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Tokyo Trip Report: April 2010

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Hi Chowhounders-

I'm just back from 10 days in Tokyo, and since I used Chowhound a good bit on my trip planning, I wanted to post a trip report. I know it was a real challenge to me to sort through the overabundance of information...hopefully this will help other non-locals with their food planning for their trips!

I was there for quite a long time...sorry about the length of the post. A few notes-
(1) I am not including breakfasts, which were generally at one of the many excellent bakeries scattered everywhere in Tokyo
(2) I am also not including cafes and bars where we might have stopped for a drink or coffee or snack -- although, again, there are many good ones pretty much anywhere; and
(3) I don't eat seafood at all, so this is a somewhat skewed list since it is probably much lighter on sushi than most visitors' lists.

Please feel free to shoot me a note if you have any questions or would like any more information about any of these places. I also have some pictures on my blog (boothb.vox.com), but you'll have to wade through some vacation photos to get to the food pics.

SATURDAY
Dinner - we didn't arrive in Tokyo until Saturday night, so tired and slightly disoriented we let my in-laws (who live there) make the dinner choice. We ended up at a small izakaya that I'm afraid I don't know the name of -- it is located next to the Gonpachi in Roppongi -- it was a nice choice for a Saturday night, since it wasn't crowded at all. We badly overordered from among the 50 or so small plate options. All were good, though none were amazing. I didn't see the final bill, but the individual dishes were all in the Y200-Y500 range.

SUNDAY
Lunch - went to Maisen in Harajuku, which is a venerable Tonkatsu place located in a former public bath, a couple of blocks north of the Omotesando Metro. I've had Tonkatsu many times in the US, but it didn't prepare me for how outstanding this was -- absolutely delicious! They have an English menu, which I'd recommend if you don't speak Japanese -- there are very small distinctions between the different meat options that the pictures will not explain. I had a donburi with their "black pork" (kurobuta) for about US$12, my wife had the multicourse lunch set plate which was about US$15. Whenever you see kurobuta, I'd recommend it, it's a little fattier than you would usually find in the US (like most Japanese meats) but it tastes great.

Dinner - I love Okonomiyaki; it used to be almost impossible to find in the US, though recently here in Seattle some places have been opening...but I was still happy to get back for the real thing. I learned to like it in Kyoto, so wanted to find the Kansai version, as opposed to the local Tokyo Monjayaki. We ended up at Botejyu, an Osaka-based chain with a location in the hard to find "Subnade" shopping area of Shinjuku Station. I had a pork & kimchee version, while my wife had something stranger with lots of veggies (sorry, I didn't write down the name). Each was about Y1,000. The pork & kimchee version was very good. Note- unlike most okonomiyaki, you don't cook your own at this one, it came out pre-grilled.

MONDAY
Breakfast- This is the only breakfast I want to call out -- this day we went to the Tsukiji fish market. In traditional fashion, we showed up *early*, wandered around and dodged carts for a while, and then retired to the row of sushi restaurants on the back side of the market for a fresh breakfast. There is a group of maybe 2-3 sushi places and a couple of non-sushi places actually inside the market complex (which is different from the many places just outside near the Metro station). None had English names...I can recommend the one kind of in the middle with orange in its window based on my wife's review: for about Y3000, the set menu was as good as what she's paid $200+ for in Seattle. Since I wasn't eating sushi, they kicked me out and I had very good pork curry at the friendly curry place next door (about Y500).

Lunch- Monday we were in Gotemba visiting family, so no Tokyo lunch to report. FWIW, we had good Udon at a place near the Gotemba Train Station.

Dinner- We got back late and tired, so wanted to find something near our station (Shinjuku). We ended up going to Khomen in Kabukicho for ramen. I *love* real Japanese ramen, so was excited to finally get some. Khomen is a local chain, and actually has such refinements as waiters and menus in English (!). We both had the Kyushu-style Tonkatsu ramen. It was quite good, though not as good as some of the independent places we tried later in our trip. Very filling with a nice porky flavor. Why can't places in North America seem to get this flavor right? Afraid to use enough pork fat? My wife got the "painful" spicy version, which wasn't really very hot. About Y900-1,000 per bowl.

TUESDAY
Lunch- It was raining Tuesday, so we were looking for something indoors to do, thought we'd try to go to Ikebukuro and go to Gyoza Stadium, but somehow got crossways on our plans and ended up at Han, a "Japanese" place in the Lumen dept store food court. We had some kind of beef stew in a hot pot (no English menu was available, so we were pointing at pictures). It was good, filling, and a decent deal for how nice the restaurant was, about Y1200.

