This is a daily dining options list from someone who lives in Tokyo. Each type of food has a general description, my personal opinion, followed by a food tip or restaurant recommendation. All the recommendations are within ¥2000 (approx US$20). I have another post for better dining.
The friends who know me note my conspicuous lack of food-related blog posts in contrast to my Instagram account. I never saw the reason of adding to the food-blogging-mania because I have particular tastes and have no desire to feign expertise. I’m finally adding these lists because Japan is serious about its food and the vast knowledge they have is often not translated.
Good food in Japan isn’t a treat. It is a staple if one makes the effort to do the research. Basically, the Japanese have their eating hacks down. Below is just a cursory overview of some items that I hope to explain over the coming weeks. I hope this will help visitors enjoy the things Tokyoites take for granted at prices we locals also take for granted.
(Apologies about some formatting & photo issues. This post is so big, my computer has been crashing all last night and this morning. Fixing as I go.)
One of the reasons I’m planted in Japan is because ramen isn’t a treat here. Ramen is a given. With thousands of establishments littered all over Tokyo, it’s hard not to be a snob. To start, ramen is usually judged for its broth and noodle texture. Everyone has their own opinion, but as a base rule the broth should be flavourful but not too salty and the noodles should be cooked, but not soggy (chewiness often preferred). As someone who doesn’t cook with much salt, all ramen broth is too salty for me even though I love the noodles. There are only a handful of shops where I venture to drink the soup. I have a soft spot for neighbourhood favourites even though I try chains and Michelin-starred ramen shops as well.
Ramen as a few different places of origin. Hakata Tonkotsu ramen, as the name suggests, originates from the city of Fukuoka in Kyushu in the south of Japan. Miso ramen, in contrast, hails from the far North in Hokkaido. Shio (salt), and Shoyu (soy sauce) has been a staple simple meal in many a city. You can find all these types in Tokyo.
Eating Tip: Order what you see at the storefront. If you see 博多 (Hakata), stick with anything that has 豚骨 / とんこつ tonkotsu, the thick pork bone broth. If you see 味噌 / みそ(Miso), the store specialises in Hokkaido broth, so stick with any menu item that has those characters. Recently, tsukemen, noodles with broth in a separate bowl to dip into, has been all the rage. Where should you eat? A good starting point is Ippudo, which is a mid-sized chain originating from Hakata. For the hardcore foodies, search ラーメン / らーめん on the Japanese Tabelog site for anything with a 3+ rating; expect lineups and to at least be satisfied, if not impressed! There’s an English Tabelog too.
Udon is guilt-free soul food (no-carbs people you’re missing out, again). Kagawa Prefecture and Osaka are the two most famous places of origin. Kagawa udon is referred to by its historical name Sanuki udon. (Many areas are still referred to by their historical names rather than their modern administrative ones.) Osaka udon (or Kansai udon) comes in soup and a variety of toppings (think beef slices, pork slices, fish cake slices, etc.). Pro tip: curry udon is a favourite.
I am a die-hard proponent of Sanuki udon, which is famous for its chewy texture. My personal favourites are kama-age udon, noodles served in hot water accompanied by a hot fish stock soy sauce, bukkake udon, served without soup and comes with soy sauce, sudachi (lime-like citrus fruit), grated daikon and ginger, and green onions. I love adding a tama, raw egg, to the above.
Udon also has many regional and seasonal variations. Inaniwa udon, served in northern Akita Prefecture, is a thin type suitable for light summer lunches.
Restaurant Tip: If you have a JR Pass and go to Takamatsu, ask for an udon map at the train station. It’s free, and it gives you 24-hour access to udon. The restaurants are sorted by the time they’re open (early morning, regular day time, dinner, late night). Otherwise, in Takamatsu try . For Tokyo-bound friends, try Maruka in Jimbocho.
3) Konbini & Supermarket Food
Japan lives off of premade food. Get with it. The easiest go-to is the konbini (convenience store) which is conveniently open 24-hours (especially Family Mart, Lawson, and 7-11). It may be for that banana, your breakfast yogurt, a bowl of noodles they can microwave for you, or an afternoon dessert. My convenience store staple is the onigiri, rice balls. If I know a supermarket is around, I’ll go there instead because it’s always cheaper and usually has more options. If you want to go local, try the yellow-boxed CalorieMate meal replacements, which are 100 calories each. They’re sort of like biscuits and the flavours are: Green – Fruits, Pinkish – Maple, Brown – Chocolate, White – Vanilla.
