TOKYO -- Eel, pig, weeds from seaSeason Tokyo's full plateFood world's new sumo
Globe-trotting gourmands deserve a reward — One perfect soba noodle from Okina? An order of salted squid guts from Toki no Ma? — for even attempting to tackle this city's Godzilla-sized, peculiar and wholly zen-sational dining scene.
An easier task would be to work a Sudoku puzzle in ink while nursing a third shochu cocktail.
France's Michelin Guide, arbiter of elite eating for the Western world, tried to chop-stick Tokyo down to manageable proportions last fall in its first survey of an Asian capital. It put food fans everywhere on high alert after it awarded 150 of the city's restaurants an unprecedented total of 191 stars, leaving Paris' eateries with their combined 95 stars a far distant second.
Though Michelin whetted appetites for the cream of the expense-account restaurants, it didn't scratch the vast underbelly that sustains and entertains the 13 million food-obsessed residents here. Tokyo offers about 160,000 places to eat — six times more than greater New York — and more than a dozen distinct dining genres, from street food to formal kaiseki, with tempura, sushi, soba noodles, tonkatsu (breaded deep-fried pork), yakitori,unagi (grilled eel) and izakaya pub fare in between. Each style has its own devotees, mystique and must-visit destinations.
Foreign-cuisine restaurants — Tokyo's chefs prepare some of the best French and Italian food in the world, and international superstars Gordon Ramsay, Alain Ducasse, Joel Robuchon and Pierre Gagnaire have outposts here — is another overstuffed genre unto itself.
"It can all become a bit of a whirlwind," says Mark Robinson, a cookbook writer and editor who was reared in Australia but has lived in Tokyo for the past 20 years. "It's only in the West that we think the Japanese eat sushi every day. It's just not so."
Unlike in other dining capitals, where there tends to be general agreement on the top handful of places, "there is very little hierarchy of restaurants here," says Charles Spreckley, a U.K. native and resident of 10 years who creates custom culinary tours for Bespoke Tokyo. "There are just too many, they're too diverse and you can't compare them. And everyone has a completely different list of favorites."
Westerners who come to sample for the first time face other challenges beyond the blizzard of choices. Some of the most interesting restaurants are hidden in the bowels of anonymous office towers or on back streets that may have no name. There may be only a small sign marking the entrance, and it probably will be in Japanese.
"The way to impress visitors is not to take them to a Michelin place but to a place with 10 seats that they'll never find again," says Robb Satterwhite, a New Yorker who has lived here for 20-plus years and publishes the bento.com food website.
Even if one has an address, Tokyo's numbering system is quirky, and a consultation with a cabby and a concierge can involve long discussions, printouts, and extensive programming of GPS devices.
Upon arrival, diners may have to cope with a staff that speaks little or no English and perhaps a chef who is less than thrilled with outsiders. "Chefs are not worried about being famous. They just want to cook for their friends," Spreckley says. "They may not want foreigners because it becomes more difficult to accommodate them."
Once the menu is presented, the strange and often thrilling journey outside the comfort zone begins. Though Japanese cuisine is based on the familiar — rice, noodles, soups, tofu, fish, livestock — it also appears to embrace most of the other creatures that inhabit the region, with the exception of Hello Kitty. About 450 types of seafood are sold at the city's Tsukiji fish market, the main restaurant supplier, and chefs aren't shy about serving up their odder parts, such as abalone liver, fugu fins and those squid guts.
"One of the interesting things about living in Japan is that you end up eating things you have no idea what it is, so you just have to go with it," Spreckley says. "As long as you view it as a constant adventure, it can be fun. Things change all the time."
What doesn't change is the near-certainty that the fare will be impeccably fresh, prepared with maniacal precision and served only at the peak of its season.
"The Japanese are always known for authentic food," says Alsace native Freddy Schmidt, executive chef of the Conrad Tokyo hotel. "They never make things they don't know. There is not really a bad place here because quality is so important to survival."
