Tokyo is known for having the most Michelin starred restaurants in the world. But that’s not how the average person lives their life here. So while we encourage you to try one or two crazy expensive sushi meals if you can afford it, we also want to make sure you experience everything Tokyo has to offer. And this city has a lot, from sushi to ramen to traditional izakayas to katsu and more. It’s why we’ve broken this guide down into different categories, so you can easily find the types of food you might be looking for, plus other Japanese staples you might not have known you needed to try.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Tokyo is massive - bigger and more populous than New York. Get out there and explore as many neighborhoods as possible, because each has something a little different to see.
A few tips:
Japanese people take immense pride in everything they do, including serving you food and drinks - without being tipped. What this means is that you can expect excellent service, and you can also expect that restaurants aren’t always going to bend over backwards to accommodate your picky eating. If you’re used to “no pickles, and is there a gluten-free option?” you’re likely to be (politely) refused.
Rules. Lots of them in Japan. There are too many to name, and you shouldn’t feel stressed about knowing all of them, so here’s our best piece of advice: just try to be polite as possible and behave like you’re actually a guest in a foreign country. For example, don’t cross the street unless there’s a walk signal - even if the crosswalk is barely big enough for a car and there’s nobody in sight. That’s just the way they do things here.
If you need a snack or coffee, it’s acceptable, and encouraged, to grab some packaged sushi and Japanese candies (and fried chicken!) from a 7-11, Family Mart, or Lawson. How did Lawson, a convenience store that originally opened in Ohio, become a huge Japanese company? We have no idea, but either way, snacks at the “konbini” are made fresh daily (and delicious) so make sure you check one out...daily.
There are hardly any public trash cans around the city. Either dispose of your trash at the konbini or make sure you have deep pockets.
Taxi doors open for you, on the left side only.
Japan is still a cash-based economy, which means you should always carry some on you. If you’re going to check out a ramen shop or a local bar in Golden Gai, make sure you have yen. If you suddenly realized your wallet’s empty, 7-11’s international ATM is always there for you.
Izakayas are like Japanese gastropubs, and Uoshin is a traditional izakaya and a great introduction to Japanese cuisine. This place specializes in fresh seafood from all around Japan, so you’ll want to try different fresh, grilled and boiled fish dishes. The nitsuke boiled fish dishes are stewed in a hot pot of soy sauce, sake and some sugar and ginger. If you just landed in Tokyo and have no idea what you’re doing food-wise, this is a good way to ease yourself into things and get a feel for what you’ll eat on your trip.
Fusion food is common in Japan, and Ukyo is one of the best places for it in Tokyo. Ukyo combines Japanese flavors with French bistro cooking - but it’s not as rich and buttery as traditional French food (because that would be too aggressive for most people in Japan). Expect to eat things like crab-cream croquettes, uni shumai dumplings, and their specialty: egg rice (raw egg mixed with Japanese rice) with shaved truffles on top. Ukyo is upscale but still casual, which makes it a great spot for a nicer dinner during the week without having to get too fancy. Regardless of when you go, be prepared to drink sake - Ukyo has more than 250 kinds.
In Tokyo, the typical 9-5 office worker has a name: the salaryman. But instead of 9-5, Japanese Salarymen work 9-9 (at least), always wear black suits and white shirts, and when they’re finally done with the workday they drink the night away with co-workers and clients before waking up and doing the exact same thing the next day. (There are even ads on the streets pleading with salarymen not to pass out and sleep on the sidewalks or trains.)
One staple spot in the Salaryman-infested Shinbashi neighborhood is Torishige - it’s a yakitori restaurant, which is a common type of place to eat grilled chicken skewers, but this one is a standout. Get the tsukune (ground chicken) or momo niku (chicken thigh) if you want to play it safe, or get adventurous with raw chicken sashimi appetizer or hatsu (heart) skewers for a real treat. Feel free to drink too much and take a nap on the streets for the real salaryman experience after your meal - we swear it’s more socially acceptable (and way safer) than doing the same thing in New York.
