If you're visiting Tokyo for business or pleasure, there's a good chance you'll be staying in the Shinjuku area. Arrive at night, and you'll feel like an alien (or perhaps a replicant?) amidst all the neon in the Blade Runner-like atmosphere. And while amazing Japanese food surrounds you, that alien feeling may challenge you in navigating the streets (addresses are difficult in Japan), not to mention the menus, and perhaps even the basic how-tos of ordering and etiquette.
Another challenge for visitors to Japan: deciding where and what to eat in the limited time you have. Walk around, and you'll hear chefs thwacking ramen noodles and diners slurping them up, smell meat cooking on skewers over charcoal, and see colorful displays of Japanese and Western sweets in department store windows. Where to begin? Read on for a list of essential Japanese dishes to eat in Tokyo and our favorite spots to enjoy them, all right in the Shinjuku area.
For Ramen: Fu-unji
Shinjuku's blessed with a bounty of great ramen shops. Ichiran offers "privacy booths" to eat tonkotsu ramen, Menya Musashi serves Tokyo-style shoyu broth, and Nagi has bitter niboshi broth in the colorful Golden Gai district. But for something a little more unique, I recommend Fu-unji. There's likely to be a line on the street, and when you look under the noren (the distinctive fabric curtain hanging in the doorway of many restaurants), you'll see the line continue, people filing along patiently behind the 12 or so counter seats. But dining in Japan means eating ramen as intended: quickly. No sitting around sipping cocktails; seats turn quickly.
Once inside, choose your ramen and pay at the vending machine, which will print out a ticket that you'll eventually hand to one of the ramen chefs, along with your portion preference—small, medium, and large are all the same price. Noodle soup is an option, but almost everyone's getting tokusei tsukemen (1,000 yen, or about $10), with thicker, chewier noodles served alongside a creamy double broth made from fish and chicken. Inside the broth, you'll find pieces of rich, tender pork, delicate nori, menma (seasoned bamboo shoots), and a soft-cooked egg. Grab some noodles with your chopsticks, dip them in the broth, and slurp away. Once you're done with the noodles, you can grab a pitcher from the ledge above and add dashi to the remaining broth to make a drinkable soup. When you're done, just place the bowl back on the ledge and say "gochisousama deshita" to thank the chef.
For Tonkatsu: Katsukura
If you prefer your pork in heartier form, tonkatsu is for you. Katsukura, located on the 14th floor of the Takashimaya Times Square shopping complex, is a convenient and reliable place to get your hands on this breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet. Here, the queue will be seated, so slide along until your table or counter seat is ready. Katsukura has an English menu; your best bet is the prix fixe, which is cheapest at lunch and comes with free refills of rice, a creamy miso soup with daikon and wakame, shredded cabbage, and pickled vegetables. (I inevitably request the cabbage basket, which makes for a refreshing counterpoint to the fried pork.) Choose between the rosu, or pork loin, and hire (pork fillet). The fillet is softer and leaner, but the fattier loin packs more flavor. Since you're doing the deep-fried thing anyway, why not enjoy a little more fat, and at a lower price, to boot? I also recommend upgrading from the basic pork to a higher quality one—on the set menu, 120 grams of Tohen pork is 2120 yen, or about $21.
Once your order's placed, you'll get a mortar full of sesame seeds, so get to work with the pestle and grind that down. When it's ready, you'll add your preferred tonkatsu sauce—the large ceramic crock is sweeter; the medium a little thicker. (The small ceramic crock contains yuzu dressing for the shredded cabbage, though some people like the tonkatsu sauce on the cabbage, as well.) The pork comes quickly, perfectly fried and placed on a rack, though there's no visible grease. It's so juicy that I sometimes eat it without the sauce, though I actually love it it with a dab of karashi (Japanese hot mustard) that you'll find amidst the condiments on the table.
For Udon: Mentsu-dan
Mentsu-dan's udon noodles aren't just super fresh—they're actually made right before your eyes. Upon arrival, you'll be greater by a towering illustrated menu board, especially helpful since everything's in Japanese. Red means a warm preparation, while blue is cold; some udon dishes can go either way. First timers should consider going for a cold preparation, which will best highlight the noodles' hallmark firm, chewy texture.
Give your order to the person stationed right in front of the noodle-maker and you'll get your requested bowl in record time. I like the bukkake udon, which is "splashed" with tsuyu, or dashi sauce (a large bowl is 460 yen, or about $4.50). From here, it's over to the agemono station, where you take the tongs and choose some deep-fried delights at the indicated à la carte price (most cost about 100 yen). Pictured above are gesso (squid tentacles) and korokke (croquette, this one meat and potato). Closer to the cashier are three toppings marked zero yen, so take as much as you'd like: tenkasu (tempura bits), negi (leek-like green onion), and shoga (grated ginger). Find seating that suits you, whether a small table, a counter-like setup, or a spot at the big "community table," and dig in. As for beverages, there's a water machine on-hand, or you can buy beer from a coin machine for 400 yen (or chuhai—a highball—for slightly less). Mentsu-dan has a classic feel with natural wood and lots of old, black-and-white photographs of Kagawa prefecture—home of the Sanuki-style udon you're eating.
