Eating a good sushi dinner is probably one of the top ‘must-do’ activities for visitors to Japan. After all, how can a visit to the Land of the Rising Sun be complete without dining on its most famous culinary product? And where better to eat in than in Tokyo, the stunningly futuristic, maddeningly frantic capital and home to some of the best sushi restaurants in the world.
For a visitor looking for a sushi meal in Tokyo, the sheer abundance of choice can be overwhelming. There are restaurants that cater to every level of adventurousness and spending ability, from the exquisitely traditional and outrageously expensive high class establishments to the far more numerous ‘eat-and-run’ sushi equivalent of a fast-food joint.
Beginning the sushi hunt
On a cautionary note: visitors should be aware that eating sushi in Tokyo can be a shockingly expensive proposition if you don’t know where to go. There are more than a few stories of foreigners walking in expecting a cheap, light meal and ending up needing a bailout from their hotel concierge because their bill was outrageously high. These stories are, unfortunately, true.
The best guideline is to avoid the tourist and business areas, where the abundance of ignorant tourists encourage the restaurants to serve the most expensive and questionable quality dishes. For the more daring, you can go with recommendations from the hotel staff and/or local friends. For the really adventurous, you can wander around the commercial areas of upper- and middle class residential neighbourhoods and follow the crowds of Japanese businessmen stopping by their favourite sushi restaurants on their way home.
If you’re willing to splurge however, Tokyo definitely has some great places for sushi connoisseurs. The highest level of sushi heaven is obviously the traditional restaurants, where the rarest and best quality ingredients are used to prepare items that are not so much dishes as they are consumable works of art. Unfortunately, to enjoy this delight, you’d need pretty deep pockets — about US$100 per person is the average price for such a meal. Another necessity for a visit the most upscale restaurants is a Japanese translator to make sense of the menu, as many of the really top notch traditional restaurants rarely see non-Japanese clientele. Still, if you’re willing to splurge on food fit for Emperors, then the best place to try are the restaurants in the Roppongi area. It is probably best to ask your Japanese translator to choose a restaurant, but you could try Fukuzushi in the Roppongi area, which is a popular spot with visitors.
Going where the locals eat
At the other end of the spectrum is the more realistic, if not quite so exquisite option of ‘fast-food’ sushi restaurants — the kaiten-zushi. In these establishments, plates of sushi circle around the eating area on a small conveyor belt, and the diners simply pick up their choice of dishes. The colour of the plate indicates the price of the sushi, usually about 150 — 300 yen per plate. The kaiten-zushis are enormously popular and can be found practically everywhere, especially as the food is delicious and the prices are reasonable.
There are an uncountable number of such restaurants in the city, and sushi restaurant chains such as Hina Sushi, Chiyoda Sushi or Sen Zushi are the safest, most reasonable and good quality option for a cautious visitor. Another way to find these kaiten-zushi is to simply head for the nearest subway station. The kaiten-zushi tend to be clustered around these areas, as many workers will pop in for a quick meal before going on their way. If you can’t find one you particularly like in one area, then you can always just hop on the subway and get off at the next station to try your luck there.
There are also a plethora of reasonable restaurants to be found and most of these dining places can be identified by one of Japan’s most unique cultural symbols — plastic food. Most restaurants will set out beautifully prepared plastic display sets of the dishes they offer in the front window of their shops.
If the restaurant specializes in a particular type of food, the display cases can also be accompanied by a plastic animal or sign — a squid waving chopsticks, a huge bowl of noodles — indicating the kind of food served in the restaurant. For a visitor who doesn’t speak the language, these restaurants are a god-send — instead of using the incomprehensible menu, the staff are happy to lead the visitors back outside, where they can pick out their meal from the plastic choices available.
One of the best places to go for a good, no frills sushi is the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market. Once featured in National Geographic for its prominent place in Tokyo life and for being one of the world’s largest fish markets, this vast establishment is where the fishing boats unload their catch every morning. Understandably, the fish here are the freshest in the entire city and the many tiny eateries scattered about the market have a distinct advantage over their more distant rivals. These utilitarian restaurants offer some of the most mouth-watering sushi dishes in Tokyo, well worth the hazard of having to dodge cartloads of fish on the way in.
One of the most highly rated of these restaurants is Daiwa Sushi, which some claim is the best in Tokyo and therefore, the world. Tsukiji Market is best reached from Tsukijishijo Station on the Subway Oedo Line or Tsukiji Station on the Subway Hibiya Line. It is closed on Sundays, but if you go early in the morning on any other day, and you’re sure to get a meal well worth the trip. You’ll have to get up pretty early though, as the Market is at its busiest from five to nine in the morning and most of these restaurants close around noon.
A little bit of everything
Once you’re in the restaurant, you’ll usually be presented with a hot wet towel in the winter, or a cool one in the summer. This is the oshibori, used to wipe the hands clean before dining. This of course, indicates that you can use your hands for dining — eating sushi with the fingertips is acceptable in Japan, especially if you’re a foreigner unused to eating with chopsticks. When it comes to the chopsticks, they’re pretty easy to use, but here are a few tips specific to Japan: don’t pass items between people using only the chopsticks, and when taking food communal dish, turn the chopsticks upside down and use the part that has not been in your mouth to select items. Also, don’t stand your chopstick vertically in your rice bowl: this is a serious insult anywhere in Asia.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can ask for the sushi chef’s recommendation. If you are not ordering a set of sushi, it is better to order a few kinds of sushi at a time, instead of ordering a lot. Incidentally, like chefs in Western restaurants, the sushi chef is considered to be a few steps above the usual waiter, and it is inappropriate to ask the chef for things like drinks or the bill. If you think the chef has done a good job, it’s considered a nice gesture to buy him (usually the chef is a man) a drink.
Finally, if you’re going to be in Tokyo for a while and you don’t really feel like going out to the restaurant, you can do as the Japanese do and order sushi takeaway. This option is usually used to celebrate special occasions, and does require a fair grasp of Japanese, but there are few things more relaxing than enjoying good, specially delivered sushi in peace and comfort to really appreciate the delights of being in Japan.