Eating Tip: Get dinner in the supermarkets after 6pm since the sets are usually at least 20% off! Look out for Life, Isetan, Marunaka, AEON, Atre, Kinokuniya and independent grocers. It’s a great way to try things like nigiri sets and sashimi platters.
4) Bento Boxes
Bento boxes are as ubiquitous as konbini. You can find them at a mom-and-pop corner shop or in department stores. Don’t underestimate the unassuming street stalls with peeling plaster: if they have lineups, they are probably too busy selling their specialty to repaint the storefront!
One of my favourite go-to places for inspiration is the Nihonbashi area. Stereotyped as a high-end shopping area people don’t realise they have great food selections in the basement. The options vary from Western salads and Chinese dumplings to specialty tempura places and eel shops.
Train stations and new office areas like Tokyo Station are also great places to get bento boxes.
Eating Tip: Department Store Food Halls (in the basement) also have evening sales around 6pm until closing. Department stores can be found in Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Ginza, and Mitsukoshi-mae / Nihombashi. Mitsukoshi‘s original shop is at Mitsukoshi-mae; Takashimaya is at Nihombashi; Matsuya and Mitsukoshi are at Ginza; Isetan is at Shinjuku and Shibuya. Also check out the Lumine and Coredo malls as well. These are all on my map below.
5) Sushi Value Lunches
Yes, you can get a friend to book Jiro’s sushi three months in advance and watching him observe your reactions to his creations piece by piece. I’ll try all the other walk-in sushi places for lunch before working my way up there.
Or you may have heard of the Tsukiji Fish Market. If you like crowds, lineups, inflated prices, then where I go is not for you. I am a shamefully lazy foodie: I like having great food at walk-in convenience. Tokyo’s solution is sushi restaurants that source from Tsukiji and prepare my nigiri at a relaxed counter bar. Fresh nigiri lunches cost between ¥1000-2000 usually for roughly 10 pieces, a few rolls, and soup. If I want to splurge, I’ll go up to ¥30000. These same restaurants cost ¥8,000 – 20,000 JPY for dinner.
Restaurant Tip: Sushi Katsura just across from Tsukiji Market has English menus and has a nigiri set beginning at ¥1100. You get what you pay for; if you pay for a more expensive set, you will more expensive fish and more choice cuts. For example, the shrimp you get in the first and second tier is noticeably different. Having said that, the entry level sets are always decent. To put it into perspective, you get a similar amount to the supermarket take-away boxes, but the fresh restaurant cuts are much better (IMHO). I made a map of these value lunch sushi places, but you’ll have to request it. 🙂
Usually, soba means buckwheat noodles that are most famous from Shinshu, the old name for Nagano Prefecture and surrounding areas. This type of noodle is firm, but not hard, and has an earthy flavour that pairs well with seasonal vegetables. Soba can be served with soup, but I have personally always preferred it without. I like the firmer texture and mixing the toppings such as tororo (white, sticky, grated yam) and tama, raw egg. You usually dip the noodles into a specially prepared fish stock soy sauce on the side. Zaru soba, plain soba with soy sauce dipping on the side (sometimes onions, sesame seeds, grated daikon depending on the restaurant) is a safe starting bet.
Many people find that soba is not filling enough since buckwheat is not as heavy as wheat.
Soba actually just means noodles, so don’t be too confused if a ramen restaurant says it serves soba.
Restaurant Tip: Rikyu-An at Mitsukoshi-mae is known for its natto (fermented soy bean) soba and Kansaisui at Akasaka is famous for its 3-style sampling of soba (one of which is yuzu, an aromatic orange-lemon citrus fruit).
7) Curry Rice (And other Home-Cooking)
Every country needs that staple ‘chuck everything in’ dish. Japanese curry cubes will magically make it all taste good. It’s got that hearty, savoury flavour, not-quite-sure-what-it-is-but-it’s-distinct flavour. Kissaten, Japanese coffee houses, often have this on the lunch menu.
