OP-ROB Nippon Restaurant Ranking

During my 4 and a half months in Japan last semester visited 74 different restaurants and made sure to document each one. Below is a list of my favorite spots, and I will provide a subsequent list of the best ramen shops. Also, at the bottom of each review there is a Tabelog (Japanese version of Yelp) link to each place for reference. For those planning a trip sometime soon (Tokyo 2020?), I hope this can be a helpful list!

* Note that none of the provided photos were taken by me, as I (a gaijin) was trying to be as discreet as possible while in Japan.


THE RESTAURANTS

15. Manaita: Izakaya [bar-type restaurant], Tokyo (Takadanobaba Station)

 Manaita is a tiny izakaya (Japanese bar/restaurant) located several blocks away from the bustling area surrounding Takadanobaba Station in Shinjuku, Tokyo. I stumbled upon the restaurant because I was searching online for the best places to drink the national liquor of Japan: sake. As with a few of the restaurants listed further up the list, Manaita is a place where I doubt they get many foreigners. There is no English menu, and the sake sommelier doesn’t speak much at all either (though he is extremely engaging and happy). The food offerings are prepared by his wife, who works in a small area behind the counter (she is a Yomiuri Giants fan, and had the live game on a small TV at her side of the bar). In the whole place there are only 10 seats, so I was lucky to get one on the Friday night that I visited in early March. Fortunately for me, one of the patrons was a music teacher who had spent some time at North Texas University and spoke English fluently, so I was able to order some delicious yakitori and vegetable tempura to accompany the steady cups of sake being poured by the sommelier. Had I known the restaurant had such an intense neighborhood feel, I may not have had the courage to venture in as a gaijin, but I’m sure glad I did. The food at Manaita was fantastic, and it was the most personalized sake drinking experience of my entire Japan trip. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1305/A130503/13001007/)

Manaita is a tiny izakaya (Japanese bar/restaurant) located several blocks away from the bustling area surrounding Takadanobaba Station in Shinjuku, Tokyo. I stumbled upon the restaurant because I was searching online for the best places to drink the national liquor of Japan: sake. As with a few of the restaurants listed further up the list, Manaita is a place where I doubt they get many foreigners. There is no English menu, and the sake sommelier doesn’t speak much at all either (though he is extremely engaging and happy). The food offerings are prepared by his wife, who works in a small area behind the counter (she is a Yomiuri Giants fan, and had the live game on a small TV at her side of the bar). In the whole place there are only 10 seats, so I was lucky to get one on the Friday night that I visited in early March. Fortunately for me, one of the patrons was a music teacher who had spent some time at North Texas University and spoke English fluently, so I was able to order some delicious yakitori and vegetable tempura to accompany the steady cups of sake being poured by the sommelier. Had I known the restaurant had such an intense neighborhood feel, I may not have had the courage to venture in as a gaijin, but I’m sure glad I did. The food at Manaita was fantastic, and it was the most personalized sake drinking experience of my entire Japan trip. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1305/A130503/13001007/)

14. Miyakozushi: Sushi, Tokyo (Itabashikuyakushomae Station)

 In the same vane as Manaita, I was somewhat hesitant to add Miyako to this list because my personal experience there had so much to do with why I liked it, not purely the food. For example, Sushi Arai was a Michelin-star place I visited that was phenomenal sushi. However, my two visits to Miyako provided experiences that you would never get at one of the Michelin-rated restaurants. My first visit to Miyako was during my first few days in Japan: I had found a review on Yelp (I didn’t understand Tabelog at this point) and it sounded like a top-grade sushi spot. The sushi at Miyako was indeed really solid, and because the sushi master does not speak much English, you can just order “omakase” (chef’s choice) and let him decide what to serve. However, the real highlight of eating at Miyako was the experience of walking in and essentially stepping into what felt like a Yasujiro Ozu movie. Miyako is located in a sleepy neighborhood in Itabashi, and it is not easy to get to from the more central parts of Tokyo. When I walked in, there were three elderly men drinking and hanging out. It was a chilly night in late March, and they were all wearing sharp-looking cardigan sweaters, and one of them was smoking cigarettes at his end of the counter. The men, and also Chef Miyako, were a little stunned I think to see this random gaijin white dude at what was clearly a secluded neighborhood restaurant. But as I sat down and spoke with them (they were very gracious in trying to speak English with me), we suddenly got to talking about everything from old Japanese movies to different aspects of WWII among many other topics. At one point Chef Miyako excitedly shuffled back into the back of the restaurant and returned with an old Japanese flag that his father had taken with him to the war while serving on a battleship in the Imperial Navy that was signed by all his relatives. The entire night was such a humbling and overwhelming experience. I had been preparing to leave for Japan by watching all these films from the 1950s and 1960s, and on one of my first nights I was lucky enough to arrive at Miyako and step into what felt like one of them. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1322/A132205/13133441/)

