Tokyo is known as a city with the buzzy street life and constant hustle of New York combined with the refinement and elegance of Paris. Translation: Travelers know the food is going to be out of this world. The city is home to 304 Michelin stars, making it the most-starred city in the world. (Paris, to compare, has 134 stars.)
While you know not to miss the sushi, and you may even be able to score a coveted kaiseki reservation, it’s the humble, everyday foods found in streetside carts or in department stores food courts that really tell the stories of Japanese food, traditions and way of life.
Here, seven everyday Tokyo eating experiences that should be on every traveler’s checklist.
From sushi to sake, rice is the foundation of many Japanese dishes. Onigiri are small, compact triangles of seasoned sushi rice, often wrapped with nori and filled with smoked salmon or umeboshi (pickled plum). The onigiri are ubiquitous in Tokyo, found everywhere from school children’s bento boxes to the convenient (and shockingly delicious) options at the 7/11 stores. For a premium onigiri experience, head to the retail spot Okomeya in Togoshi. The shop is dedicated entirely to artisanal rice and serves fresh, hand-squeezed onigiri to order using Koshihikari rice, the crown jewel of Japanese short-grain rice varieties, grown nearby in Niigata, a region famous for rice cultivation.
In the United States a single orange with a $9 price tag might be considered laughably expensive but, in Tokyo, it’s deemed “gift fruit.” Whether it’s a completely unblemished, shiny and symmetrical piece of citrus or a dozen plump, red cherries arranged inside what looks like a chocolate box, tradition has it that gift fruit is meant to be shared with a gracious host, a generous friend, a beloved teacher or anyone who deserves a special “thank you.” The fruits are products of farms that specialize in seed selection, pruning and ruthless curation of the harvest, which are all reflected in the final cost. The flavor is equally flawless—a gift orange will have the perfect balance of sugar and acidity, a flavor so purely “orange” that it can even taste artificial. After purchasing, your gift fruit will be carefully wrapped in tissue paper and placed in a box for safe transport to a lucky recipient.
Surprise: One of the more obscure emojis () is actually a common street food. Roasted Japanese sweet potatoes, also known as yaki-imo, have dark purple skin and a buttery yellow flesh. They are typically served straight out of trucks that come equipped with a wood-burning hot stone oven. The trucks drive around the city on chilly days the way ice cream trucks would during the summer in the US; so when you see one passing by don’t hesitate to run after it.
Sure, there’s plenty of great ramen restaurants stateside, but getting a bowl of this noodle dish in Japan is a unique experience. Head to Ramen Row in the bustling Tokyo Station, where five of the most popular ramen shops in Tokyo can be found together. First, you’ll order your ramen from a vending machine, which will spit out a ticket for you to hand to the staff—an incredibly efficient way of placing an order and part of the reason ramen is so popular with commuters in a hurry. After ordering, you’ll sit down at a table surrounded by fellow diners loudly slurping their ramen. (Slurping cools the broth and lets you eat the ramen faster, before the noodles get soggy in the broth.) When your own ramen arrives, season it with vinegar or hot chili oil (available on the table) to your liking and then slurp away.
Grilled chicken—what could be exciting about that? In Japan, skewered grilled chicken called yakitori is an art form, with some restaurants dedicated entirely to this single dish. “Chicken,” however, is a term used more broadly than many Americans may be used to, as it encompasses everything from the crispy skin to the hearts and livers. Yakitori chefs are set apart by their seasonings, including the sauce called tare, which is used to dip chicken skewers in multiple times throughout the cooking process. Each night the tare pot is boiled to sanitize the sauce, which is then used for the next day’s yakitori. Eventually, the charred chicken flavor builds up and creates a unique and unmistakable depth of flavor. Similar to a sourdough starter that’s been around for many generations, a chef’s tare can be years in the making.
Hokkaido Soft Serve
Whether it’s their refined tea or their tradition of ceramics, every region in Japan has one thing they claim to do “best.” Hokkaido, an island in northern Japan, is an agriculture hub that’s home to many of the country’s dairy farms. The region prides itself on producing the best milk in Japan, which is distributed across the country and used to make yogurt, ice cream, cheese, bread and more, all marketed with the Hokkaido designation. Soft serve (or “soft cream” as it’s often called in Japan) made with Hokkaido dairy is transcendent, possessing a fresh milk flavor that’s similar to fior di latte gelato in Italy.
In a country obsessed with seasonality, there may be no season more anticipated than cherry blossom season in early spring, when the tree-lined streets of Tokyo abound with the delicate pink flowers and locals spend evenings picnicking underneath the blooms before they blanket the ground. The season must be celebrated and so chefs and bakers use the blossom, known as sakura, in everything from baked goods to vinegar. For a selection of cherry blossom sweets, head to a department store such as Mitsukoshi Ginza, where the beautiful desserts are displayed like jewelry, behind gleaming glass cases, and wrapped up in intricate designer packaging.