A few weeks before I go to Tokyo for the first time, the inaugural Michelin Guide to its restaurants is published. The city’s denizens, obsessed as they are with eating out, are pretty pleased: Michelin had given their restaurants more stars—191 of them—than any other place in the world, including Paris.
On the plane, I mark up my guide greedily, devouring descriptions of the three-star sushi joints, two-star fusion restaurants, and the temples of French cuisine. I figure I’ll take on this city as I would any great metropolis, the way I have Buenos Aires or Moscow or Istanbul, through its food and, of course, its restaurants. These and the attendant pleasures—conversations with strangers, the etiquette of dining out, a sense of how the culinary culture works—should be as good a way as any to immerse myself in the local life.
Given Tokyo’s vast sprawl and the number of places to go and eat and see, I know my neophyte explorations can only add up to a kind of Tokyo 101. Still, I’m confident. What I fail to understand, and dismally so, before I get there is that Japan isn’t like any other place. The minute I disembark I realize I’m going to be seriously lost in translation. This frightens me. It irritates me. My inner xenophobe lashes out silently. When I phone a friend for help, he says, “Don’t be too hard on Japan. Culturally it’s just not an easy lay.”
Phone calls and, even more so, e-mails keep me going, more often than not to my sometime traveling companion, The Cynic.
My first day in Tokyo. Okay, you warned me. You said Japan was the weirdest place. I came out from the airport, and sitting in the back of a cab, I couldn’t communicate with the driver. My cell phone doesn’t work. Most foreign phones don’t work, and eventually you have to rent one. Mine was big as a brick. The buildings run up to the highway (very Blade Runner). In this endless gray foggy city I feel like a patient anesthetized in an isolation ward (very T. S. Eliot).
So far as I can tell, hardly anyone speaks English (or, for that matter, any foreign language), even at the airport. The cabbie remains silent all the way into town. Like many taxi drivers, he wears little white shortie cotton gloves. On the seats are stretchy white cotton lace covers, like vehicular antimacassars. In Japan they drive on the wrong side like the Brits. Some cops have little blue tin-pot helmets and wave glowing Star Wars–esque batons. Did I mention that the disembarkation form doesn’t say “For Visitors” but “For Foreigner”?
The Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo, where I’m staying, is an oasis. The staff speaks English, and I have a great suite that overlooks the entire city. The bathroom is huge. I find Japanese pajamas and a kimono in the closet. There is the bowing, though. I arrive, they bow me in; I give a sort of cursory head nod, they bow lower; I bob a bit more, like Cherie Blair in front of the queen.
In the lobby, which is on the 45th floor, there are stupendous views. Little clusters of Japanese ladies, some in kimonos, perch on sofas. They consume fancy cakes and tea sandwiches. On the grand piano somebody is playing “Send in the Clowns.”
A small, plain restaurant, Sushi Aoki has a counter with about a dozen seats. This is my first meal in Tokyo. The young chef bows slightly. He examines my watch, notes that it’s a Patek Philippe (my father’s vintage from 1953), and nods with respect. I may be a foreigner, but my branding is good. He goes back to slicing the rich, fatty tuna with exquisite precision.
Another chef grates fresh wasabi, rubbing a gnarly root on what looks like a sort of emery board. The roots are bought at the Tsukiji fish market and come from an area called Gotemba. Making wasabi is an art form in its own right, and there are dozens of varieties: sweet, hot, delicate.
Since it’s about 1:30 p.m., there’s no one else at the counter. Tokyo eats early: lunch around noon, dinner around six. It took me almost an hour—and about nine strangers—to find the place. Sushi Aoki is in a small building in the Ginza district. The nearby shopping boulevard is Tokyo’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue. Here, the bars, restaurants, and cafés stack on top of each other like dumpling boxes. Addresses are often impossible to decipher.
