives it an additional complexity. The bowl also contains two types of pork – big chunks of tender pork belly braised in a savoury soy-based broth, and slices of pork belly. For the adventurous, the Bonshan is their version of tonkotsu. Their soup base is ridiculously thick, practically coating the spoon, but it’s thick with collagen and gelatin. There is a definite masculine funk to this soup, very porky, almost overwhelmingly so for me. I can see this being a winter favourite, however. The third option is the Kobonshan ramen, which is a similar blend of creamy pork and chicken soup but with an additional garlic. Warning – this is REALLY garlicky, in a marvelous way. Finally, we tried the tsukemen, which had thicker, curlier noodles. The noodles themselves were toothsome and chewy, and the dipping soup base was addictively savoury. I believe this soup is made from seafood as well, which makes it that much tastier. A great option during the oppressive summer heat.

Do upgrade to the nitamago egg (soft-boiled) which costs an extra 120 yen. The sight of the golden yolk spilling out is one to behold.

There are various branches all over Tokyo. If you’re hankering for a particular ramen style, though, check before you go as not all of them are available in every location.

Sushi

 Tsukiji Donburitakumi つきじ 丼匠

Tsukiji Market, one of the must-see destinations in Tokyo, is home to several restaurants that used to cater to the workers at the market, but many have now become tourist attractions in their own right. Two sushi shops in particular, Sushi Dai and Sushi Daiwa, have skyrocketed in popularity and queues of 3-5 hours are not unheard of. There was absolutely no chance for our group of six to even consider queuing, so we just popped into Tsukiji Donburitakumi a few alleys away which, thankfully, did not have a queue. They specialise in donburi, or rice bowls topped with fresh fish and seafood, and there are a huge variety to choose from. My rice bowl was topped with creamy uni (sea urchin), ikura (salmon roe), chutoro (fatty tuna), and lean tuna. At 2200 yen (£11.50), this was great value for money for such fresh seafood. It was one of the quickest meals we had in Japan – we were in and out within 15 minutes, as a line of waiting people grew behind us. Honestly, I don’t see the point in waiting for the two most popular shops in Tsukiji Market. They might be really cheap, but other shops are most likely just as cheap (if not more affordable), and source fish that is equally fresh, without having to sacrifice half of your day. I might be biased, however, because I knew we had a killer splurge meal at a fantastic sushi restaurant at the end of the week…

Sushi Iwa いわ

Sushi Iwa is a high-end sushiya, with counter seating for only six people. According to some people at Chowhound, the second-in-command chef at Sushi Iwa can speak practically fluent English and is open to accepting foreigners. I would highly recommend finding one that is able to converse the same language as you or at least one of your dining companions. It’s a very personal, intimate experience. Interaction with the chef is part of the experience, and your foreign, non-Japanese-speaking presence at the counter only serves to form a barrier between you. In our case, our entire group sat at the counter (there were five of us in total) and had the chef not spoken a lick of English, we would have eaten our meal in silence. What happened instead was a gradual conversation that built up as the meal progressed and more sake was consumed.

The sushi, except that it was fantastic and I’ll probably never be able to have this experience outside of Japan. It’s not considered to be the pinnacle of sushi in Tokyo, by any means, but for a foreigner who bills herself as quite an adventurous and well-seasoned glutton, it was just right – not too intimidating. At my level, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anyway between the most highly-ranked sushiya and Sushi Iwa. The service was lovely; we were treated as if we were very special customers, although we definitely weren’t, and this was one of those instances where I felt frustrated at the no-tipping culture in Japan because there wasn’t any other way of expressing our appreciation aside from repeatedly saying thank you! However, this experience comes at a price; it came to 24,600 yen (including drinks), or £130. Despite the high cost, I think it’s worth it, and if I ever go back to Tokyo, Sushi Iwa is definitely on the list to re-visit. I’ll post a full review on this soon, with pictures and names of all the sushi we were served.

