Let me just say two things: Tokyo blew my mind and this list wouldn’t exist without the incredible guidance offered by Ivan Orkin, Yukari Sakamoto, Pam Yung, Akira Akuto, Tina Cancemi, Brian McGinn, Eric Wareheim, and Craig Mod. I am also deeply indebted to PUNCH for their ace drinking recommendations. I don’t remember every having planned so intensely for a trip before, but hours of sifting through recommendations, followed by hours of scheduling were the only way to tackle such a short trip to such a dense city. It would have taken me a full month to get through the entire spreadsheet of ramen, yakitori, yakiniku, izakaya addresses, but I put a pretty serious dent into the list in a few short days and I can’t wait to get back to Tokyo to tackle the rest and more. In the meantime, here are some highlights from last month’s magical and transformative trip…
- Ginza Kagari’s tori paitan ramen features a thick and creamy chicken-based broth with noodles, perfectly cooked cabbage and carrot, and slices of tender chicken. You can add more toppings and flavors and on this brisk day I opted for the garlic butter, which intensified the already rich broth. Other ramen spots worth a trip include Suzuran, Afuri, and many, many others.
- Under normal circumstances, drinking half a dozen cocktails in an hour would be a recipe for disaster. But Gen Yamamoto’s 6-cocktail tasting menu is restrained, harnessing the finest seasonal ingredients and balancing them with fine Japanese spirits as in the freshly squeezed kumquat and sweet potato shochu drink above. For a more whimsical and decidedly less sedate cocktails sesh, head to Bar Benfiddich.
- Everyone says the meat in Japan will change your life, and everyone is right. Especially if you try it at Toranoana, a yakiniku (grilled beef specialist) in Ebisu. The multi-course meal starts with sliced raw beef and raw liver, then moves on to the grilled items: tongue, various cuts of short rib, then hangar steak and innards. While the focus here is squarely on carnivorous bites, Toranoana doesn’t skimp on the veggies and the salad and vegetable side dishes were some of the best of the trip.
- When you’re wide awake in the middle of the night and need a snack, head on down to one of the many 24-hour Family Mart shops across town for a fried pork cutlet sandwich, which is warmed to order (vegetarians: check out the egg salad sandwiches instead). Both snacks are surprisingly good in spite of resembling vending machine food and the white bread seems to defy nature with its lightness. For the full-on tonkatsu experience, visit faultless classic Maisen. Butagumi came highly recommended and offers different pork breeds and assorted cuts, but I was totally underwhelmed by the tough meat and improperly rendered fat.
- Wherever I travel, I always check out supermarkets and food halls to see how locals eat and shop. Located in the basement of the Tokyu Department Store bear the east exit of Shibuya Station, Tokyu Food Show offers mind-boggling variety of gourmet products ranging from musk melons that will set you back a couple hundred bucks EACH to exquisitely marbled meat that is similarly luxurious. Honestly, I could hardly keep track of all the depachika (basement food hall) recommendations and didn’t make it to Mitsukoshi or Isetan as planned, but I won’t make that mistake next time. If you want to hit Tokyo’s top depachika, check out these guides on Eater and Saveur.
- The third wave coffee in Tokyo is incredible. A favorite spot was Onibus, a supremely delicous coffee shop in Naka-Meguro. It does double duty as a roaster—peep the 15-kilo-capacity Diedrich behind the till—and I loved sipping pour over iced coffee (because I am a monster) on the outdoor patio.
- I can’t go more than 2 days without eating amazing pizza so Tokyo is the perfect destination for me. The city has long embraced thick-rimmed pies thanks to Susumu Kakinuma who dutifully produces Naples-style pizza at Seirinkan in Naka-Meguro. The three-story pizzeria lists 2 pies on its menu (margherita and marinara), but if you’re lucky, the pizza master may grant your request of an off-menu white pizza topped with buttery melted cheese. Also check out Savoy, a short cab ride away.
- Narukiyo, a super popular izakaya in Shibuya served us a parade of dishes—sashimi on ice, grilled meat, veggie platters (can someone please explain to me how the asparagus and tomatoes are so spectacular in the middle of winter?), noodles, and more. Book well in advance (at the bar if possible) and prepare yourself for a sake-fueled night. We also had a fun night at another izakaya, Kaikaya by the Sea, and were desperate to get into Kotaro, but couldn’t snag a table.
- Ahiru is my ideal neighborhood wine bar and I would have visited a few times if it wasn’t so hard to get into—the space is tiny and the bar is super popular. It was absolutely worth waiting outside in the cold for nearly an hour and a half for a tight seat at the bar. The wine list is amazing and the onion flatbread was delicious and I have dreamed about both twice since getting back to Rome. Winestand Waltz was closed while we were in Tokyo but that’s another bar natural wine geeks love and I can’t wait to go to there.
- On a late February morning, serene garden around Yakumo Saryo was beginning to bloom, hinting at the arrival of spring. Past the garden, the interior of this classical tea house is the perfect place to sip tea with a side of wagashi, traditional Japanese confections.
- If you don’t mind openly weeping at the bar when you are overcome by the balance and precision of Sawada’s perfect sushi, then by all means, try to book one of the 6 seats at this legendary sushi spot in Ginza. Don’t plan on doing anything too intense after. At the end of our 20-piece lunch (sorry no pics allowed), my travel pals and I were frankly distraught that the spectacular meal was over. Here we are on the street outside feeling emotional with the linen napkins Sawada-san gifted us on our way out. Ruined for sushi forever.
- Set in a beautifully restored traditional house, Bunon, a natural wine bar in Nishi-Azabu, may be my favorite find of the trip. The wood-accented interior was a calming setting for decompressing after a long day of grazing. And even better than the atmosphere was the wine list, which featured gorgeous natural wines from Japan!!!