Last updated on November 28th, 2016
We’ve been eating sushi in America all our lives. It’s good. It’s sometimes really good. But it’s nothing like Japanese sushi, and as we order deep-fried shrimp rolls and “Seattle” rolls filled with cream cheese, we are all too aware of this fact. It was imperative that we get to Japan immediately for some real Japanese sushi, served the way it is meant to be. Thus we set off on a journey to find and eat all of the sushi in Japan — well, as much as we could, anyway — and write for you this guide to eating sushi in Japan.
Arriving in Tokyo, we were greeted immediately with an abundance of sushi choices. It was available everywhere: in the airport, train stations, all over Tsukiji market, department store basement grocery stores (which were my favorite, by the way), dozens of restaurants everywhere… where ever we looked, there were sushi options.
As with all types of food in Japan, you could see your options laid out before you in the window of restaurants in elaborately designed plastic food displays or on enticing sandwich boards outside the shop, so you always knew where you could go and what you could get there.
Rather than choose just one, we tried them all. Why not, right? We were in Japan where the freshest and best sushi is found, so we had to take advantage. Tokyo is home to the world’s best sushi restaurants. One in particular most people know about thanks to the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Sukiyabashi Jiro. Before you start wondering… no, we did not eat there, but we did eat next door at Bird Land. Note about Jiro’s. If you do intend to eat there, you should plan to make a reservation through your hotel concierge months (many, many months) in advance. I’ve heard his son’s restaurant is a more obtainable goal. We choose to eat at a less assuming sushi restaurant in Tokyo, but it was no less stunning.
Tips for Eating Sushi in Japan
Here are a few things you should know about eating sushi in Japan, that you probably don’t know if you’re only used to eating sushi in America:
- California rolls do not exist. If you won’t eat raw fish, don’t bother.
- You can eat nigiri with your fingers! Chopsticks are not necessary, unless you’re eating sashimi.
- The chef has already added wasabi to nigiri. If it’s necessary that you add more, just dab it sparingly on top of the fish. Don’t mix wasabi into your soy sauce.
- Dip nigiri fish-side down into the soy sauce.
- If you don’t know what to order, use these two useful Japanese words: Osusume (means: recommendation) and Omakase (Chef’s choice).
Some of the most prevalent ways to find sushi in Japan:
The best part about airport sushi is that you don’t have to wait until you get in to the city to try your first bite of outrageously fresh and delicious sushi. And if you have a long wait to catch your flight after your time in Japan is over, you can have one last taste of sushi. You don’t have to be fearful of airport sushi in Japan, like you do in Detroit. You can pick up a tray of ready-made sushi from duty-free, or any of the convenience stores really, or you can sit down at just about any restaurant and eat a huge plate of awesome sushi.
Train Station Sushi
There are so many trains in Japan. It’s a preferred method of travel in the country. Short and long train rides are both extremely easy and affordable, for the most part. The Shinkansen trains that take you from Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka and further into the country, are very popular trains. In those train stations, you’ll find many vendors who sell bento boxes, called ekiben, that are meant to take on the train.
It is a very popular thing to do to shop for your favorite ekiben before boarding the train and eat it aboard. There are dozen of shops in the stations that sell these bento boxes. The one that we opted for was a delicious array of sushi. You can also pick up sushi trays in luei of a traditional ekiben to have on the train.
Tsukiji Market Sushi
Tsukiji Fish Market is an incredibly popular place for tourists. Everyone loves to see the fresh fish coming in to the market in the mornings, especially the ever popular huge bluefin tuna! Whether you go there to see the famous tuna auction bright and early in the morning, or just to walk around the outer market and eat lots of awesome food (which is what we did!) you’ll obviously want to stay for a sushi breakfast or lunch.
