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A few general questions about eating in Tokyo

JasmineG Oct 20, 2007 07:21 PM

I'm heading to Tokyo (from the San Francisco Bay Area) for the first time next month, and I'm really excited about all of the good food that I've been reading about. However, I'm a little uncertain about how I go about finding it. I have names of lots of places that I'm interested in (a lot that I've found from old posts here), but I am worried about two things: 1) the language barrier, since I don't read (or speak) Japanese, and I'm not sure how to recognize the restaurants that I've read about and 2) one of the things that I've heard about Tokyo (and have heard from the friend that I'm going there to visit) is that the city is notoriously hard to find your way around, and that knowing an address doesn't really tell you how to get there. Is this accurate and if so, how do I find places that I have on my list?

Also, I'm a little confused to a lesser extent about how to order once I'm in restaurants, but I'm a pretty adventurous eater, so I'm comfortable with just pointing and smiling and nodding, if that will work.

Finally, I'm on a budget in this trip, so I'm mostly sticking to the lower priced options (of which I've found some that sound great, but if anyone has any suggestions, I'd love to hear them!), but I would love to try to do one more upscale lunch, since I've seen that you can get a bargain at some good places at lunchtime. Are there upscale places where I can get kaiseki at lunchtime for around 6000 yen or less, or should I just eat lots and lots of cheaper food in little places?

If it helps, I'm staying with a friend in Bunkyo-ku, but am planning to go all over the city in the week that I'm there.

Thanks for any help that you can give me.

  1. g
    gauntlet Nov 17, 2007 09:52 PM

    Hi Jasmine and all. Here's my latest report card from Tokyo, Fall/Autumn 2007. I had the lovely opportunity to spend a solid week in Tokyo. I've also toured regional cities in Japan extensively and I'm also a serious home cook.

    We were curious about how the following names would live up to our expectations. Some are frequently mentioned in English-language travel guides and forums. Here are a few of them.

    1. Maisen (tonkatsu) in Harajuku. We ordered an ordinary loin and fillet lunch set. Their black pig lunch set was far more expensive at Y2940. There's no doubt that this institution attracts locals (and the odd construction worker next door) in droves. However I was underwhelmed by the small and thin loin cutlet. The mouthfeel was that of oily panko crumbs rather than meat. The cutlet was also deep fried a tad too long for my liking, making it a shade darker and drier than I am accustomed to. This may be their house style but Maisen was definitely not a benchmark setter for me. Their thick tonkatsu sauce was interesting -- not your usual Bulldog brand taste. An English menu is available.

    2. Tsunahachi (tempura) in Shinjuku. This main branch is immensely popular with locals. There was a short queue at 12 noon but it moved quickly. We were fortunate (or unfortunate) to have a counter seat and to have a chef serve us personally piece-by-piece over the counter. Tokyo-style tempura is not going to worry Kyoto chefs for a long time and rightly so. The ebi (shrimp) size was a little small and the batter colour was a touch too dark for our liking. However the pieces were fried to the point of perfection and crunch. There was very little oily mouthfeel. Kyoto tempura this is not but Tsunahachi seems OK for busy Tokyo commuters and shoppers. Worth a try if you're in the area. Our chef spoke some English but the menu is in Japanese.

    3. Kohmen (ramen) in Roppongi. I ordered a tonkotsu ramen. The stock was extremely thick with collagen but perhaps a tad too thick for my liking. You generally can't go wrong with ramen around town but this one was MSG laden as expected and left me with a dry mouth for the rest of the afternoon. No English menu.

    4. Gonpachi (soba, kushi-yaki, sushi) in Nishi-Azabu. I had a bad feeling walking to this feudal-era themepark. The lights, design and the fact that English was readily spoken screamed "tourist trap". Their in-house hand-made soba was pretty ordinary. Service from their young waitstaff was erratic but friendly. If I lived in Tokyo this would be a place where I would bring first-timers and wow them with the Kill Bill decor but not with the food.

    5. Jinenjiyo (curry rice) in Yanaka. You'll want to time your visit to the nearby Asakura Choso Museum so that you can arrive in time for lunch at this tiny, cosy cafe with communal tables. This is slow food, curry rice style. Each plate appears to be cooked on order (sharing a common curry "roux" I presume) by a chef on a compact stove behind the counter. The Japanese menu touts different medicinal properties for their vegetable, chicken and beef curries but the home-ground taste is anything but medicinal. Surprisingly I found the curries fairly hot for my chilli-loving palate. Make this your lunch stop when you're in the area. From the Asakura Choso Museum walk in the direction of Ueno and the cafe is a few doors down on the right. Some English is spoken by the helpful chef working the floor.