For Tempura: Tsunahachi
Many find a tempura meal in Japan eye-opening; the quality is head and shoulders above what you'll get at most restaurants in America. You can pay a lot for high-end tempura, but Tsunahachi offers a reasonably priced and delicious introduction to this golden meal, and they've been doing it for over 90 years. Expect a line, especially at prime meal hours, and go for lunch for the best deal. You can get a basic tempura set lunch for 1,200 yen (about $12), but for 2,100 yen (about $21) you can upgrade to the chef-recommended Tempura Zen set that includes a few additional pieces of tempura, including melt-in-your-mouth anago (sea eel) which is especially good during the late spring and early summer season. All sets comes with an assortment of tempura: ebi (shrimp), white fish, vegetables, and kakiage (a fried "cake" of shrimp and vegetables combined together). Rice and clam miso soup round out the meal. There's an English menu as well as an instructional page with diagrams to show how to eat the tempura. You can mix grated daikon into tsuyu as a dipping sauce, but I prefer playing with the three colorful dipping salts: traditional sea salt (white), wasabi salt (green), and yukari (shiso) salt (purple). Despite the deep-frying, the tempura is rather light and remarkably greaseless.
For Sushi: Kyubey
You'll find a lot of kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi) around Shinjuku. It's often better than options stateside, and it's casual, colorful, and cheap. (My favorite in Shinjuku is Numazukou.) But if you want a more traditional, higher quality sushi experience, go to Kyubey. The popular flagship restaurant is in the Ginza district, but there's a branch at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Nishi-Shinjuku. Just take an elevator up to the 7th floor and follow the signs. Once there, you'll be greeted and escorted to one of the two sushi counters.
There's almost no table seating here, so your experience will likely be directly with the sushi chef. (Servers will watch over your other needs attentively, though non-obtrusively.) Kyubey gets pricey for dinner, so lunch again offers the best value, though it's still a splurge with a basic Imari set menu starting at 4,200 yen (about $42, though, like an increasing number of restaurants in Japan, tax is additional, andk unlike most restaurants, you'll also need to pay a small service charge) for 7 nigiri pieces and a roll, plus some miso soup and perhaps a few extras, like tsukemono. The chef will ask if there's anything you don't eat and then start masterfully slicing fish, served a piece at a time. Try not to linger—this is sushi you'll want to eat right away, at optimal fish and rice temperatures. My most recent meal included exquisitely fatty chu-toro (tuna), super-soft aori ika (squid), and fresh, local aji (mackerel) with ginger and negi. Each piece was a work of art, though quickly consumed!
For Yakitori: Hajimeya
Some might send you to Omoide Yokocho (literally "Memory Lane," but better known as Piss Alley) to sit in cramped quarters while drinking beer and eating yakitori with Japanese salarymen. The, erm, "atmosphere" is interesting and you'll surely make friends despite the language barrier, but for chicken parts on sticks, I'd instead steer you to Hajimeya, in the Kabukicho district of Shinjuku. Of course, Kabukicho's atmosphere is also interesting, since it's as close to a red-light district as you'll find in Japan, but don't worry—it's safe. Here, you'll find ten seats at the counter, plus eight more at the window looking out on the street; I like to sit right near the glassed-in grilling area to watch the stick-man in action.
The menu lists some regular yakitori in both Japanese and Romaji (Romanized letters that will allow you to pronounce the items, but not necessarily recognize them; ask the chef and he might know in English, or at least point to his body to give you an idea!), but what distinguishes Hajimeya from other places is the toriwasa: chicken that's grilled on the outside, but raw on the inside. The chef uses extraordinarily fresh chicken, so it's generally quite safe to eat. And delicious. The rawness adds another dimension to the textural contrasts that make yakitori so fun to eat. The chicken is grilled over binchotan charcoal and flavored simply with a tare sauce (generally soy sauce, sake, mirin, and sugar), or just plain old salt. Order as little or as much at a time as you'd like; prices range from 129 yen (about $1.25) for torikawayaki, or crispy chicken skin, to 302 yen (about $3) for tebasaki (chicken wings). In addition to the skewers, I heartily recommend "melty" reba (liver), wonderfully tender seseri (neck), and crunchy sunagimo (gizzard), as well as an admittedly more adventurous order of chouchin: ovary combined with an egg that you break for dipping, the whole thing full of rich, earthy flavor.
For Horumonyaki: Saiseisakaba
Horumonyaki takes the concept of yakitori (generally chicken) a step further. Specializing in horumon, which means "the parts thrown away," it refers most often to pork and beef offal. As you may have guessed, horumon also refers to hormone, derived from the Greek word hormon, which means to set in motion. Indeed, many Japanese believe that eating horumonyaki makes one genki, or full of stamina. This is the kind of stuff that's especially hard to find in the United States.
