Tokyo is the gastronomic capital of the world, with more restaurants and foodie options than you can shake a stick at. From gutsy ramen to impeccable sushi and fine dining, it’s impossible to go hungry in this city. There are plenty of chefs in Tokyo who have honed their craft over decades, specialising in only one thing and serving it up to willing customers who often queue for however long it takes to get the best bite. The city has a myriad of different foodie experiences on offer; it would take a lifetime to try them all.
Less than three hours' flight from Tokyo, Okinawa’s islands, on the other hand, offer a slice of food culture you wouldn’t often see on the mainland. With their simple yet fresh food, always prepared with a whole lot of soul, Okinawans take the maritime and natural bounty and turn it into a proper wholesome cuisine. There are reasons why these islanders have among the longest life expectancy in the world, and diet might just be one of them. Sample both Okinawa’s soul food and Tokyo’s diverse offerings in one trip, and you’ll get a whole new view on Japanese cuisine.
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Food experiences you must have in Tokyo
The city is known for both its gastronomy and its wacky side, and the two fuse at one of Tokyo’s many themed cafés and restaurants. For a dose of technicolour, go to the Kawaii Monster Café, curated by kawaii expert Sebastian Masuda, where you can try rainbow-coloured pastas and more; or have the waiters sneak up on you at Ninja Akasaka. Totoro and Spirited Away fans can eat to their hearts’ content at the Café Mugiwara Boushi, inside the Ghibli Museum, while the lovable Finnish Moomin characters have captured the hearts of so many in Japan that there’s a Moomin Bakery and Café in both Oshiage and Tokyo Dome.
Tokyo’s skyline is a sight to behold, and what better way to enjoy it than with a drink in hand? For the best views of Tokyo Tower at night, start heading to the upper floors around dusk to see the city slowly transform. Get up close and personal at the Sky Lounge Stellar Garden, which is literally next to Tokyo Tower, with Xex Atago Green Hills being a close second. Elsewhere, the Andaz Tokyo’s Rooftop Bar, the Mandarin Oriental’s Oriental Lounge and the classic Park Hyatt’s Peak Bar all have views of Tokyo Tower and the Tokyo Skytree. For more information on these bars see Time Out Tokyo.
The stretch underneath the track between Yurakucho and Shinbashi stations is salaryman central, making it the perfect place to head for a taste of simple fare such as karaage fried chicken, yakitori, and copious amounts of beer. Shin-Hinomoto, aka Andy’s as it's run by a British guy, is always packed and remains an English-friendly option. For a proper outdoor feel, try to grab a crate to sit on at Izakaya Tanuki, while the under-the-tracks-vibe continues at Yaoki Yurakucho, the photogenic Rashomon, Shimizu Honten, and Yakiton Mako-chan, which specialises in pork skewers.
Tokyo’s famed fish market moved a few kilometres down the road in October 2018, but there’s still plenty to discover at Tsukiji, as the entire outer market, with all its sushi restaurants, is still there. Go for breakfast or lunch, as restaurants tend to sell out of the day’s catch pretty early.
Have a full nigiri set at Tsukiji Suzutomi Sushi Tomi, Tsukiji Itadori Bekkan, or the Sushi Zanmai chain, which does great tuna sets. If you prefer a rice bowl, have the very well topped tuna donburi at Segawa.
Right across from Ueno Station is Ameyoko, one of Tokyo’s most buzzing shotengai, or shopping streets. From its origins as a black market after World War II, Ameyoko remains one of Tokyo’s bargain havens, whether for souvenir goods or food. Unlike the rest of Tokyo, there’s also plenty of street food. Snack your way through the area with fruit skewers from New Fruits, croquettes filled with meat from Niku no Oyama, Minatoya Honten’s takoyaki (octopus balls), or Usagiya’s dorayaki (red bean paste pancake). Finish off with an order of fresh sashimi at one of Ueno’s many izakaya, such as Kanoya.
Here's a food experience you can't eat, but is nonetheless a Tokyo must. Restaurant and café shopfronts across Tokyo are filled with plastic food samples, often ones so hyper-realistic that you’d like to take a bite right then and there. For the largest concentration of samples and to see where restaurateurs get their goods, make a beeline for Kappabashi Kitchen Town near Asakusa. Amongst the myriad kitchen good stores, you’ll find Ganso Shokuhin Sample-ya, a shop that specialises in the plastic foods. Besides a rather decent selection of souvenir goods, they even host workshops where you can try and make your own plastic cabbage or tempura shrimp.
Food experiences you must have in Okinawa
Local ingredients such as goya (bitter gourd), shikuwasa, mozuku seaweed and more are all thought to be another part of the reason why Okinawans are so healthy and live such long lives. They’re incorporated into a wide variety of dishes, from juices to stir fries. Try them for yourself by either digging into some goya chips, a shikuwasa juice or a Beni-imo ice cream from the local stores, or pick up fresh ingredients from the Makishi Public Market, Naha’s main market.
Rather than digging into a bowl of ramen like the mainlanders do, Okinawans prefer their very own Okinawa soba: a noodle dish made with a deep stock, often based on pork and bonito, and thick wheat noodles, spiced up with benishoga red pickled ginger. You’ll find plenty of Okinawa soba joints in Naha, such as top seller Shuri Soba, but to sample the best, head to Motobu and its Motobu Soba Kaido (kaido means ’road’ in Japanese), where you can find 20-odd soba shops plying their trade – the longest queue signifies the current favourite.
You may have heard of sake and shochu, but awamori is what really gets the Okinawans going. The distilled liquor is similar to shochu, but is made from long grain Thai rice, unlike its mainland siblings, and is called ‘kusu’ if aged more than three years. Any izakaya will serve a selection of awamori, but for the real immersion, head to a distillery such as Chuko Distillery, which does free tours with English signage, or the Zuisen Distillery, located next to popular attraction, the 14th century Shuri Castle.
Okinawans' long life expectancy is often attributed to their diet, based on the idea of ‘ishoku dogen’, or ‘a balanced diet is the source of a healthy body’. That includes the Okinawans’ favourite preparation method, champuru, or ‘to
mix’, the most famous version of which is goya champuru, or stir-fried bitter gourd. On top of this, many home-cooked dishes incorporate slow-cooked pork alongside the island’s signature tofu for a balanced meal. To try an everyday meal yourself, head to Café Garamanjyaku, Itoguruma, or Emi no Mise.
The Ryukyu Kingdom was considered a vassal state to both China and Japan at different points in history, and when the Chinese emperor’s envoys or officials from places such as Satsuma (now Kagoshima prefecture) came for official visits, they would be served special dishes which the average Ryukyuan would never have, such as irabu soup or minudaru (steamed pork with sesame), as part of an elaborate multi-course meal. This meal fit for kings is still a rare find these days, but you can pretend to be royalty yourself at Naha’s Ryukyu Cuisine Mie or Ryukyu Suitenrou.
Comfort food gets taken to the next level in Okinawa with a range of American-Okinawan mashups. There’s taco rice (yes, literally all the ingredients you’d use to make tacos served on top of rice), spam added to champuru, burgers... The list goes on. Try them at American Village in Chatan Town on Okinawa’s main island. Have American-sized burgers at Jetta Burger Market or Chatan Burger Base Atabii’s, and taco rice at Toy Kitchen, Pocke Farm or the always dependable local Kijimunaa chain.