This article contains specific recommendations on where to eat in Japan. For general tips on how to find good food in Japan, see Part I.
Here are the 17 most memorable food places I visited in Japan during my latest trip:
1. Nihonbashi Sembikiya (日本橋千疋屋)
There is a custom in Japan to give gifts of fruit to people who are important to you. Nihonbashi Sembikiya, Japan’s oldest fruit shop, was established in 1834. It currently operates 14 stores, many of them concentrated in the Tokyo area, with its main store located in Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower. The shop sells not just carefully packaged fruits but also jams, jellies, and fruit-flavored ice cream. Sembikiya shops usually also feature sit-down cafes where you can enjoy various cakes, parfaits, fruit sandwiches, and more.
One curious sight that you can see in Sembikiya, Takano, and many other Japanese fruit shops (like those in the basement of department stores) is melons that cost anywhere between $100 and $200.
You may wonder, how on earth can a melon cost so much? Here’s the answer, on Sembikiya’s website:
“One famous offering of Sembikiya is musk melon, which is said to be the king of fruits and to have a rich musk-like scent. Sembikiya stores only offer muskmelons farmed in Shizuoka, which generally gets more sun than other areas in Japan and where the weather is warm. In order to thoroughly manage the water in the fruit, each melon is suspended away from the ground and the air temperature is controlled year-round by heaters during the winter and air conditioners during the summer. Please enjoy the look of the spherical shape with the beautiful net around it, which was created by a special ‘massage’ called ball wiping individually performed on each melon, as well as the scent of musk and the melting sweetness and rich taste of our muskmelons.”
How can you not fall in love with a country where people massage and air-condition the melons to make them sweeter?
Another reason I love Sembikiya is its whipped cream. Believe me, I was never a fan of whipped cream in the US; it feels like a symbol of sin and bad life choices. But that was because it was made in the US. The whipped cream at Sembikiya is so light that it brings you heavenly pleasure, not hellish guilt. The taste is as beautiful as the sound of whipped cream’s French name: crème de Chantilly.
2. Teshimaya Honten (豊島屋 本店)
2 Chome-11-19, 小町 Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture 248-0006, Japan
If you visit Tokyo, I highly recommend a day trip to Kamakura, which is a beautiful town just an hour away. Most people go there to see various temples and shrines; I go there for a type of butter cookies. Hato Sabure (鳩サブレー) is a very popular dove-shaped cookie from Kamakura. Teshimaya, the store that sells the cookies, has been making them since the Meiji period (1868). This was hands down the best better cookie I have ever had (including the ones I’ve had in Paris). It was sweet, crispy, and buttery beyond description. The cookies are packaged in beautiful boxes, making them ideal for gifts.
3. Marutake Tamagoyaki (丸武) at Tsukiji Market
Monday – Friday 4:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
As someone who does not eat raw fish, I’m always on the look out for alternatives when I visit Tsukiji market. I spend my time there looking of the best tamagoyaki (Japanese omlets). Tamagoyaki shops can be found everywhere in Tsukiji, but I just knew that I found the best one when I saw Marutake’s shop, which is usually the only tamagoyaki shop with a line. Marutake has been in business for over 80 years. His son Terry Itō, is a famous television personality and his photo is displayed at the shop. The omlets are elastic, sweet, savory, and always freshly made.
This fruit parlor is located in a Gucci store at Shinjuku, and occupies three floors. It was founded in 1885. Today it features a fruit buffet, a cafe, and a fruit shop, complete with $200 musk melons and a featured fruit for each month (it was peach when I went in August).
〒605-0802 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, 東山区大和町大路三条下ル弁財天町26
A bar-style Yakiniku (Japanese BBQ) restaurant conveniently located in Kyoto’s Gion district, where the meat was so divine that the prices almost felt too cheap. They purchase their beef from their contracted cattle farmers. There is a good selection of bar food, wines and cocktails. The prices are very reasonable. There are individual rooms for large parties, providing a private setting for conversation. Reservations required.
6. Kamakurachacha (鎌倉茶々)
A ice cream shop in Kamakura that only serves green tea ice cream and gelato. The gelato comes in five degrees of richness, each one a deeper shade of green. I chose Level 1 (the least rich) because I’m basic and prefer my dessert to be sweet. It was the best green tea ice cream I’ve ever had. The green tea the shop uses is not from Uji (like every other green tea shop in Japan claims to use), but from Shizuoka.
7. Katsukura Kyoto
One thing I love about Japanese restaurants is that many of them only make one thing, but they make it very well. Katsukura is such a shop. They only make tonkatsu. It has multiple locations in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. I went to the shop in the Shin-Yokohama station and it was easily the best tonkatsu I had on this Japan trip. One detail that I really liked was that my fried cutlet came on a metal pedal that allowed the oil to drip onto the plate. They use organic vegetable oil, and the pork they use come from pigs that are raised in a special way. They also sell bento which you can call ahead to order.
8. Dominique Ansel Bakery (ドミニクアンセルベーカリートウキョウ)
5 Chome-7-14 Jingumae, 渋谷区 Tokyo 150-0001, Japan
The most celebrated bakery in New York has a branch in Tokyo, and of course I went. The line is usually very long (and over 80% female). Almost everyone inside was eating either the Creme de la Corn or the S’mores. The Creme de la Corn, a summer special, is corn ice cream placed on top of a corn cob. Even though I generally avoid ice cream of savory flavors (I once had a cup noodle flavored ice cream at the cup noodles museum in Yokohama; it was the worst thing I ate all summer), I still had to give it a try because I could not resist its cute look. Both the ice cream and the corn cob were divine. If you come to DAB, you may as well buy some cronut, which Dominique Ansel invented.
