From street side stalls and department store food halls to world class restaurants, Tokyo is the ultimate food lover's destination.
Getting lost in Shinjuku station is a mishap which befalls most foreign visitors to Tokyo - it’s meant to be part of the fun. As I attempt to navigate my way through the heart of this cavernous plaza, however, I am strongly inclined to disagree with this notion. It’s six-thirty on a Friday night, and the daily mass exodus of commuters to Tokyo’s outer suburbs and beyond doesn’t appear to have made much of a dent in crowds. There are thousands of people threading past one another, darting like schools of fish toward one of the stations 60 exits.
If it wasn’t for the lure of a unique dining experience, it would be easy to give up and retreat back to my peaceful, if compact, hotel room with a takeaway. Then again, it’s not every day you get to dine like a sumo wrestler.
Before long we are walking through Shinjuku’s east side, along the main drag of Yasukuni-dori where the pulsating, vertical strips of neon are an assault on the senses. To my left is the infamous “pleasure” district of Kabuki-cho, which I am told has the craziest nightlife of all Tokyo, and is jam-packed with restaurants, hostess bars, sleazy strip joints, love hotels and noisy pachinko parlours.
But our destination is Chanko Dining Waka, one of Tokyo’s most elegant chanko-nabe restaurants, owned by a retired Grand Champion sumo wrestler called Wakanohana. As I walk in, the smiling hostess cries out “Irasshaimase!”. It’s a greeting which means “welcome”, and is lustily echoed by the scores of waiters and waitresses scurrying about. Chanko-nabe is famous for being the food that gives the giant athletes of sumo their bulk. It’s not a style of cooking as such but a style of eating; a nabe hot pot is brought to the table, filled with meat or seafood and vegetables, and cooked in a delicious broth using a portable burner.
The meal is a production, encapsulating Japanese cuisine in a nutshell. From a simple bowl of miso soup to an elaborate banquet, eating of any nature in this country is a serious business.
Tokyo has always been a food-lover’s paradise, but in recent years it has quietly transformed itself into one of the cuisine capitals of the world. Here, anything culinary is a possibility among its 300,000-plus restaurants, pubs, and hole-in-the-wall eateries. It’s also the place to explore the remarkable range and depth of Japanese food. And as a self-confessed devotee, I am here to experience as many types of food as possible in just a few days.
Next morning I’m on the hunt for sushi. If you don’t know where to go, it can be expensive, but aficionados swear by the local eateries surrounding Tsukiji Fish market. They serve the freshest sushi in town - also at reasonable prices - and the opportunity of witnessing a real-life wholesale market in action is well worth the hazard of dodging motorised carts hauling fish on the way in.
Like every produce market, the action starts early. Around 3am, boats start to arrive from the surrounding seas, packed with enough fish to satisfy the demands of a nation where seafood reigns supreme. At 5am a series of lively, animated auctions begins. This is what draws the jet-lagged foreign visitors from the comfort of their hotel beds - it’s quite a spectacle, where a single tuna can sell for more than $14,000.
After seven, things start to ease from a frantic pace to a more orchestrated chaos, but there’s still plenty to see in the market’s cavernous halls: men in black rubber boots rushing wheelbarrows through the aisles, lots of yelling, smoking, chattering, chopping ice, boning and slicing fish, and making sushi. Alongside the market, however, is where you’ll find the rows of barrack-like buildings divided into small sushi restaurants, and one of the most highly rated of these is called Daiwa. There’s almost always a queue for a seat, but the mouth-watering sushi is the freshest you’ll find anywhere.
Sushi lovers seeking a more refined experience in a less chaotic environment, can head to Central Mikuni’s at Tokyo Station. Owned by the popular local chef, Kiyomi Mikuni, this trendy basement restaurant resembles an early-20th-century diner. It’s divided into different themed sections, all of which surround an open kitchen in the middle. There are intimate booths and larger open tables, but I prefer the entertainment of the conveyor-belt sushi counter.
The plates are colour coded to determine the price, and choices range from traditional plates to original creations, such as spicy Mexican rolls, for the more adventurous connoisseur.
If Tsukiji is famous for sushi, the Asakusa district is famous for tempura, and Tokyo’s oldest temple, the impressive Asakusa Kannon. It’s also home of the colourful Nakamise-dori market, a slew of more than 80 stalls, and the perfect hunting ground for gifts to take home. Tokyo’s markets are also great places find cheap eats, and Nakamise-dori is no exception. In addition to fresh tempura, you can sample handmade ice cream (especially the delicious green tea variety), “stick food” such as skewered, grilled chicken, sweet bean dumplings called manju, and the simple noodles.