The price for that quality doesn't have to be astronomical, though it can be: Multi-course meals at top kaiseki restaurants cost $200 to $300 or more per person excluding beverages. But in general, a well-made $5 bowl of ramen noodle soup from a street vendor is as legitimate and satisfying an expression of the dining scene as a $150 cut of Kobe beef.
"You can eat better more cheaply here than in any other developed cities," says Robinson, whose new Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook (Kodansha, $25) profiles several popular restaurants that offer affordable eclectic fare.
So how does an intrepid, budget-conscious chowhound cut through the confusion?
Local food fans recommend that first-timers stay at a hotel with a concierge service. A good concierge will have a firm grasp on dining options and can make reservations and steer cabbies in the right direction. Start building a list with a Michelin-starred restaurant to see what the high-end is all about. But also pick the brains of chefs and recent visitors and consult Tokyo-specific websites to compile suggestions for a variety of dining experiences.
A tour should include stops at some of these types of restaurants (prices reflect the approximate cost of a typical meal for one person, exclusive of drinks):
Reserve the bulk of your dining dollars (and a couple hours of your time) for a multi-course parade of rare and exquisite ingredients, usually brilliantly conceived and artistically presented. This is formal Japanese dining at its zenith. Suggestions: Kanda (3-6-34 Moto-Azabu, Minato-ku, $200); and Kitcho, in the Hotel Seiyo Ginza, (1-11-2 Ginza, Chou-ku; $250).
The difference between the battered-and-fried fish and produce served in America and the airy, lacy versions served in Tokyo's best tempura emporiums is vast. Here, it's an art form. Suggestion: Yama no Ue tempura bar at the Hilltop Hotel (1-1 Surugadai, Kanda Chiyoda-ku; yamanoue-hotel.co.jp; $60).
Snacking on a charcoal-grilled skewer of chicken meat or organs and washing it down with beer or sake is a cherished after-work ritual, best practiced in a tiny, rustic, diner-like space. Suggestion: Morimoto (1F Hamanoue Building, 2-7-4 Dogenzaka, Shibuya; $6).
Thin buckwheat-flour noodles, served hot in broth or cold with dipping sauces, are perhaps the quintessential Japanese dish. Some restaurants specialize in them and command an almost religious following. Suggestion: Kawakami-An (3-14-1 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku; $28).
Robinson refers to the fare at these casual, convivial pubs as a "distillation of Japanese cuisine": small plates of sashimi (including horse); fried, grilled and simmered foods; hot pots; noodles; pickles; and snacks. Some newer places adopt a gourmet approach. Beverages — beer, sake, shochu— remain the foundation, however. Suggestions: Maru (B1F Aoyama KT Building, 5-50-8 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, maru-mayfont.jp; $30); Tetsugen (1-2-8 Ebisu-Minami; $15); and Toki no Ma (2F Conze Ebisu, 2-3-14 Ebisu-Minami, $40).
When visiting the Tsukiji fish market, stop at one of the numerous street-side stalls (mobile units are called yatai) for a taste of Japanese comfort food. You'll find tempura and yakitori, but ramen is king: a soup of noodles, pork slices and scallions in a miso broth or salty fish stock. Suggestion: Inoeramen noodle stand along Shin-Ohashi Dori, run by Katsu Matsuoka ($6).
A visitor could spend serious money on rare species and elaborate presentations at elite sushi restaurants. (Sukiyabashi Jiro and Sushi Mizutani get Michelin's highest rating.) But fish doesn't get fresher than the sashimi served for breakfast and lunch at the tiny sushi bars near Tsukiji fish market. Suggestion: Iwasa Sushi (Tsukiji Market Part 1 Bldg., 5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku; $20).
Start with these, rest your bones at a tea ceremony (the Imperial Hotel Tokyo has a touristy one), and then realize that there are only 159,990 places to go.