Ryugin is arguably the most famous Michelin spot in Tokyo, outside of Jiro at least. (Just a reminder, nobody here cares you’ve seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi.) The modern twist that chef Yamamoto puts on traditional Japanese kaiseki (multi-course) cuisine has made him a straight-up rock star. Expect dinner to cost $400 or more per person for a meal with both seasonal meat and fish. So, what does $400 get you exactly? Things like “olive beef,” AKA meat that comes from cows who are fed only leaves from olive trees. In terms of vibe, the space matches the food: a modern spin on traditional Japanese style at its best. The dining room is quiet and extremely formal (so formal they ask you not to wear strong fragrances that could get in the way of the food), so make sure you’re cool with that if the price tag alone hasn’t already made you squirm.
Yamachou is a great udon spot ideal for a casual afternoon meal. It’s a nice place to hang, and some smooth jazz music in the background helps that cause. Depending on the weather outside, you can get your noodles in a hot bowl of soup or cold served with dipping sauce. Yamachou is known for a classic tempura udon and also a duck udon, which is our favorite thing here.
Nodaiwa is an old-school, traditional Japanese spot known for their delicious unagi (eel). It’s historical, elegant, and on the more expensive side (you’ll need a reservation), but not so extreme that you’ll need to empty your bank account for a meal here. It’s also located right near Tokyo Tower, so make it a point to catch a 360-degree view of the city before or after a meal here.
Katsu is a breaded and fried pork or chicken cutlet, and it’s a traditional Japanese dish usually served with rice and shredded cabbage. Ima Katsu is hands-down our favorite spot for katsu because they manage to keep things juicy and crispy without being dry or overly fried and greasy. It sounds simple, but finding the right balance can be tough, and Ima Katsu has it down to a science. You want their chicken tenderloin, but consider getting a mixed platter so you can try both their menchi (minced) and rosu (loin) cuts of meat too.
Nurunji is a Korean barbecue spot that will make you feel like you’re in the middle of a K-Pop music video. The crowd is young, the servers look like they could be in a boy band, and there will be a big screen playing Gangnam Style-esque videos while you cook your meats. If you want to get a sense of what Korean pop culture is like and eat excellent fatty pork belly (samgyeopsal, our favorite) with loads of garlic, this is the spot. It’s a damn party in here, which means you’re encouraged to drink and have a great time.
There are a ton of curry spots around town, but we honestly find CoCo Ichibanya, a chain, to be really great. It’s good to know about when you’re wandering around and need a quick and convenient bite without trying to guess what’s good nearby, or make your meal a whole ordeal. Get the traditional katsu curry and add your own level of spice. Warning: a 10 on their spicy spectrum is a bad idea.
If you had a Japanese grandmother who wanted to make you a large bowl of chicken noodle soup, she’d (hopefully) make the equivalent of Afuri’s chicken and yuzu-based ramen. The place itself is only a counter (almost all ramen shops are), you order classic ramen bowls from a ticketing machine in front, and you’re basically surrounding the cooks. The broth here is light, but the grilled char-siu (pork) provides just enough substance and smokiness to make this an excellent ramen experience. Afuri is also in a cool neighborhood and is ideal for an on-the-go ramen stop when you still want to be able to move after you eat. Also, hangovers - it’s good for those.
Shinbusakiya is the spot for miso ramen, which is generally on the saltier side. But the noodles are why we come to Shinbusakiya - they’re more like Chinese egg noodles than traditional ramen noodles, and they’re very good. The Shibuya neighborhood, home to the famous Shibuya crossing, is normally packed during the day with shoppers, but is also a hotspot for bars and clubs, so there’s nothing wrong with finding your way here after a long night.
Funami Zaka isn’t your traditional ramen place, but that doesn’t mean it’s not great. We accidentally stumbled across this place a few years ago and have been going back ever since. And we go for one thing in particular - the clam ramen, which is not common in Tokyo. It’s not as heavy as traditional ramen dishes, and the refreshing bowl of soup and noodles is sometimes very welcome.The inside feels like you’re sitting in a fisherman’s hang - there are nets and nautical trinkets - but it’s not kitschy at all.
