A Memorable Food Tour of Tokyo That Barely Scratched the Surface
My family of four took a trip to Tokyo almost two years ago in 2019 and enjoyed visiting restaurants that specialize in only one type of food. It’s such a different experience compared to restaurants that offer a range of options like those we tried on our trip to Northern Italy. It was exciting to see how each Japanese restaurant has mastered its particular type of food!
Our ten-day trip included eight full days of meals in Tokyo (we lost a day in transit and then left early on the last day). We had such a fantastic trip that we’ve already decided our first post-pandemic international trip will be to return to Tokyo!
I always do a ton of research before arriving in a new city. Thus, I had a long “to-eat” list after researching places on Tabelog, an incredible Japanese resource for foodies visiting Tokyo as users include photos, reviews, and scores. Note that I linked to restaurants’ Tabelog profiles in English and listed the scores they had in 2019 when we visited. Anything scoring above a 3.5 is delicious and Michelin-starred places tend to be in the 4.0 range.
Yakiniku (grilled meat)
Our first seated meal was at Yoriniku (3.94 on Tabelog), a restaurant that specializes in yakiniku — grilled meat cooked at your table, which is very similar to the Korean BBQ experience.
We opted for the 10,000 yen (about $90 US) per person tasting menu and were amazed by the meats. The waitress grilled the meats at the table and would instruct us whether to squeeze lemon on it, dip it into a sauce or special salt, or eat it plain. We definitely plan to return to Yoriniku!
Ramen (thin noodles in broth)
Ramen is very popular in the U.S. and we regularly eat it here. Yet we were excited to try it in Tokyo. We had several ramen shops on our list but then stumbled upon one around the corner from our apartment. Menyayuusaku (3.74 Tabelog score) is a small shop where you order from a vending machine and then give the receipt to the wait staff. We enjoyed our bowls of Tonkotsu ramen (its broth is made with slow-simmered pork bones).
Sushi (raw fish served on vinegared rice balls, aka nigiri, is more common than American style sushi rolls)
We had sushi dinners at Manten Sushi (3.79), Sukiyabashi Jiro (4.12), Sushi Masuda (4.26), Yasuda Sushi Bar (3.04 — this restaurant caters to Americans), and Himawari Sushi Shintoshin (3.48 — this is a conveyor belt sushi shop). Omakase is the typical format for sushi dinners, which means instead of ordering off a menu, what you eat is the chef’s choice. It’s almost always nigiri (raw fish on vinegared rice balls) as opposed to what Americans think of sushi (e.g., a sliced roll with fish, rice, avocado, and cucumber).
The one place that wasn’t omakase was Himawari, where the sushi comes out in little plates on a conveyor belt and you help yourself to the plate you want. At the end of the meal, the wait staff count how many plates you ate and charges you accordingly.
Sushi was always more expensive but also the most memorable since sushi in Tokyo is 10 times better than the best sushi we have had in the U.S.
Masuda, the highest rated, was the best meal of our lives. They offered truly exceptional cuisine and service, even though the staff spoke limited English. I hope to return on our second trip to Tokyo.
Yasuda was the lowest-rated sushi restaurant but it was the easiest sushi experience for us since the sushi master speaks English well after running a restaurant in NYC for many years. He was also able to offer an all-shellfish omakase experience for my youngest daughter who is allergic to fish.
Udon (thick noodles in broth)
We really enjoyed the udon we had on our street food tour (see below). We also sought out hand-made udon at Udon Shin (3.74). They don’t take reservations so we had to stand in line for about 20 minutes. It is a tiny shop with only a few seats (about 15) and it’s popular with tourists so they actually had an English menu. Go early!
Tempura (lightly breaded and fried food)
We like tempura as an appetizer but found eating at Tempura Shinjuku Sunahachi (3.51) less satisfying than we hoped. This was our least favorite meal as it was a bit too greasy and salty.
Japanese Curry (a milder form of curry)
I never got to try this but my girls had curry over rice when we went out to sushi. They walked to Coco House (3.07), an international chain restaurant.
Tonkatsu (breaded and fried boneless pork cutlet)
We had a fantastic meal at Katsukara (3.46) on the 14th floor of the Takashimaya Department Store in Shinjuku. The breaded and fried tonkatsu was well-balanced and perfectly prepared. The Yuzu salad dressing was amazing, too, so we bought a bottle to take home!
Yakitori (grilled skewered meats)
Our last meal in Tokyo was at Torishige (4.14), a restaurant specializing in yakitori including intestines, liver, pork cheek, and other interesting cuts. This restaurant was the loudest and most boisterous of all the ones we visited. I think the closest analogy to an American restaurant would be a sports bar. Folks were drinking alcohol and the noisiest I’ve ever heard at any Japanese restaurant.
Kaiseki (traditional multi-course meal)
We went to Maenohara Onsen, a hot mineral spring resort where local Japanese residents like to soak. We were the only obvious tourists. Afterward, we had a formal kaiseki lunch in their private Sakura room. I had never had kaiseki before and was so impressed. The meal was very refined and beautifully presented with lots of little plates, garnishes, and flourishes. Yet it was an overwhelming amount of food. We have large American appetites and still could not finish everything we were offered.
This is obviously not Japanese, but Saray Kabob (3.46) is a Turkish food stall near the Okubo station and there was ALWAYS a line when we walked by it. Plus it smelled amazing so we finally bought some food there one day and loved it!
Instagram-worthy snacks at Takeshita Street
Tourists flock to Takeshita St. in Harajuku and we had seen online some of the interesting snacks they sell there. We went to experience wearing a kimono at a nearby kimono shop and afterward strolled down Takeshita Street with all the other tourists. We bought strawberry, cream, and chocolate crepes from Marion Crepes, soft cream and chocolate from Calbee, and rainbow cotton candy at Totti Candy Factory.