    6. Maguro-bito (kaiten sushi) in Asakusa. This kaiten sushi joint was voted #1 by Fuji TV viewers. I'm not sure when the vote was cast but this place was packed to the gills and it held the unenviable record of a 50 minute dinner wait during our entire trip. This place is considerably better than your average kaiten-joint-near-a-station but is expensive too. Count on spending Y5250 for two. Worth a meal only if you're in the Senso-ji (Asakusa Kannon Temple) area. With the giant red lantern in front of you, walk to your left and turn into the second street, Orange-dori. Look out for the queue on the immediate left at the start of the street.

    3 Replies
    1. re: gauntlet
      Robb S Nov 19, 2007 02:57 AM

      Thanks for that report!

      Re #2 (Tsunahachi): Can you recommend any good places for Kyoto tempura? I'm not sure what you you didn't like about Tsunahachi other than the color of the batter - your description makes it sound very good.

      1. re: Robb S
        g
        gauntlet Nov 21, 2007 08:54 PM

        I didn't get to try any more tempura places in Tokyo as there's only so much tempura you can take in a week and there were other try-worthy lunch sets vying for our attention.

        I did have Ten-Ichi Deux in my list but never got around to it. I'm not sure what style this is but I read it's a budget offshoot of the "best" tempura chain in Tokyo, Ten-Ichi tempura in Ginza. You can find it at Nishi Ginza Depato, first floor. Take the Ginza exit from JR Yurakucho; or exits C5, C9 from Ginza subway. Budget about Y2000 per person from what I read.

        1. re: gauntlet
          Robb S Nov 23, 2007 04:23 AM

          I was just curious where you tried the "Kyoto-style tempura" that Tsunahachi compares so unfavorably to.

    2. d
      DG14973 Oct 24, 2007 07:57 AM

      To find your way around Tokyo, I highly recommend the Tokyo City Atlas, a bilingual guide published by Kodansha (http://www.amazon.com/Tokyo-City-Atlas-Bilingual-Guide/dp/4770025033/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/104-5303927-7600704?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1193236988&sr=8-1). It's a little pricey, but it's worth it. As a non-Japanese speaker, I had the same concerns about finding restaurants and their exact addresses. I would not have found many of the recommended places on my list had I not had this Atlas.

      Even with this guide, I would still get lost on occasion. I could usually figure out the neighborhood section and block without any problems, but many of the buildings are not marked with their numbers, so I would sometimes find myself walking around the entire block until I found the right place.

      If you're going to be in Tokyo on a Sunday, make sure you try to find out beforehand whether or not any of the places you plan to go to are going to be open. My friend and I sought out two different lunch places on a Sunday over the course of at least 2 hours, only to find out that they were both closed. (Keep in mind that Tsukiji Market is closed on Sunday morning as well.

      )

      In addition to the many recommendations already listed here, you might want to check out Sora no Niwa, a tofu restaurant close to the Ebisu station (http://metropolis.co.jp/tokyo/550/res...). It's a little tricky to find, but I thought that it was worth the search. In addition to getting the yuba and/or the freshly-made tofu, check out the pork belly--it's a stunner.

      1 Reply
      1. re: DG14973
        t
        taryn Oct 24, 2007 06:12 PM

        I would be in trouble without my city atlas. I actually pencil in restaurants on it before I go, so I'm sure to find them and remember them if they are good. Great tip!

      2. Silverjay Oct 22, 2007 09:41 PM

        I agree on skipping Fujimamas. But right across the street from it are two good small shops. One is a branch of my favorite chain ramen shops- 光麺 or "Koumen". (They have a very dynamic website- http://www.kohmen.com/). Order the "zenbu nose tsukemen"- shown here- http://www.kohmen.com/menu/topping.html. Koumen's broth is more fish-based and therefore lighter, but still very tasty. They grill the pork slices over charcoal behind the counter, to "finish" them before serving. The noodles are dipping style and very good. Nearly next door to Koumen is a gyoza shop. I can't remember the name, but the menu is 3 types of gyoza and a few side dishes and that's it. Very compact and simple. Gyoza stadium and Namja Town are reasonably fun, though I didn't think the food was particularly special.