9. Tsukigase (月ヶ瀬)
Tsukigase is an old Japanese sweet café that opened in 1926. They have three shops in Kyoto and I visited the one at Gion, where I enjoyed my shaved ice while sitting on a tatami. The one I got—green tea and condensed milk with red bean paste on top—was the best shaved ice I have ever had, and was more than worth the long wait that I had to endure before going into this unassuming shop with no English signs. It was just the right mix between richness (the green tea) and sweetness (the condensed milk).
10. Nakamura Tokichi Honten (中村藤吉本店)
10 Uji Ichiban, Uji City, Kyoto
If you visit Kyoto, you may as well hop on a train and spend half a day in Uji, which is only a 20-minute train ride from Kyoto station. You may know Uji from the packaging of various Japanese green tea snacks—all of them claiming that their green tea comes from Uji. This is a town defined by its superior green tea. Its central avenue is lined by tea houses, tea shops, tea bakeries… There was a sign of green tea ice cream every ten feet. I could almost smell green tea the moment I got off the train at Uji station.
Nakamura Tokichi Honten alone is worth a visit to Uji. It’s only three minutes walk from the Uji JR station, so you hardly have any excuse. It is an establishment that consists of a cafe for sit-down customers, a shop that sells all sorts of tea and tea-related desserts and accessories, as well as a tea house where customers can experience tea ceremony. I went there half an hour before it opened, and I was No. 20 on the wait list. I waited an hour before I could go into the cafe. You can make good use of your waiting time by browsing in the tea store—the products there make great souvenirs. If you decide to sit down for a meal, try the green tea soba noodles.
11. Sadaharu Aoki
Sadaharu Aoki is a celebrated Japanese pastry chef who lives in France. He combines the best of both Japanese and French dessert, which is such a great idea that I wonder why not many other people have though of it. I have visited a Patisserie Sadaharu Aoki in Paris and was so excited when I saw their matcha croissants, macarons with traditional Japanese flavors, and various cakes and eclairs. The Tokyo shops feature the same products, except the macarons are freshly flown in from Paris.
Stop gasping next time you see green tea Kit Kat in an Asian supermarket in the US. Here are some Kit Kat flavors that you can find at the Kit Kat Chocolatory, which has branches in Tokyo, Kyoto and several other Japanese cities: Strawberry, Blueberry, Raspberry, Yuzu, Passion Fruit, Pistachio, Kinako (roasted soy flour), Butter, Green Tea, Hojicha (roasted green tea), Genmaicha (green tea combined with roasted brown rice), Oolong Tea, Black Tea, and Gyokuro (a type of green tea grown under the shade rather than the full sun). This is a great souvenir destination since they have ready packaged gift sets for fruit lovers and tea lovers.
13. Gontran Cherrier
Gontran Cherrier is a very good-looking French pastry chef born to a family of bakers and pastry cooks. He has found success in Tokyo, where his several bakeries are wildly popular. The croissants there are to die for. Some foods are made with so much care that they look like they want to be eaten without delay, and the Gontran Cherrier croissant is one of them. According to Singaporean food blogger Daniel Ang, the croissants here are all made with the same dimensions – 16cmin length, 7cm height, 9cm width, each weighting 57 grams.
“What I like about bread is the slight roasted caramel taste characteristic of a well cooked crust and the slightly acid aroma of the fermentation of the inside of the loaf… I love bread and bread fills my life,” says Cherrier on his website.
14. Ouca Japanese Ice (東京恵比寿 ジャパニーズアイス櫻花)
I have eaten a lot of ice cream in my life, and I have very high standard for what I consider as good ice cream. Ouca Japanese Ice, located just 2 minutes walk from the West exit of Ebisu station in Tokyo, was not just good—it’s life-changing. It has many traditional Japanese flavors (like green tea, sesame, and red bean), but also a wide array of fruit flavors. My favorite flavors were milk and Karinto (a traditional Japanese sweet snack made from deep-frying flour, yeast, and brown sugar). They also have shaved ice decorated into cute bears. If you live in Japan, you can also order boxes of Ouca ice cream on Amazon (this is one of those moments when I feel like moving to Japan). There are many ready-made gift sets.
15. Miyako Yasai Kamo
An all-you-can-eat restaurant in Kyoto that serves locally grown organic vegetable at mind-blowing prices (500 yen per person for breakfast, 900 yen for lunch, 1380 yen for dinner). I went there for breakfast at 8am, and got in after standing in line for half an hour. It feels like a dining hall: everyone takes a tray and choose whatever they want from an array of fresh vegetables, pickles, and soups. This was a very hearty breakfast that also made me feel good about myself afterwards. Highly recommended for an early breakfast in Kyoto.
16. Shiseido Parlour
One thing you will notice in Japan is that many cosmetic shops also have eponymous cafes. Shiseido is one of them (Yojiya is another). Shiseido Parlour opened in 1902 as the first soda fountain in Japan; its earliest customers were geishas in the Ginza district. Today Shiseido Parlours can be found all over Tokyo and they are very popular destinations for dessert, both dine-in and to-go. After tasting one of their cheesecakes, I became hopelessly addicted. It was too rich to be true.
This is the shop where you will become hungry by looking at fake food. The company has been producing replica foods since 1932, and has contributed to the spread of the Japanese custom of presenting a sample showcase of dishes at the front of restaurants. There are three shops in Tokyo and Yokohama. The prices are pretty steep, but you can see it as a museum. I can assure you it will be a mind-blowing experience. You can even make your own fake ramen (with your favorite ingredients) and fake ice cream desserts.