Kyoto-style cuisine is renowned for its refinement and fresh ingredients, but is surprisingly hard to find in modern Tokyo. Cha Cha Hana, inside a charming Showa-era house in Shinjuku, offers a range of quick bites and treats on the edge of Golden Gai, a warren of 1950s-built bars on the backstreets of Tokyo’s busiest hub. With rice paper walls and its own stone garden, the vibe matches the theme and treats include Camembert tempura, grilled Japanese yam and potato dumplings stuffed with scallop.
Insider Tip: Eat the way the locals do by accompanying your meal with plum wine, known as umeshu.
1-1-1 Kabukicho, Shinjuku, Tel: 81 3 5292 2933
Located close to the banks of the Sumida river in Asakusa, Mikawa Zezankyo is a specialist in one of Japan’s lesser appreciated, yet common foods – tempura. The battered and deep-fried seafood and vegetables are far less oily and greasy than in Western-style frying, and this restaurant has 150 years of experience. Current chef Tetsuya Saotome produces the dish as if it were an art form, earning a Michelin star and ensuring the rather pricey tempura is well worth the trip.
Insider Tip: Saotome is a calligraphy expert who will gladly demonstrate his skills when the restaurant is less busy, in the upstairs tea room.
With tofu being a staple in Japanese cuisine, it’s no surprise that there’s a restaurant dedicated to the ingredient at Sasa-no-yuki in Ueno. But it’s not just any old restaurant. Opened in 1691, the specialist continues to supply the Japanese Imperial Family to this day. Housed in a traditional wood building, it is part of the Toto Norenkai association of Tokyo shops that dates back over a century. While tofu is often considered tasteless, Sasa-no-yuki offers multi-course meals with fresh ingredients that utilise the ingredient in various intriguing forms.
Insider Tip: Choose the tatami mat dining area, next to a landscaped waterfall, to best evoke a sense of the old capital.
Get up before dawn to witness the lively tuna auctions at Tsukiji, Japan’s largest and busiest wholesale market. There is an incredible array of seafood to check out at the sprawling market’s vibrant stalls. Many of the restaurants in and around the market offer super fresh sushi for breakfast and early lunches at great prices.
After Tsukiji, stroll to Hama-rikyu Gardens, formerly a shogun’s (military governor’s) duck hunting grounds that’s now a blend of tidal ponds, landscaped walkways and flower fields set against the high-rise backdrop of the Shiodome area. Then go window shopping in nearby Ginza district – be sure to taste the myriad free samples from deli counters in Mitsukoshi department store.
Okinawa is Japan’s tropical alter-ego, a chain of islands with a vastly different culture and history that belies the image of a homogenous Japan. It also has a cuisine that is fundamentally different, based on fresh vegetables, fruits and eggs. Ichariba En offers the quintessential Okinawan dish, goya chanpuru (bitter melon, eggs, pork, vegetables and tofu) as well as the Mexican-style taco rice (ground beef, rice, lettuce, cheese, tomato and salsa). The local alcohol known as awamori completes the Okinawan recreation.
Insider Tip: Try the Sangenton pork, a delicacy best served shabu shabu style.
1-6-3 Kichijoji, Musashino, Tel: 81 4 2270 4877