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Tokyo Cuisine

The Sushi Scene
Tokyo Cuisine
Tokyo’s decadent multi-course feasts, exceptional tofu, and desserts made with sweet red bean paste, prove that Japanese cuisine is far more diverse than just sushi and tempura.
By Erin Bogar, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Shan Shan
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    The Sushi Scene
    The Sushi Scene
    While sushi has gained popularity worldwide, the sushi in Tokyo still reigns supreme. At kaitenzushi, conveyor-belt sushi bars, guests grab small plates of sushi as they glide past. Tokyo has kaitenzushi ranging from 100-yen-per-plate to high-end establishments. For the freshest catch of the day, Japan’s largest fish market, Tsukiji, has shops that open early for a sushi breakfast. (Or try Nakaya for a donburi rice bowl.) Kyubey, on the edges of Ginza, is open for lunch (which is not true of many high-end sushiya). Affordable lunch sets at Itamae Sushi, in Ginza and Roppongi, include nigiri and sashimi served with green tea and miso soup.
    Photo by Shan Shan
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    Culinary Markets—Windows into History
    Culinary Markets—Windows into History
    The Ameya-Yokocho and Tsukiji markets are windows into Tokyo’s fascinating history. Arrive at Tsukiji before 4 a.m. for the best chance of being one of the 120 people allowed into the predawn tuna auction. During the auction, hundreds of fish are inspected by wholesale and restaurant buyers before being sold at a premium. Walking through the market is dangerously interesting—the men driving electric carts buzz past and barely tolerate tourists. Ameya-Yokocho Market, next to Ueno Station, became Tokyo’s black market after World War II. Today, the crowded street still has an old-time feel, with stalls selling fish, freeze-dried fruit, and Tokyo T-shirts. Vendors are tightly packed, patient with tourists, and sometimes willing to bargain.
    Photo by Jeff Jones/age fotostock
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    All about Noodles
    All about Noodles
    Menrui (noodles) are a staple of the Japanese diet. Even though ramen originated in China, the Japanese have crafted as many different ramen styles as there are distinct regions of Japan. Among the most popular are shoyu ramen, a soy sauce broth; miso ramen, a soy paste broth; and tonkotsu ramen, a pork bone broth. The popular Afuri chain of ramen restaurants has locations throughout the city. Its signature dish is prepared with yuzu shio, an aromatic citrus, and they also have seasonal specials. While there are literally hundreds of soba shops in Tokyo, Kanda Yabu stands out for its long history and ambience. There are few better place to try this quintessential Japanese dish. For a satisfying bowl of thick udon noodles, check out TsuruTonTan and their seasonal and year-round selections.
    Photo by Jon Sheer
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    Japanese Bars
    Japanese Bars
    After work and on weekends people frequent izakaya (Japanese pubs). Izakaya are lively establishments that traditionally serve Japanese lagers alongside bar snacks like gyoza (dumplings), yakitori (chicken skewers), and horumon (offal). Many izakaya offer all-you-can-drink deals, where, for a fixed price, you can settle in for the evening. You can find a number of them near the Ameya-Yokocho market and Yurakucho, the train stop between Tokyo Station and Ginza, has streets lined with reasonably priced izakaya. But if there's one place you're willing to splurge, make it Bar Ben Fiddich, where mad scientist Hiroyasu Kayama macerates all manner of herbs and spices (even the occasional insect) to hand-craft one-of-a-kind liquid masterpieces. At the eponymously named Bar Gen Yamamoto, this mixologist honed his chops in NYC before opening this intimate space, where he prepares a tasting menu of cocktails using locally sourced, seasonal fruits and herbs. Put yourself in a scene from Lost in Translation, nursing a drink while taking in floor-to-ceiling views of the city at New York Bar at Park Hyatt Tokyo. Or slip into a piece of storied history at the Old Imperial Bar at the Imperial Hotel, where pieces of the original 1923 Frank Lloyd Wright building, including an original mural, have been preserved. If you just want to mix it up with locals and fellow tourists, stop in at Baird Taproom Harajuku (one of American Bryan Baird's brewpubs in the city) and order yourself some izakaya small-plate dishes.