Kissaten usually serve a rotation of dishes, such as fish with salad on the side, beef on rice, cousin to curry called Hayashi rice. Many of these simple dishes are what people also have at home, so a great cultural experience.
Restaurant Tip: Kissaten are pretty common, especially in older neighbourhoods and residential areas. Look for these characters 喫茶店. As a starting point, I recommend strolling through the historical Yanaka district. Walk down Snake Street, visit Nezu Shrine, check out Yanaka Ginza’s neighbourhood shops. Then, head to Cafe Kokonn which looks like a store at the front. Down the street from that, check out the establishment Kayaba Coffee, which is famous for its egg sandwiches.
8) Donburi: Rice Bowls
Rice bowls began as cheap all-in-one carb-protein-minimal fibre solutions. They still are and make frightfully delicious meals in a bowl. You can get katsudon (deep fried pork cutlet), tendon (tempura), oyakodon (egg, onion and chicken), gyduon (beef) amongst others.
Food Tip: There are specialty places for each of these. If you have a favourite, use Google translate to get the Japanese characters and copy that into Google search for Tokyo. If you want to go local fast food, try the chain Matsuya, which is about as close as Japan gets to Mcdonalds!
9) Wagashi: Japanese Desserts
Wagashi (Japanese desserts) often look simple. Red bean. Green tea. More red bean. Throw in a pancake and there you go. But it is so much more than that. The mere simplicity of the ingredients creates heavy demands on the technique. I don’t have an all-time favourite wagashi place, as many are great and I just don’t think my palette is defined enough to distinguish beyond a ‘Top Tier’ and ‘Pretty good’. Having said that, there’s a chasm between pretty good and ordinary. I also tend to like freshly made neighbourhood ones, such as Futaba’s goma (sesame) daifuku. I have put other favourites on my map below.
Food Tip: Department stores. Per piece is usually between ¥150-500. Compared to supermarket ones, which are bigger and usually around the ¥100-200 range, they’re ‘expensive’, but for a taste of high-quality food, Japanese sweets are about the cheapest option! Toraya is one of the most famous old establishments, and you can get a mini stick of yokan for about ¥250; make sure you cut it up into little pieces to enjoy. Each department store hall are different. Look out for seasonal flavours, such as fruity jellys in the summer, chestnuts in the Fall, cherry and blossom flavours in the Spring.
10) Cakes and Western Desserts
To people who accuse Japan for being copy-cats: thank heavens because half the time they’re better than the original. The city with the highest number of awesome Western cake shops is hands down Tokyo.
Let it be known my favourite place is Pierre Hermes in Paris (forget the Tokyo branches, which have run-of-the-mill offerings); Sadaharu Aoki in Paris’ chocolate matcha is also better than the one in Tokyo.
However, those two specific cases aside, the city has over 100 awesome places to choose from in both the commercial corners and some far-flung forgotten neighbourhood. Whether it’s a strawberry shortcake (and I will not eat this cake anywhere else) or an architectural masterpiece, there’s definitely a shop somewhere.
Food Tip: Tokyo’s voted #1 cake place is at Jiyugaoka called m.kiode. It’s rich, so I would suggest sharing. However, the texture and flavour perfectly. They have more traditional and adventurous seasonal flavours. Both the ones I tried balance light, smooth, airy, and crunchy textures with nutty, rich, tangy, and even savoury, flavours. Menu is only in Japanese. Rire Ginza is an upstairs sit-down cafe that has delightful constructions.
11) Western Food
I get around to Western food maybe once a month. But, when I do, I appreciate how seriously these people take their minified Western creations. Take this eggs benedict: it’s made so perfectly. Just remember that everything Western is half, if not a quarter, of the size you’re used to.
Pasta, Japan’s taken care of. In fact, Japanese Italian is a whole cuisine unto itself in my opinion.
Restaurant Tip: Homesick for a good brunch? Check out Sarabeth’s right outside Tokyo Station. Go early on a weekend to avoid the lineups. I also enjoyed the pancakes at Fukadaso in Kiyosumishirakawa.