        For inexpensive sushi, you may want to search on "Midori Sushi" and "Bikkuri Sushi", two reasonably priced mini-chains with several locations. Sushi places like that usually have picture menus. Speaking of which, although on the surface it doesn't see so Chowhound worthy, I highly recommend checking out one or more of the chain izakayas while in Tokyo. I also suggest this to guests with language challenges. Despite being chains, the places are often quite tasty, they have picture menus, they are inexpensive, and really, they make for a very authentic experience. Two particular chains that I would recommend if you are on a budget are Tengu "天狗" and Watami (和民). Tengu are very run of the mill, straight down the middle izakaya with large picture menus and cheap, often in-house brewed, beer. They are all over town, but the best one I've been to was in Shinagawa- about 15 minutes or less south of Ueno. Here is the map- http://www.mapion.co.jp/c/f?uc=4&pg=1&grp=teng&ino=BA577625. The Ueno branch is here- http://www.mapion.co.jp/c/f?uc=4&pg=1&grp=teng&ino=BA577610. Even if you can't read the language, you can usually figure out where based on the location of the train station. The logos on the website could help you understand what it looks like from the outside.

        Watami is a personal favorite of mine. They are quite well known for their hot pot specials during the fall, so you'll be just in time. Hot pot is called "nabe" in Japanese. (pronounced "nah bay"). Here is a clickable seasonal menu from them- http://www.watami.co.jp/watami/tokuse... . The oyster stew for one is 699 YEN. What a steal! They are all over Tokyo.

        Something in Ueno to look out for is the Ameyoko street market, which is just south of the station. There's all kinds of stuff there and in terms of chowing, I recall some small shops selling yakitori or sashimi donburi specials. You should definitely check the area out on a weekend evening.

        Regarding language, many Japanese menus are arranged based on how the item is cooked- i.e. "fried" "grilled" "stewed" "sashimi", etc. So it may be a good idea have these terms on you as a resource so you can at least pick up the menu headings.

        9 Replies
        1. re: Silverjay
          l
          lost squirrel Oct 22, 2007 10:00 PM

          Woah, Koumen's zenbu nose looks good. I'll have to give it a try sometime.

          Silveryjay makes a good point, chain izakayas are a great way to experience Japan and it's a fun style. Usually there will be a button you hit to bring the waitress over. It's all very relaxed and a great way to spend time with friends eating, drinking and hanging out.

          1. re: Silverjay
            JasmineG Oct 22, 2007 10:10 PM

            Thanks so much for these suggestions, that was really helpful. I've seen some of your other posts that talked about how fall is a good eating season in Japan and that made me very excited; I was going to ask what specifically is great in the fall, but you answered that question, thanks. Is there anything else that is particularly good in the fall?

            1. re: JasmineG
              steamer Oct 23, 2007 06:14 AM

              JasmineG
              What is your nearest station in bunkyo ku?

              1. re: steamer
                JasmineG Oct 23, 2007 09:34 AM

                Subway is Sendagi and I'm about ten minutes away from the Nippori train station.

                1. re: JasmineG
                  steamer Oct 23, 2007 05:56 PM

                  I'm not a big fan of that part of town, sorry can't offer any suggestions.

                  1. re: steamer
                    JasmineG Oct 23, 2007 07:14 PM

                    Well, we're planning to go all over town, since I've definitely seen that the good eats and things to do are elsewhere, but I'm glad that people have given me a few backups for my first night where I may be too tired to go elsewhere.

                    1. re: JasmineG
                      l
                      lost squirrel Oct 23, 2007 07:28 PM

                      Not so related to eating, but there is a nice walking tour from Nippori to Nishi Nippori that involves some nice temples and shrines.

                      There is a map and explanation in the Lonely Planet Japan book. I tried it a few months ago and had a nice time.

            2. re: Silverjay
              Robb S Oct 22, 2007 10:16 PM

              Bikkuri Sushi lived up to their name when they overcharged me outrageously one time, so I've never been back. I'd recommend Kakiya Sushi, just across from Harajuku station, for very good quality conveyor-belt sushi.

              1. re: Robb S
                steamer Oct 23, 2007 06:18 AM

                I got the same thing at Bikkuri in Ebisu, if I remember correctly the big surprise is that they charge for one piece an amount you would normally pay for 2 pieces. What an aptly named place.

