One of the most daunting – and at the same time most interesting – aspects of travel is eating. The local cuisine can be both the curse and the blessing of any trip, a fabulous dinner can excuse the most boring city, and a terrible kitchen hovel can damn the finest resort spot in the world. I do not know how other people travel or how they eat when visiting Tokyo, but I was daunted myself. Having spent decades in Tokyo I am still slightly daunted by entering a new restaurant or trying out food and nothing I do seems to change this. I can only imagine how other (as nervous as me) travelers feel when visiting this country. While it is true that almost everywhere you go you are likely to get good food in the Japanese capital, tourists tend to be drawn towards the first floor establishments with the bright signs, photo menus in English and prices clearly marked! This, however, is not how locals eat out in the capital.
Today I had an errand in Shinagawa, which in the last few years seems to have attracted hundreds of times the number of tourists it had when I first visited many years ago. I saw scores of them, in small groups, families, couples, singles, young men that reminded me of myself, walking around by themselves with a camera and a guidebook in each hand. I started thinking about them, where do they eat, what kind of experiences do they have here? Passing through the station every restaurant I saw with even a barely understandable menu in English had at least a handful of foreign tourists seated inside. I thought I should write something about the other side of Tokyo eating that few tourists ever see.
Take this tiny neighborhood eatery for example, the Marusanshokudo (丸三食堂) in the Shimbamba district about 30 minutes walk from Shinagawa station (or three minutes from Shimbamba station). There is no sign, outside, not pictures and not a word in English or any other western language. I would forgive anyone for passing this kind of building (and there are tens of thousands of them all over Tokyo) and not understanding that there was a restaurant inside. If you can summon the courage to enter though, you will be lucky sometimes to even find a Japanese menu with prices. Sometimes there are just a few tables and a kitchen in the back. The Marusanshokudo has the menu written in Japanese posted on the wall, with everything from 50 to 600 yen. Restaurants like this would not be in business if they did not know what they were doing and Marusanshokudo has so far lasted over 80 years in this location! If you can read Japanese you can pick your favorites, if not you can just point at a few things with reasonable prices and hope for the best. The times I have had the courage to do just this I have always had interesting food – at best, a fabulous meal, at worst a cheap adventure. The Marusanshokudo however served up fantastic dishes followed by more fantastic dishes, even the simple edamame was superb enough to order in a second plate and the restaurant’s choice in sake (Japanese rice wine) was perfect for the season. Slightly chilled, sweet and fruity.
If you are ever in Shinagawa or Shimbabma, I recommend trying this place out, but these kind of mom and pop restaurants are absolutely everywhere in Japan, and almost always able to serve up a great meal, or at least an interesting experience far from the glossy chain store menus you see around the major stations. The address here is 2-12-11 Minamishinagawa Shinagawa Tokyo, 東京都 品川区 南品川 2-12-11 コーポマルサン １Ｆ.
I am in no way a food snob and to be honest even the most glaringly obvious chain store cafes around the biggest tourists attractions of Tokyo almost always serve great food. Some people (like me) prefer to spend their few available hours traveling looking at dusty old statues in remote temples, for some people it is the opposite and I know many who travel only to try local food, some just want the experience of eating in a foreign country others are complete gourmands searching for the most obscure culinary experiences. It is all good.
Walking through the classic Shibamata district of Tokyo’s far eastern end, right on the border with Chiba Prefecture I found this lovely Show Retro cafe called Sepia (昭和レトロセピア). The interior, the music, the proprietor, the food, everything is pure 100% Show, full of vintage posters, records, furniture, wallpaper, drinks and comic books and toys from the later half of Showa, in this case roughly the 1950s to 1980s. If you are into vintage stuff and classic Japanese retro diners vibe, this is the place for you. The shop is absolutely tiny, but I counted over a dozen seats so I can imagine it gets absolutely crowded in here! The food was great, and I asked for the most classic thing on the menu which was Pasta Napolitan, which although very standard now was all the rage back then, and a couple of simple ham and cheese sandwiches. It went great with the coffee and melon soda float! To get here go to Shibamata Station and then follow the crowds towards the famous shopping street, half way through it you turn left and have a little look around. The address is 7 Chome-4-11 Shibamata, Katsushika, Tokyo, Japan which should help if you carry a smart phone. Prices are reasonable and the atmosphere great. I don’t know the opening times but I would think this is a day time kind of place.
Early this year I visited the legendary book shop district of Tokyo: Jimbocho. While books made it famous, there are actually a lot of tiny and interesting shops, restaurants and cafes apart from just the book stores. The combination makes it one of my favorite shopping districts of Tokyo, and so far very much off the tourist radar.
Look closely in these photos and you will find a very old glasses store that has not changed much since the 1960 (which must be when they put up the John Lennon photo in the store window) and the more recent but excellent German styled cafe Schwarzwald, which is the place to go for German coffee and cuckoo clocks! It is absolutely tiny but usually always full of students and artists and not expensive at all. Every time I visit this cafe I pass a dozen others that I always promise myself to explore – maybe one of these days I will!
A lot of people assume that Japan invented the super cute characters but although they do excel at it today, there were quite a few early inspirations for Japan and some of them are of nearly legendary status by now. One of the most famous characters in Japan would be Miffy, the little rabbit created by Dick Bruna in the Netherlands 60 years ago. To celebrate the little Rabbit reaching the very advance middle aged stage, the equally famous Mitsukoshi Department store put on a Miffy art exhibition, and they also took the opportunity to play a little with the departments store exterio. Can you spot Miffy?
The exhibition is now over here in Tokyo but apparently on its way to Aomori Prefecture in the North of Japan, should you be a Miffy fan in the area!