First Timers Guide to Navigating Tokyo’s Culinary Scene

Before arriving in Japan, I had high expectations. From all the research I did to literally everyone and their mothers telling me how great it was, I was expecting greatness. Coming out of this trip, I don’t just understand everyone’s hyperbolic sentiments, but I 100% agree with them. Take me at my word or don’t, but my first Japan experience was humbling, and weeks later, I am still blown away by its magnificence.

I did not have a singular bad meal in Tokyo, nor was I ready stop trying the city’s myriad of offerings. Most restaurants don’t have any trace of English, yet I was able to bank on the fact that it would be of high quality. Skeptical? Think of Tokyo like that boyfriend that melts your hardened heart and breaks your trust issues because he’s just that great.

Because this was my first time in Tokyo, and Japan for that matter, I don’t claim to be an expert on the city. But I do think this list I’ve created will be a perfect one for any first timer’s wanting to try the classic establishments, as well as some hidden gems. This list is a result of extensive research and nitpicking, with a desire of finding some of the best culinary experiences. This guide also largely has “quality for price” in mind. As a solo traveler, I wanted to make sure my money was both going a long way and worth the spend. Many say Japan is expensive, and if you want to go to all the Michelin starred restaurants, you will dish out a fortune; but you can easily spend less than $50 a day on fantastic meals. So here it is: the places I think you cannot miss when in Tokyo for the first time.

Ramen

Afuri Ramen

  • You can find this Ramen brand all over Tokyo, so just choose one closest to you, order the Afuri Signature Yuzu Shio Ramen (w/Chashu), and be blown away. The broth is simultaneously rich with umami yet light from the distinct citrus flavor. The chashu is nicely charred and beautifully tender. Think of this as the ramen you wish you could find in the states on those cold, gloomy nights. 
  • Note: You order from the vending machine and then sit down. 

Ichiran Ramen

  • For about $8, this will be the best Tonkotsu Ramen you’ll ever have, partly because it is simply fantastic, but partly because you get to customize it from start to finish. Everything about this ramen will be exactly how you desire, which is why you’ll love it so much. If you go with someone, please also order the Simmered Pork Belly w/ Dried Seaweed as an appetizer. It is absolutely melt-in-your-mouth, and it is glorious.

Tsuta

  • This is the famous Michelin starred ramen in Japan, and if you have time, GO. It’s expertly made, but it also wasn’t my favorite. It was very clean and French-like in execution, and each ingredient on it’s own was excellent. However, as one dish, it lacked something to bring it together. If you go, I’d recommend ordering the Char Siu Ajitama Shoyu Soba (with all the fix ins: the charsiu, the wontons, and the egg). 

Sushi

Sushi Tokyo Ten

  • Go here in Shinjuku for an amazing Omakase lunch, but make sure you go at lunch because it’ll be half the price ($33). A note about omakase in general: go and splurge on it at least once on your trip. You’ll notice the difference is in execution and creativity, not in the quality of the fish. 

Sushi Zanmai at Tsukiji Market 

  • This is one of the most popular spots in Tsukiji without the ridiculous line, and it’s also really good. A piece of Fatty Tuna (Toro) is $3USD. Rest on that fact for a moment and then book your trip immediately. 
  • Note: Go around Tsukiji in general and sample a bunch of different things.

Tokyu Food Show (below Shibuya Station) 

  • This is a huge supermarket underneath Shibuya Station, and you will feel both overwhelmed and excited about all the options here. Their supermarket sushi is quality and something you should try at least once while in Tokyo.

Others

Kisoji

  • This is a wagyu-focused spot in Shinjuku. It can be expensive, but if you go for lunch, you’ll pay half price. Regardless, the food is so worth it. I got the Wagyu Beef Sukiyaki lunch set, and it’s the best I’ve ever had.

Ikinari Steak

  • At Ikinari Steak, you’ll find cheap and quality grilled pepper steak with garlic and rice. You order the type of beef you want, how much of it you want, and how you’d like it cooked. After ordering, you’ll return to your table, but you have to eat standing up. Getting to burn calories while eating outstanding steak? Count me in everyday.

Sangyodo

  • This is a local Izakaya in a basement near Shibuya station. This place has super amazing Yellowtail with Daikon and a killer beautiful Sashimi Platter. No one speaks English here at all, but you can just ask for what they recommend and trust that you’ll have a great experience. 

Teppan Baby

  • This is a fun and creative Okonomiyaki spot in the Shinjuku Red Light district. I’d recommend going to this basement spot with a group of friends for a late night bite. 

Piss Alley

  • Google “Piss Alley” and it’ll lead you to this area with a bunch of cheap restaurants. Go here late at night with a few people and choose to eat pretty much anywhere.

Rokkasen 

  • This spot specializes in high-quality grilled meats. This place is quite expensive, but the Japanese grilled meat is worth the price tag. However, I would recommend eating a real dinner beforehand and ordering a small portion here just to try it. 

Gen Yamamoto

  • If you’re into cocktails and alcohol, this is about as speciality as you can get. You have to make an appointment at this 8 seat bar, which has a Seasonal Cocktail Tasting Menu only. The experience is quite unique and quite delicious. You’ll pay about $65USD for 6 cocktails, and they may be the most eclectic and fresh you’ll every try.

Dominique Ansel Bakery – Ginza Location 

  • I know that Dominique Ansel wasn’t created here, and you can get it in many major cities. BUT, if you’re in Ginza, just stop by this specific location for the Black Sugar DKA. It’s delicious, and they only sell it here. 

Sadly, that’s it for now. Tokyo is a life-changing city, and if you get to go, you’ll know why. I hope you get to try at least one of these spots because they are all truly superb.

Stay hungry,

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