It’s impossible to eat a bad meal in Tokyo.
I know, I know, you’re thinking “Jesse’s exaggerating, I’m sure I could find a bad meal in a train station or department store”. Nope, train stations and department stores are actually where you find the best food.
You could stumble around for a week and eat wherever your nose led you, but it might help to have some sort of bucket list/game plan/gobbling strategy. I was lucky enough to be hosted by Air New Zealand’s Japan team who took me to places I wouldn’t have found in 1000 years on my own. Here are 10 of the best things I ate to help get you started (by the way, Japanese websites are hit and miss for English speakers — and many of these places don’t even have one — but I’ve given you some keywords to help you find your way).
Train station sandwich
Hakone-Yumoto Station and others
If you’re planning a little train ride out of town (Hakone in the mountains is nice, Kamakura by the seaside even better for a day trip) consider eating on the way. I loved my pork katsu sandwich — impossibly light white bread, with the crusts removed (what does Japan do with all its leftover crusts each day? Is that how Mt Fuji came about?) and a big crumbed pork fillet with lettuce and kewpie mayo. For the quality of food the cost is ridiculously cheap — the equivalent of a few NZ dollars.
Department store sweets
Matsushita depachika and others
Speaking of wagashi, one of the joys of our trip were these sweet treats — less sugary than the sweets back home but just as indulgent, a typical version might be tiny pancakes filled with a red bean paste, or chewy mochi balls made of glutinous rice flour, coated in a seasonal syrup. They’re widely available but the best place to buy them is on the basement level of department stores: massive, high-end food halls where you should also get your lunch at least once, and where your wagashi will come packaged so beautifully, you’ll feel a little heartbroken having to unwrap and eat the delicious contents. But you’ll get over it.
Fish market omelette
The omelette stand was just one of the dozens of street food vendors at the Tsukiji Outer Market. It had a good-sized queue from 8am and was a great place to try this local specialty — a sweet, rolled version of the European omelette, with some dashi, sake and mirin in the recipe to create an unmistakably Japanese taste experience. A couple of bucks for an omelette on a stick.
Stand-up sushi restaurant
Tachi Sushi Yokocho, Kichijoji
Yes, the sushi is great everywhere and though we had some lovely sit-down meals I loved the little sushi standing bar by the train station in Kichijoji — a wonderful, under-discovered neighbourhood with plenty of eating options. At this restaurant busy chefs make nigiri sushi to order while you watch (and drink) — the various options of seafood and styles are listed in kanji on paper flags which are ripped down by waiters when they run out.
Ginza Kagari, main branch
Each day there was a queue in the alleyway next to our hotel, so we looked the place up and it turned out we were staying next to one of the most famous ramen shops in the world. On our last morning, a passing typhoon knocked that line of people back to manageable levels so we joined it and were rewarded with a bowl of golden, creamy chicken broth with perfect noodles and simple seasonal condiments. The restaurant may be Michelin-recommended but they’ve kept prices low — a bowl of their famous rich chicken soup is 1500 Yen, around NZD$17, though if you want to push the boat out you could order a little shaved truffle on top.
Different cities have different specialties so it’s probably cheating to choose a dish from Hiroshima in a list of Tokyo favourites. These are worth an exception though — perhaps you’ve eaten savoury Japanese pancakes, but have you had them with ramen noodles inside? Your pancake is cooked on a hot plate in front of you, so you get to see the bucketloads of vegetables that go into each one and somehow cook down to pancake dimensions. Served with Kewpie mayo and okinomoyaki sauce.
Japanese buffet breakfast
Ginza Choushoku Lab
Breakfast can be surprisingly hard to find but our hotel concierge sent us to a buffet-style traditional Japanese meal, where we were given a wooden tray with a 3x3 grid and invited to choose nine elaborate dishes (and go back for more if we wanted to). Aside from that smorgasbord, you can help yourself to pork shabu shabu, miso soup with condiments and a special DIY rice and raw egg dish. The cost, including tea? Around NZD$25 per person. The catch? You have to vacate your table after 50 minutes.
Toriyochi in Kichijoji and Ukai Tofuya at Tokyo Tower
At an yakitori restaurant back in Kichijoji we were served a small dish of wet tofu skin — it reminded me of fresh mozzarella, and was served with wasabi and soy for dipping. Later in the trip, we ate a tofu degustation in an elegant garden restaurant at the foot of the Tokyo Tower — the highlight was a chilled sesame tofu: soft but firm, like the chocolate yoghurt you used to get in your lunchbox, but with a little stretch and bite to it as well. If you’ve always wondered what the fuss is with tofu, Tokyo will make you wonder no more.
The thick noodles are served separately, in a wide, twirly tower, next to soup for dipping (heated or not according to the season) and a range of condiments. As much as the taste (it was delicious), I enjoyed the ritual of this restaurant — joining a group of strangers in line late morning for a dish they’d no doubt woken up craving. Taking turns to buy a meal ticket from a machine, then handing that ticket to the host when she seats you. Washing it down with one cold Japanese beer: perfection.
Tea ceremony breakfast
If you think trendy Auckland spots are hard to get into, some of the finest restaurants in Tokyo are invitation-only. But there is a workaround — the beautifully peaceful dining rooms at Yakumo Saryo, created by a famed designer in a former mansion, are now open for limited breakfast sittings, where you can experience this celebration of Japanese culture — cuisine, service, tableware, environment — at a fraction of the cost, and without having to be related to the emperor to get a reservation. Our breakfast was a nine-course, tea-themed meal including seasonal wagashi sweets to finish. Just NZD$45 per person.
Jesse Mulligan flew to Tokyo courtesy of Air New Zealand. The airline flies direct to Tokyo daily.