I’m going to state the obvious: the food in Japan is awesome. Since Tokyo was my first stop in Japan, I was on a mission to constantly eat and snack. I’m sure some people will say I didn’t do Tokyo right because I missed out on key food items and restaurants. They’re probably right. But, let me make a couple of things clear:
- I love noodles, fish, and sweets, so these made up the bulk of my diet in Tokyo. I usually don’t crave meat (besides fried chicken), so I didn’t have yakitori, shabu shabu, Kobe beef, etc.
- Tokyo has some of the best fine dining restaurants in the world, but I didn’t visit any of them. I’ve been lucky and grateful to have some great fine dining experiences in New York, but I rarely think about these meals once I leave the restaurant. Instead, I tend to crave budget or midrange food. Call me a philistine, but I don’t have a sophisticated enough palate to discern how a $200 meal is ten times better than one that cost $20. I get more satisfaction from a good deal.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk food.
Since I’m a noodle maven, my first meal in Tokyo had to be ramen. Once I dropped off my backpack at my hostel, I headed straight to Ichiran in Asakusa. Ichiran has many locations throughout Japan, and it has the following features: (1) a vending machine ordering system and (2) individual booths, where you can spend some quality time with your ramen. Once you select your ramen, the vending machine spits out a ticket. You take a seat at a booth, and a staff member will lift a divider a few inches to collect your ticket. You’ll never see the staff member’s face; you’ll only see his or her hands. Within a couple of minutes, your ramen will be delivered, and the divider will close. It was pure bliss to enjoy my ramen in private.
Ramen aficionados are split into two camps: (1) broth enthusiasts and (2) noodle enthusiasts. I’m a noodle enthusiast, for sure. I always finish my noodles and almost never take more than a few sips of the broth. I don’t like an abundance of toppings since they distract from the noodles. Accordingly, I liked Ichiran’s minimalist style. My ramen came with just pork, spicy sauce, green onion, and a soft-boiled egg. I could also customize the firmness of my noodles (extra firm and firm are the only correct options).
For my first sushi meal in Japan, the staff at my fabulous hostel recommended Nihonkai, which has several locations in Tokyo. I went to the one in the Iriya neighborhood. When I entered the restaurant, a sushi chef handed me a menu, and I pointed to the fish I wanted. This sushi chef was a boss, man. He let out a quick “Hai!” after customers placed their orders and had a cool ritual where he alternated between clapping his hands and sculpting sushi. I wasn’t that hungry, so I just ordered salmon, tuna, and salmon roe. Everything was great, and I thanked my chef a billion times.
For conveyor belt sushi, I went to Uobei in Shibuya. It wasn’t a luxury omakase experience, but it was a lot of fun. Uobei has over 80 seats, each equipped with its own touchscreen ordering system. After I pressed a few buttons, plates of sushi whooshed toward me. Each plate was color-coded by price (e.g., a yellow plate cost 100 JPY, a white plate cost 150 JPY). I happily ate most of the sushi I ordered but made the mistake of getting conveyor belt uni. Be smarter than me: don’t do that.
The most impressive part of my experience at Uobei was paying the check. When I pressed a button on the touchscreen, a staff member came to my seat and used a machine that scanned my stack of plates and calculated the bill. Someone designed a machine that recognizes the color of sushi plates. This blew my mind.
Sushi is great, but I absolutely love kaisen don (rice bowl with fish). Tsujihan served my favorite kaisen don in Japan. Apparently there is always a line to get in, and I waited in the rain for an hour. As I got closer to the entrance, a staff member took my order. There are three types of bowls, from least to most expensive: (1) a standard fish bowl, (2) a bowl with crab, and (3) a bowl with crab and uni. I went with the crab and uni, obviously.
When I was finally ushered inside, I was seated at an L-shaped counter with a couple of chefs working their magic. In the hushed atmosphere, I watched one of the chefs craft my bowl, which he placed in front of me after a few minutes. A small plate of sashimi accompanied the bowl. My instinct was to eat the sashimi right away, but I spied on my neighbors first. They dove into their bowls and left the sashimi untouched, so I followed suit. The bowl didn’t look particularly large, but it contained heaps of uni, crab, salmon roe, and fresh fish. A piece of nori and sesame seeds added texture.
Once I was done, I continued copying my neighbors by placing my empty bowl on the counter. A staff member filled it with rice and fish soup. This was when the sashimi came into play: my neighbors dropped their sashimi into the soup. The soup was delicately flavored, and the fish was tender.
At 1,980 JPY ($18), Tsujihan wasn’t my cheapest meal. Nonetheless, I thought it was a good deal, as I got two high-quality fish dishes.
If you’re with a group, and everyone wants to eat something different, department store food courts are where it’s at. I went to the food court at Isetan and was paralyzed by the number of options. I could choose from sushi to curry to Chinese food to salad. And the dessert selection…OMG. Display case after display case contained the most gorgeous and elegant pastries, cakes, and cookies. I went for a chirashi set, which cost just 648 JPY (less than $6). A staff member meticulously packed the set with ice and chopsticks, and I brought the bag upstairs to the rooftop.
The sweetness of the rice and tamago was offset by the saltiness of the fish and roe. The set was the perfect size for lunch, and I wolfed it down. I wanted to keep my cool Isetan bag, but I got soy sauce on it. Womp womp.
