Only a few years ago, the two biggest challenges that foreign visitors faced in Tokyo were exorbitant prices and a language barrier. Due to the recession in Japan (not to mention globalization), your only problem visiting Tokyo today will be finding the time to see and do everything that’s available to you. Think of your first visit as an initiation and promise yourself to return to a city that makes New York look positively provincial—to some, that is.
Ease yourself into Tokyo’s nightlife scene by starting at a hotel bar. Tokyoites love to party hop and often will have small bites in several places, rather than spend an entire evening in one restaurant. Each of the super-luxury hotels offers a stunning bar or restaurant where sipping cocktails or wines from around the globe is de rigueur. The 28 Bar (Japan, 105-0021 Tokyo Minato), on the 28th floor and adjacent to the harbor, in true Japanese fashion, is both hip and understated. It’s like being in a private club.
From here, head over to the dark and evocative bar on the 37th Floor of The Mandarin Oriental, featuring an all-female staff.
“We’re unique for a couple of reasons,” explained Yukiyo Kurihara, the bar’s manager (see left picture). “Because our staff is all women, many of our female guests feel especially comfortable sitting at the bar and having a drink knowing there won’t be any hassles. We also have the world’s only wine cellar that is 36 floors above ground level!”
The wine cellar is available for private dinners with advance booking, but another option, next to the bar, is Signature—one of Tokyo’s classic culinary marriages between French technique and Japanese ingredients. The fish and shellfish in Japan are second to none, and there is plenty to entertain an adventurous palate.
New York Grill (3-7-1-2 Nishi Shinjuku), located 52 stories above the megapolis, is a recently renovated bar and restaurant, overseen by a new executive chef, Stefan Resch. With an exclusively American wine list, several varieties of amazing Japanese beef and one of Tokyo’s widest selections of award-winning regional whiskies, it’s worthy of a visit. Live jazz, a glass of Lasseter and Kobe beef: It makes for a perfect start, enhanced by long views of the glittering cityscape.
Having been eased into Tokyo through its hotel bars and restaurants, you will be acclimated enough to venture out to places where you are likely to be the one Westerner in the room. Menus are increasingly available in English and the staff often make the effort to communicate with tourists.
The Japanese tend to focus on restaurants that only serve one thing, whether it be sushi, tonkatsu (fried pork), yakitori, tofu or unagi (freshwater eel). The exception is found in an izakaya, which is a Japanese drinking establishment that serves a range of small, often seasonal dishes, comparable to a gastro pub.
For the first-time visitor, sushi is often on the list and here a good bet is to go to any of the city’s upscale department stores—Isetan (in Shinjuku), Takashimaya (in Nihonbashi), or Matsuya (in Ginza)—and head to the floor with all the restaurants. The sushi at these spots will be first-rate and reasonably priced.
For tonkatsu, one of the city’s best, most authentic restaurants is Butagumi (2-24-9 Nishi-Azabu). Located on a quiet back street in an old house in a residential neighborhood, the restaurant, which means “The Pork Gang” in Japanese, epitomizes the latest dining trend in Tokyo. Namely, regionalism.
The pork at Butagumi comes from several regions of Japan and its flavors and textures vary from rich and juicy to very rich and very juicy. The best item on the menu is a tasting of six varieties of pork.
Similar in its focus on terroir, Birdland (B1F Tsukamoto Suzan Bldg, 4-2-15 Ginza), features Okukuji shamo breed chicken from Okukuji, in northwest Ibaraki Prefecture. This is one of the city’s most upscale yakitori restaurants where diners sit around to enjoy some of the finest grilled birds in Japan.
Widely regarded as the city’s best unagi restaurant, Chikuyoutei (Ginza 5-8-3) has remarkably fresh eel that melts in your mouth. Served in a traditional setting—tatami mats, low tables—the restaurant is Japanese cooking without foreign influence.
Eating and drinking at its best in Tokyo truly conveys the country’s sense of pleasure: temporality, seasonality, texture and temperature.
It’s not about the sushi. It’s about kaiseki in a ryokan.
The pinnacle of Japanese food and dining is kaiseki. Long ago, the term meant, “stone in the bosom,” and referred to the practice of Buddhist monks carrying hot stones under their robes to ward off the cold of winter. Nowadays kaiseki, still heartwarming, is used to describe the uniquely Japanese practice of serving multiple courses—12 to 16 dishes is typical—over a period of hours. The food is highly seasonal with super-fresh, often local ingredients.
You can easily find kaiseki dining in Tokyo, in luxury hotels or as freestanding enterprises, but the best way to experience it is to visit a country side ryokan. The term, which approximates our word for inn, applies to exquisite, classic, often family-owned properties often embedded in forests or on top of remote mountains with natural hot springs attached.
Kaiseki dining is ritualistic, formal and requires the use of small, specific pottery to present the food. As is true with much of Japanese sensuality, the visual aesthetic is as important as the taste.
Hundreds of ryokan exist throughout Japan. A good way to decide which one to select is to assess the property’s kitchen and chef.
If you’re venturing outside of Tokyo, two excellent ryokans for kaiseki dining are The Kayotei and Beniya Mukayu in the Ishikawa Prefecture.
At Beniya Mukayu, located in Yamashiro, you find Relais & Chateaux service and ambience with seasonal delicacies served in your room. The young couple who own the property, Kazunari and Sachiko Nakamichi, are hip but traditional enough to stay focused on the rituals of kaiseki. The meals served here are classic.
The Kayotei, located in Yamanaka, offers by far one of the most upscale kaiseki dining experiences you will find in Japan. The property, owned by Masanori Kamiguchi, who describes himself as, “a romantic idealist,” has an exemplary kitchen and a popular cookbook. Relying upon a farm-to-table approach, chef Yutaka Ebihara changes his menu nightly depending on what he finds in the markets.
“We seek balance,” Chef Ebihara explained, “with no dish overwhelming what followed or preceded it.”
A 13-course kaiseki dinner at The Kayotei is eaten at table or in your room where, refreshed from the hot, open-air baths and clothed only in a yukata (traditional kimono), you sit back and indulge the senses.
Dishes are vegetable-driven, with wild mushrooms a popular item, but also typically include seasonal specialities like buri, a type of hamachi or yellowtail, tiny shrimp or wild duck that has been tangled up in nets over the rice fields.
Kaiseki dining is meant, paradoxically, to wake up the senses as well as restore balance by giving guests a taste of what surrounds them in nature. It is a cuisine and style of dining that has inspired top chefs like Joël Robuchon and Thomas Keller in their search for perfection.
Try it once and you will reconsider sushi.