When I first started planning my trip to Tokyo, I was overwhelmed with just how large the city is, it was hard to know where to start. The Greater Tokyo Area is home to over 38 million people (that’s more than the entire population of Canada!). With millions of people, that also means thousands (if not millions?) of restaurants and izakayas lining almost every street in Tokyo. Trying new foods or finding the best spots to eat is one of my favorite parts of city travel. But with so many options, I thought I might need a bit of help to find the true hidden gems and know what to order besides ramen and sushi. I ended up booking a Japanese Street Food Tour through Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood with Arigato Food Tours. I not only got to enjoy the best Japanese street food I’ve ever had but also enjoyed learning so many interesting facts about Japanese food culture.
Tokyo’s Shibuya Neighborhood
My Tokyo food tour started right in front of Shibuya Station facing Shibuya Crossing, one of the busiest pedestrian street crossings in the world. After watching the madness from above in a second floor Starbucks near the intersection, I joined the fray and made my way across the street to meet up with a small group for the Arigato Food Tour. Shibuya is a busy shopping and entertainment area surrounding Shibuya Station, and with so many people on the go and passing through, there are tons of street food options.
As we started our walk through Shibuya, our guide, Asha, pointed out a few quirky idiosyncrasies about Japanese culture, like the Pachinko arcades (mechanical gambling machines similar to slot machines), even though gambling is illegal in Japan. The workaround is that you’ll win some pachinko chips, and you have to find the TUC (Tokyo Union Circulation) to exchange your chips for cash somewhere in the area, though both places claim not to know the other exists. We also walked by one of the millions of drink vending machines around Japan (there seems to be at least three on every street), where during winter you can get both hot and cold drinks.
Japanese Eating Etiquette
Before we started eating, we learned the essential rules of Japanese table manners. At the start of a meal, it’s important to thank the chef for the food by putting your hands together, giving a slight head bow and saying, “itadakimasu.” This is what you say to give thanks before the meal. Literally translated, it means, “Let’s eat!”
While I’ve always eaten sushi with chopsticks, our guide let us know that eating with your hands is totally appropriate and even a sign of respect. You’re usually provided a warm wet towel called an oshibori to clean your hands, and then you’re free to pick up your sushi.
After the meal, give a little bow while saying, “gochisousama,” which is how you say thank you for the delicious food. To be a little more formal, say “gochisousama-deshita.” If you’re not in a sushi bar with the itamae (sushi chef) right in front of you, you can say it to the server when asking for the bill, or as you’re leaving the restaurant.
A Standing Sushi Bar
The center of Shibuya is loud, bright and noisy, but we slipped off to a little side street for our first stop of this Tokyo food tour into a small standing sushi bar. Though good sushi places in the US tend to be more upscale and on the pricier side, sushi started out as street food in Japan.
The sushi shop we stopped in may have been small, with only room for about ten or so people to stand around the counter, but the fish selection was large. I love salmon, and they had a few options, including one that was very lightly grilled on top. I also tried the fatty red tuna (melts in your mouth), and the white flounder, but had to say no to the whale that is still pretty common in Japan. The sushi was super simple which just highlighted how incredibly fresh and flavorful the fish was. The only ingredients were the fish, warm rice, and a little bit of wasabi. Most sushi restaurants will grind the wasabi fresh because as it sits it gets spicier.
Raw fish is only the beginning on the list of raw meats or other animal products that are eaten in Japan, including eggs (usually eat for breakfast, a raw egg is cracked over warm rice and mixed with a dash of soy sauce), horse meat, beef, and chicken (called torisashi, it’s a type of sashimi). I’m not sure if I’m that adventurous in my eating to try any of these, so I was happy we stuck to fish.
Making our own Okonomiyaki
This Arigato Food Tour functioned a bit like a progressive meal, with a new dish to try at every stop. We headed up to the second floor of a tall building for our next introduction to Japanese street food. While there are tons of restaurants and shops on the street level, Tokyo is built so vertically that if you don’t explore upper (or lower) floors, you’ll be missing so much!
After we sat down, we called our waiter over by saying, “sumimasen!” This means “excuse me” in Japanese. While that seemed a bit rude to me at first, waiters will wait for you to call them over before coming to your table.
