Walking into any yakitori restaurant, you’ll be greeted by the inviting aroma of seared chicken, delicately grilled over white-hot charcoal. Yakitori translates to “grilled bird” and the master chefs who prepare these flavorful skewers treat all parts of the animal with equal reverence.
As such, the a la carte menus offer juicy thighs, crispy wings, gizzards, chicken hearts, and everything in between. Many items, like the tsukune (pronounced SKOO-nay) chicken meatball, come brushed with a sweet-savory tare sauce—a mixture of soy, sake, mirin, and sugar, reduced into a thick glaze. Others, like the chicken breast, are finished with a dusting of shichimi, a dot of fresh wasabi, or a healthy squeeze of yuzu juice.
In Kyoto, head to Tarokichi, a mainstay of the historic Gion district, where warm lighting and a wall of premium sake await. For maximum effect, sit with the locals at the well-patinaed wooden bar and watch the chef helm the sizzling binchotan grill. Or, for a more intimate experience, ask for a table in the back, preferably one overlooking the restaurant’s adjacent outdoor garden. Whichever you opt for, do try the shiso-wrapped tsukune and house-made silken tofu.
You don’t need to go to great lengths to find excellent ramen in Japan. These savory bowls of eggy noodles in rich broth are available everywhere: back alleys, train stations, department stores, and even five-star hotels. Each region has its own signature version of the dish, but the most pervasive is undoubtedly tonkatsu ramen. A flavorful bone broth, often simmered for an entire day or more, showcases hand-cut noodles prepared al dente and topped with scallion, chili paste, and thin cuts of slow-braised pork belly called chashu.
In any major Japanese city, find your way to Ichiran, a chain that has garnered immense success for its perfect marriage of high-quality ramen and Japanese efficiency. Sometimes called “anti-social” ramen, the playful description refers to the restaurant’s ingenious method for serving its food: patrons are seated at a bar lined with modular, personal booths and separated by removal partition. This allows them to slurp their hearty bowls in private or eat as a group if desired.
Like almost all ramen eateries in Japan, at Ichiran you place your order at a ticket-dispensing machine and, once seated, pass your ticket to the chef, who, within seconds returns with a steaming bowl of angels hair-thin ramen, topped with your choice of add-ons. Adjust the spice level to your preference and don’t forget to add the medium-boiled egg.
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Perhaps the most ubiquitous of all Japanese cuisine, these bites of raw seafood laid atop seasoned rice have become a favorite around the world. Invented as a street food to sustain an army of workers rebuilding Kyoto after it burned during the Edo period, nigiri sushi is named for its rice mixture base. It's made by delicately folding a solution of vinegar, sugar, and salt into a varietal of short grain rice chosen for its high starch content.
The exact ratio of ingredients varies between establishments and the recipe is often proprietary and passed down master to apprentice, sometimes over generations. This, in combination with the premium level of ingredients used, means that many acclaimed sushi restaurants in Japan can fetch hundreds of dollars for an omakase or “chef’s choice” menu.
In recent decades, restaurants called kaitenzushi or “conveyor-belt sushi” have sprung up all over Japan, offering diners a quick, affordable way to enjoy classic sushi offerings. In Kyoto, after a stroll down the romantic, narrow corridor called Pontocho Alley, pop into Chojiro, a basement-level gem known for fresh bites of briny scallop and fatty tuna belly. Sit at the bar, where an unceasing rotation of sushi rolls by, order an ice-cold Sapporo, and pluck plates to your heart’s content.
An often-overlooked but not-to-be-missed cousin of ramen is soba. These thinly cut buckwheat noodles gained popularity during the Edo period as a healthy source of all eight essential amino acids, quickly becoming a daily counterpart to the more common (and less nutritious) white rice. Today, these earthy noodles remain a lunchtime staple and are offered hot or cold, accompanied by a variety of sauces and broths made from soy, sake, mirin, and katsuobushi (bonito flake).
After working up an appetite touring the meticulously-manicured grounds of nearby Nijo Castle, consider a midday meal at the Kyoto classic Honke Owariya Honten, the family-owned, 550-year-old soba and sweet shop that’s been serving hungry patrons since 1465. In the winter months, warm up with a steaming bowl of kake, a noodle soup topped with thinly sliced green onion and fresh-grated daikon radish. Or, during the summertime, consider cooling down over a tray of ten seiru, a meal of chilled, nutty soba, presented on a bamboo mat, waiting to be dipped into a cold bath of umami-rich broth and slurped between bites of crisp tempura served alongside it.
No matter what time of year, this is the perfect lunch to recharge your batteries without leaving you sluggish in the afternoon.
Decadently marbled bites of beef or pork, seared to your liking and dunked in a variety of soy and miso-based sauces, yakiniku offers an interactive dining experience best enjoyed with a group. A descendant of Korean barbeque, these “grilled meats” rose to prominence in post-war Japan, and it wasn't long before classics like galbi were being modified to better suit domestic ingredients and local tastes. Today, yakiniku is a great way to sample premier Japanese meats like wagyu beef without breaking the bank.
Before a night bar-hopping with friends through Tokyo's eclectic Golden Gai, start your evening at Rokkasen, a Shinjuku institution known for packed tables and plates piled high with premium cuts, offal, fresh vegetables, and local shellfish. For the best value, choose the all-you-can-eat option, a ninety-minute marathon of meat that will keep you sated well into the next morning. For those patrons dressed for a night on the town, bibs are provided—and highly encouraged.