This little “guide” is based on my dining experiences at some of the best sushi restaurants in Tokyo over the last 5 years. It might sound simplistic to Tokyoites, but hopefully useful for those who have never been to this fantastic city!
One thing you should know before going to Tokyo is that the quality of sushi there (especially at the high-end sushi shops) will spoil you forever. Sushi as we know it was created at the beginning of the 19th century as an early form of fast food. It is called Edomae nigirizushi because the fish used for making nigiris would be caught in the Edo bay (“Edo” is what Tokyo used to be called; “mae” means “in front”) and then sold nearby by the street vendors. Nowadays sushi making is a sophisticated craft that requires years of training and extraordinary knowledge of fish. A young sushi chef apprentice will only be allowed to touch fish after a few years of learning how to make rice. Rice is as significant as fish in the art of sushi making. Once you visit some of the best sushi places in Tokyo, you will notice that rice will differ from one place to another as each sushi master has his own distinctive style of vinegared rice preparation.
Needless to say, the choice of fish at Tokyo sushi shops is much wider than in Europe or the US. There are hundreds and hundreds of different kinds of fish, clams and crustaceans sold at Tsukiji (the biggest fish market in the world) where Tokyo sushi chefs go to do their shopping almost every morning. Fish used for sushi making will depend on the season and will not necessarily be served completely raw. For example, gizzard shad will be pickled for a few days, eel will be grilled, tiger prawn will be boiled moments before serving; I’ve seen some chefs marinating tuna for a few minutes…
They say that there are over 160 000 restaurants and eateries in Tokyo and it’s the city that has most Michelin starred restaurants in the world. Even if some won’t agree with me, Michelin is a good guide for those who are not local, don’t speak Japanese or don’t travel to Tokyo that often. Finally, it’s thanks to Michelin worldwide publicity that Tokyo has gained a reputation of a gastronomic paradise. You can see Michelin 2013 here. A guide that is considered “more authentic” by globe-trotting foodies though is a Japanese language website called Tabelog.com. I have recently compiled a list of the best Tokyo sushi restaurants according to Tabelog.com users which you can find here. Finally, there are some great blogs whose authors travel to Japan frequently like Andy Hayler, Streelife, or are based there Food Sake Tokyo, Tokyo Food File.
Most of the chefs and hosts of the high-end sushi shops I’ve been didn’t speak any or spoke very little English. So unless you speak Japanese or have local acquaintances, you will need to ask your hotel concierge to reserve the restaurants for you. I’ve never had any particular problems getting into most of the high-end sushi shops in Tokyo, but some places are much harder to book than others. To name two – Sushi Saito, which needs to be booked months in advance and Sukiyabashi Jiro where a “non-concierge” Japanese speaker needs to call for you.
Don’t be surprised if you will be asked to give your credit card number in order to secure your reservation. I think it’s because there are too many foreigners who reserve and don’t show up, something that a Japanese would never do…
Once you have your reservation, you should get a printed map of the area where the restaurant is located. Even if the concierge will note on your map the most recognizable shops, metro stations or buildings, thanks to which you should find your restaurant, you still might need some help from your taxi driver or passers-by. Japanese addressing system is very different from the one used in the West, while high-end restaurants exteriors in Japan are completely unassuming and often are located at ordinary office buildings or… at a parking garage like the case of Sushi Saito. It has happened to me many times that I would wander around for half an hour before finding the restaurant I was going to. So just go in advance.
There are three ways of ordering sushi in Japan – omakase (chef”s choice), okonomi (your choice) or okimari (set menu). From my personal experience, I’ve been always expected to order omakase at all the high-end sushi-yas I’ve been. But I’ve also noticed that most of the Japanese diners that I happened to share sushi counters with went for omakase. When you think about it, it’s the best way to enjoy the best fish of the season. Usually sushi omakase starts with white and non-fatty fish and ends with fatty fish, clams, maki (rolls) and tamagoyaki (Japanese style omelette). Most of the sushi restaurants (except for Sukiyabashi Jiro) also serve otsumami, various cold or warm snacks, before serving nigiris. So omakase might end up with 15 to over 20 various different morsels and nigiris. (Lunch omakases are usually smaller.) Each nigiri will have different fish topping and what surprised me most in the beginning that so little high-end sushi shops serve salmon, which is very popular outside of Japan…
You can eat nigiris with chopsticks or with your fingers. A small wet towel is provided for that purpose.
As for drinks, wine is rarely served at traditional Edo-mae sushi restaurants (Sushi Saito and Sushi Yoshitake are the rare exceptions). Beer, sake,shōchū, tea or water are the drinks of choice.
Price for alunch omakase can start from around ¥ 5000 (~40 € ), while dinner – from ¥ 10 000 (~80 € ) and can go up to ¥ 30 000 (~250 €) or over. Sushi omakase at high-end sushi restaurants rarely costs less than ¥ 15 000 or ¥ 20 000. For example, my dinner at Miyako sushi cost me something around ¥ 15 000; at Sushi Yoshitake – around ¥ 25 000; my 25 minutes lunch at Sukiyabashi Jiro was ¥ 31 500.
Most of the restaurants in Tokyo accept international credit cards, but there are quite a few which don’t, so it’s always good to find out in advance and to have some cash. Keep in mind that not all the ATM machines in Japan will distribute cash if you are using an international credit card. The only places I’ve ever been able to withdraw money were Citibank, 7-Eleven convenience stores and at the Narita airport.
Service charge is included in the final bill – you don’t need to tip in Japan. If you tip, you might be misunderstood.