In the same vane as Manaita, I was somewhat hesitant to add Miyako to this list because my personal experience there had so much to do with why I liked it, not purely the food. For example, Sushi Arai was a Michelin-star place I visited that was phenomenal sushi. However, my two visits to Miyako provided experiences that you would never get at one of the Michelin-rated restaurants. My first visit to Miyako was during my first few days in Japan: I had found a review on Yelp (I didn’t understand Tabelog at this point) and it sounded like a top-grade sushi spot. The sushi at Miyako was indeed really solid, and because the sushi master does not speak much English, you can just order “omakase” (chef’s choice) and let him decide what to serve. However, the real highlight of eating at Miyako was the experience of walking in and essentially stepping into what felt like a Yasujiro Ozu movie. Miyako is located in a sleepy neighborhood in Itabashi, and it is not easy to get to from the more central parts of Tokyo. When I walked in, there were three elderly men drinking and hanging out. It was a chilly night in late March, and they were all wearing sharp-looking cardigan sweaters, and one of them was smoking cigarettes at his end of the counter. The men, and also Chef Miyako, were a little stunned I think to see this random gaijin white dude at what was clearly a secluded neighborhood restaurant. But as I sat down and spoke with them (they were very gracious in trying to speak English with me), we suddenly got to talking about everything from old Japanese movies to different aspects of WWII among many other topics. At one point Chef Miyako excitedly shuffled back into the back of the restaurant and returned with an old Japanese flag that his father had taken with him to the war while serving on a battleship in the Imperial Navy that was signed by all his relatives. The entire night was such a humbling and overwhelming experience. I had been preparing to leave for Japan by watching all these films from the 1950s and 1960s, and on one of my first nights I was lucky enough to arrive at Miyako and step into what felt like one of them. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1322/A132205/13133441/)

13. a. Hiroki: Okonomiyaki, Hiroshima (Kaitaichi Station)

 Hiroki, Koshida, and Hassho are all okonomiyaki restaurants located in Hiroshima, and they are all very good. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is a kind of “Japanese pancake” layered with a thin crepe on the bottom, a fried egg on the top, and filled with vegetables, tempura pieces, slices of pork, soba noodles, and slathered in a sweet/savory kind of barbecue sauce called otafuku and then sprinkled with seasoning. I only spent one night in Hiroshima, but was determined to try all the best okonomiyaki places, and none of them disappointed. Hiroki is located about 25 minutes by train outside of downtown Hiroshima and had an intense local feel: no English menu, no gaijin customers. But like all the other off-the-beaten-path restaurants I visited in Japan, everyone was super welcoming. Koshida was a bigger, livelier spot, especially because I went at night after a Hiroshima Carp baseball game. The place was packed with fans, as I assume it always is during the season. Finally, Hassho was the final place I went before my flight back to Tokyo. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it is a historic restaurant and one of the originators of the Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. Of all the okonomiyaki I tried at these different places, though they were all similar and all good, would say Hassho was the best, as it had a little more flavor, crisp, and pop with every bite. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/hiroshima/A3401/A340105/34002051/)