            3. Silverjay Oct 21, 2007 09:11 PM

              I recommend doing a certain amount of due diligence before you embark on your adventure every day in terms of destination and items to order. Regarding maps, if you can hit up a large book store in Japan, some of the maps you can buy will have icons for the ubiquitous convenience stores and these are great landmarks when you're trying to navigate the city. The Google Japan map function also has the icons as well, so you might want to play around there. There's really no solution to the language barrier, but you should at least carry some kind of phrasebook or resource with common food translations. Honestly, the cheaper the place the less likely there will be English menus or English spoken. And the best people to hit up for help would be businessmen in suits.

              If you've done some research, why don't you post your tentative itinerary. You may be able to get more specific advice on ordering, as well as directions.

              11 Replies
              1. re: Silverjay
                JasmineG Oct 21, 2007 11:59 PM

                I have a phrasebook with food translations, but since the characters are so foriegn to me, I don't anticipate being able to quickly compare the book to a menu in a useful way. I don't really mind non English menus as long as I won't be looked at funny or be seen as rude for just pointing at what someone else is eating. Thanks for the advice on the maps, I'll look out for those, and I know that my friend who now lives there has one (he just moved there a few months ago, so he doesn't really know how to get around much yet).

                Here are some restaurants that I have on my list, which I've gotten mostly from this board, bento.com, and some guidebooks: Daiwa Sushi; Keika Kumamoto Ramen, Tsunahachi, Chuka Soba Suzuran, Kyushu, Gomaya, Kaikaya -- all in Shibuya; Ichiran ramen in Roppingi; Hiroba, Maisen, Fujimamas -- all in Harajuku; the Gyoza stadium; Kyunei in Ginza (for lunch); Din Tai Fung for dim sum; Ueno Yabu Soba; Daikokuya in Asakusa; Teyandei in Nishi-Azabo. Any feedback about any of these places is welcomed, as are suggestions for places to eat in the Ueno area, since that's relatively near where I'll be staying, and other sushi places that won't break the bank (other than the department stores, which are also on my list). Thanks for your response.

                1. re: JasmineG
                  t
                  taryn Oct 22, 2007 12:02 AM

                  definitely go to the dpeartment stores! here is a link with an english map for kaikaya: http://www.kaikaya.com/

                  1. re: JasmineG
                    l
                    lost squirrel Oct 22, 2007 01:05 AM

                    Kaikaya - has english menu
                    Ichiran - english menu
                    Fujimamas - definitely English friendly
                    Gyoza Stadium - no english needed, you can just point at pictures of the gyoza at each stand (I think, it's been awhile since I've been back)
                    Din Tai Fung - either English menu or pictures, I can't remember.

                    Sorry I can't be of more help but those are the only places I've been on your list.

                    1. re: lost squirrel
                      JasmineG Oct 22, 2007 09:20 AM

                      Would you recommend those places, though?

                      1. re: JasmineG
                        l
                        lost squirrel Oct 22, 2007 08:00 PM

                        I'd recommend Gyoza Stadium, it's just cool and there is a nice (although expensive) aquarium in the same building, lots of fish local to Tokyo Bay.

                        Din Tai Fung didn't really wow me, it's just expensive dumplings.

                        Fujimamas - I've only been for the Thanksgiving dinner and it was good, but I was dying for american food.

                        Ichiran is good, although I like other places better. I prefer meatier noodles over Ichiran's thinner ones.

                        Never been to Kaikaya but I really want to try it soon.

                        1. re: lost squirrel
                          JasmineG Oct 22, 2007 08:38 PM

                          Can you recommend places that have the meatier noodles that you prefer?

                          Thanks, and I was excited about Gyoza Stadium from the moment that I heard that it existed, so I'm glad that it's as cool as it seems. I

                          1. re: JasmineG
                            Silverjay Oct 22, 2007 09:42 PM

                            Suzuran, which is in your list above, has very good wide and flat noodles totally different from Ichiran's Hakata style.

                    2. re: JasmineG
                      t
                      taryn Oct 22, 2007 01:24 AM

                      Also, I forgot to mention, I would skip Fujimamas. It is pretty over priced and I've always been disappointed there. Yabu soba in Kanda has an english menu which is strangely more detailed than the Japanese menu, but I'm not sure about Ueno.
                      http://www.bento.com/rev/1296.html

                      1. re: taryn
                        JasmineG Oct 22, 2007 09:20 AM

                        Thanks for the help, I was a little unsure about Fujimamas.

