I FIRST ENCOUNTERED TOKYO during a 10-hour layover at Narita in 2011, when I tacked on an extra four hours (round trip) of travel time and took the Shinkansen bullet train into the heart of the city. Those few hours in Tokyo may have been the most exhilarating of my life. I was enamored, and decided to go back a week later to properly experience it while on a two-week hiatus from Saturday Night Live.
These first two trips started my love affair with the city and its culinary landscape. This is where I learned about ramen. I ate the noodles as often as I could, and my life has never been the same since.
Years have passed, bowls have been slurped from, and my affinity for Japan has only grown. I needed to get back, but I wanted to go deeper. The next level. So this time around I met up with some seriously amazing locals to help tap into the real Tokyo. The non-touristy Tokyo. The insider’s guide. Armed with famous Tokyo ramen bloggers, fixers, local musicians, and friends, I found it. Here are some of my favorite experiences.
Recommended by Brian, one of the ramen blogger masters in Tokyo, Fuunji is known for its tsukeman (dipping noodles). It’s a personal favorite of mine for the overall ramen experience. There’s one super huge ramen bar where every seat gets filled during service, a vending-machine ordering system, a superstar ramen master, businessmen rolling in by the dozen every minute and slamming their bowls down within five minutes. In the time it took me to finish my one bowl, three men had come and gone in the seat next to mine. Fuunji is the real deal.
Tons of shopping, specialty stores, incredible restaurants, and a 20-to-30-something hipster culture. The vibe is way more mellow than Shibuya / Shinjuku but still very vibrant. It’s the Williamsburg of Tokyo. Spend a few hours roaming the streets during the day, and at night settle down at one of the city’s most interesting bars, like “Mother Shimokitazawa / Mother Ruins,” “Flowerbar Gardena,” or Izakaya “Shirubei.” Shimokitazawa is also a popular spot for yakiniku (barbecue) dining.
Reminiscent of a sports bar, except they have dozens of craft beers from around the world. Start your night off trying some Japanese microbrews.
Located in Takadanobaba, this was the most unique ramen experience I had while in Tokyo. The outside of the shop is covered in a black tarp with a large Fred Flintstone-style animal bone hanging in front of it. There’s one ramen master in a tiny 3-4 seat room, and he doesn’t speak much English. Apparently, he closes his store for the day if the broth isn’t perfect. He offers up green chiles to add to his soups, as well as a shrimp oil option. I went with the standard shio (salt). Eating here is definitely an adventure.
Best gyoza in Shibuya. English menu available. Tourist friendly but still a bit off the beaten path, tucked away in an area where the love hotels are.
Literally meaning “Drunken Alley,” Nonbei Yokocho is where you escape the tourist traps of Shibuya and Shinjuku to get your drink on. Having a local guide is ideal, but even without one you’ll stumble into some amazing tiny bars and restaurants.
O’Shima serves arguably the most expensive steak in the world (around $150 US) — this is a splurge destination. I was taken there by the man known as “Tokyo Fixer,” who swore this was the place to head. I still dream about this steak. The cows they use must live the ultimate posh life and be the happiest cows on Earth.
The basement of any department store
One of my favorite things to do in Japan is head down to any department store basement and purchase all kinds of goodies. The staff make and sell nearly every type of Japanese cuisine. Don’t neglect the produce section, if only just to witness the selling of a $300 mango and an $8 dollar strawberry. If you’re taking any bullet trains or long trips, stop at one of these department stores and grab some food for the road. Isetan Department Store is possibly the best place to head.
Among all the the ritzy Michelin-star sushi joints, you might not hear about Sushi Yasuda. However, those in the know say it’s the “best bang for your buck.” Yasuda left his famous NYC Midtown restaurant to open this eight-seater sushi joint in Tokyo a few years ago. He goes to the fish market every day, does all his own prep, cooking, and sushi-making by himself. It’s just him and his wife who run the restaurant. He loves to talk about every piece of fish you put in your mouth, where it’s from, and the differences between US and Japanese fish. You’re witnessing a true sushi master finally get to live his dream.
Standing Sushi Bar (Shibuya)
On the other side of the coin, this “blink and you’ll miss it” sushi bar serves up good-quality fish at an incredibly budget-friendly price. Equally awesome are the hot water faucets at each station, complete with green tea powder so you can make your own. Tourist friendly…mostly (point to the fish in front of you, and you shall receive).