I’ve been asked for Japanese restaurant tips a few times recently. There's so much variety in Japan you could say finding the right restaurant is like trying to find a noodle in a... never mind, here's the list.
There are three times as many Ramen houses in Tokyo as there are pubs in London, so picking one is basically impossible. Luckily, the Michelin Man devised a restaurant rating system and has awarded his coveted star to only a select couple. One of them is Nakiryu.
Nakiryu only holds a handful of people and doesn’t take reservations, so queuing is inevitable. We arrived well before opening and still queued for over an hour on the street. It’s about 25% more expensive than the average Ramen house but the slurp-tastic noodles and broth are well worth the price (and the wait).
Tsukiji Market - 築地市場 (for sea food)
There’s a bit of confusion because the fish market famous for its wholesale auctions has moved somewhere else. But you’re probably not hungry enough for 100 kilos of tuna anyway.
The open-air market is still there and is a great place to wander around, eat sushi and get freaked out by weird-looking things on sticks (this is a common occurrence in Japan actually - they love weird things on sticks).
This narrow aroma-filled alleyway is the epicentre of eating weird things on sticks. If you’ve ever wanted to try pig testicals, chicken innards or pickled wasp then this is the spot.
Nikomiya Rokken - にこみ屋六軒 (for Japanese tapas)
All of our absolute favourite restaurants in Japan were izakayas. These are basically Japanese pubs that serve tapas. Some just offer drinks and snacks, but others concentrate more on the food, and some of those ones are incredible.
Nikomiya Rokken was our favourite in Kyoto. It’s slightly off the beaten track, but well worth the detour. Look out for the white lantern and good luck trying to pick a sensible amount of things to order.
Kaiseki (for tradition, innit)
Kyoto is the place to experience kaiseki: a multi-course set menu (up to 15 courses!) served by impeccably presented kimono-clad waitresses in traditional Japanese surroundings. There are several kaiseki places and they’re all eye-wateringly expensive, but some offer cheaper afternoon sittings. I can’t whole-heartedly recommend the one we went to (Gion-Nanba) but that might be because I’m still scarred by the sixth course (turns out I’m not a massive fan of leaves dripping in cod semen).
Onegiya Fukuromachi - おねぎや 袋町店 (for Japanese tapas)
You have to duck through a tiny doorway and then find a cubbyhole for your shoes, but once you’re over the excruciating cultural awkwardness you’re in for a real treat. Especially if you like leeks, because this izakaya specialises in them.
This izakaya is more raucous dive bar than tapas restaurant, but they do serve food if you want a snack. Go for a few pre-dinner drinks, soak up the atmosphere and then go back again later for a night cap or three.
In this and all izakayas across Japan make sure you tuck into the bowls of salty edamame beans. They're great for chopstick practice too.
High Spirits, Fujikawaguchiko-machi (for Japanese tapas)
If you happen to be in this part of Japan then this izakaya is well worth a visit. It's the definition of a fusion restaurant. Try and reserve a table though because it gets busy.
And I’ve saved the best until last… Kobe beef!
Holy cow. A medium-rare Kobe beef steak washed down with a glass of red is utterly life-changing. You don’t have to go to Kobe for legit Kobe beef, but why not? If you have a rail pass it’s pretty easy to get to.
There’s a strict Kobe beef grading system from C1 to A5. Make sure you choose a place that does A5 (if budget allows).
After a lot of research we went to a steak house called Sai-Dining, which was excellent (although they’re probably all excellent in Kobe). We couldn’t quite bring ourselves to drop over £100 each on an A5 fillet, but were more than delighted with our A5 sirloin at almost half the price.