How to eat in Tokyo like it's your last week on earth

Stir it up: Kitsuneya Tsukiji serves a rich offal stew.
Stir it up: Kitsuneya Tsukiji serves a rich offal stew. Photo: Sofia Levin

A funny thing happened on the way to the metro. I can't tell you the exact moment when I tweaked my ankle running for the train, but when I woke up on day one of an obsessive-compulsively researched food tour of Tokyo, I could barely walk. Horrified, I limped to the nearest pharmacy and bought "Eve" over the counter. It sounded like a contraceptive pill, but Google promised me ibuprofen. According to my FitBit, I hobbled more than 28,000 agonising steps that day. It's extraordinary what the body – my body – can endure when distracted by food.

Tokyo is overwhelming at the best of times, so my strategy was to gather tips and articles before compiling a master list of places to eat and drink arranged by suburb. It worked, but as is the case in Tokyo, things don't always go according to plan.

Hole-in-the-wall coffee shop About Life.
Hole-in-the-wall coffee shop About Life. Photo: Sofia Levin

Tokyo Station and Ginza

Drugged up with my ankle dragging behind me like a zombie, we caught the train to Tokyo Station. After wrestling with Google Maps, asking for directions in broken Japanese and taking a lift to a restaurant whose line made us turn around in a huff, we found the stairs to the right of the Yaesu South exit and descended to Ramen Street, a strip of underground restaurants that should be part of everyone's Japanese food pilgrimage.

I had to feed my pescatarian partner before "hanger" set in. I ushered him into a restaurant specialising in cod roe across from popular ramen shop Rokurinsha. After watching the line expand for half an hour, I joined the end. Staff members thrust menus into the eager hands of those in the queue until it was my turn to order at the vending machine. Minutes after we sat, the pescatarian was watching me tuck into tsukemen – dense, chewy ramen noodles dipped into thick pork and chicken broth umamified with dried, smoked fish. When my noodles were gone, I made like a regular and gestured to a waiter, who promptly topped up my dipping sauce with hot water so I could finish it as a soup.

Walking off two lunches seemed more important than resting my ankle, so we set off to Ginza. On the way to Cafe de l'Ambre, a kissaten (coffee shop) that has been open since 1948, we stopped to take photographs of meerkats in tiny suits and cats on a street sign. When we arrived the 100-year-old-plus owner held the fort as we took a seat at a curved wooden bar. There's something therapeutic about watching baristas measure out aged beans on weighted scales. The meticulous process was as much an experience as my sweetened black coffee with egg yolk. Trust me, it works.

Zaku Zaku's almond pastry.
Zaku Zaku's almond pastry. Photo: Sofia Levin

Shibuya and Harajuku

Shibuya was next on the agenda, starting with a cold brew from hole-in-the-wall coffee shop, About Life. From there it's a short walk to Uobei, where sushi ordered from a screen arrives by conveyer belt. Within 20 minutes of leaving I was already putting unnecessary pressure on my ankle at Standing Sushi Bar around the corner from the bustling Shibuya crossing. I shifted my weight and watched as sushi chefs turned fresh seafood and rice into nigiri with the flick of a wrist, placing it in front of each customer on a wide leaf.

Nearby on the sixth floor of Shibuya Hikarie is a branch of Maisen tonkatsu. The most atmospheric store is in Ayoama in a converted bathhouse, but all of them are known for panko-crumbed, deep-fried pork cutlets so tender and juicy I spent an hour trying to figure out how to bring the concept to Australia (tip: get one of the sandwiches to go if you have had a little too much sake the night before).

Following a quick New York-style slice at Pizza Slice, we walked to Harajuku past tourists dressed as Mario characters, precariously driving beside cars in go-karts. It was time for dessert. I lined up at Dominique Ansel Bakery, skipping cronuts in favour of cookie shot "glasses" filled with milk and a chunky marshmallow torched to order with a custard ice-cream centre, known as a Frozen S'more. Omotesado Hills is over the road if you want to check out newly opened Fratelli Paradiso from Sydney.


We walked up Jingumae, stopping only at Kiddy Land – a multistorey toy store – before turning right at the first intersection. Soon we came to Takeshita Street, a crowded thoroughfare of kitsch shops and crepe stands. People wielding giant tri-coloured cotton candy marked the location of the oh-so-Instagrammable Totti Candy Factory, while Croquant Chou Zaku Zaku's Hokkaido-style almond pastries are halfway between a churro and eclair, piped to order with vanilla-flecked custard. Around the corner, past girls in frilly pink dresses with blue hair, is Yoyogi Park. We burned some calories exploring Meiji Shrine then watched the Japanese rockabilly gangs twist and jive at the main entrance, as they do every Sunday.

Tsukiji market

One morning of every Tokyo trip should be spent at Tsukiji fish market. Although there are plans for its relocation, dates are being finalised and are a while off yet. Tourists generally line up for hours to eat at Daiwa Sushi or Sushi Dai – I've been to both and much preferred dining at the outer market. We arrived at 8am, which meant two hours of eating before the wholesale fish market opened to the public. The best breakfast spots are on the Shin-Ohashi Dori side. There's no reason why one can't start by slurping ramen beside locals at Chuka Soba Inoue, before moving onto horumon – a rich and complex offal stew at Kitsuneya. The older lady scooping it into bowls will try to refuse you at first if you don't look Japanese, so persist. Follow my lead and turn left when you hit the corner; just past the knife shops is an onigiri rice triangle stand, and further along there's Yamacho, a store selling tamagoyaki – sweet, rectangular omelettes on a stick. Beyond that, any of the stalls in the aisles and alleys are ideal for a sushi don rice bowl piled with sparkling salmon roe and sashimi.