For the best introduction, head to Saiseisakaba, which is a stand-up horumonyaki restaurant. You can eat at a counter at the grill, in the window, or grab a table outside the doors and become part of the diverse street scene. The counter is fun, and it's where you'll place your orders—spleen (soft, bloody, and minerally), various stomachs (with various textures), and pig trachea (crunchy, almost like biting pebbles)—à la carte (prices range from 140 yen, or about $1.40, for the basics to 525 yen, or about $5.25, for brains), which the chef passes to you right as they finish cooking. Horumonyaki are best accompanied by beer (my choice), shōchū (a Japanese distilled beverage), or sake. The setting is casual and friendly, full of drinkers, though the interior can get smoky from cooking and cigarettes. Ask for an English menu, but note that not everything translates well, and they're sometimes out of some items (like the penis and "birth canal" that I tried to pair together!). While you're there, you might also try motsuni, which is a miso-flavored stew of intestines and other pig parts, topped with negi. It's an addictive way to end a great horumonyaki meal.
For Good, Cheap Food with a View: Tochō
Can you keep a secret? Even most Tokyoites do not know about the room with a view and cheap but delicious eats at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, known as Tochō, for short. It's basically the building's cafeteria (well, technically, two cafeterias) designed to keep employees close during their lunch hours. But it's open to anyone; just take a main building elevator to the 32nd floor and follow the crowds. Figuring out the food system can be challenging, but basically you survey the plastic (and real) food scene, find the number of the item you want, go to the ticket machine to buy that item, and then determine which color-coded section of the cooking area to go to for pick-up. (The displays even show each plate's nutritional information.) Collect your chopsticks, napkins, and condiments across from the food pick-up area, and then take your tray to a table, where you'll enjoy an incredible view of Tokyo and mayhaps even a chance to talk with some "salarymen" and "office ladies." But back to the food: it's cheap (prices range from 420 to 680 yen, or roughly $4-7) and represents a spectrum of Japanese food, including noodles, katsu, curry, grilled fish, and Japanese-style Chinese food. The job might be a chore, but the options make it entirely worth the extra legwork.
For 1-Star Michelin Dining Under $10: Nakajima
Tokyo tops the world when it comes to Michelin-starred restaurants, but that doesn't mean you need to spend a fortune to enjoy the food at one of these acclaimed establishments. Not far from Shinjuku Station, in the basement floor of one of the city's many nondescript buildings, Nakajima serves up a set menu lunch at a bargain price of only 800 yen (about $8). Iwashi (sardines) are the star of the show during lunchtime. They're available fried with panko, sashimi-style, simmered in dashi with soy sauce (known as nizakana), or, for another 100 yen, prepared in an eggy casserole known as Yanagawa nabe. The set menu comes with miso soup, rice, and tsukemono (the pickled vegetables were daikon and mustard greens the last day I dined there), with green tea available at no additional charge.
In the nizakana preparation, slow simmering keeps the delicate sardine skin intact. Once you pull the flesh from the bone, the meat's oily-rich flavor really shines, thanks to a subtle dashi that lets the fish do most of the talking. In the sashimi prep, the firm slices of raw sardine sparkle with flecks of silver, served alongside wakame (seaweed) and grated ginger, which tends to pair well with silver fish. (I ignore the lemon wedge when I know I'm going to dip the fish in soy sauce.) With pricing and quality this good, it's no surprise that lines start forming at Nakajima before it even opens its doors. While a line that backs up from the basement entrance and climbs the steps to the street may seem intimidating, service is professional and efficient, with tables turning fairly quickly. Counter seats offer a view of the chefs at work, prepping for the dinner service that costs more than ten times the price of lunch.
For Sweets: Sadaharu Aoki
I believe a first-time visitor to Japan should stick to Japanese food, with one exception: French-style pastries and sweets. The Japanese excel as bakers, producing magnificent Paris-caliber desserts. When you're in Shinjuku, the best way to sample them is at Isetan department store. You'll want to go to Isetan anyway—the depachika (depato is department store and chika is basement) is a food mecca and Isetan's is one of the best. The sweets section is scintillating, with displays that look more like fine jewelry than edible treats. You'll find an assortment of traditional Japanese sweets, from manjū (dough buns, typically filled with red bean paste) to rakugan (sugar candies) to yōkan (jellied desserts).
The not-too-sweet approach also works well in preparation of Western cakes and pastries. Many bakers make a fascinating version of Mont Blanc, and you'll also find plenty of millefeuille, roll cakes, tarts, and baumkuchen. At Isetan, I specifically recommend a stop at Sadaharu Aoki, based in both Paris and Tokyo. Aoki is a master with matcha (Japanese green tea powder); I like to combine cultures in sampling his matcha croissant (334 yen, or about $3.30), which you can also try plain or with chocolate. Ask when they arrive so you can be sure to get them fresh (and before they run out). Even better is the matcha éclair (408 yen, or about $4, and also available in lemon and caramel). You can't eat these treats on-site, but one of the best parts of the depachika is the thoughtful and smart packaging that goes with every purchase. Note, though, that photography is not allowed in the stores, unless you can manage a stealth photo, as I did here. Shhh!