Everyone will tell you that you have to have sushi from Daiwa Sushi or Sushi Dai. They are two of the most popular sushi places at Tsukiji Market. You may ask why. It’s not because they are the freshest or best places around. Come on – the fish all comes from the same place and many of these sushi chefs have been working on their craft for dozens of years, so it’s rude to suggest those two chefs are better than everyone else. It’s because they were lucky enough to be featured on a popular TV show. If you want to wait hours (yes, HOURS) in line there, be my guest. We ventured a few streets away and had an amazing and crowd-free sushi experience.
At Tsukiji, it’s also common to just walk up to a standing sushi bar and order whatever sushi delights you want from the small 2-3 person bar.
Department Store Basement Grocery Sushi
There are many huge department stores in Tokyo. Every large central area has one (Ginza, Shinagawa, Shibuya, Yebisu, etc.) In the basement of each of these department stores is a grocery store that will blow your mind. Part of it is just like a regular grocery store with people shopping around for their regular weekly groceries. Part of it is like they are preparing to set up a photo shoot with expensive food products. Every apple is individually wrapped in frilly bubble wrap. Boxes of premium candies line the shelves. The enter left half of the store looks like a make up counter with store associates pulling tiny pieces of food from case to show potential buyers. It’s a trip.
But I digress. The best part of the basement grocery store is the sushi selection. Every morning for breakfast, rather than spend $30 on the overpriced hotel buffet, we went to the grocery store sushi section and picked out an outrageous tray of sushi to share. It’s all amazingly delicious and really cheap but our standards. We could never find sushi like this in our grocery store, and we probably wouldn’t want to eat it if we did.
I already touched on the fact that you can find some of the top sushi restaurants in the world in Tokyo, like Sukiyabashi Jiro, Sawada, and Yoshitaki. You can dine at these top restaurants, if you’re lucky and get a reservation. You’ll obviously pay top dollar for the experience, but it’ll likely be worth it, if it’s an experience you’re after. Otherwise, there are many dozens of incredible sushi restaurants in Tokyo. I think the best way to find one that suits you is to ask the concierge at your hotel, or look at Trip Advisor or Yelp reviews for places around your hotel. Otherwise you might be trapsing all over the city trying to find one I recommend, which isn’t necessary.
We went to a very nice sushi restaurant called Sushi Matsue in the Ebisu neighborhood. It was a multi-level place. We had a room upstairs where we sat at a sunken table, which I thought was really great. In this case, we were with a Japanese speaker, so we didn’t have to worry about deciphering the menu or what to order. If we were by ourselves, we would have either sat at the bar and ordered omakase, or we would have chosen a more “English-friendly” restaurant. They brought out a lot of types of fish we hadn’t tried before, and a few that were clearly better in Japan than we’d had at home (including the Sea Urchin, which we’d only ever found acceptable at home – it was amazing in Japan).[td_smart_list_end]
Now you can see why I say that sushi in America is nothing like sushi in Japan. No matter where you try sushi in Japan, it’s also fresh and delicious, and prepared with skill and care. In the U.S., you have to worry about freshness and whether it’s been sitting out too long. In Japan, it’s always a beautiful and delicious piece of fish, draped over perfectly vinegared rice, not potentially smelly and slimy fish over a crusty, dried out lump of rice or a clumsily put together roll filled with a bunch of things that have no business being in a roll. Just saying.
A few final things about eating sushi in Japan
- This goes for eating in Japan in general actually. We were never given a napkin to put in our laps. We were instead given a wet rolled towel to wipe our hands on before our meal. You should roll the towel back up and place it back near your plate and then use that to clean your fingers throughout the meal if you need to, after handling your sushi.
- Soups like miso aren’t eaten with a spoon, so that’s why you weren’t given one. Just drink it. 🙂
- Try to eat the fish in the order the chef recommends or as they are placed on your plate.
- Sushi isn’t meant to be a long, drawn out meal. The fish is meant to be eaten usually within 45 seconds or less, to preserve its perfect temperature.
Have fun and enjoy!