The confirmation by the first Michelin guide to Tokyo that the city is awash with fine-dining temples tells only half the gastronomic story of the Japanese capital. While the guide highlights the fact that 150 of its restaurants are worthy of stars, comprising eight three-star, 25 two-star and 117 one-star establishments, making it the most Michelin-starred city on earth, it's only when you look at the other end of the eating-out market that you realise this is truly the place to be for food fans.
Almost any restaurant, bar or eating place you turn up at, in whatever part of the city you might find yourself, you'll find delicious morsels of food prepared and served by people with an innate understanding of what they're doing. I discovered this on an evening out with British chef Trevor Blyth (see feature, page 28) and his Japanese wife Hiromi of the White Fox, Oji, who offered to take me to some traditional eateries, along with photographer Sam Bailey, his wife Sarah, and the Blyths' friend, Hide Sahane, an actor. "Tokyo has some wonderful fine-dining restaurants, but what's interesting to me is the amount of choice and quality you get at a lower level," says Blyth.
This quickly became apparent as we strolled out on to the Tokyo streets on a cold winter's night. We were in the commuter area of Oji, 15 minutes by train from the centre of the city, although it didn't really matter where we were in Tokyo as every neighbourhood is jam-packed with places to eat, ranging from the simple and cheap to the highly complex and extortionately expensive.
While Tokyo has traditionally been regarded as the most costly city to eat and stay in, that is no longer necessarily the case. You can pay hundred of pounds when eating in one of the top-end kaiseki-ryori restaurants, but the average price of eating out in Tokyo is now cheaper than in London, according to the Zagat guide. In September the guide announced that the average cost of a meal in the Japanese capital is £35.10, ranking it in third place behind both London, where the average price of a meal is £39.09, and Paris, where customers pay, on average, £35.37 per head. "You can eat very cheap, freshly cooked food made from excellent ingredients in Tokyo," says Blyth. "There's just so much competition from restaurants serving inexpensive, freshly prepared food."
The first restaurant we enter is not only cheap, it also provides the perfect antidote to the chilly weather outside. Fourteen stalls are arranged around three sides of a central cooking area, where vast vats of clear, coloured liquid gently bubble away. We're in Agareya, one of Tokyo's few surviving odens, which can best be translated as "a poaching restaurant".
Blyth explains that a variety of vegetables, eggs and fish pastes are poached for several hours in the liquid, which is basically dashi - a combination of Japanese seaweed and bonito flakes - flavoured water. We try daikon radish, mountain potato, asparagus, turnip, shungiku - a spinach-like vegetable - and grilled fish paste, washed down with a glass of sake. The flavours are subtle and unadulterated and you feel a bowl of the warming broth will keep all ills at bay. "It's a complete detox in one serving," says Blyth. Total cost of two bowls of oden, plus a glass of sake, comes to ¥1,560 (just under £7) a head.
After such a delicate tasting start to the evening, our next port of call provides a full-on kick to the taste-buds. Just next door to the oden we enter Showa, a basic standing yakitori bar. With no stools or chairs available, we loiter around one of two tables and are swiftly served up pitchers of Japanese beer, accompanied by platters of chicken kebabs in a tare sauce, a lip-smacking, sticky, rich coating made from soy sauce, mirin and sake.
These are no straightforward chicken kebabs, though. While some are made from the brown meat, the others involve all kinds of chicken bits, including the liver, hearts, skin, gizzards and even cartilage. There are also balls of mincemeat, which probably contain a little bit of every part of the chicken. While the cartilage was a little too crunchy and not meaty enough for my liking, the rest was delicious and the platters were soon wiped clean. Cost per head for a pitcher of beer and three or four kebabs: ¥580 (£2.56).
The evening wouldn't have been complete without a visit to a sushi bar, and so Mori Ichi, a kaiten or revolving sushi bar, is where we next venture. Everything is self-service, including the making of our own mugs of green tea using powder and boiling water from the taps located at regular intervals.
