The Ultimate Tokyo Food Tour
May 14, 2013
When seeking out Tokyo's finest fare, a little guidance goes a long way. Scott Hass introduces the best in the biz when it comes uncovering the culinary wonders of Japan's capital.
Published on May 14, 2013
Tokyo is one of the greatest 24-hour dining destinations. With more Michelin stars than any other city and a deep array of the most delicious and seasonal—not to mention some of the rarest—food imaginable, you might think the question is: How to decide where to eat? Sushi or yakitori? Fugu or unagi? Ramen or soba? Or just head straight for the jazz bars cranking out smooth, old-school melodies and great cocktails with a side of sake? You can spend hours mulling over the possibilities.
But the real question is: How do you find these places?
Actually, how do you find anything in Tokyo? Following the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923 and the carpet bombings of the World War II, Tokyo is a maze without many business or street signs. The signs that do exist are usually in Japanese. And for a variety of reasons specific to a culture that was historically isolated from a big chunk of the planet until 160 years ago, a lot of the best establishments are in cellars, office buildings and back alleys.
Enter Shinji Nohara.
When the world’s best chefs and most notoriously food-obsessed come to Tokyo, Nohara is their man. Anthony Bourdain, Wylie Dufresne, Daniel Humm and Alan Richman, among many others, have benefited from his expertise. Some Japanese restauranteurs, unable to speak English, are edgy, too, about hosting foreigners. No hurtle for Nohara—he’ll get them in.
Since 1998, this unique individual, typically garbed in cargo shorts, a flowing shirt and sneakers, sporting long, orange hair, his broad face usually adorned with a Cheshire Cat grin, has taken it upon himself to steer guests to the very best food in Tokyo.
“After trying the sushi I show people in Tokyo,” says Nohara, “many people say that they are unable to eat sushi at home for months!”
Not just sushi. Whether he takes you to Tokyo’s latest tapas bar or a restaurant specializing in washoku (pre-Western) cooking, you know it is going to be good—and come with an informed back-story. For example, you’re likely to find yourself sampling the traditional seasoning shio-koji, “the biggest food trend in Japan these days,” he says. “Shio means salt and koji is a fermentation starter. So we’re seeing more items marinated in shio-koji on menus.”
An evening with Nohara typically begins around 7 p.m. over cocktails at the cinematically lit lounges of Tokyo’s high-rise hotels: New York Grill, Oriental Lounge or 28 Bar. The bartenders move the metal shakers dramatically in the subdued light and the pour is nearly as much fun as the drink itself.
Chicken at Toriyoshi might be next. Nohara will commandeer the menu, ask you how hungry you are, inquire about what parts of the bird you are afraid to try, and order skewers. Keep the cold beer coming while you enjoy thighs, breasts, tail-bone, skin or tsukune, which is a meatball-like press of ground meat. Note: the sake, mirin and shochu dipping sauce that precedes the grilling is key.
From Toriyoshi, Nohara might take you to Sasano, a perfect example of an izakaya (Japanese pub). Pick your own sashimi from tanks of swimming fish.
Nohara, a natural raconteur, loves stories, and considers himself a guardian of Japan’s centuries-old relationship to food. As you eat, he will explain how the food culture evolved. Once a pescatarian nation, for example, Japan became carnivorous by imperial decree only in 1868 when the emperor lifted the ban on eating western food. Further, Nohara knows the chefs and owners of his favorite haunts, giving foreign guests the rare opportunity to connect with the cooks on a more personal level.
Conversations with Nohara find a natural outlet at Azabu Kusafe. The server comes by with a selection of rare shochu (fermented, root- or grain-based drinks that are about 25 percent alcohol) in tiny glasses. You sip, listen to jazz and ease into the evening.
“Shime, means ‘closing the deal,’” explains Nohara, “and ramen is always shime in Japan!”
Naturally, he’s got the perfect deal-sealing hole-in-the wall. “There is nothing like Kaduya,” Nohara says. “Homemade noodles and dumplings, crispy honey-roasted pork belly, chopped leeks and great broth—everything about it rejuvenates me.”
The trick is to eat and drink small amounts on this food tour, because, before you know it, you’ll find yourself loosening your belt just one more notch as orange sweeps the sky. You want to be in it for the long haul: a Nohara-led nocturnal food pilgrimage reveals not only cuisine and culture usually invisible to foreigners, but also why Japan is called The Land of the Rising Sun.
HOW TO BOOK
Nohara can be reached at +81 90 3043 8138; firstname.lastname@example.org. Rates are negotiable, but you can estimate ¥50,000 for a 12-hour tour.
1. Toriyoshi 2-8-6 Kamimeguro, Meguro-ku; +81 3 3716 7644; No reservation.
2. Sasano 9-6-23, Akasaka, Minato-ku; +81 3 3475 6055.
3. Azabu Kusafue 2-25-13, Nishiazabu, Minato-ku; +81 3 3498 3181.
4. Kaduya 3-2-4 Shimomeguro, Meguro-ku; +81 3 6420 0668; No reservation.