What lies between – a gourmet guide to Tokyo - Japan

Where to stay

Park Hyatt The setting for the movie Lost in Translation. Rooms on the top floors of a 52-storey tower have city views, some all the way to Mount Fuji. Non-residents can enjoy a drink in the sky-high bars. Doubles from £300. 00 81 03 5322 1234,

The New Otani It has a stunning 400-year-old garden and every facility you could ever need, in a cental locale. It’s a 15-minute walk to Imperial Palace one way and Shinjuku Gyoen ‘National Garden’ the other. Doubles from £250. 00 81 03 3265-1111,

Shigetsu No trip would be complete without a stay in a traditional ryokan. In Asakusa, this has comfortable understated tatami rooms. Its communal bath on the sixth floor has views of Sensō-ji Temple. Doubles from £70. 00 81 03 3843 2345,

Travel Information

Tokyo is in the Kantō region, on the eastern side of Honshu island, Japan. The official language is Japanese. Currency is the yen, and time is nine hours ahead of GMT. Flights from the UK to Haneda International or Narita International take around 11 hours 50 minutes.

All Nippon Airways flies direct from London Heathrow to Haneda International Airport.
Japan Airlines also offers direct flights from London Heathrow to Haneda International Airport.

Go Tokyo
, the regional tourism website, has lots of practical information to help you plan your trip. Japan Travel is the country’s official tourist board, also worth checking out.

Where to eat

Arise Coffee Roasters Superior roastery offering take-out pour-overs. Head over to their store near Kiyosumi Garden (3-1-3 Kiyosumi, Koto) for similar drip coffees and a bite to eat. Closed Mondays. Coffee from £2. 1-13-8 Hirano, Koto, 00 81 03 3643 360,

Hakkoku À la carte sushi restaurant seating just six at one time. The focus is on prime ingredients, the chef’s skills and unique rice flavoured with two red vinegars. Pricey, but you’re paying for a food memory. Closed Sundays. From £250. 3F, 6-7-6 Ginza, Chuo, 00 81 03 6280 6555

Himitsudo Expect to queue in the heat of summer and depths of winter outside this kakigōri (shaved-ice dessert) parlour. Nikko ice and supreme syrups make it a refreshing stop. Daily flavour updates are posted on Twitter @himitsuno132. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Kakigōri from £9. 3-11-18 Yanaka, Taito, 00 81 03 3824 4132,

Kabuto Found halfway along Shinjuku’s Memory Alley, this izakaya serves up eel every which way. The ‘seven skewer’ set (£13) showcases the entire fish – the head, fin, gizzard, liver and meat. Open 1–8pm. From £15. 1-2-11 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku, 00 81 03 3342767

Kamiya Bar What this café lacks in style over its three different floors, it makes up for in atmosphere. The menu has as many diverse items as there are ingredients in the house-blend vermouth (denki bran). Closed Tuesdays. From £16. 1-1-1 Asakusa, Taito, 00 81 03 3841 5400,

Koyanagi Renowned for its unaju (grilled unagi eel on rice in a box), but the grilled chicken on rice in a box (toriju) is equally finger-licking good. Closed Thursdays. From £22. 1-29-11 Asakusa, Taito, 00 81 03 3843 2861

Namiki Yabusoba Known for its simply sublime house-made soba noodles, served in myriad ways. The chilled zarusoba (£5.20) is a true lesson in elegance and the tempura soba (£12.60) makes a spot-on choice for a springtime lunch. Closed Thursdays. From £18. 2-11-9 Kaminarimon, Taito, Shinjuku, 00 81 03 3841 1340,

Raishuken Ramen comes in a classic shoyu broth. Like the Chinese-style noodles, the shumai (steamed dumplings) with English-style mustard and the wontons are a nod to the kitchen’s connection to Tokyo’s first ramen joint. Closed Tuesdays. From £14. 2-26-3 Nishi-Asakusa, Taito, 00 81 03 3844 7409

Ramen Nagi Expect to join an eager crowd at this 24/7 noodle join, where chefs call up customers via repurposed aircon tubing. The rich soup noodles are exemplary. From £14. Shinjuku Golden Gai (G2 street) 2F, 1-1-10 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, 00 81 03 3205 1925

Taiyaki Wakaba The lines start at breakfast for this moreish salty-sweet sea bream-shaped baked confection filled with red-bean paste. Closed Sundays. Taiyaki from £2. 160-0011 Tokyo, Shinjuku, 00 81 03 3351 4396

