Dear Concierge, I'm heading to Japan (Tokyo and Kyoto, specifically) around Thanksgiving and I'm wondering what to do about restaurant reservations while I'm there. I usually don't make much of a fuss about fancy meals out when traveling, but my boyfriend is obsessed with Japanese food and I want to make sure that we get some good meals—in particular some proper Japanese sushi. Could you give me some advice on where to go and how to make sure we get in? Sincerely, Japan Foodie
Dear Japan Foodie,
Since many Japanese restaurants are super small, you'll need to make reservations far in advance. Journy has a reservationist based in Japan who calls for reservations once we put in your request. Well-known sushi restaurants, such as Sushi Saito, can fill up 1-2 years (yes, years) in advance and can be impossible for non-regulars to book.
Also, some Japanese restaurants have strange rules. They might require you to call in your reservation on the 10th the month before you want to dine there. More frequently, they're notoriously difficult to book because they rarely answer their phone and only speak Japanese.
You might also run into difficulties if you have dietary restrictions, like requiring gluten-free meals. And since most restaurants seat just eight to ten people, bookings for large groups are can be tricky. Fortunately it's just the two of you so you won't have to worry about that.
For kaiseki, a traditional Japanese multi-course meal, expect to choose your menu before you even go to the restaurant. The options are quite vague. Restaurants usually offer menus in tiers of 15,000 yen, 20,000 yen and 25,000 yen. You have to just pick the right one for your budget and hope you like the result—the dishes are based on whatever is freshest the day-of. This means strict rules about cancellation fees, since the dish is specially prepared for the person who made the reservation.
While you can get away with dining at more casual spots in Tokyo without a reservation, planning dinner in advance for Kyoto is a must. Most restaurants there are reservation only. Going to Kyoto without any dinner reservations is kind of like going to a sold-out concert without tickets.
Since you're going in Thanksgiving, there should be plenty of time to get you a table of choice. It's around the two-week mark that things tend to get tricky, but we can usually find some under-the-radar restaurants. Miyazono is one of our favorite sushi restaurants for an omakase experience; the chef is incredibly knowledgeable and the entire restaurant is very friendly to foreigners. For wagyu beef, Innocent Carvery is a must; it’s new and amazing. And of course, Japan has tons of great hole-in-the-wall places and izakayas that are fantastic and don't require booking (just don't chance it when in Kyoto, but Tokyo and Osaka have plenty of casual options). If you're looking for a quality, affordable sushi meal, head to Tsukiji Market. Sushi Zanmai is particularly good quality, and there's hardly ever a wait.
I hope you found that helpful, and please do get in touch if you have any more questions about booking restaurants in Japan!
Thanks to our concierge Melissa McDaniels, who contributed reporting for this piece. Have a question you'd like our concierge to answer? Email us at [email protected]