Do you love Japanese Food? Or perhaps you are finding it difficult to understand what everyone is raving about. These 2 Tokyo food tours will not only help you find the hidden gems but introduce the local foodie culture and etiquette.
We’ve made many trips to Japan over the last decade and when we’re asked what it is that attracts us back so readily, the food is always very high up on our list. That said there is always much more to learn and experience with a food culture as diverse as Japan. On our most recent trip, we made it a priority to try out not just a whole list of new restaurants but a few food experiences in each of the cities we visited. They say there are over 160,000 restaurants in Tokyo alone so taking a little direction from the locals in picking the best places to eat during your stay just makes sense.
We included two very different Tokyo food tours hosted by Arigato Japan. One visiting the Asakusa area known for the dramatic Sensoji Temple and the other, the Allstars food tour, that took us on a walk through the economically and culinary diverse areas of Yurakucho, Ginza and Shimbashi.
As the name might imply Arigato Japan is a food tour business that puts its full focus on Japan and it sources local guides to take you inside the food culture of each of the regions where it operates. In Japan, every prefecture, even every region within a prefecture has its food specialties known as meibutsu. They can be something grown there or a dish from the region such as rich creamy Hokkaido ice cream, apples from Aomori, Okonomiyaki in Osaka or yuba from the clean mountain water of Nikko. It’s always something that the region does exceptionally well and is justifiably proud of its quality.
Not only will you learn about the produce and dishes but guides will share information about food customs, table etiquette and background information on the places you visit and areas you pass through along the way. The tours are run as a small group and on foot so the setting is casual and social. I felt more that I was out for a walk with a friend than being let around and inundated with facts and figures.
Tokyo Food Tour – Asakusa by day
The first foodie experience was the Asakusa food tour with Asami. The meeting point is in front of the Cultural Centre which is very close to Asakusa station, the arrival point for most visitors to the area and directly opposite the very famous Kaminarimon Gate. It would be impossible to get lost getting to this one being such a key destination in Tokyo but the instructions are excellent and Asami does a good job of picking out people who look like they might be hovering around with a purpose.
We were a small group on this tour, just the two of us and one other couple. For our introductions and an overview of the afternoon’s agenda, we all headed upstairs in the cultural centre to the viewing deck on the top floor. This isn’t a secret spot at all being part of the cultural and information centre but it’s not that well known at this stage. I first heard about it last year while chatting on Instagram.
Asami is Japanese but has previously lived in the US for 10-years so has the advantage of speaking perfect English but also having that deep understanding of the country and culture that only comes with someone who grew up in it. She’s also a foodie who appreciates that the right pairing of food, drink and friends creates lifelong memories. A woman I can relate to and I immediately know this is going to be a fabulous afternoon.
We head off across the road but instead of following the typical path we have many times before beneath the gate and along the Nakemise shopping street we detour slightly and find ourselves on narrower and much quieter laneways. Our first stop is for fresh senbei. If you thought rice crackers were those bland things many of us keep in our desk drawers for when we need a snack and don’t have the time to get to lunch then this store will change your perception of this crunchy tasty snack.
Continuing on we pop into a Japanese pickles store and I could happily spend the rest of the afternoon sampling in here, I just wish I could take some of these home with me. There are so many variations and vegetables I’ve not seen before including some incredibly delicious wood-ear mushrooms called kikurage that are generally served on rice but I could happily feast on for hours.
From here we head on through more of the market area. It was children’s day this week and we pick up a few tips on using gifting envelopes, we learn why those Zen Daruma dolls have no eyes when you see them for sale and other tidbits like the history of those little noren curtains that hang in the doorways of many traditional restaurants.
Our next tasting destination isn’t much more than a window but there’s a decent size queue for their popular menjikatsu. They’re made with minced pork and caramelised onion that are formed into a patty, breaded on the outside and fried until hot and crunchy but still succulent inside. Asami tells us you can find these all around the city but these are her favourite and from the constant stream of customers she is not alone. I think I’m still a fan of the plain karokke (potato croquette) but Drew prefers these.