Suzuyoshi Archetypal izakaya on Asakusa’s Hoppy Street, which is also known as Stew Street. Try its stewed beef tendon and miso beef stew. Closed Tuesdays. From £16. 2-5-1 Asakusa, Taito, 00 81 03 3841 6081

Tensuke Cosy tempura joint serving quality ingredients and cooking with sides of friendly banter from its crew. Don’t miss the ‘egg set’. Closed Mondays. From £20. 3-22-7 Koenjikita, Suginami, 00 81 03 3223 8505

Yanaka Okano Eisen A taste of nostalgia in every bite of its elegant and seasonal wagashi sweets. Closed Mondays and Wednesdays. Wagashi from £4. 6-1-26 Yanaka, Taito, 00 81 03 3828 5711,

Food Glossary

Meaning (deep-) fried. It’s often found in the names of items such as friedsweets, agemono generally; or specifically agemanju, a deep-fried cake of riceand buckwheat dough with a red-bean filling; kara-age is deep-fried chicken
A boxed meal of rice and pickles with fish or egg that you can get from specialist stores in railway stations. It is only acceptable to eat and drink on certain express trains and shinkansen (the bullet train)
An umami stock made from kombu (seaweed) and bonito, which isused to form the base for miso soup. Can also be mixed with wheat flour to create a flavoursome batter for griddled okonomiyaki (stuffed pancakes)
Rice bowls topped with meat, fish or vegetables and other garnishes
Thinly sliced ginger, marinated in sweetened vinegar, which canbe a natural pale yellow or bright pink. An accompaniment to sushi
Elegant and traditional multi-course fine dining
Curry; one of the four basic ramen soup bases
Traditional Japanese coffee shop with quaint, sometimes dated interiors, often serving good pour-over or syphon brews
A fermented soybean paste; one of the four basic ramen soup bases
A breakfast essential of fermented soybeans that’s pungent,umami-rich and curiously sticky
Bread – from the French 'pain'
Noodle soup with toppings such as sliced meat, wood earmushrooms, nori seaweed, sliced spring onions, boiled egg and more. The ramen noodles, sometimes called chukamen, are Chinese-style and wheat-based. They come in shapes ranging from thin vermicelli-style to flat and broad. Ramen onegaishimasu! A bowl of the house ramen, please!
A set meal. Coffee shops often offer a mohningu sabisu (morning service) when you can order a mohningu setto breakfast
Salt; one of the four basic ramen soup bases
Soy sauce; one of the four basic ramen soup bases
The name for buckwheat and for the noodles made from buckwheat flour. These are served hot or cold, ‘dry’ or in soup
Thin (sometimes very thin), wheat-based noodle, often eaten cold
‘Dry’ ramen noodles dipped into a bowl or cup of sauce
Wheat-based noodles, often thick and firm, but regionally also available flat, irregular or soft. They can be served both hotor cold and can come fried or in a soup
Freshwater eel (limited sustainability), often grilled with a sweet soy sauce marinade. When served on rice the dish is called unadon. Anago, a saltwater eel or conger eel is grilled in the same way or served as tempura
Small, traditional confections that are served with green tea (often available in park teahouses), seasonal variations reflect the changes in nature. Mostly plant-based, the sweets come fried, baked, steamed or candied
Roasted sweet potato, a traditional street food

Food and Travel Review

Foreign languages can be a bit of a mouthful. In Japan, with typical insight and wit, they have a name for the tongue-tied anxiety that comes from speaking one. Yokomeshi, or a ‘sideways meal’. The Japanese language is as diverse as the Tokyo landscape. Both as innovative and traditional, playful and labyrinthine as the sprawling capital’s many districts and boroughs. These neighbourhoods (each as big as a city) stretch from upmarket Ginza – where ladies clip-clop in kimonos and wood-soled sandals – to Shibuya, famed for its epic ‘scramble crossing’ and weekend fashion tribes. Tokyo thrives on these extremes: it is unfailingly polite and sometimes reserved, but also rich in vivid reinvention.

If an expression is long-winded, it’s not unusual for the Japanese to cut it down to size. Betsubara, for example, is the ‘extra belly’ you miraculously find for dessert even when you’re full; kuchisabishii refers to the act of eating, not because you’re hungry but because you have a ‘lonely mouth’; the annoyance caused by a noisy fellow diner is known as nuuhara. This comes from ‘noodle harassment’, a Japlish term for the suffering felt by those who object to a good old-fashioned slurp. Some say the noodle slurp is crucial as it cools the broth. Japanese diners prefer to eat soup noodles while they’re piping hot and before they overcook. Slurping also aerates bland ramen or udon to release much-needed retronasal flavour.