12) Tempura Hole in the Walls
My favourite no-reservation-required place is a hole in the wall in a narrow alley beside Tsukiji Market. It may be pricey for lunch at about ¥2000 average for a set, but it’s pretty good. One of the best ways to tell if a place is good is how well they do the shrimp (the fresh sashimi body and the head).
Judge tempura by how fresh the oil is. Reused oil has an extremely sticky and heavy, rather than aromatic flavour. The batter varies depending on place, but generally the better quality ones have thinner skins. It’s a given that the crust should be crunchy and the filling should be hot, but moist. One of the best ways to tell if a place is good is how well they do the shrimp (the fresh sashimi body and the head).
Restaurant Tip: Kurogawa at Tsukiji Market (Japanese only).
No matter how scarring your impressions are of tofu are – and I commend anyone who persists trying to eat anything outside of a Japanese and Chinese context – you must give tofu a chance in Japan.
Japan has so many different soy products, there’s bound to be one that suits everyone’s taste. The challenge is to recommend the right one to the right person in the first try. Firstly, there’s silken tofu that is soft and smooth and firmer tofu that has an outer layer that’s a bit like cotton. There is free freeze-dried Koya-san tofu, boiled tofu (photo above), tofu desserts that come in flavours like sesame, tofu ice cream, and tofu skin. Kyoto has the most developed tofu cuisine. I’ve even made tofu by hand on a farm, so clearly I’m obsessed.
What makes Japanese tofu different is that the flavour of the soy is still distinct. Exactly how distinct depends on the dish and whether it’s meant to be the highlight or an accompaniment.
Restaurant Tip: Go ahead and try agedashi tofu (tofu deep fried and seasoned with dashi soy sauce, spring onions, and other toppings) here to compare back home. In the winter, try putting a few pieces of tofu into your hotpot.
14) Regional Foods
This is just a list, and I’ve purposely listed some off-beat places. Iwakuni block sushi, Kyushu, Tottori Crab, Izumo-shi soba, Azumino-soba, Shimonseki fugu (puffer fish), Yamaguchi Kawara soba (tile noodles), Shiga beef, Kobe beef, Wakayama beef, Kyoto tofu, Koya-san tofu, Hokkaido milk, Toyama shirohebi (white shrimp), Kanazawa seafood and cakes, Kochi katsuotataki (seared bonito sashimi), Ehime mikans, Tosa Buntan (citrus fruit), Tokushima sudachi (lime-like citrus fruit), Hiroshima okonomiyaki, Osaka okonomiyaki, Tokyo Monja.
Tokyo’s a big city. You won’t find them all, and certainly not at the great value that you’ll remember from the countryside, but it’s worth giving it a go!
Food Tip: Go with whatever is popular in the town if you’re not sure. Some places I went specifically for the food and other dishes I discovered after arriving. Ask locals as well. They are proud of their local specialties and will honestly share with you what they think is best.
Food Tip 2: For Tokyo’s regional food try monja at Tsukishima.
15) Farm food
Go work on a farm if you’re up for it. There’s nothing like the simple, fresh dishes made from the things you harvested the same morning. I volunteered on farms in Kyoto and Tokushima before moving to Tokyo. Even after, I feel it’s always worth it to take a few days out and volunteer at a nearby farm. I learn a lot about the soil, various farming practices, and ultimately how the vegetables end up tasting so good. I learned from the local farmers how to best use kabu (turnip) leaves and pickle them into instant salads. I also now understand how to experiment with the different salt ratios for umeboshi (pickled plums) to get the flavour I prefer rather than relying on store-bought offerings. I learned about how source off-market rice that is organically grown.
Food Tip: If you have, time, go WWOOFing (volunteer on an organic farm) even for just a week. It’s hard work, there’s no describing how flavourful produce can be fresh.
Food Tip 2: For dining, go outside of Tokyo. Search up restaurants that specify that they serve dishes made with local produce. Tokyo has them too, but you will be going out of your way to find them. In contrast, other cities like Kanazawa, Matsumoto, Nagano, and Kyoto are all close-by to farming areas.
