It's been said by many that it would take more than a lifetime to enjoy all that the Tokyo culinary scene has to offer. With 217 Michelin-starred restaurants as of 2016, more than any other city in the world, that's easy to believe.
When it comes to fine dining, Tokyo is in a league of its own. The birthplace of umami, which roughly translates to "pleasant savory taste," the Tokyo restaurant scene offers a unique fusion of old, new and an unmatched attention to detail.
While Tokyo has scrumptious offerings from all over the world, where it truly shines is its local specialties. From sushi to tempura to kaiseki, local chefs have mastered, perfected and transformed these traditional dishes into some of the best meals in the world.
One of the first fast foods, sushi was invented in Japan as a way of preserving fish. Edomae (Tokyo-style) sushi was originally sold in street stands without refrigeration, so clever chefs devised ways to keep these tasty bites fresh throughout the entire day. Some were simmered a short time in a bit of broth. Others were cured in soy sauce or salt and vinegar. The preservation techniques of yesteryear now help make sushi the easily transportable treat we know and love today.
The Edo style has evolved over time, but maintains its focus on one main, very fresh ingredient rather than a fusion. Restaurants spend hours prepping before opening each day, and each sushi bite is considered a piece of art, showcasing a chef’s technique and craftsmanship.
While sushi can now be found the world over, Tokyo still boasts the best in the world. One popular restaurant is Sushi Aoki. This local gem relies on some of the freshest seafood to create one of the best sushi spots in town.
Another local establishment that serves up Edomae sushi is the distinguished Sushi Mizutani — where you'll be face to face with a true sushi master, chef Hachiro Mizutani. This recipient of two Michelin stars emphasizes quality, seasonal ingredients and a no-frills approach that focuses on the meal.
Sushi Saito is another standout. From its beginnings in a parking lot to becoming a three-star Michelin winner, Takashi Saito has perfected the art of sushi. It’s difficult to get a seat in its small dining area but worth the wait.
What's not to love about tempura? It's hard to go wrong with battered and deep-fried seafood and vegetables.
Tempura is another Tokyo specialty that focuses on fresh, seasonal ingredients. The pleasure of tempura lies in its crispy texture and savory nature. Chefs spend a lot of time researching the effects of different oils, oil temperature, length of time in the deep fryer and quality of the flour and egg mixture. Some restaurants offer zashiki (straw tatami mat lined rooms) and table seating, but try to sit at a counter if possible.
In general, tempura is dipped in a special sauce based in a mix of dashi (broth) and soy sauce and eaten with grated daikon (radish). Some items are eaten with salt, yet others might be offered with unique salt mixtures blended with curry powder, matcha (green tea powder) or ume (Japanese plums). And some restaurants recommend you eat tempura with juice squeezed from a citrus fruit such as sudachi (similar to lime).
Texture is key, and it takes great care to fry each ingredient, all of which require a different frying time. Make sure to eat each crispy hot morsel as soon as it hits your plate.
For something a little more casual (and less expensive), Tempura Kurokawa is a good place to start. Lunch specials starting around $15 USD make it budget friendly, but it's the fresh seafood supplied daily that make it a local favorite.
Tempura Uoshin is another standout. This restaurant’s parent company is a seafood wholesaler, providing a bounty in terms of variety and freshness. The décor is modest, but that translates into prices that will help you stay on budget.
While the "best" ramen may come down to personal taste, there are definitely a few standouts.
Tsuta might be tiny, but it's still one of the most popular ramen shops in Tokyo — and was so even before it became the first Michelin-starred ramen eatery. Now it's one of the hottest restaurants in town for locals and visitors alike. With ingredients like black truffle oil, it's not hard to see why.
Another great shop is the hidden-away Kagari. This local favorite offers nontraditional ingredients like a creamy broth, and shallots and garlic fried in butter.
This thin, spaghetti-like noodle is made from buckwheat flour and wheat and is used in many Japanese dishes. It can be served hot or cold, and consumed quietly or with a slurp.
Connoisseurs say you must try soba cold to experience the perfect texture. Chilled soba is often served with a dipping sauce (tsuyu). Use chopsticks to pick up a small amount of soba and then dip it into the tsuyu before eating. Once the noodles are gone, many soba lovers drink the soba broth (sobayu) after mixing it with the remaining dipping sauce.
No matter how you choose to enjoy it, it's always delicious.
You may wonder what the differences are between ramen, soba and another popular noodle, udon. Soba is the Japanese name for buckwheat, and this ingredient imparts a nutty flavor that sets it apart from other noodles. Udon noodles are thicker, made of wheat and have a neutral flavor. Ramen noodles are also wheat, but are thinner and longer than udon and a little bit chewy.
The restaurant Muto is a relative newcomer to the soba scene, but has already garnered critical acclaim. One of many shops with teuchi (handmade) soba, Muto makes its noodles fresh daily. Served with other courses, including tempura and seasonal produce, soba is the true star.
If you're looking for a classic soba with a bit more history, check out Namiki Yabusoba. This establishment has been in Tokyo since the early 1900s and has maintained the same quality and authenticity for over a century.
This traditional multicourse Japanese dinner is part meal, part marathon, part work of art and completely delicious. Menus are usually predetermined and can range from complex, formal meals to simpler, vegetarian affairs.
In all cases, the meal is brought out in a procession of beautifully arranged small courses that will leave the most voracious appetite completely satisfied. Be warned that if you decide to sit down for a kaiseki, you should set aside enough time. These elaborate meals can take up two hours or more.
For a more historic Japanese dining experience, look no further than Tofuya Ukai. Private chambers, low tables and a gorgeous garden view complete with koi ponds will make you feel like you've traveled back in time. The beautiful setting is the perfect backdrop as you enjoy your multicourse meal built around house-made tofu.
For a slightly more modern style of kaiseki cuisine, Ginza Okamoto does the trick. This high-end establishment offers traditional kaiseki dishes with a bit of a twist, introducing flavors and spices such as pepper flower that are not common in Japanese cooking.
While dessert isn't a common practice in Japan, there are still plenty of options to satisfy your sweet tooth.
When it comes to traditional Japanese sweets, Takemura, which has been around since 1930, is a good place to start. Before diving in, you should know that classic Japanese sweets don't contain dairy or wheat and use very little sugar. Instead, they use ingredients like sweet red beans, kanten jelly (made from seaweed), and mochi (rice cakes). This might sound a little unusual, but if you're willing to take a step outside your comfort zone, your taste buds will be rewarded with delicately sweet new flavors.
A great place to see a sampling of desserts (and other fare) is in a depachika, a foodstuff market area found in the basement of Japanese department stores. Don’t let the “basement” part throw you off. These markets are more like a food theme park. Be sure to visit the depachika at the Shinjuku Isetan and Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi department stores and you’ll enjoy a tasting extravaganza.
Of course, the perfect finish to any Tokyo culinary adventure is a fine glass of sake or a Japanese beer — but that's a whole other culinary story waiting to be written. Bon appetit ... douzo meshiagare!
For more information on culinary options in Tokyo, see the Official Tokyo Travel Guide: http://www.gotokyo.org/en/.
—Lindsey Malkus for Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau