Shinji Nohara knows Tokyo like no other. A lifelong local, he’s the ‘Tokyo Fixer’, the foodie who fed fugu (puffer fish) to Anthony Bourdain, who consults with some of the world’s best restaurants, and who regularly guides the great and the good around Tokyo’s lesser-known highlights. Best of all, he agreed to give this Lonely Planet writer a taste of the city, Shinji-style.
Soba at Sasuga
Shinji is serious about soba (buckwheat noodles), so Sasuga (ginza-sasuga.jp), a discreet noodle joint in buzzy Ginza, is our first stop. Many well-regarded restaurants only use 80% buckwheat flour, and chain restaurants more like 30%, Shinji explains, but at Sasuga the noodles are handmade daily using 100% buckwheat. A chalkboard by the entrance pinpoints the farm that supplies the day’s batch. Inside, the soba is as graceful as the lattice-screen surrounds, and when we’ve finished the noodles, a waitress emerges with clay pots of hot water, transforming the soba-infused dashi (stock) into a cleansing soup.
Stationery shopping at Ozu Washi
An anonymous office nearby hides within it a startling secret: perhaps the world’s finest inventory of Japanese stationery, Ozu Washi (ozuwashi.net). Most of the washi (paper) here has been made by hand in the same way for centuries, Shinji says, standing amid meticulous shelves of plain and patterned paper, calligraphy brushes and more, all hewn with the utmost Tokyo precision. A tiny museum upstairs reveals that a shop on this spot first opened in 1653, back when the area was the heart of Edo’s merchant district.
Old-school coffee at Enseigne D’angle
‘This is the place for Japanese hand-poured coffee,’ says Shinji, as we descend into a wood-panelled time warp of doilies, vintage lamps, steaming silver kettles and little saucepans for heating milk. Servers in spotless aprons convey coffee from copper pans into delicate china cups and saucers. Nothing seems to have changed much at Enseigne D’angle (3-61-11 Sendagaya, Shibuya), in a quiet corner of Harajuku, since it opened in 1975. An antidote to every hipster coffee cliché, it doesn’t go in for fads or trends. Plenty of coffee brewers graduated from here, and it has even influenced third-wave coffee founders coming to Japan.
Coffee purveyor Enseigne D'angle © Tom O'Malley / Lonely Planet
Pastries at Nata de Cristiano
On the west side of Yoyogi-kōen (Yoyogi Park), tiny bakery Nata de Cristiano (cristianos.jp/nata) specialises in pastel de nata – Portuguese egg tarts – sold through a window. These treats are the best coffee companion in the city, according to Shinji, but there’s a caveat: ‘This egg tart will ruin your life because now, every time you have a good cup of coffee or tea, you’ll crave it.’ They are fabulous, each tart no more than three mouthfuls of layered pastry encasing a cinnamon-rich hit of custard. The mini chicken pies are a tasty savoury delight, and limited edition nata with Baileys and cherries are occasionally on offer.
Caffeine hit at Little Nap coffee stand
Shinji is a big fan of Little Nap (littlenap.jp), a boxlike coffee stand in Yoyogi that oozes neighbourhood charm and which, despite its popularity, has resisted the opportunity to franchise. Locals pop in and out with dogs and shopping bags, grabbing single-origin brews to sip by the counter. ‘There are lots of third-wave coffee joints in Tokyo now,’ says Shinji, between licks of Little Nap’s homemade pistachio gelato, ‘but this is one of the few where you can still hang out with the original owner, and the ice cream is great, too.’
Little Nap coffee stand © Tom O'Malley / Lonely Planet
Pork cutlets at Butagumi
Butagumi (butagumi.com), in the Roppongi Hills area, specialises in tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlet), but here it’s refined to an art form, with prime cuts from named breeds: ‘Hakkinton’ pigs from Iwate, ‘Agu’ from Okinawa, ‘Kurobuta’ from Kagoshima. Shinji orders the daily special and gets it atsugiri, a double thick cut of loin. Pork heaven. Apparently the perfect tonkatsu should be golden brown and the panko crumbs flaky, crisp and light. On the way out, Shinji grabs a tonkatsu sandwich to go. ‘You’ll be amazed how you can still eat more pork, even after finishing a big meal.’ Oh god.
Innovative sweets at Higashiya Ginza
Traditional Japanese sweet treats (wagashi) draw droves of Tokyoites to this gorgeous Ginza store (higashiya.com). ‘I’m not normally a fan of wagashi; I prefer Western pastry because of the cream and butter – fat and sweet!’ The big difference is that Higashiya innovates, explains Shinji, going beyond the traditional anko (sweet bean paste) fillings, instead loading up mochi with butter, cream cheese, chocolate and nuts. The gift-wrapping and store design are impeccable, too. It’s a trendy spot for Japanese afternoon tea but even Shinji admits he’s a bit full, so we grab a bottle of house-infused Japanese liquor instead.
Whisky galore at Zoetrope © Tom O'Malley / Lonely Planet
Whisky tasting at Zoetrope
After squeezing into Tokyo’s smallest elevator (made even tighter after our porky binge), we spill out into Zoetrope, a hole-in-the-wall 'whisky boot camp' in Shinjuku boasting an inventory of over 300 varieties of Japanese whisky. Shinji introduces the owner, Horigami, who will gruffly disapprove if you ask to sniff the bottle (apparently this is a thing). He recommends a tasting flight of hard-to-find Nikka blended malts, in half-shot pours. Shinji goes for the Zoetrope 3rd Anniversary Rum, crafted exclusively for the bar by a local micro-distillery.
Exclusive cocktails at Gen Yamamoto
Gen Yamamoto (genyamamoto.jp) is the Sukiyabashi Jiro of the bar world, a shrine to sophisticated imbibing. Mr Yamamoto, according to Shinji, is the first bartender in the world to serve a tasting menu of cocktails strictly by reservation only. Eight seats line the bar, from which we observe Yamamoto working with extreme precision, using a glass pestle to extract fresh juice for each drink. All the fruits are raised on a single farm, and only in certain seasons. The tasting menu is all that is on offer, starting at ¥4500 (US$45). ‘If you’re just after a martini or a whisky, you better cancel the reservation,’ Shinji warns. Gen Yamamoto is near Azabu-Jūban station.
Cosy nightclub Royal Family © Tom O'Malley / Lonely Planet
Party at Royal Family
In Shinjuku-nichōme, Tokyo’s gay quarter, we end the day at Royal Family (royal-family.org), a second-floor nightclub the size of an apartment. Half the size, actually, once you factor in the bar, a closet-sized DJ booth and a dozen bulbous disco balls suspended from the ceiling. ‘It’s like crashing someone’s house party,’ yells Shinji over resident DJ OYU’s minimal techno beats. Whatever your taste, ethnicity or style, you’ll make new friends here. The music is sublime, the drinks are strong, and after a bit of a boogie the 20 or so other guests (it’s packed) treat us like family.