At Nagi, the counter-side chefs measure their days with the slurps of customers lapping up the noodle shop’s signature broth. Chef-owner Ikuta Satoshi has several branches across Tokyo, but the ten-seater in the Golden Gai, a shambly quarter of 200 nomiya (dive bars), just off Shinjuku’s nightlife district, is where he started a pop-up in 2004. Nagi’s niboshi (small dried fish) broth requires half-a-day’s simmering of shoyu (a soy sauce-based stock) with 20 types of dried baby sardines. The end result is a silky liquor packed with umami flavour, sliced pork, spring onions, curly thin and broad flat noodles.

Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s commercial hubs and neighbour to trendsetting Shibuya, is an unpickable knot of train lines, subways, underground malls and interconnected skyscrapers. Commuters who work at the high-rise offices spill into its streets and lanes at night.

There are 38 million pairs of feet in Greater Tokyo, and a tenth step through Shinjuku station every day.

Against this potentially overwhelming surge of humanity there’s a convivial, unhurried, even makeshift parallel world. Like two sides of the same coin, or two different noodles in the same bowl, Tokyo is a fusion of efficient newness and timeworn back lanes just like Golden Gai (the setting for TV’s fictional Midnight Diner) or Omoide Yokocho, a dog-leg alley of izakaya bars grilling sticky chicken yakitori and skewered offal. For nostalgia on a larger scale, Asakusa has been the partygoers’ go-to since long before 1868 when Edo was renamed Tokyo. The district is a little mischievous and supposedly lacks finesse, but it’s still unmistakably Japanese.

The streets hum to the clatter of pachinko (gambling halls) and rickshaws, and here you’ll find its discreet geisha make-up store and geisha-for-a-day makeover boutiques. Head down a side street to Raishuken for its ramen with plump chijirimen noodles in a rich chicken- and pork-bone shoyu broth. Started by chef Ochiai in 1950, it is now run by his daughter, but its lineage can be traced back to Tokyo’s original shoyu ramen restaurant, Rairaiken, which opened in 1910. Its chefs were from China’s Guangdong Province and this is why ramen is also nicknamed ‘Chinese noodles’.

A 10-minute walk away is Namiki Yabusoba. Here they’ve been milling flour and hand-making noodles every morning since 1913. Their juwari soba are made from buckwheat and water. They’re best eaten simply as zarusoba, which are cool noodles dipped in a cup of intense yabu (matured soy sauce boiled with bonito flakes, served chilled and sprinkled with spring onion). An accompanying jug of sobayu (noodle cooking water) is added to leftover dipping sauce. It’s briny, smooth and apparently high in B vitamins and manganese.

Barman Eto Shuhei says that ramen and soba are not the same thing: they have different ways. ‘Ramen has a thousand personalities, soba is refined and quiet,’ he explains. Slurping aside, that is.

Thirtysomething Shuhei is a magazine editor and writer who also works as a barman to make ends meet. A high-flyer in many ‘most expensive city’ lists, Tokyo has a steep cost of living. ‘Noodles are cheap, but the supermarket is pricey,’ he says. In the affordable range are the likes of ramen (circa £5.30), conveyor sushi (around 70p a plate) and a G&T – gin-tonikku (£4.90).

While Shuhei’s lifestyle is different from the stereotypical salaryman, both will end up working late. To let his hair down, the salaryman will head to Shinjuku’s Omoide Yokocho alleyway (Kabuto is good for grilled eel) or to an izakaya along Asakusa’s Hoppy Street. Lively izakaya Suzuyoshi is one that promises ‘proudly old-fashioned’ dishes, such as salted gizzard or stewed beef tendon.

Before they hit the karaoke parlour, a few salarymen invariably pass by Kamiya Bar for a glass of its ‘house vermouth’, a blend of brandy, gin and curacao that is drunk with beer chasers. In Japlish, the heady cocktail is called denki bran, meaning ‘electric brandy’, and was invented in 1882. The café was one of the first to introduce a Japanese-Western menu and today it’s a kaleidoscope of dishes straight out of the 1960s: fried camembert and crab croquettes collide with yakitori and katsu curry.

