How does any one person navigate such endless abundance and variety? You demarcate the boundaries of your life with your regular spots; you become an expert in what you want and what you don't; and you push yourself. But as you fill in your own map, the city endlessly shifts with openings and closings and good shops that become bad. A long-neglected area begins to blossom, and popularity and foot traffic erodes another. If you want to keep up, you have to keep eating.
Since so much of the city's food comes from Tsukiji, this is a good place to start. In the Outer Market, tourists outnumber the locals by a ratio of ten to one. Mandarin and English are more commonly overheard than Japanese, and you have to spend a lot of time ducking the gawk of everyone's DSLRs.
Deeper inside, everything is for sale: Wasabi roots and strawberries by the case, eels on sticks, and a small menagerie of tamagoyaki (rolled omelets). Whale bacon is a popular temptation, but there are better ways to sin than that, especially because bacon in Japan, as a general rule, is awful. Every other shop advertises sashimi donburi (rice bowls), and all them are overpriced.
Marutoyo, a tiny stall specializing in onigiri, is the first place to stop. There are a number of varieties on offer, but the ebi-ten, fist-sized rice balls encasing a fried prawn, are the best. A little sweet and a little salty, they make an ideal breakfast. Around the corner, a couple of oversized tuna rolls from Maguro-ya Kurogin will keep you away from the overpriced sashimi.
A tiny bakery here called Ru Pan sells croissants stuffed with vanilla custard and sweet red beans. Even in a city that has more bakeries than Paris, this tiny operation still stands out. Unpretentious and underappreciated, places like Ru Pan seem the most vulnerable to the Inner Market's uncertain fate, as its move continues to be delayed. We have all been assured that the Outer Market will remain, but what effects will be felt when the center of Tsukiji's gravity shifts?
Real skill, real finesse — these are not exclusive properties of the high end.
For now, it's here, and there's more to eat. Move on to one of the best dishes at the largest fish market in the world: a hot bowl of stewed beef and rice at Kitsune-ya, a sliver of a shop. Most people end up standing at the steel tables placed on the sidewalk. Getting one of their prized counter seats is a mixed blessing, as the counter, kitchen, and register are all basically the same thing, and you'll have to share your meal with everything happening around you, which is a lot. The staff behind the counter send out order after order, working their two rolling cauldrons with the beauty and poise of Michelin-starred chefs. Real skill, real finesse — these are not exclusive properties of the high end. Jiro Ono might be a god among insects, but he does not live in a lonely pantheon.
Called gyūdon, these bowls of stewed beef and onions in a sweet-savory gravy, ladled on top of hot rice, are everywhere in Japan. Gyūdon is to Japan what the hamburger is to America: cheap, fast, and always available at 3 a.m. when the room won't stop spinning. While most gyūdon tastes only reminiscent of meat, Kitsune-ya's tastes like actual beef: rich and saucy. It keeps the cold out and the comfort in.
The special horumondon is the real get, because the only thing more soulful than a beefy gravy is a beefy gravy fortified with guts and entrails. With a raw egg cracked on top, it is a savage meal.
Eating across Tokyo requires a lot of walking and a lot of caffeine. Leaving Tsukiji and wandering up through Ginza to Cafe de l'Ambre accomplishes both. Of the thousands of kissaten (traditional coffee shops) still populating the capital, this one is the crown jewel. Ichiro Sekiguchi opened it in 1948, and he is still there running one of the most skillful coffee services in the world.
It feels good here. Warm, civilized, lived in. Black coffee — double strength — is de rigueur, but cafe oeufs is the cup with allure. Once ordered, the barista sets a small cup of strong coffee down on the counter, and slowly pours a beaten egg yolk into the drink. Stir and drink quickly before the egg curdles. It's much thicker than cream, like pouring liquid velvet down your throat. It's opulent, maybe even a little perverse, like French kissing when you're a teenager — or something more salacious in your twenties.
