Exploring the Japanese Food Scene in 4 Tokyo Neighborhoods
Exploring the Japanese Food Scene in 4 Tokyo Neighborhoods
I posted my yummylicious experience in Osaka earlier, and my craving for Japanese cuisine didn’t just stop there. This time, let’s head to Tokyo.
The food scene in Tokyo is like looking through a Kaleidoscope; It keeps the glorious tradition and it evolves, which constantly surprises me. I have been to Tokyo many times, but still, I discover something novel every time and that’s why I always go back for more. Last month, I had eight close friends joined me and the nine of us embarked on yet another amazing yummylicious journey. If you have an empty stomach and adventurous heart, follow us! Hopefully, we could inspire your next visit to Japan.
Ginza: Welcome to the Pedestrian Paradise
Ginza is the heart of Tokyo. I usually stay in this area when I am in town. I like that Ginza captures both old and new. While many high-end, luxurious, trendy fashion brands set up their uniquely designed flagship stores, the tidy streets are filled with local classic handicraft stores and restaurants, some of them are in the business for decades or even a hundred years. The Hattori Clock Tower stands on top of the roof of the Wako Department Store is a Ginza’s landmark. The street in front of the department store, Chuo-dori, becomes a “pedestrian paradise” on Sundays, offering the ultimate freedom to shoppers and diners.
Crab: Kani-mitsu 蟹みつ
Many people know Kani Doraku (I also put that in Yummylicious! Osaka!). Now, Kani Doraku opened in many cities in Japan. It doesn’t mean that this is the only place people could enjoy an amazing hairy crab meal. My friend introduced us to the Kani-mitsu, another crab expert in Ginza, Tokyo. We ordered the set lunch that included one fresh hairy crab and it was served in three ways – sashimi (raw), steamed and grilled. I have to say the crab tasted so juicy and fresh, even though I was still pretty full after my late breakfast at Bills, I had to finish everything. The highlight was pouring sake (Japanese wine) into the crab shell, and heating it up on a mini-charcoal stove. The alcohol evaporated and the aroma left in the shell, it tasted magnificent mixed with the crab brain.
As Chikuyōtei is a Michelin 1-star decorated diner with a long history of cooking unagi (freshwater eel), don’t be surprised if you see a long queue outside the restaurant day and night. I don’t typically like eating eel because of its weird slippery texture, but no one could make freshwater eel better than the Japanese. The secret is in the sauce: layers and layers of sweet and thick soy sauce were brushed on the eel as they are grilled to perfection on charcoal. When the eel is served on rice, it is so warm and comforting; the eel egg rolls are delicious, too.
Shabu-shabu: Shabusen しゃぶせん
No matter if you are eating alone or with a bunch of people, you could still enjoy a great shabu-shabu at Shabusen. Shabusen is a “shabu-shabu bar” in the basement of the Ginza Core building right at the heart of Ginza. Each customer in Shabusen has its own stove and hot pot, and the servers are working in the center of the bar table.
The set dinner menu offers a selection of a different mix of beef and pork in either one of the two soup bases, and all set dinners include appetizers, assorted vegetables, soup and red bean porridge (or udon noodle). Since I always find Suki-yaki soup base a bit too sweet, I chose the classic shabu-shabu soup base and it tasted great. At first, I thought a plate of Kuroge wagyu beef would not be enough, but with the side dishes and dessert, it was just right.
This is a collective effort. Every day, very early in the morning, tourists swarm into Tsukiji Market market for tasty and fresh seafood. The menu has a great variety: from Tamagoyaki (Japanese egg roll), Warabi (Japanese mochi confection), Toro (fat Tuna belly sashimi), barbecue crabs, skewers to ice cream. This is where customers could be spontaneous, get a lot of different dishes, and try them on the side of the street to their heart’s content.
I have a new-found love for sea urchins when I was there. I always think tasty sea urchins are difficult to find as the non-fresh ones are basically tasteless and watery. I saw a couple of freshly opened sea urchins from Iwate in the market, and they were the tastiest sea urchin that I have ever had. If you are into the sea urchin, you must order the sea urchin-don at Tsukiji Donburi Ichiba that features five to seven different kinds of sea urchin and they were piled up in a big bowl at a very good price.
Don’t forget to buy some dry good homes from the stores when you are full – the dried sakura shrimps work magic when they are sprinkled on hot rice, and in a salad.
Tonkatsu, Japanese pork cutlet, is one of the favorite Japanese dishes. Not only the deep-fried pork cutlet is tender and juicy, but customers could also have an unlimited refill of crunchy cabbage. One place that I love the most is the Hirata Farms Co., Ltd. As soon as the dish was presented on my table, I was informed exactly where the ingredients were from all over the country, and they were always fresh and seasonal: Niigata rice, Totori chicken, Miyazaki taro, Nagano celery, Kumamoto cabbage, Tokushima tomato, Okayama peach, Saitama Cucumber, Fungi from Kagoshima, or persimmon from Wakayama… the list goes on.
