Japan in Jan: Eating Tokyo, Sushi & Wagyu

by Chris on January 23, 2012

Sampling two specialties of Tokyo: sushi and Wagyu beef.

Sushi for breakfast in Tokyo

In Japan, I was told that there are three things that you must eat in Tokyo: Sushi, Wagyu beef and tempura. In less than 24 hours there, I managed to consume two out of three.

First, beef. We had spent our first few days in the country being served gorgeous, but often inedible, kaiseki meals that contained oddly textured fish and tofu dishes that you’d never see in a Japanese restaurant in the United States. We were ready for some red meat.

 Park Hyatt Tokyo

The meal came at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, which became internationally famous back in 2003, when a small film called Lost in Translation was filmed there. I watched the movie again on the plane ride over to Japan, so while I knew the hotel’s bars and skyline views were touristy, I was looking forward to seeing it in person.

Our dinner took place in the New York Grill. This was the only place on our 12-day trip where Westerners outnumbered the Japanese, and one of the only hotels that seemed full. I kept glancing around to see if any celebrities were in the mix.

Wagyu beef at the Park Hyatt, Japan

The waiters brought cuts of raw meat to the table for us to choose. I’m not much of a red meat eater, but I had Wagyu beef once before and knew how different it would taste from your garden variety steak.

And we weren’t disappointed. The steak came out, and although it was more medium than rare, it still blew other cuts of meat that I’ve had out of the water. It really does melt in your mouth. Our sides included whipped potatoes, creamed spinach, and macaroni & cheese with leeks. Absolutely decadent.

The rich food and red wine meant that I fell into bed in a meat-induced stupor. All to soon, my alarm went off at 3:30 a.m., preparing me for my next indulgent foodie outing.

Line outside Sushi Dai, Tokyo

Shinji Nohara, the Tokyo Fixer who has set up meals in Japan for a constellation of food writing stars, met me at 4 a.m. for a trip to Tsukiji Fish Market. The bad news was that visitors were forbidden to visit the market’s famed tuna auction. The good news? We’d be among the first in line at Sushi Dai for breakfast.

As we waited, Shinji told me a little bit about the history of sushi. The practice of eating fish and rice wrapped together started in early Tokyo (when it was known as Edo). It appealed to the working class, who ate it from stalls run by food vendors.

Chef greeting morning diners, Sushi Dai, Tokyo

Sushi Dai isn’t the only sushi restaurant open at Tsukiji Fish Market, but it’s one of the best, as evidenced by the lines. Doors open at 5 a.m. and the lucky first 13 file in for breakfast, greeted exuberantly by the staff.

Shinji pointed out a few differences between American and Japanese sushi restaurants. For one, the rice is served warm, not cold, and it’s always made fresh. The pieces are put on the bar directly, as soon as they are created. And you don’t use chopsticks; instead, you pinch the sushi with your fingers and eat it. There’s even a saying, Shinji said: “Let’s go pinch some sushi.”

Sushi chef knife skills, Tokyo

I was still full from my meat indulgence the night before, but I started to get hungry while watching the chefs at work. It’s hard to turn down fresh fish.

Shinji did the ordering, and the pieces kept coming. I did decline sake; at 5 a.m., it seemed like it would be a little hard on my stomach.

Raw clam, Sushi Dai, Tokyo

The piece de resistance? A clam so fresh, it arrived writhing on the bar. I laughed, and bit right into it. It tasted crisp and briny, not chewy as clams often do in the States. Shrimp was also a revelation – so much sweeter and better than you’d find here.

Japanese gizzard, Sushi Dai, Tokyo

Besides clams, Shinji encouraged me to taste a few other species of fish I hadn’t had before. I tried sea bass, which came slightly salted with pink rock salt, jackfish with ginger and scallions, and Japanese gizzard, which is a type of fish, not innards (it’s pictured above).

The meal cost about 7,000 yen (about $95 US) for both Shinji and I. That may be a lot for breakfast, but it’s nothing compared to what you’d pay in the States for fish that fresh.

Coffee is an indulgence in Japan, a nation of tea drinkers, and places like Starbucks are quite expensive. Switch to tea while you’re in the country; black tea has the most caffeine.

