Tokyo earns its reputation as a world-class dining destination. From Michelin-starred restaurants to food trucks, the options for international and domestic cuisine allow travellers to tailor their dining experiences. Travellers coming for Tokyo 2020 have an incredible array of choices.
BY Lori Ono
Tokyo is an excellent city for food adventures. From regional Japanese dishes to international cuisine toto Michelin-star restaurants or even a quick nibble on the go, there is an experience and a price range for everyone.
Tokyo has the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world—230! Chefs from other countries bring their cuisine to share with Japan, and many Japanese chefs go overseas to learn and bring their new skills back home. Some bring authentic French or Italian flavors to the city or adapt recipes using local ingredients to create startling and delightful fusion cuisines.
Fine dining enthusiasts interested in Japanese food will want to seek out “Kaiseki”, a traditional Japanese multi-course meal usually reserved for special occasions. Elegant dishes with stunning presentation showcase select seasonal ingredients such as chestnuts in Fall or sprigs of fiddlehead ferns in spring. Find some tips on Japanese food etiquette here: Japanese food etiquette guide
The freshness and range of sushi restaurants will impress any sushi aficionado. Travelers can choose from small, exclusive restaurants with five seats, merry-go-round sushi or anything in between.
Ramen is Japan’s most famous noodle dish. Shops take pride in their special recipes. Some develop vegetarian and vegan ramen. One could easily spend an entire trip discovering the vast variety of ramen.
Travellers looking for authentic everyday Japanese food experiences should explore B-Kyu or B-class Gourmet. These restaurants often specialize in one type of meal and are more affordable. Some places offer complete meals for 1000 yen or less.
Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake prepared on a flat grill called teppan. Donburi, bowls of rice topped with a main ingredient, isare a fast, tasty and economical option. Tonkatsu, a breaded pork cutlet often served with rice and sliced cabbage is a hearty home-style dish, while soba (buckwheat noodles) and udon (wheat noodles) are served hot or cold year-round. These are just a few of the many wonderful dishes that await.
Izakaya, a Japanese pub, makes it easy for travelers to sample an array of different dishes at one meal. Izakayas can be small and intimate or large and lively. And there is beer, shochu and sake!
If you are interested in Japanese food truck culture, your best bet is Commune 2nd on Aoyama Dori which is open seven days a week or a weekend farmers’ market. The United Nations University (UNU) Market, also on Aoyama Dori, often has four to five food trucks. The Marunouchi area and Yurakucho International Forum area have food trucks during the week that cater to area office lunch-crowd but anyone is welcome to come try their fare.
If you’re in a hurry, a quick standing meal can do the trick. This style of dining is called tachigui–standing and eating. Usually these places serve soba noodles, udon or sushi with a handful of toppings or sides. Tachigui soba restaurants can even be found on some station platforms, inside the station itself, or near the station entrance.
It’s worth noting that some places, usually B-kyu or tachigui eateries, use ticket vending machines called kenbaiki. Ticket machines often have pictures on or nearby to help with decision-making. It is also worth noting that bills larger than 5,000 yen are sometimes not accepted. Diners purchase tickets from a machine for their meals and then give the tickets to the staff. Many ramen and donburi shops use this method, and staff are always ready to help.
If you have a sweet tooth, Tokyo will not disappoint. Competition is fierce, and sweet treats vary from one neighborhood to the next. Japanese sweets, focus on local, seasonal flavors, such as peach in summer or sweet potato in fall. Rice-based balls called mochi come in all shapes and sizes. Try them with green tea or matcha or hojicha, roasted green tea, for the contrast of slightly bitter and sweet. Japan may be famous for rice, but there are many delicious bakeries and patisseries to discover, including a handful using rice flour for their scrumptious options. Many international chocolatiers and patissiers also have shops here.
Coffee culture is humming in Tokyo. Kissaten, or old-school coffee shops, serve beverages in bone china while jazz or classical music plays in a venue that often evokes the 1970s. Popular chains are easy to find and can provide a familiar haven. Third wave coffee culture is thriving as people open shops with a modern vibe where they roast their own beans and create their own unique blends.
Tokyo restaurants are becoming more aware of diverse diets and food sensitivities. There are an increasing number of Halal, Kosher, vegetarian and vegan restaurants. Some new chains join a number of locally owned restaurants offering vegetarian and vegan versions of classic Japanese dishes. Vegetable dishes in uncertified restaurants may be cooked in fish or meat-based soup or made with lard. Diners should confirm ingredients and preparation methods with staff and dine at their own discretion.
The charm of Tokyo dining culture is the ability to tailor your experience. Dive deeply into exploring the different degrees of sushi shops or search for the best bowl of ramen. Try as many different types of foods as possible. Eat on the cheap every day or go for luxury. You can do all of it in Tokyo and it will be delicious.
I’m a Canadian writer and photographer based in Tokyo. I love helping people enjoy their time in Japan.