Tokyo is one of the world's most exciting dining destinations. The city features a wide range of both local and regional Japanese cuisine in addition to all types of international fare. Its top restaurants have accrued more Michelin stars than both Paris and New York combined. But good food can be found at every price range from cheap hole-in-the-wall joints to expensive high-class restaurants with every budget in between.
As Japan's political center for over four centuries, Tokyo has naturally exerted great influence on Japanese cuisine. Consequently, some Tokyo specialties have become so popular that they are now known as the standard version of the dish rather than a local specialty. Local creations from Tokyo (formerly called Edo) are often referred to as "Edo-mae", literally meaning "in front of Edo", in reference to Edo Bay (now Tokyo Bay) which provided the city with its local seafood. The following are some popular Tokyo specialties:
The most popular type of sushi today, nigiri-zushi originated as a fast-food dish in Tokyo. Consisting of a piece of seafood put onto a small ball of rice, it takes much less time and effort to prepare than more traditional sushi dishes. Nigiri-zushi are served at all sushi restaurants from inexpensive conveyor belt sushi to Michelin-starred restaurants. The Tsukiji Outer Market is one of the best places to eat fresh sushi.
Another of Japan's most famous dishes, tempura also underwent major development in the capital city. Before the Edo Period, mainly vegetables were used for tempura, but Edo cooks started to deep fry seafood from Edo Bay in tempura batter, resulting in the more varied dish we know today. A visit to a specialized tempura restaurant (tempura-ya) is the recommended way to enjoy tempura.
Soba noodles (buckwheat noodles) are a popular dish in many regions of Japan. In Tokyo, they were particularly popular during the Edo Period, and can be found all across the city today, including at standing soba eateries and establishments specialized in soba (soba-ya). The dipping sauce used in Tokyo is traditionally relatively thick, and diners are encouraged to dip their noodles into it only lightly.
Chankonabe is a hot pot dish that serves as the diet of sumo wrestlers. It is a healthy, protein-rich dish that contains mainly fish or chicken and seasonal vegetables. The best place to try chankonabe is at one of the specialty restaurants around the Kokugikan Sumo Stadium in Ryogoku, many of which are run by ex-sumo wrestlers.
Monjayaki is a type of runny pancake made of flour and water mixed with ingredients like sliced cabbage and small pieces of seafood and meat, which are then cooked on a hot grill. A small spatula is used to scrape some of the cooked monjayaki and eat it off the grill. The "Monjayaki Street" in Tsukishima is the best place to eat the dish.
Tsukudani are small pieces of food that were simmered in a mixture of soy sauce and sweet sake to preserve them. They are commonly enjoyed as an accompaniment to a bowl of cooked rice. Tsukudani has its roots on Tsukudajima Island near Tsukishima where Tokugawa Ieyasu relocated fishermen skilled in making tsukudani.
Tokyo is home to various types of traditional Japanese sweets (wagashi). These include ningyoyaki, small red bean paste filled cakes shaped like dolls or other forms; dorayaki, a pastry made of sweet pancakes with a layer of red bean paste sandwiched in between; and anmitsu, a dessert typically consisting of agar jelly, a scoop of red bean paste, small mochi balls and seasonal fruits topped with sweet black sugar syrup.
Regional Specialties from across Japan
Tokyo is also a good place to enjoy regional Japanese foods from across the country, which have been available in Tokyo since the Edo Period when the regional lords (daimyo) from across Japan were forced to maintain large villas in the capital and spend alternate years there. A by-product of this policy to keep the regional lords under the shogun's control was the influx of various regional cooking styles into the capital.
These days, foods from across the country can be found at many restaurants specialized in regional cuisines. Some of the most popular regional foods that can be sampled around Tokyo come from Okinawa, Kagoshima, Fukuoka, Kyoto and Hokkaido. In addition, successful restaurants from across Japan often open outlets in Tokyo in an effort to branch out and make a name for themselves.
International food is enjoying great popularity in Tokyo, and many Japanese chefs have achieved recognition for their skills in foreign cooking, often acquired by practical training overseas. Furthermore, Tokyo is home to various international communities, which have brought a variety of different cuisines with them. While popular foods such as Chinese, Indian, Italian, French and Korean can be found virtually anywhere in the city, there are also a few districts serving less prominent international cuisines especially around the embassies located in the Azabu, Hiroo and Roppongi districts. Below are a few of the more concentrated international districts:
Shin Okubo, popularly known as Tokyo's Koreatown, is home to a large number of Korean residents. Consequently, many Korean shops and restaurants are found along the main road and side streets around Shin-Okubo Station, one stop north of Shinjuku Station.
Kagurazaka has a significant French presence due to a French school and a French-Japanese culture center nearby. A large variety of French cafes and restaurants can be found throughout the district alongside a host of trendy and upscale, modern and traditional Japanese restaurants.
Ikebukuro is one of Tokyo's major city centers along the Yamanote Line. The area north of the station has become a little bit of a modern Chinatown with a variety of Chinese restaurants, but without the iconic entrance gates, Chinese temples or density of Chinese restaurants found in the more historic Chinatowns of Japan.
