teamLab Planets TOKYO © teamLab
teamLab Planets TOKYO © teamLab

4 Unique Food & Drink Experiences You Can Only Have in Tokyo

Japan's capital city is so much more than sushi and sake.

Tokyo’s food scene is one of the top reasons to travel there, with a worldwide reputation for quality, flavor, and style. While a trip will no doubt include some Michelin-star ramen, great sushi, and local sake, there are some not-so-standard options that keep Tokyo at the forefront of the global food scene.

From expert mixologists in classic kissaten-inspired bars to ancient Buddhist cuisine served with a contemporary flair, Tokyo is a culinary playground with undeniable class. Much more than sushi and sake, the metropolis has a food scene capable of balancing downtown favorites you cook yourself with vegan ramen that’s served in an immersive art space. Whether you’re looking for something that screams Tokyo-of-the-future or a dish so low-key traditional hardly anyone has heard of it, we’ve got the best in dining in the capital.

Immerse yourself in hypnotic art and vegan ramen at UZU

Plunging visitors deep into museum teamLab Planets' hypnotic artwork, Vegan Ramen UZU Tokyo is a restaurant that goes far beyond the five senses. The encompassing art museum started as a series of exhibitions in Tokyo, eventually becoming a long-term exhibition with living, moving displays and a sense of otherworldly creativity. Joining their multi-sensory experience by serving carefully crafted vegan ramen, UZU blends an ancient culinary tradition with the latest in artistic technology.

A nation with little-known but long-standing vegan cuisine, Japan has only recently embraced the modern take on plant-based food. Encouraging diners to reconsider the connection between the planet, the environment, its inhabitants, and the food we consume, UZU chef Ryo Kataoka focuses on nature, traditional cooking techniques, and the best ingredients to play with diners’ perception by forming a complex take on the familiar fast-food ramen.

Intricately prepared and delicately assembled, the signature dishes are a beauty to behold as well as a joy to taste. The petal-adorned Flower Vegan Ramen is a cold noodle dish with edible flowers from Kajiya Farm, inspired by the museum’s living artwork called Floating Flower Garden. The transparent bowl holds a rich, umami-laced broth with an unexpected lightness. The Green Tea Vegan Ramen uses high-quality leaves from EN Tea, balanced with a depth from shiitake mushrooms to form a rich but mellow base. The Fire Vegan Ramen, however, delivers a spicy kick thanks to the fermented chili sauce added to the miso base. Inspired by the installation entitled Universe of Fire Particles Falling from the Sky, the dish’s rich cardinal coloring and dramatic decoration are a fitting nod to its flavorful intensity.

While deciding on a dish is challenging enough, choosing where to eat it will be another. Meals can be enjoyed in a number of hypnotic spots that encourage diners to become part of the installations. The ever-moving projections of Reversible Rotation – Non Objective Space is sure to leave visitors questioning their own take on space and time, with the calligraphy filling reflective surfaces in a mesmerizing way. At the continuous One Stroke Bench, diners assign roles to structure by choosing what’s a seat and what’s a table, becoming part of the installation themselves. The second outdoor option, Table of Fire and Sky, is a spot for reflection.

While mulling over your role in time and space, ice cream might provide some sweet relief from the trans-physical experience. Pastel scoops of pink rhubarb, mint cucumber, and pistachio green tea embrace natural flavors, providing the perfect sharpening of your senses before you wander back into the arresting world of teamLab.

Photo by Andrea Fazzari

Try a twist on tradition with Buddhist cuisine at Sougo

A much calmer take on the Japanese tradition of plant-based eating, Sougo is a minimalist restaurant serving an affordable take on Shojin Ryori, the food commonly known as “devotion cuisine” since it was developed by monks and shaped by a life of simplicity, focus, and an appreciation of nature. Monks would use local, seasonal ingredients, choosing simple dishes that required patience to create and encouraged mindfulness in those who ate. The limitations of the style are key in its design: the pungent flavors of garlic and onion are avoided, and there’s a religious focus on avoiding harm. While it is still served in temples and is the forbearer of Kyoto’s elegant kaiseki set meals, Shojin Ryori has a reputation among many in Japan as austere and unexciting.

Chef-owner Daisuke Nomura has dedicated his career to proving the opposite. Raised in the family shojin restaurant Daigo (he was working as head chef when it received two Michelin stars), at Sougo, Nomura serves up refined and unusual shojin dishes at impressively affordable prices, keen to offer people the chance to appreciate the mindfulness shojin cuisine both requires and rewards. Seeing the limitations as a path to enhanced creativity, he doesn’t lament the restrictions and instead finds endless inspiration in the seasonal ingredients of Japan.