Sukiyaki

Ningyocho Imahan (Ueno Hirokoji branch)

Sukiyaki with super high quality Japanese beef. Yes please #beef #sukiyaki #foodporn #tokyofood #tokyo

A post shared by Dawn (@astereilla) on

Our hotel concierge reserved a table for us here for some sukiyaki action. Sukiyaki is a Japanese hot pot dish where thinly sliced beef and vegetables are simmered in a shallow pot in front of you, usually in a soy-mirin sauce. Typically, the food is dipped into beaten raw egg before eating. You can choose from various set menus, but we all went for the sukiyaki with rice set. The quality of beef is also up to you – I went for their top quality Japanese beef, and you could see the intense marbling of fat in the slices. This didn’t come cheap (9,720 yen, or £50) but the meal was outstanding. A waiter cooked everything tableside and served the beef slice by slice as it was cooked, each time with more veggies and tofu. The beef was silky and fatty, and the sukiyaki sauce didn’t overwhelm the flavour. The final rice course was served with some barely-scrambled eggs which had been cooked in the same pan, which of course was now chock-full of flavour from the beef and vegetables. A fantastic dinner, although the waiters don’t speak much English.

Yakiniku

Yoroniku よろにく

Of course, to really taste the flavour of Japanese beef itself, we had to try yakiniku (grilled meat). Yakiniku once referred to Korean restaurants in Japan, but now is known as any type of meat, usually beef,  and vegetables cooked on a grill in front of you. Yoroniku is one of the most highly-rated yakiniku restaurants in Tokyo, and it has the bonus of having an English menu. We ordered the 7,000 and 9,000 yen set menus (£36 and £47, respectively) which came with the same amount of food; the only differences were in the cuts and quality of the beef. All the beef comes from Japan and has gorgeous marbling. The beef is cooked by your waiter and then served to you, so you barely have to lift a finger. We started with an assortment of pickles and raw preparations of beef, then moved onto grilled thinly sliced beef. The grilled beef is then broken down further into salt-based or sauce-based beef, progressing onto the more special cuts of beef. There were lots of unusual cuts , such as the 3rd stomach and inner thigh, as well as more common cuts like the sirloin. All of them were beautifully tender without being too greasy. The grilling really enhanced the beefy flavours without being overpoweringly smoky. One of the best cuts literally had to be rolled and eaten in one piece, as instructed by your waiter, otherwise your chopsticks would tear the meat – now that’s melt-in-your-mouth.

Udon

Marugame Seimen 丸亀製麺

We walked into a random udon shop in somewhere along the way between Omotesando, Harajuku, and Shibuya. (Thanks to Tabelog and Google, I managed to find out its name despite not having taken any photos of the interior!) There was a long counter where you chose your udon (hot, cold, type of soup/dipping sauce) and you slide your tray to the next self-service bit where you can add assorted tempura for an additional charge. If you’re hungry, you can choose a larger serving of udon. I chose the oroshi-shoyu chilled udon, which came with some grated daikon, green onions, and a little wedge of lime, tossed in a light and refreshing soy-based sauce. In hindsight, tempura wasn’t the best idea – it had been sitting out for what seemed like hours under a heat lamp, and it was greasy and limp. But the udon noodles themselves were a revelation. Chewy, bouncy, slippery, with the chill adding a particularly toothsome bite. I love my chewy noodles. My entire meal cost 500 yen (£2.50), with the tempura.  If a chain restaurant in Tokyo can offer their customers such great quality udon at these frankly absurdly low prices, why can’t London do the same?

Ryogoku Sarara

This is the Japanese tea room situated within the Edo-Tokyo Museum (which, by the way, is entirely worth your time, especially if you ask for a volunteer tour guide). We went in with low expectations; it is a museum cafe, after all. For breakfast, we each chose an udon set. If the noodles had gone to school, they would have received an “exceeded expectations” grade. Again a perfectly toothsome chew to them, this textural element so often missing from London’s udon scene. The toppings and soup, on the other hand, were a little boring, but satisfactorily serviceable for a quick museum breakfast.

Once again, you can walk into any random restaurant that serves udon and I can pretty much guarantee you that your udon noodles will be better than any place London has to offer.