Even I chose the premium pork cutlet, it’s only 2000 yen! Trust me, it always costs double from where I came from…
There are so many ramen places in Tokyo that I lose count. How about something new with an Italian inspiration? You may, or may not know, that Tokyo has its own “Little Italy”! It’s actually a newly developed area near Shiodome with a bit of an Italian twist. One day, a local brought me to Due Italian, of which the owner had the idea of turning the supposedly greasy and salty ramen into a healthy meal. The deli offer noodles made by healthy ingredients, and it appeals to the female audience and customer who are looking for something new. I love their refreshing citrus soup base and it tastes delicious with cheese and citrus-flavored pepper.
Shinjuku is probably the most classic Tokyo impression to a lot of foreigners. Shibuya’s busy intersections, giant neon lights, and the excitement of walking in Kabukichō at night.
The exploration in Shinjuku could be intense. The Shinjuku JR Station is so huge and complex that it is basically a maze. Even locals always find it difficult to look for their friends at the station if it was their meeting place. On top of the people and dazzling signs, Shinjuku is the hub of department stores, thrift shops and local brands that makes shopping a good workout of your wallet.
There was a time that I was exhausted after a crazy shopping spree in Shinjuku and I just wanted to find a place to sit down and eat something. I ended up in a local small yaku-niku (meat barbecue) restaurant and I had the best yaku-niku experience in Japan. Although the menu was all in Japanese, I managed to order a plate of delicious beef, lettuce, and a glass of Calpis. To my surprise, they used an old-fashioned charcoal stove and it was special. It was one of my best dining memories in Tokyo just because the experience was serendipitous. So, when my friends were in Tokyo with me, I wished to bring them back to Shinjuku for Yaku-niku – but at that time, we went to Rokkasen instead.
For having so many rare and special parts and premium meat, I am happy that Rokkasen’s set dinner is an all-you-can-eat menu so our group could order as much as we want until we were all satisfied.
While new and exciting things keep popping up in Tokyo, Asakusa treasured the old like a time capsule. Tourists like to dress themselves up in kimonos, walking down the Nakamise shopping street and taking photos in front of the Kaminarimon of Sensouji. A little bit farther from the crowd, the streets outside Senso-Ji is filled with Izakaya, while both locals and foreigners could have a good time sitting by the street with a group of friends and drink.
An izakaya is a traditional Japanese-style pub and they basically have a wide range of offerings on the menu from grilled fish, sashimi platter, skewers, yaki-tori, shabu-shabu, sukiyaki… and so much more. There, I also saw some special dishes like flying fish sashimi and even whale. I didn’t order whale due to the controversial ethical issues, still, I appreciate the casual vibe in these places – it’s about socializing after all.
Looking for a good dining place, everybody checks on Yelp or Foursquare; for takeouts, I use Food Panda. The Japanese like to use Hotpepper in Japan. So, if you have a hard time choosing the right place, try to look through the Hotpepper reviews for some ideas.
Oden: Takokyuu 多古久
Ueno is a quieter residential and university area. Many museums are located in the Ueno park, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Tokyo National Museum, National Museum of Nature and Science… and more. I could spend days in the area, exploring the museums one by one. Some of the best old-fashioned Japanese style restaurants are in the area, one of my favorites is Takoyuu.
Oden, a Japanese one-pot winter dish, is my number one Japanese comfort food. It may seem easy to make: boiling eggs, daikon, konjac, shirataki noodles, fish cakes and many other ingredients in a big, light, soy-flavored stew. However, it takes time for the daikon to fully soak in the soy sauce and turn absolutely juicy and soft. Oden is available all year and they are even available in some convenience stores; All in all, I love Takoyuu’s Oden. Locals usually come here before dinner as a pre-dinner snack and drinks.
The menu is only in Japanese. Don’t worry, just point at the big pot and the lady will serve them to you, the food is at a very good price.
It was a bit emotional for me to finally be able to visit Kuriya Kashi Kurogi, because the cafe is not exactly located in the tourist area, and it is an outdoor area of the Daiwa Ubiquitous building. The building itself is a remarkable architecture. Designed by renowned architect Kengo Kuma, The exterior is covered entirely with layered wooden slats – one of the architect’s trademarks – with a refreshing view of wildflowers and fresh foliage.