This places serves tsukemen, which is different from ramen in two ways: tsukemen noodles come separate from the soup, and the noodles and broth are usually thicker than ramen. This place is incredibly hard to find, but once you track it down near Yoyogi and Shinkiju Park, you’ll be rewarded with a different kind of shrimp-based tsukemen. This is a great spot to visit if you’re seeking out a truly excellent noodle adventure in Tokyo.
If you’re looking for a classic, heavy, fatty, tonkotsu ramen, this is the spot. You may notice that the famed New York spot Ippudo (yes, it did originate in Japan) is only a couple minutes walk down the street. And yes, Ippudo is good, but if given a choice between the two, we choose Tsukumo Ramen over Ippudo every single time. Here, the noodles are heavier, the creamy tonkotsu soup comes in a variety of styles (like miso or soy sauce), and the place specializes in cheese ramen (to be clear, that means you can add a huge mound of freshly-grated gouda cheese to your bowl). For us, these extra options for customization make Tsukumo the easy winner.
You came to Tokyo prepared to drop $300 per person on excellent sushi, but you forgot to make a necessary reservation at one of the many Michelin-starred sushi restaurants. No worry, Sushi Tomita is here for your last-minute needs - the new-ish spot is still relatively unknown, but it’s as good as any of the classics (just be sure to call or quietly pop your head in the door to ensure they’ll be able to see you). After walking in you’ll be escorted into a basement with a six-seat counter that’s cozy and cool. You could sit here, but if you have a party of four to six, try making a last-minute reservation in the private dining room. A secret door past the counter will lead you to a beautiful space with tatami (Japanese strawmat) floors. You can sit down at your own private countertop where the sushi chef will personally serve you all night. It’s the exact same food and price as the counter, but with a completely different, intimate experience - and it’s great to be able to talk to you friends without having to worry about annoying locals who are trying to have a quiet sushi meal.
Tokyo is known for having a lot of Michelin-starred sushi restaurants, and you can easily read about them in any standard guidebook. We haven’t been to them all, but we have been to Umi, and we love it - a lot. Foreigners usually pay more attention to places like Sukibayashi Jiro or Sushi Saito, but the sushi chef here is very appreciative and honored whenever anybody decides to come in. And the fact that he makes you feel right at home, especially because you’re spending $300 or more on a meal, goes a long way. Your dinner at Umi is kind, warm, and welcoming, and you can’t put a price on that experience. It helps the food is awesome too.
In terms of price, Anjo isn’t the lowest of lows nor is it the highest of highs. It’s a nice and modern place where you can spend $150 tops for a fantastic meal. The chef here is younger, but his skills are just as good as some of the veterans out there. Our move is to start off with a glass of champagne at the counter while the chef prepares the omakase, then work your way through the sushi alongside a sampler of a few of the chef’s recommended sakes.
This is great bang-for-your-buck sushi. This is the kind of place where could eat every day, thanks in part to an excellent lunch special that will leave you pretty full for $15. You can also get a full-blown sushi dinner and drinks for around $60, and you won’t find this kind of quality sushi in a casual setting for that price anywhere else in Tokyo.
Sushi Ishii is one of our favorites for a nicer meal that’s still reasonable. It’s a simple yet pretty space that’s on the smaller side, with only a couple of tables and a sushi counter. But the kicker here is the sushi chef himself, who we’re mostly convinced is a former member of Yakuza (the Japanese mob). He’s like a wise bartender - friendly, fun, and will talk your ear off whether or not you understand any Japanese. The pricing is also flexible here - if you want an omakase for $70, he’ll do it, and if you want to spend $100 he’ll do that too. The man just wants to please, and we guarantee you’ll enjoy what he makes.
You owe it to yourself to try a conveyor-belt sushi spot if you’ve never experienced one before. Unlike in the US, conveyer-belt sushi in Japan isn’t considered corny at all. It’s quick, convenient, affordable, and a great way to try a lot of different stuff. Magurodonya Miura Misakiko is far up north in Ueno, but it’s near Ueno Park and the National Museum, two big tourist attractions that you should visit while you’re here anyway. Hit this place for lunch in between sight seeing, or dinner once you finish at the museum and are tired of using your brain. Magurodonya Miura Misakiko is located in a row of other conveyor-belt spots near the train station, but it’s by far the best of the bunch. Eat here over anywhere nearby, and see how many mini sushi plates you can stack up.