As we headed into Hoppy Street we could no longer claim to be hungry but were still looking forward to seeing what lunch might involve. The guides take into account dietary requirements and preferences from their guests but as we had all made it clear we were open to trying the diversity of Tokyo’s food scene we give Asami free rein to choose for us on the proviso we get some sashimi fresh from the Tokyo fish markets.
Lunch is at a casual izakaya which I believe translates to something like ‘stop a while and have a drink’ although from what we saw across Japan invariably the izakaya also offer some form of food. Some like this one have a wide range of options to choose from. Others are more limited.
Some of the options in our selection are tuna and mackerel sashimi, mentaiko cod roe, beef tendon prepared with sake and mirin, and squid gut which although it’s as slimy as it sounds is also inexplicably good. This is chased by our drinks of choice. By this point in the trip I’ve become a fan of the chūhai, a long drink with a spirit base and a fruit flavour, today’s is grapefruit and I like that it’s not too sweet. Others in the group select local beers and sake.
Just a quick note that if you prefer not to push the dietary boundaries as far or you are thinking of doing the tour with children then the food at lunch is ordered to suit your particular group. There are plenty of options available, we did all challenge Asami to surprise us, and she lived up to that.
The afternoon of eating is broken up by a visit to Sensoji temple where we get our fortune told by the omikuji sticks, mine is good luck so I tuck it away in my bag, those who are less fortunate tie it off to the frame so the bad luck doesn’t follow them home. We learn a bit about the temple, gotcha-pong and the ever-present vending machines as we wander the streets around Asakusa. Our guide was happy to answer any and every question we came up with but also explained things we saw along the way which really made the afternoon interesting and despite being familiar with the area I felt I was also seeing it with fresh eyes.
Did you know there is a Hollywood style street of stars in Asakusa? Or tiny tanuki (Japanese badger) shrines for pretty much anything you can think of? I didn’t. We also learned about ‘antenna stores’ which are a new concept to me but apparently exist all across Japan. They are mostly in big cities like Tokyo because people move here to work from all across the country. They are a way for those living nearby to get a taste of their home prefectures food specialties but as a tourist, they are also a very interesting concept. We visited one in Asakusa and tried this delicious mugwort mochi with red bean that was wrapped in bamboo and just next to it warabi mochi with black sesame and matcha. So good! A sweet but not too sweet treat to round out lunch.
It didn’t end there though, for our final stop on the tour, we head into a covered arcade to visit a super popular melon pan bakery. They have been in operation since 1945 and are said to sell over 3000 of these sweet bread rolls every day. It looks like a lot of people have heard of this shop front but our guide is in the know and we quietly head upstairs and remove our shoes to enter their tatami matted seating area. We have the room entirely to ourselves. I order a matcha tea to go with my sweet treat which is crunchy on the outside but light as air in the middle. It doesn’t taste of melon, that just refers to the grid pattern on the top but these are so different to similar-looking bread we have tried before.
Planning to spend some time in Asakusa while in Tokyo? Don’t miss our popular Asakusa guide.
Tokyo Food Tour – The Allstars evening tour
A few nights later after spending the day in Odaiba we joined another Arigato Japan tour. This time the Allstars tour which covers Yurakutcho, Ginza and Shimbashi. We met up at 4.15pm outside Yurakucho station and although I wasn’t familiar with that station there was no problem finding the meeting place. It’s just a short stroll down the road from Ginza station which can be an easier station to access on the metro depending on where you are coming from.
Ryan is our guide on this tour, his enthusiasm for the area is infectious and our group of 6 heads off under the nearby train tracks in search of our first destination. Beneath the tracks isn’t where you’d head for good food in many cities but this area has a history. After the war, a lot of the city infrastructure was destroyed and one of the first priorities to get the city functioning again was to rebuild the transport networks.
This space is known as gado-shita (beneath the tracks) and extends several hundred metres either side of the station and you’ll find almost all the space is packed with a diverse range of places to eat and drink. It’s really popular with the local businessmen and today you’ll find all kinds of restaurants including European and other Asian cuisines through here.
