Where to eat sushi in the Ginza, Tokyo's upmarket dining district

Famed for its Michelin-starred restaurants, offering tasting menus to just a handful of diners, Tokyo’s Ginza district is its most exclusive gastronomy hub and the place to sample Japan’s finest sushi.

Sashimi Moriawase, a dish with various types of raw fish.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Jamie Lafferty
Published 7 Oct 2022, 18:03 BST

For the uninitiated, experiencing traditional, Edomae sushi for the first time can be intimidating. The 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which centred on arguably its most famous exponent, sushi master Jiro Ono, only made this particular anxiety worse. As the film shows, single pieces of sushi are served individually by an exacting chef who stands just a few feet from the diners. They’re watching you and you’re likely watching them. Because these restaurants typically only seat around 10 people, it’s a remarkably intimate way to dine.

Ono’s restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, already had three Michelin stars before the documentary, but grew so popular afterwards (guests included Barack Obama, who visited in 2014, accompanied by the then Japanese president Shinzo Abe) that it stopped taking public bookings. To get a table you need to be a regular, know someone, or be a guest at a top hotel. The Michelin Guide has now dropped it from its hallowed list for this reason, although it may already have been considering doing so because the sushi master had made a habit of lecturing diners he deemed not suitably sophisticated for his sushi.

Thankfully, diners in Ginza are not short of options when it comes to high-end alternatives — and few are as claustrophobically formal as Jiro Ono’s place. Hiroyuki Sato’s Hakkoku offers a more modern interpretation of Edomae sushi (the style gets its name from Japan’s Edo period, 1603-1867, during which it was first developed). The restaurant has three rooms, each with its own chef and honey-hued lighting. Hiroyuki opened it in 2018, giving up a job in a Michelin-starred restaurant in the same neighbourhood to go it alone. 

“Ginza is the best place in Japan — and so the best place in the world — for sushi,” says the chef before a dinner service. “The customers, restaurants, the quality of the fish — everything is great.”

As well as its culinary scene, Ginza is famous for upmarket shopping.

As well as its culinary scene, Ginza is famous for upmarket shopping.

Photograph by Susanne Kremer

The legendary Tsukiji Fish Market was within walking distance of this well-heeled neighbourhood until 2018, when it moved to a new facility in the Kōtō district. Hiroyuki still makes the journey to the market every day. “Not early,” he says, apparently not joking. “I go around 7am.” The pilgrimage is made out of loyalty as much as necessity — it’s now possible to order fish online ahead of time, but Hiroyuki’s reputation has gained him favour with suppliers, who often tip him off if a particularly high-quality catch arrives. In the intensely competitive world of Edomae sushi, which is defined by using seafood caught locally in Tokyo Bay, this advantage is important. 

Part of the fixation on quality is due to the fact the menu rarely changes — it’s a consistent, steady march through classic sushi, including fatty tuna and sea urchin. Hiroyuki serves nothing but the set menu — no side dishes, no distractions. Without any variation, does it ever get boring for the chef? “Oh yes, very boring,” he says with a smirk. “But the customers always change, which keeps it interesting.”

This is the sort of disarmingly honest answer Hiroyuki likes to give. For example, when asked what the trickiest techniques required to present such flawless food are, he says: “There’s nothing difficult about the method. Anyone can learn — I could teach you right now. The difficult part is being patient because you can’t do it too quickly.”

If the process is boring and the technique easy, then what’s the difference between good and bad sushi? Why isn’t it all equally excellent? “In the end, it’s about sensing the specifics of the thing you’re making for someone. It comes down to the pressure you put on the rice, the cut of the fish, the amount of sauce, the conversation with the customer,” Hiroyuki says, finally taking himself and the process more seriously. “Does it look beautiful? Does it taste great? Was it made for the customer? That’s Edomae sushi.”

More info: A booking at Hakkoku to sample Hiroyuki Sato’s 30-piece omakase (selected by the chef) sushi menu must be made several weeks in advance. From 34,000 yen (£208) per person.

Chef Hiroyuki Sato, of Hakkoku restaurant in Ginza.

Chef Hiroyuki Sato, of Hakkoku restaurant in Ginza.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

Dining out in Ginza: four recommendations to try

The head chef at Hakkoku, one of Tokyo’s most lauded sushi restaurants, picks his four favourite restaurants and teahouses in the upmarket neighbourhood.

1. Ginza Yamanobe Edo Chuka
Yamanobe’s unassuming interior and relatively humble looking dishes give few clues about the quality of this innovative Edomae-style Chinese restaurant. The intimate setting and focus on perfecting the omakase (chef’s selection) dishes earned it a Michelin star in 2020 and it’s been hailed by critics as offering a ‘new genre’ of food. Book well in advance. 

2. Sushi Take
It may initially seem that Sushi Take is just another Edomae-style sushi place in Ginza, serving the chef’s recommendations of fine sushi. There’s one key difference here, however: chef Tsukasa Takeuchi is one of Tokyo’s few female sushi chefs. She also speaks good English and can help demystify her menu should you need help. 

3Tsujirihei
If you want to try traditional matcha green tea but don’t want to travel all the way to the geisha district in Kyoto, this secluded spot is a fine place to dip your toe. An offshoot of a 150-year-old Kyoto teahouse, it now serves several modern incarnations of matcha, including ice creams and cakes, as well as the tea itself. 

4. Komon
Formerly known as Ginza Kikarakutei, Komon has moved within the neighbourhood since the onset of the pandemic, but has quickly gone back to serving lavish, royal kaiseki (multi-course) meals. Seating just 14 diners helps chef Koutaro Asakura to lead his guests on a dance through tiny dishes, ranging from boiled baby fish to rare beef.

Published in the October 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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