The chef who admired my watch is now slicing mackerel. He wraps it with rice and indicates I should dip it in soy sauce. While I eat this incredible confection, he opens up a wooden box and plucks out morsels of fish wrapped in a paper towel and plastic wrap, examining each as if it were a priceless jewel.
Meanwhile, the other chef reappears. He speaks a few words of English, enough to tell me what I’m eating. And so I keep going—baby barracuda, sea eel, langoustine, all delicate, unfishy, succulent but not slippery. This is how sushi tastes in your dreams. At my first meal in Tokyo, I get a whisper of the city’s pleasure factor. I begin to sense that in Japan, dining is theater.
Later I discover the 24-hour market in the basement of the Tokyo Midtown development, where the Ritz-Carlton is located. You can get anything, including whole melons nestled in tissue like a bouquet of flowers. They’re a hundred bucks a pop or more. A variety of muskmelon, these babies are nurtured like royalty. The vines are trimmed so only three melons grow per plant, and when two of them are small, they’re chopped off. The remaining melon—the big-ticket fruit—gets all the vine’s nourishment. This gives you an idea of the elaborate, ritualistic ways the Japanese attend to food.
Thank God I’m in this luxurious suite, in a huge bed, because in general I’ve fallen off the planet and into an alternative universe, like DC Comics’ Bizarro World, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim slipping between planets, no traction. I went out early this morning, I got a Starbucks coffee—they’re very, very big on brand names in this country—but I was still in the bubble. I think most people who come to Tokyo and “love it” have a translator with them, or friends, or work associates. Me, I did have a business meeting, an interview for an article I was writing. Six of us in a single room. I knew some of them spoke English, but they didn’t dare in case it wasn’t right and they incurred the disdain of a superior. It was obvious. So they huddled over the bloody translation machine—like a double-size BlackBerry—trying to answer my question: “How did you come up with this necklace design?” I feel like Captain Blackthorne.
Remember Shogun, the miniseries with Richard Chamberlain as Blackthorne? The first British sailor to get to Japan, in around 1600, with his Prince Valiant haircut. He is culturally all at sea, upset because people cut off others’ heads for bowing at the wrong angle, unable to speak the language, furious when he’s offered a girl for pleasure. Blackthorne stumbles around like a huge big-footed alien, which is how I feel. I find myself talking ever louder, as if the people around me were deaf, not Japanese.
And Tokyo is really quiet. Hardly anyone yells. People observe laws; I don’t see anyone cross against the light, not even punk kids with orange hair. And it’s clean. People wear white masks over their noses and mouths to keep you from getting their colds. Ladies in pink boilersuits run on and off intercity trains, cleaning up between trips. Outside the train station the homeless sit in cardboard boxes, only their heads and arms showing, as if they’ve been tidied up. Maybe obsessive cleanliness is the only way to survive among nearly 130 million people on a densely populated strip of land smaller than California, with just about 25 percent of it habitable.
Hinokizaka is on the Ritz-Carlton’s 45th floor. On one side of the long, curving counter are stools for patrons; on the other is the built-in teppan, or griddle. The restaurant’s top teppanyaki chef, Junichi Yoshida, a tall man with dimples, grinds some pepper with as much style and finesse as Tom Cruise mixing drinks in Cocktail.
Like so many of Tokyo’s best restaurants, this is a tiny place that seats just a couple of dozen people per night. I realize the human scale of the city’s restaurants is perhaps one reason so many have been awarded Michelin stars. With great food, small really is better.
I’m seated at the counter. Next to me is a young man, an actor perhaps, or a model, with fabulous cheekbones, a dark-blue watch cap pulled low, cuffs unbuttoned. Next to him, hanging on his every word, his girlfriend clutches her new Chanel bag with the big white C’s. On my other side is Kiyonari Araki. One of the executive sous-chefs, Araki-san, as he is known, is multilingual and has joined me to explain the ways of the teppan. He tells me patiently that almost anything—abalone, beef, prawns—can be made on the teppan and that Yoshida is known for his fish en papillote.
