A culinary guide to Tokyo

From bargain ramen to haute cuisine, dining options abound in the Japanese capital.

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Exciting things continue to happen in Tokyo’s dining scene. In the 2023 Michelin Guide to the Japanese capital, 200 restaurants were awarded at least one star — more than in Paris and New York combined. Of those, 12 come with lofty three-star status, including chef Seiji Yamamoto’s artistic kaiseki (multi-course) menu at RyuGin and the Edo-style sushi at Masahiro Yoshitake’s Sushi Yoshitake.

British chef Daniel Calvert — himself no stranger to a Michelin stars — described working in the city as ‘every chef’s dream’ when he launched his restaurant Sézanne at the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi in 2021. And he’s not the only one who thinks this way: Virgilio Martinez and Massimo Bottura are also among the acclaimed international chefs to have opened outposts here in recent years.

Yet, for all its fine dining finesse, Tokyo’s culinary scene is just as much about the joy of casual, everyday dishes. Three ramen joints — Ginza Hachigo, Konjiki Hototogisu and Nakiryu — have been awarded a Michelin star each, while a couple of hundred Bib Gourmand awards give a deserved nod to good-value comfort food such as soba noodles, tonkatsu cutlets and kare raisu (curry and rice). The latter, a weeknight staple in many homes, is thought to have arrived with the Japanese Imperial Navy, who may have encountered an adulterated version of Indian curries being eaten by British sailors.

Meanwhile, to sample a dish that’s little-known outside of Japan, pay a visit to the Ryogoku neighbourhood for chanko-nabe, the hearty hotpot eaten in large quantities by sumo wrestlers looking to bulk up. Or head to the Tsukishima district to try grilled monjayaki — the runny batter might not look appetising when first poured onto the hotplate, but it turns into a wonderfully addictive, savoury goo.

Beyond dining, Tokyo is also a great drinks destination, home to inventive mixologists like Hiroyasu Koyama, of Bar Benfiddich, and Shingo Gokan, of The SG Club. There’s also a well-established craft beer scene, which has a habit of adding a Japanese accent to imported styles (a hint of yuzu in a weissen, perhaps, or the numbing tingle of sansho pepper in a golden ale), internationally acclaimed whisky and, of course, sake, brewed using centuries-old techniques.

The late chef and broadcaster Anthony Bourdain once said that if he had to eat in only one city for the rest of his life, if would be Tokyo. And once you’ve dined out in the Japanese capital, it’s hard to disagree.

Fine dining restaurants

Tapas Molecular Bar
The tapas-inspired fusion at this eight-seat counter restaurant in Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo lies somewhere between art and a science experiment. The menu changes seasonally but can include imaginative creations like smoked barbecue pork and sesame ash designed to look like a smouldering cigar.

Seiji Yamamoto’s artful take on refined kaiseki-ryori (Japan’s haute cuisine) has earned three Michelin stars for his restaurant, located in the smart Tokyo Hibiya Midtown complex. The menu is omakase, meaning guests leave it up to the chef to decide on the array of small dishes served. 

Sushi Yoshitake
Technique and the finest produce play a major role at chef Masahiro Yoshitake’s three-Michelin-starred sushi restaurant. But so too does inventiveness: the nigiri rice is seasoned with red vinegar (rather than the usual white rice vinegar) and highlights include steamed abalone with a liver and sea urchin sauce.

Cocktail bars you shouldn't miss

The SG Club
Named one of the World’s 50 Best Bars, this Shibuya spot is spread across two floors. Upstairs, Guzzle offers drinks such as gin and tonic infused with condensed beer; downstairs, speakeasy-styled Sip serves up creations like the signature tomato tree cocktail (above), combining gin, tomato, dill, elderflower and mastic.

Bar Benfiddich
Owner and mixologist Hiroyasu Kayama creates cocktails at this Shinjuku bar using foraged botanicals along with ingredients such as wormwood, yuzu and anise grown on his farm north of the capital. There’s no menu, but expect plenty of absinthe and lesser-known spirits from around the world.

Kamiya Bar
A Tokyo stalwart, Kamiya Bar was the city’s first Western-style bar when it opened in the late 1800s. Staff in jackets and ties add an old-school vibe, but the boisterous atmosphere and menu are more reminiscent of an izakaya. Try a shot of the signature denki bran (‘electric brandy’), a mix of curacao, gin and brandy. 

Where to get coffee

Koffee Mameya Kakeru
A 2022 addition to the Kiyosumi-Shirakawa neighbourhood (something of a hub for artisanal roasteries), Koffee Mameya Kakeru is a hip, minimalist affair. The coffee stacks up, too, particularly the tasting courses that let you try an individual roast prepared in various ways. 

Kayaba Coffee
Set in a rickety, early 20th-century building in Yanaka, this cafe is a beloved local institution — when the owner died in 2006, the community rallied to keep the place open. It’s a classic kissaten (traditional tearoom and coffee lounge), with a retro Tokyo atmosphere. 