Hiroki, Koshida, and Hassho are all okonomiyaki restaurants located in Hiroshima, and they are all very good. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is a kind of “Japanese pancake” layered with a thin crepe on the bottom, a fried egg on the top, and filled with vegetables, tempura pieces, slices of pork, soba noodles, and slathered in a sweet/savory kind of barbecue sauce called otafuku and then sprinkled with seasoning. I only spent one night in Hiroshima, but was determined to try all the best okonomiyaki places, and none of them disappointed. Hiroki is located about 25 minutes by train outside of downtown Hiroshima and had an intense local feel: no English menu, no gaijin customers. But like all the other off-the-beaten-path restaurants I visited in Japan, everyone was super welcoming. Koshida was a bigger, livelier spot, especially because I went at night after a Hiroshima Carp baseball game. The place was packed with fans, as I assume it always is during the season. Finally, Hassho was the final place I went before my flight back to Tokyo. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it is a historic restaurant and one of the originators of the Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. Of all the okonomiyaki I tried at these different places, though they were all similar and all good, would say Hassho was the best, as it had a little more flavor, crisp, and pop with every bite. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/hiroshima/A3401/A340105/34002051/)

b. Koshida: Okonomiyaki, Hiroshima (Kanayama-cho Station)

 LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/hiroshima/A3401/A340101/34001191/)

LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/hiroshima/A3401/A340101/34001191/)

c. Hassho, Okonomiyaki, Hiroshima (Kanayama-cho Station)

 LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/hiroshima/A3401/A340101/34019405/)

LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/hiroshima/A3401/A340101/34019405/)

12. Yajima: Traditional Japanese, Kyoto (Gion-shijo Station)

 The first time I visited Kyoto was during a nationwide holiday called “Golden Week”, and the historic city was jam-packed with tourists, so it was difficult finding a reservation at any of the critically acclaimed restaurants. By chance, I ended up booking a spot at Yajima, a tiny kaiseki restaurant located in the backstreets of the Gion district in Kyoto. As it turned out, I was the  only  patron that night, which was a little intimidating at first. However, as one seasonal fish-orientated dish after another was served and I had the opportunity to talk with Chef Yajima and his wife (pictured above) it turned into one of the best dinner experiences of my entire Japan visit. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/kyoto/A2601/A260301/26024189/)

The first time I visited Kyoto was during a nationwide holiday called “Golden Week”, and the historic city was jam-packed with tourists, so it was difficult finding a reservation at any of the critically acclaimed restaurants. By chance, I ended up booking a spot at Yajima, a tiny kaiseki restaurant located in the backstreets of the Gion district in Kyoto. As it turned out, I was the only patron that night, which was a little intimidating at first. However, as one seasonal fish-orientated dish after another was served and I had the opportunity to talk with Chef Yajima and his wife (pictured above) it turned into one of the best dinner experiences of my entire Japan visit. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/kyoto/A2601/A260301/26024189/)

11. Kyou Raku Tei: Soba, Tokyo (Kagurazaka Station)

 Kyou Raku Tei is one of the few examples on this list where there is no “omakase” option. That is fine, because they have English menus, but also because all of their appetizers are delicious, so you can’t go wrong. However, the real star of Kyou Raku Tei is the soba. Made that day from freshly ground ingredients, the soba noodles here are the best I had in Japan. Furthermore, the restaurant does not require a ton of waiting or super-advanced reservations. Rather, it has the feel of a neighborhood place where people go after work to unwind and have a lively meal. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1309/A130905/13000479/)

Kyou Raku Tei is one of the few examples on this list where there is no “omakase” option. That is fine, because they have English menus, but also because all of their appetizers are delicious, so you can’t go wrong. However, the real star of Kyou Raku Tei is the soba. Made that day from freshly ground ingredients, the soba noodles here are the best I had in Japan. Furthermore, the restaurant does not require a ton of waiting or super-advanced reservations. Rather, it has the feel of a neighborhood place where people go after work to unwind and have a lively meal. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1309/A130905/13000479/)