At the griddle Yoshida pours grape-seed oil from a small kettle. On one end of the wide, flat surface, in what seems a single elegant gesture, he tosses a bit of Okinawa salt with enoki mushrooms, a slice of beef, and an egg. On the other end, he grills abalone and vegetables. A second chef is at another teppan cooking prawns for a pair of ladies with anticipatory smiles on their faces.
The customers all lean forward like an audience at a Kabuki theater, trying to divine the meaning of Yoshida’s gestures. Dining out as theater, the concept I intimated earlier at my first Tokyo meal, has turned into full-blown performance art. With a spatula, Yoshida flips the grilled abalone onto a plate.
Now everyone is getting into it; the Japanese patrons laugh, call out orders. In what at first seemed to me a repressed, passive-aggressive, bureaucratic, ritualistic country, here, and at other meals, there is a kind of uninhibited delight.
“With eggs?” Araki-san asks, indicating the garlic rice Yoshida is preparing now.
“Eggs,” I reply, and Yoshida cooks the rice directly on the griddle, breaks a pair of eggs beside it, mixes them together with his spatula, and places it all in a small covered bowl.
The beef is ready. The rice is ready. Near my plate the chef places half a dozen little square ceramic pots, each with a condiment: ginger; Yoshida’s own garlic soy sauce; different types of salts—which often replace soy—including Mongol, Okinawa, rose-colored Latin American, and pink Himalayan varieties. “In Asia the symbol of luxury is choice,” says Araki-san.
I taste the dish. The beef, sliced as fine as prosciutto but marbled like a slab of Carrera, is sublime, richer than Kobe, tastier, utterly exquisite. “It’s Hokkaido beef,” says Araki-san. “Very similar to Kobe, which people know because it’s exported. We tend to keep the very best here in Japan.”
The obsession with pop culture, youth culture, cartoon culture is all around. An eight-foot-tall Hello Kitty stands outside a toy shop. At a café the girls are dressed up like French maids. Guys eating ice cream sundaes ogle them. (Remember the scene in Babel where the teen goes out with no underpants?) Girls in kimonos drink too much and puke all over the pavement. In Yoyogi Park on weekends are dancing Elvises.
How do these wild and crazy kids grow up into the drab salarymen and women trudging through Tokyo in gray suits? The youth culture reminds me of the Amish Rumspringa, when kids spend time after their 16th birthdays doing un-Amish things like drinking and partying, then decide if they want to return to the community.
I don’t get the humor, either, which drives me nuts. One quite elegant lady—a friend had given me her name and number—kindly takes me out to supper, has a bit of wine, and, pleasantly squiffed, tells me stories I don’t get, even in English. Plucking my sleeve, she says, “Joke, joke.”
As often as not, in the United States tempura is for people who hate raw fish and find themselves stuck in a Japanese restaurant. In Tokyo, though, tempura is a serious cuisine with restaurants dedicated to it. At Kondo, a tiny one-star place in the Ginza, owner Fumio Kondo is a tempura master. Behind the counter he dips the fish and vegetables quickly in a light batter, then fries them swiftly in sesame oil. The prawns, local white fish, asparagus, sweet potato come out of the oil bath with fragile and crispy crusts, succulent and delicate insides.
A pair of ladies lunching—clearly they are having a wonderful time—engage me in culinary sign language, indicating which condiment I should use with each dish, when to use salt, when the soy mixture.
Having ascertained that I’m on the right path to tempura heaven, the first woman picks up a morsel of her fried eel, pops it in her mouth, closes her eyes, considers the flavor, smiles at her companion, then at me. She swallows. Looks at me. We make little bows to each other. Suddenly I feel connected. Everything comes into focus.
The cheeriest people I see in all of Tokyo are middle-aged women out on the town, having tea at the hotels, clambering on and off tour buses, trying out their French at Joël Robuchon’s L’Atelier. They’re having a ball. This, I discover, is because many are newly divorced. According to a recent BBC report, many women suffer from Retired Husband Syndrome.
