Japan’s capital may be the most food-crazed city on earth.
In my work as a food writer I’ve suffered lost reservations and long waits for bad tables but never—never!—have I been subjected to the serial heartbreak I suffered at the door of a neighborhood pastry shop on my last visit to Tokyo. Every morning my partner, Barry, and I would wait in the rain outside the Ginza patisserie Hidemi Sugino—only to learn yet again that some greedy matron ahead of me had just snatched the last cherry financier and fromage-blanc mousse. Granted, Sugino’s creations are baked daily in minuscule quantities, which qualifies them as gentei (limited-edition) and thus extra-desirable: Birkin bags for the taste buds.
I’d come to Tokyo on a mission to sample just such gastro-fads in a city positively bursting with them. Our first morning in Tokyo, we see hundreds of kids lined up to buy cod-roe costumes inspired by a pasta sauce commercial. We see trompe l’oeil fast food—burgers, fish burgers, fries—all fashioned entirely from chocolate and custard. This food-obsessed megalopolis moves on to the next cult comestible faster than a seasonal Kit Kat can fly off the shelves (yes, Kit Kat flavors are seasonal here; ditto Coke).
Whether it’s kaiten sushi or kanten jelly, cone pizza or collagen-packed soft-shell-turtle meat, this city devours it all. In Tokyo, the sublime meets the ridiculous, and handmade collides with high-tech—sometimes all in one bite. Hungry?Here, some tasting notes from the edge.
From Gyoza Stadium to Ice Cream City
Even though the city itself resembles a culinary safari ride, locals also love food theme parks and sometimes downright garish themed bars and restaurants. Cantonese-food fans prowl Daiba Little Hong Kong, an uncanny simulacrum of downtown Kowloon; noodle maniacs head straight to Yokohama’s Ramen Museum. Us, we go to binge at Gyoza Stadium, inside the indoor multi-attraction extravaganza called Namjatown, near the frenetic Ikebukuro Station. The stadium’s riotous kitschy sprawl is part pinball-like pachinko parlor—Namjatown is owned by Namco, a gaming giant—part nostalgia ride through 50’s Japan. Socialist-realist portraits of famed gyoza chefs from various prefectures decorate faux-rustic booths hawking their creations. We try delicate fried shrimp and shiso-leaf pouches; nouvelle multicolored gyoza with black-vinegar dipping sauce; and fat Okinawan pork dumplings in spicy oil. Next, we’re off to Ice Cream City, a sweets spectacular one floor up. After threading past gelato stands and Turkish guys in national garb selling orchid-root–thickened ice cream (I’ve never seen this outside Istanbul), we raid Cup Ice Museum, a theme park within a theme park, for small cartons of the frozen stuff. Among some 300 flavors on offer are Christmas Island salt, soy chicken, and preserved cherry blossom. In the dainty tubs of pearl ice cream—today’s top seller—customers might chance upon a real pearl. And who knew that eel ice cream could taste so compelling, with its caramely salty-sweet teriyaki kick and a dusting of sansho pepper?I can’t resist calling my friend Ferran Adrià in Barcelona. “Ferran está en Tokyo,” his assistant replies. Where else?
There are 70 kinds of salt at the depachika (department store basement food hall) of Takashimaya Times Square, and right now the store’s vinegar sommelier is tempting me with Vermont Drink, a cassis sipping vinegar, and nifty “infuse-your-own-vinegar” kits. After 10 minutes here I’m about to pass out from sheer sensory overload. With 2,700 square feet of space occupied by some 120 outlets of Japanese and international gourmet purveyors, Takashimaya isn’t even the largest depachika in Tokyo (that would be Seibu, in Ikebukuro). Tokyo’s subterranean food halls function like runway shows for global gastronomic couture, and merchants here change with lightning speed. On my frenzied Takashimaya rounds, I note that since my last visit here, the outpost of Peck, the fabled Milanese deli, has swallowed several concessions around it; that the best-selling items are wearing no. 1 flags; that a TV crew is filming the arrival of the season’s first peach éclairs at Fauchon. Trying to dodge the stampede for Canadian blueberry honey packaged in perfume vials, I knock over an exquisite display of $150 muskmelons. I bow apologetically and scurry away.
Pop Goes the Market
If the depachika are teeming cathedrals of food commerce, konbini (convenience stores) are Tokyo’s bright domesticated shrines to consumerism. At their corner Lawson, AM/PM, or 7-Eleven, Tokyoites can pay utility bills, buy baseball tickets, and send parcels 24/7 while slurping down bowls of udon or Neapolitan zuppa di pesce. Konbini are sprouting up at hospitals and schools—even police stations. Yes, they push Mars bars and chips—but in a myriad of novelty flavors. Here are racks of those limited-edition Kit Kats: cherry blossom, green tea, “chocolatier wine.” Grab them while they last (or try eBay). Soda is seasonal too: Pepsi’s Ice Cucumber flavor was discontinued after selling almost 5 million bottles in just a few weeks. Of the current flood tide of soft drinks (a $32 billion–a-year national industry), bihade (beautiful skin) potions reign supreme. If Shiseido’s collagen brew doesn’t deliver the equivalent of plastic surgery in a bottle, try a jelly drink enriched with ( yikes! ) porcine placenta. My favorite konbini chain, Natural Lawson, indulges the current eco-friendly mood with treats like stupendous red-bean-paste–filled organic croissants and dainty whole-grain-bread sandwiches made into sushi rolls. And how nice to be told the exact origin (Miyazaki prefecture) of the hormone-free chicken in your dog-food purchase.