Tokyo Station is another 30-minute walk, a welcome opportunity to burn what calories you can. The sprawling underground station complex is resplendent with choices, especially inside the depachika food hall undergirding the Daimaru department store that abuts the station. As with any depachika in Tokyo, and there are many, the quality and scale of the ingredients inside are humbling.
There are a lot of little things to entice you: fried baseball-sized meat pies called menchi katsu, steamed pork buns, a wealth of vacuum-sealed packages of jewel-like pickles. Iburi-gakko (smoky aged daikon) is a favorite. Hamburger bento boxes are tempting, but the treasure you seek is at the KitKat Chocolatory. This shop is not for the regular green tea KitKats you can buy at any souvenir shop. That's too easy, maybe even a cliche. You can do better than that. You can get Hokkaido Butter KitKats. Unwrapped, they look like small bricks of, well, butter. Their melting point is low enough to make the shell give a little when touched. The first taste on the palate is white chocolate, but there is savor in the finish: a rich, warm smear of butter that coats the tongue.
Next, take to the underground tunnels connecting Tokyo Station to Otemachi Station, and from there it's 15 minutes Eastbound on the Tozai Line to Nishi Kasai and the spicy ramen at Man Riki.
When you arrive there will be a line, because there is always a line. To live in Tokyo is to wait in line. Sometimes there are even lines for the line. The busiest of the busy restaurants will issue tickets at the start of the day, not for when you can come back for a seat, but for when you can come back for a place in the line. Man Riki, thankfully, has not reached those levels of absurdity yet.
The question inevitably arises: How would you rank this shop on a list? And the answer is that you wouldn't, because it doesn't matter. There are thousands of ramen shops in the city alone, to say nothing of the rest of the country. In the American necessity to boil everything down to a 10-point listicle, where does a person even start? Ramen is, by itself, a gargantuan undertaking. Even just focusing on the big four categories of shoyu, miso, shio (salt), and tonkotsu (pork bone), trying to decide the ten best is an impossible task. And trying to compare across types is both silly and unfair. The various types of ramen share an aesthetic format but not a structural one. The things that make a great shio ramen are not the same things that make a beautiful tonkotsu. A New York slice and Chicago deep dish might both be pizzas, but the ingredients, techniques, and history that go into making each one well are not the same.
Inside Man Riki, the funk of warm starch and pork bones that perfumes other ramen shops is nowhere to be found. Instead, the air is saturated with spices, more akin to an Indian restaurant than a ramen shop. From the first spoonful to the last slurp, your mouth is alight in sensory overload from the 14 different spices blended into each bowl. It's hot, yes, but there is intrigue and depth.
Remember to slurp loudly and to thank the master when you leave. "Gochisōsamadeshita! Thank you for the delicious meal!" Take a deep breath outside. You are only halfway through the day.
That's what Tokyo does — it tantalizes, even as it satisfies. You can spend a lifetime eating here, but the megacity is being constantly renewed.
The Tozai is one of the busiest train lines in Tokyo, but inbound at odd hours, there aren't many people onboard, which is good, because the heft of the ramen can make you feel a little gross. The Sumida River yawns beneath the tracks, and the core's urban density blooms outside the windows. As the train plunges into the underground, you see that the city runs off infinitely in every direction, and you realize that there are a thousand more meals like the one you just had. That's what Tokyo does — it tantalizes, even as it satisfies. You can spend a lifetime eating here, but the megacity is being constantly renewed. Even in a city where nothing good stays secret for long, the place you've never heard of is a permanent institution.
You emerge at the other end of the line at Nakano Station. The shōtengai (shopping street) with all its treasures runs north out of the station. Bottles of green tea from a vending machine will revive you from the lull of mass transit and the grog of digestion.
Bonjour Bon, a specialist in many types of sugared carbohydrates, is toward the end of the street. Their purin tart is a precious bauble of eggy custard in a crispy crust. Like animals bound for the Ark, they are best in twos.