For most of their married life, he works all day, goes drinking, then makes the two-hour commute home. She has the house to herself. Then he retires. She doesn’t really know him. He’s around all day. She thinks, I don’t know you and I don’t like you. She wants a divorce.
Some of these men are running scared, forming groups where they learn to behave and practice saying “I love you,” “I’m sorry,” and “thank you.” The women think this gets them a lot of “smileage.” Asked by the BBC why Japanese husbands are as they are, one man replies, “It’s the way of the samurai.”
Before I left home I bought some books to see if I could get the hang of Japan. I read Twinkle Twinkle, a best seller about some affectless Toyko types—a gay man, an emotionally unstable girl—who marry for form’s sake and eat a lot of takeout. Then I went through a few really good but incredibly violent thrillers, very gory, big on gangsters and dismemberment. But now I’m reading The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki, who might as well be the offspring of Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy. It is one of those big books that change your life.
It’s the story of four women before World War II who deal with their lives as the world shifts around them. The beauty is in the detail, a whole culture revealed in, say, the choice between a kimono and Western dress, or the restaurants the characters visit—sushi or tempura—or their relationship with a German family. The book transcends time and place, but reading it in Japan makes me feel its presence in a more visceral way, like reading Midnight’s Children in Bombay or One Hundred Years of Solitude in Colombia. I’ve been up all night reading and it’s dawn now, but outside my window Tokyo has tipped into the fog and disappeared.
Anyway, I’m beginning to live for the food here. I might be hard on the culture, but, oh, the meals!
Pasta at Bulgari
Tokyo has long doted on French food. Many superchefs have outlets here: Robuchon, Troisgros, Ducasse. More recently a passion for Italian has arisen, and among the pizza and pasta joints at least half a dozen places have a Michelin star or two, including Ristorante Aso, Piatto Suzuki, La Primula, and Cucina Hirata. Tonight I’m sampling delicate prosciutto from Il Ristorante at a party on the roof of the Bulgari Ginza Tower.
It’s the magic hour, the sun going down, the neon coming up. Le tout Tokyo emerges from limos at the entrance of the sleek tower, 11 floors of baubles and bags. Paparazzi flash their cameras, the fabulous folk enter, stopping to inspect watches, bags, and signature Bulgari coin jewelry on the first few floors. Or the really big stuff, including a drop-dead navy-blue diamond on the third, as well as the bridal salon and VIP room for high-end jewels. There are floors for customer care and offices, and the top four hold a restaurant, private dining rooms, and a bar. This is Mondo Bulgari.
San Daniele ham and mozzarella, risotto with truffles and porcini, lobster lasagna, Matsusaka beef with chestnut purée and truffles are exquisitely plated. A jazz band plays. The company padrone, Nicola Bulgari, is a jazz fan, and he holds court with a group of tremendously chic Italians imported for the night. A Japanese movie star in a strapless raw-silk dress pulls up her bodice. The dress is a little too big, as if she were wearing her mother’s evening gown. With her is a Tokyo “silver fox,” a fiftysomething hipster in a Prada suit, emerald in his ear, gray ponytail pulled back, a haughty expression on his face. There is at least one princess here. The wine flows. The view is spectacular.
Tokyo loves a view. In the near distance, like an urban forest, are the name-brand fashion towers: Gucci, Armani, Hermès, Mikimoto, Chanel. Labels are everything in this most consumerist of cities. I’ve heard it said that many young women go without lunch for months in order to save for, say, a Vuitton bag.
