The best nabe joints
Owner and former sumo wrestler Koto Kuroshio is still a larger-than-life character, despite having shed plenty of weight since his active years, and he personally welcomes all who come to his Kagurazaka restaurant. The chanko nabe here uses white barley miso for the stock, which gives the soup a slightly sweet flavour. The fish varies depending on the season but is always served in generous chunks. Expect suitably sumo-sized portions.
Commonly associated with sumo wrestlers looking to get a calorie-packed meal to bulk up for an upcoming match, and hungry diners seeking something warm during the cold months, nabe or Japanese-style hotpot also has a more refined side. Enter Negima, an unassuming restaurant in Kita-Ikebukuro, which specialises in Edo-style maguro (tuna) and negi (Welsh onion) nabe. Contrary to its big servings, the restaurant is tiny and only seats eight. Negima is inspired by nabe from the Edo era prior to the invention of refrigerators, when fresh produce especially fish couldn’t be kept for long.
A miniature sumo ring greets you at the entrance of this chanko nabe specialist opposite the Kabuki Theatre in Ginza, which features spacious seating with long tables and private rooms, making it perfect for group dining. Get the shio chanko (salt-based soup): the generous sprinkling of sesame seeds on top adds a beautiful aroma to the soup, the chicken and pork meatballs are delicious, and you can even choose to add noodles or rice.
There is no official definition of the dish known as chanko nabe, but it refers to the protein-rich stew eaten by sumo wrestlers. It makes sense, then, that you’ll find a cluster of chanko nabe restaurants near the Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo stadium. One of these is the hugely popular Tomoegata, which was built by a master of the Tomozuna sumo stable and is actually on the stable premises. Order their signature dish, Kunimiyama Chanko, which is prepared in a lightly salted chicken broth and includes fresh sardines that are brought in daily from Tsukiji and minced for the hot pot. In addition, they also serve chanko with beef, chicken, salmon and scallops – all with serving sizes to satisfy the heartiest eaters.
A deeply flavoursome option is mizutaki, a rich chicken broth that’s heavy on the collagen. Mizutaki Genkai does it best, in a traditional setting that feels a world away from the buzz and steel of Shinjuku Sanchome. Their signature version is eaten with vegetables, boiled separately as per the original owner’s instructions, and the natural flavour of the Fukushima poultry shines through. It’s wholesome and heartwarming fare, perfect for the cold winter nights to come.
For a sumo-sized nabe, head to Kappo Yoshiba, a traditional nabe haunt set inside a converted sumo stable. The ring is still in the centre, but has now become a stage for live singing performances by ex-rikishi (sumo wrestlers). Watch the action while indulging in the signature Yoshiba chanko nabe, a 17-ingredient stew eaten by the rikishi to fatten up; the spicy version is particularly good at warming your bones.
For a more unorthodox experience, Notomi specialises in everything from the Noto peninsula, with a little bit of Kansai style thrown in for good measure. Have one of their chiritori nabe, served in a low-rimmed square pan. A dish originally created by Osaka’s Korean residents, chiritori means dustpan, and whether that’s a reference to the pan or a tendency to chuck in what looks like leftovers is up for debate. We’re also partial to their voluminous buri shabu, with yellowtail sourced from Noto. If you're with four or more, order a course menu to try their best bits; if you're on your own, know that most of their nabe can be had for one too.
Alongside pufferfish, anko (monkfish) is one of Japan’s most luxurious fish dishes, and Isegen is the only place in Tokyo that specialises in it. This quaint restaurant is housed in a historic building that was built in 1930, and welcomes customers with a realistic example of the ‘sea monster’ you’ll be tasting. Don’t let the look of it put you off; this is a rare opportunity to try the full nabe experience. And when we say full, we’re not joking – you’ll be eating the entire fish, including the fins, skin and liver, which is particularly coveted for its creamy texture and taste that rivals foie gras.
Kani Jigoku, which means 'Crab Hell', feels like a seafood market with its lively atmosphere and crabs lined up at the front of the restaurant waiting for customers to participate in the nightly auction for the crab combination platters. If you’re not up for bidding on crabs, then simply order the Fisherman’s Hot Pot from the menu. It’s an extravagant dish featuring one snow crab and one kilogram’s worth of king crab in a large hot pot. The soup is prepared using just soup stock and salt, and the only other ingredient is Chinese cabbage, allowing the taste of crab to dominate.
No survey of Tokyo’s traditional dining scene is complete without a visit to this 200-year-old Asakusa institution. Kimono-clad waitresses shuffle about with jumbo-sized bottles of beer in hand and take constant orders of dojo nabe. Yes, that’s the hot pot filled with eel-like freshwater loaches, the working-class alternative to unagi and an Edo delicacy traditionally at its best in early summer, although it can be had year-round. The menu includes a whole range of different dojo dishes but can be hard to decipher for a beginner, so just going for the abovementioned nabe (¥1,750) is a safe bet.