There are a lot of other things to eat along the shōtengai, but this is the point in the day where decisions loom large. Err on the side of risk. The language barrier is a real challenge, but on the other side of this high wall is most of the best food. A sign prominently advertising an English menu will almost always lead to disappointment. You can only eat so many meals from the convenience stores. And on the other end of the spectrum, amid Tokyo's small galaxy of Michelin stars, the only guarantees are the price tags. The truly good meals, the endearing ones that make memories, require bravery. Trying to navigate a menu you can't read is not a comfortable feeling, but as with anything else in life, you will be grateful you did something hard.
So leave the shōtengai after throwing some coins away at the arcade and plunge into the soul-crushing evening rush of Shinjuku Station. Millions of people dart through each day like ants on invisible paths; anyone lacking a destination will be swallowed by the deluge. But you do have purpose: You have come to eat.
Takamaru lies a short walk north from the west side of the station. A classic seafood izakaya, it's raucous inside. Every table is piled high with plates and alcohol; cigarettes are lit and sleeves are rolled up — this is how the city relaxes, and this is where its denizens feel most at home.
The menu changes every day at Takamaru. It is seasonality on a bender; what is here tonight may not be here tomorrow. A few constants persist: kani kurimu korroke (fat, deep-fried balls of mashed potato, cream, and crab), ebi-fry (fried shrimp running roughly the length of your forearm), and maguro kama (a salt-roasted tuna neck that looks more like a beef rib than a piece of fish). The crown jewel is the sashimi moriwase (mixed plate). It can be ordered in three different sizes, but the one with all the glory is the goku-mori, a hulking behemoth of everything on the day's sashimi menu — "Goku" translates as "the most high." It is not recommended for groups smaller than four, and even then, those four need to be very serious about raw fish. But for ¥5,000, it is deal enough to make you sit on the ground and cry. Glory can be alluring, but don't try to be a hero.
Dish after dish hits the table, and the beers are drained fast. The shrimp have the girth to inspire giggles and dirty jokes. There are tuna parts on the table and oyster shells drained of their meat and liqueur. More than one fish head is staring up at you with listless eyes. You eat a meal like this as one who is about to die, and given the substantial amounts of food accumulated in your belly, you just might. And there is more to order: a thick omelette served in a bath of dashi, rolls of rice crowned with chopped tuna belly, and glistening slabs of roasted salmon. It's absurd, offensive even, to eat like this. But everything is just too damn good.
If it's better to burn out than fade away, the end of a day like this can feel like a collapsing star. Everything feels heavy. Too much food. Too much drink. Too much walking and too much pleasure. But this is a maximalist conclusion to a maximalist city, and despite everything you ate, there is still more out there. Who knows. There's still time before the last train. You could eat again.
Marutoyo: 4-9-9 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, +81 03 3541 6010, No website
Ru Pan: 4-16-10 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, +81 03 3248 8858, No website
Maguro-ya Kurogin: 4-10-4 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, +81 03 3544 7440, No website
Kitsune-ya: 4-9-12 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, +81 03 3545 3902, No website
Cafe de L'Ambre: 8-10-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, +81 03 3571 1551, www.h6.dion.ne.jp/~lambre
KitKat Chocolatory: B1 Daimaru Tokyo, 1-9-1 Marounuchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, +81 03 6895 8735, www.nestle.jp
Manriki: 3-16-5 Nishi-Kasai, Edogawa-ku, Tokyo, +81 03 6848 1346, www.manriki.net
Bonjour Bon Nakano Shop: Nakano Sunmall, 5-59-8 Shinjuku, Nakano-ku, Tokyo, +81 03 5345 6260, www.bonjourbon.com
Takamaru Honten: Aparaito Building, 7-15-1 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, +81 03 5937 5969, www.takamaru-inc.com/restaurant
Kee Byung-keun is a writer and photographer based in Tokyo. He eats more than he sleeps.