Discover more from Notes from Emiko’s Kitchen
Favourite Tokyo addresses
Food, ceramics, markets and more
I’m fresh off the plane from a week in Tokyo and Nagano, where I caught up with my relatives and spent time in childhood spaces and smells. I was there for my grandmother’s memorial, a special event that in Buddhism takes place on the 17th anniversary of her death, a visit that took me to visit my ancestor’s graves in cedar forests under Mount Fuji. Afterwards, I had a couple of precious days in Tokyo and another couple of days in the mountains of Chino, Nagano, about 2 hours train ride south of Tokyo — a beautiful place that I cannot wait to get back to; I’ll tell you more about the tofu making and beautiful countryside of that area soon.
Now, to Tokyo. As I’ve been coming here my whole life, almost yearly, I have seen a lot of it and now when I visit I tend to just stay in my favourite little nooks and neighbourhoods, popping out of them only for some really special addresses — some, purely for nostalgic reasons, but also wonderful spots to visit even for a first time Tokyo visitor. So this isn’t a definitive guide, and maybe another time I’ll write about some more of the other neighbourhoods I love like Omotesando, Harajuku and Azabujuban; here I am going to hone in on just a few places that I visited most recently, keeping it mostly to the neighbourhood around Ginza.
One of my favourite neighbourhoods is Ginza, so this is where I usually base myself when I stay. There are many good, simple hotels around (I stayed at the Mercure Hotel this trip, which was lovely and another time at the Monterey around the corner but for those who really want to live it up the Four Seasons have a place at nearby Marunouchi) and it is so central, so extremely well serviced in terms of the subway (Ginza station, Higashi-Ginza, Yurakucho and Tokyo station are all in walking distance).
Ginza was part of the original downtown area of Edo, old Tokyo, so I feel like being here you’re in the heart of Tokyo. It is fashionable, modern and old school all at once. Although you may hear some people say Ginza is expensive, if you know where to go (or wander and get purposefully lost) you’ll find little tree-lined laneways, tucked away okonomiyaki and sushi shops, old kissaten (coffee shops) or tea houses between the big fashion brands with a glamorous Fifth Avenue feel. On the weekends from noon until 5pm the main street becomes pedestrianised (Hokōsha Tengoku) and it’s a rather good place for just people watching and a stroll, perhaps from the second floor of the Doutor Cafe (5 Chome−7−2), opposite Mitsukoshi department store (photo above). From Ginza it is also an easy walk to Tsukiji, the fish market, and when you need a break from the city, you can head to the lush East Gardens of the Imperial Palace (a 10-15 minute walk from Tokyo station) with a bento box from Mitsukoshi and spend all the time you need amongst the native Japanese trees.
Marui Sushi (3 Chome-8-15, Ginza) — We stopped in here randomly one night when the okonomiyaki place next door was full and loved it! They had beautiful chirashizushi bowls (2000 yen, think of this as like sushi/sashimi smorgasbord but in one large bowl, on top of rice) and very good set meals - I got the Nigiri set with 13 pieces of nigiri sushi, chawanmushi (savoury custard), miso soup and a delicate green tea kanten jelly dessert and tea for 4,500 yen (about 30 euro). They have two small rooms over two floors, and upstairs there is even one table in a tatami room (remove your shoes!). It was a wonderful night. Lunch options here are a steal at about 1,300 yen or 10 euro.
Tempura Abe (Basement floor, Subaru building, 4 Chome-3-7, Ginza) — In a basement, just one table and one long counter, and a menu where you are served each piece of tempura one by one, an absolutely unforgettable meal. It started with pickles and a perfect little dish of tuna sashimi, then went on to a crisp, delicious prawn head, then the prawns themselves, a bowl of fresh, autumn gingko nuts from the daily specials (which blew my mind, fried and just salted, they tasted like mochi, photo below), continued to some beautiful oyster mushrooms, eggplant, one long shishito pepper, scallops and finally sea eel, ending with sea eel backbone which was crisp and crunchy and tasted rather like the best crackling. It finished with miso soup and rice. I was in heaven. Like Marui Sushi, the set menu is extremely reasonable and if you come at lunch you can even find lunch specials under 7 euro.
