Kerrapp! wish you mentioned this earlier… good deal for future reference
Quick question, you mentioned that it’s always best to call in advance…but you said some of your best food memories come from getting lost and finding local restaurants… I assume you then went straight into these local restaurants without calling? Or do these local restaurants fall into the ramen/cheap spot category?
Ramen/cheap, usually. Some are patisseries/kohi shops (which do not require pre-calls)…
But you know, a friendly “guilty-as-charged” smile has gone a long way in helping me in Japan whenever I’ve walked into a restaurant un-announced.
If you haven’t booked hotels yet and don’t want to spend so much, consider AirBnB apartments. Look for 1) hosts with excellent reviews and ratings (some have certain icons/symbols in their profile that are preferred) 2) communicate with them in advance if they will assist you with restaurant reservations. Be aware that they are not obligated to help and if they do help you, the restaurant may or may not accept their reservation. Might be better off exploring cuisines and neighborhoods off your radar, you may be surprised at what you can find.
Getting lost might be a bit minimal, if you are very good with navigating the streets with your phone’s map app. Better yet, as you pick up your luggage and get into the airport lobby of any major airport in Japan, look for a telecommunications company and rent either a mobile phone with SIM card, or a pocket WiFi router (unlimited usage, and single charge will last you ten hours) and navigate that way. Do bring portable USB batteries (one for the router, one for the phone), or use only one depending on which drains juice faster. Google Maps will give you directions for subway/where to change trains, or if close enough, walking directions. Bookmark as many random places for your favorite cuisine (even cafe’s, patisseries, shops, department stores etc) and look them up depending on where you are, then explore on foot after getting off the nearest subway station. Tabelog English site is an excellent source…especially when you can sort by cuisine type/niche, area, and then ranking.
Thanks for the tip. I did book something, but it is refundable up to the day before I arrive. I took a look at some AirBnB offerings in Shinjuku. I’ll mill about it some more for sure.
Shinjuku is where I stayed. Within walking distance you have access to a ton of excellent choices (fairly high end and local).
Suggest you stay somewhere very close to any subway entrance. Shinjuku station is a major hub, so it could be a bit noisy, but it is also the center of everything, so west side or east side is fine. Or one station over, Shinjuku san chome area, is fine too.
If you are visiting department stores and want to focus on food in the basement, Shinjuku Isetan and Shinjuku Takashimaya (about 10 ish mins walk from another) are unbeatable. I want to say Isetan’s sashimi/seafood selection is a notch better but worth comparing before you buy. The sashimi section is usually in a separate area or within the supermarket. You will find a lot of delectables that you can purchase (and bring back to eat at AirBnB), usually they charge per 100 grams. Then pick up a favorite bottle of wine, liquor, or sake (a ton to choose from, pick ones if you can, that are not exported to the USA) and you will have a blast. Oh, and that bottle of sake in the USA, will cost you half the price over there at the bare minimum (we enjoyed a $100 bottle that retails for $425 to $575 in California, marked up to $1100 at high end restaurants in LA/NY).
For lunch, check out Kappo Nakajima in Shinjuku (they have or previously had a Michelin star, but no need to go there for dinner). For about 700 or 800 ish yen per, and the lunch sets are entirely based on Japanese sardines (iwashi) and come with rice, soup, and pickles. Sashimi (with seaweed, shiso, and sesame seeds), fried, simmered/stewed in soy sauce, or yanagawa nabe (fried with egg, then served in a hotpot with a sukiyaki style broth). The portions are a touch small, but designed to be adequate, and you can get a refill on rice. You can also order the other items a la carte. They have a separate picture menu in English. Go before they open, as the lines form up the stairs from the entrance below. The fried sardines are outstanding.
Second Goryukubo (bookable through GoVoyagin, or ask your AirBnB host) as a kaiseki choice for Tokyo, very likely it will be counter seating. Splurge on the pricier menu and get superior grade seafood (granted you are reaching almost Saison level pricing, but it’s a unique experience), else the standard menu is already very good. The hostess (wearing kimono) lived in SF Bay Area for 20 years and speaks fluent English. Great humble selection of sake, she can help recommend (get small carafes if you want to try a variety) though it helps if you can communicate your preferences. They have some wine/champagne as well if you prefer that.
That sounds like heaven.
Is GoYoyagin (or Pocket Concierge and Gurunavi, for that matter) a reliable means by which to reserve tables in Japan?
Yes I used Pocket for one place, GoVoyagin for two. Both are reliable. With Pocket, you don’t pay the restaurant and your card gets charged at the end of the day (or day after) based on the cost of the dinner (listed on Pocket which includes the reservation fee) + anything else you add on like drinks or extra a la carte items. GV, you pay a per person fee for assisting with the reservation up front. If they cannot get you the dates you want, you can communicate with them to apply it towards something else. Never tried Gurunavi.
Thanks for sharing your experiences.
Park Hyatt down to $358…
$651 for the dates of my stay…
We loved staying at Tokyo Station Hotel on one of our recent forays to Japan. A very strong concierge desk, convenient location (IN Tokyo Station itself, and a 5 minutes walk from Ramen Street!) But most importantly: Best breakfast buffet in Tokyo (which translates to ALL YOU CAN EAT MUSK MELON!!!)…
Heard excellent things about Tokyo Station hotel though you automatically get that excellent concierge service with the high room rates. The location itself is quite splendid and walkable to Ginza (15 to 20 ish mins leisurely) and in the basement level alone you can find a ton of excellent shops. One of the most fascinating sights was a particular section in the subway where at least 8 souvenir snack/gift/omiyage shops selling regional Japanese delicacies/delectables (mostly confectionaries and wagashi), none of their offerings are available in Haneda airport. If you catch the sun set at the right angle, Tokyo Station and the surrounding skyscrappers become incredibly photogenic with the right camera (or even the smart phone camera).