Some conveyor-belt sushi spots can feel grungy, but Mawashi Zushi Katsu does not. While the conveyer-belt spot Miuramisa has the convenient location, Mawashi has it beat on sushi quality. There’s usually a line here, but the wait is always manageable and they have the seating process down to a science. The sushi chefs will also make some specialty items for you, and they’re willing to keep things basic with tempura or California roll if you need. Just don’t ask for a tempura-California roll - that’s crossing the line.
The Ginza neighborhood is famous for traditional cocktail bars where guys in fancy white shirts are excessively shaking martinis and other classic drinks. And Bar Brick is our favorite of the bunch. Stick with classics like Old Fashioned or Manhattans, or test out the large selection of Japanese whiskeys on hand. It has a classic 1920’s New York speakeasy atmosphere, but it’s cool to see that in a Tokyo setting.
Head to Bar Amber for the craziest fruit-based cocktails you’ve ever had. Whatever they have fresh on hand that day will be turned into a cocktail, whether it’s passion fruit or strawberries. It’s a great place to start your night or end with a casual nightcap.
You’ll find the cool Japanese crowd at Bar Tram. The cocktails here are heavily absinthe-based, and they’ll have you speaking incoherently after a glass or two. Start with a classic absinthe drip and see where the night takes you. And don’t feel bad if you start the night here and never make it anywhere else - it’s happened to us a few too many times.
Bar North Marine Drive
Bar North Marine Drive is a record bar in Shibuya that plays American music (which is a thing around here). The bartenders/DJ’s also take their drinks and music very seriously - think of the honor and mental fortitude you’d associate with Samurai warriors, and apply those same principals to serving drinks and playing music. It’s a real cultural tradition, which is interesting to see alongside American music ranging from R&B to classic rock
A modern cocktail bar where they use local, seasonal, and fresh Japanese ingredients to create interesting drinks using Japanese and other types of spirits. Gen is a tiny, eight-seat bar with just one guy making drinks. It’s a very personal experience - everyone drinks from a cocktail tasting menu made up of smaller, but very strong drinks.
Into craft beer? This is a great spot to hang and test out all the local Japanese craft beers before a night out in Roppongi.
If you’re unfamiliar with Golden Gai, it’s a full-blown neighborhood of mini themed bars with maybe eight seats tops, all stacked on top of each other in one giant fire hazard. Golden Gai has become very touristy in the last few years, but you’ll still want to check it out - there are a couple of pockets serving only Japanese people and not tourists, but we’re going to put them on blast for your benefit. One in particular is Bar Blue Dragon, which is an upper-level bar on one of the middle blocks. There’s no better way to tell you how to find it in Golden Gai, but if you manage to track it down, try the coffee-bean-infused shochu drink. And if you can’t find it, don’t worry - pick any tiny bar in the neighborhood and you’ll have a great time.
Goss is a wine bar where you buy a card and use it to pick wine out from different machines that serve you out of a spout. It sounds stupid and touristy, but it’s actually not, and you’ll find mostly locals here. It’s a great place to pop in for a late afternoon drink after shopping, or a pre-dinner drink.
Stand T Bar
A very casual and simple place where you can grab a beer and have some snacks. The main attraction here is the fact it looks right at the old Tokyo train station, which makes it a great place to hang and people watch outside any time of day.
Sasagin is technically an Izakaya, but we treat it as a bar. This place is great because it has one of the largest selections of Japanese sake we’ve ever seen, and you can try them all in a casual setting. They may ask you to order a small plate of food or two, but at some point you’ll want it anyway. The old guy with a mustache here is basically a sake sommelier, and he’s happy to give you suggestions of what to try. It’s in a random part of town, which makes it a great way to escape tourist life and try traditional Japanese sake and small bites.