With Ryans guidance, we head to a more traditional izakaya. It’s still holding fast to its 1950’s cafeteria styling complete with movie posters from the era plastered outside and a cozy fit out within. Your typical drink in an izakaya is draught beer although sake and other drinks such as umeshu, a plum wine served with soda water are other options.
In Japan’s ever polite society I was surprised to learn that in an izakaya it’s quite normal just to hold up your glass and call “nama”, Japanese for draught beer, to get a refill. Our snacks here are diced sashimi of maguro (bluefin) tuna and hamukatsu, ham that is breaded and deep fried. The hamukatsu was popular after the war and fits with the theme of the izakaya but was not really my thing, you can’t go wrong with raw tuna though.
Our guide Ryan stops to pose with the smiling face of Kiyoshi Kimura the self-styled tuna king. Sushi Zanmai is a chain restaurant that sells good quality sushi at reasonable prices and you can find them all around the city. Another quirk of Japan is that unlike many cities where you’d always bypass the chain’s they can be a great option here for quality, price and often a little easier if you speak limited Japanese. This particular restaurant is really well known by locals too as the owner is a marketer at heart and firmly claimed his tuna king title when he paid millions for the first tuna sold at the Tokyo fish market when it moved to Toyosu last year. He went on to serve the most expensive tuna ever sold to customers in his budget-friendly restaurants.
Before long the pavement turns to cobbled streets and we’re in the heart of Ginza, the most expensive land in Japan. Turning down another alley we’ve arrived at a very different izakaya, this one gleaming and modern. The specialty here is food and drink from Ise Prefecture.
I started with a shochu made from mandarins and sugar cane grown in the prefecture of Okinawa and topped off with soda water. Delicious and refreshing. The food here is fabulous and it immediately went onto my list for next time we are in Tokyo. Our first plate was yakitori but we deviated away from the traditional poultry. The wagyu served here is from Matsuzaka, the second top beef producing region in Japan and each animal is certified in the same way as Kobe beef.
Our wagyu skewers are served with wasabi, the tuna with sakura salt and the chicken with yuzu salt. Each a very distinct flavour and perfect pairing but I’m having trouble picking out one favourite. They are all very good. The second dish is somewhat intriguing, it’s a zero calorie noodle made from seaweed but we receive long rectangles of what appears to be a semi-transparent white jelly that we push through a sieve-like device with a plunger forming the noodles into our own cup. Alone they don’t really have a flavour but with a little seasoning, they are delicious. The final dish is a very chubby udon noodle, not like any I’ve seen before. It’s glazed in a tasty sauce and with a touch of the Japanese condiment, shichimi, it’s also delicious but I am wary of eating too much this early in the evening. It’s very filling.
Too soon it’s time to move on and we make a couple more stops around the cobbled Ginza streets including a senbei shop that specialises in a sweet decorative form. We learn about depachika, the basement of department stores reserved for food and a must visit for any foodie. Ryan pointed out a couple of excellent ones for us in this area that we revisit later in the trip. Soon the cityscape changes again and we are in Shimbashi, an area known for it’s ‘salaryman’ restaurants, small affordable eateries that serve up diverse and delicious fare.
Again I thought we knew this area pretty well with one of our favourite Tokyo hotels adjacent to the station area but as we leave steam locomotive square I don’t recognise the path we follow or our destination restaurant. Settled into a table at the back of the restaurant Ryan orders a range of dishes, so many we have no hope of finishing them in the available time. There is raw fish, beef, noodles and an interesting pot heated on the table and enriched with bone marrow. The meat wrapped onigiri are a standout for me as is their house-made miso dip. We’re told the place is best known for its chicken that it sources from its own organic chicken farm in the southern island of Kyushu.
We totally enjoyed both of our Arigato Japan tours. They each included plenty of food spread across the 3-hour tour and it was both good quality and interesting in its variety. Although we are quite familiar with Tokyo at this stage we hadn’t been to any of the places included on the tour before. While I’d generally recommend the tours early in your visit to make use of all the tips and get back to some of the recommended spots it was an equally good value for us as frequent visitors and I wouldn’t hesitate to take additional tours of other areas on future trips. The Kawaii food tour in Harajuku and the Shibuya night food walking tour are both on my list for next time.
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