And if you’re after edible gifts to impress your friends and family back home, there are stalls selling beautifully packaged Japanese confectionery, rice crackers, dried foods such as seaweed, and bottles of sake. Only a five minute walk from here is Tokyo’s largest tempura restaurant, Aoi-Marushin. It’s a huge place with six dining floors and a mix of table and tatami-style seating.
There isn’t much to rave about in terms of the decor, but the fact that it’s always busy is testimony to its reputation for excellent food and reasonable prices. Here, a typical tempura meal consists of prawns, fish and vegetables, served with rice and miso soup.
For a true food lover, however, no visit to Tokyo would be complete without a foray into one of its legendary department store food halls. Called depachika, they are usually found in the basement - and on a first visit, they can be quite overwhelming. These expansive halls, packed with culinary delights, typically house more than 50 independent merchants. Set up as individual vendors on islands, rather than long supermarket aisles, you’ll find every edible and drinkable thing imaginable. There’s fresh fish, meat, fruits, vegetables, breads, cakes, chocolate, preserves, leaf tea, beer, freshly prepared lunch boxes, takeaway counters, and a smattering of small eateries.
Two of the most impressive food halls are in Ginza, Tokyo’s glitzy “Fifth Avenue”. The department store Matsuya has one, but Mitsukoshi’s is perhaps the more famous. It’s the oldest surviving department store chain in Japan (founded in 1673), and the bronze lion outside its main entrance is a popular meeting place.
On weekends, the main drag, Ginza-dori, is closed off to traffic and transformed into a pedestrian haven. On certain stretches, tables and chairs are put out in the centre of the street so that people can rest their feet, or enjoy a takeaway lunch while soaking up the atmosphere. This elegant boulevard is lined with designer boutiques, Japanese tea houses, chocolate shops, fancy bakeries and a mix of upscale and Japanese-style fast food restaurants. Here you’ll also find The 1930’s Lion Beer Hall - both a tourist attraction as well as a handy watering hole.
As night falls, and the traffic returns, I head to the nearby Yamato Seafood and Steak. My first introduction to teppanyaki-style cooking was at one of the famous Benihana chain of restaurants in the US. In Japan, however, it’s not quite the same show - no chefs juggling carving knives or flipping prawns into their shirt pockets - but it’s a production all the same.
The majority of the courses are cooked on the griddle with scallops and tiger prawns as appetisers, then white fish or salmon. But the highlight, and my main reason for dining here, is Kobe beef. This tender, highly-marbled meat costs several hundred dollars a kilo. It’s said to come from cows which are fed beer and massaged with sake, and is a prized delicacy in Japan. I tuck in, and decide to worry about my cholesterol when I get back to Sydney.
The next morning is my last, so I venture out after breakfast to explore the area around my hotel.
I’m staying in Shiodome, a new district built on the site of a former Japanese Railways good yard and opened in mid-2003. It’s a complex collection of skyscrapers towering over the southern limits of Ginza, known for its futuristic architecture, plazas, and glass and steel aerial walkways.
After several days of drinking Japanese tea and local Kirin beer (wines and spirits still carry a hefty price tag in Japan), my taste buds are craving caffeine. In Tokyo almost every office building devotes at least one floor or basement to restaurants, and it is beneath those of Shiodome where I am hoping to find somewhere to savour a strong cappuccino.
It’s been slow progress, but the coffee culture has caught on in Tokyo. I have been told that there are some good independent coffee shops in the city, but in the absence of one of these, I should look out for a chain outlet called Pronto.
I prowl the walkways basements packed with restaurants catering mostly to office workers but find nothing. I am briefly tempted by a vending machine in Shinbashi Station; in Tokyo, these machines dispense everything from fresh flowers to sex toys, but when it comes to coffee I have to draw the line.
Time is running out, and in a last-ditch attempt, I take a detour away from the station and come face-to-face with a Starbucks. My heart sinks; it looks just like all the other Starbucks I’ve ever seen - and avoided - but I’m leaving for Narita Airport in under an hour. I steel myself and decide to give it a go - and am very pleasantly surprised.
I’ve covered much and eaten well over the past few days, but the depth and variety of cuisine in Japan leaves many experiences sadly undone; shabu shabu, kaiseki ryori, and tonkatsu to name a few.
But that’s Tokyo in essence. It’s the kind of city which continues to surprise and yet leaves you wanting on many levels. It’s that element that makes a return visit essential - and next time, I won’t have to worry about finding a decent cup of coffee.