This was not always a city of skyscrapers. At times, looking for some tiny restaurants, I find myself in an alleyway or lane. From taxis I occasionally see laundry hung on lines. I can imagine another Tokyo. But the city, destroyed once by a 1923 earthquake, was bombed badly during the war. Then came the drab seven-, eight-story structures of the sixties and seventies. It was only in the last decade that high-rises and huge malls took over. And in the malls is every Western brand thinkable—Dean & DeLuca, Burberry, Christian Louboutin, Prada, Paul Smith. The most original designers of recent decades may be Japanese—Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto—but they have only a few stores around town and not a single tower.
The theme-park thing drives me crazy. Outside my window at the hotel is the “Eiffel Tower,” only taller, which opened in l958 and is called the Tokyo Tower. In this city there are not only battling brand-name skyscrapers but also stores, which are copies of the originals: Tiffany & Co. on the Ginza is an exact replica of the famous Manhattan shop; the Barneys New York here is a dead ringer for, well, Barneys in New York. It’s like Disney Deluxe.
People tell me it has to do with Japan’s history. The country was closed to the West from the 1600s to the mid-1800s. When the country opened up, the obsession began. Western music, clothes, magazines, movies, and theme parks all became objects of extreme desire.
On the top floor of the city’s Barneys, Yonemura, the Tokyo branch of chef Masayasu Yonemura’s Kyoto restaurant, serves the most innovative fusion food I’ve ever eaten—and the most successful: a wild, seductive, inspired mix of French and Japanese.
You sit at a counter where chefs serve you their creations on an array of bone china as well as chunky Vietnamese pottery. The ten-course meal unfolds leisurely, starting with a loaf of delectable French bread. Among the dishes: angel-hair pasta with sea urchin; scallops with soy and mushroom; broth with root vegetables and lemon peel; Kobe beef wrapped in a little green spinach package with foie gras, caviar, and crème fraîche on top. Cabbage comes with sticky pear and prosciutto. For dessert there is kumquat-and-truffle tart with truffle ice cream. Tequila sorbet is served in icy shot glasses.
Of all the meals I eat in Tokyo, this is the most accessible, the most astonishing cross-cultural pollination of food I’ve had since I first ate at Nobu decades ago.
I ate a cheeseburger on the rooftop bar at Park Hyatt Tokyo, where Lost in Translation was filmed. There’s a jazz singer, a sort of old-fashioned chanteuse doing standards with a lot of hand gestures and a lot of Americans drinking really expensive Scotch. Great views. Nice rooms. I still don’t get it—not the hotel, the city. Weird. When I first saw the movie, I thought it was the rather simpleminded and feverish imaginings of a young director. Now it seems like a documentary.
It’s 5 a.m. at the Tsukiji fish market and a tall man in bright-pink rubber waders and a pink scarf is killing fish one at a time with a single flourish of his long, sharp knife. He is like a fish samurai, dashing, fierce, seemingly unaware of the tourists watching or the controlled chaos around him.
It’s still dark outside when we arrive at this legendary market, which turns over more than 2,500 tons of seafood a day, with 450 varieties available at the nearly 2,000 stalls.
With me is Kiyonari Araki, one of the executive sous-chefs at the Ritz-Carlton, who has once again volunteered to be my guide, and we’re accompanied by Yamagishi-san, Araki-san’s supplier at the market.
Tsukiji is inside a vast hangarlike building, almost a village in its own right. Every kind of fish is traded here, but then, to think of Japan, this island nation, is to think of fish. Along the aisle of the market are blood-red slabs of whale meat, smoked dark roe, pale-orange sea urchin, prawns, eels, squid, oysters, sardines, sea bream. There are scallops and lobsters, clams and oysters; there is fish from Russia, China, America. But the superstar is Japanese tuna. At one stall we pass a man “sculpting” a slab of tuna to give it the perfect shape.
