Foodie hotspots: Tsukiji, Asakusa, Ueno, Ginza, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Nishi-Shinjuku, Aoyama, Omotesando, Kanda, Kagurazaka, Aoyama, Roppongi, Tsukishima, Toranomon & Shinbashi, Hamamatsu-cho, Yoyogi-Uehara.
The Basics: Where to begin? Every last lazy sub-editor will tell you Tokyo is a 'city of contrasts', but in this case it really is. Without a discernable center, but rather a collection of 'cities within a city', it is unmissable on any inbound foodie's itinerary.
Foodies Go Tokyo: Henry Heuksen, translator to the first US ambassador to Japan, Townsend Harris, once wrote “Every day we have excellent very fresh oysters, geese, ducks – open your eyes, be all ears you celebrated gastronomes”. He might have penned that yesterday.
Tokyo is a Mad Max-meets-Blade Runner megalopolis, a 24-hour neon cyclone that chases its own tail and spins ad infinitum with limitless human energy. All life is here from the earthy, proletarian shitamachi ‘downtown’ (in parts unchanged-since-wartime) backstreets of Asakusa, Ueno, Nippori and Katsushika-Shibamata, to trendy Aoyama, Omotesando, Daikanyama and Harajuku. Whatever you do make sure to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market, and the neighboring External Market. drop by Tsukiji Cooking too if that's your thing.
All food life is present too, from local to Lebanese, from deep-fried scorpions to haute cuisine served in faux French chateaux, from Shibamata’s tsukudani fish and vegetable pickle street sellers to Aoyama’s irresistible street cafés. Shinjuku, Shibuya and Roppongi have a bewildering array of dining options of every kind. Today’s cosmopolitan madhouse that is Tokyo features magnificent restaurants of every persuasion on every street corner. That’s not hyperbole, just plain fact.
But even within the metropolitan mayhem, some areas retain their old specializations. The ryotei high-class restaurants of Kagurazaka are still the venue for discreet, expensive rendezvous with geisha over kaiseki Japanese formal cuisine. Kanda and Nihonbashi fairly teem with classy soba restaurants. Whereas Akasaka is glitz, high-end hotels and expense account dining, Asakusa still has unpretentious, inexpensive, superb anago loach (try Komagata Dozeu with its 220-year+ history), unagi eel, tempura, and ramen restaurants that date back to a different age.
Tokyo today is one giant revolving restaurant with a ravenous lunatic at the controls. Yet amid all this culinary ‘noise’ stands the Edokko, the true Tokyoite, as down to earth as a market-trader’s boot, forthright, proud and hungry. Time for a short history lesson.
When the powers that be decided to move the capital, and its emperor, from ancient Kyoto in the late 19th century, where it had resided for centuries, the effect on the country was profound.
The site chosen for the new city was low-lying swampland where the huge Kanto plain that swept down from the mountains of Tochigi and Gunma met a huge, fish-filled bay. The name of the new capital was Edo. Its construction was a gigantic task, and carpenters and craftsmen were shipped in by the thousands. It was these rough and tough workmen - and they were largely men - who were to build, and settle in, the city that was later to change its name to Tokyo.
The Edokko, literally, ‘children of Edo’, were not the aesthetes and artisans of Kyoto, and their tastes, both culinary and otherwise, ran to the plain and direct. The Edokko loved the strong, dark brown soy and katsuobushi dried bonito fish-based dashi stock that still characterizes Tokyo cuisine today. They embraced buckwheat noodles with a vengeance, opting for the strong, dark tsuyu dipping sauce still found throughout the city.
Today the five great soba buckwheat noodle restaurant rivals, Kanda Yabusoba and Matsuya (both in Kanda), Namiki Yabusoba (Asakusa), Sarashina Horii (Azabu-Juban) and Muromachi Sunaba (Nihonbashi), fight it out for the soba laurels, and in all the unmistakable taste of Edo remains. The no-nonsense, middle-aged, smiling woman who manages Sunaba tells us that she’s been out of Tokyo once – a weekend trip, many years ago. "That was enough!" she adds. A true Edokko.
If Tokyoites love one thing as much as soba, it’s sushi. In Ginza, Akasaka, Kuramae and the streets that surround the Tsukiji Fish Market – that great pumping heart at the centre of the city’s culinary system – the country’s finest sushi chefs prepare its finest sushi. These itamae, ‘the men who stand before the board’ are a tough crowd, dry as 20+ sake. They proudly describe the fruit of their labors (as do most dyed-in-the-wool Tokyo chefs) as Edomae-ryori, ‘the cuisine from in front of Edo’.
It was two individual Tokyoites who changed the course of sushi history. Matsumoto Yoshiichi, in the 17th century, introduced the idea of adding rice vinegar to rice. The populace loved this new tart flavor.
In the 1820s, sushi visionary Hanaya Yohei added raw fish to vinegared rice, which he served directly from his sushi yatai outdoor food stall, and sushi as we know it today, from the Ginza to the West Coast, was born. Hanaya not only invented this Edomae-zushi, or nigari-zushi (hand-pressed sushi), he also popularized the concept of fresh food served as quickly as possible. Yup, he invented Japan's first 'fast food'.
However, it was not until 1923, when the great Kanto earthquake leveled the city and rendered its surviving chefs unemployed, that nigari-zushi spread throughout Japan, as the skilled itamae were forced to move in search of work. Sushi consumption was revolutionised in the 1950s, when Osaka-born Shiraishi Yoshiaki invented ‘conveyor-belt’ sushi, where plates of sushi pass before the customer for swift, convenient consumption.