Warabi Mochi (my favorite Japanese traditional confection) is their specialty. The soft, dark jelly is made from starch; and the texture is chewy and it tastes great when tossed on either yellow bean or matcha powder, and then dipped in some fine brown sugar syrup. Apart from Warabi, the café is a tie-up with the Ebisu-based Sarutahiko Coffee company. The perfect combo of Warabi and coffee inevitably made Kuriyakashi Kurogi a “must-visit” this time in Tokyo.
My love of Roppongi is rooting in the Golden Art Triangle of three modern art museums. By now, more art galleries and art spaces are emerging which makes visiting the area even more inspiring. The National Art Center is a bit more “serious”, with featured temporary modern or traditional art exhibitions that attract a huge number of audiences all year round. Enjoy a cup of coffee or a piece of cake at the VOGUE café in the lobby of the art center is a great bonus after looking at the wonderful art display.
The Mori Art Museum is one of my favorite art spaces in Tokyo and it’s located at the top of the Mori Tower. The art museum is privately owned and it featured lots of contemporary art big names in the past from Ai Wei Wei, Yayoi Kusama, VIKTOR, and ROLF, to Annette Messenger. I visited the museum a couple of times and I found Mori’s exhibit a little bit more approachable to the general audience. Not to mention I got to enjoy the breathtaking panoramic view of the Tokyo skyline at the Tokyo Cityview and its Skydeck after a walk in the exhibition hall.
Yakitori means Japanese Chicken Skewers. Various parts of the chicken (now we have beef, pork or vegetables) are grilled over a charcoal fire – eaters could taste the flavor of charcoal from the meat yet they are kept juicy and tender.
There are countless Yakitori restaurants in Japan and they are often near each other with their own unique signature and character, such as wagyu beef or high-class free-range chicken. Anything on a skewer called “Yakitori”. Basic seasonings are usually salt and Yakitori sauce. However, certain ingredients taste better with different seasonings like miso sauce or soy sauce. Once you pick up the menu at a Yakitori restaurant, the possibilities are limitless. It’s common to see a picture of a chicken on the table indicating various body parts from drumsticks, neck, liver, skin, Yagen Gristle, Genkotsu Gristle (cartilage), Gizzard, Tail, to one of the most unique body parts of all, chicken oviduct (Enmusubi). It’s hard to describe the texture of Enmusubi, it’s chewy yet it doesn’t taste weird… It’s popular among locals and enjoy it while it’s hot.
Yaki-Tori: Toriko 鳥幸
We visited the Toriko original store near Roppongi district and we enjoyed their food. Once we sat down in our private room, I was amazed by the distinct parts that are available on their menu (which was a chicken dissection diagram): from liver, heart, kidney, skin, cartilage, to neck meat… and the most special of them all is the enmusubi.
Another great place that I visited and you could visit is located in Hibiya, and very close to the Peninsula Tokyo, called Yakitori Stadium Tokyo – lately I just found out that it’s permanently closed! I remembered that the place has a good vibe and the servers are very friendly. hopefully, the restaurant will re-open soon.
Omotesando – Strutting down the road of the fashionista
Omotesando, Minami-aoyama, and Harajuku are where upscale and trendy fashion brands are found. amongst these brands, coffee shops, bookstores, antique and vintage stores, and design shops filled the gaps. The area has a hip and trendy atmosphere that it seems everything there are in-style. There was a day I was wandering in the alleys of Harajuku, and it started to rain at lunchtime. As I was trapped in the alleys in Harajuku (got lost happily), I ventured into a local boutique café Café Bio Ojiyan that combined food and fashion. The place is decorated by homespun settings, classic sofa, book racks, with an open kitchen. I ordered the set lunch of the day, which is made of Ojiya (おじや) Chicken and organic cabbage stir fry in mayo, topped up with fresh pineapple juice. When I was waiting for food flipping through the magazines and looking at the home designed accessories, I found out that the chef of the house was actually a fashion designer and his pieces were sold at the I.T. fashion store in Hong Kong. I was pleasantly surprised and that’s one of the great things about Tokyo. There are so many aspiring talents gathered here and they are doing what they enjoy and love.
Thanks to the Japanese’s love of pastry and dessert, cake shops, pastry stores, and dessert parlors are basically everywhere. From cronuts, souffle pancakes, to artisan cakes, they are so luscious and scrumptious that no one could resist. If you ever stroll in the cozy neighborhood (like Jiyugaoka), honestly, just walk into any bakery and you rarely would find the food disappointing. The attention to detail was of the utmost. Every day there are a bunch of Japanese housewives queue up outside the restaurants, gather and enjoy the delicacies.
Some of the following places are not originated from Japan, however, they became popular in Tokyo and the Japanese do have a way of making it their own. Now, I couldn’t visit these places repeatedly when I am in Tokyo.
