Jiro, Jen, & Bryan at Sukiyabashi Jiro
Japan is one of my favorite countries in the world. I fell in love with it when I lived in Tsukuba as a college during a summer internship. Since then, I've traveled back numerous times (usually tagging along on one of my husband's business trips). As a result, I've had quite a few opportunities to enjoy the fabulous food this country offers.
I've had enough friends ask my for recommendations about traveling to Japan that I thought I'd write a brief guide on my favorite places to eat, shop, and hang out.
Where to Shop?
As a food person, my favorite kitchen shopping neighborhood is Kappabashi Dori and Tsukiji Fish Market (for knives!). At Kappabashi, which is the restaurant supply neighborhood in Tokyo, you can pick up tons of cool Japanese kitchenware for really low prices. Make sure to bring cash, as a lot of places don't accept credit card. This is also the place where you can buy plastic fake display food and gorgeous dishes for ridiculously reasonable prices.
Ginza is the ritzy part of town lined with high end boutiques. It is great if you're shopping for high-end stuff, but it's pricey! On Sundays they close down part of the street to traffic, so it's fun to walk and shop during that time. Harajuku and Omotessando (adjacent areas) are really fun too - you'll see a bit younger crowd, especially in Harajuku. One of my favorite shops in Omotessando is Kiddie Land, which has one of the best selection of Totoro stuff in Tokyo (even better than Studio Ghibli itself).
Shibuya is not too far away, and sometimes I'll walk from Shibuya to Harajuku and then to Omotessando. Between Shibuya and Harajuku is the NHK Studio, which has a fun shop that sells all sorts of Domokun stuff (Domo is their mascot).
Bryan absolutely loves Akihabara for electronics. The largest electronics store (possibly in the world) called Yodabashi Camera is there. They sell everything from electronics to kitchen applicances to even luxury handbags. It's sensory overload but definitely worth seeing.
Akihabara is also not too far from Asakusa, where you can sample all sorts of fun Japanese snacks on the path leading to the huge temple (freshly made sembei crackers, red bean filled cakes, fresh mochi, etc).
Speaking of snacking, don't miss roaming around the basements of the high-end department stores (called depachika), where you can gaze at (and sample!) endless amounts of incredible food. Definitely check out the basement of the department store called Isetan in Shinjuku, which houses many of the world's most famous bakeries (yes, I buy a Pierre Hermes Ispahan macaron every time!). Even if you can't make it out to Shinjuku, there are plenty of department stores in Shibuya, Ginza, and other areas with fun basements in which to explore. I would highly recommend grabbing lunch at least once from one of these places. You can also come back to purchase exquisitely wrapped food-focused gifts to bring back home. Nobody tops the Japanese when it comes to beautifully wrapped cookies, cakes, and other snacks as gifts.
Favorite Places to Eat
As for real dining - the options are endless depending on how much you want to spend. Definitely check out Tsukiji Fish Market and try to have super fresh and reasonably priced sushi there. I think Sushi Dai and Sushi Bun are the most famous, though lines can get long. I've personally never had the patience to wait at one of those places, but even the other places are perfectly decent.
Favorite tempura: Tempura Kondo in Tokyo boasts 2 Michelin stars and churns out the most delicate tempura using the freshest ingredients all over Japan. Try the sweet potato (even though it costs extra). This is supposedly one of the best items on the menu, though I haven't had a chance to try it since it was not in season when I went. Mikawa Zezankyo (1 Michelin star) is also very good, though I personally prefer Tempura Kondo just a tad.
Favorite steak/teppanyaki: Ukai-tei is a beautiful and elegant 1 star Michelin restaurant with superb service and excellent steak. They offer steak from specially bred black cows from a region very near Kobe. According to Bryan, it's the best steak he's ever had in his life.
Favorite sushi: for foreigners Kyubey is most accessible (and reservations are usually easy to get), though the food at Sushi Mizutani and Sukiyabashi Jiro cannot be beat. We got our Jiro reservation by having one of Bryan's Japanese colleague contact the restaurant to make the reservation. They had to follow up by personally delivered the 20,000 yen cash deposit to the restaurant. Update: one of my readers informed me that Jiro accepts credit card now (2014). I would confirm this with your hotel, but it's possible that our crazy cash-filled reservation is a thing of the past.
And for something completely different: Try some of the modern, creative cuisine that's popping up all over Tokyo. Aronia de Takazawa serves extremely creative, whimsical, and beautifully (and sometimes unusually) plated food. They also have a large selection of Japanese wines, which is unusual. Ryugin is one of the most famous modern kaiseki restaurants in Tokyo. Boasting three Michelin stars, it has some really fantastic dishes (though at the end it wasn't my favorite restaurant). Tapas Molecular Bar is all out molecular gastronomy located in the top floor of the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo. The views are breathtaking and the meal is fun, though the flavors of the dishes are only OK.
Enjoy the Season! It's fun to eat the seasonal ingredients too. During my most recent trip in the fall, matsutake mushrooms and gingko nuts were in season, and I loved trying both in several different ways.
Listing of all Japan-related posts
2013 Japan Trip
Sushi Iwa (sushi, 1 Michelin Star)
Ramen Honda (ramen)
Ryugin (modern kaiseki, 3 Michelin Stars)
Dotonburi (Osaka street food)
Taian (grill, 3 Michelin Stars)
Sushi Sho (sushi)
Nakamura (traditional kaiseki, 3 Michelin Stars)
2012 Japan Trip
Sushi Sawada (sushi, 2 Michelin Stars)
Sushi Aoki (sushi, 1 Michelin Star)
Kikunoi Akasaka (kaiseki cuisine, 1 Michelin Star)
Mikawa Zezankyo (tempura, 1 Michelin Star)
Ukai-Tei (teppanyaki, Kobe beef; 1 Michelin Star)
Omotesando Koffee (coffee)
2011 Japan Trip
Post Quake Japan
Kago (Kagoshima cuisine)
Daisan Harumi (sushi)
Tempura Kondo (tempura)
Sushi Mitani (sushi)
Aronia de Takazawa (modern cuisine)
Sushi Mizutani (sushi, 3-Michelin stars)
Kappabashi Dori (Kitchen shopping street)
Masamoto Tsukiji (Knife shopping)
2010 Japan Trip
Part 1: Kappabashi Dori (shopping)
Part 2: Tapas Molecular Bar (modern Japanese, 1 Michelin star)
Part 3: Suzuran (ramen)
Part 4: Matcha and Azuki Breads
Part 5: Masamoto Tsukiji Knives (shopping)
Part 6: Maisen (tonkatsu)
Part 7: Snacking in Japan (snacks)
Part 8: Sushi Kanesaka (sushi, 2 Michelin stars)
2009 Japan Trip
Everything I Learned About Sushi I Learned from My Mom . . . . And Kyubei (sushi)
Seryna (Kobe beef shabu)