16) Raw Ingredients
If you’re staying somewhere that has a kitchen, I suggest you visit your neighbourhood supermarket. Look around to see what they have because Japan is seasonal. All the produce is also marked with the exact place of origin, which is great for food fanatics like me.
Food Tip: Satsumaimo (sweet potato) baked or boiled is super sweet. My personal other favourite is Japanese rice and I have a full post on all the different types because it’s one of the few things I’ll definitely put in my suitcase when I leave.
Food Tip 2: If you are staying at an Airbnb and plan to do some cooking, look out for some ‘farmers corners’ at supermarkets. It is usually near the entrance or to the side, with a small collection of their daily harvests. If you are doing a road trip, stop by a Michi-no-Eki (roadside station) and they definitely will have local produce. The farmers do the drop offs in the morning, which is why the displays may look empty by afternoon. I know this because I’ve done it with several farms before!
17) Regional Ingredients
Japan feeds my obsession with specialisation and sourcing from the best. In reality, many places in Japan specialise in the same thing, so it’s best not to get too carried away. At the same time, the stereotypes and reputations generally hold true. Since I am in Tokyo, I get my seaweed, bonito flakes, udon, soba, rice, and other ingredients from their local prefectural shops. They may be more expensive than a regular supermarket, but these food items are still treated as staple ingredients. Also, sourcing regionally ensures that I get the best of Japan, which is consumed domestically rather than exported.
Food Tip: Visit Ginza’s Antenna Shops, which are run by prefectural governments to promote their regional products. It’s usually easier if you have a specific ingredient you’re looking for and know which prefecture it is from. If you’d just like to try foods and get souvenirs, try the Okinawa for sweet potato ice cream, Hokkaido for original flavour soft ice cream, cheesecakes, and many other dairy products, and Hiroshima for shrimp and other savoury snacks.
18) Street Food
Street food is just something we pick up on the way to things or when we’re nibbly. Many people like to go to Shinjuku’s yakitori alley. I personally like going to little corner shops that are seving local prices usually at less than ¥100 per skewer. They’re everywhere, from Yanaka Ginza and my local market called Sunamachi Ginza.
I’m not a fan of meat or fried things, so my favourite is the sweet redbean pancake snack called taiyaki. I rarely have favourites, but the one at Nezu Shrine is a clear winner with its smokey aroma and red bean nuggets. Another vegetarian option is koroge (deep fried mashed potato cakes)
Food Tip: Anything with a ‘Ginza’ basically means the neighbourhood shopping street. More local starting points include Yanaka Ginza and the above Nezu no Taiyaki place, which has lineups soon after 10:30. Street food is also common during summer festivals, so definitely try the pop-up stalls.
I am not a snack person, but it would be amiss if they were not included. As a non-snack person, my year in Japan has been filled with snack adventures. The one most people know about are the quirky Kitkat flavours, which you can easily find in supermarkets. Other items range from the whacky beef flavoured chips, to the healthy dried seaweed.
Food Tip: Just head to the supermarket and browse through their snack sections. Unfortunately, most of them will be in Japanese, but just go with a bag of chips that catches your eye.
20) Ice cream
There are two categories: soft ice cream and supermarket ice cream.
Both are pretty darn good. Let me just say that supermarket ice cream is darn good; my favourite are these mint chocolate ice cream sticks that harken back to Baskin Robins and beats them for price. Soft ice cream is hands down original Hokkaido milk flavour, which is creamy and aromtic.
Restaurant Tip: Hokkaido Antenna Shop near Yurakucho Station and ice cream tower at Nakano Broadway basement.
If you liked this post, please share with your friends!
Also check out my other guides to Tokyo:
- Travel Expenses in Japan: Public Budget Sheet & ExplanationsTravel Expenses in Japan: Public Budget Sheet & Explanations
- Mandarake: Anime and Manga shopping for Otaku
- Off-Centre Tokyo Cafes
- Tokyo’s Best Cafes in Kiyosumishirakawa
- Vegetarian Map of Tokyo
- Accessible Tokyo
A standing invitation: I’m happy to take you to one of these places and be a food guide if you sponsor the meal!
Special thanks to readers who offer edits, contributions, and suggestions:
- Redditor: lucency001
- Redditor: gordie44