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Tokyo visit -- a few questions

Greetings all,

I will be visiting from San Francisco in mid March and am looking forward to five days in Tokyo with a day trip to Kamakura.

I'll be with my fourteen year old daughter, and the two of us are seasoned and adventurous diners. We hope to sample a variety of not-too-precious but excellent restaurants and particularly enjoy casual dining.

While I am interested in suggestions for specific restaurants (see more info about neighborhoods below), I'm perhaps more curious about what approach you suggest for the Tokyo dining scene. I like the idea of not making lots of reservations but instead finding good places as we go. That will leave us free to decide timing, location, etc. as we navigate the city. Is it possible to follow the crowds and find excellent food?

If not, should I assemble a list of places in the neighborhoods we are likely to visit? We are staying in Shinjuku but will be exploring a great deal of the city, including Ginza, Chiyoda, Shimokitazawa, Asakusa, Omotesando ... Will we need to navigate long lines or find that great restaurants tend to be full?

Thanks in advance for the advice,
Tobias

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  1. If you don't speak Japanese, I highly suggest you take the time to do some research and make reservations. Even more casual restaurants require reservations for dinner in particular. While you will have access to a lot of different aspects of Japanese cuisine by choosing places that are casual enough to not need reservations, you will be missing out on other styles.

    I don't view don't Tokyo in particular as a "follow the crowds" type of destination, aside from some very specific genres, particularly ramen. While there are invariably "one dish" or "one style" places (soba, udon, ten-don, unagi) which are well know and which have queues, without knowing where they are in advance, it will be hard find them.

    It is true that the average quality of restaurants in Tokyo is quite (particularly compared to the United States) but it will be very hard for you to access the full range of cuisine without being able to read or speak Japanese if you wander into places, even if they dont' take reservations (again aside from one dish restaurants).

    For most places of mid and higher quality (sushi, washoku/kaiseki etc), even if they are not full they typically only purchase enough ingredients to meet the number of diners which have reserved and may not be able to accommodate you.

    Of course there will be many situations in which you will be able to explore and try random ramen, udon, ten-don, sushi and chirashi shops but ultimately, aside from these your options may be limited and you can likely do better with just a bit of planning. The quality of Japanese food is so much higher that in a place like San Francisco (not surprising) and the ability to have that experience is essential, in my opinion.

    Finally, a lot is made by some people about how far away certain neighborhoods are or wanting to find places near the areas which you will be visiting. I find the train system so easy to use and relatively fast that it's rarely ever a consideration. Typically, you are never more than 20-25 min away from any locations inside the Yamanote train line circle.

    2 Replies
    1. re: tigerjohn

      Well, I was inclined to just wing it, but I'm now convinced that I need to put together the kind of google map a few of you suggested.

      I'm wondering (though I recognize it's a lot to ask!) if you Tokyo Hounds would be willing to help me do so. I've created a blank shared map here: https://mapsengine.google.com/map/edi...

      I hope I'm not running afoul of some Chowhound rule in asking others to help me with this.

      Lunch spots in the following neighborhoods would be much appreciated:
      Asakusa
      Ginza
      Harajuku/Aoyama
      Ueno
      Near Edo-Tokyo Museum
      Near Mori Art Museum
      Near Imperial Palace

      Dinners can be more far flung, as we tend to rest in the afternoon and don't mind hopping the metro to dine, but we are staying in Shinjuku, so nearby restaurants would be much appreciated.

      1. re: Tobias

        Just to clarify my initial comments that although I think it's important to a) have list of places as potential targets ahead of time, and b) make reservations at some point, you can make reservations for most place just a few days ahead (even 1 day ahead in some cases). You don't need to have all of your meals lined up weeks before the trip unless you want to go high end or you want to dine at the few trending midrange restaurants that are currently popular.

        Two ramen places in the shinjuku area covered here before are Fu-unji (chicken based tsukemen) and Gonokami-seisakujo (shrimp based).

    2. I think your proposed approach can work.

      CH attracts a lot of posters intent on eating the very best sushi, beef etc and/ or at a very specific list of places, an approach which necessarily imposes a lot of discipline in terms of planning and reservations, since many of these places have very limited spots. But this is only one of many ways to enjoy the extremely diverse and highly-developed food scene in Tokyo.

