Booked a trip to Japan for late March/early April. Five nights in Tokyo, four nights in Kyoto (intend to make day trips to Osaka and Nara), and one night back in Tokyo before coming back to LA. Chasing Michelin Stars and Pellegrino Top 50 winners has proven to be a gamble at best. What I’m looking for? High end/mid tier/low end sushi; tempura; kaiseki in Kyoto; tonkatusu; shojin ryori; Italian (two of my best meals in Milan earlier this year were from Japanese chefs – would love to flip the switch this trip). It appears that my deft hand at scoring difficult reservations will be severely challenged in Japan, so keeping any lofty expectations at bay. Any and all advise is welcomed.
It’s awesome to eat in Japan. There’s quality eats to be had at all tiers, not just top tier. Best food chain in the world.
A few words about reservations: Outside of fast food or ramen, it helps to have reservations at all restaurants beforehand. Even if you’re en route to an eatery on a whim, give them a call and tell them you’re coming. It’s a respect thing, and will be much appreciated by your hosts.
If you are not a Japanese speaker, ask a Japanese speaker to help make rezzies. This goes especially for higher-end places. For many tourists, this means asking your hotel concierge to help you, which is fine. If you are dining at a place where the reservation is tough to procure, you may need to ask your hotel concierge (or Japanese-speaking friend) a few months ahead to book it for you. If that is unsuccessful, an American Express concierge (if you have an AmEx card) can often assist.
Tipping: None! Your bill is your final bill. Tipping is discouraged in Japan - no tipping in restaurants, no tipping in taxis. The only possible exception to this rule is the bellboy who carries your luggage, and even that is not a hard rule.
Getting around: In Tokyo, prepare to walk from station to station. A lot. The Tokyo public transport system is truly a marvel of modern human design. If you’re gonna be in Tokyo for a 5-day stretch, I’d suggest you get a one-week all-inclusive card (e.g. Suica) so you don’t have to queue too much. Walking is great. It’s what keeps obesity at bay in Japanese society, and many visitors find that they can eat as much as they want and not gain weight in Japan due to all that walking (that, and the fact you’re eating mostly food made with “real” ingredients, and less processing). Shinkansen: Get the green pass if you plan on traveling quite a bit on the Shinkansen. It can only be purchased from outside Japan, and is activated once you are in Japan. The Shinkansen bento box is another fond food memory when going on the Shinkansen - Buy them at the train station before you depart.
On getting lost: Japan is probably THE safest country to get lost in on this planet. Some of my best food memories in Japan have come from getting lost, and finding that local restaurant with that amazing local specialty. The local street addresses are often mysterious, and you might narrow down your destination to the block, but have to walk around it like 3 or 4 times before you find the actual address. If you truly find yourself flummoxed, however, one possible thing to do is find the Koban (local constabulary/police) box or kiosk and ask the police for directions. The friendly cops know their assigned neighborhood extremely well and can assist you. Very often, your destination restaurant will be on the 3rd or 4th floor (we Angelenos are often not used to this fact of Japanese life).
My recommendations for Tokyo: Don’t ignore the depachikas. Grab a hot corn soup from the vending machines. Visit Lawson and buy an onigiri to munch on. By the way, all the rice (even the rice used to make the Lawson onigiri) is exquisite in Japan. Eat at a Yoshinoya and marvel at how great the beef tastes. GO to McDonald’s and try a McEbi. Go to a fruit parlour (Sembikiya is great) and try a slice of musk melon. The Japanese breakfast buffet at Tokyo Station Hotel is incredible.
Sushi: Sawada in Ginza (it is almost holy to me), Kozasa (not sure I should ‘out’ this place, but what the hell), Sukiyabashi Jiro in Roppongi Hills (AKA his second son’s restaurant). Try kujira nigiri (Asakusa has many kaitenzushi places where this is sold). Try the “standing only” sushi bars in the business districts. Try basashi nigiri. Visit Tsukiji Market - Marvel at how there is no fishy odor at all, despite it being the largest seafood wholesale marketplace on the planet.
Noodles: Rokurinsha (on Ramen Street at Tokyo Station) for tsukemen.
Tonkatsu: I love the Tokyo X hybrid pork at Maisen.
Kyoto: Are you staying at a ryokan? If so, the in-house kaiseki should be very authentic and good.
Osaka: Informal street food: Yakisoba, takoyaki, all washed down with lots of beer.
Getting so hungry… Take me with you!
What @J_L said.
Second Sawada for sushi.
I would also recommend
Ryugin, den, or takazawa for modern kaiseki.
Torishiki for yakitori
This is a very generous response. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this all down. Let me go digest it a bit now!
