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How to Eat Like a Local in Tokyo

An insider dishes her secrets for enjoying Tokyo’s amazing food scene.

How to Eat Like a Local in Tokyo

(c) Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau

All of Tokyo’s amazing food options can make for an exceptional experience and give you real insight into the culture—if you know where the locals go. Yukari Sakamoto is a Tokyo expert for AFAR and the author of “Food Sake Tokyo”—a guide to the food culture of Japan—and has been running food tours in the city for more than 15 years. She spoke with AFAR about how to enjoy authentic eating in Tokyo.

AFAR: You run food tours through Tokyo. What’s one of your favorite spots to take guests?

Yukari Sakamoto: I love Tsukiji Market—the vibrant wholesale seafood market with about 400 shops near the city center. To eat like the locals, try the Kimagureya sandwich shop for a simple chicken or shrimp katsu sando (sandwich). Marutoyo is a great place for onigiri—rice balls stuffed with savory fillings such as spicy cod roe or grilled salmon. And stop by Toritoh for oyako donburi—chicken cooked in scrambled eggs with a savory soy sauce poured over a bowl of rice. For Japanese tea, head to Jugetsudo. Or order a latte at Tsukiji Turret Coffee—owner Kawasaki-san is known for his latte art.

Two tips: First, come early. Tsukiji—which is just the outer market, since the actual fish market was moved to Toyosu Market in 2018—opens around 6 a.m. and gets very crowded by 9 a.m. Also, check the schedule for Toyosu Market; if it’s closed, then many of the shops at Tsukiji Market will also be closed.

(c) Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau

(c) Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau

AFAR: You used to work at a depachika—what is that and why do locals go?

YS: The depachika is an epicurean food floor found in the basement of department stores. The concept has been around since 1936, and now the depachika is an integral part of Japanese food culture. Office workers, for example, come for bento lunches to eat in their office or to pick up prepared foods for dinner.

When you’re not sure what to order, ask for the osusume, the recommended dish. Also, if you go right as the store opens, all of the employees will be standing at attention, bowing, and welcoming shoppers by calling out “Irasshaimase!” or “Welcome to the store!” You’ll truly feel like the customer is king.

AFAR: What are some of the depachika you can recommend?

YS: Nihonbashi Takashimaya has a lovely rooftop garden picnic area, just a short walk from Tokyo Station. Shinjuku Isetan has delicious wagashi (Japanese confectionaries) and an expansive seafood section. Ikebukuro Tobu is the largest in the country. And Ginza Six has a boutique-like depachika with wines by the glass, eat-in restaurants, and a beautiful lush rooftop garden.

AFAR: What other types of places do you love?

YS: Antenna shops sell hyper-local food products and items from the different prefectures in Japan; they’re a great way to gain insight into regional foods. Nihonbashi is the historic merchants’ district, a short walk from Tokyo Station, where you’ll find many food and kitchenware shops that go back several generations.

Shotengai are old-school arcades with mom-and-pop shops specializing in products like tofu, seafood, meat, sake, or confectionaries. Sugamo and Sunamachi Ginza are two charming shotengai that are still active. Here’s an etiquette tip: Some of the shotengai sell small bites, and it’s considered unpolite to walk and eat. So if you buy some grilled skewers or sweets at one of them, stand in front of the shop and finish eating before moving on.

AFAR: What are some fun, food-related souvenirs to bring home?

YS: Japanese tea—in particular matcha, hojicha, and genmaicha—is always popular, as are tea pots and cups. Edo kiriko glassware is a design style from Tokyo that is beautiful on the table and fun to drink from. Japanese sake is also a popular souvenir. Check out one of the depachika that pours samples so you know what you’re purchasing. Or pick up chopsticks and hashioki (chopstick rests), which can be used at home and be a constant reminder of your trip to Japan. Just bring your passport, as many shops are duty-free!

(c) Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau

(c) Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau

AFAR: Some travelers like to book everything in advance, including restaurant reservations. Is that a good idea? YS: Many of my clients have said that they regret planning all of their meals. You can eat more like a local by making some meals spontaneous. Try local dishes like monjayaki—a savory dish cooked on a hot iron plate in front of the diner. You can find lots of monjayaki shops near Tsukishima station. Come in the evenings as most restaurants are closed during the day.

Kokashita are the small restaurants underneath train tracks; just pull open the curtain and the staff will warmly welcome you. Tachinomi are casual stand-and-drink izakaya which are good fun; you rub elbows in what can be cramped spaces. At both of these spots, start with an ice-cold beer and ask them for their osusume (recommendation).

And of course, there’s nothing more authentic than slipping into a noodle shop for a bowl of noodles. Feel free to slurp as the locals do!

Check out GoTokyo for more great eating and drinking suggestions—and to plan an unforgettable getaway!

Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau
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