Four ways to explore the city’s dynamic dining scene.
Few cities have a food scene as vibrant as Tokyo’s. World-renowned Michelin-starred restaurants sit next to nondescript family-run shops, the kind of places known for one dish that’s been perfected for generations. Hushed hidden gems are just steps away from busy corners electrified with flashing neon lights. There’s a lot to take in, but learning from the source – a sushi master who explains how to select the best tuna at the market, or a toji (sake brewer) uses demonstrating age-old techniques for making the best junmai daiginjo – is the best way to understand the subtle nuances of Japanese staples. Here are four jumping-off points for exploring Tokyo’s gourmet dining scene.
Learn about sushi from a fourth-generation master.
In its purest form, sushi looks simple on the plate: a slice of pristine fish, a bit of rice, a dab of wasabi. Done right, it’s sheer perfection. But like most things in life, it takes a lot of effort and skill to create that perfect bite. In the hands of fourth-generation sushi chef Yoshi Tezuka, whose family restaurant, Matsunozushi, has been serving Japan’s most iconic food since 1910, it’s an art form.
Matsunozushi is a world unto itself. Two signs hang in its austere wooden entryway tucked away on a backstreet in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward: One, a gilded board, has been in the family for generations; the other is a sidewalk sandwich board made of salvaged wood from a nori-harvesting ship. After passing through a cloth partition, diners are greeted by a serene courtyard and lush garden. Inside, Tezuka awaits at the small sushi bar, ready to guide them through a memorable experience.
Tezuka learned everything about Edomae-style sushi from his father and grandfather. He’d watch as the elder Tezukas selected fish at Tsukiji market, where conversations with wholesalers and fishermen created bonds that have lasted generations. He learned how to clean, cut, and ferment fish so it has just the right texture – not too soft, but supple enough to nearly melt with each bite – and beautiful flavor. He learned about the proper rice: Koshihikari, a short-grain rice that sticks together perfectly for his nigirizushi.
Tezuka also saw how the role of a sushi chef is just as much about hospitality as it is skill. Great ingredients and mastery are just two of the elements that make for a great meal – it also takes a bit of showmanship. Fluent in English, thanks to a year at Stanford University as an exchange student and more years spent working as a ski guide around the world, Tezuka is as much a part of the experience as the sushi itself.
With every course, the young chef happily explains what you’re eating, how to eat it, and the history behind it, his family, and the restaurant itself. The banter is easy and entertaining, which only adds to the culinary adventure. It’s the kind of hospitality Tezuka’s family offered when they opened a small fish stall in Tokyo in 1910, and what has made Matsunozushi the restaurant it is today.
To dig deeper into the sushi experience, Virtuoso on-site connections Boutique JTB and Exo Travel work with advisors to plan custom outings such as shopping with a chef at Tsukiji or making your own lunch behind a sushi counter with one of the city’s sushi masters.
Cozy up to traditional nabe this winter.
Sushi isn’t the only dish with deep roots in Japan. Historic restaurants that specialize in dishes such as tempura and ramen fill the city. But nabe, Japanese hot pot, is particularly satisfying during cooler days.
Nabe is a soup with meat or fish, tofu, and fresh vegetables simmering in flavorful broth in a donabe (the traditional clay pot that gives the dish its name). A small burner on the table keeps the broth piping hot while diners add ingredients throughout the meal.
For traditional sukiyaki-style nabe, make reservations at Ningyocho Imahan, a hot-pot restaurant established in 1895. Now with several locations (two brothers split off and oversee their own mini empires), it’s known for serving thinly sliced beef and vegetables bubbling in a brew flavored with sake, soy sauce, and sugar.
Beef stars here, carefully selected with an eye to the cattle’s pedigrees, how they’re fed and bred, and the breeders’ passion for their craft. It’s all about texture and flavor, precision butchery, and how the beef is aged. You can taste the difference in every bowl of sukiyaki.
Chanko Kawasaki is another traditionalist known for one dish: chanko-nabe, a hearty, protein-packed hot pot popular with sumo wrestlers. Opened by a former wrestler in 1937 (that might be his round, happy face on the sign), the restaurant was the first to offer chanko to the public in the Ryōgoku area, home of the Ryōgoku Kokugikan sumo arena.
The restaurant is now run by the second generation, and the recipe for its famed chanko remains mostly unchanged. Bowls of rich and fortifying chicken broth – sumo superstition requires avoiding meat from four-legged animals – are filled to the brim with various cuts of meat, plus Napa cabbage, green onion, carrot, and other vegetables, and spiked with soy sauce and sake.
Windows to Japan works with Virtuoso travel advisors for culinary tours that include nabe, sake and Japanese whisky tastings, and more.
Art of the meal.
Tokyo has long embraced the mix of tradition with modernity. It’s a city where centuries-old shrines sit alongside towering skyscrapers, where green spaces and modest homes peacefully exist just blocks from intersections with stories-tall flashing electronic billboards. For the culinary encapsulation of this vibe, look to MoonFlower Sagaya Ginza.
Part haute cuisine, part digital art installation, the collaboration between the restaurant Sagaya Ginza and the art collective teamLab serves up a feast for the senses in every way. Eight seats surround a table in one room of the restaurant, each place set with Arita ware, a Japanese white porcelain painted with intricate floral and tree designs. These plates are where the art happens – literally and figuratively, as over the course of dinner the dishware’s trees and flowers unfold themselves to cover the table and surrounding walls.
One moment you’re tasting Saga beef filet (the restaurant specializes in prized Wagyu beef) with sea urchin or flounder sashimi, and suddenly you’re surrounded by a flying sparrow or a flowing river. Just like the menu, the art changes according to the seasons, so spring brings the likes of cherry blossoms, while lotus flowers bloom near a trout-filled pond in the summer.
Sip sake and surround yourself in nature.
As in life, water is crucial to sake. Sawanoi is synonymous with one of the city’s finest, and oldest, sakes, and is named for the Sawai region, known for the clear water that makes Sawanoi sakes so superb.
Taste for yourself at the source. Founded in 1702 in Okutama on Tokyo’s western outskirts, the Sawanoi Ozawa Brewery provides one of the city’s best ways to explore and learn about the brewing tradition, surrounded by the lush, green beauty of mountains and the Mitake Valley. Sawanoi offers daily tours in both Japanese and English, which wrap up with a sake sampling. Three favorites: the Souten junmai ginjo, which smells of sweet flowers and has a dry, fruity taste; the fuller-bodied Tokyo Kurabito, which has hints of plum and apple; and the junmai super dry.
Make a day of it: Hit the snack shop for some noodles, pick up a sake sampler from the tasting room, and hang out in the garden overlooking the Tama River. Later, visit the museum and souvenir shop. While modern technology is a hallmark of today’s Tokyo, savoring a bit of tradition, from sake still brewed by hand to sushi and sumo-wrestler-worthy soups, provides a deliciously fuller picture of the dynamic city.
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