10. Momijiya: Okonomiyaki, Tokyo (Iidabashi Station)

 Perhaps it is sacrilegious to put this Tokyo-based okonomiyaki joint ahead of the OG restaurants listed earlier. However, having been to Hiroshima and eaten at three of their most heralded spots, I can assure you that Momijiya’s classic okonomiyaki pancake is on par with the real-deal. Furthermore, like Koshida, Momijiya is consistently a lively place. Whether it is businessmen streaming in after work, or baseball fans rolling through after a game at the nearby Tokyo Dome, this restaurant always has an electric atmosphere. Another reason I love Momijiya, besides the great food, and why it belongs on a list with far more prestigious restaurants, is because it gave me a felling and a taste of what Hiroshima was like before I actually went. The place is covered with Hiroshima Toyo Carp baseball apparel. And on any given night when the Carp are playing you can be sure they’ll have it on the TV. The place is just alive with excitement and pride for Hiroshima, which is something unique, especially in Yomiuri Giants territory. Note: don’t waltz into Momijiya wearing another NPB team’s apparel (I once went in wearing a Giants jersey), because they will kindly ask you to remove it… Go Carp! LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1309/A130905/13000245/)

Perhaps it is sacrilegious to put this Tokyo-based okonomiyaki joint ahead of the OG restaurants listed earlier. However, having been to Hiroshima and eaten at three of their most heralded spots, I can assure you that Momijiya’s classic okonomiyaki pancake is on par with the real-deal. Furthermore, like Koshida, Momijiya is consistently a lively place. Whether it is businessmen streaming in after work, or baseball fans rolling through after a game at the nearby Tokyo Dome, this restaurant always has an electric atmosphere. Another reason I love Momijiya, besides the great food, and why it belongs on a list with far more prestigious restaurants, is because it gave me a felling and a taste of what Hiroshima was like before I actually went. The place is covered with Hiroshima Toyo Carp baseball apparel. And on any given night when the Carp are playing you can be sure they’ll have it on the TV. The place is just alive with excitement and pride for Hiroshima, which is something unique, especially in Yomiuri Giants territory. Note: don’t waltz into Momijiya wearing another NPB team’s apparel (I once went in wearing a Giants jersey), because they will kindly ask you to remove it… Go Carp! LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1309/A130905/13000245/)

9. Himeshara: Sushi, Sapporo (Maruyama Koen Station)

 This Sapporo restaurant is located a ways from the more bustling parts of the city like Odori and Susukino. However going out of the way was almost never disappointing when eating in Japan, and Himeshara was no exception. It is amazing to watch the Chef, Akira Tanaka, meticulously prepare his lineup as he perfectly crafted each piece of sushi for every patron individually. Of all the sushi restaurants I visited, Himeshara was heaviest on the uni (sea urchin). Though that may have been a negative early on in my stay, Himeshara played a big part in swaying my attitudes in favor of the Japanese delicacy (as did another restaurant higher up the list). Himeshara was also a bit more radical than the more traditional sushi restaurants. For example, one dish involved a piece of fatty tuna nigiri, topped with some kind of pickled vegetables, and then uni, served in a piece of nori (seaweed). The shrimp piece (pictured above) was equally complicated, with the meatiest part of the shrimp carefully folded in a circle on top of the rice, then Tanaka slid the gooey shrimp head on top,  and then  topped that with the shrimp eggs. It was a marvel to watch. Was it a bit gimmicky? Maybe. But it sure was delicious. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/hokkaido/A0101/A010105/1057657/)

This Sapporo restaurant is located a ways from the more bustling parts of the city like Odori and Susukino. However going out of the way was almost never disappointing when eating in Japan, and Himeshara was no exception. It is amazing to watch the Chef, Akira Tanaka, meticulously prepare his lineup as he perfectly crafted each piece of sushi for every patron individually. Of all the sushi restaurants I visited, Himeshara was heaviest on the uni (sea urchin). Though that may have been a negative early on in my stay, Himeshara played a big part in swaying my attitudes in favor of the Japanese delicacy (as did another restaurant higher up the list). Himeshara was also a bit more radical than the more traditional sushi restaurants. For example, one dish involved a piece of fatty tuna nigiri, topped with some kind of pickled vegetables, and then uni, served in a piece of nori (seaweed). The shrimp piece (pictured above) was equally complicated, with the meatiest part of the shrimp carefully folded in a circle on top of the rice, then Tanaka slid the gooey shrimp head on top, and then topped that with the shrimp eggs. It was a marvel to watch. Was it a bit gimmicky? Maybe. But it sure was delicious. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/hokkaido/A0101/A010105/1057657/)