Dinner- Back to the pork! We went to Butagumi, a Tonkatsu specialty shop in Roppongi, maybe a block south of the Aoyama cemetery. This place is fairly well known; on a Tuesday it was almost full when we arrived at 8. I would highly recommend this restaurant! It had a long detailed pork menu, where you could select from about 30 different types of pork from various provinces, plus a couple of high end cuts imported from abroad. Their specialty is the Iberico pork from Spain. They would then turn your choice into yummy Tonkatsu. I ordered one of the mid-range porks (about Y3000, so not cheap) and thought it was about the best thing I had ever put into my mouth, until I tried the Iberico from my wife's sampler (Y3800), which was amazing! An entire serving of the Iberico will set you back about Y5000, but the sampler is not a bad way to go. The pieces all come out with little flags from their provinces of origin, which is kind of cool. This place isn't cheap, but it's very, very good.

WEDNESDAY
Lunch- From reading this site, we had seen recommendations for Kururi for ramen. I'm glad we went -- this may have been the best ramen I have ever eaten. Kururi is on the north side of Sotobori Dori, the road that runs along the north side of the Imperial Palace (along the old moat) -- it's on a direct line between the Ichagaya and Iidabashi metro stations (slightly closer to Ichagaya). There's no outside signage in English, but there are almost always people waiting outside. You wait in line until you get to the front, then when someone leaves, you enter and buy your ticket from the machine just inside the door. There's no English or pictures on the machine. I can recommend anything on the top row of buttons. You then give your ticket to the guy behind the bar, and he steers you into one of the 10 or so seats when it's your turn. The ramen is Miso style, but very thick and meaty, not really like Miso soup. It was AWESOME. The place is dead silent. Because there is always a line, people plunk down and slurp as rapidly as the boiling hot soup will allow, so they can clear out to let someone else in. So no savoring, really, but an absolutely delicious quick hit of killer ramen. I can't recommend enough.

Dinner- We were full from our late lunch of ramen, but had reservations at Bird Land, the well-regarded Yakitori. Bird Land is in the basement of the Tsukamoto Sozan Building, if you take the Metro to the Ginza station, the building has it's own exit, and then the restaurant is right outside the exit...I'm not sure how you'd find it from the street. It is well visited by foreign foodies, so there is a lot of ink in English on the internet if you need more information. Don't get it confused with the jazz club of the same name! Like all Yakitori places, they serve almost exclusively bits of chicken grilled in inventive ways. The specialty is to get the Omikase, which is "chef's choice". For Y6000, you sit at the bar for about 2 hours, while the chef gradually delivers pretty much every part of a chicken to you on a skewer. The skewers ranged from sublime (the liver and heart) to a little gross (the skin). It's pricy, but a fun experience, and you definitely leave full. They have an English menu, but if you are doing Omikase, it doesn't really matter, you just kind of get a bunch of stuff.

THURSDAY
Lunch - We went to Mitaka for the Ghibbli Museum, and had hoped to stop in Settagaya on the way back to go to Bosa Nova for more ramen. Unfortunately, it was closed, and looked VERY closed. Did it go out of business? Regardless, I can tell you it is not open for lunch on a Thursday around 1pm! It was pouring rain again, so we ended up seeking food back in the Shinjuku Station, and ended up at the food court atop Takashemaya Times Square, where we had noodles and Doria at an Italian-ish place. I'm sad to say I can't remember the name. It was pretty good, but it was hard to get excited, given my heart had been set on ramen.

Dinner- My brother in law works at the Shangri-la Hotel (next to Tokyo Station), and hooked us up with dinner at the Teppanyaki there in their high end Nadama restaurant. Wow! We hung at the grill while the chef grilled piece after piece of delicious food. My wife had the lobster (her report: awesome) and I had the steak (my report: maybe the best restaurant steak I have ever had!); both were accompanied by a variety of grilled meats, veggies, etc. in the build up to the main course. Although the portions are relatively small compared to American steak houses, the meat is very rich, and I definitely did not leave hungry. Very, very good, though no doubt very expensive. If you get a chance to have high end Teppanyaki in Tokyo, I recommend it based on this experience. I can also definitely recommend the restaurant we went to.

