A city of reinvention, nothing stays old in Tokyo for long. Yet if you look around, centuries of tradition are immediately apparent, from the local shrines and peaceful laneways tucked behind the busiest streets to the daily customs of its inhabitants.
Thoughtfulness is applied to every facet of life, in evidence on railway platforms where cleaners bow to the carriage they’ve just cleaned, or the taxis with gloved drivers, lace curtains and passenger doors that open automatically.
From touchdown to take-off, there’s a feeling that something amazing is around every corner.
With more Michelin stars than any other city, food is central to a stay in Tokyo. Hundreds of dollars can be spent on kaiseki degustations, or you can shell out a few hundred Yen (about $3) at a neighbourhood eatery where a vending machine takes orders. At both ends of the spectrum, exacting standards are upheld and there’s genuine pride in what’s being served. Good food is everywhere. No self-respecting foodie would ever stock up for lunch at a 7-11 in Australia, but the offerings in corner stores such as Family Mart and Lawson Station have to be seen to be believed.
Tokyo hack. Not all bars and restaurants have websites, so visit bento.com for English listings and reviews. Bento.com also makes going into that restaurant with no English signage or menu easier by telling you what to order. No stay is complete without sampling these classics:
Introduced by the British during the Meiji period in the late 19th century, curry is now a staple, served with rice, poured over tonkatsu (crumbed pork) or stuffed inside bread. You’ll find curry everywhere, from train stations to baseball fields, but the best examples come from specialty shops. Try the tiny Hiroo No Curry in Hiro-o, where the owner pours beers while making lively salads and overseeing a huge bubbling pot of curry sauce.
Ramen joints are everywhere: from stand-up spots on railway platforms to shops with vending machines at the entrance. Tonkatsu ramen gets its flavour from a stock made of pork bones, while tare ramen is flavoured with miso, soy or salty shio. Ippudo ramen has a branch in Sydney, but it got its start in Ebisu. ippudo.com
Tonkatsu is true Tokyo fare. This dish of deep-fried crumbed pork served with shredded cabbage, rice, mustard, miso soup and a sweet and sour sauce was traditionally made with beef, known as katsuretsu. Pork was first used in 1899 at Tokyo restaurant Rengatei.
With a few restaurants around Tokyo, Maisen bills its tonkatsu sauce as a major selling point, but it should be the fact that you order which breed of pig, and then the cut. mai-sen.com
In Meguro, Tonki has been run by the same family for 73 years. The founder’s son is still in charge of slicing the fried pork and plating up.
6. Sushi and sashimi
For a truly memorable sushi experience, there’s no place like Tsukiji fish market. Just 90 spectators are granted entry at 5:30am each day to watch the tuna auctions in the market’s inner area. If that’s too early, the outer market opens at 9am with dozens of restaurants, from tiny stand-up joints to formal places slicing fish to order.
Introduced by Jesuit Portuguese missionaries in the late 16th century, tempura is a dish of lightly battered vegetables and seafood. Tempura regularly pops up in lunchtime bento boxes, but the best is found at tempura-ya specialty restaurants. One of the best is Tenmo, a nine-seat restaurant run by the same family since the late 1880s. An hour-long degustation of tiny morsels dipped in batter and fried in sesame oil costs 6000 Yen (about $60). tenmo.jp
Grilled yakitori skewers are served in tiny bar-restaurants known as izakayas. Most izakayas now grill over gas but a few places, including the punk-rock-themed Tatemichiya in Daikanyama, still cook over coals. Omoide-yokocho near Shinjuku station is a cluster of tiny yakitori dens down an atmospheric laneway – it makes a good starting point for a night out.
The kanji symbols for kaiseki mean “bosom pocket stone” and the origins of these multi-course meals can be traced to the 16th century and the humble repast was served to Zen monks in the style of a tea ceremony. Over time, kaiseki has incorporated elements from royal, religious and samurai cuisines and is now a lavish banquet that mixes flavours, textures, colour and appearance.
With just nine seats, Takazawa in Akasaka is said to be the most difficult reservation to secure in Tokyo. Chef Akoki Takazawa’s 11-course meal is considered to be some of the finest dining in the world. takazawa-y.co.jp
Tokyo takes its coffee very seriously, and cold drip, filter, syphon and espresso brews have been the norm for a number of years.
1. Switch Coffee Tokyo
This chic Meguro cafe serves espresso and pour-over coffees using house-roasted beans. switchcoffeetokyo.com
2. About Life Coffee Roasters
Run by a barista, roaster and educator, this stylish Shibuya cafe is popular with locals and tourists. about-life.coffee
3. Maruyama Coffee
This cafe is run by Mr Maruyama, a pioneer in Tokyo specialty coffee. Maruyama Coffee in Nishi-Azabu and Oyamadai are home to the 2014 world barista champion, Hidenori Izaki, the first Asian winner of the title. maruyamacoffee.com
Beer and sake are the drinks du jour in Tokyo and, unless you go looking for it, a glass of wine may not pass your lips during an entire stay. The cheapest red, at about 1000 Yen a glass, tends to be a generic south-east Australian shiraz or simple Bordeaux blend. At the top end, there’s every chance an enomatic dispenser will pop up containing a Grand Cru Bordeaux costing upwards of 20,000 Yen a glass.
Set in the Costume National building in Aoyama, Wall is covered in lush indoor greenery and has an outstanding Champagne list. cnac.jp/wall
With a French menu that changes daily, this Nishiazabu wine bar has a large collection of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and pours Chateau d’Yquem and Krug by the glass.
3. Bar Martha
There’s always vinyl spinning in this dimly lit and moody Ebisu bar, home to a fabulous list of Japanese whiskies and cocktails. martha-records.com/martha
Sake has common characters that wine and beer lovers will appreciate, from the citrus and minerality of a riesling and stone fruits of chardonnay to the tropical aromas and caramel flavours of a beer. Sake is made from rice that is milled down to remove proteins and expose a starchy centre. The rice is then steamed and inoculated with koji mould, which converts the starch into sugar that yeasts can feed on to create alcohol. Try top examples at these bars:
1. Nozaki Saketen
This Shinbashi izakaya has a great selection of sake and food.
2. Akita Sake Izakaya
Not all bars and restaurants in Tokyo are on the ground floor – rent gets cheaper the higher you go – and this 6th-floor Akita sake izakaya is well worth the climb.
3. Yamagata sakanaichi
Tokyo Station makes for an unlikely setting for this basement izakaya, which showcases more than 100 sakes and produce from the Yamagata province. Check out the 1000 Yen lunch special.
Yamanashi. Just two hours by train from Tokyo station is the Yamanashi prefecture and the heart of Japanese wine production. It’s also home to its indigenous wine grape koshu.
Koshu has struggled for identity as a wine grape in a country where beer and sake are the national drinks. Koshu arrived in Japan more than 1000 years ago, along with Buddhism down the Silk Road, and was produced as a table grape until it was identified as a wine grape 140 years ago. For a long time it was made into off-dry wines before wineries such as Grace Wine started to take the grape seriously.
Koshu’s a vigorous vine, capable of producing large crops, and much of its improvement has come from controlling yields and changing vineyards from the traditional pergola arrangements to Vertical Shoot Positioning trellising. “Only recently have people begun to think this grape is important to Japanese wine. Ten years ago everyone thought it wasn’t a noble [wine] grape,” says Grace Wine’s winemaker Ayana Misawa, who has worked Australian vintages at Brokenwood, Bay of Fires and Woodlands. grace-wine.com
For a taste of Tokyo at home, why not try creating an izakaya-style meal matched with Japanese beer, sake and crisp wines.