8. Ichibancho Teruya: Sushi, Tokyo (Hanzomon Station)

 Unlike all of the sushi restaurants located a bit higher on the list, Ichibancho Teruya is not super famous. It should be though, because it certainly stands toe-to-toe with any of the sushi restaurants I tried in Japan. The chef, Teruya Iida is much more engaging than your typical “omakase counter” sushi master, as he engages with his diners throughout the night. The sushi itself is what I would like to think of a “gold ribbon” kind of sushi, just great all-around. The course is very traditional, and each piece is incredibly fresh and pure in taste. A rare perk for Teruya is that Iida speaks English fluently, so you can just call directly to make a reservation, rather than going through the expensive booking intermediaries or a hotel concierge. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1308/A130803/13136559/)

Unlike all of the sushi restaurants located a bit higher on the list, Ichibancho Teruya is not super famous. It should be though, because it certainly stands toe-to-toe with any of the sushi restaurants I tried in Japan. The chef, Teruya Iida is much more engaging than your typical “omakase counter” sushi master, as he engages with his diners throughout the night. The sushi itself is what I would like to think of a “gold ribbon” kind of sushi, just great all-around. The course is very traditional, and each piece is incredibly fresh and pure in taste. A rare perk for Teruya is that Iida speaks English fluently, so you can just call directly to make a reservation, rather than going through the expensive booking intermediaries or a hotel concierge. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1308/A130803/13136559/)

7. Kohaku: Traditional Japanese, Tokyo (Kagurazaka Station)

 Kohaku is perhaps the most critically acclaimed restaurant I ended up trying. With 3 Michelin stars, my expectations going in were very high, and they were certainly met. My meal (pictured above) was highlighted by the Shark fin and uni on sticky rice, which was surprisingly creamy in consistency and mellow in taste. Towards the end of the lineup was the steamed rice with scallop and Japanese herbs. The Chef makes an entire pot just for you, and it is  so phenomenal , and when you inevitably can’t finish, they use the remaining rice for onigiri (rice balls) which you get to take out after the meal. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1309/A130905/13049130/)

Kohaku is perhaps the most critically acclaimed restaurant I ended up trying. With 3 Michelin stars, my expectations going in were very high, and they were certainly met. My meal (pictured above) was highlighted by the Shark fin and uni on sticky rice, which was surprisingly creamy in consistency and mellow in taste. Towards the end of the lineup was the steamed rice with scallop and Japanese herbs. The Chef makes an entire pot just for you, and it is so phenomenal, and when you inevitably can’t finish, they use the remaining rice for onigiri (rice balls) which you get to take out after the meal. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1309/A130905/13049130/)

6. Sentorizushi: Sushi, Kanazawa (Kanazawa Station)

 Sentorizushi is another sushi restaurant that, like Teruya, was just impressive all around: from the museum-like interior to the seriousness of the Chefs and promptness of the service. A unique aspect is that the sushi is served directly on top of the pristine counter top. The highlight of Sentori was the Maguro nigiri piece, which was perhaps the best I tasted among all the other sushi spots. Kanazawa is particularly famous for its sushi, and Sentori is a prime example of that brand of excellence. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/ishikawa/A1701/A170101/17000048/)

Sentorizushi is another sushi restaurant that, like Teruya, was just impressive all around: from the museum-like interior to the seriousness of the Chefs and promptness of the service. A unique aspect is that the sushi is served directly on top of the pristine counter top. The highlight of Sentori was the Maguro nigiri piece, which was perhaps the best I tasted among all the other sushi spots. Kanazawa is particularly famous for its sushi, and Sentori is a prime example of that brand of excellence. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/ishikawa/A1701/A170101/17000048/)

