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How to Eat Like a Local in Tokyo

Updated: 10 February 2020

I have to warn you; once you experience the food scene in Tokyo you might find food elsewhere comparatively mundane against this exquisite chaos. The great thing about the sprawling metropolis that is Tokyo is that many region-specific cuisines can be found right here.To cover Tokyo food culture to its full capacity would take several encyclopedias, but here I hope to give you a taste of what lays in wait. If the idea of seeking out the best regional Japanese treasures in a city this size – the most densely populated metropolis in the world – intimidates you, it should, because how could a visitor root out those gems? It’s no small matter, and with food this good it deserves your best attempts. Where to eat in Tokyo, what to get and how to eat it (the intricate etiquette that accompanies a likewise complex food scene) have all been laid out right here in this Tokyo food guide, all you need on how to eat like a local in Tokyo.

Eating etiquette

The Japanese say two important phrases during mealtimes. “Itadakimasu!” Say this just before you start eating. It means something “I’m about to eat.” After you’ve finished eating, say “Gochiso sama deshita - this can also be said out loud as you’re leaving a restaurant. It means something similar to “Thank you for the meal.” If you’re eating from a small bowl, such as rice or soup, bring the bowl up to your mouth and eat every grain of rice if you can, as rice is considered precious and shouldn’t be wasted. It can be hard to catch the last few grains with your chopsticks, so use a spoon if you need to. When devouring a hearty bowl of ramen, feel free to slurp your noodles; in fact, if you don’t, everyone will think you are not enjoying your food! Eating in public places such as trains is considered bad manners, but this does depend on the situation. For example, avoid eating smelly fried foods on public transport, but if there’s a food festival or food stalls in an area, feel free to tuck in!

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Up your chopstick skills

There a lot of pitfalls awaiting westerners who come to Japan without improving their chopstick game, or at the very least brushing up on Japanese food etiquette. So to save you from these, here are the basics. Whilst Japanese food is mainly eaten with chopsticks this doesn’t include curry or bread, and knives and forks are usually included to cater to western diners. If you opt to use chopsticks, here are the basic rules to follow; don’t do anything with your chopsticks you wouldn’t do with a knife and fork – don’t suck on them, wave them around, use them to point, or lay them across your bowl (unless you’re done eating). When dishing from a communal bowl, use the larger communal chopsticks that accompany it. The more obscure rules include; don’t spear your food with your chopsticks, and don’t put them down crossed. Don’t stick your chopsticks into the rice, or leave them standing upright in your food, unless you’re at a funeral where this is customary. Likewise, passing food from your chopsticks to a receiving pair is reminiscent of funerals and said to bring bad luck. The other what not-to-dos are: don’t drag a dish towards yourself using your chopsticks or hover your chopsticks over dishes that are being shared while you decide what to eat.

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Sushi

When it comes to eating sushi, you should try it both as a cheap eat and at specialty sushi restaurants. To really eat like a local, head to a kaitenzushi (or kaiten) sushi shop, which are typically Japanese conveyor belt restaurants you’ll find everywhere. These tend to be budget friendly (while still good quality), and will prompt you to sample sushi you might not otherwise have tried. Numazukou is a great example of one of these, serving some of the best sushi in Tokyo without the hefty price tag. There are also more expensive places with highly trained chefs that have been preparing sushi for years. Here you can usually order your sushi a la carte, from a menu of chef specialities. If you have the budget, I recommend you try a sushi chef’s restaurant at least once. Misen is great if you want dinner with a view; fourteen floors up you’ll have panoramic views of the city lights and Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. To eat your sushi, pour some soy sauce into the small dish provided, dip the sushi (fish side down) into the soy sauce and eat the whole piece at once. You can also add wasabi (Japanese horseradish), which the chef will put on for you, but if you don’t like wasabi, ask for your sushi to be served “wasabi nuki.” You can eat sushi with your hands or with chopsticks.