      Some things to look out for :

      : Few restaurants have visible street frontage from which you can take your cue about crowds, quality or style of cuisine. Most up-market restaurants have only the most discreet entrances and few cheap/ mid-market places can afford a ground floor street front - many will be tucked into basements or up narrow stairs. I'd recommend identifying some back-up eating options in each neighbourhood when you figure out your day's sight-seeing programme - bento.com with its listings by neighbourhood is good for this (or get a data-plan with a local carrier to look it up on the spot). If you see something better while on the go, you can have that instead.

      : Some neighbourhoods are better than others for specific things eg. Ginza and Shinjuku are great for department stores and their multi-level restaurant floors but smaller restos will be hard to spot at street-level, Omotesando and Shimokita are probably not so good for straight-up washoku, Asakusa is a reasonable bet for walking into well-established places with a long operating history and/ or a bit of local pride in what they do.

      : Most major department stores will have a restaurant floor, a good option for lunch or a low-pressure dinner. There's usually a good mix of specialist local foods (curry, grilled foods, Okinawan, sushi, ramen, soba, etc) plus a couple of non-Japanese options and a café. These are full-service sit-down restaurants, typically with well-priced lunch specials and queues at the better-regarded outlets (seating often provided for the wait). The resto floor is usually at the top of the building (not to be confused with the food hall where upmarket groceries and prepared foods are sold to be taken home, usually located in the basement). Times Square in Shinjuku has a good one with two and a half floors of restaurants, including the Tokyo branch of Breizh cafe of Cancale/ Paris, to give you an idea of the variety. I myself like Misen, which does elegant washoku with a beautiful day-time view of Shinjuku park.

      : Do note that dinner is eaten early-ish, particularly in traditional places. Showing up early in an attempt to get a place at a popular spot means before 6 pm and many 'family style' places start winding down by 9 pm, while izakaya/ places with a bit more of a drinking crowd will stay busy until late.

      : If you want to eat in a specific restaurant for a specific food, then by all means get your hotel to make a reservation. They are absolutely required for many of the sushi/ beef/ kaiseki specialists which come up frequently on this board. Below this level though, reserving 1 - 2 days ahead works fine, or 2 - 3 days ahead for a Friday/ Saturday evening, at least for my own rotating list of favourites (best described as somewhat upmarket izakaya or bistro-style places). No reservations at all is often ok as well - actually, I often call just before heading over (or rather my hotel or office calls) and this works fine, although we might have to make 1 or 2 calls.

      1. Recommend researching several dining options for each neighborhood you plan to visit and creating a google map with push pins. It's a good idea to reserve for a Friday night, but other nights there should be plenty of good options if it is just two of you and you do not want to lock yourself into plans......Plenty of good washoku restaurants in Shimokitazawa......If you do make a reservation, give yourself plenty of time. Train travel can be a short time but the idiosyncratic address system can be confusing when locating a place on the ground. Can't overstress the recommendation to have a phone with gps and mapping.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Silverjay

          "google map with push pins"
          This is essential. Also, I recommend looking at the street view in Google Maps for potential dining locations, so you can better orient yourself once you get on the block.

        2. It's so nice to see someone else who doesn't feel the need to pre-book every single meal slot of their entire meal before they even leave home!

          I agree with the suggestions to do some research in advance and create a personal Google map with pins showing dining options of interest.

          I'm guessing you've already started planning the kinds of things you want to see and do, given your list of neighbourhoods above, and that's definitely wise. If you can group your various interests into areas of Tokyo, it lets you spend more time seeing and doing and less time travelling between.

          As well as specific restaurants, you could include in your map the locations of some of the larger department stores (their restaurant floors are great - it's not at all like eating in a shopping mall in the UK or the US, in my experience).

          For sushi, I enjoyed my meal at Sushi Zanmai, a small chain with a number of Tokyo locations. It's obviously not at the level of the top sushi restaurants, of which there are many, but it's still very good and really excellent value. And it's way beyond the quality of sushi I can easily find in London, for sure.

