After three years working at Morimoto making the sauce and the stock, butchering the fish, and polishing the rice every morning to earn the respect of the sushi chefs there, I finally made my way to Tokyo to see what the city is all about. Arriving in Japan with a mission to eat, I spent an incredible time sampling Tokyo's best dishes and seeing some amazing sights.
The thing about Tokyo that I find most pleasant, being from New York, is just how easy it is to navigate and how quickly you can feel comfortable getting around. The subway system with its simple letters, colors, numbers and voice prompts could not be any clearer.
I was also pleasantly shocked by how inexpensive the food in Tokyo is for an urban city. How does a restaurant survive just selling bowls of ramen for $12? That wouldn't happen in NYC.
With that said, here are the places that I think are musts for every first time visitor to Tokyo:
For $70, I had 14 pieces of quality sushi - straight from the market. The restaurant opens at 5am, but there can be a 3+ hour line that forms by then so it's best to go early on a weekday. If you get there before 4am, the line is short and it’s the greatest breakfast someone could ask for.
Pro-tip: While you wait, there's a sake shop across the street from the restaurant that opens at 3am. We crushed two 750 ml bottles while standing in line. Also, there's another sushi restaurant next door to Sushi Dai called Dawa Sushi. Don't be tempted by the shorter line at Dawa Sushi. Sushi Dai is better and worth the longer wait.
Tokyo's famous fish market, which is very unfortunately moving next year. It is imperative that if you haven't been to Tsukiji, that you go now. I have a feeling that most of the businesses at Tsukiji may not make it to the new location. It's important people see what it looks like now. Get there early (like, before 4:30am early), and you can be one of 120 people lucky enough to see the daily tuna auction, where massive fish are graded on quality and sold away.
Thick cut pork chop tonkatsu. 'Nuff said. They use fresh and not-dried panko, which is extra light. Note that their original location in Roppongi Hills is closed mid-day, but there's another spot in the Roppongi Hill train station that was open all day.
A 3-star Michelin restaurant with a beautiful 10 person countertop made of a single piece of wood. It was also shockingly reasonably-priced at $260 USD for food. Everything here was rooted in tradition; the plateware, the service staff in kimonos, and the light, seasonal dishes. It was all around the perfect kaiseki meal.
Ichiran is one of the most famous ramen shops in Tokyo. The most interesting and fun thing about Ichiran is that you don’t talk to anybody. You feed money into a vending machine until a series of lights come on giving you options to make your selection. If you insert 1000 yen, one light goes on, if you insert another 100 yen, you see an option to add an egg. You even buy your beer through the vending machine.
After you've bought your tickets through the vending machine, you walk into an individual cubicle with wooden walls on both sides of you and slide your tickets under a curtain. A minute later, a bowl of noodles comes out underneath the curtain. You eat your bowl of ramen, and then you get out. You can't talk and you can't see anybody. If you only bought one beer and wanted another one, you'd have to leave to get another beer.
The ramen here was very good and my favorite part has to be that they give you a pack of MSG to add. It's just fantastic.
代官山 蔦屋書店(TSUTAYA) (Daikanyama T-site)
This isn't your typical bookstore. There are a lot of architectural elements of wood, glass, and angles that make it incredibly photogenic. The store itself is set up so there's 3 buildings with glass hallways that connect them.
The second floor is a cafe and bar and it's hard to describe because we don't really have an equivalent to this in New York. The Library at the Nomad perhaps comes the closest. In the middle of the afternoon at this bookstore, I sat in a big comfy leather sofa and had 3 martinis and espressos.
An absolute must. A traditional dining room in a garden setting located in the heart of Tokyo. The food is delicious.
When you're there, you feel like you're experiencing what Tokyo was like 100 years ago, down to the details like using charcoal to keep the kombu soup warm. It was the most special experience that made me feel like I was getting a glimpse at old Tokyo. The old world factor encapsulated everything from the garden in the middle to the private rooms and tables to the fact that you have to take your shoes off to enjoy a meal here.
Yakitori in the heart of Ginza. This is the place to grab a beer after shopping and scarf down some skewers. Torigin is what I think the majority of Japanese restaurants in NYC have been modeled after. While the food is not necessarily the best, as a New Yorker it's the place that made me understand why all places in NYC seem to be in this format.
Just blocks from Torigin, Star Bar is a place with some classic cocktails done well. The kind of place you can get a Japanese Whisky Manhattan. This place is on the list of the greatest bars in the world and there's a reason for it.
I love the simplicity. Your experience is completely curated by your bartender. There's no menu. You tell them something like, "I like scotch" and they'll make you something. The place itself has a very Milk & Honey feel with 8 seats at the bar and 4 tables that seat 2 or 3 people and that's it. They stay very true to their ingredients and atmosphere, keeping everything minimal and elegant.
A Japanese department store with an incredible food department. I was astounded by the quality of pre-made foods you could find here. Tamaki, onigiri, prosciutto, packaged baked goods, premade gummis, and more. Think the Plaza Food Court in New York times four.
It's also incredibly expensive. But, if you want the best bonito flakes, the purest kombu from Hokkaido, the highest-end wagyu beef, here is where you can find it. You'll also find very expensive melons and apples that are produced by trimming the plant so that only one piece of fruit grows from each vine or tree. This means that all the work done by the plant goes into that one melon or apple, and that means that they're incredible.
Architect Tadao Ando, who designed the Tokyo Center and Morimoto in NYC is one of the most influential building designers from the last 100 years in Japan. This pseudo-underground design museum is one of his creations.
When I visited the walls featured some fantastic quotes, such as: "Where does personality end and brain damage begin?" "Healthy people bad for capitalism." "In the absence of genuine skill you are doomed." "In the future you'll all be shopping from jail." "Sharing is ownership for losers."
Photo Credits: Fogindex, Denzen Navigators, Japan Guide, Ohmyomiyage, Josh Spear, Tabelog, Tipreach, Wall Street Journal, AsianBeat, Japan Times