Yakitori and all things fried are part of old Edo’s yatai (street-food stall) culture. Even with a makeover, this style of eating struggles to break free from cultural pigeonholing. Historically, food stalls were fixtures at temple fairs and they’re seen as having ‘a time and a place’. There is etiquette around what, how and where to eat on the street. It’s best to take a lead from the locals.

Five minutes’ away, Nakamise-dori Street, is one place where it is acceptable to tabe-aruki (eat while strolling). This avenue funnels devotees and sightseers to Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. It has been lined with stalls selling yatai for centuries. Perhaps to help weary pilgrims go the extra paces, the food is carbladen, made with adzuki bean or glutinous rice. There are ningo-yaki (skillet-baked buns), steamed dango (rice dumplings) and deep-fried agemanju (cakes filled with pumpkin, matcha cream or ume plum).

In spring, nearby Ueno Park, which covers some 54 hectares, is the spot for blossom viewing. Families, friends and office workers gather under its cherry and plum trees for hanami (flower viewing) picnics.

It’s made more euphoric when a gust of wind causes a hanafubuki (blossom blizzard), with petals falling over onigiri (rice balls) and cups of saké.

A wander through the lanes north leads to Yanaka District, where long-established stores, including Yanaka Okanoeisen, make dainty wagashi (sweets) to suit the season. There are sakuramochi (pink rice rolled in pickled cherry leaves) or sugary rice crackers with sakura (cherry blossom).

On humid summer afternoons, Yanaka Himitsudo hands out numbered tickets to the queue for its kakigōri desserts. They’re made from feathery shaved ice topped with syrups, fruit, beans and veggies. The ice is transported from Nikko, one of Japan’s handful of ice houses, some 145km away. It uses a 400-year-old method to freeze spring water in open-air pans to form crystal-clear slabs that are stored until needed. Himitsudo owner Morinishi Koji uses hand-cranked shavers to improve its appearance and make it fluffier.

Himitsudo, Nagi and Namiki Yabusoba have one common denominator: queues. Anywhere worth its salt has one that may start an hour or two before opening, even on wet workdays. Shimokitazawa is perfect people-watching territory, a useful pastime for those politely waiting their turn. This hipster hood west of Shibuya draws long lines outside its grammable pâtisseries and burger bars. There are a number of fine coffee shops, too. Try Bear Pond Espresso (good cortado), Moldive (a roastery brewing coffee ‘without sourness’) and Bookends (run by a jazz enthusiast). Kohi-aikoka (coffee lovers) also favour Fukagawa District, around Kiyosumi Garden in the east of the city. Blue Bottle and iki Espresso bring American and New Zealand brewing styles, whereas Arise is die-hard local roasting house with the single-origin varieties sourced by owner Hayashi Taiju, who will do take-outs.

Nearby Fukagawa Edo Museum provides a tour of old Tokyo with its walk-through replica of an 1840s neighbourhood with noodle stalls and shops. Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum has a village of preserved historical properties: art deco villas; Edo-era shophouses; wooden tearooms. It’s a 25-minute journey west from Shinjuku, in the heart of commuter belt: hit the trains at rush hour and you may be shoehorned into a carriage by white-gloved guards. They pack them in like sardines – or, as the Japanese say, like sushi. At Koenji Station passengers on the platform are an identity parade of city types: hipsters and sneakerheads, salarymen, ladies in kimonos and ‘Power Ranger’ cosplayers. Koenji has its lunchtime queues, too. It’s worth the wait at Tensuke restaurant for its prized set lunch of egg, vegetables and seafood, all tempura’d by a master.

‘This is a rare treat,’ a diner whispers as the crispy, crusted egg yolk oozes over rice. Kurihara Nobuyuki trained for 10 years as a tempura chef before opening this restaurant. He knows how to effortlessly time the lunchtime’s four courses for a full house of a dozen customers. It’s a 25-minute sitting: affordable, satisfying, deceptively brisk. ‘Are you ready?’ Kurihara-san nods to customers seated at the counter. He uses chopsticks to lob specks of batter into the oil to test the heat. He cracks an egg into the pot and tosses the shell over his shoulder. As it lands straight in the bin behind, the master strikes a kabuki pose for a freeze-frame moment. Welcome to Tokyo: the city where a little nostalgia and great food goes a long way.

Words and photography by Mark Parren Taylor.

This feature was taken from the March/April 2021 issue of Food and Travel.

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