FRIDAY
Lunch- More ramen! Stinging from our ramen disaster at Basa the day before, we went to Ikaruga today -- from Kudanshita Metro, head north on the big street for the exit 2 stop lights, then turn right, and it's right there on the right side of the street. This is shio-style ramen, and on the niceness scale sits somewhere between Kururi and Khomen -- you still have to order from a machine, but you get to sit at a table and someone brings your bowl to you. They are known for their "garlic" ramen, which has minimal soup but is abundantly seasoned with chunks of ramen and pork, it tastes a little like a Japanese carbonara. It was very, very good. On the ordering machine, we had to figure out the kanji for garlic to order -- I'd recommend the rightmost button on the top row. This was almost as good as Kururi, which makes it the second best ramen I've ever had. Highly recommended.

Dinner- we had baseball tickets this night, so we had dinner at the Tokyo Dome. Like American baseball stadiums, they have hamburgers, hot dogs, and other junk food. Unlike American baseball stadiums, they also have curry (which I had), Takoyaki (which my wife had), and bento boxes. I won't say the curry was especially amazing, but it was OK, and anyway better than a ballpark hot dog. BTW, if you have any interest at all in baseball, a game is highly recommended.

SATURDAY
Lunch- More ramen! This time we tried Negi, in Shibuya. Negi is a local chain, and each of their restaurants does a different style of ramen. Their Shibuya store does Kyushu style, which is the porky tonkatsu style. The place is small but signed in English; if you walk east from the station on the street with the elevated highway running down the middle to the first major intersection, then turn right, it's on the left on the first block. Friendly place, the menu is only Japanese but the staff speaks some English. Business was slow and relaxed when we went. I thought the ramen was OK, but honestly a bit of a let-down after the three great places we had already been.

Dinner- For my wife's last meal in Tokyo, we decided to try Monjayaki. Okonomiyaki is kind of the pizza of Japan, and there are significant regional variations, with Osaka and Hiroshima representing the major poles of the traditional style (the New York and New Haven, maybe). Tokyo has a third style (let's call them the Chicago Pizza of okonomiyaki) called Monjayaki; in Tokyo, places that sell one typically sell the other. We ended up at Honjin in Kabukicho -- it's on the 7th floor of the Komatsu Building, which is next to Don Quixote (I'm not sure how else to describe the location). There are at least two other okonomiyaki places in the same building! You order from an extensive menu (somewhat translated on their English menu) and then the bowls of batter appear for you to cook on your tabletop grill. We had a traditional pork okonomiyaki and a mixed ingredient monjayaki. Note that you don't cook them the same way, ask for help with the monjayaki if you've never done it before (they are used to clueless tourists). Neither was amazing, but both were good, and the place was fun and very rowdy. This is a great, really local experience, so I'd definitely recommend trying one of the many okonomiyaki places while you are in Tokyo.

SUNDAY
I was working Sunday, so didn't really make it out.

MONDAY
Lunch- One last ramen run -- this time to Gogyo in Roppongi. The location is a little hard to describe, except to say that it is across the street from an American military barracks, and near Aoyama cemetary. Gogyo is known for it's distinctive "burnt ramen" -- they torch the oil at the top to give the ramen a burnt tasting "skin", which also keeps the soup very hot below the oil. I won't say I liked it as much as the other places, but it is definitely distinctive. The restaurant itself is very nice, with table service and a full English menu, and I suspect given the military base across the street, they are used to dealing with people who don't speak Japanese.

Dinner- Finally tried the infamous Gonpachi izakaya. The roppongi location was allegedly the inspiration for the restaurant in Kill Bill (where the big fight takes place). I went to the Ginza location, however, which is a humungous many-room complex stuck under an elevated freeway, with multiple restaurants. We went with the izakaya room...it was slow on a Monday night, but would anyway take a huge crowd to fill this very big room. There were several rowdy work groups in the private rooms surrounding the main restaurant. Typical izakaya, lots food on skewers. It was tasty, though no particular item stands out in my mind. After our first beer refills, the restaurant took it upon themselves to start refilling our glasses whenever they got low (and later charging us for it). Not cheap, for two was about US$140, but everything was pretty good.

--

Sorry for the looong posting. In closing:
1) It's almost impossible to get a bad meal in Tokyo; and
2) East more ramen.

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  1. Great trip report- you ate very well and managed to do so very reasonably price-wise. Congrats! I don't think I do much better and I'm local :)

    Basanova is open- 2 friends and I went there last night. Very good ramen. Highly recommended.