                      2. re: JasmineG
                        kamiosaki Oct 23, 2007 04:02 AM

                        If you are staying in Bunkyo-ku then there is one ramen/tsukemen shop "Tetsu" in Nishi-Nippori, about 10 minutes from the JR station, that has received a lot of positive press lately. I have eaten there recently and while you may wait for 30 minutes or so, it is definitely worth it. The below link has a review and maps to get there:

                        http://www.ramentokyo.com/2007/09/tetsunishinippori-tetsu.html

                        Also, a useful site that a contact of mine is developing is http://www.diddlefinger.com This site is useful for visitors to Japan or those who don't speak Japanese as it allows you to put in a Japanese address in "romanji", or the English spelling/transliteration, and based on Google Maps technology it will show you the location on a map, along with some limited English labels (more are being added every day).

                        Have fun.

                        1. re: kamiosaki
                          JasmineG Oct 23, 2007 09:40 AM

                          Thanks, those are both really helpful bits of information!

                    3. Robb S Oct 20, 2007 10:40 PM

                      This thread has a recommendation for a kaiseki restaurant in your price range: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/336168 .

                      Unfortunately Tokyo isn't particularly English-friendly compared to tourist destinations in Europe, and accosting strangers for help in English is really only a last-resort option. However, a good bilingual map will help a great deal with your confidence in getting around. Shobunsha makes an okay one, but there may be better ones out there.

                      You can usually find a detailed street map (in Japanese) inside or in front of train and subway stations, which you can then match up with the names on your bilingual map. Also, all the restaurants listed on Bento.com have (Japanese) maps, which you can print out.

                      Tokyo addresses follow a top-down scheme: for example if you have an address like Shibuya 1-2-3, the "1" is the section of Shibuya (called a chome), the "2" means block #2 within Shibuya 1-chome, and the "3" is the building number on that block. There's often a building name as well, which can be very helpful. And don't forget to bring the restaurant phone number with you - that's saved me on many occasions.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Robb S
                        l
                        lost squirrel Oct 21, 2007 08:30 PM

                        Robb is correct with the maps, once you figure out how to use them it's not so hard to find places in Tokyo.

                        When I first moved here, I did lots of pointing at menus and I only had a few bad experiences. In fact, I got really lucky sometimes. Good luck!

                      2. jbyoga Oct 20, 2007 07:56 PM

                        wow - I'm so jealous! You are gonna have a great time!

                        So, I was in Japan somewhat recently and I found that Tokyo is fairly English friendly...although, the best food is likely served where English isn't on the menu or spoken much...My advice....look for younger Japanese as they may speak English well enough to help you should you become lost and any large hotel will have English speaking staff.
                        If you have no allergies/dietary restrictions then I'd have someone write on a card for you ' please make me whatever your specialty of the house is' and get ready to eat really well! In my experience, you can eat GREAT for $10US for lunch and dinner...well the sky is the limit....try not to eat in your hotel as that is $$$$ - get out and explore!

                        Also, the Japanese have coffee down to a science - look for Doutor(sp?) and don't miss the great green tea and red bean sundaes (really) at Hagen Daz.

                        Also, don;t miss Tokyo Hands for the most incredibly bizarre selection of everything and anything - including any crazy kitchen implement you have ever though of. Great kitchen section and likely the best place to but a ceramic knife. Check out the 100 yen store too - kinda like a really crazy dollar store. And lastly - www.engrish.com

                        Have a great time!!! And some tempure udon soup for me!

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: jbyoga
                          Robb S Oct 20, 2007 11:05 PM

                          >the best food is likely served where English isn't on the menu or spoken much

                          I don't know where you got that idea. Tokyo is hardly some tourist spot in Southeast Asia where your choice is between the tourist trap with English menus and the real, authentic restaurants where the natives go.

                          I can't imagine any restaurant in Tokyo staying in business because of foreign tourists. Restaurants that go to the trouble of making an English-language menu do it for the convenience of their foreign customers and their non-English-speaking waitstaff, and if they've gone to that trouble, then they're likely to get other things right too.

                          If you don't read Japanese, being able to use an English menu will generally result in a more interesting and rewarding dining experience, where you're more likely to find what you want rather than simply ordering at random. I'd never suggest limiting oneself to restaurants with English menus, but if you do find one then you're in luck - it's certainly not a negative thing.

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