As you step off the airplane at Narita International Airport, don’t worry about finding your bearings or whipping out a city map right away. It’s easy to get lost in Tokyo, even with a map, but sometimes the best way to discover excellent food and cocktails is by getting lost in them.
As the world’s biggest metropolis, Tokyo has also overtaken (or at least come close to) New York and Paris as the culinary destination in the world. After all, it is one restaurant shy of having the same number of three-Michelin-starred eateries (16 as of 2012) as New York and Paris combined (7 and 10, respectively), and Japan has dozens more top-rated restaurants than hot culinary destinations Spain or Denmark. But while Tokyo's restaurants serve experiential, artful (and award-winning) dishes, the city is more than just the sum of its fine-dining superstars.
Many of Tokyo’s most treasured gems are the hard-to-find sushi dens, yakitori stands, and ramen shops that are nearly impossible for a new visitor to identify from the outside. These are the chefs who have raised the simple art of tempura to the pinnacle of worldwide recognition, carried the flame for the tea ceremony and , and put their own spin on Italian, French, and American styles, making Tokyo truly cosmopolitan. The city’s best mixologists (if you can find their reclusive nooks) concoct their own absinthe sips and quietly perfect Japanese cocktail classics. Get lost, grab a bite, sip a cocktail, and head back out into the neon-lit night craving more.
When all is said and done, though, it’s the fish that rule Tokyo’s dining scene. Fishing remains one of the city’s strongest industries. Not even the 2011 tsunami could make a permanent dent in the fishing market here. Like New Orleans, Tokyo has begun to rebound from its own natural calamity. Visit Tsujiki market at 4am and you’ll still see mongers scurrying frantically to get fish pallets loaded for the day’s international flights. Pull up a seat at one of many sushi counters and you’ll be wowed not only by the variety and freshness of the fish, but also the extravagance of eating it off of an ancient, holy wooden counter. Just make sure you eat your toro the proper way, as the Tokyoites do: fish-side-down on the tongue.
Tokyo is a city that has not lost its identity, but rather announces itself anew to each jet-lagged traveler wandering its streets in search of the ultimate dining experience, looking to get lost in a city of distinct flavors.
The only tempura restaurant in the world with three Michelin stars, 7chome Kyoboshi is not for everybody. After all, not everyone is able (or willing) to plunk down a minor shogun’s ransom for what is essentially fried food, and some say its repute is oversold. But for those who want some of the best tempura in the world, Chef Shigeya Sakakibara is their man; having spent more than 30 years adhering to the “kaizen” theory of continuous improvement, his dishes reflect a pursuit of the freshest ingredients cooked in the most appropriate way. The restaurant originally opened in 1952 in Kyoto, but later moved to Tokyo, where it has flourished since (it is named after its original address). 7chome Kyoboshi has a very specific way of doing things: Sakakibara claims he has never altered the tempura batter or the oil, insisting he can tell the oil’s temperature by the way it feels. And instead of a traditional garnish, he uses salts, lemon juice, and horseradish. Each dish is fried by Sakakibara (he is the only chef, though he has a prep cook) and is served as a single item with regular (but welcome) interruptions of small tempura-fried ebi prawns.Recommended:
Although one of it’s most well-known distinctions is for being one of the world’s most expensive restaurants, Aragawa deserves far more recognition for its dedications to beef. Aragawa opened in1967, and its Nishijin silk tapestries and cherry wood tables remain unchanged; the very décor is nostalgic of an old, traditional steakhouse. But this isn’t just any steak—its cuts are highly prized, even compared to other Wagyu beef varieties. Aragawa uses only purebred Tajima cattle from the Sanda region bought at auction. The prize-winning beef is broiled on metal skewers and fired with binchō-tan white charcoal from the Wakayama prefecture, and the chefs use a unique method of cooking the steak by constantly pulling the meat on and off the flame. The meat is perfect, both in terms of texture (the steaks are fork-ready and buttery) and its deep flavor.Recommended:
Mention Araki in Tokyo and, depending on the circles you travel in, you’ll either be directed to infamous contemporary artist and bondage photographer Nobuyoshi Araki or a famed three-star sushi haunt. Either way, you’re bound to experience something new and exciting. When it comes to tradition, Chef-owner Mitsuhiro Araki is a stickler for the rules, albeit friendly ones. Regardless of his three Michelin stars, he has no qualms about teaching a sushi novice the proper way to consume his masterfully crafted product. Nor is he shy to praise his sushi counter, which is made of several intact pieces of a 400-year-old Japanese cedar said to have holy value. However, that cedar counter will soon become endangered in Tokyo; Araki will pull up stakes in the fall and move to London, so visitors to Tokyo should dine here while they have the chance. Thankfully we were lucky enough to do so while it exists in the memorable Tokyo streets.Recommended:
Dessert takes center stage at Fiorentina Pastry Boutique in Tokyo’s Grand Hyatt. World-renowned Pastry Chef de Cuisine Junichi Goto has taken several awards since the 1980s, and he is joined by Pastry Sous Chef Masaki Okazaki, who won the Mondial Des Arts Sucrés this year for his “circus” of candy, sugar craft, and chocolate. Okazaki combines classic technique with beautiful artistic vision for his dishes, the results of which are often as much abstract art as they are delicious. The lobby boutique also offers sweets-laden baskets for children, cocktail-shaped fruit jellies for the adults, and freshly baked bread for all.Recommended:
“In case of losing your way, please do not hesitate to call us to escort you.” So says the website for Ishikawa, one of the three-Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo, and the offer applies equally to the menu as it does to the geographic location behind the Bishamonten shrine. From kimono-clad geisha waitstaff and the wooden counter (supposedly taken from a 300-year-old cypress tree) to the private tatami dining rooms, Ishikawa has all the trappings of a Kyoto-style kaiseki restaurant. But Chef Hideki Ishikawa’s menu includes a mixture of tradition and modernity, breaking (almost destroying in some cases) the centuries-old rigidity of some revered dishes. The chef might take a small ayu fish, kill it to order, and then serve it fried with bones and innards intact, resulting in bitter but interesting flavors. Or he’ll tweak the obligatory rice dish (a staple in kaiseki, and usually simple rice) with sumptuous and addictive charcoal-grilled sea perch. Under Ishikawa’s direction, the menu rarely if ever loses its way, though after such a meal, you may need help leaving.Recommended:
By all means, if you want a picturesque scene of Tokyo, get a window seat while dining at Kozue, located on the 40th floor of the Park Hyatt hotel. You’ll see the bounty and clustered mania of Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Nakano districts, as well as serene beauty of snowcapped Mount Fuji. It’s a fitting view for a restaurant whose name translates into “treetop.” Chef de Cuisine Kenichiro Ooe prepares delicious sashimi and seasonal delicacies, all presented on unique earthenware and porcelain created specifically for the restaurant. A fairly deep sake list (some handcrafted only for Kozue) help rounds out a fine evening at the restaurant.Recommended:
Opening in 2010, L’Effervescence is a study in contrast. spent three years at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck before returning to his homeland to open his own restaurant, which has adopted both the calculated whimsy and studied grace of a glass of excellent Champagne. The menu at L’Effervescence is divided, too, between light and shade (delicate and heavy dishes), though many items sound as beautiful as they taste: “Here and Nowhere Else” is Japanese plums, morels, and shiso; “Setting Sun in a Strawberry Field” is strawberry-rhubarb compote, fromage blanc ice cream, and crispy milk mousse. His signature turnip dish, in which the star is cooked sous vide, baked, then sautéed à la minute, is a pinnacle victory for vegetable-as-main-attraction. Namae’s devotion to vegetables, putting them stage center in some cases, is a testament to his mentors and a beacon for a new culinary movement.Recommended:
It’s a fine line in the cooking world on whether food is art or pleasure. Narisawa smudges that line as if it were a line of reduced soy brushed across a white porcelain plate. It is one of the most sophisticated restaurants in the world, where eating a meal is just as much theater as it is sustenance. Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa, who spent years in Europe under the tutelage of Joël Robuchon and Paul Bocuse, marries French fundamentals and Japanese sensibility into a cooking style all his own. The menu reads almost like a haiku, discussing Narisawa’s cooking in almost spiritual terms: the importance of “earth” and “water” purity, and the rebirth of the God of Fire in binchō-tan white charcoal (which, he says, has created “a new form of seasoning” for the 21st century). The poetic menu and conceptualized dishes may be too heady for some diners (bread service, for example, is brought out as fermented dough and then cooked tableside in a pre-heated 300°F stone pot), but Narisawa promises nothing less than a memorable meal that will challenge how you think about your food.Recommended:
Nihonryori RyuGin, which opened in 2003, is about pushing boundaries without breaking rules. Chef Seiji Yamamoto has taken kaiseki tradition and infused it with molecular gastronomic method, modernizing what has been a obsessively simple, traditional cuisine. Yamamoto’s style can be both electrifying and controversial (he once printed a menu using squid ink), and his approach is often extremely philosophical, but with RyuGin he has imprinted on Tokyo his own style and built a worldwide fan club that includes fellow chefs Andoni Luis Aduriz and Wylie Dufresne. His grilled corn tofu is a creamy decadent take on what could be simple health food, his summer vegetables are a medley of texture and flavor, the Sanuki beef is marbled with fat, providing an intense flavor, and his Chateau RyuGin—beet soup in a wine bottle—is a humorous way to start the meal, especially for non-drinkers.Recommended:
From the outside, nothing about Sushiso Masa stands out. You might walk past its non-descript entrance several times before realizing where it is (as we did). Once inside, there are but a few bar seats and no menu. No matter; once you’re inside you are in good hands. Masa has distinguished itself in its approach to fish (i.e., whitefish and sardines are the restaurant’s specialty, typically considered “low end” fish among sushi restaurants). And during its 35-course meal, Chef Masakatsu Oka serves many lesser-known but highly prized elements, such as monkfish liver (known as “the foie of the sea”), firefly squid (both raw and grilled), and red Hokkaido uni, a seasonal (and much more buttery) urchin species. And the chefs at Masa do not merely serve raw fish, but instead punctuate the sashimi with lightly grilled fish and offal.Recommended:
Most chic restaurants start small, build buzz, and then eventually expand, shedding some of their “hard to get into” panache for a more accessible, democratic vibe. Such was the case for Aronia de Takazawa. When the boutique restaurant opened in 2005, it had just two tables. Last May, after building a worldwide reputation, the tiny restaurant grew … to three tables. Now simply called Takazawa, Chef Yoshiaki Takazawa stands in his open kitchen before a small enclave of lucky diners each night, like an arbiter deciding their fates. Takazawa is a stern judge of ingredients—devoted to using local product—and an insightful executor of flavor and creativity. His Ratatouille dish (one of the oldest on the menu) retains the color but expands on the essence of the simple country stew; other dishes employ molecular twists, such as his Medicine, a tree-bark digestif shaped like a little yellow pill. Even his towel service delights, as servers inflate dehydrated towel disks with hot water. Getting on Takazawa’s docket is the difficult part, however, as reservations sometimes book up to six months in advance.Recommended:
If you have time for just one drink in Tokyo, it would have to be at Bar High Five. Though the space is drab in a faceless cramped office kind of way, the bar is home to legendary mixologist Hidetsugu Ueno, known worldwide for his masterful handling of both liquor and ice. Ueno’s most famous drinks, including his White Lady and Bloody Mary (he makes his own juice by hanging tomatoes), are subtle, quirky reinventions of classics, and the hot dogs and Jamon Serrano on the menu are simple pleasures. But to call Bar High Five understated is patently absurd. Just order one whiskey with Ueno’s now-famous ice diamond, and you’ll see one of the (quietly) flashiest bartenders in the world. And one who has helped influence other bartenders worldwide.Recommended:
A speakeasy in the truest sense of the word, getting into Jus de Peche can be a difficult enterprise, though well worth the attempt. Mixologist Yoshi Toshiyuki makes his own absinthe, which is the central star of the classic cocktail scene here. And, like most of the top bars in town, a leg of cured Joselito ham rests on the bar, begging to be shorn of a few slices. A few drinks might just convince you (as it did Chef David Kinch, who thinks the secret must be kept) that Jus de Peche is the world’s best bar that nobody knows about. Yet.Recommended:
Located within walking distance of the Akasaka Imperial Palace and the Tokyo Tower, ANA Intercontinental Tokyo is a perfect place for visiting businesspeople to hang their hats. Rooms are elegantly furnished and modern but also include some Japanese accents. Taking a page from Las Vegas or New York, the hotel has an elegant outdoor garden pool and an indoor shopping mall, with antiquities, wine, and high-end clothing. It also sports a number of leading restaurants: Pierre Gagnaire and the kaiseki-focused Unkai are located on the upper floors of the hotel. And for those looking for an active night scene, the bar at Pierre Gagnaire has live music almost every night.
Located on the 39th floor of the Shinjuku Park Tower building, the Park Hyatt is Tokyo’s most famous hotel (it got its Hollywood spotlight when Bill Murray stayed there in “Lost in Translation,” luring hordes of tourists). But the hotel’s luxury (Egyptian cotton bedding outfits the bedrooms), ambiance (its lobby has a full bamboo garden as its centerpiece), and excellent dining options are the reason most people stay. The 47th floor is where you'll find the hot and cold unisex pools (where bathing suits are not just frowned upon, they are forbidden), as well as the health club (where gym clothes, sneakers, and socks are provided) and indoor lap pool. The experience of swimming a few strokes is akin to floating in the clouds as you look out on a 360° view of the city; it is decadence beyond decadence. Many of the spacious rooms also boast azure-tinted views of the Tokyo skyline at night and on clear days Yoyogi Park and Mount Fuji.
Created in 1935 (though legend says the riverside fish market existed as far back as the 16th century), Tsukiji is the biggest fish market in the world, and home to one of the few remaining tuna auctions. After all these years, it remains a shrine to the religion of fish (though many of the mongers within are not necessarily devout believers in sustainability). The market bustles with intensity each morning, with blood-soaked butchering tables, spiny lobsters nestled in ice, baby eels writhing in tanks, and huge albacore. Visitors used to be able to stroll through the wholesale area, but that is no longer the case, unless they are escorted by a buyer (as we were) However, passersby are allowed to watch the tuna auction from a designated area for a specified time. The freshest sushi can be had here (for breakfast) at several stalls outside of the wholesale area. Also on the outskirts of the market are stalls devoted to chefs’ knives, serving ware, pottery, and cookbooks.