There’s some really good advice on here. I went on a two week trip to Japan last month that sounds much like the adventure you’re about to embark on (Tokyo-Shinjuku / Osaka / Tokyo-Shibuya / Kyoto).
-Get a pocket wifi. My cellphone company provided unlimited data/text while I was in the country. Google Maps was my everything while I was there, but street signs as we know them are practically non-existent, meaning you have to navigate either via landmarks or oftentimes, but walking in one particular direction and seeing if you’re going the right way. That being the case, spotty data service was a pain. I’d often be walking down a street and then my screen would suddenly teleport me to a whole other block. Acquiring a pocket wifi made data use so much more reliable and navigating a whole lot easier.
-Take a portable battery charger. You’ll be using your phone quite a bit and the last thing you want is to run out of battery.
-Stay in hotels whenever you can. This isn’t a must, but I stayed at 3 airbnb’s and one hotel during my trip and I totally wish I would have booked more hotels. Most units in Japan are tiny, which adds for a certain level of discomfort. Staying at a hotel (Monterey Grashmere) in Osaka made that leg of the trip SO much better.
-Visit Toyo in Osaka. My best meal was had a this stand-up drink & dine in Osaka. Fat slabs of oily tuna, creamy tongues of fresh tiny uni, crab with ponzu and scallions, and flame-torched tuna; this place absolutely made my trip.
-Know that things are different in Kyoto. The historic city is the only place I felt slightly less welcome. The city is beautiful and it’s a definite must while in the country, but I’d say the feeling of being a stranger is palpable here. You’ll see “Japanese Only” signs on some businesses, and the local mafiosos definitely come out at night. Take a walking tour of the city though as it really is gorgeous.
-Buy a shinkansen pass. With all the traveling you’ll be doing, you’ll want to get there via fast rail and this will save you money. JR Lines aren’t as prevalent in Tokyo, so don’t expect to do much travel there with your pass.
-Visiting Tsukiji. Don’t bother with the tuna auction. I think it’s really overrated as a tourist spectacle and it’s way too much of an inconvenience to attend. However, DO go to Tsukiji and walk around the market. It opens up after the early morning business, but if you get any hassle about going in too soon, learn the words for “I’m here to buy” and you’ll be good. While there you should visit Sushi Dai and hit up the flagship Yoshinoya store.
-Book a local tour guide. Check out Meetrip. Locals offer their services to give you a tour on the cheap. I booked two tours. I now have two more friends in Japan. Absolutely awesome.
-Hard to get reservationsI have friends in Japan and it was difficult even for them to make reservations for me. Just think about how hard it can be to get into a 3-star restaurant here at home. Voyagin was actually helpful for booking some of the harder restaurants. Sure they charge a decent fee, but it saves so much hassle and who knows when you’ll be back in Japan. Give it a try if all else fails.
Hope this helps. Have an amazing trip!
Sushi Aoyagi is located very near the Tokyo Station Hotel (where we stayed during one of our trips to Japan). We got lazy one night and decided to dine there simply due to its proximity. Not expecting much going in, Sushi Aoyagi turned out to be truly excellent. Here is a sample pic of our akami honmaguro (lean bluefin tuna):
A bit of a reso update: was able to secure Wa Yamamura in Nara through Voyagin - very easy process. In Kyoto, dinner at Miyoshi was obtained by the hotel management with Soujiki Nakahigashi for lunch pending. I was also able to get a reso for shojin ryori lunch at Shigetsu at the Tenryu-ji temple online with ease. Tokyo has not been so easy. The management of Den has informed me that they will be closed during the duration of my stay. I am still waiting a yes/no response from the AmEx concierge regarding Sawada.
@teriyakichi @beefnoguy Back to Gorykubo: I am a bit reluctant to drop that kind of cash sight unseen. I am sort of willing to take a leap of faith, but I am that weirdo that sat through my meals at Noma and Saison and Quintonil waiting for “it” to happen. And for me, it never did. I suppose there is a genuine fear to invest a lot of money on an experience that I might not appreciate fully, based on past experiences.
I have Nakajima saved in Google Maps. Not far from my hotel at all!
Here is some photos for Goryukubo’s courses. We went in November, 2016. It was during the Matsuba Crab season. We chose the JPY 25,000 option. The Matsuba Crab dish is their specialty and highlight as you can see in the middle of those photos. Two solid layers of crab meat arranged/placed in a crab shell. Beautiful and sweet. We figure it has at least two to three crab meats in it. Matsuba Crab season usually runs through the end of March.
We did the 35,000 yen course, and it was also in November around Thanksgiving. The photos linked in hub japan appear to be the 35,000 course, as the kama meshi (claypot rice) at the end is nodoguro (black throat sea perch), vs buri (winter yellowtail) for the 25,000 option which I observed of the diners to my left.
Yes that Matsuba crab was glorious.
Here are a couple more favorable reviews posted:
And a comparison review from a previous visit:
Screw it. I will hit up Voyagin and see if it’s possible, and worry about the price point later…
Ishikawa is very good also and slightly cheaper at JPN 22,000 before tax and service charge.