Misokatsu Yabaton (2 Chome-11-2, Ginza) — This tonkastsu (crumbed and fried pork cutlet) restaurant saved us on our last trip to Tokyo when I was pregnant and traveling with a nearly 5 year old who barely ate a thing (in general, actually she was so easy to feed in Tokyo but that is another story for another day!). She absolutely loved their tonkatsu and just being able to take her in there and see her delighted with the miso soup, rice and delicious tonkatsu was such a relief. It was also handy that the hotel was on the same street a few doors down (the Monterey)! Fussy eaters aside, the tonkastu is very good: the prized pork comes from southern Kyushu and even the breadcrumbs are specially made for Yabaton. But what they are best known for is their misokatsu, a specialty from Nagoya, where they load a miso-rich sauce rather than the usual Worchestireshire-based sauce onto their juicy pork cutlets.
Muji Diner Ginza (3 Chome-3-5, Ginza) — The Muji empire has a 6 floor store in Ginza and the basement houses their diner, a cute, informal cafe where you order via a QR code and help yourself to the ice water. We had a generous lunch set here for 1500 yen (about 10 euro), which included beautiful salt grilled mackerel, a large bowl of steamed rice, miso soup, pickles and several vegetable side dishes. They also had a vegetarian tofu set or a karaage (fried chicken) set. Great value. Plus on the first floor they have their food shop and bakery, where you can pick up delicious Japanese bakery goods like anpan (red bean buns, my favourite) and shokupan, fresh fruit, books, tea (chestnut green tea and buckwheat tea for me!) and snacks (pickled plum kombu!). I had a delicious hojicha (roasted green tea) soft serve here too. Don’t miss their homewares upstairs too, and if, like me, you need an extra suitcase after a few days of shopping, Muji make great carry ons.
Depachika food from Mitsukoshi (4 Chome-6-16, Ginza) or Matsuya (3 Chome-6-1, Ginza)— Depachika is a portmanteau that comes from mashing the words depato (department store) and chika (basement) together. In other words, the basement food halls of great Japanese department stores, aka my idea of heaven. So here is what I do, I usually take home some kind of wagashi (Japanese sweets), biscuits (Yoku Moku! Iconic, chocolate filled wafer cookies that are extremely nostalgic for me and my siblings, my mother always brought a tin of these home with us from our visits to Japan and they still have a very special place in my heart!) or osembe (Japanese crackers) to snack on later or bring home as presents; this time it was a steamed sponge cake filled with whole chestnuts. Then I visit the hot food sections (note, later in the day before the stores close they are usually heavily discounted), and pick up some freshly made okonomiyaki or gyoza to eat, still warm, back in the hotel. There is also a selection of freshly prepared but cold foods that might need to be heated up so if you don’t have a microwave or similar facilities where you are staying you may want to stick to getting the just-prepared hot foods and say, some salads or onigiri (rice balls) or bento boxes (below) to round those out. In any case, even a window shop of the depachika is an eye opener and one that fills me with joy at all the different foods and things to look at. At the Mitsukoshi depachika you can also take your food to the rooftop for a picnic.
Konbini — Konbini are convenience stores, often open 24 hours and Ginza is full of them; one of my favourites is Lawson Natural, the organic version of the regular Lawson. You’ll also see Family Mart and 7 Eleven. I am aware it might seem really odd that I’m telling you to eat at a 7 Eleven, believe me, in any other city I wouldn’t dare. But Konbini in Japan are something just a little bit different, they capture something purely Japanese — like in this interview with Lucy Dayman, where she says:
“The konbini is like a microcosm of Japanese life. From local cuisine to strange, quirky items, hard-working staff displaying the typical ‘omotenashi’ (welcoming) hospitality and the incredibly thoughtful, but tiny innovations that make Japan such an endlessly exciting and fascinating place.”
These small shops have everything and are great for when you need a portable snack or meal for a long train ride, or you just want to go and sit in the park, or are maybe up at a strange hour (thank you jet lag) or have some picky children to feed right now. Also, like the depachika, you can find just a fascinating array of things to taste and try! Onigiri are probably my favourite thing to get at konbini, followed closely by a good old tamago sando (egg sandwich — Anthony Bourdain was a fan of the Lawson ones, while David Chang said it is the first thing he eats when he lands in Japan) or hot karaage (fried chicken) or even oden (a winter stew featuring mostly satsumaage, fried fish cakes), depending on the shop. But these are also handy places to get drinks, including cold black coffee in cans, sake, beer and green tea, and an enormous variety of Japanese snacks and sweets. And if you happen to need a new pair of socks, toothpaste or an ATM, this is the place for all those kind of things too!
