What you'll find in this story: affordable Tokyo restaurants, Tokyo cafés, descriptions of Tokyo cuisine, Tokyo neighborhoods
The cake had a strange but familiar taste to it. Ah, yes: plastic. Somewhere in an upscale subterranean food hall, I'd mistaken an all-too-realistic display for a sample and eagerly popped it into my mouth. Hastily unpopping the ersatz green-tea treat, I returned the plastic lump to the counter and smiled like a fool at the nice lady behind it. She smiled back forgivingly. She understood. This, after all, was Tokyo, where dining is always an adventure. You might not know what you're putting in your mouth, but you can't be blamed for trying it.
Eating habits tell you a lot about a place. In Japan, the clear message is: Plastics aside, no culinary obsession shall go unindulged. Most restaurants serve essentially one kind of food. Looking for a place that specializes in a particular regional variety of ramen? Name your noodle. Want a restaurant where everything on the menu is octopus? In Tokyo, you are not alone.
From the vending machines on every corner to the reverent care shown in traditional formal meals to the perfect $200 melon, it's obvious that this is a country that takes eating very, very seriously. No wonder I never learned the Japanese word for museum.
London has Harrods and Milan has Peck, but in Tokyo there are literally dozens of bright and bustling depachikas, high-end food halls packed into the basements of the city's many department stores. I've been to Tokyo a few times, and I invariably begin and end my visit at the depachikas--first to fall back into the rhythm of just wandering wide-eyed and agog (a good approach to this most overwhelming of mega-cities), and then, at the end of my trip, in a frenzy to buy all the stuff I can't get at home. The culinary bazaars sell an astounding array of things to eat, drink, and gawk at, both of local provenance and airlifted from around the world. (Harrods and Peck, in fact, are each represented by stalls within Tokyo depachikas.)
At the Matsuya depachika in ritzy Ginza, I graduated from plastic lumps to real raw tuna, crisp seaweed crackers flavored with eel or sour plum, and rosé champagne in miniature plastic cups. I had a tasting tour through the endlessly adaptable world of dango, deliciously gooey rice balls skewered and then dressed up in sweet edamame paste, dusted with soybean powder, or smothered in soy sauce and mint and other unlikely things. I ate kanten, a seaweed Jell-O with a split personality. In one role, cut into cubes drizzled with black-sugar syrup and adzuki bean paste, it played dessert. In another, it was a salty snack, sliced thinly to resemble noodles and served with soy sauce, vinegar, ginger, and tangy karashi mustard. These were just the free samples being handed out, and it wasn't even lunchtime yet.
The depachikas are as dizzying and fun to explore as the city itself. I passed museum cases of traditional Japanese confections next to precise replicas of Parisian patisseries, Viennese bakeries, and Italian gelaterias. There were fishmongers; dumpling makers; acres of orderly bento-box lunches, with sushi and tempura; and stalls serving indoor versions of street food like tako-yaki, the addictive, eggy little balls with pieces of octopus inside. Contentedly lost in this well-curated playground of global food obsessions, I thought, not for the first time, that Tokyo is the most exciting place to eat on the planet.
I have always liked fried pork cutlets, but it was only after coming to Tokyo that I realized you could make a full-time fetish of them. Restaurants devoted to tonkatsu--a crispy piece of pork encrusted in bread crumbs--tend to offer two cuts, the leaner hire and the fattier rossu. To say that the rossu is juicier than your average pork cutlet is like saying an orange is juicier than your average baseball.
You could probably spend your entire life trying to determine the best tonkatsu restaurant in Tokyo without ever exhausting your options--though it would be a shorter-than-usual life. The black pork at Hirata Bokujyou comes from the restaurant's own pig farm and is worth however many years it shaves off.
Charcoal-broiled eel is another one-note specialty with its own legions of followers and dedicated restaurants. There are cheap, satisfying unagi places all over town (many are identified easily by plastic eel displays in the window). For a more refined treatment, I poked around the maze of streets near Tokyo Tower until I found Nodaiwa, a 200-year-old restaurant in an old wooden house. The eel is caught wild and has a truly delicate, sweet, and smoky flavor. Everyone in the dining room was eating the exact same boxed lunch. The communal feeling reminded me of being in a jazz club, with a group of people quietly and reverentially enjoying the same music.
For every subcategory of cuisine, a subculture of obsession accompanies the food. Consider something as seemingly simple as a bowl of ramen. Countless noodle shops around the city serve more than 40 regional varieties of ramen. And for the armchair ramen aficionado, there are competing ramen-rating guidebooks, ramen awards, ramen TV shows, and a heated ramen debate that seems to boil like a broth just under the surface of polite society. (Worldramen.net is a good place to follow the debate in English.)
I never understood all the fuss until I went to Kyushu Jangara Ramen. After one slurp of the rich tonkotsu (pork bone-based) soup, I realized I had largely squandered my noodle-eating life. A little quality time at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum helped me atone for years of ramen ignorance. The ground floor is home to a gift shop, displays on the history of ramen, and, this being Japan, photo booths where you can get stickers printed up with an image of your face poised to eat a bowl of your favorite style of ramen. I now have stickers of myself with the Kyushu style, which has a rich broth and braised pork belly, and also often includes chopped scallions. Whenever the weather is below 100 degrees, some small part of my brain is always thinking about this soup.