Slurp ramen with the locals at Chuka Soba Inoue.
Slurp ramen with the locals at Chuka Soba Inoue. Photo: Sofia Levin


About a 45-minute train ride from Shibuya is Senso Ji, Tokyo's oldest temple. Some visit to learn about Buddhism, others line up to worship. I was in it for the snacks. At the foot of the temple are stalls selling okonomi-yaki pancakes, deep-fried takoyaki octopus balls and chocolate-covered bananas with sprinkles. It's also less than 10 minutes from Kappabashi Dori Kitchen Town.

On the way there we stumbled across a queue – and if there's one thing I've learnt in Tokyo, it's that joining a line never ends in disappointment. Within 15 minutes I was sitting on a ledge, face deep in melon pan from Kagetsudo Bakery. The sweet, scored bread roll resembled a melon in size only. Brittle and sugary on the outside, soft and buttery on the inside and filled with soft-serve for good measure, it's clear why people have been lining up here since 1945.

In floaty melon pan bliss we arrived at Kappabashi. An 800-metre strip with nearly 200 kitchenware shops snapped me back to reality. Beautiful ceramics, sake and tea sets, knives, chopsticks and cat-shaped boiled egg moulds – you name it, I nearly bought it. Doesn't every food writer need an ebi sushi penholder?

Blissful: Kagetsudo Bakery's melon pan.
Blissful: Kagetsudo Bakery's melon pan. Photo: Sofia Levin

Eight more essential Tokyo eats


Tokyo's strict restaurant booking policies can make scoring seats at high-end sushi restaurants like Sukiyabashi Jiro and Sushi Saito near impossible, especially if you stay at an Airbnb (no concierge, no booking). Another way to find a sushi-ya splurge is by looking on Tabelog, a website with crowd-sourced ratings. Anything scored 3.5 and above won't disappoint.


Taiyaki - sweet fish-shaped waffle.
Taiyaki - sweet fish-shaped waffle. Photo: Sofia Levin

Gen Yamamoto's eponymous, minimalist bar is easy to book via email. Choose from four to six superbly balanced seasonal cocktails and watch an artist at work in his crisp white jacket at his hefty oak bar.


Located under the glowing Tokyo Tower, you enter Tokyo Shibar Tofuya Ukai through a Japanese garden complete with koi pond and maple trees before being led up stairs and around corners to a private room. There are multiple courses but tofu is the specialty and can taste more like soft, mild cheese than what you're used to. Book via phone.


You can easily spend an evening at Ebisu Yochoko, an arcade of izakayas built inside an old shopping centre. There's not a lot of English, but there's plenty of beer and if you're feeling game, karaoke.


Kanda Matsuya in Chiyoda has been making soba noodles for more than 130 years. Smiling staff gesture to the kitchen, where you can see fresh noodles being rolled and cut by hand.


Book a seat at the bar at Kushiwakamaru in the laid-back suburb of Nakameguro and watch skewers of meat, offal, vegetables and even cod roe sacs grill over hot coals. Head back to the main road for dessert – a corner shop selling sweet fish-shaped taiyaki waffles.


Inside the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo is the Nihonbashi Sembikiya flagship store. Downstairs sells overly packaged premium fruit that can cost more than a small car. Up the escalator you can take high tea of sorts with oddly addictive fruit and cream finger sandwiches.


You can book both Narisawa and DEN online, number 18 and 45 on The World's 50 Best restaurants list 2017 respectively, but you must do so in advance, according to website instructions. The former is an enlightening degustation with tableside theatre and hyper-seasonal ingredients. The latter's much more playful with creative references to traditional dishes and pop culture, such as rice-stuffed fried chicken with the packaging to match.

Rokurinsha, 1-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku (Tokyo Station Ichibangai Basement Floor, B1F Yaesu South Exit)

Cafe de l'Ambre, 8-10-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku

Uomaru Honten, International Arcade, 2-1-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku Tokyo

About Life, 1-19-8 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku

Uobei, 2-29-11 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku (more branches)

Standing Sushi Bar, 2-9-1 Dogenzaka Shibuya-ku (more branches)

Maisen, Shibuya Hikarie Building, 6F 2-21-1 Shibuya (more branches)

Pizza Slice, 1-3 Sarugaku-cho, Shibuya-ku

Dominique Ansel Bakery, 5-7-14 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku (also in Ginza)

Fratelli Paradiso, Omotesando Hills, 4-12-10 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku

Totti Candy Factory, 2F 1-16-5 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku

Croquant Chou Zaku Zaku, Cute Cube 1F 1-7-1 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku

Chuka Soba Inoue, 4-9-16 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku

Kitsuneya, 4-9-12 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku

Tsukiji Yamachō, 4-10-10 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku

Kappabashi Dori, Taito-ku

Kagetsudo Bakery, 2-7-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku

Gen Yamamoto, 1-6-4 Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku

Tokyo Shibar Tofuya Ukai, 4-4-13 Shibakoen Minato-ku

Ebisu Yochoko, 1-7-4 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku

Kanda Matsuya, 1-13 Kanda-Sudacho, Chiyoda-ku

Kushiwakamaru, 1-19-2 Kamimeguro, Meguro-ku

Sembikiya, Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower 2-1-2 Nihonbashi-Muromachi, Chuo-ku

Narisawa, Minami Aoyama 2-6-15, Minato-Ku

DEN, Architect house hall JIA 2-3-18 Jingumae, Shibuya-Ku