Tokyo has more Michelin star restaurants than anywhere in the world. Naturally, all of those scene-stealing Japanese chefs tend to catch the eye of travellers in search of a memorable meal—and the upscale drinking scene is pretty great, too. But some of Tokyo’s most delicious and innovative foods are found in more humble surroundings: street vendors.
These are some of the must-try options among the abundance of ramen stands, bustling fish markets and ornate stalls of skewered meats that make Tokyo’s streets taste unforgettable.
One of Tokyo’s most popular street dishes is takoyaki, which can be found all over the city. The name translates as “octopus fried,” but that doesn’t fully describe the treat. These balls of batter are filled with green onions, ginger, octopus and tempura pieces, and are then finished in the frier. Takoyaki are often topped with a spiced, savoury sauce and fish shavings. While vendors of this dish are easy to find, one of the best places to find it is Ginza Fukuyoshi in the east district of Ginza. Though technically a restaurant, there are only a few tables inside, or you can take your portion to go.
For the freshest seafood eats, make your way around Tsukiji, Tokyo’s foremost fish market. One of the most fascinating locations in Japan, travellers flock there just to watch the lively theatre of seafood wholesalers selling their goods. The sprawling market is also home to several street food vendors.
Among them is Ajino-Hamato Tsukiji Honten, an 82-year-old seller of pickled and dried fish and exotic squid dumplings. Another Tsukiji delight is Suga Shoten, which sells yumcha, a dim-sum-like dish cooked in billowing steamers. Try the dainty buns that are stuffed with pork shoulder roast from Abel farm pigs in Kagoshima Prefecture.
Elsewhere at Tsukiji, Onigiri-ya Marutoyo offers large, satisfying seafood plates, including shachi-ten—a rice ball filled with a whole fried shrimp. You can reach the market by travelling to the Tsukijishijo Station on the Toei Oedo Line or Tsukiji Station on the Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line.
If you think you know ramen, just wait until you try what Tokyo has to offer. This globally famous dish doesn’t get any better than the joyous, nourishing ramen served at Menya Musashi, complete with plump pieces of well-marinated pork belly. The restaurant is always packed, but not with tourists, which is a sure sign of authenticity. The tsukemen is a crowd favourite—it’s ramen, but instead of eating it like a soup, you dip the noodles into the broth. And the unique experience goes beyond the food. In this ramen joint, you’ll order your food at a kiosk and then enjoy the entertainment of boisterous chefs while you wait.
For full-immersion in Tokyo street food, make your way to its spiritual home: Memory Lane. A product of the post-war period, this colourful collection of mismatched structures is home to a constant stream of chattering crowds and a nearly bewildering selection of steaming hot vats of sauces, aromatic fried bites and local delicacies.
Here, Ebisu Yokocho is reinventing street food for a new generation, taking it indoors and creating a lively food arcade populated with tiny yatai, or food stalls, surrounded by a hip crowd crouched on crates and soap-boxes, tackling tasty morsels.
Sure, you’ll want to try some fancy, sit-down dining during your Tokyo stay as well. But for a full experience with the local cuisine, trying the best of the city’s street food is essential—both for the local flavors and the experience. Of all the many things there are to do in Tokyo, eating the best foods the city has to offer should be top on every visitor’s list.