There are lots and lots of casual dining restaurants of all types found across Tokyo. While restaurants are easy to find just about anywhere in the city, good places to go for a large variety of them are around train stations, entertainment districts and the restaurant floors of most department stores, where there is usually a good selection of restaurants ranging from Japanese cuisine to international dining.
Izakaya are the most common type of casual dining establishments and are good places to try a variety of Japanese foods. They can be found in droves around train stations and entertainment districts, and serve popular food items such as yakitori, sashimi and of course beer. The following are a few casual dining areas around Tokyo that are well known for their atmosphere:
On the northwest side of Shinjuku Station is Omoide Yokocho, a small network of alleyways colloquially known as Piss Alley. The narrow lanes are filled with dozens of tiny eateries serving mostly yakitori, but also ramen, soba or kushiyaki. Many of the restaurants consist of just a small counter and can seat less than a dozen diners, while larger ones may have a couple of tables or a second floor.
A lively restaurant district can be found nestled beneath the train tracks around Yurakucho Station. The area is typically known as "Yurakucho Gado Shita" (lit. below the guardrail), or sometimes as "Yakitori Street" due to the numerous yakitori restaurants in the area, but izakaya and casual international pubs are also popular. Diners can enjoy their meals surrounded by the chatter of other customers mixed in with the sound of trains passing overhead.
West of the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa is a 70-80 meter long street lined with izakaya that exude a nostalgic charm. Nicknamed "Hoppy Street" after a popular alcoholic drink sold in the area, the restaurants that line the road specialize in beef tendon stew and other sharable dishes that go well with drinks.
Tokyo is well known for its fine dining, and has the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants of any city in the world. Fine dining restaurants are often found on the top floors of skyscrapers and major hotels, and the cuisine served at these restaurants ranges from traditional Japanese to international and fusion fare. Of course, they tend to be priced accordingly, and some restaurants may require advance reservations. The following are a few districts that are known for their fine dining establishments.
There are several skyscrapers on the Marunouchi side of Tokyo Station, such as the Marunouchi Building, which offers a variety of nice restaurants on its top two floors with views out over the city. There are also several fine restaurants at the district's leading hotels, such as the Tokyo Station Hotel, the Peninsula and the Shangri-La.
Shiodome is a recently redeveloped modern city district with elevated walkways, skyscrapers and hotels. Some of the nicer places to dine with views over the city include the Caretta Shiodome, Shiodome City Center and Conrad Hotel.
With numerous department stores and large hotels, Shinjuku offers a plethora of choices to travelers when it comes to dining. Restaurants in the skyscraper district west of Shinjuku Station as well as in the luxury hotels offer fine dining options in addition to the many casual dining options in the area.
Ginza is Tokyo's most famous upmarket shopping and dining district, and is also home to some of the most expensive real estate in Japan. While there are not many skyscrapers, fine dining restaurants can be found in department stores and in buildings off the main streets.
The Azabu area between Roppongi and Hiroo is home to many embassies and consulates. As a result, it offers a lot of international restaurants, including several Michelin starred establishments.
Themed cafes such as maid and butler cafes, as well as pet cafes are popular attractions where you can converse or play games with a maid or butler, or spend time with animals such as cats, rabbits or birds while eating light meals or enjoying a coffee or tea. Maid cafes can easily be found in Akihabara whereas butler cafes are more concentrated around Ikebukuro. Pet cafes can be found in small numbers around the city. All these types of cafes usually charge a small cover charge in addition to food and drinks.
There are also other types of themed cafes such as the Moomin, Gundam and AKB48 cafes where fans can enjoy various themed dishes and drinks. The menu at the AKB48 cafe is a little bit different and is based on the AKB48 members' favorite foods. The cafes also usually sell character goods in the store. Be warned that the lines at these popular cafes may be long during the weekends.
Another type of themed dining are food theme parks (also known as food museums) which typically feature different variations of a specific food such as ramen or gyoza. Despite the name, food theme parks are usually indoors and work similarly to a food court except that all the vendors are selling variations and regional types of the same dish. Some food theme parks around Tokyo include the Namja Gyoza Stadium in Ikebukuro, the Jiyugaoka Sweets Forest, and a ramen theme park in Aquacity on Odaiba.
Finally, for those looking for a quirky and entertaining meal, themed restaurants like the Ninja Restaurant, the Robot Restaurant, The Lock Up and Alcatraz ER in Tokyo can be a fun and appealing attraction. Themed restaurants are decorated similarly to an amusement park, have themed menus and staff who dress in costume. The food usually follows the overall theme of the restaurant, and there may be some type of show during the meal. The Robot Restaurant is one of the few that is an actual dinner show, where the live dancing and entertainment are the main attraction rather than the food.
The easiest place to try a Japanese-style breakfast are hotels, many of which offer Japanese breakfast set meals or buffets with both Japanese and Western dishes. Otherwise a Japanese-style breakfast is difficult to find as most restaurants and coffee shops tend to serve Western-style breakfasts or coffee and toast sets only. One option may be gyudon restaurants which often offer basic Japanese breakfast sets at cheap prices.
For the more adventurous, the sushi restaurants in the Tsukiji Outer Market and at Toyosu Market are open from early morning, offering fresh sushi for breakfast. While there are a handful of 24-hour sushi restaurants around Tsukiji, a large majority of the restaurants close by mid-afternoon.