Turret Coffee
Named after the ‘turret trucks’ (tiny vehicles for moving goods) that once buzzed around Tsukiji’s fish market, this quirky little cafe near the still-lively Outer Market is known for its rich espressos and latte art. For a velvety caffeine hit, try the espresso macchiato.

How to plan a day in Ueno & Asakusa

A far cry from Tokyo’s image as a sea of glossy high-rises, these shitamachi (historically merchant- and working-class neighbourhoods) are charmingly rustic. Start with a stroll through Ueno Park, which in late March and early April is a top spot for sakura (cherry blossom). It’s also home to fantastic museums, including the Tokyo National Museum, which houses a fascinating collection of Japanese artefacts including samurai swords and Buddhist artworks.

For lunch, head to Ameya Yokocho, a narrow, open-air market filled with hundreds of shops and stalls selling dried goods, spices, cosmetics, clothes and street food. At Minatoya, try the kaisendon: rice topped with raw seafood such as salmon roe, creamy sea urchin, tuna, salmon and squid.

Afterwards, walk to Kappabashi-dori, roughly halfway between Asakusa and Ueno. The stores here specialise in cookware and restaurant supplies, including finely crafted knives at Kama-Asa, chopsticks at Mikura and oddities at Ganso, which produces the plastic replica food often seen on display in restaurant windows.

Visit Asakusa’s busy Senso-ji Temple for its giant gateways and five-storey pagoda, and stick around for snack time: treats like melon bread and daigaku-imo (candied sweet potato) are sold on the street running through the temple complex.

Still hungry? Asakusa’s Hoppy-dori street has dozens of no-frills izakayas (traditional drinking dens) with seats spilling out into the street, plus tempting wafts of chargrilled chicken and simmering hotpots. Shochan, at the northern end, serves a moreish tofu and beef tendon nikomi (stew) plus nibbles such as cucumber to dip in miso pate.

How to plan a day in Tsukiji & Ginza

With its sleek, modern architecture and upmarket shops, Ginza couldn’t be more of a contrast to down-to-earth Tsukiji, built on land reclaimed from the marshlands of the Sumida River. Together, though, they offer a wonderfully contrasting overview of the city.

Tsukiji was once known as the site of the world’s largest fish and seafood wholesale market, until the latter was relocated in 2018. The neighbourhood’s Tsukiji Outer Market, however, remains a buzzing spot, with its narrow lanes hosting a mix of stores and restaurants — and some of the best sushi deals in town. Sushizanmai offers lunch sets starting at around 1,000 yen (£6) for 10 pieces.

In the same district, you’ll also find Tsukiji Hongan-ji, its mix of Indian and Japanese Buddhist design influences, stained glass windows and giant German pipe organ making it one of Tokyo’s most distinctive temples. On Tsukiji’s western outskirts, Hama-Rikyu Gardens, featuring landscaped ponds and flowerbeds set against a backdrop of skyscrapers, is well worth a visit. Stop off at the garden’s Nakajima-no-ochaya teahouse for a break on the tatami (traditional floor mats) with a cup of matcha tea.

From here, walk north towards Ginza, with its smart international boutiques and fine dining restaurants. Visit the historic Ginza Mitsukoshi department store, starting off in the basement-level food hall and working your way up to the ninth-floor Art Aquarium Museum, which uses illuminated fish tanks to create psychedelic works of art. Afterwards, head along Chuo-dori, the area’s main shopping street, to the luxury Ginza Six complex for boutiques and art installations.

When it comes to dinner, Ginza has plenty of Michelin-starred options, from sushi and kaiseki to French and Italian cuisines. Birdland offers a Michelin experience without the formality of many other restaurants in the area — yakitori chicken skewers (thigh, breast, heart, skin, liver, wing and gizzard are all options) are served as an omakase course, along with a lively vibe.

Where to eat ramen in Tokyo

It would be a culinary crime to come to Tokyo and not try ramen, the city’s preeminent soul food. Most Tokyoites have an opinion on what makes the perfect version, whether that’s the texture and thickness of the noodles, the quality of the chashu (braised pork) topping or the recipe behind the all-important broth.

It’s the latter that tends to give each ramen style its name. The pork-bone-based tonkotsu ramen has a creamy richness, while shio (salt) ramen features a more refreshing seafood-based broth that can be subtle and complex. Miso ramen, meanwhile, offers a warming heartiness ideal on a chilly day. Then there’s shoyu ramen, a Tokyo staple that sees soy sauce added to a base broth.

In Minamiotsuka, Nakiryu may look as basic as any other neighbourhood ramen shop, but it’s earned a Michelin star for its lineup, which includes a killer shoyu.

Highlighting the growing diversity of ramen is Ginza Hachigo, where owner-chef Yasushi Matsumura applies his French culinary background to combine chicken, duck, shiitake, seaweed and other ingredients in a broth more akin to a velvety consommé. 

Elsewhere, there are good vegan options available: Afuri, in Ebisu, serves a rainbow ramen featuring a plant-based broth and wheat noodles blended with lotus root rather than egg.

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