Need some clarification on this. Are you looking for Italian Restaurant with Japanese chef or Japanese Restaurant with Italian chef or Italian Restaurant with Italian chef? Take a look at this one:
Restaurants we like:
Le Sputnik (French)
If you like Japanese tea, try this one. Reservation is highly recommended:
The other board has a lot of discussion regarding difficult reservations. If you have not read them yet, take a look.
Good question! I guess I am looking for an interesting and delicious integration of the cuisines. erba da nakahigashi looks pretty great. I will do a bit more digging. Thanks!
Ugh! Emailed my hotel to inquire about their concierge services. They suggested that I use www.govoyagin.com. Not the answer I was looking for. The only two resos I am really trying to pursue are Sushi Sawada and Jimbocho Den. I don’t think that Voyagin, Pocket Concierge, or Gurunavi service either. Although I might attempt to use one of these services to get a spot at Wa Yamamura in Nara and Jiki Miyazawa in Kyoto. I have Japanese speaking friends here in LA, but it sounds like having them call from the US might be a fruitless endeavor. Any other suggestions? Thanks.
You’ll need a hotel concierge to book sawada. You should be able to call den yourself they speak english.
Ugh, again. My usual travel MO is to stay at low-mid range hotels with high ratings and spend my $$$ on food. I have one last night in Tokyo before I come home that I haven’t booked yet. Wondering if I should splurge a bit (Capitol Hotel, Imperial Hotel, etc.) and treat myself to one last day of higher end lodgings and services. Truth is, booking the room would not guarantee a reservation anywhere either. I will keep my hopes up and thinking cap on.
Have you tried the AmEx concierge route?..
I don’t think my current card has that level of service, but I will investigate. Thanks for the suggestion.
Current exchange rate is moving in your favor. Booking.com does not require you to pay when you book. The booking is done in JPN. After booking, you can decide to pay-off directly to the hotel anytime before your traveling if exchange rate is good, say $1=JPN 125. This will make some of those higher end hotels a little more acceptable. One more tip you may want to look into. Chase SAPPHIRE Visa card does not charge currency exchange fee ( around 3%) for travel related charges.
Thanks for the tip. Just applied for Chase Sapphire Preferred and got approved. I’ll look into Booking.com as well.
@J_L I emailed the AmEx concierge service and they got back to me asking for some additional information. It pays to be persistent!
Waaaaaay off topic.
The Sapphire card gives the cardholder a $300 (travel) credit per calendar year against the annual $450 fee. Spend $300 before the end of 2016, and you get a $300 credit for 2016. Starting January 1st 2017, your next $300 in travel expenses will also be deducted. Takes some of the bite out of the annual $450 annual fee.
With the card, make sure you apply for the free Priority Pass Club card. The card allows entry to PP lounges domestically and internationally. While we were in HKG recently, we checked out the PP lounge and it was doable if you do not have access to other lounges (complementary food and beverages (liquor)).
Oh yeah… the sign up boner of 100k points is the equivalent of USD$1500 in cash travel purchases. Its a good card.
We normally stay at IHG (Intercontinental Hotel Group) properties.
We stayed at the Kyoto and Kobe Crowne Plazas’ last year and enjoyed both. We had applied for the IHG credit card, which gives the holder instant platinum status, along with a sizable points bonus. Platinum status meant upgraded corner rooms at both venues, with expedited check-in which is nice after a long transit. Your sign-up points bonus should be enough for at least one free night at either Kyoto or Kobe. Also, you get a free night certificate at any IHG property on your annual anniversary with the card. Both these hotels have concierge that should accommodate your dining plans, or best to.
No, I am not a shill for the card, I think its a great opportunity for travelers who watch their spending and still enjoy a bit of luxury.
In towns that do not have IHG properties, we’ve found that agoda.com is a great site for hotel rooms. The room prices and availability is often better than the better known American websites. agoda.com normally allows us to book rooms without a deposit/penalty, which gives me the flexibility I want when doing logistics for my trips.
Grand Hyatt rates dropped to $230/nite as recently as Sunday night.
Or stay a night at St Regis Osaka for $248. I had an excellent sushi meal at 1* Hoshiyama for $100/person! Better than any of the top end joints in LA.
Just keep checking Hotels.com
Aman Tokyo, please.
$$$$$$, enough for 3 sushi meals… [quote=“J_L, post:17, topic:4777, full:true”]
Aman Tokyo, please.
One night at Aman Tokyo = Two lunches at Sawada.
apply for a hyatt credit card, get two free nights, book the park hyatt tokyo, let their concierge do the rest, enjoy.