Feature: Taking a Bite Out of Japan

A guide to four culinary centers.

By Adam H. Graham | Photography by Raymond Patrick

Japan is a universe of foods, flavors and customs strewn with Michelin stars—with more three-star restaurants than any other country, in fact. So it’s little surprise that most travelers arrive anticipating its seriously delicious sushi and sake. But few know about the diversity of Japan’s culinary scene, which encompasses not only the world’s most eateries per capita, but also 30 types of restaurants that stretch far beyond sushi and sake. These include smoky yakitori (grilled meat) joints, casual izakaya (pubs), showy teppanyaki steakhouses, elegant ryokan (historic inns) that serve multicourse kaiseki, and formal shojin-ryori (papered screens) halls that prepare a unique vegetarian Zen Buddhist form of edible art made from wheat gluten. This four-city guide will whet your appetite with a collection of tried-and-true favorites, local gems and a few surprises—plus cultural sites to visit along the way.

Tokyo

Tried-and-True:

One of Tokyo’s biggest tourist attractions has always been Tsukiji Fish Market (5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo; 011-81-3-3542-1111; check website for visitor days), the world’s largest wholesale fish market. At press time, the market was scheduled to relocate to the island of Toyosu, about two miles away. The new 100-acre space includes a public viewing section for otoro (tuna belly) auctions. But Tsukiji’s popular “outer market” remains in the original location, where visitors can shop for and dine on fresh seafood. Visitors queue up for the sushi at Sushi Dai, but nearby Daiwa-Sushi (5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo; 011-81-3-3547-6807; breakfast for two, $70*) is just as good, offering some of the freshest tuna, salmon, shrimp and sea urchin you’ll ever taste.

Many claim the world’s greatest sushi is at the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro (4-2-15 Ginza, Chuo; 011-81-3-3535-3600; dinner for two, $600), featured in the award-winning 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi and located in an unadorned Ginza-district basement. It’s a favorite of presidents, prime ministers and royalty (and is priced to match). Afterward, consider visiting the nearby Imperial Palace (1-1 Chiyoda, Chiyoda; 011-81-3-3213-1111; closed, only gardens open; admission, free), surrounded by moats and manicured gardens. It’s a great spot from which to catch a post­prandial glimpse of snowcapped Mt. Fuji.

The ever-stylish New York Grill (3-7-12 Nishi-Shinjuku, 52nd floor, Shinjuku; 011-81-3-5323-3458; dinner for two, $350) was famous for its atmosphere long before its role in the film Lost in Translation and is beloved by tourists and locals alike for its rich selection of Japanese whiskeys and marbled Wagyu beef. Consider splurging on a Hibiki Highball at the New York Bar, on the building’s 52nd floor, and taking in the mute neon sprawl of the Shinjuku district below you.

Just next to the Meiji Shrine (1-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya; 011-81-3-3379-5511; admission, free), surrounded by the 175 woodsy acres of Yoyogi Park, is a stack of decorative kazaridaru (sake barrels) that have been offered to the shrine’s deities by generations of sake brewers around the country. Visitors interested in buying their own sake can go to the food hall of the Shinjuku district’s Takashimaya (5-24-2 Sendagaya, Shibuya; 011-81-3-5361-1111), one of the largest depato (department stores) in Japan. A depato almost always has a food court in the basement, and the selection of goods at most of them can cause euphoria among food lovers. This branch—with more than 2,700 square feet of food retail space, including numerous prepared-food vendors and 28 restaurants—reigns over them all. Here you can find singing fish- and fruitmongers, Hokkaido melon caramels, white strawberries and dozens of sakes, wines and shochu (distilled spirits made from barley, sweet potato, buckwheat or brown sugar). If you have only 24 hours in the country, be sure to set aside some time for a visit to Takashimaya, as it exemplifies edible Japan in one space.