Relying on seasonal produce from around the country, but largely locally sourced, the menus change every three weeks, with a playfulness that would surprise those expecting a traditional spread. Past menus have included a softly-simmered battered tofu, grilled aubergine with miso, and, often, Nomura’s speciality: goma dofu, a sesame tofu requiring hours of work and served fried or steamed, in contrast to its traditional serving as a cold dish. Diners can choose between the entirely plant-based Shojin tasting menu or the vegetable tasting menu which uses eggs, dairy, and bonito broth (dried fish flakes). If you’re not keen to commit to a full tasting menu, drop by for the $13 lunch sets and take your time in experiencing a meal of mindfulness.

Photo by T-Mizo/Flickr

Make the classic Tokyo dish monjayaki in Tsukishima

For something a bit more haphazard and roll-up-your-sleeves-and-give-it-a-go, try monjayaki, Toyko’s secret local dish. Monja, as it’s known for short, is a liquid pancake (better than it sounds, we promise), made with a thin batter of dashi (dried fish stock) and flour, with cabbage or any number of toppings mixed in to create a uniquely delicious meal. The real joy of monja is that you get to cook it yourself — on restaurant tables designed for DIY dinners thanks to their fitted griddle plates. Since most also serve okonomiyaki and have teppanyaki options, it’s a great way to while away an evening trying out new combinations.

While monja started off as an after-school snack at Tokyo’s sweet shops during the Meiji period, the dish now has its own dedicated street in downtown Tokyo thanks to a boom in popularity in the ’80s. Tsukishima, a man-made island in the bay of Tokyo, is home to dozens of specialist restaurants along Nishinakadori, or what is known as Monjadori (Monja Street). Adorned with iconic red girders and blue noren, the street is a who’s who of monja restaurants. Wandering along the street and picking your own place is part of the fun; English menus are displayed and there’s not a bad dish to be had. As a starting point, however, check out Iroha — a staple for griddle aficionados with over 70 years of monja-making — or you can head down a sidestreet to Okame for over 60 topping combinations.

Wherever you go, there will be dozens of toppings to choose from with suggested combinations to help you out, like cheese and eggplant, or mochi (rice cake) and mentaiko (spicy cod roe). Presented in an unnervingly small bowl, the ingredients are piled high and ready to be tipped onto the hotplate. Chunky ingredients go first, chopped up and arranged into a circle of sorts, before the liquid is poured into the center. After it mixes together and simmers, it can be eaten with small spatulas. (Cut off a bit and press down on the griddle to help it stick.) While it may not be the prettiest of dishes, it’s a real slice of Tokyo and will earn you endless brownie points from your izakaya mates (who you’ll undoubtedly make) for not just picking sushi as your favorite Japanese food.

Photo courtesy of Bellwood

Ditch bar crawls and get classy in Tokyo’s cocktail scene

Shochu, sake, and beer may be Japan’s staple drinks, but there’s a classy cocktail scene thriving in the quiet back streets of Tokyo. In a nation known for almost obsessive levels of detail, with decades spent perfecting delicate techniques for sushi, tea ceremony, and more, it should be no surprise that the precision has turned to cocktails — the only surprise is that hardly anyone has caught on.

In Shinjuku’s Bar Ben Fiddich, hundreds of bottles of infused liqueurs line the walls, the careful creations of absinthe specialist Hiroyasu Kayama. The drinks may sound familiar, but the ingredients are all hand-picked from his family farm and prepared by Kayama himself. From herbs hanging from the ceiling, dried passion fruit, and even bison grass, there’s no end to the farm-to-glass approach of this cocktail creative. If no drink springs to mind, simply consider your favorite flavors and the perfect drink will be created, just for you.

At the sophisticated Star Bar in the sometimes too-flashy Ginza, owner Hisashi Kishi is particular about everything — from the elegant glasses to the ice cubes to the shakers — and it shows. Having won the International Bar Association’s world championship at just 31, the master now trains the city’s future mixologists. A minor celeb himself, Kishi can be a stoic bartender but has a warm smile when he deigns to show it, presiding over his staff in their crisp uniforms. The bar has a classic, gentleman’s feel to it but it is by no means old-fashioned. Drinks are expertly made and designed, with no request unheard of.

Crafting its look on a 1920s Kissaten (a Japanese coffee shop), The Bellwood has a speakeasy feel without even trying. As you may expect with this theme of dedication, it’s fitted out to a T, with polished wood paneling, stained glass, and a definite Taisho-era style. The painfully stylish drinking spot is the second success of renowned bar The SG Club, with a cocktail list designed by Atsushi Suzuki, a Chivas Masters World Champion and legend in the realm of cocktail makers. The drinks here are full of unexpected twists, seasonal flavors, and an almost unacceptable level of flair. While a night here alone is enough, look out for their popup events, with the backroom hosting special nights of sushi, coffee, and more.

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