The Japanese take their food very seriously, and skipping out on a meal would be met with great resistance by any Japanese person. So while in Tokyo, act as if you're Japanese and enjoy a bite whenever the fancy strikes you. Seasonal foods play a large role in Japan's culinary culture, with each month being known for a particular specialty. Presentation is also taken seriously. Expect even a cheap boxed lunch from a convenience store to be packaged and presented with attention.
Tokyo rivals New York, Paris and London in terms of first-rate international cuisine, and boasts more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere else on the planet. But one of the best things about being in such an edible city is being able to have a great meal at even the most unassuming of places. You'll find eateries tucked into every corner of Tokyo, some of them cheap holes-in-the-wall with standing room only. What follows is by no means definitive or inclusive; it is merely a few ideas for a meal in a city of endless culinary possibilities.
If the one-hour-plus queues to get a spot at Daiwa Sushi are any indication of the quality of the product, then you might as well get in line. Probably the most famous sushi restaurant in the Tsukiji Central Fish Market, Daiwa has an incredible reputation for quality. Don't expect much atmosphere, just the freshest sashimi you've ever put in your mouth. And don't plan to talk about how good it was. Guests are expected to leave as soon as they're finished eating.
The double-height dining room of Gonpachi is known as the inspiration for the izakaya massacre scene in the film "Kill Bill." Be assured, the only massacre that will take place when you visit Gonpachi will happen on your plate as you devour the extensive menu of soba, yaki-tori, tempura and sashimi. Izakaya are traditional Japanese bars that happen also to serve great food. They are ubiquitous in Tokyo, and many offer set all-you-can-drink-and/or-eat courses. If you can't get a table at Gonpachi, another izakaya with good food and seats to spare can be found on just about any street in town.
In Japan, where presentation is taken into consideration even in the cheapest of eateries, kaiseki-style cuisine takes presentation to the level of high art, with unprecedented attention given to even the most minute detail of the meal. The humble kaiseki restaurant Ishikawa (Takamura Building, first floor, 5-37 Kagurazaka Shinjuku-ku) was propelled to the gastronomical stratosphere in 2009 when it was awarded three Michelin stars. It has kept that ranking ever since by serving up traditional Japanese cuisine with gourmet twists. The cuisine is seasonal and the menu changes regularly. There are only four tables and seven counter seats, so reservations are essential.
The maid cafes of Akihabara were once a weird underground phenomenon, but these days a maid cafe is about as common as a game center in this district. The gist of a maid cafe is that the staff wear French maid uniforms and speak to you in incredibly honorific Japanese. The maids will chat with you and make you feel at home. @Home has several locations throughout Akihabara, each of them a little different. They are accommodating to foreigners, and @Home in particular is known to be a good entry point for those new to the maid cafe scene. The food is typically mundane cafe fare but prices are high; dining here is more about the experience than anything else.
Some of the tastiest Japanese eats come off the streets. Whether it's a plate of fried soba noodles from a standing cart at a festival or some fried chicken on a stick from a street vendor, these cheap eats are the some of the best in Japan. The walking boulevard that connects Yoyogi Park to Shibuya is a sure bet to find some street food any day of the week. And if you happen to stroll through the area on a weekend, there will likely be some sort of festival at the adjacent plaza, raising your chances of scoring some delish street food.
While day-old hot dogs and nacho cheese vending machines are the norm in North American convenience stores, Japanese convenience stores, or conbini, are of a different breed. Expect fresh salads, sandwiches, decent sushi, baked goods, a variety of edible sundries and an amazing variety of onigiri (rice balls) stuffed with anything you can imagine. Almost always open 24/7, Japanese conbini are great choices for those feeling peckish or for anyone who needs to stock up on snacks for the road.
Perhaps the easiest option to please picky eaters and foodies alike is to head to a depachika, the food floor of a department store. Usually located at the basement level, these eateries will display their entire menus in convincing plastic molds behind glass at the storefront. Simply walk by the many restaurant displays until you see something you like. (Trust us, you will.) Isetan in Shinjuku is known for the best displays. Other notable depachika are Takashimaya in Nihonbashi, Mitsukoshi in Ginza and Tobu in Ikebukuro.
Travelers wishing to have a bite of something familiar will have no problem in Tokyo, as Western-style eateries are just as plentiful as their Eastern counterparts. If you're just wanting a quick burger, forgo McDonald's and instead visit Mos Burger. One bite and you'll never want to see a Big Mac again. Hub, a chain of British pubs, is a solid bet for good beer and fish and chips. Both Hub and Mos Burger have locations throughout the city.
Mexican food is one of the most difficult things to find done well in Japan, and it's the first thing American expats want to eat when they visit home. By far the best Mexican joint is JunkAdelic, where the dark atmosphere and Mexican wrestling movies projected onto the wall give the place a secret underground vibe.
- Sleep Like a Buddha on Mt. Koya
- Learn Cultural Traditions in Kyoto
- Live Longer with Okinawa's Cuisine
- See Where Sumo Wrestlers Train
- Bike from Hiroshima to Shikoku
- Visit Off-the-Beaten-Path Matsue
- Watch a Parade of Costumes
- Hike the Nakasendo Highway
- Feast on a Kaiseki Meal
- See Cutting-Edge Art on Naoshima
- Soak in a Hot Spring Bath
- Hang Out in Wacky Akihabara
Japan Lodging: Where to Stay in Japan
Getting Around Japan
Tokyo City Guide
Living Like a Local in Tokyo