Restaurant Roundup — A Week in Japan

Traditional Japanese breakfast: smoked fish, egg omelet, pickled ginger; roasted turnips and tofu; miso soup; seasonal pickles; porridge with mushroom consomme.

Creating the eating itinerary for my one-week trip to Japan was my Everest, my Ninth Symphony, my white whale. In a country where you can having an amazing meal at one of the hundreds of Michelin-starred restaurant or by wandering into an 8-seat noodle bar in a random alley, there’s an exhausting number of excellent choices. The hours I tinkered on my restaurant fantasy lineup is shameful to admit, but I’m happy to report that the dining adventures were extraordinary. As a futile attempt to extend the trip a bit longer, I’m recording my favorites in this post.

If you’re planning a trip to Japan, here are a few tips to get started:

  • Japanese food is more than ramen and sushi. Don’t get me wrong, you should definitely have both. Several times. But also try soba, udon, kaiseki, tonkatsu, curry, tempura, yakitori, teppanyaki, and many more.
  • Some spots are small and require reservations. If you have access to concierge service through your credit card (e.g. Amex or Chase Sapphire), take advantage of it! You will save time and the stress of dealing with time differences and language barrier.
  • Cities can be HUGE, especially Tokyo. So Google Maps is crucial for navigation. Rent a wifi device — it’ll give you wings. And bringing a charger to keep the device powered up is a good idea as well.
  • Even if you have the address and wifi on your phone, finding a restaurant can still be challenging. Most places don’t display the English version of their names. So record the Japanese characters so you can pattern match against the signs. Additionally, restaurants are often tucked away in multi-floor malls or office buildings so be sure to look up exact locations.
  • Tabelog is the source of truth for restaurants and incredibly useful. You can search restaurants by their English and Japanese names and get address, hours, payment methods, etc.

And now, on to the fun stuff!

Kyoto

Anago (sea eel) tempura and fried bone

Tempura Tsunahachi: Halfway through dinner at the bar of this small tempura joint tucked into the top floor of the Takashimaya mall, the chef presented us with anago (sea eel), alive and wriggling in his hands. Within seconds, it had been skinned, deboned, and through the power of batter and oil, transformed into delicious bites of fried fish. Even the bones couldn’t escape this fate. Fried as well, the long spiny skeleton was arranged into a small crunchy pretzel. Shrimp, squid, and vegetable underwent the same swift treatment. Coating each bite with colored salts and dipping them into a sauce with grated daikon, I inhaled them within minutes. Multiple locations in Tokyo as well. Sets start at ¥3,500 to ¥5,000.

Tonkatsu with grated sesame, tonkatsu sauce, unlimited cabbage salad, and curry

Katsu Kura: Tonkatsu is Japan’s answer to schnitzel. Light, crispy, flaky breading covering a juicy piece of pork cutlet. The standard set meal at Katsu Kura comes with rice, miso soup, tonkatsu sauce, and sesame seeds that you grind into fresh powder yourself. An equally enticing choice is tonkatsu served with roasted seasonal vegetables and curry sauce. The delightful kicker of the meal is unlimited helpings of cabbage salad that are crispy and refreshing when draped with yuzu dressing. Multiple locations in Kyoto and Tokyo. Lunch sets are quite reasonable at ¥1,500 to ¥2,000.

Burnt miso ramen

Gogyo Ramen: The first ramen on my trip was at this noodle bar that specializes in “burnt” broth. The preparation is dramatic — from outside the restaurant, you can see three feet fires leaping out of woks filled with burning pork fat. The smoky meat is added to the noodle bowl and served with either miso or soy broth. Intensely rich in flavor, the soup reminds me of coffee, with smokiness, sweetness, and just a bit of bitterness. The miso broth is rich and complex, and I found it tough to finish the whole bowl. The soy broth is lighter and less intense. If you’re going with a friend, I’d recommend sharing one of each. Location in Tokyo as well.

Chicken tempura with cold udon
Spicy udon noodle soup — put an egg on it

Yamamoto Tenzou: I love that restaurants in Japan focus on making specific dishes really well. Specializing in udon, Yamamoto is popular with tourists and locals alike. Even though I arrived on a weekday before the restaurant had even opened, the wait was still close to an hour. But the wait was well worth it. The fresh noodles were chewy, dewy, and sumptuous. Dipping a few strands in the sauce and sprinkling it with scallions and ginger made for a tasty bite. (The yellow noodle cutters were very helpful in this endeavor). The side of fried chicken was well seasoned and incredibly juicy. Although the cold dipping noodle is what the restaurant is known for, I’d also recommend trying the spicy udon soup.

Highlights of the meal at Giro Giro

Giro Giro: Kaiseki, often described as Japan’s version of haute cuisine, is as much an artistic performance as a meal. It’s not just about cooking flavorful dishes — that barely scratches the surface. It’s also about showcasing a variety of techniques, using extremely seasonal ingredients (yes, the Japanese came up with this centuries before Brooklyn did), and thoughtful balance of color, textures, and taste. Many kaiseki restaurants even commission custom dishware to ensure that their presentation is perfect.