5. Nakamura: Sushi, Tokyo (Roppongi Station)

 Walking into Nakamura, my guest said “it smells like a temple”, because of the incense burning at one corner of the restaurant. Indeed, eating at Nakamura is something like a religious experience, because every piece of sushi is perfect. Even the hot green tea is made in front of you, and poured fresh as soon as you get maybe 1/4 through your cup. Though I prefer a bit more of a relaxed environment, the seriousness of Nakamura pairs well with the exactness of the sushi. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1307/A130701/13003314/)

Walking into Nakamura, my guest said “it smells like a temple”, because of the incense burning at one corner of the restaurant. Indeed, eating at Nakamura is something like a religious experience, because every piece of sushi is perfect. Even the hot green tea is made in front of you, and poured fresh as soon as you get maybe 1/4 through your cup. Though I prefer a bit more of a relaxed environment, the seriousness of Nakamura pairs well with the exactness of the sushi. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1307/A130701/13003314/)

4. Ichirin Hanare: Chinese-Japanese Cuisine, Kamakura (Kamakura Station)

 Just a short walk from Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine, one of the most beautiful and famous in all of Japan, Ichirin Hanare is by far the coolest restaurant I visited purely by location and decor. To get to the restaurant you walk through a quiet residential area with tiny winding streets outside of the shrine before coming upon Ichirin Hanare (the entrance is pictured). The actual restaurant was like a Japanese-style house that had been converted. It feels like the kind of restaurant a villain from James Bond would be hosting a high stakes poker game: as in secretive and fancy.  As for the food, it was presented in perhaps the most artful way compared to any restaurant on the list. Each dish was presented on a special plate that has a design on it to compliment the equally beautiful food. The highlights of the meal were the shark fin, as well as several succulent gyoza with a szechuan dipping sauce. With both of those dishes, the plate did not end with the shark fin or the gyoza, as rice was served to soak up the delicious broth used to accompany the shark fin and then somen noodles to capitalize on the szechuan sauce. This folding of one dish into another was a particularly fascinating aspect of dining at Ichirin Hanare. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/kanagawa/A1404/A140402/14066990/)

Just a short walk from Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine, one of the most beautiful and famous in all of Japan, Ichirin Hanare is by far the coolest restaurant I visited purely by location and decor. To get to the restaurant you walk through a quiet residential area with tiny winding streets outside of the shrine before coming upon Ichirin Hanare (the entrance is pictured). The actual restaurant was like a Japanese-style house that had been converted. It feels like the kind of restaurant a villain from James Bond would be hosting a high stakes poker game: as in secretive and fancy.

As for the food, it was presented in perhaps the most artful way compared to any restaurant on the list. Each dish was presented on a special plate that has a design on it to compliment the equally beautiful food. The highlights of the meal were the shark fin, as well as several succulent gyoza with a szechuan dipping sauce. With both of those dishes, the plate did not end with the shark fin or the gyoza, as rice was served to soak up the delicious broth used to accompany the shark fin and then somen noodles to capitalize on the szechuan sauce. This folding of one dish into another was a particularly fascinating aspect of dining at Ichirin Hanare. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/kanagawa/A1404/A140402/14066990/)

3. Amamoto: Sushi, Tokyo (Akebanebashi Station)

 This two-star Michelin restaurant is a stones throw from the iconic Tokyo Tower, and the entrance is typical of top-class sushi place, with little signage and an unassuming traditional wooden Japanese facade. My visit to Amamoto was in the first two weeks of my semester in Japan, but the memory of how good the sushi was always stuck with me. Chef Masamichi Amamoto doesn’t speak much English, just enough to describe what he is serving, but regardless he seems like one of the jolliest people I have ever seen. He is a far cry from the stereotyped surly Chef you would think of in high-end dining. Even when you leave the restaurant, Amamoto shuffles out from behind the counter to shake your hand before you exit.  As for the details of the food, Amamoto is known for his signature shrimp nigiri, which he dangles off the counter (pictured). This piece is delicious, as are the various other sushi pieces served throughout the meal… even the shirako (fish sperm sacks)! LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1314/A131401/13196420/)

This two-star Michelin restaurant is a stones throw from the iconic Tokyo Tower, and the entrance is typical of top-class sushi place, with little signage and an unassuming traditional wooden Japanese facade. My visit to Amamoto was in the first two weeks of my semester in Japan, but the memory of how good the sushi was always stuck with me. Chef Masamichi Amamoto doesn’t speak much English, just enough to describe what he is serving, but regardless he seems like one of the jolliest people I have ever seen. He is a far cry from the stereotyped surly Chef you would think of in high-end dining. Even when you leave the restaurant, Amamoto shuffles out from behind the counter to shake your hand before you exit.

