Tokyo Travel Guide Part 4: Eating to your heart’s content

Plates of freshly prepared sushi on a conveyor belt. – Pictures by CK Lim
Plates of freshly prepared sushi on a conveyor belt. – Pictures by CK Lim

TOKYO, Jan 19 — If you love Japanese food, then Tokyo is the capital not only of the country but of the country’s diverse offerings of delicious things to eat!

The last thing you’d want to do is visit Tokyo and only dine at your hotel or limit yourself to familiar fast food chains; get outside and explore!

Perhaps the most common Japanese food to many of us is sushi, those unmistakable lumps of vinegared rice topped with raw seafood. (Of course, cooked toppings such as tamagoyaki omelette and deep-fried soft-shell crab are also common.)

Beyond conveyor belt sushi, do try a sit-down sashimi restaurant where you can enjoy toro maguro (tuna belly), hotate (scallops) and uni (sea urchin). Sheer decadence.

Sweet 'kani' (crabmeat) is a popular 'donburi' (rice bowl) topping (left). 'Wagyu' beef being grilled (right)
Sweet 'kani' (crabmeat) is a popular 'donburi' (rice bowl) topping (left). 'Wagyu' beef being grilled (right)

Another way to enjoy fresh seafood is in a donburi or “rice bowl”, where a bowl of hot steamed rice is topped with generous amounts of raw delicacies such as kani (crabmeat), botan ebi (sweet shrimp) and ikura (salmon roe).

Other types of non-seafood donburi include gyudon (topped with simmered beef and onions), oyakodon (chicken, egg, and sliced scallions), butadon (pork), tendon (tempura) and unadon (fresh water eel).

Some of these toppings are categories of their own. The unagi used in an unadon can be served separate from the rice; this dish is called unaju and is considered more luxurious.

Eels fished from rivers are more flavourful than the farmed variety. Each fillet is lightly basted with sweet sauce before being grilled to unctuous perfection.

Explore the 'yatai' (street food stalls) at a market for a wide variety of Japanese foods
Explore the 'yatai' (street food stalls) at a market for a wide variety of Japanese foods

Tempura — light and airy fritters, usually of seafood and vegetables — originated during the 16th century when Portuguese missionaries brought the deep-frying techniques over to Nagasaki.

This was but the start of the Japanese obsession with Western foods to the extent many restaurants in Tokyo focus primarily on yoshoku or Western-style dishes that are entirely home-grown.

Popular yoshoku fare include wafu hambagu or Japanese style burgers (with adaptations such as teriyaki sauce and rice buns); tonkatsu, a type of deep-fried pork cutlet breaded with panko (ultra-fine breadcrumbs); and okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake grilled over a teppan (hotplate) or griddle.

Yoshoku-crazed Tokyoites also love Japanese curry, where meat is stewed in a sweet-rather-than-spicy curry and served with steamed rice.

A 'takoyaki' master deftly spins orbs of batter filled with 'tako' (diced octopus), 'tenkasu' (tempura scraps), pickled ginger and green onion
A 'takoyaki' master deftly spins orbs of batter filled with 'tako' (diced octopus), 'tenkasu' (tempura scraps), pickled ginger and green onion

Night owls should make a pilgrimage to an izakaya or two. These casual pubs serve alcoholic beverages such as saké (fermented rice wine) as well as bite-sized dishes, tapas-style.

Begin your izakaya experience with a bowl of edamame (boiled immature soybean pods), perfect with some local beer.

There is yakitori, where skewers of chicken parts are grilled over charcoal fire, often seasoned only with shio (salt) or tare (a sauce made from mirin, sake, soy sauce and sugar).

Yakiniku is the beef version of this; splurge on some seriously well-marbled wagyu beef. And no one does fried chicken quite like the Japanese — their karaage is juicy and crunchy, amazing with just a squeeze of lemon.

Some of these can be found in markets where half the fun is wandering from one yatai (street food stall) to the next. One of the most fascinating to visit is the takoyaki stall. Watching the takoyaki master deftly spin orbs of batter filled with tako (diced octopus), tenkasu (tempura scraps), pickled ginger and green onions can be absolutely mesmerising.

Typical 'wagashi' (traditional Japanese dessert) will incorporate some 'anko' ('adzuki' bean paste)
Typical 'wagashi' (traditional Japanese dessert) will incorporate some 'anko' ('adzuki' bean paste)

Feel like going more upmarket? There’s nothing finer than a multi-course kaiseki meal served at traditional restaurants (ryotei). Kaiseki-ryori is seen as the height of aristocratic cuisine, with the elaborate courses ordered according to the cooking method.

You begin with an aperitif (shokuzen-shu) and an assortment of appetisers (hassun). Then comes a light soup (suimono), seasonal sashimi (otsukuri), a boiled dish (nimono) and a grilled dish (yakimono).

These are followed by deep-fried (agemono), steamed (mushimono) and vinegared (sunomono) courses. Finally, before the dessert arrives, the shokuji — a set of rice, miso soup and pickles — is presented with all the ceremony the server can muster.

Traditional Japanese desserts or wagashi is varied but some of the most common include daifuku, a confection of mochi (glutinous rice cake) filled with anko (rich adzuki bean paste); age-manju or deep-fried dumplings stuffed with anko; and dorayaki, an anko-filled sponge pancake, made famous as the anime character Doraemon’s favourite food.

Quite a lot of adzuki bean paste, for sure, but there is also a plethora of other Japanese snacks such as osenbei (rice crackers) and imo-kin (sweet potato cakes). Wash it all down with some green tea, which can vary from sencha (whole tea leaves) to matcha (powdered green tea).

Wash it all down with some hot 'sencha' green tea (left). Cook preparing bowls of 'ramen' noodles (right)
Wash it all down with some hot 'sencha' green tea (left). Cook preparing bowls of 'ramen' noodles (right)

How to eat in Japan can be an art in itself. Wet napkins called o-shibori should be accepted with both hands and only used for cleaning your hands before a meal, not after. It’s a faux pas to use it to wipe your face!

Another way to fit in is to say “Itadakimasu!” (or “I humbly receive”) before eating and “Gochisosama deshita!” when you’re leaving the restaurant.

You’re telling the chef that you’ve had quite a feast, and that’s exactly what you will experience. Indeed, what we’ve covered so far barely scratches the surface of Japanese cuisine.

There are endless possibilities to what you can savour in Tokyo — from gooey natto (fermented soybeans) to oodles of noodles such as udon, soba and ramen.

The only thing to do is to keep exploring and sampling, at least till your tummy gives out. But, you ask, what if you’re on a budget? Then stay tuned for the final part on how to dine on a dime in an expensive city like Tokyo...

This is the fourth part in a five-part series about travelling to Tokyo. Read the first three parts herehere and here.

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