Tempura

Seikou 晴光

We stumbled across this unassuming shop purely because we had seen the massive line at Daikokuya, another tempura institution in Asakusa, and we were on a search in the rain for a similar tempura restaurant. Fortunately, Seiko had a little flag that said “tempura”. It’s a Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant, meaning that it serves great food at a great price, and the Guide wasn’t wrong (at least on this count). It appears to be run by two brothers. Everything is fried to order in front of you by the chef, and instead of tentsuyu, the typical dipping sauce for tempura, you get seven different types of salt to go with your tempura. All the sets range between 1,000-2,000 JPY at lunch. Given the expertly fried food and the attentive service, it’s brilliant value for money.

Tips for traveling and eating in Japan

  • No tipping. It’s rude. (Also, super refreshing to never have to tip!) Always take all the change you’re given.
  • Do try and make restaurant reservations as soon as possible, if you have certain places in mind. Most of these destination restaurants are small and some, like kaiseki or sushi restaurants, will most likely be reservations-only, as they buy only what they need a few days ahead or even on the day. Our restaurant reservations for this trip were arranged through the hotel concierge by email. I just sent a list of restaurants (prioritised, in case of unavailability) and dates. If you decide to take this option, choose a hotel which is at least mid-range; 2* hotels are less likely to accommodate your requests. Otherwise, there are restaurant reservation services online, although most take a small fee. Of course, if you can speak Japanese or you have a friend who can, this probably isn’t an issue for you.
  • Following on from above, ask your hotel concierge to find out whether there are any English speakers at the restaurant, or an English or picture menu. It is extremely difficult to navigate a Japanese-only menu and it just causes stress for both you and the waiters. We struggled, even with knowledge of basic Japanese, when we stumbled across a Japanese-only izakaya.
  • Download lots of translation apps, if you have a smartphone. See below for a list of recommended apps.
  • To use those translation apps, you’ll need an internet connection. We rented a pocket wifi (essentially a mini portable router) from Global Advanced Communications, which worked out to be fairly cheap when the cost was split amongst us. The regular 75 Mbps pocket wifi plan we chose was fine, although in parts of Kyoto we had no signal and the battery wouldn’t last a full day. Switch it off if you’re not using it during the day. Don’t put it in your actual pocket, because this thing gets hot.
  • If you’re eating food from a street stall, stand to one side for consumption. Eating while walking is considered rude in Japan.
  • We found it was uncommon to pay at the table. The waiter usually brings you the bill, face-down, as soon as you’ve finished ordering your food. Take this up to the counter with your money and pay at the till.
  • Watch out for toilet shoes! If you’re in a place where you’ve been asked to take off your shoes, chances are that there will be toilet slippers provided for use only within the toilet.
  • Buy a PASMO/IC card for transportation when you get to Tokyo. This is like London’s Oyster card, or Hong Kong’s Octopus card, but unlike the Oyster card you can also use it at most convenience stores and vending machines. Topping up your card with the machines can be tricky – ask a station attendant for help if need be. PASMO/IC cards are interchangeable and can be used in Kyoto as well.
  • If you have a Japan Rail pass, travel on the JR lines within Tokyo is also included. Just show your ticket to the attendant at the manned station gate and they’ll wave you through.

Apps to download on your phone

  • Learn Japanese – this is a great basic phrasebook which works offline.
  • Google Translate – best for its ability to take a photo and scan it, but its literal translations leave much to be desired.
  • Innovative Language 101 – great for learning some basic Japanese before you go (I recommend Absolute Beginners seasons 1 & 2). Join their free trial and download as many audio tracks as you can within the trial period!
  • Tokyo Subway Navigation for Tourists – developed by Tokyo Metro Co., this travel planner shows you how to get between stations on the metro, and it works offline. Do note that it doesn’t include the JR lines or other rail lines.
  • Hyperdia – on the other hand, this app works includes every single line in Japan, which means you can use it outside Tokyo. On the downside, the UI is a little harder to navigate and it can only be used with an internet connection.
  • Imiwa? – this is a multilingual Japanese dictionary which is helpful if you can write kanji or katakana/hiragana on your keyboard. Also has many phrases and a notes section where you can jot down words or phrases you’ve recently learned.

More posts to follow, including full reviews of some of the aforementioned restaurants and a guide to eating out in Kyoto as well.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 12, 2015 9:54 am

    Wow. It’s amazing that you had all popular Japanese food in 9days!

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