Where Locals Go:

Uobaka (Toma Building, B1, 2-2-19 Ginza Chuo; 011-8-3-3563-4100; dinner for two, $120) is not for vegetarians. This wood-paneled subterranean restaurant in Ginza specializes in seasonal seafood—squid, mackerel and sea bream—that’s so fresh it’s sometimes brought to the table squirming on the plate. Can’t get (or afford) a table at Jiro’s? Then follow locals to Sushino Midori (17-6 Daikanyamacho, Shibuya; 011-81-3-3463-1581; dinner for two, $60), in the Shibuya Mark City department store. Many say its fresh fish is on par with Jiro’s, but it costs a tenth of the price. Lucky diners will be seated at the sushi bar, where they can order cuts of mouthwatering scarlet otoro, pearly hotate (scallop), amaebi (sweet shrimp) or gingered shirasu (baby sardines).

Need a break from seafood altogether? Gyu-kaku (Tops House, 8th floor, 3-20-8 Shinjuku; 011-81-3-5367-1129; gyukaku.ne.jp, site in Japanese; dinner for two, $50) is an affordable and cheerful chain of yakiniku, grilled-meat restaurants favored by students and often hidden on the upper floors of skyscrapers. Here charcoal grills glow atop tables, and guests cook their own slices of high-end cuts, such as Kuroge Wagyu, marbled spareribs and dense slabs of pork. A 90-minute all-you-can-eat deal is popular and fills up on weekends.

You’d Be Surprised:

Most visitors assume all Tokyo neighborhoods are as bustling as Shinjuku, but this is a myth. Those in need of tranquility will find no shortage of urban sanctuaries. One quiet stretch in particular is the Nakameguro Canal, lined with cherry trees, independent boutiques and cozy restaurants. Here you’ll find Hashidaya (1-15-8 Kamimeguro, Meguro; 011-81-3-6278-8248; hashidaya.com, site in Japanese; dinner only; dinner for two, $75), a two-story wood tavern specializing in nabe, hot pots stuffed with carrots, snap peas, enoki mushrooms and fragrant gingered chicken balls that are cooked at the table. Its upstairs tatami-mat room overlooks the canal. Across the canal is Izakaya Nakame no Teppen (3-9-5 Kamimeguro, Meguro; 011-81-3-5724-4439; dinner only; dinner for two, $80), a speakeasy-style izakaya. Its hidden entrance is a Lilliputian door; guests must knock first and then duck to enter the cavernous dining room. Here grilled sardines, seared beef, cod roe gratin and charred pumpkin slices are washed down with chu-hai (highballs made with shochu) by locals.

Kyoto

Tried-and-True:

Nothing delivers “Old Japan” better than Kyoto’s ryokan, where ornate multicourse kaiseki meals are still served privately in-room to overnight guests. Hiiragiya (Nakahakusancho, Fuyacho Anekoji-agaru; 011-81-75-221-1136; doubles from $600; dinner with stay) is a standout in Kyoto. The 28-room, sixth-generation inn features dishes such as simmered razor clams with bamboo shoots, yuba (tofu skin) dumplings, cod roe miso and urchin omelets, all served on handcrafted Kiyomizu ceramics and elegant lacquerware in your tatami-mat room, where shoji and fusuma (sliding doors) transport you to another era. For an equally old-fashioned supper, but with a French twist, make your way to Misoguigawa (Pontocho-dori; 011-81-75-221-2270; dinner for two, $300), housed in a vintage teahouse along the river. Its Fabergé-like creations include quenelles stuffed with sea urchin, matsutake puff-pastry pie and Wagyu beef with demi-glace.

Kyoto’s hundreds of temples and shrines make for lovely post-meal strolls. Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Temple (2 Ginkakujicho, Sakyo) is a 15th-century masterpiece of Japanese temple architecture and is highly regarded among the Japanese. Farther afield in Arashiyama is Kyoto’s bamboo forest (Ogurayama, Saga, Ukyo), where mighty stalks of jade-colored bamboo enshrine a much-photographed corridor. The UNESCO-inscribed Saiho-ji, also known as the Kokedera Moss Temple (56 Matsuojingatanicho, Nishikyo; 011-81-75-391-3631; admission, $30), is another veritable spectrum of greens and home to more than 120 types of moss. Reservations must be made by snail mail several weeks in advance.

