This is a cultural writeup introducing Ginza and a bit of Tokyo life / culture that supports the great sushi lunches available in the area (supplied from Tsukiji Fish market). For I have a separate post on restaurant recommendations and lunch tips. TL;DR – infographic at the top and detailed explanations below.
TL;DR Sushi Infographic
Some Ginza backstory
People always give me a look when I say that I like to lunch in Ginza. Ginza means the building of silver, which comes from a silver minting factory in the area in the Edo period. After the area was razed by a devastating fire in 1872, the squalid, narrow, matchstick houses of Tokyo’s Shitamachi, the Low City, were replaced by boulevards with fireproof brick buildings. The new area had alarmingly wide roads for natives used to cozy corridor mazes. Even worse in local eyes, it was built of alien stone structures in the European style, nothing like the traditional wooden architecture still seen around Tokyo today. Those gleaming, cold retaining walls stood in stark contrast to the throbbing, overflowing pulse of the commercial Tsukiji Fish Market (in Nihonbashi before it was moved in the Showa Era to its current location).
But since then, Ginza has grown into its namesake with luxury brands, high-end department stores, and century-old speciality proprietors flanking its streets. Just off the main streets are the offices of companies that can afford rent next door to Tokyo Station.
It’s not just the shopping tourists who have to be fed; the legion of office workers do, too. It is for the latter that many of Tokyo’s most celebrated sushi establishments do business, discretely in upper story units and smaller side streets of Higashi Ginza (East Ginza) between the main shopping area and Tsukiji Fish Market. And it is to these places I go for fresh Tsukiji fish served deftly on pristine bar counters.
What are you enjoying with these value lunches?
Up to local standard, at local prices. As I mentioned above, these sushi bars are catering mostly to local office workers rather than looking to make money off of tourists who only come once. This means the sushi they serve has to be fresh and at a price point locals can afford for regular meals (around ¥1000). These same restaurants usually have set dinners for over ¥10,000 (US$100). The dinners also include cooked food as well, but only have one or two seatings a night. For people who only want fresh fish available nowhere else, lunch is all you need.
Fresh fish daily from Tsukiji fish market. Sushi lunches are the best value because you get to have a great selection of nigiri (raw fish on a ball of rice) samples. The lunches start at around ¥900 for about 8-10 pieces, miso soup, and some maki rolls. They can also go up to ¥3000, for about 15-20 nigiri pieces and better cuts. Staples include aji (horse mackerel), a type of tuna (maguro or toro depending on the price of your set), and shrimp. Other regular items include scallop, octopus, eel, salmon roe, and bonito depending on the season. These sushi bars need to clear their bulk fish from Tsukiji Fish Market in order to ensure that they have fresh stock daily for their demanding local customers. The other reason lunches can be priced at such a discount is because lunch diners are quick turnovers that only require a sushi chef at the bar (and maybe one at the back preparing the tamagoyaki egg).
No lineups, at least not the horrendous ones with tourists in the Tsukiji Outer Market itself. Lineups in Ginza’s sushi bars never last beyond 30 minutes for one or two visitors. To be safe, I typically go between 11:30am-12:30pm. There is a lunch rush between 12:00-13:00, but again I’ve never actually had to wait in a line before. Some places I get to sit and chat with the chef after too.
A cozy bar and the chef’s attention. The difference between Japanese and Western fine dining is the pleasure of the bar. Generally, Japanese fine dining is at a bar with the head chef serving you directly. You are one of 10-20 guests total (including one or two private dining rooms). If you have a local friend, ask them to come along so you can have a translator. In addition to watching your food created before your eyes with absolute transparency, the benefit of a sushi chef is the educational conversation. Ask them where each fish comes from specifically, what cut it is, optimal temperatures and treatment. Sushi bars used to be neighourhood corner shops (some still are) and many wonderful places are anchored by the single chef manning everything.
¥900 vs ¥3000 sets are proportional in their pricing. You get more pieces the more expensive the set. You also get more expensive fish choices and better cuts of the same fish. One of the easiest ways to tell is whether your shrimp is a frozen or fresh type. The Japanese are honest in their prices, so you don’t need to feel pressured to order a more expensive set if you don’t think you can finish.
Below is my map of recommended restaurants.
Check out where to eat at 7 Sushi and Ramen Lunch Deals in Ginza. Happy dining!