Ginza, Akasaka, Kuramae and Tsukiji are sushi mecca, from the refinement of restaurants such as Edogin to the impossibly fresh, inexpensive sushi of the restaurants surrounding Tsukiji’s wholesale fish market. Ryu-zushi is our favorite at Tsukiji. They serve great sushi - without the massive queues - and are apparently favored by such luminaries as Benicio del Toro, and the late Dennis Hopper and Matsushita Konosuke, founder of Panasonic. For the finest of the very fine, try to head to Kouzushi in Kuramae, where Shinohara Toshiyuki, works his sushi genius, in a tradition handed down directly from Hanaya Yohei. Good luck in getting a seat. Across the Edogawa river in Katsushika-Shibamata, the streets approaching Taishakuten temple teem with noshi-ika dried, hand-rolled squid, senbei rice crackers and tsukudani stores. The arches beneath the railway tracks at Yurakucho boast dozens of smoky, irreverent, convivial yakitori shops. Out in Meguro ward, friend of FGL and Michelin-starred maestro Suzuku Yoshitsugu serves wonderful washoku cuisine at Suzuki Japanese restaurant. Narisawa in Aoyama and Nihon Ryori Ryugin in Roppongi are other firm FGL favorites.
The Tokyo Budget Gourmet
The key word currently appearing in much of Tokyo's budget food milieu is 'mega'. I suppose that's rather appropriate given that Tokyo itself is pretty 'mega'. In the food context it simply means more and bigger. Excessively so.
Thus, expect to find Ginza mega gyoza, dumplings the size of bananas at Ginza Tenryu; Moyan Kare in Nishi Shinjuku's 'Fuji Mori', in which the 'curry rice' resembles Mount Fuji; and Tachikawa city's Dekamori kara'age-don, a fried chicken rice bowl, where you can barely see the rice bowl for the fried chicken. And on it goes. The good people at Eifuku-cho Daishoken proudly proclaim that their chuka soba noodles are not only great, but the bowl is 'bigger than your head'. And that's not even their 'large' portion.
Monjayaki, the prototype for okonomiyaki, created postwar, is arguably the most historic of the city's budget/junk foods. Tsukishima is famously monjayaki central, with its 'Monjayaki street' (proper name Nishinonaka-dori) boasting in excess of 70 restaurants dedicated to 'monja'. Iroha Honten, Kurumi and Kondo and are amongst the favorites.
The Ramen Professor Recommends The art of finding great ramen amidst the dross is perhaps tested to the extreme in Japan's noodle-mad capital. You know the gems, the jewels, the old skool geniuses and the modern innovators are out there. But where does one look?
Firstly, let's look at the basics. True Tokyo-style ramen has a wafu Japanese style broth, blended with torigara chicken and a vegetable broth. The tare flavor base is shoyu soy sauce. Tellingly, a Tokyo ramen broth is never boiled, but reather only simmered, a technique that lends it certain elegance beneath the strong soy flavoring.
Tokyo ramen originated at Rairaiken in Asakusa in 1910. That august establishment served its last bowl in 1976, but its deshi 'disciples' are continuing its traditions, but you'll have to journey far afield to experience that original taste: to Shinraiken in Chiba prefecture, or Tokuchan Ramen Honten in Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture.
Contemporary Tokyo ramen falls into roughly four categories. Hachioji ramen, uses tamanegi onions rather than conventional negi, giving a distint, if mild, sweetness. Se-abura chacha men, is the style in which pork back fat, is sprinkled from a strainer on to the cooked ramen, making resulting in the onomatapoeic 'cha cha' name. Ogikubo Ramen originated from a buckwheat noodle soba shop, and is characterized by its strong niboshi sardine taste. Harukiya is its best known proponent. Finally, Ebisu ramen, often described as shina soba or shina chiku ramen, is always served with menma bamboo shoots.
Successful ramen shops often grow into nationwide, and indeed international, success stories. A case in point is the phenomena of Yamada Takumi's Ramen Jiro, which has seen its gargantuan, oily, fatty pork, vegetable, cabbage and bamboo sprout ramen, (made with Nishin Seifun ramen, from the people who bring you Cup Noodles), become a hit on a spectacular scale. None other than the Guardian newspaper declared it one of the ten dishes that you must eat worldwide.
Personally I am not a fan of either futomen thick ramen noodles or gigantic portions, so Ramen Jiro doesn't do it for me. I also prefer the mom and pop, independent ramen shops (indeed any shops) to nationwide giants. I'm also a creature of ramen habit. That means in Tokyo I inevitably gravitate to my two favorites, Raishuken in Nishi-Asakusa and Ganso Sapporoya near Toranomon station in Nishi-shinbashi. Guaranteed noodle bliss.
Of course there's fabulour ramen on offer in Tokyo that isn't strictly 'Tokyo-style'. Ippudoh, Ichiran, and Afuri are all hugely popular. If you need a Hakata tonkotsu fix, try Kyushu Jangara Ramen in Akihabara.
FGL Favorite Tipple: Tokyo is probably the best place in the world to sample sake, though relatively little is actually made there. Tamajiman, Kasen, Kisho and Sawanoi from Omi city are some of the brands created within the metropolitan area. The latter's Junmai Okarakuchi is a striking, bone-dry sake, whilst its Tokubetsu Junmai is an altogether mellower offering with the scent of apples. For something different, try Tokyo Mead.
Sake bars abound in the metropolis. Daimasu, in the heart of Asakusa, Suzu-den in Shinjuku, and the Meishu-center in Hamamatsu-cho are all good options. The best place for fine sake with good kappo-ryori cuisine is Sasagin in Yoyogi-Uehara. The owner, Narita-san, is a walking dictionary on all things sake, and can put together a tasting course to suit your tastes and budget. I've been going there on-and-off for 17 years and still feel like I've only 'scratched the surface' of Narita-san's sake wisdom.
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