Saito. Sugita. Mitani. Tokami. Sho. Jiro. You know the names… Tokyo’s sacred sushi shrines where you pay a pretty penny to be served the world’s freshest fish by Michelin-starred masters at their cozy counters. But if you’re traveling on a budget, there are plenty of other options where you can fill up on octopus and uni. Almost all the city’s sushi shops buy their seafood from the same source, Tsukiji Market, and while some chefs do serve higher-quality and harder-to-find fish, the premium prices you pay at most of these top spots are based on location and reputation. If you’re willing to take a quick train ride just outside of central Tokyo, you’ll find plenty of places selling similar sushi at half the price. In fact, most of these superstars who now own their own restaurants in Ginza got their start at these outer borough eateries. Here are five excellent off-the-beaten-path sushiya where you won’t break the bank indulging in tuna and tiger prawns.
The word that comes to mind most often when I think about Yakko Sushi is “no”… No reservations needed. No need for chopsticks. No fancy plating. No nonsense chef. Naritoshi Shinozawa has been serving “edomae”
style sushi at Yakko for over 30 years, where he trained as a teenager under his father, who ran the shop for 40 years before him. The sushi at this 10-seat counter could not be served more simply, as Shinozawa-san puts each personally prepared piece down on the counter in front of you and advises you pick it up with your fingers and pop it in your mouth as is. He feels this is how you serve sushi at its freshest.
With seasonal fish flown in daily from around Japan, the omakase (tasting menu) at Yakko is a steal at only 8000 yen! They only serve ice cold Kirin beer in bottles, and the sake selection is limited as they specialize more in shochu. However, Yakko does allow for BYOB with no corkage fee (Yet another ”no”.) There’s also no English spoken, but it’s no problem as sushi is the common language everyone here understands.
2-7 Shimo Miyabicho
When you head to dinner at Sushi Yuu, give yourself an extra 15 minutes to get there as you will most likely get lost. I did, even on my second visit. With a map, no less. Yuu is located in a quiet residential neighborhood in Nishi Azabu where all the houses look alike and there are no other restaurants in the area. However, once you get your bearings and find this secret spot, Chef Shimazaki will reward you with the most memorable of meals for your troubles. The specialty at Yuu is their tuna, and I suggest you put yourself in Shimazaki-san’s hands and let him take you through his memorable “maguro”
menu. From simple akami
to outstanding otoro
, he slices and serves different cuts of ruby red tuna at varying temperatures that will make you look at this most mainstream of fish in a whole new light. I highly recommend sitting at the counter near the affable chef, who does speak English and likes to practice, so he can explain to you how he’s handling each bite as he prepares it. It’s usually pretty easy to get a same-day reservation here at Yuu, the only trouble is finding the place.
1-4-15 Nishi Azabu,
Minato, Tokyo 106-0031, Japan
Bentenyama Miyako Sushi is a Tokyo institution. This year they’re celebrating their 150th year in business, and the sushi is prepared by the great-great-grandson of the original chef! This small shop, which has appeared several times in the popular “Oshinbo” manga series, serves “shitamachi” style sushi, meticulously sliced, piece by piece, with two different selections of fish that compliment each other placed side-by-side. The counter is currently run by the fifth generation “oyakata” (master), Tadashi Uchida, and his apprentice, Daisuke Yamashita, the sixth chef to work here, who started in 1989 and will soon take over the establishment. While Bentenyama may not be as trendy as some of the hyped Ginza and Roppongi sushi shops, this is where those Michelin-starred chefs all come to eat on their days off. Uchida-san believes in sourcing only the best of ingredients, and preparing them as simply as possible. With connections at Tsukiji Market that go back a century and a half, you better believe that you’re getting the finest fish the world’s best seafood market has to offer when you sit down. Reservations are recommended for larger groups, but walk-ins are welcome, as long as there are seats. Open for lunch and dinner, there are six levels of tasting menus available, ranging from $50-$100 US, which is quite a bargain given the history that comes along with your eating experience here.
Nestled on the 4th floor of a high-rise in Tokyo’s glamorous Ginza district, Sushi Take is an immaculate 8-seat oasis that just opened last year. Behind the quiet counter here you’ll find Fumie Takeuchi, one of the few female sushi chefs in Tokyo who runs her own restaurant. I first met Takeuchi-san when she was an apprentice at Sushi Shimizu in Shimbashi, where she trained for eight years before recently striking out on her own, boldly opening in Ginza, home of several high-end sushi counters. While she garnered a lot of buzz, and controversy, at the outset of her career for being a woman in the mostly male-dominated sushi world, Takeuchi-san has since silenced even the most outspoken of culinary critics with the care and quality of each piece of nigiri she pats and passes across her counter. She is meticulous about sourcing her fish, and the menu is never the same from one day to the next, the daily selections posted on ever-changing wooden signs that hang behind her. Part of the fun of coming to Sushi Take is also the intimate interaction you have with this entertaining and effusive young chef, who tells open and honest stories while masterfully melding rice and raw fish into magical mouthfuls.
Ishii Kishuya Building, 4F
The first rule of Nakanomiya is that you don’t talk about Nakanomiya. At this secluded shop about 45 minutes outside of central Tokyo by train, you’re guaranteed to have some of the most outstanding sushi you could ever imagine, but are then asked not to tell anyone about it. However, I have been given permission to let you in on the secret. You see, Naknomiya is where many of the world’s best sushi chefs got their start… Mizutani, Kyubei, even Jiro Ono, the famed chef of Jiro Dreams of Sushi
… their training can all be traced back to this esteemed neighborhood establishment. (The restaurant even has a chart tracking their lineage.) The day I last dined here, Chef Yajima-san, whose grandfather opened the shop 85 years ago, proudly explained how his most recent apprentice was “stolen” by Tokyo’s most acclaimed sushi chef. However, it’s not only the perfection of the rice or the superior quality of their “neta”
that people speak of in revered tones, it’s the prices they also want to keep quiet on the downlow, where a 12-piece omakase
course, which includes a few “otsumami”
appetizers, is only 4500 yen! Nakanomiya may have schooled many of the stars of Japan’s modern sushi scene, but it’s really the customers here who learn the most valuable lessons in the art of slicing, seasoning and serving succulent seafood.
Your plane has landed in Tokyo, you’ve checked into your hotel and you don’t have any dinner plans. You feel like sushi but your jetlagged brain has turned to mush and doesn’t want to put much thought into your options. Yeah, we’ve all been there. When it happens to me, I simply head for kaitsen sushi (conveyor belt sushi), where one can watch the plates of fish whiz past, picking out what looks good to your muddled mind. And Pintokona in Roppongi Hills is my favorite spot to enjoy it. The pro move here is to sit at the seats on the right side of the sushi counter when you walk in, near the chef’s station. This way not only can you see what the chefs are making fresh and dropping onto the belt, but you can also order directly from them if you’re in the mood for something specific. Servings here are always two pieces of sushi and start at only 100 yen, going up from there. They have English menus that provide translations of all the fish as well. Kaiten may be considered “cheap sushi”, but here at Pintokona, they hire experienced chefs and source fresh fish making it a standout spot, especially when you’re tired and hungry and in the mood to pile up plates.
Roppongi Hills B2F