          For katsu, I did enjoy our visit to Maisen (we went to the Jingumae branch) but I actually think KatsuKura is better, a very small Kyoto chain which I understand now has a presence in Tokyo. I'd also have loved to try Butagumi, which is very highly recommended, but I just didn't have time.

          For ramen, I'd make a note of the location of any of the recommended places and see which you are near at the time, though unless you and your daughter are real ramen aficionados, you may not be as worried about queueing for the very best places. I know Ippudo has a branch near Tokyo Station, as we bookmarked it for our trip in October, but didn't make it there. There are, I know, many threads on Tokyo's best ramen-ya that you could peruse here.

          For yakitori, my husband and I met some local friends at Zenyaren, a large basement restaurant which gathers on one menu regional yakitori from 7 yakitori restaurants across Japan. It's a fun place to go and the food was decent and the staff friendly.

          For tempura, I liked Tsunahachi Honten near Shinjuku. The lunch sets are a good deal, we didn't go for dinner. We asked for a counter seat so we could watch the chefs at work. Here's a blog post with some pics: http://www.kaveyeats.com/2012/11/temp...

          Hope you have a wonderful visit.

          6 Replies
          1. re: Kavey

            Sushi Zanmai is not a small chain and imho serves very poor quality sushi. You only need some minimal advance planning to do better than that. Same for the other recommendations for chains with dozens or hundreds of branches, which is where the carefree attitude seems to land you.

            1. re: Gargle

              I will disagree here - many chain restaurants in Tokyo serve very good food, and can provide good value for money thanks to economies of scale and their purchasing power.

              I don't think most people would say that Sushi Zanmai "serves very poor quality sushi" - many of their branches are rated rather highly, and they provide decent value, although obviously at their price point they're not serving extreme-high-end fish.

              As for the other chain recommendations, I think Katsukura serves very good tonkatsu. I prefer Butagumi and Horaitei, but I'm happy to eat at Katsukura if there's one nearby. And Ippudo is a very good ramen choice for someone who's not a ramen maniac and doesn't want to travel to an out-of-the-way location and then stand on line for half an hour.

              I'd agree with the posters above and suggest picking out a few possibilities in each neighborhood, but don't be afraid to change plans, and certainly don't be afraid of chain restaurants - some of them are very good.

              1. re: Robb S

                Ramen is ramen and sushi is sushi.

                Even the best ramen shops are serving what ultimately is noodle soup (a lot of both) for about 1000 yen, and while some are better than others there's a limit to just how much better they can be under those constraints.

                Sushi shops, on the other hand, range from serving farmed fish from some less glorious parts of asia for 100 yen a pop all the way to tuna that's worth its weight in wild wasabi. So I wouldn't make that analogy, or recommend to someone that they opt for a sushi place that tries to put on the impression it buys at Tsukiji.

                I don't know that tabelog is always the best source, but with the exception of the Akiba location, Zanmai scores around 3.00-3.30, which is hard to describe as "rated rather highly". In fact even that one branch ranks at about #800 in Tokyo sushi places, and that includes many that simply don't have enough reviews...

                So, like, why send someone there who is after deliciousness?

                It's like an alternate reality to the one I observe every day where every restaurant that's really good or unique in some way is booked well in advance :)

                1. re: Gargle

                  There is no limitation to the deliciousness of ramen.

                  1. re: Steve

                    Glutamate receptors get saturated. :)

                    1. re: Gargle

                      That's when the ramen receptors kick in....

          2. Hi!
            I'm Japanease lives in Tokyo. I know really good Japanease restrant in Ebisu. (Ebisu station is next to Shibuya.) The name is "Com For Table Ebisu". They don't have a Grand menu because they purches food directly from "Tsukiji Market". So they change their food menu everyday! (Tsukiji is most famous market in Japan. If you go there, you can eat fresh and delicious Sushi at reasonable cost.)
            There are good wine, sake and ofcourse softdrink for your daughter:)
            But take care, this restaurant is not so large.
            (don't worry, small but clean and relly good atmosphire)
            So if you decided to go, call them before you go.
            The manager can speak english a little.
            This is the URL below.
            Have a great time in Tokyo!

            s.tabelog.com/tokyo/A1303/A130302/13147022/