Downstairs at the Ramen Museum is where the real action takes place. Two basement floors have been transformed into a virtual 1958 streetscape (a significant year, if only because that's when "instant noodles" hit the shelves). The neon-lit scene--with bars, street vendors, and lots of steamy ramen stalls--feels like a movie set. No matter how surreal the spectacle, however, nothing can top the truth: It's a museum dedicated to noodles.
In between working my way through the Japanese culinary classics, I enjoyed paying my respects to some of the less heralded oddball variants. Monja-yaki is a kind of food found in Tokyo that probably won't be the next hot trend anywhere else. For one thing, it's difficult to define. Imagine a liquid that becomes a solid that will probably end up in a gaseous state sometime later in the evening. (A Japanese friend described it as "like a sauce that's the meal.") Monja-yaki is as much an activity as it is a dish: The tables in a monja-yaki restaurant all have a hot griddle onto which a mishmash of batter, cabbage, and other implausible toppings are spread out and cooked until the concoction reaches a consistency somewhere between a pancake and fried cheese. There are hundreds of toppings to mix and match--squid, spicy cod roe, various meats, a blob of food called "pizza" that was hard to place. Diners at the table cook their own bits and serve themselves using tiny metal spatulas.
You'd think maybe one or two monja-yaki joints would be enough for any city, even one as big as Tokyo. But a few blocks from the Tsukishima subway stop is a long, narrow avenue called Tsukishima-Nishinakadori, surrounded by the impossible-to-forget sight of 70 nearly identical little restaurants that all serve this strange, fun, collective treat.
And then there's chanko, the food of sumo wrestlers. Sumo wrestlers feed themselves heartily, and after their championship days are over, some of them open restaurants with enormous, anything-goes hot pots engineered to bulk us all up to fighting weight. At Chanko Dining Waka, run by the retired sumo wrestling star Wakanohana, a diminutive non-wrestler tended to a pot of boiling vegetable broth in the center of our table. He used wooden tongs to shape chicken meatballs that he plopped into the bowl, and he returned every few minutes to add more protein and vegetables to the broth. It's unpretentious late-night food, perfect for those moments when the exquisite subtlety of sashimi is not at all what's called for.
I have eaten some strange things in this town. Chicken sashimi. Raw horse. Whale steak. Even cod sperm-sac sushi. (1. Puddinglike. 2. Never again.) Come to think of it, I've also ordered in some strange ways. Te (pronounced tea) is a cool little lunch counter in Roppongi Hills where you order and pay via a retro-futuristic vending machine in the front of the store. Then you go inside and wait for your meal. A filling plate of spaghetti with mentiako (spicy cod roe) is about $7.
But for all the wild fun they have with their food, the Japanese are exceptionally serious about quality and freshness. The obvious place to see this devotion on display is Tsukiji, the biggest fish market in the world. Hauling giant, blood-red tuna carcasses, carts whiz down aisles lined with what appear to be every last one of the world's exotic sea creatures, laid out on ice. Beyond a small section of plastic cutlery stalls near the Kaikou-bashi entrance (in the general direction of Ginza), two long lines snake outside two sushi restaurants located three doors apart.
One is Sushi Dai (with a green shade in the window), the other is Sushi Daiwa. Both of the restaurants are very small and very good. I prefer Sushi Dai--for the extraordinary taste of the fish and the rice, the tight quarters of the twelve-seat bar, the steaming bowl of fishy miso soup, the little balls of pink salt lining the counter, and the fact that, a full year later, the chef remembered that I'd been in once before. I'm not really sure how to describe the fish except to say that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the best sushi I've ever eaten. And at about $30 for a substantial omakase (chef's choice) meal, it's a terrific deal in a town where high rollers can drop as much as $800 per person at one of the more famous sushi bars.
One evening I went with friends to the Kappa-bashi district, where restaurants (and amused gaijin, as foreigners are called) come to buy those perfect plastic food specimens. As tempting as it is to pick up a suitcase worth of the stuff, any decorator will warn you that it's not easy to find a fitting place to display a plate of fake pork ribs.
We had dinner plans at a place across town and intended only to take a short walk. But before we knew it we found ourselves around the corner, ordering a snack inside a boisterous robata-yaki called Tanuki. Robata-yaki are simple bar-restaurants where all the raw ingredients are on display. You point at whatever you want to eat--such as stingray fin, octopus, soft green tofu, even ginkgo nuts--and then take a seat at a big, long bar that faces a grill. Once the food is cooked, waiters pass it over the grill to the customers by using wooden oars. The oars also deliver mugs of beer, and before we knew what happened, we'd forgotten about our other plans for the night.
Only a few blocks from the fake-food district, we'd stumbled yet again onto something delicious. For me, the night captured the very essence of Tokyo: It's at once masterfully artificial and beautifully real.