Pizza – that’s right, pizza – ended up being one of my favorite meals in Tokyo. Before I visited Japan, I had heard that Tokyo offered some of the best pizza in the world. Let me repeat that: we’re not just talking about the best pizza outside of Italy. We’re talking about the best pizza in the world, including Naples.
I picked Seirinkan for my Tokyo pizza experience. I was worried I might not be able to get in without a reservation, but I was able to get a table immediately when I arrived at around noon on a Friday. Seirinkan offers only two pizza options: margherita and marinara. I chose margherita, and my pizza arrived after about 10 minutes.
Sorry, Italy and New York. Seirinkan served the best pizza I’ve ever had. (To be fair, I haven’t visited Naples. My opinion might change if I go there.) The tomatoes were sweet and tangy. The crust was crispy and flavorful. The pizza contained a good amount of oil, but I used the crust to sop up the excess. Since I ate so soon after breakfast, I wasn’t hungry, but I had no problem finishing the pizza. The pizza was light enough that I didn’t feel grossly stuffed afterward.
Seirinkan happened to be a few blocks from Onibus, a cute coffee shop. I ordered an iced latte after finishing my pizza. I’m not a coffee expert, but I loved the latte, which was smooth and creamy. Espresso comes at a cost in Tokyo: my little latte was 490 JPY ($4.50).
For another fancy coffee experience, I visited The Roastery in Harajuku. When I asked for an iced latte, the barista asked me to pick between two types of beans. I was woefully unprepared for this moment and tentatively sniffed both cases of beans. Unable to identify a difference between the two, I randomly picked one and forked over 680 JPY ($6). This might have been the most expensive cup of coffee I’ve ever had, but at least it was delicious.
Tokyo Station isn’t just a transport hub; it’s a maze of restaurants and shops. It’s a legitimate dining destination, even if you aren’t catching a subway or train. I loved Kamatake Udon, located on “Kitchen Street” on the first floor. I had no idea how to decipher the menu, which was in Japanese, so I just pointed to a photo with udon and a tuna bowl. My udon came with a tempura egg (yum) and a stick that resembled a churro. I had no idea what the churro-like item was, but it was crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. After some Googling, I found out it was chikuwa, a fish cake.
As much as I like ramen, I adore soba even more. I’m a big fan of dipping soba, where you dunk cold soba noodles into a cup of broth. Sobakiri Miyota was my favorite soba place in Tokyo, which I sadly discovered on my last day in Japan. If I had found it earlier, I would have been there every other day…or maybe even every other meal. For just 600 JPY ($5.50), I got chicken tempura and a large serving of soba.
Once I finished the soba, I was given a pot of soba water, which I poured into the dipping broth. Drinking the soba water/broth combination supposedly has health benefits. I don’t know if I believe that, but it’s heavenly nonetheless. I thought Sobakiri Miyota was better than Namiki Yabusoba, a highly recommended soba restaurant in Asakusa. The atmosphere and staff at Namiki Yabusoba were wonderful, but the broth was a bit too salty.
Unfortunately, not everything in Tokyo was a slam dunk. My biggest disappointment was Rokurinsha, a tsukemen (dipping ramen) place in Tokyo Station. David Chang raved about Rokurinsha, so I placed it high on my dining list. I arrived at around 2:30 PM on a weekday to try to avoid a long line. I was pleased when a staff member guided me to a vending machine after only about five minutes of waiting. I placed my order and was seated in less than 10 minutes. When my ramen arrived, I eagerly swirled a few noodles in the broth and slurped.
I expected rich, creamy flavor. What I got was a pure salt bomb. I get it: ramen is supposed to be salty. But this was almost inedible. I finished the noodles, but my broth was left mostly untouched.
I had a mixed experience with sushi at the Tsukiji Fish Market. As I was researching Tsukiji dining options, Sushi Dai was among the top recommendations. However, the line is notoriously long. People arrive at 3:00 or 4:00 AM and wait for three to four hours. If I have to wait that long, it better be the best meal I’ve ever had. I didn’t think it would be worth it.
As a compromise, I decided to go to Sushi Daiwa, another popular recommendation. I arrived at around 8:30 AM on a Monday and waited for about 30 minutes. I ordered the chef’s set for 3,880 JPY ($35), which began with fatty tuna. This tuna was a game changer. It was so buttery that it melted in my mouth.
I also unexpectedly enjoyed the unagi. Sometimes I avoid unagi because the sauce can be overly sweet, but the sauce at Daiwa complemented the lightness of the eel.
Unfortunately, there were a couple of missteps. Tuna and salmon roe rolls were too salty. The uni was grayish and bitingly bitter. I don’t regret my decision to go to Sushi Daiwa and was happy to have eaten there, but I might look at other options if I return to Tsukiji.
That said, visiting the fish market itself was a lot of fun. I couldn’t drag myself out of bed at 2:00 AM to watch the tuna auction, but I strolled around the market when it opened to the public at 10:00 AM. A lot of the stalls were in the process of cleaning up (most business had already concluded for the day), but I still enjoyed soaking up the vibe and checking out the remaining fish displays.
Finally, if you’re searching for food recommendations, Tabelog is a Japanese restaurant review site similar to Yelp. According to Eater, Japanese reviewers have exacting standards, so a score of 3.5 or above is good. Tabelog’s English website isn’t the most user-friendly, but you can narrow restaurants by neighborhood and food type. Tabelog was especially helpful since Yelp doesn’t have a large following in Japan and TripAdvisor isn’t reliable for non-western restaurants.