Around 5:30 the tuna auctions get under way in an area of the market that’s cold as a morgue. Massive quick-frozen tuna, some weighing as much as 400 pounds, lie on the ground, the cold steam rising off them. On a platform the auctioneers, jumping, pointing, chanting, announce prices. A gaggle of men bids; this is fish as blue-chip art, fish auction as rock concert. Along the sides of the auction area, tourists stand in puddles, gaping. “Breakfast,” announces Araki-san. We leave the market and walk to Ryu-Sushi. A hole in the wall, the restaurant is full of market guys, finishing their day with a breakfast of sushi washed down with beer. The fish, of course, which has come from Tsukiji, is so fresh, it could swim into your mouth. Delectable stuff. I knock back a couple of cold beers even though it’s only 6:30 a.m.
Captain Blackthorne? T. S. Eliot? Hello Kitty? My friend was right. Culturally, it’s not an easy lay. So just figure: all this for some not really impartial notes from a traveler still lost in translation, but who found a way to speak the language, at least a little bit, by falling in love with the food.
It’s five in the afternoon at Il Café, and people are just starting to arrive at this sleek café-tearoom in the Bulgari store in Tokyo’s Omotesando neighborhood, the city’s Rodeo Drive, its Madison Avenue, its Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré. Girls in twos and threes—heels on their designer boots clacking, charms on their fashionable bags jingling—settle at some of the little tables and order cappuccino. A few men drift in and then out onto the terrace for a smoke. As Il Café—all chocolate-brown walls, black leather, and teak—fills up, the voices rise, the waiters serve fancy coffee, ice cream, snacks, wine.
At the far end of the room, the pièce de résistance is Il Cioccolato, the chocolate shop. Its back wall is a brown-and-gold mosaic depicting Bulgari’s first advertising campaign. And in glass cases, displayed much like the baubles in the Bulgari store downstairs, are the confections themselves, meant to be eaten in Il Café or taken home.
In the last few years Tokyo has gone nuts for fancy chocolates, and you can get them for upwards of $50 each at Tokyo Midtown Galleria or in the spectacular food hall in the basement of the Isetan department store. At the latter you can find French, Belgian, and Swiss varieties. But at Il Cioccolato, even if the chocolates are handmade by Japanese chef Naoki Miura, the flavors are decadently of Italy—among them wild strawberry and aged balsamic vinegar, saffron from the Abruzzi region, orange blossom honey from Sicily, lemon from Sorrento. Some are decorated with gold leaf; others have hazelnuts. You want to eat them very, very slowly, so the intense flavors hit the roof of your mouth, your tongue, and then melt into your being.
Some think Japan’s newfound obsession with chocolate may have to do with the country’s dating rituals. The Japanese are known for being very shy, but business booms around Valentine’s Day because it’s the one time of year when women give something to their boyfriends or husbands to show how they feel. There’s also White Day, March 14, when men, who normally can’t confess their feelings at all, buy chocolate as gifts.
At the chocolate counter a couple peruses the sweets with the intensity they might otherwise devote to choosing a diamond. Next to me, at a little table in the café, a middle-aged woman studies one of the chocolates she has ordered as if it contained a picture of the Virgin. She bites. A look of bliss comes over her face. She is a convert. Each of the four chocolates on her plate gets her entire attention; every one is eaten with exquisite ritual. In front of her is a little brochure with pictures and descriptions of the confections. While she eats, she reads this essential text, plotting her next order.
When she signals for the bill, the waitress who brings it kneels down. She presents the woman with the bill and accepts her credit card in return. In her posture there is reverence. The chocolate-eater rises and then, without unseemly haste, makes a beeline for the chocolate counter once more. Confections at Il Cioccolato run from $5 to $20, while the set menu at Il Café is $25. At Gyre Building, 2nd fl., 5-10-1, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/6362-0500. —Reggie Nadelson
If I’ve learned anything from my trips to Tokyo, it’s that the most precious commodities are space, silence, and service. You get all three at the Peninsula Tokyo, the 24-story hotel that opened in September 2007 in the suddenly chic Marunouchi business district. Conceived by architect Kazukiyo Sato to resemble an enormous Japanese lantern at the gateway to the Ginza district, it aspires to be for Tokyo what the original Peninsula has been to Hong Kong since the late twenties: the essence of establishment, comfort, and luxury.