My dinner at the 20-seat restaurant was a wonderful introduction into kaiseki. Parked at the bar, I watched the chefs assemble ten or so dishes that brought on the theatrics while tickling my palate. The photo displays the most notable dishes — sea urchin with shrimp daikon, bottarga and jelly; rice, pickled ginger, egg, smoked fish and roe stuffed in a carved out yuzu; rice and pickled vegetables in a tea broth; and wagyu beef, matsutake mushrooms, purple yams grilled over a fire.

However, if it’s impeccable service you’re after, you will be disappointed. I waited about 20 minutes to be seated despite having a reservation, each request for water or sake took at least two asks, and the courses came sporadically. But if you can accept the chaos that is Giro Giro’s service, you’ll have a delightful meal at a steal, just ~$30 for the set menu before drinks.

Tokyo

Tokusei Tsukemen, the special recommendation dipping ramen

Rokurinsha: Located in the underground level of Tokyo Station, in a cluster of noodle joints called Ramen Street, Rokurinsha is the one with the longest lines. The place is known for tsukemen ramen, noodles on the side dipped in rich tonkotsu broth. On my first try, I stopped by around 6pm and the line was too intimidating. The second try at 2pm was more palatable. Like many ramen restaurants in Japan, you first buy a ticket for your meal at a vending machine before being seated. Within 20 minutes of standing in line, I was facing cooked noodles and a bowl of incredibly savory pork broth sprinkled with braised pork, fish cakes, bamboo, seaweed, and dried fish powder. When you add strands of cold noodle to the warm broth, the combination ends up being closer to a pasta with a rich gravy sauce. The tsukemen here is definitely worth trying but in the end, I still think I prefer my noodles soaking in a hot soup. Something about eating room temperature ramen just feels strange to me.

Uni of my dreams
The young sushi chef, doing his thing

Sushi-ya: The sushi options were countless in Japan. You can choose on a spectrum of fancy restaurants serving several-hundred-doll high brow omakase to basement food court sushi sets. I knew I wanted to do one quality sushi dinner and I wanted it to be in an intimate setting but I didn’t really want to go somewhere uber-lux. Instead, I chose the 8-seat Sushi-ya in Ginza. The restaurant is run by 28-year old Takao Ishiyama who previously apprenticed Saito and Kanesaka. The meal was truly memorable. The view at the counter couldn’t have been better as we meandered through almost two dozen pieces of sushi. My favorites had to be the steamed hairy crab, uni from Nagasaki, fatty tuna, and Spanish mackerel with shio. The restaurant was a bit hidden so be sure to give yourself extra time to find it — look for its Japanese name すし家. At ¥20,000, the price is more than fair.

Wagyu beef, grilled to perfection

Ukai-tei: This Michelin-starred teppanyaki restaurant is over 150 years old and known for Wagyu beef cooked on a hot grill. Tucked into the top floor of a luxury shopping center (Chanel is on the street level), you’re brought into a waiting room before being led into the dining room, glittering with crystals, covered in fancy carpets, and surrounded with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Omotesando neighborhood. It’s got a distant luxury reminiscent of The Grand Budapest Hotel, an aged glamour that’s faintly shabby. I enjoyed a set lunch — marinated shrimp, chestnut soup, grilled fish, the wagyu, and garlic fried rice. Seasoned with salt and pepper, the beef melted like butter in my mouth.

Dessert cart rolling by — take as much as you want.

After finishing the main courses, you move again to the dessert room. In addition to getting a dessert of your choice, you pick treats from the rolling dessert car — marshmallows, chocolates, cakes, pastries, caramels, and biscuits of all types. A truly sweet end to a rich meal. Multiple locations in Tokyo Lunch set ¥7,020 to ¥12,960.

A perfect bowl of noodles

Ichiran: After buying your ticket at the vending machine, you fill out a form to specify my preference for flavor, richness, garlic, spiciness, and noodle firmness. The arrangement inside is quite particular. Everyone’s sits against a long bar and window shutters can be placed on both sides of your seat to prevent interaction with neighbors. A curtain is draped in front of you so the presence of the staff is only noticeable when a pair of hands reaches from underneath the curtain to deliver your ramen. Why all the fuss? The restaurant claims it helps you concentrate on your food. But it’s unnecessary since after the first bite, it’ll be a tough to think of anything else. The tonkotsu broth is smooth, savory, and rich, some of the best I’ve ever had. The noodles were chewy and very thin, which seems to be the width of choice here. Although I enjoyed every bowl of noodles I had in Japan, this one was my absolute favorite.

Sushi for breakfast

Yamazaki (Tsukiji Fish Market): Obligatory fish market visit meant sushi for breakfast. Some claim that Sushi Dai or Daiwa Sushi are worth the 2+ hour wait but I wasn’t curious enough to find out. Instead, I ate at Yamazaki, smack dab between the two popular spots. The fish was fresh, the chefs was friendly, and most importantly, the line was less than 10 minutes.