Kyoto’s nightlife has a wild side, but many bars are low-key and quiet. The discreet Bar Rocking Chair (434-2 Tachibanacho, Shimogyo; 011-81-75-496-8679; bar-rockingchair.jp, site in Japanese; drinks for two, $20) has three fireplace-perched rocking chairs and a library of whiskeys, while Touzan Bar (644-2 Sanjusangendo-mawari; 011-81-75-541-3201; drinks for two, $25), inside the Hyatt Regency and decorated with antique wood beams and vintage books, is an especially intimate nook offering an excellent selection of local Kyoto beers, Japanese chardonnays and more than 30 regional sakes.

Where Locals Go:

The Nishiki Market (Nakagyo; 011-81-75-211-3882; kyoto-nishiki.or.jp, site in Japanese) is a showcase for Kyoto’s prized heirloom vegetables, brightly colored pickles, dried seafood and street snacks, such as takoyaki (fried octopus balls). Its shops hawk everything from cherry-blossom salt and matcha-dusted chocolates to candied wasabi and custom-made chef’s knives sold by revered knife maker Aritsugu (219 Kajiyacho, Nishikikoji-dori, Gokomachi-nishi-iru, Nakagyo).

You’d Be Surprised:

Kyoto is full of the unexpected. Kanga-an (278 Kuramaguchi-Higahiiru, Karasuma-dori, Kita; 011-81-75-256-2480; kangaan.jp, site in Japanese; drinks for two, $25) is a Zen temple with a hidden bar where you can sip sparkling sake while overlooking a candlelit Zen garden. The temple’s restaurant specializes in shojin ryori cuisine, ornate small bites of food made of wheat gluten in the Zen tradition. A temple of sorts to others is the Yamazaki Distillery (5-2-1 Yamazaki, Shimamoto, Mishima; 011-81-75-962-1423; drinks for two, $15; English audio tours, free), located just outside Kyoto. It’s Japan’s first and oldest distillery, established in 1923 and offering a smooth whiskey aged in mizunara (Japanese oak).

Unlike international travelers, Japanese travelers know Kyoto for its ramen. Ramen Koji (on the 10th floor of Kyoto Station) is devoted to ramen, serving eight regional styles. But for an “only in Kyoto” treat, head to Menbakaichidai (757-2 Minami Iseyacho, Kamigyo; lunch for two, $25), a tiny ramen shop where a searing liquid flame is poured from a cast-iron pot directly into the bowl of ramen in front of you. It’s a theatrical beginning to a delicious meal, with a creamy charred flavor you won’t find elsewhere.

Osaka

Tried-and-True:

After dark, follow the crowds to the lively technicolor Dotombori district, where bars and restaurants spill over the riverbanks and where the iconic Glico sign (an Osaka confectionery company) lords over the festive crowds. Another famous Osaka display is the giant crab hung at busy Kanidouraku Dotombori-Honten (1-6-18 Dotombori, Chuo; 011-81-6-6211-8975; dinner for two, $100). The restaurant specializes in all things crab—crab sushi and sashimi, crab soup, crab hot pot, crab gratin and more.

Where Locals Go:

Osaka’s ever-vibrant Kuromon Ichiba Market (1 Chome Nipponbashi, Chuo; 011-81-6-6631-0007) serves up a smorgasbord of street food, including okonomiyaki (savory pancakes), takoyaki, kushikatsu (skewered and fried meat and vegetables) and the city’s ubiquitous kitsune udon-noodle soup, with its trademark thick dashi broth and slab of fried tofu.

You’d Be Surprised:

The city’s Shin Osaka Train Station (Yodogawa) is a veritable mall of flavors, with dozens of restaurants offering everything from all-you-can-eat fugu (puffer fish) banquets and raucous oyster bars to tiny yakisoba (fried noodle) stands and chankonabe houses (the tofu, noodle and meat stew eaten by sumo wrestlers). To try the carb-rich latter, head to Algo7 (1-15 Kamisucho, 2nd floor, Toyonaka; 011-81-6-6335-0033; dinner for two, $30).