Park Hyatt Tokyo, pool

After my sushi breakfast, I returned to the Park Hyatt where I indulged in a swim and hot bath in the hotel’s spa. The workers at the pool were very adamant about swim caps, while the spa attendant chided me for wearing my bathing suit in the spa.

Next time I go to Japan, I’m going to schedule more time in Tokyo, just for eating. I’ll return to Sushi Dai, visit one of those tempura places that Shinji talked about and hit up some ramen shops. The city is a playground for food lovers, and I need another play date.

My visit in Tokyo was sponsored by the Park Hyatt Tokyo, but my opinions are my own. 

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Courtney January 23, 2012 at 8:45 am

It may be touristy, but the view from the Park Hyatt at night is amazing. It goes on forever. And their duck fat fried potatoes are pretty good too.

The only steak I’ve had in Tokyo was from oregon beef at an all Oregon themed restaurant. It was weird.

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Chris June 28, 2012 at 4:40 pm

I loved the Park Hyatt. I’m a sucker for visiting places that have been in movies, so I really was geeking out. And the pool area is awesome!

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Abby January 23, 2012 at 9:21 pm

Fish for breakfast was a big adjustment for me in Asia! And I can eat almost anything, anytime. But man, your sushi pics have my mouth watering!

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Chris June 28, 2012 at 4:41 pm

I am a sushi freak. I can eat it any time of day.

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M'ris January 23, 2012 at 10:44 pm

Awesome! Shinji also took my mother and I around Tsukiji while we were in Tokyo 2 years ago, and that breakfast at Sushi Dai is still talked about as one of the best meals she’s ever eaten. I discovered the joys of fresh salmon roe as well as mackerel – both of which I’d only had stateside, and determined to be gross. Turns out, they just weren’t fresh enough!

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Chris January 24, 2012 at 1:30 pm

Shinji was great! I’d call him in a heartbeat, next time I head to Tokyo. I agree with you about how different the fish can taste in Japan. I’m not a huge fan of shrimp sushi here, but I loved it over there. And I even had raw lobster one night! I definitely wouldn’t try that outside Japan.

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Jay January 24, 2012 at 9:49 am

That looks disgusting… not gonna lie.

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Chris January 24, 2012 at 1:29 pm

@Jay – The fish or the beef? LOL. It all tasted delicious to me, but everyone has their limits! I reached mine with taro dumplings. Couldn’t stomach the texture.

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Cathy Sweeney January 24, 2012 at 11:28 am

Yum — not much of a sushi person, but would love to try the Wagyu beef. I wouldn’t mind staying at that Park Hyatt either. :)

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Eric @ Trans-Americas Journey January 24, 2012 at 2:30 pm

I’ve always wanted to go on a few day eating binge in Tokyo. Between the sushi, fish, meat and a whole array of other odd yummies, it would be an expensive blast.

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Chris June 28, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Eric – Tokyo now has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any city, including Paris. I could eat there for days, although I’d probably become pretty broke.

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Lane January 25, 2012 at 7:57 am

I will start looking for Wagyu beef on menus now. Great article.

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Lisa | LLWorldTour January 25, 2012 at 9:15 pm

Yum. I was fortunate enough to be hosted at the NY Grill at the Park Hyatt Tokyo back around 2005. I’m also not much of a steak eater, but I had the Kobe Ribeye…and it was truly amazing. Nice!

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Gemma | Gap Daemon January 26, 2012 at 5:08 am

I’m a big sushi fan and have found some excellent places in New York, London and Australia but nowhere compares with Japan. Until you’ve tried it there, you haven’t tried sushi… I only learned the other day how it came about- rice was used to transport fish from the coast to cities as it kept it fresh and then it was soon discovered how well they went together!

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Camels & Chocolate January 26, 2012 at 11:04 am

I was just in Tokyo while on Semester at Sea, and I have never had better food on a consistent basis as I did there! Helped that my best friend is a diplomat who speaks the language–we knew all the local hotspots and just trusted her to order for the table at every meal!

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Chris June 28, 2012 at 4:42 pm

That’s the best way to experience a place!

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Erica March 27, 2012 at 10:47 am

I’m determined to go to that Park Hyatt. EEEEE!

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Chris March 27, 2012 at 11:37 am

Erica – It’s pretty fab. I know that Tokyo has lots of luxury hotels, but I really enjoyed the Lost in Translation connection.

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