Akomeya — This used to be a much larger store in Ginza over two floors, and now they have moved to a smaller space in the ground floor of Loft (2 Chome-4-6, Ginza, a wonderful place though to browse for all kinds of things from homewares to stationary) but it is still my dream spot for buying very special Japanese ingredients and in particular things that would make nice gifts because of the beautiful packaging, bright colours and great designs, like the tiniest rice crackers called Yokohama Bubu Arare, which come in old fashioned Iwai Sesame Oil tins, the most beautiful bags of rice that I have ever seen (rice is Akomeya’s specialty), miso soup packets and decorative bags of shichimi spices, or chopstick holders in the shape of tamagoyaki and taiyaki (fish shaped red bean pancakes).
Kyukyodo (5-Chome-7-4, Ginza) — I have a thing for paper shops and this one is a very special one that I have been coming to for many years. Dating back to 1663, this shop still sells calligraphy materials, Japanese incense and traditional decorative papers also in the form of cards, envelopes and other everyday materials which make beautiful gifts and keep sakes. It’s a few doors down from Le Cafe Doutor on the Ginza crossing.
Ginza Washita Okinawa (1 Chome-3-9, Ginza) — This might seem like a random shop to include here but one of the ingredients I desperately wanted to bring home with me was hard to find Okinawan black sugar and so when I happened to pass by this Okinawan specialty shop I jumped for joy! There was indeed plenty of black sugar (above left, the bag of brown blocks!), along with other specialties from Japan’s southernmost island prefecture, like sea salts, yuzu and chilli products, and even tropical produce like pineapples and nashi pears as big as my head.
Black sugar is a really interesting ingredient, it has been made in Okinawa for the past four centuries. Pure sugar cane juice is boiled down until it is very, very dark and when hard, it is broken up into blocks, which is how you find it sold. It is less much refined than white or brown sugar and retains many minerals, so it is rich in potassium and iron (in fact, tea made with ginger and black sugar is commonly made for women during their periods as an iron supplement, but is also a pick me up when you have a cold or general fatigue. It is quite literally medicinal). It is lovely in desserts, as a syrup, in cakes, biscuits and milky tea, or as a powdered sugar to decorate desserts too. There is another regional specialty shop down the road dedicated to Hiroshima and products from the area (including an Okonomiyaki shop unstairs! A popular lunch spot).
Marugoto Kochi (1 Chome-3-13) — Like the Okinawa shop, this shop specialises in products from Kochi prefecture in Shikoku, which is an area famous for bonito — Japan’s number one condiment after soy sauce in the form of katsuobushi, dried bonito flakes. If you want to bring home anything bonito related, from dashi powder to the full bonito piece and a traditional wooden shaver for making your own katsuobushi flakes, this is the place! I picked up some small katsuobushi pieces that are for infusing soy sauce - just pop everything into a nice bottle and let it steep for 2 weeks before enjoying an umami-amped soy sauce on everything. Also a good spot for citrus specialties and regional sake.
Tsukiji Market (4-Chome-10-10, Chuo) — I love a market when I am exploring a city and Tsukiji is the kind of place where I feel my heart take a leap at every turn! I could have put this in the EAT section too, to be honest, as it is full of little gems and street food (like any good market) but my main objective on this past trip was to bring home some hard to get ingredients so I stocked my shopping bag with things like dried black beans (above), pickles, kombu, delicious seasoned sesame seeds and more. I also bought myself a miso strainer from one of the well-stocked kitchenware shops. For street food, I can never turn down an omelet on a stick from Tsukjiji Yamasho, one of the best known tamagoyaki stands. It’s open 365 days of the year from very early in the morning.
Kappabashi — this place deserves its very own post with links to the shops and places that I love browsing or collecting things from so wait for this in a separate post! But just to put it on your radar, Kappabashi is also known as “kitchen street” as it is a long street full of shops that line both sides of the road dedicated to restaurant and kitchen wares. So if you’re dreaming of getting a beautiful Japanese knife, everyday ceramics, chopstick rests, a special wooden bento box or anything, literally anything, kitchen related — this is your place!
