Japanese food in Tokyo for most culinary travellers means sushi, soba, tempura, and ramen – fish, seafood and noodles – but when I fantasise about eating Japanese food in Tokyo, unlike Jiro I’m not dreaming of sushi. I’m thinking grilling and barbecue.
While Jiro dreams of sushi prepared in immaculate minimalist spaces, my dreams of Japanese food in Tokyo feature yakitori, yakiniku, motsuyaki, and jingisukan – succulent grilled and barbecued meats served in smoke-filled joints so casual you could find yourself doing your own cooking or standing up to eat.
Terence has been cooking up a storm this month, baking sourdough, French boules and hot cross buns one week, and frying, barbecuing and grilling tsukune, tonkatsu, and karaage the next. It’s those charcoal grilled, charring and twice-fried Japanese meats that have had me dreaming of a long-overdue eating trip to Japan.
Terence’s tonkatsu, a perfectly deep-fried, breaded pork cutlet and cabbage, has had me reminiscing about our last trip to Japan and the tranquil tonkatsu place at sleek Roppongi Hills where we tucked into the Tokyo specialty in silence.
However, it’s not long before those foodie reveries transport me to the boisterous Tokyo eateries that I prefer – the cheap and cheerful casual places – the tachinomiya and izakaya – that specialise in the likes of jingisukan, yakitori, yakiniku, motsuyaki, and more. This is the Japanese food you need to eat in Tokyo!
Japanese Food in Tokyo – Why You Need to Eat Yakitori, Yakiniku, Motsuyaki and More
Our last trip to Tokyo was essentially a two-week eating trip. We hadn’t gone to dine on that trip we had gone to eat.
We weren’t interested in making reservations at Michelin starred restaurants. We had wanted to go where the locals went to breakfast, to lunch and to graze after post-work drinks. We were also eager to experience the kind of serendipitous discoveries we had on our inaugural Japan trip.
Many years earlier, as young travellers, Tokyo had been the first destination we ever visited with our fresh Australian passports, and we got lucky with our first Tokyo lunch: sublime noodles at a local eatery we stumbled upon in a Shinjuku laneway – we ordered by pointing to the plastic replicas in the window and the noodles were absolutely wonderful.
We hoped for the same sort of luck again. On our first night venturing out in search of some Japanese food in Tokyo we came upon a noisy neighbourhood izakaya not far from our apartment. Packed with locals, with plastic milk crates topped with cushions for chairs, and friendly staff with the day’s specials handwritten on paper signs stapled to their t-shirts, it was a great find.
As soon as we sat down, the first thing that caught our eyes were the summer oysters: colossal, plump, and disappearing fast from the seafood display. We quickly ordered a few each, then a few more. Then some sashimi that was skilfully being sliced in front of us, glistening under the bright lights of the bar. Then delicious tempura that had a light batter that deftly coated amazingly crisp sweet prawns and fresh vegetables.
The next morning we made the mistake of grabbing a guidebook from the apartment rental we were staying in and went out in search of a ‘famous’ noodle place the book recommended. After that disappointing first ramen we decided to trust our instincts once again.
Just around the corner from the ramen spot were some eateries with long lines of locals that looked far more interesting than our empty lunch venue. We didn’t open the guidebook again and the next night we returned to one of them – an atmospheric stand-up place that was crammed with locals called the Nihon Saisei Sakaba or Japan Reborn Bar.
Decorated in the nostalgic mid-20th century style that was popular in Tokyo at the time, with plenty of worn wood and retro touches, the placed warmed our hearts, as did the food. We ordered with the help of our neighbouring diner, by watching what the chef was turning on the grill, and by snooping at the plates on the pass. It was one of those “we’ll have what they’re having” kind of meals.
From the restaurant’s only English-language menu that listed gullet, trachea, spleen, rectum, stomach, breast, and uterus, and the like, we pointed to the parts that we guessed were the ones that we’d liked the look of, ordering countless tapas-size plates of barbecued, grilled and barely-seared raw offal, including small and large intestines, tongue, shoulder, raw liver, and raw heart.
We weren’t deterred by the waiter who muttered “courageous, courageous…” in English with a cheeky smile as he took our orders. Although we stopped at raw brains. We loved that the place celebrated the tradition of using every part of the animal. It couldn’t have been further from a several hundred-dollar sushi menu and it was all incredibly delicious.
We would later learn that horumon (grilled offal and innards) or nose-to-tail dining was called horumonyaki or motsuyaki and the type of cuisine was horumon ryori (offal cuisine). Next trip we’ll be seeking out more of these eateries and we’ll most definitely be having the brains.
Equally memorable and just as much fun were the yakitori bars lining an atmospheric laneway and side alleys beside Shinjuku railway line. Known as Omoide Yokocho or Memory Lane (also known as ‘Piss Alley’), the gritty, old-fashioned quarter defied Tokyo’s reputation as a futuristic city and its rustic and often rowdy eateries provided a stark contrast to the sleek, minimalist restaurants normally associated with eating Japanese food in Tokyo.
A black market area after World War II, Omoide Yokocho’s skinny lanes of dilapidated wooden buildings were lined with dozens of smoky yakitori bars famous for their simple skewers grilled over open flames. We hopped on a couple of stools at a particularly loud diner-like place blaring heavy metal music whose proprietor wore an Ozzy Osbourne t-shirt.
Just like the Japan Reborn Bar, there was no menu in English but the cool young bloke beside us helped with our order, suggesting the seared raw liver in sesame oil (his favourite) for starters, washed down with a shot of shōchū with soda and lemon called chūhai. I remember us toasting “kampai!” with our new friends and the fantastic food we feasted on in that tiny smoky spot in the heart of Tokyo that oozed charm.
Another night we returned for more yakitori and the rest of the trip for me is a blur of chicken skewers, cheap cuts of grilled meats (yakiniku), and Hokkaido-style slices of mutton grilled over dome-shaped barbecues called jingisukan after Genghis Khan (the Mongol army was thought to have cooked their lamb on their helmets).
When I think of eating Japanese food in Tokyo, it’s those smoky skewers, the grilled offal bits, the barely seared raw meats, and the barbecued lamb, that come to mind. So much so that when I start to ponder a return trip to Tokyo it’s yakitori, yakiniku and motsuyaki joints that I start dreaming about. Sorry, Jiro, it’s not sushi.
Skip the guidebooks and see the Japan National Tourism Organization site for more tips on where to eat Japanese food in Tokyo, the 10 must-try dishes, the most adventurous Japanese specialties, and the must-do culinary experiences.