We made our own okonomiyaki which means grilled how you like it. This street food first became popular in Osaka, but you can find it all over Japan now. With a heated plate in front of us, we added a layer of pork and let it sizzle before we piled on the cabbage and peppers held together by an egg. After flipping over and cooking both sides, we topped this cabbage pancake with Japanese mayonnaise, seaweed powder, and Benito fish flakes, which dance around due to the heat. I washed mine down with some Calpis, a white, milky drink that tastes a bit like plain yogurt mixed with seltzer water.
Savoring the Best Beef in the World
Our next street food stop we actually ate in the street, a tender and juicy Kobe beef skewer. Terms like Wagyu and Kobe are sometimes thrown around and loosely applied, but there’s a pretty technical definition of what qualifies as Kobe beef. Wagyu beef is extremely high-quality beef from four specific types of Japanese cattle (Japanese Black, Brown, Shorthorn and Polled if you’re wondering). Kobe beef is basically the best of the Wagyu, and there’s a strict list of standards a cow must meet in order to be considered Wagyu. I’m not a huge red meat eater, but the slices on this little stick were so perfectly marbled and flavorful, I can’t think of anything better.
I’ve seen a lot of American Kobe or American Wagyu steaks or burgers listed on menus around the US, but I don’t think there are any requirements to use those terms outside of Japan, so it’s probably not near as good as quality. Come to Japan to eat the real thing!
Snacking on Takoyaki
We made our way to the next stop via Drunkard Alley (Nonbei Yokocho), a tiny maze of narrow alleyways with yakitori stalls, bars and other little eateries right next to Shibuya Station. Entering these little alleys feels like stepping back into time, with string lights and red paper lanterns making the small wooden shop fronts glow.
Around the corner was our fourth stop, a takoyaki joint. It’s fun to say, amazing to watch them make it, and even better to eat. Trays with golf ball sized molds are filled with a quick pour of a wheat flour-based batter and a big chunk of octopus before cooking on one side. They’re filled a bit more and flipped before a piping hot octopus ball is pulled off and topped with Japanese mayo and Benito fish flakes, similar to the okonomiyaki.
Dessert in the Shibuya Food Hall
For our final stop, we made our way beneath Shibuya Station to the depachika, which means basement department store. This high-end food market had everything you would need to make any Japanese dish, plus lots of vendors serving prepared snacks, meals, and desserts.
The huge seafood section included delicacies like fugu or pufferfish. The skin and organs of some of these pufferfish have enough poison to kill five men, and people spend up to ten years to become licensed to prepare this fish. Just because pufferfish is readily available in Japan doesn’t mean that it’s 100% safe; fugu that hasn’t been prepared correctly is one of the most common causes of food poisoning in Japan.
After the seafood, we took a walk around the produce on display. Because of the commitment to quality, almost all fruits and vegetables in Japan are fairly expensive. For example, a pack of eight strawberries in the regular grocery store will cost about 800 yen, or $8. But at this food hall, most of the fruits here were for gifts, so they were the best of the best. There were melons ranging in price from $150 to $300 and a box of cherries for $180. I can’t imagine how a piece of fruit could be worth that price, but it’s more like a status symbol to show your love or appreciation.
We made it to the dessert section where we all enjoyed pancakes filled with our choice of red bean, soy cream, or custard. After buying a few pastries from the popular 7-Eleven convenience stores, I learned that almost every pastry or dessert in Japan is filled; the croissants have a large pat of butter in the middle, the rolls were filled with chocolate or custard, and what I thought was a few plain pancakes was actually a pancake sandwich filled with jam.
About Arigato Food Tours
My Tokyo food tour with Arigato Food Tours was full of delicious food (I was stuffed by the end), and I learned so many fun facts that I would’ve never known without a knowledgeable guide. Each group is 8 people or less, so my evening felt more like hanging out with a group of friends than a large, formal tour. While I only had time for one tour, you can bundle and save when you book two tours together to explore more neighborhoods in Tokyo. Or, if you’re traveling throughout Japan, Arigato also offers tours in Kyoto and Osaka. Most tours run about 3 hours over lunch or dinner, and many are family-friendly!