East Gardens of the Imperial Palace (1 Chiyoda) — Take a quick look on a map and you’ll realise the size and scale of these huge, serene gardens that happen to be smack bang in the middle of Tokyo. Open to public 5 days a week, this is the place my grandmother would come to sit under a tree for a quiet escape from the city. The trees are all native to Japan and there are different garden sections, like the bamboo forest, ponds or extensive lawns, to wander through. Or just find a spot you like and enjoy the sounds of the birds and the crickets. The ōte-mon gate is the closest to Tokyo station (a 10-15 minute walk)
Higashiya Ginza (2nd floor of the POLA Ginza building, 1 Chome-1-7) — Wagashi is the Japanese term for sweets and confectionary. Rather than eat sweets as dessert, in Japan, wagashi are eaten usually to balance out the bitterness of green tea, say as an afternoon tea break. This incredibly elegant shop known for its seasonally inspired wagashi has a tearoom attached as well — my favourite thing to do when visiting Tokyo is chill out in a tearoom. Not only can you taste their beautiful wagashi with a dizzying choice of teas (a wagashi and tea set costs about 1,900 yen, or 13 euro) but you can also have traditional savoury meals here too — you can do a full blown kaiseki meal or go for ichiju-sansai, the traditional one soup, three side dishes, with tea and seasonal wagashi for 4,500 yen (about 30 euro) — and even browse their homewares. You may need to wait as it is quite popular.
Le Cafe Doutor Ginza (San-Ai Dream Centre building, 5-Chome-7-2, Ginza) — this chain cafe has the best seat in the house — diagonally opposite Mitsukoshi department store and opposite the Seiko building — at one of Ginza’s busiest, most iconic crossings. You just order and pay for your coffee (or maybe you’re a matcha latte person) and pastries or cake at the bar on the ground floor, and you can stay down there if you like but what I would do is then take your tray up the stairs to the second floor and take a seat at the curved window facing the crossing for some rest and people watching. This is particularly special in the evenings when it is dark and all those Ginza lights are on.
Tsutaya Ginza Six (6 Chome-10-1, Ginza) — On the 6th floor of the Ginza Six complex, you can find this incredible bookshop Tsutaya, which is a haven for anyone interested especially in art and design books and magazines (also cookbooks!). It is so much more than a bookshop though, which is why I am putting it in a “rest” section rather than the shop section because it has a beautifully designed lounge and cafe (run by Starbucks Reserve). Also head up to the rooftop garden with 360 degree view over Ginza, which is especially beautiful when seen at night with all the twinkling city lights (it is open until 11pm).
JAPAN TRAVEL TIPS
Carry cash with you always! Many places still prefer cash transactions. ATMs can be difficult with certain foreign cards so head to a 7 Eleven if you are having trouble getting cash out with your card, theirs tend to work.
Bring a cloth shopping bag with you — you won’t automatically get a single use shopping bag (you can purchase one however). Muji sell great ones if you don’t have one already.
Many Public toilets don't have paper to dry your hands, which means less waste. Many Japanese people like to carry a small square, decorative hand towel. You can buy these easily in many places.
Get a Pasmo card for the Tokyo subway and top up as you need.
If you're traveling further afield on the shinkansen (fast trains) and taking more than one or two trips, consider a Japan Rail Pass. You have to organise this before you leave your home country. Once in the country you can just buy regular tickets.
Rent a Pocket Wifi to stay connected (I used Japan Wireless). You can organise the rental before you leave and pick it up at the counter at Narita or Haneda airport arrival hall or you can have it posted to an address such as your hotel. Return it via post at any post office box — there is a handy one between the check in counters at Haneda and Narita too.
Duty Free Tax — most shops will do Duty Free for you on the spot for anything over 5,000 yen (35 euro). Bring your passport with you as you’ll need that to get the tax taken off your purchase (about 10%). They will staple the receipts into your passport and you will need to show those when you leave.
General etiquette — Masks are still worn all the time (at the time of writing, October 2022) out of courtesy for others, indoors and outdoors but especially on public transport and other busy areas. They can be bought easily at any konbini or pharmacy.
Shoes — do not wear shoes inside someone's home. There is a special entry for taking off shoes and there are usually slippers available. On tatami mats do not wear the slippers either, remove them just outside the room. You might find this same etiquette applies in changing rooms of stores and even restaurants with special tatami rooms. If in doubt look for the slippers, their presence means you should take your shoes off. Oh and don’t forget to wear cute socks that you don’t mind everyone seeing!
Don't speak loudly in public, such as on trains. And don’t speak on mobile phones on trains either, make sure they are always set to silent so beeping doesn't disturb anyone — it’s basically the opposite of Italy!
I had to keep this short. Let me know if you have questions in the comments! Coming soon: A dedicated Kappabashi shopping post and more on the most beautiful stay in a 200 year old Japanese home in the mountains of Nagano near hiking in moss forests and onsen and tofu-making!