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Tokyo Cuisine

The Sushi Scene
Tokyo Cuisine
Tokyo’s decadent multicourse 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 the city's kaitenzushi (conveyor-belt sushi bars), which range from 100-yen-per-plate to high-end establishments), guests grab what they like as small plates glide by. 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 edge of Ginza, is open for lunch, unlike 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
    Culinary Markets
    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—men driving electric carts buzz past and barely tolerate tourists. Ameya-Yokocho, 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. Their 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, few places are better for this quintessential Japanese dish than Kanda Yabu, which stands out for its long history and ambience. For a satisfying bowl of thick udon noodles, check out TsuruTonTan's 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, lively pubs 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. A number of them are located near the Ameya-Yokocho market and Yurakucho, the train stop between Tokyo Station and Ginza. 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 Bar Gen Yamamoto, the eponymously named mixologist honed his chops in New York City 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 by nursing a drink while taking in floor-to-ceiling views of the city at the 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 parts of the original 1923 Frank Lloyd Wright building, including a mural, have been preserved. If you just want to mix it up with the locals and fellow tourists, stop in at Baird Taproom in 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 the 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 Park 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 300-plus Michelin stars in 2016—more than any other city in the world. Narisawa, owned by chef Yoshihiro Narisawa, was ranked the eighth-best restaurant in the world in 2015 and 2016. The restaurant's nature–based French dishes are created with artistic precision. Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa prepares modern Japanese cuisine at Den, served 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 yakitori that transcends its modest origins, as well as a commendable wine list, seek out Bird Land. 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
    To make your decision about where to dine easier, follow the locals to their favorite spots. 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 Parlor, where Japan's fascination with improbably perfect 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 artists' 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. Tokyoites are passionate about coffee, and you may want to check out Turret Coffee, near the 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