Ramen

There are many great specialty ramen stores all over Tokyo, serving up some of the best ramen in Japan! And even though it’s less formal a dish than sushi, there are still some rules to eating it. You’ll be served your ramen with chopsticks and a spoon – use the spoon to taste the broth; experiencing the flavour of the dish right away. Then dip into the ramen with your chopsticks and taste the noodles. As previously mentioned, it’s completely ok to slurp as you eat – it’s expected! Bringing cool air into your mouth to avoid burning yourself is also fine and tells the chef you’re enjoying your meal. Then, enjoy the noodles and the toppings together, since if you eat all the toppings at once, you’ll just be left with broth and noodles. You can also add condiments such as black pepper and tougarashi (spicy chilli pepper) depending on your taste, which you’ll find on the table at every ramen shop. There are thousands of ramen vendors to sample in the city; to narrow it down to one area where you might slurp many variations of ramen, head to Shinjuku, a place where everyone is accepted and anything goes! Try your ramen at Afuri, which serves a selection of ramen you won’t find outside of Japan, or Ra-mendainingu domiso for some of the best ramen in Tokyo.


 

Soba

This must try food in Tokyo can be found all over, in speciality soba shops, at traditional washoku restaurants – among the best places to eat in Tokyo – and even some izakaya. When it comes to eating soba, it depends on if you’ve ordered the hot or cold version. If it’s hot, eat it how you would eat ramen: taste the broth, slurp the noodles, and add any condiments available. For cold soba, it will be served with a small bowl of tare sauce (a slightly sweet, slightly salty dipping sauce), a bowl of negi (spring onions) and wasabi. You can put these into the tare sauce as you like. Dip some of the soba noodles into the sauce and then eat them from the bowl using chopsticks. When you’ve finished the noodles, the restaurant staff will bring hot water in a teapot and add it to the tare sauce, making a sort of soup drink you can enjoy. Soba is often served with a dish of tempura.

Izakaya and tachinomiya

Izakaya are informal Japanese pubs, while tachinomiya are standing bars which have experienced a resurgence in popularity among younger generations. Izakaya and tachinomiya are known for serving a variety of small plates of food, similar to tapas, easy to eat while socialising and great with a cold beer. Usually small, with limited seating – or in the case of tachinomiya no seating at all – these bars are very affordable and popular among businessmen after a long day at work, making them perfect for cheap drinks, eats and crowd-watching. At a tachinomiya you’ll be able to get sake, beer and other alcoholic drinks, as well as a wide array of small and easy to eat dishes, such as gyoza (steamed and fried dumplings), sashimi, tofu, tamagoyaki (egg), and kushikatsu (deep-fried skewered meat and vegetables). At izakaya, you have the benefit of being able to sit down and relax with your food and drinks. Common foods at izakaya vary, but they can include sushi, yakitori (skewered meat), and fried octopus, which is delicious!

Street food

Street vendors are the custodians of excellent Japanese cuisine and where you’ll find some of the city’s best food. Takoyaki, or octopus balls, are balls of tasty, crispy batter filled to bursting with a flavorful combination of spring onion, ginger, octopus and tempura pieces. You’ll find these little flavor bombs in abundance at Tsukiji, Tokyo’s main fish market – where a lively theatre of seafood awaits, with wholesalers loudly punting their producer. The sprawling city of stalls is home to street food vendors of all kinds, making this a spot to find some of the best street food in Tokyo. Taiyaki is another noteworthy street food, particularly for those with a sweet tooth. These fish-shaped pancakes, dating back to the Meiji period, are traditionally filled with red bean paste but nowadays come in variations of custard cream, chocolate, sweet potato, cheese, and even matcha dough. These are best eaten fresh, while they’re still warm and gooey in the middle. To try authentic style taiyaki in Tokyo get these at Teriyaki Wakaba where these sweet treats have been made for over a hundred years.

Conveni Food

You wouldn’t dream of recommending convenience store food to a foreigner visiting your city, would you? Well, just think for a moment that if not, the said visitor might never encounter the everyday delicacies sold there. Specifically because those truly authentic cultural tidbits come at the price of just more than a pack of chewing gum. Here, the corner store serves Japanese croquettes and nikuman (meat buns)! Conveni might be convenience stores, but they’re so unique a Japanese experience – when I need a snack to go the closest conveni is my port of call. Open 24/7, these shops are convenient to pick up street food anytime, anywhere. The best known conveni chains are 7-Eleven, Familymart, Lawson and Ministop, and are everywhere in Tokyo. Each conveni has a unique menu, but some of the best conveni eats include savoury treats like Jagariko potato sticks and Onigiri rice snacks, or candy like Haichū and Mochi, whose marshmallowy texture will transport you back to childhood. Last but not least is that magical food known to transcend international borders; fried chicken.