In Search of Traditional Japanese Food in Tokyo

It’s good when food tastes good, it’s kind of like proof you’re alive.
-Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

For my fourth time in Tokyo, I was determined to seek out the best Japanese food I could–I had little interest in sightseeing more. Sure, I’d visit neighborhoods and sites that I hadn’t previously been to, but food was at the top of my list.

I took a short trip to Tokyo because my friend was visiting from the US and didn’t have enough time to take a side trip to Taipei. Fortunately, during non-holiday times, there are plenty of inexpensive flights between Taoyuan and Tokyo’s two airports.

spicy ramen tokyo
What’s a stop in Tokyo without spicy ramen?

Getting acquainted with Shinagawa

Although my friend’s connection for a place to stay fell through, he managed to find a nice hostel in Shinagawa, which is just a short train ride from Haneda Airport. ARTnShelter was a convenient location for both of us, and it provided me with the opportunity to stay in a new neighborhood–it also had a bar and a small outdoor area for guests so we could run down to FamilyMart and buy beer cheaper. The only problem was that there were many desirable restaurants in the immediate area. Of course, my friend and I weren’t in the area all that much.

soba

On our first day of wandering around Shinagawa Ward, we stopped by some interesting sites along the main road as we searched for a light lunch. As I had arrived on a red-eye flight that had me sleep on the floor at Haneda until the trains started running, I was exhausted and there were no available beds yet for me (a long nap was necessary before going out for dinner).

On the walk back to ARTnShelter along Higashiōi, we found a tiny soba noodle shop–the owner spoke a little English (just enough for us to figure out what the different soba noodle soups were). It was the best choice at a reasonable price in the area. The interior did not match the restaurant, however, as the walls were made of French wine boxes.

soba noodle restaurant
The soba noodle restaurant in Shinagawa

For dinner, we met up with my other friend and my student from Solaris Space PR agency in Iidabashi.

My student suggested we try Craft Beer Server Land because she knows I like beer. The food and beer selection was good, but my friend and I were really looking to eat more traditional Japanese food. Of course, I was happy drinking the Iwate Oyster Stout; I just wanted non-bar food for dinner. So, after eating a little with our beers, we went in search of a well-known yakitori restaurant that my student had heard about.

Eating the best yakitori in Iidabashi

Shin-chan しんちゃん
Shin-chan (しんちゃん) yakitori restaurant. The back wall is full of sake bottles held for regular customers

After searching maps, we found the restaurant, which was a nondescript storefront that didn’t look appealing compared to the rest of the area. Shin-chan (しんちゃん) is a barebones establishment that has been run by the same man for a long time (I think close to 50 years), and it has a loyal customer base. More importantly, this restaurant has excellent food. It’s even been featured in a manga series about a young man being introduced to better restaurants around Tokyo (Japanese manga here).

tofu
Some sort of tofu

Unfortunately, I wasn’t thinking about photos that night and ended up with only my phone for photos at Shin-chan.

We ordered a variety of small dishes, including the best asparagus wrapped in bacon that I’ve ever had. This is a yakitori staple that I’ve had before, but this one was by far the best. The bacon was thin and cooked to the point that it was melted to the asparagus and had the consistency of melted cheese.

bacon-wrapped asparagus
bacon-wrapped asparagus is delicious

We also had plenty of more common skewers of meatballs, peppers, and quail eggs. We even started off with whelk, which was better than the ones my friend and I cooked at our table in Tokyo on my first stay in Japan. That time around the whelk was tough and bitter, but this one was more tender (it’s still a bit bitter, but it wasn’t as strong this time around).whelk

Wandering through the salaryman’s paradise

After a bit of wandering through imperial gardens and unfamiliar neighborhoods with towering new buildings, I found myself walking in the direction of another friend’s office in Shimbashi. As it was approaching dinnertime, I began checking out the little restaurants in the area–and there were tons to choose from. Of course, I had to ask in each whether staff spoke English (which I can say in Japanese) or if they have an English menu.
sashimi

After failing in a few attempts at eating in restaurants because I didn’t have a reservation, I came across 雑魚 Public Bar Zako tucked down an alley away from the busy, slightly wider alleys. While they didn’t have an English menu, the staff spoke a little English and the menu had enough Kanji characters for me to figure out some of was offered. Plus, there was a seat for me.

fish lamp
Zako had these light fixtures that were mesmerizing

I ordered their special three piece sashimi, which was sardine, yellowtail, and mackerel. Usually I’d say the yellowtail was my favorite, but the other two were delicious–the mackerel melted in my mouth; I’ve never had mackerel this good.shimbashi tuna head

This place turned out even better as my friend was able to meet me after work. Unfortunately, his wife had to work late and wasn’t able to join us. As I had one serving of sake with my light dinner, I only had to order another while I waited for my friend to come along. When he arrived we shared a grilled tuna head, which was delicious.

sake cups
I choose my sake based on how entertaining the label is

Missing out in Yanaka

We made a mistake while walking through the touristy historic streets of Yanaka. We decided to check out the Daimyo Clock Museum before lunch. By the time we wandered back to the main area, many of the restaurants were closed for their post-lunch break.

We settled on what passed for a dingy Tokyo diner for lunch mainly because there was nowhere else to go. If we had been watching the time (funny because we were in a clock museum), we would’ve rushed to find something better. Fortunately, a light lunch made it easier for us to wander around and find snacks later in the day.

yanaka sushi display
I bet this place had great sushi

I would’ve liked to try more of the traditional restaurants around Tokyo, but we didn’t have enough time. Also, I don’t have the language skills to eat at the better restaurants in Japan and my Japanese-speaking friends are not always available to go out. For subsequent visits to Japan I will have to make lists of restaurants and foods to try–while I may not be able to read Japanese, I can match characters for reference.

What are some of your favorite foods from Tokyo?

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