TURN left on a bustling Ginza street, enter a generic office building, ride the minuscule elevator up three floors and there’s Sushi Sawada — a seven-stool, two Michelin-starred sushi den where English is forbidden (at least until you charm the chef) and meals are treated with a reverence typically reserved for church, according to the New York Post.
That’s the thing about Tokyo: behind every facade is a wonderful mystery — and, often, a delectable meal — waiting to be uncovered.
All the surprises (and yes, lack of English spoken) can no doubt make for an overwhelming planning process for the Tokyo newbie.
So let’s go slowly.
WHERE TO STAY
First, pick a place to stay. Thanks to the 2020 Olympics on the horizon, new hotels are shooting up left and right. But mainstays like the 157-room, 21-suite Mandarin Oriental (from A$566) still reign supreme with loyal (and wealthy) visitors flocking for the dizzying views and the 37th-floor infinity Japanese baths. The A-plus concierge team has cultivated relationships with some of the city’s most coveted restaurants, which is a major coup given that most won’t even accept reservations from gaijin, non-Japanese speakers (apparently, we Westerners have a tendency to show up late, a big no-no in Tokyo).
WHAT TO EAT
Skip the formal sit-down breakfast room for the buffet option and make a point of visiting the hotel’s molecular gastronomy restaurant, the Tapas Molecular Bar, which is part magic show, part culinary spectacle, reserved by locals months in advance for special occasions. Noma recently did a pop-up at the restaurant and there was a 16,000 person waiting list!
Visiting Tokyo restaurants can be an all-consuming activity. But make sure to splurge on a meal at Sawada — which, unlike its competitor Jiro, doesn’t feed you 20 pieces of sushi in 20 minutes. Pro tip: when Chef Sawada inquires at the end of the omakase what else you’d like to eat, the extra sushi is all included. The Japanese man sitting to my right ordered 10 additional pieces including a mammoth tuna sushi “sandwich” known by insiders as the Sawada roll.
Ask the Mandarin concierge to get you into Tempura Kondo for the most famous and delicately fried dishes in town (even US President Barack Obama couldn’t snag a reservation). Chef Kondo trained for 17 years and batters piles of shredded carrots and clusters of tiny glass shrimp with the care and precision of a surgeon. People go wild for the sweet potato tempura, which costs extra, but compared to the rest of the offerings, was heavy and skippable. Kondo has relegated his son to the back room of the restaurant, which locals say isn’t as good, so make sure to request a seat upfront with the namesake guru.
Sumibiyakiniku Nakahara, a yakiniku barbecue restaurant — where patrons grill their own beef — may look unassuming. But it actually serves some of the best meat of your life; the wagyu sushi is a must try. If you ask nicely, the waiter will give you some cooking tips (because who wants to be the foreigner who overgrills their fancy meat?).
And while it may seem silly to fly to Japan to indulge in French or Italian fare, Japan has got some of the most refined in the world.
With views of the Imperial Palace and Mt. Fuji, the Aman hotel’s 33rd-floor Italian restaurant, simply called The Restaurant by Aman, perfectly mixes Mediterranean classics like truffle pasta and 20-month aged prosciutto San Daniele with Japanese techniques and ingredients like pike conger (eel) and Wagyu beef from Yamagata Prefecture.
For French food, make a reservation at Beige, the only Chanel restaurant in the entire world. Chef Alain Duccase turns Karl Lagerfeld’s iconic label into an utterly decadent experience. Start your meal at the rooftop’s champagne bar where chic Tokyo women dine al fresco on their so-called “Ginza picnics” (there’s an entire wall of Chanel’s signature C’s that’s perfect for photo ops) before heading downstairs for a culinary extravaganza, complete with Double C-monogrammed chocolates. Try to resist the urge to swipe the Chanel quilted purse dangling from the women’s restroom.
Once you’re satiated, it’s time to explore. Don’t miss the Meiji Shrine, dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife, and strolling the gardens of the Imperial Palace. If the timing aligns, buy tickets to the sumo wrestling tournament. Bonus: if you purchase mat seats, having a wrestler thrown on top of you is a real possibility.
Tokyo’s famed tuna market Tsukiji’s move to Tokyo Bay will likely be postponed until 2017, so get there while you can for the famed tuna auction. Yes, you really need to be there before 3am to snag a spot in line. Yes, you have to wait in a crowded room, sitting on the floor, until 5:30am (unless your kind tour guide lets you sneak out for coffee). And yes, it’s totally worth it.
Skip the more famous sushi breakfasts at Daiwa Sushi and Sushi Dai, where lines regularly last more than four hours, for Ichiba-sushi, which had zero wait time and some of the best sushi in all of Tokyo. Decompress with an aromatherapy-based oil massage at the Aman hotel’s ridiculously stunning spa, which brings the zen of the countryside straight to the city.
WHERE TO DRINK
Now for the drinks. Duck into Gen Yamamoto’s eponymous bar for a cocktail tasting. It’s an eight-seat reservation-only spot tucked away in an assuming building with libations crafted with everything from super sweet tomatoes to edamame (they are very small tastes, though, so opt for the six beverage option). Yamamoto used to live in NYC, where he was the head mixologist at Brushstroke and is a great source for local recommendations. End your night at the famous Park Hyatt New York bar with live jazz music and sweet memories of Lost in Translation, which was filmed here. While the décor is looking a little worn, it’s still worth stopping by for the L.I.T, a pink cocktail named after Scarlett Johansson’s underwear colour of choice in the flick’s opening scene.
The most important advice of all? Order a Wi-Fi device in advance from Japan Experience (A$97 for 10 days). Mobile access to maps and translation tools makes the famously difficult-to-navigate city a cinch.
This article originally appeared in the New York Post, and was reproduced with permission.