Tokyo’s vibrant food scene
These articles were first published as advertisement features on BBC.com and were created by BBC StoryWorks, GNL’s commercial content team, on behalf of Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
Tokyo has developed a well-deserved reputation as a food lover's dream destination, with a rich culinary heritage and a plethora of eateries. The food scene is characterized by a healthy respect for tradition married with a curiosity for experimentation, meaning that diners can experience time-honoured classic dishes, innovative cuisine and everything in between. Moreover, Japan’s chefs typically place importance on using the freshest ingredients and creating a feast for the eyes as well as the palate, with dishes that look as good as they taste.
Tokyo’s hospitality and food sector is looking ahead to the time when international tourists will return, particularly the city’s small business owners. Against this background, food tours can play a key role in helping to revive independent eateries and contributing to the preservation of Tokyo’s food culture, with guides who can provide curated, authentic experiences for visitors.
“Food is the best gateway for connecting with a destination’s real identity, getting a taste of a country’s history, culture and way of life. As a food tour company, we are a bridge between international visitors and the local food community,” says Anne Kyle, founder of Arigato Japan Food Tours. “When we create our culinary adventures, we meticulously handpick partner-businesses that are flexible, friendly and—most importantly—create delicious and unforgettable local food.”
Local food stories worth sharing
One such Tokyo business working with Kyle’s team is Tsukiji Sanokiya, a confectionary shop run by a mother and daughter team and located in the bustling Tsukiji Outer Market, known for its wide array of traditional food. Since 2009 Tsukiji Sanokiya have been producing taiyaki, fish-shaped sweets filled with anko (bean jam), which have been a popular street food in Japan for more than a century. “I always enjoy interacting with international visitors and seeing their reaction when they taste our anko. We make it with no additives aside from sugar and salt,” says owner Noriko Nakajima. While taiyaki are typically shaped like a seabream—a fish associated with good fortune in Japan—Tsukiji Sanokiya adds a playful twist by also offering a tuna-shaped version, along with a wide variety of fillings in addition to the traditional anko.
“I love sharing stories of locals who have started from humble beginnings and are following their dreams with dedication and artistry. Kola Kobayashi, the founder of Iyoshi Cola, is a prime example,” Kyle says. Kobayashi, who specializes in craft cola drinks, has pursued a passion for the drink and built this into a unique business, which he launched in 2018. Since inheriting the building where his late grandfather once made traditional Japanese medicine, Kobayashi honours the legacy of his grandfather’s craftmanship in the factory and the adjacent shop, where visitors can try colas freshly made from natural ingredients such as citrus fruits, spices and kola nuts.
For those seeking an interactive dining experience, Kyle recommends Sakura Tei where guests can cook on a teppan grill right at their seats, surrounded with an everchanging backdrop of eclectic artwork on the walls and ceiling to create picture-perfect images for sharing on social media. The house speciality is okonomiyaki, a hearty savoury pancake made with a cabbage base, to which meat, seafood, vegetables and flavourings are added according to personal preference. Along with the classic combinations, Sakura Tei offers a fresh twist on okonomiyaki, including a version made with avocado, beans and corn which is suitable for vegetarians.
Innovation in plant-based cuisine
Until quite recently dining options for non-meat eaters were limited in Tokyo, particularly for vegans, who follow a strictly plant-based diet. However, change is happening, says Nadia McKechnie, a consultant at Vegan Consulting Japan and organizer of the Tokyo Vegan community project. “Vegan/vegetarian lifestyles are not yet mainstream in Japan, but given the global shift to plant-based foods, the fact that Japan used to be a largely plant-based country in the not-too-distant past, and that consumers in Japan are very open to trying new things, the potential for change is huge,” she explains.
McKechnie has also been participating in the Vege Council, an informal meeting of vegetarian and vegan related groups and businesses, which was set up in 2019 with the aim of making Japan more vegan-friendly. She notes that resources are increasing, such as a website developed in cooperation with the Japan Tourism Agency to assist vegan and vegetarian visitors, or the Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau’s informative vegetarian and vegan restaurant guidebook, which is available at tourist offices or as a downloadable PDF.
The innovative use of soy foods is currently attracting attention to Tokyo’s vegan scene. Already well-known as a protein-rich plant-based food, tofu lends itself to the creation of products suitable for vegans and businesses are taking notice. Well before international café chains arrived, Japan had its own domestic coffee shop culture, kissa culture, and Komeda’s Coffee has been a favourite since 1968. The company recently opened KOMEDA is □, a completely plant-based café in the elegant Ginza area. Some of the dishes make use of SoMeat, a soy-based meat alternative produced by a family-owned tofu business.
SoMeat is produced by Someno’s TOFU Co., Ltd., which has been producing fresh tofu in Tokyo since 1862. CEO Atsuto Ono, the eighth generation of his family to run the business, was inspired to produce SoMeat following the birth of his daughter in 2009. “I started thinking about her future and I realized the environmental impact of meat consumption,” he says. “A mutual friend was working on the plant-based restaurant project for Komeda, and he introduced me to their CEO, Okitane Usui. He liked the taste of our products and I appreciated his efforts towards a more sustainable society.”
Expanding horizons through food
McKechnie sees this kind of synergy between businesses and a commitment to offering plant-based dishes as a positive step for food lovers in general. “This is obviously good for vegans and vegetarians who are now better able to enjoy all the wonderful cuisine Japan has to offer in vegan versions,” she says. “Moreover, this new growing awareness in Japan that ‘barrier free’ should also extend to food, means that dining out with others, whether for business or pleasure, is more enjoyable than ever before.”
In line with this, efforts to make restaurants accessible for the differently-abled is also growing, although visitors should be aware that some businesses, particularly smaller ones, may be unable to cater for all needs. Those coming to Tokyo are encouraged to use apps such as like WheeLog!, which disabled visitors can use to check the accessibility features of places they wish to visit, and to refer to the Accessible Tourism Tokyo website for helpful information.
Whatever your tastes or dietary needs, Tokyo can deliver—and may very well surprise you, too. The capital’s food tour guides and restaurants owners are looking forward to sharing their passion for great food and helping you make the most of your culinary adventure in Tokyo.