Crazy for Pastry
After being turned away from Sugino, and then from Gucci Café—ah, those coveted chocolate Gucci logos—we have roughly a trillion other spectacular patisseries to console ourselves with. At the Marunouchi salon of idol-pâtissier Sadaharu Aoki, I admire the slender green-tea éclairs. At the elegant Mikimoto Lounge, inside the company’s new tower in Ginza, we plump for a pearl-themed dessert—fromage blanc, passion fruit, tapioca—among bejeweled neighborhood belles and their steamer-trunk–size Dior shopping bags. Still, if one held a popularity contest for Japan’s favorite sweet, the mont blanc (a rococo arrangement of chestnut purée, sponge cake, and meringue) would beat napoleons and macaroons by a landslide. “That’s because its chestnut flavor bridges the gap between traditional wagashi and French pastry,” explains my friend Maki, editor of Sweet Café, a glossy magazine entirely devoted to pastry trends. One day we convene at Patisserie Satsuki, at the New Otani Hotel, for a mont blanc degustation that includes a Milano (Italian chestnuts, ricotta, Gorgonzola crust); a Tokyo ( Japanese chestnuts and sticky rice sponge); and a Paris (marron glacé over a meringue base). The winner?Actually, it’s a fourth version, from the adjacent Pierre Hermé shop. France’s top pastry provocateur, Hermé is a household name in Tokyo, with several boutiques and a swank marbled Bar Chocolat created by Wonderwall, the cutting-edge design firm behind Uniqlo stores. Why do Gallic confectioners even bother with France?
Pork is the New Kobe
The prized Ibérico swine is consumed in Japan with such gusto you wonder if there are any of the acorn-munching black hogs left in Andalusia. The idea of Ibérico pork turned tonkatsu—as in proletarian panko-breaded fried pork cutlet—might offend Spanish snobs, but just let said snobs taste it at Butagumi. Literally translated as “pig gang,” this new-wave tonkatsu temple occupies a quaint timber-framed house in a quiet residential enclave near big, bright Roppongi. Besides tonkatsu Ibérico—limited, of course, to just a few servings a day—a roster of domestic pork cutlets proudly showcases hand-reared hog from Japanese boutique farms. Order a “Butagumi-zen” menu and you get five mini-tonkatsu stuck with tiny flags identifying their provenance. This is pork with a Ph.D.
Drinking While Standing
Tachinomiya, standing-room-only bars, have evolved from dives filled with pickled salarymen (groping guaranteed) to sleek watering holes where the notoriously shy young Japanese can strike up conversations over glasses of Austrian Grüner Veltliner, Australian sparkling Shiraz, or artisanal sake. At the dark, designy, one-person-deep Buchi, near Shinjuku Station, the ravishing female bartender introduces us to the “one-cup sake” trend—single servings sold in colorful little jars. “It keeps the sake fresh, and the cute labels attract female drinkers,” she explains. (Do any consumer trends in Japan target men?) Buri, Buchi’s sister establishment in Ebisu, has an entire wall of color-coordinated miniature sake containers behind its handsome circular bar. Natty gaijin (foreigners) and Japanese hipsters alternate slugs of their junmai and daiginjo with bites of pork-cheek yakitori, sautéed sea urchin and watercress, and fugu (blowfish) roe preserved in sake lees. A fashion executive next to me tells us that the cup-sake craze even inspired a lingerie company to create cup-sake–themed bras. Barry drinks to that.
A perfect slab of standard-issue Okinawan Spam lovingly griddled in butter is tied with a nori ribbon to a mustard-slicked rice ball in possibly the most perversely delicious sushi I’ve ever encountered. We and Robbie Swinnerton, food critic for the Japan Times, are enjoying it at Teppei, a blond, narrow haunt semihidden in the folksy Kagurazaka neighborhood. Here, lost on the low-rise-lined backstreets, one can still imagine Old Edo. Teppei isn’t your average Spam-centric Okinawan greasy spoon, but a connoisseur’s izakaya specializing in esoteric shochu spirits and 10 kinds of ume-shu (plum) liqueur (“a trend in the making,” Robbie opines). Best of all, Teppei employs the services of a certified Vegetable and Fruit Meister, a.k.a. produce sommelier, Japan’s budding food profession. Spam sushi with a tempura of absurdly perfect asparagus?Only in Tokyo.
Anya von Bremzen is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.
Laporte Aoyama, first and second floors, 5-51-8 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/5485-7766.
Nomoto Building, first floor, 9-7 Shinsen, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/5728-2085; light meal for two $100.
1-14-1 Ebisu Nishi, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/3496-7744; light meal for two $80.
2-24-9 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; 81-3/5466-6775; dinner for two $150.
Decks Tokyo Beach, 1-6-1 Daiba, Minato-ku; 81-3/3599-6500; lunch for two $30.
4-4-10 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3562-8112.
Namco Namja Town, second and third floors, Sunshine City, Higashi-Ikebukuro 3 cho-me, Toshima-ku; 81-3/5950-0765; $3 admission fee; lunch for two $15.
Kyobashi Daiei Building, 3-6-17 Kyobashi, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3538-6780.
Mikimoto Ginza 2 Building, third floor, 2-4-12 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3562-3134.
Shinkokusai Building, first floor, 3-4-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; 81-3/5293-2800.
New Otani Hotel, 4-1 Kioi-cho, Chiyoda-ku; 81-3/3221-7252.
New Otani Hotel, 4-1 Kioi-cho, Chiyoda-ku; 81-3/3221-7252.
5-24-2 Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/5361-1111.
4-2-30 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku; 81-3/3269-5456; dinner for two $110.
Museum 2-14-21 Shin-Yokohama, Kohoku-ku, Yokohama; 81-45/471-0503; $3 admission fee; lunch for two $20.