TOKYO — Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city and is widely regarded by chefs as being the epitome of finesse, with the rarest and most seasonal ingredients on the planet. Pick up any travel or food article on Tokyo, and you’re sure to salivate as you read about restaurants with amazing sushi, mushrooms, miso soup, tonkatsu (pork), ramen noodles, soba noodles, tempura, grilled chicken, Kobe beef, multicourse vegetarian dinners, and terrific cocktail bars and old-school coffee salons.
Good luck finding these places.
When I first went to Japan 10 years ago, I carried several guidebooks and plotted out a bunch of meals. Little did I know the impossibility of what faced me.
For a variety of cultural and historical reasons, Japan has not been that open to outsiders. It wasn’t until Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy arrived with his infamous black ships in 1853 and literally forced the Japanese to trade with the West that the nation abandoned its isolation. Japan traded reluctantly. Subsequently, the 1923 earthquake and the bombings of Tokyo during World War II diminished the city’s accessibility. Street signs and numbers of buildings don’t always make sense. Even today most signage is either hidden or written in Japanese.
Lucky you if you manage to find the restaurant, cafe, salon, or bar in your guidebook. But say you do, there’s still bad news: To order you often have to read and speak Japanese.
I have wandered the streets of Tokyo, taking in the powerful aromas of soy-infused broths and frying oil, wondering where they originated. After finding the source I have been afraid to enter, knowing I would be the only foreigner. Once inside I have not been able to read the menu. Feeling helpless, I have mimed a pig, chicken, or fish to show what I want to eat.
Let me help you avoid these difficulties. For starters, here are a few places worth finding.
Every good hotel in Tokyo has terrific restaurants, from the sushi bar Sora (which means “sky” in Japanese) on the 38th floor of Mandarin Oriental, to the wonderful New York Grill on the 52d floor of the Park Hyatt (where Bill Murray stayed in “Lost in Translation”). But while these luxurious and well-hidden places offer great food and amazing views, venture out to see what ordinary folks are eating.
Japan, despite its reputation for being expensive, is full of food bargains — if you can find them.
A big trend is “washoku” cooking: food prepared the way it used to be before the Meiji era in the late 19th century ushered in Western styles. One thing this means is using “koji” (a type of mold) in some dishes to marinate the food. The result is “umami”: taste that goes beyond salty, sweet, sour, or bitter.
Mus Mus is a great example. Hidden in an office building, this is a place with old-school cooking that is mostly vegetarian, deeply flavorful, and healthy (“mus” means to steam). Dinner for two is about $60.
For even more budget-conscious travelers, venture into the rush of the big city and head over to the train station. Every large station in Japan has its own particular food that is emblematic of the region. Called “eki-ben” (eki means station and ben is short for bento, a small lunchbox portion of food), the choices offer an amazing value. For about $12-$16 at Tokyo station, a terrific madhouse of commuters and commotion, you will enjoy a delicious serving of steamed rice, mountain root vegetables, and chunks of really tasty chicken.
Another example: On the 4th floor of an office building in the Harajuku section of town catering to the young and hip you will find Matsu-Baran. For about $28 per person, you can enjoy an appetizer of vegetables, delicious cold or hot servings of soba, and a draft beer. Old-school jazz plays in the tatami room and there is great people watching on the crowded sidewalks below.
The broths, vegetarian or duck, are deeply soothing here. You dip the noodles, slurp as loudly as you like, and when it’s almost all over, add the water that the noodles have been cooked in into the broth for a savory soup, from bowl to lips.
Now make your way to Tatsumi, a real hole-in-the-wall in an old French-looking neighborhood with steep, tree-lined streets and narrow alleys. Like many restaurants in Japan, Tatsumi specializes in one ingredient only and here it is “unagi,” or river eel.
Tatsumi was a favorite of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and the eel here is grilled and sauced on dense beds of rice and washed down with cold drafts.
Finally, go into the basement food courts in any fancy department store in Ginza and get ready to be dazzled.
“Irrashaimase!,” vendors shout out as a welcome, and then offer you delicious prepared foods, from yakitori (grilled chicken) to fried tofu to shrimp sashimi. Twenty dollars per person and you’re as happy as can be.
Now for the tricks to getting to these places and feeling at home.
First, ask your concierge to book tables for you. If the establishment does not take reservations, have the hotel call to let the proprietor know that you — a non-Japanese-speaking Westerner — will be coming.
Have the concierge negotiate the menu for you and write down your favorite dishes and likes and dislikes.
Don’t leave the hotel without two cards written in Japanese, the first with the address and phone number of the restaurant; the second with the name and address of the hotel.
Once in the establishment, be prepared to remove your shoes (not always required), use chopsticks, and perhaps sit on a tatami mat on the floor. Bring plenty of cash: Many places in Japan do not accept credit cards.
Learn a few basic phrases: “Konichiwa,” hello. “Arigatoo,” thank you. Two index fingers crossed like an “X” means: Check, please.
Know a few customs: You don’t tip in Japan, not usually, and being polite and respectful and patient are standard: Do not raise your voice. Do not get angry in public.
And learn how to say, “oishii desu ne,” which means, “Isn’t that delicious?”
You will mean it.