    Photo by Marie Takahashi
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    Noteworthy Festival Food
    Noteworthy Festival Food
    During festivals, food stalls line the streets and sell a diverse assortment of traditional and unique Japanese treats. During Sanja Matsuri in mid-May you will find okonomiyaki (a pancake including meat or seafood and vegetables), takoyaki (fried octopus dough balls), and karaage (fried chicken bites) as well as sweet treats like dorayaki (sponge cake filled with sweet red bean paste) and mochi (rice paste cake). During Ganjitsu, locals celebrate New Year with osechi-ryori, ornately prepared dishes symbolic of wealth, happiness, and longevity. When festivals are not taking place, food stalls can be found in Ueno Koen near Benzaiten shrine and around Senso-ji temple.
    Photo by Rafael Alba
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    The Finest of Fine Dining
    The Finest of Fine Dining
    Michelin testers came to Tokyo for the first time in 2007. Despite the refusal of some Japanese chefs to participate, Tokyo received more than 300 Michelin stars in 2016—more than any other city in the world. Narisawa, owned by chef Yoshihiro Narisawa, was rated the eighth best restaurant in the world in 2015 and 2016. The restaurant's French nature-themed dishes are created with artistic precision. Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa prepares modern Japanese cuisine at Den, but serves it in a playful, relaxed atmosphere. Ukai-tei is known for its signature marriage of classic French dishes with Japanese seafood, produce, and other ingredients. And for yakatori that transcends its modest origins and a commendable wine list, seek out Bird Land (but don't let the modest subway basement location fool you, it shares space with three-Michelin star Sukiyabashi Jiro).
    Photo by Jon Sheer
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    The Traditional Tea Ceremony
    The Traditional Tea Ceremony
    While tea was first brought to Japan from China in the 8th century, the tradition of the tea ceremony began in the 15th century as a spiritual practice of Zen Buddhism. The ceremony embraces the principles of wabi (the inner experience of quiet refinement) and sabi (the outer experience of embracing imperfection). The ceremony is a graceful and relaxing ritual that eases participants into inward reflection. The preparation of matcha (powdered green tea) is an elegant and slow process. Many of the city's leading hotels offer tea ceremonies (as well as traditional—Western—afternoon teas). You can also sample some of Japan's best teas at stores like Sakurai Tea and Ippodo Tea.
    Photo by Martin Hladik/age fotostock
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    Eat like a Local
    Eat like a Local
    Follow the locals to their favorite spots to make your decision about where to dine easier. For a delicious, quick, and simple lunch, grab a bowl of noodles from the Afuri Ramen or Sukiya chains. Japanese curry is milder than its Southeast Asian counterparts; choose your own spice level at Joto Katsu Curry. In the cooler months, the Japanese enjoy nabe (a Japanese hot pot) and oden (ingredients include boiled eggs and fish cakes stewed in soy-flavored dashi). Depachika, the basements of department stores, are food wonderlands that sell everything from traditional sweets to fresh squid. The one at Takashimaya is an excellent place to experience this side of Tokyo's culinary scene. Surprisingly, perhaps, Tokyo is known for its Neopolitan pizza, and Pizzeria e Trattoria da ISA is one of the best, with more than three dozen pies to choose from. If your sweet tooth is calling, make your way to Takano Fruit Parlour and Fruit Bar, where Japan's fascination with improbably perfiect fruit is elevated to a dessert art form.
    Photo by Jon Sheer
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    Tokyo’s Varied Café Culture
    Tokyo’s Varied Café Culture
    Tokyo cafés range from ornate establishments to laid-back artist hangouts. In a city that caters to all fantasies and hobbies, cat cafés and rabbit cafés are not unusual. Felines roam free in cat cafés, and customers pay an entry fee that includes a drink and “cat time.” Daikanyama, a quaint neighborhood of rolling hills filled with cafés, is a refreshing change from its high-energy neighbor, Shibuya. In a city that is passionate about coffee, you may to check out Turrett Coffee near Tsujiki market, where seasonal lattes include azuki red bean and matcha flavors; Koffee Mameya, a Shibuya favorite that celebrates single-bean coffees; and Fuglen Tokyo, where the coffee selections transition into a cocktail menu each evening.
    Photo by Marie Takahashi