Bakeries: Dominique Ansel Bakery Japan
(Note 2019: Dominique Ansel closed their operation in 2018 (Too, too bad that I just visited there in 2018 Summer! Omotesando’s shop is no longer listed on their official website, but as I know, they are planning to open a new Asia shop in Hong Kong. https://www.dominiqueansel.com/our-shops/)
Remember the cronuts? It was quite a hype a few years back and the legendary, trademarked bakery was brought to the world by Dominique Ansel.
It is getting popular that you may find cronuts in some other places, but the original cronuts still sold out early every day and there’s still a line outside the Dominique Ansel Bakery in Omotesando. Why? Because not only they offer cronuts, but many of their pastries and desserts on the menu are excitingly amazing and innovative! My friends always check out their Instagram profiles for their seasonal updates.
In 2018 summer, they have a new What-a-Melon Soft Serve and it’s available until September. The dessert dish is made with the bakery’s homemade watermelon soft serve swirled inside a slice of juicy watermelon, finished with little chocolate “seed” and served with a small bottle of sea salt. It was quite refreshing!
Another absolute must-try is their signature DKA – “Dominique’s Kouign Amann”. It is a Berton that features a caramelized flaky crust and topped with a homemade salt caramel ice cream. I have to reiterate that this is absolutely the best-salted caramel ice cream I have ever had in my entire life. All of my friends thought so.
Tokyo has a coffee scene and there are so many boutique coffee shops in town that have their own unique perspective on how to roast, make, and taste coffee – it makes the exploration of coffee shops exciting, I have got to learn their stories as well.
If you are a coffee fan, don’t miss out on the Tokyo Coffee Festival! The festival is one of the more prestigious and the largest coffee culture event in Japan. It began in 2015 and is held annually at the Farmer’s Market in UNU neat Omotesando. The festival is free, and visitors could purchase a package pass for about 1,000 yen and that includes a few stickers and tasting paper cup for a “coffee-tasting” experience at any given stand in the event. The pass includes other festival souvenirs and goodies as well! It would be a great experience not only tasting the new coffee, but also learning their stories.
Originated from San Francisco, Blue Bottle Coffee has emerged as a new mecca for coffee lovers on their pilgrimage. The boutique cafe emphasizes a little bit more on the coffee quality – they do no use blended coffee, and the baristas hand-drip each cup of coffee with beans that were roasted within 48 hours. The attention to detail gained huge success and popularity and the chain expanded quickly in Tokyo within 2 years, now could be found in Aoyama, Shinagawa, Kiyosumi Shirakawa, Shinjuku, and Nakameguro.
For my taste, however, I love Sarutahiko Coffee from Ebisu more. I like the fragrance of their coffee beans and the taste of their cold brew coffee, which is slightly more roasted with a pleasant aftertaste. Another personal favorite would be the nitro coffee (which I have also introduced in Yummylicious! Seoul!), the trend is quickly spreading throughout the world and it Nitro Coffee could be seen in many cafes’ menu now. I just love the smoothness and texture of it.
If you are not into coffee, I guess you would go for tea? Like coffee, the Japanese have a profound history of making and drinking matcha, green tea, and Hojicha (roasted tea).
The Japanese tea ceremony, or the Way of Tea, is a well-known Japanese cultural activity involving the ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha. There are workshops that welcome foreigners to have a taste of what the Japanese tea ceremony is like. The Sakurai Tea, on the other hand, takes customers on a tea tasting journey with various roasted Japanese tea, which was prepared and presented with different methods. Sakurai Tea position themselves as a research faculty by experimenting with different mix and preparation method of tea leaves. in the end, they target to reach a new level with the Japanese tea as it continuously evolves.
Apparently, the Japanese’s soufflé pancake would stick around for a little bit longer. Among all, I absolutely love Happy Pancake, Bills, and Flipper’s. Each of these pancake cafes has its own signature souffle pancake and It’s hard for me to say “no”! Lately, I found out that there is some absolutely amazing pancake cafe in Bangkok and I will introduce them to my next Yummylicious! Bangkok! chapter!
Came from Australia, the famous Bill Granger’s scrambled eggs are absolutely amazing – the chain is now expanding to a number of places like Korea, but queues still exist consistently outside Omotesando’s. It was later I realized that Bills has also opened in Ginza and Odaiba. I love Odaiba Bills just because it’s much more spacious, no need to line up and the outdoor tables offer a great view of the Rainbow Bridge.
Hey! I am Kenny. Since I was a kid, I was bitten by a travel bug quite seriously that I would choose a globe and atlas book for Christmas over video games. Now, the Knycx Journeying website was launched as a platform to share my passion - covering anything that interests me from history, culture, humanity, architecture, art, food, music to outdoor adventure.