As for the details of the food, Amamoto is known for his signature shrimp nigiri, which he dangles off the counter (pictured). This piece is delicious, as are the various other sushi pieces served throughout the meal… even the shirako (fish sperm sacks)! LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1314/A131401/13196420/)

2. Yakitori Imai: Yakitori [chicken skewers], Tokyo (Gaiemmae Station)

 Yakitori Imai definitely had one of the most modern spaces of all the restaurants I went to in Japan. The sleek countertop and wrap-around bar was super cool. But in a practical way, it also allowed diners to see everything going on in the workspace. The main chef, Takashi Imai, is hard at work on the main charcoal grill perfectly seasoning and cooking all of the different chicken skewer offerings. The best of which was the reba (chicken liver). It’s not something that I would typically enjoy, in fact at the beginning of the meal one of the adjunct cooks will ask if you are okay with eating liver, because it is a somewhat polarizing food I suppose. However, I implore you to try it, because it was the most tender and richly flavorful skewer on the menu.  Over the course of my visit to Japan, I came back to Yakitori Imai 7 times, once with my mom, who agreed it was spectacular. In Japan, Yakitori is not typically considered “high-class” food, as it is mostly served as a kind of bar snack or street food. But at Yakitori Imai, watching the cooks intently cook every vegetable, every little skewer to its optimal temperature and then rushing over to serve it, you get the sense that these guys have taken the cuisine to a whole new level. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1306/A130603/13025995/?from_yoyaku=1)

Yakitori Imai definitely had one of the most modern spaces of all the restaurants I went to in Japan. The sleek countertop and wrap-around bar was super cool. But in a practical way, it also allowed diners to see everything going on in the workspace. The main chef, Takashi Imai, is hard at work on the main charcoal grill perfectly seasoning and cooking all of the different chicken skewer offerings. The best of which was the reba (chicken liver). It’s not something that I would typically enjoy, in fact at the beginning of the meal one of the adjunct cooks will ask if you are okay with eating liver, because it is a somewhat polarizing food I suppose. However, I implore you to try it, because it was the most tender and richly flavorful skewer on the menu.

Over the course of my visit to Japan, I came back to Yakitori Imai 7 times, once with my mom, who agreed it was spectacular. In Japan, Yakitori is not typically considered “high-class” food, as it is mostly served as a kind of bar snack or street food. But at Yakitori Imai, watching the cooks intently cook every vegetable, every little skewer to its optimal temperature and then rushing over to serve it, you get the sense that these guys have taken the cuisine to a whole new level. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1306/A130603/13025995/?from_yoyaku=1)