Hiroshima

Tried-and-True:

Hiroshima’s sights define the city. The Atomic Bomb Dome (1-10 Otemachi, Naka), the Peace Memorial Museum (1-2 Nakajimacho, Naka) and the looming Hiroshima Castle (21-1 Moto-machi), a replica of the 16th-century castle destroyed by the atom bomb, are all especially moving. But the city’s culinary heritage, while not as sophisticated or international as Kyoto’s or Tokyo’s, does have its merits. Hiroshima is famed for its okonomiyaki, a savory pancake made with batter, cabbage and yakisoba noodles and popularized after World War II, when rations were short. Okonomimura (5-13 Shintenchi, Naka; 011-81-82-241-2210; lunch for two, $16), near Hiroshima Station, is a cooperation of over 20 okonomiyaki vendors on three floors all cooking variations of the dish. You can sit right at the grill and watch them make it; one vendor, Sonia, on the fourth floor, garnishes its iteration with fresh mint leaves.

Where Locals Go:

The city’s sprawling Peace Memorial Park (1-2 Nakajimacho, Naka) marks part of the area destroyed by the atomic bomb. A walk here is a solemn reminder of the cost of war.

You’d Be Surprised:

Unbeknownst to most travelers, Hiroshima is famous for its plump oysters. Kakifune Kanawa (1 Otemachi, Naka; 011-81-82-241-7416; lunch for two, $60) is a boat that has been dry-docked on the shores of the Motoyasu River opposite the Peace Park and converted into an elegant restaurant.

STAY
RCI® affiliated resorts in Japan include:
Neo Oriental Resort Yatsugatake Kogen DE38

Hot-spring baths and saunas await at this tranquil resort. 8741 Yato, Oizumi-cho, Hokuto-shi, Yamanashi-ken

Hotel Ambient Izukogen Annex DE39

When not lounging in the studio-style units you can lie out on nearby Jogasaki Beach. 8 Ohmuro Kogen, Ito-Shi, Shizuoka-Ken

Big Week Tateshina DA04

Consider taking a walk among the Japanese larch trees that surround the resort. Tokyu Resort Town 4026-1926, Aza Shikayama Kitayama, Chino-shi, Nagano Prefecture

Big Week Izukogen DA01

Floor-to-ceiling windows in each unit afford views of the Izukogen highlands. 614-91 Aza Nakano, Ike Ito-shi, Shizuoka Prefecture

RCI® Tip
Need help planning a vacation to Japan? With RCI® Travel Guided Vacations**, experienced travel guides can help you plan every detail of your tour, including lodging and ground transportation between locations. For more information, go to RCITravelGuidedVacations.com.
For member reviews and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

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Non-RCI affiliated resorts:
Park Hyatt Tokyo

On the upper floors of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Park Tower, this stylish hotel offers turquoise interiors, a meticulously trained staff and stellar views of Shinjuku below. 3-7-12 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku; 011-81-3-5323-3458; tokyo.park.hyatt.com; doubles from $460

Hiiragiya Ryokan

The staff at this 28-room, sixth-generation ryokan are exceptionally helpful. Spacious rooms have Meiji-era touches such as tatami mats and papered shoji windows. 277 Nakahakusancho, Fuyacho Anekoji-agaru, Kyoto; 011-81-75-221-1136; hiiragiya.co.jp/en; doubles from $600

Apa Hotel

This wallet-friendly hotel, part of a small Japanese chain, is housed in a skyscraper and has tidy rooms, free Wi-Fi and self-serve laundry. 1-2-1 Tosabori, Umeda, Osaka; 011-81-6-6449-9111; apahotel.com; doubles from $89

Rihga Royal Hotel

This business-centric property, a 10-minute walk from the Atomic Dome, is also great for leisure travelers and has six restaurants, a gym, spa and pool. 6-78 Motomachi, Naka, Hiroshima; 011-8-82-502-1121; rihga.com/Hiroshima; doubles from $175

  • *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.
  • **RCI Travel Guided Vacations is administered by International Cruise & Excursion Gallery, Inc. d/b/a/ Our Vacation Center and/or ICE, a Delaware Corporation, with its principal place of business at 15501 N. Dial Blvd., Scottsdale, Arizona under contract with RCI, LLC. RCI disclaims all responsibility in connection with any third-party travel services.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Winter 2016