Japan: Tokyo Pub Crawl
Step into one of Tokyo’s countless izakaya—small bars with eclectic menus—and you’ll get an instant taste of the city’s unpolished, alluring nightlife, not to mention some of its most delicious food. Start in frenetic Shibuya at En (11F Toei Plaza, 1-24-12 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku; dinner for two $80), which has an extensive English menu. The small plates such as lotus-root kimpira and black-pepper chicken keep salarymen and hipsters alike coming back for more.
For an only-in-Tokyo experience, visit Shibuya’s Nonbei Yokocho (Drunkard’s Alley), along the train tracks, a warren of alleyways marked with glowing red lanterns. There are dozens of food-and-drink counters, but we love energetic Ms. Tama and her Korean- and Moroccan-inspired dishes at Kibi (1-25-9 Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya, Shibuya-ku; dinner for two $100).
A 15-minute walk away, the izakaya goes upscale at Maru (B1 Aoyama KT Building, 5-50-8 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; dinner for two $120), whose chef-owner Keiji Mori was trained in haute kaiseki cuisine. Try his Wagyu beef and silky, house-made tofu.
For an adventure, head to Shinjuku for Kabuto (1-2-11 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; snacks for two $40), which has for the past 64 years served only eel—and every part of it—char-grilled on skewers. A course of seven sticks is called hito-tori, and that’s what everyone orders. Nearby is Kanae (3-12-12 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; dinner for two $100), a nostalgic favorite with a long sake list, tender pork-stuffed cabbage rolls, and fried fugu (blowfish).
In Nogizaka, Uoshin (9-6-32 Akasaka, Minato-ku; dinner for two $100) is a rare izakaya with a sushi counter, but the shioyaki (salt-grilled) fish may be the best seafood you’ve ever eaten. —Mark Robinson
Where to Splurge
Japanese cuisine is elevated to an art form in the city’s best kaiseki and sushi restaurants. Below, two dining experiences that top our list.
Kanda: Chef Hiroyuki Kanda uses only the finest ingredients in his multicourse kaiseki dinners, which can include wakame seaweed and delicate preparations of Wagyu beef. 3-6-34 Motoazabu, Minato-ku; dinner for two $400.
Sushiso Masa: In a seven-seat dining room, sushi master Masakatsu Oka reveals the complexity of fish and shellfish using dozens of cuts and techniques—without repeating a single flavor or texture. B1, 4-1-15 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; dinner for two $450.
T+L Tip: not all izakaya have English menus. so here’s our secret weapon: Jibbigo ($4.99), a downloadable, speech-to-speech voice translator app for your smart phone.