Before I arrived I feared it might be stuffy, especially in such a formal culture as Japan. But while teams of people do bow as you approach the front desk, the hotel actually offers a soothing balance of tradition and spontaneity. Even as the lobby itself reworks motifs from old Kyoto—the walls are ivory with wooden latticework—there’s a contemporary air of conviviality. I’d park myself there for the Peninsula’s famous afternoon tea, a perfect space for watching the array of people strolling past: pop musicians with electric hair, Chinese businessmen trailed by gaggles of assistants, American families weary from exploring, elegant fashionistas gliding along in the latest creations by Yohji Yamamoto or Issey Miyake.
Upstairs, the 314 guest rooms and suites offer serene riffs on classic Japanese themes—each boasts an enormous sliding door made from a single panel of chestnut—yet what strikes you first is the spaciousness. Even the humblest room features a large marble bathroom (complete with those space-age Toto toilets that all but thank you for stopping) and a separate dressing room as big as the Tokyo hotel rooms my younger self stayed in. And everything is blissfully quiet. You can gaze out on Hibiya Park or the Imperial Gardens and luxuriate in the zen of urban calm. Of course, anyone in the mood for less ascetic pleasures can enjoy a massage in the soothing ESPA spa next to the indoor pool, or take the short stroll to Ginza’s incomparable department stores.
When I mention to Mark Kobayashi, the hotel’s California-born director of public relations, that it feels slightly strange for an American to be bowed to by so many graying men and women, he tells me that having older people on the staff is deliberate; it lets the Peninsula avoid the achingly hip aura that makes so many chic hotels feel inhospitable to anyone over 30. Besides, he says, the hotel takes pride in its highly experienced personnel.“These days, every good hotel has good hardware. We take pride in having the best software: our service.”
Nowhere does this matter more than in Tokyo, where generous assistance, in English, makes all the difference between frustration and delight. A fortnight before I arrived, the Peninsula’s concierges had already begun working for me—getting me reservations at Kyoto restaurants I wouldn’t have been able to land, printing out maps of obscure destinations so I could give them to cabbies, even translating the menu of a kaiseki restaurant that I said I might visit. One afternoon I asked if they had any suggestions for lunch. The concierge smiled. “You might like this,” he said and handed me a map. Five minutes later I was sitting inside the almost-hidden Ginza Sushi-Ko Honten, merely one of the finest sushi bars on the planet. From $675; 81-3/6270-2888; peninsula.com. —John Powers
Places & Prices
Tokyo is very expensive, second only to Moscow these days. But you can eat at every price. I found that $20, give or take, gets you fresh sushi at the fish market. As high as a couple hundred per person gets you a grand tasting menu—more, of course, for vintage vino at one of the fabulous French places. Keep in mind: Tipping is not required and almost never done.
Hinokizaka On the 45th floor of the Ritz-Carlton, teppanyaki goes for $220 a person. 9-7-1 Akasaka, Minato-ku; 81-3/3423-8000
Il Ristorante In Bulgari Ginza Tower, dinner runs about $185 a person. 2-7-12 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/6362-0555
Kondo On the ninth floor of the Sakaguchi Building, an average dinner for one costs $130. 5-5-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/5568-0923
Ryu-Sushi A small restaurant near the fish market, it charges $20 for a sushi plate. 5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3541-9517
Sushi Aoki The omakase menu here, on the second floor of the Ginza Takahashi Building, averages $190 a person. 6-7-4 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3289-1044
Tsukiji fish market Located at 5-2-1, Chuo-ku, this is the place for cheap, fresh sushi. 81-3/3542-1111
Yonemura On the Kojun Building’s fourth floor, a ten-course menu is $155 a person. 6-8-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/5537-6699 —Reggie Nadelson