1. Kirakutei: Traditional Japanese, Tokyo (Kugayama Station)

 One of the greatest aspects of dining at Kirakutei is getting to watch each and every step of head Chef Kotaru Asakura preparing the food. As more customers come in, you also get to see how Kotaru diligently controls his rotation of preparation. For example, the pike-conger eel (hamo) sashimi dish takes at least 7 minutes of focused slicing and texturing. And then the beautifully decorated tray of bamboo wrapped sushi, soaked egg yolk, salmon roe, and pickled vegetables requires an equal level of attention. Kotaru’s wife, Keiko, is involved in the preparation, as are two other sous-chefs, but Kotaru is undoubtedly the point guard of the meal. Lots of fancy restaurants in Japan have set times for meals, so the chef doesn’t have to juggle. But Kirakutei is not one of these, and it works in favor of the entire experience. Furthermore, Keiko is a delightful person who constantly monitors the counter and tables explaining the intricacies of each dish and recommending drinks. At no point do you feel that anyone at Kirakutei is not 100% involved.  Of course, the real joy of Kirakutei is the food. Eating in a foreign country, especially as an American, some foods come off as repulsive at first. For me, a few of these were sea urchin (uni), raw shrimp, monkfish liver, and then abalone. At Kirakutei I was served all of these foods at some point. But eating is only truly magical when you are forced to think about something differently, when something initially repugnant becomes delicious. Because Kirakutei was an omakase course, with 10+ dishes, I will not divulge on each and every one. Some of my favorites included a raw shrimp soaked in Hennessy cognac, served with uni in a little glass bowl. The flavor of the cold shrimp was so fresh and clean, then the uni acted as a creamy entity in the bite adding more texture and complexity. A more simple example would be the raw abalone. I had tasted it before many times, and never enjoyed it. But the chilled pieces at Kirakutei had a crunch, and a smooth flavor that once again defied my preconceived notions. Kotaru simply said “milky” pointing to the dish, and he was spot on. Kirakutei was so good that I made another reservation before I left the restaurant for later in the week. On my second visit one of the dishes was a kind of monkfish liver ice cream, served in between two savory rice crackers. Other staples at Kirakutei are the crispy eel, and the gyu-katsu sando (steak sandwich). It was these kinds of creative plates, all of them delicious, that set Kirakutei apart from many of my other top picks.  As a side-note, the logo of Kirakutei was inspired by the Jerry West NBA logo, as Kotaru is a big basketball fan. He knew all about legendary Georgetown Hoyas such as Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutumbo, etc. So if you are an NBA-nut then be sure to ask Kotaru when you visit. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1318/A131806/13050819/)

One of the greatest aspects of dining at Kirakutei is getting to watch each and every step of head Chef Kotaru Asakura preparing the food. As more customers come in, you also get to see how Kotaru diligently controls his rotation of preparation. For example, the pike-conger eel (hamo) sashimi dish takes at least 7 minutes of focused slicing and texturing. And then the beautifully decorated tray of bamboo wrapped sushi, soaked egg yolk, salmon roe, and pickled vegetables requires an equal level of attention. Kotaru’s wife, Keiko, is involved in the preparation, as are two other sous-chefs, but Kotaru is undoubtedly the point guard of the meal. Lots of fancy restaurants in Japan have set times for meals, so the chef doesn’t have to juggle. But Kirakutei is not one of these, and it works in favor of the entire experience. Furthermore, Keiko is a delightful person who constantly monitors the counter and tables explaining the intricacies of each dish and recommending drinks. At no point do you feel that anyone at Kirakutei is not 100% involved.

Of course, the real joy of Kirakutei is the food. Eating in a foreign country, especially as an American, some foods come off as repulsive at first. For me, a few of these were sea urchin (uni), raw shrimp, monkfish liver, and then abalone. At Kirakutei I was served all of these foods at some point. But eating is only truly magical when you are forced to think about something differently, when something initially repugnant becomes delicious. Because Kirakutei was an omakase course, with 10+ dishes, I will not divulge on each and every one. Some of my favorites included a raw shrimp soaked in Hennessy cognac, served with uni in a little glass bowl. The flavor of the cold shrimp was so fresh and clean, then the uni acted as a creamy entity in the bite adding more texture and complexity. A more simple example would be the raw abalone. I had tasted it before many times, and never enjoyed it. But the chilled pieces at Kirakutei had a crunch, and a smooth flavor that once again defied my preconceived notions. Kotaru simply said “milky” pointing to the dish, and he was spot on. Kirakutei was so good that I made another reservation before I left the restaurant for later in the week. On my second visit one of the dishes was a kind of monkfish liver ice cream, served in between two savory rice crackers. Other staples at Kirakutei are the crispy eel, and the gyu-katsu sando (steak sandwich). It was these kinds of creative plates, all of them delicious, that set Kirakutei apart from many of my other top picks.

As a side-note, the logo of Kirakutei was inspired by the Jerry West NBA logo, as Kotaru is a big basketball fan. He knew all about legendary Georgetown Hoyas such as Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutumbo, etc. So if you are an NBA-nut then be sure to ask Kotaru when you visit. LINK: (https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1318/A131806/13050819/)