We stopped at Joel Robuchon’s bakery for chocolate croissants, curry pan, and croque monsieur. It’s incredible how many French restaurants and bakeries there are in Tokyo!
Conbini (aka Japanese Convenience Stores)
Our very first stop was to a Japanese convenience store, open 24 hours/day. Unlike the junk in American convenience stores, Japanese convenience stores offer a wide array of freshly prepared and delicious food! We picked up piping hot fried chicken cutlets from Lawson’s that were juicy, tender, and perfectly fried. We marveled at how they were better than Popeye’s Fried Chicken (our favorite American fried chicken chain restaurant).
Then we went to 7–11 (an American chain but it’s COMPLETELY different in Japan). We bought their famous egg salad sandwiches (google it — they’re legitimately famous and SO TASTY!), pork buns, inari (rice balls stuffed inside a bean curd pouch), and onigiri (seaweed-wrapped rice balls which the characters in the manga series Naruto often eat, my younger daughter’s favorite show).
These were great snacks to keep stocked in our apartment rental for middle-of-the-night munchies when we were dealing with jet lag. Even after we adjusted to Tokyo time, we regularly stopped by Lawson’s or 7–11 to replenish our stock. I highly recommend visitors consider checking out the convenience stores for great snacks and/or unconventional breakfasts.
Japanese Souffle pancake
We ate leftovers and conbini food for breakfast in our apartment, but one day we picked up a Japanese souffle pancake/pudding treat at the Flippers Stand at the Shinjuku station. It was delicious and I want to try a real breakfast of the souffle pancakes on our next visit!
Depachika (aka Japanese Department Stores’ Basement Food Halls)
I learned there are great basement food halls in many Japanese department stores. It’s nice being able to see the food already prepared and ready to go in bento boxes (a beautifully packed meal in a to-go box) rather than ordering off a menu. Plus it’s a fast meal when you’re jet-lagged!
We headed to Shinjuku to visit the Takashimaya Department Store. There were at least 20+ vendors in the basement food hall. We ended up purchasing a maguro nigiri bento (raw tuna sushi), miso cod, salmon bento, and tonkatsu bento (a breaded, deep-fried boneless pork cutlet).
It was an interesting experience but I prefer a sit-down restaurant with made-to-order food. I wouldn’t recommend most visitors “must” visit a department store’s basement food hall.
Street Food Tour on Sunamachi Street
I wanted to see where locals eat and booked an AirBnB walking tour of Sunamachi Street with Kanako. This is a long street with over 100 vendors selling fruit, vegetables, ready-to-eat food, and made-to-order food.
Even if we navigated there on our own, we wouldn’t have been able to communicate with folks. That’s where Kanako came into the picture, as she is an expert who knew which places showcased the best flavors and translated for us! I loved that she shared her favorites with us.
Four vendors are included in the tour price. We had 1) incredible udon in a simple broth (both girls want to return to get another bowl!), 2) three choices from a Japanese “deli” (we chose fried tofu stuffed with pork, bamboo shoots and vegetables, and soy sauce marinated potatoes), 3) scallop and sea bream sashimi (plus the chef sent the girls free raw amoebi sweet shrimp — my husband thought it was really funny asking the girls to eat the shrimp heads, which they had to then discreetly spit out because of its strong flavor), and 4) taiyaki (a snack of made-to-order fish-shaped waffles stuffed with red bean, custard, or sweet potato). We tried all 3 flavors of taiyaki and surprisingly, sweet potato was the best!
We also opted to pay out-of-pocket for grilled unagi (freshwater eel) skewers; a spicy fish paste, bean sprouts, leek, and carrot pancake (which Kanako said is one of her favorites); and tempura pickled ginger slices (another one of Kanako’s favorites). We were tempted by the many food options but we were too stuffed to eat more!
The kind shopkeepers loved our girls. One shopkeeper gave them free cherry tomatoes. Another laughed at my youngest daughter’s woeful face when a small piece of her eel fell off the skewer — she LOVED unagi. The same daughter also chose a $6 peach and clutched it to herself like it was “Her Precious.” She said it was the best peach she ever had.
The second most disappointing meal and the only restaurant that had a wider array of options was Sakura (3.57) at the Hilton Tokyo Odaiba. They presumably cater to business travelers. We were in Odaiba to visit the teamLab Borderless immersive digital art exhibit (which was totally worth it!) but much of the food nearby targets tourists. We were starving after Borderless so we googled a Japanese restaurant nearby and headed over.
If it had been half the price, I would have said it was a good meal. However, we paid almost $400 for what I think was an average lunch for that kind of cost. We ordered two sushi sets, one sashimi set, one Kobe Beef hotpot, a foie gras and eel appetizer, plum wine, and 2 bottles of sake. I think the cost was inflated to cover the beautiful dining room. We sat next to a huge glass window overlooking a traditional garden and had a private seating area with lovely ambiance as the waitresses all wore traditional kimonos. I would not return unless someone else was paying.
In between all the meals, we did a few touristy things. As mentioned above, we did the street food tour, visited the Borderless digital art exhibit, tried on kimonos near Takeshita St., and tried an onsen. We also took family photos with a Flytographer in Shibuya and went shopping. Tokyu Hands, Oriental Bazaar, Uniqlo, and Muji were some of our favorite stores and my husband shopped for knives, wooden chopsticks, and ceramic bowls at the kitchen stores at Kappabashi (a neighborhood with a ton of kitchen supply stores).
As I said, we can’t wait to return to Tokyo for our first post-pandemic international trip because we had such a wonderful time nearly two years ago. I hope my recap inspires others to explore Tokyo, too.