The plates of sushi that we select from the conveyor belt confirm the Japanese passion for freshness and quality. There's not one prawn or scallop or piece of tuna, squid, sea eel, mackerel or sea urchin - which we spike with an added touch of ginger or wasabi - that I try that's not humming of the sea. With Tsukiji, the world's largest fish market, situated in Tokyo, there's every reason to believe that city dwellers must enjoy the best and most varied choice of fish in the world. Here we spend ¥630 (£2.80) per head, having each selected between six and eight plates of sushi.
Onwards and upwards to what is the most sophisticated venue of the evening - Sun-Set, a modern Japanese restaurant." The food here uses the very traditional flavours of Japanese food, but serves it in a very modern way," says Blyth. For an appetiser, we're served a clensing dish of beansprouts and mountain vegetables, accompanied by fresh tofu, its blandness eradicated by the accompanying katsuobushi shavings of salted and dried bonito tuna loins), onions,ginger and salt
A selection of deliciously fresh sashimi, including sea bream, Pacific bluefin tuna, halibut, prawns - the first time I've eaten raw prawns, and the sweetness of the meat was a revelation - and scallops follows, accompanied by dishes of wasabi, soy sauce, and grated daikon radish with chilli.
Best of all, though, is a grilled tuna shoulder and head. These parts of the fish are highly appreciated by the Japanese for their high fat, collagen and omega-3 content, making it serious brain food, as well as being very good for the skin, brain, heart and blood. When grilled, they become incredibly soft and succulent in a way that I've never eaten tuna before. Apparently the shoulder and head were first washed in sake and soy sauce to remove any excess bloody taste and then grilled under a medium heat for about 20 minutes. The feast at Sun-Set, including two bottles of Chianti Classico at ¥4,200 (£18.50) each, sets us back ¥2772 (£12.25) per head.
You might think that we'd be unable to face any more food after all this, but there's one more eaterie that Blyth insists we try - Doma Doma, a traditional Japanese izakaya, which is best described as a pub-style operation that serves small tasty morsels of food. Accompanying the beers that soon arrive is a selection of highly flavoursome green soy beans, octopus with wasabi, sweet prawns with raw egg, Japanese pickles and Korean pickles.
By the end of the evening we've spent a total of ¥34,443 (£152) between the six of us - a remarkable ¥5,740 (£25.30) per head - on what amounts to a mountain of food and no shortage of drinks - sake in the oden, beer in the yakitori standing bar and izakaya, green tea in the sushi bar and the red wine in Sun-Set. While feeling perfectly satisfied by the quantity of food we've eaten, I don't feel the slightest bit stuffed as I would if I'd eaten similar quantities back home.
It's something that Blyth completely understands. After seven years away from the UK, he no longer misses British food. "When I'm back in England I generally find the food to be far too heavy," he says. "The Japanese eat very well and large amounts - at the White Fox they eat up to six dishes in the evening plus cheese and dessert - but there isn't the same obesity problem here as in the UK and life expectancy is longer. Newcomers to Japan are always amazed at just how much these little Japanese people eat, but they're used to eating many small items, not one large plateful of food."
Blyth explains that the way the Japanese eat contributes just as much to their general good health as the type of food they eat. "For example, the grilled tuna shoulder we had at Sun-Set was served with a pile of grated daikon white radish and some soy sauce," he says. "While the fish meat itself is already very healthy, the grilling process may cause some of the outside flesh to become charred. Modern scientists have, for many years now, been saying that this type of charring may be carcinogenic. However, it has also been scientifically proven that fermented soya beans (as in soya sauce) and raw white radish contain high levels of anticarcinogenic properties."
Whatever the reason why the Japanese combine or cook particular ingredients in certain ways, there's no doubting their enjoyment of food - and it's good for you too.
Beyond exclusive kaiseki-ryori restaurants, where expensive Japanese haute cuisine is served, there's a plethora of more democratic restaurants, which tend to specialise in one specific style of food. These include:
Restaurants specialising in sushi, with the food served at a table or at a counter. At a kaiten-sushi, the dishes are presented to the customers from a conveyor belt.
Soba-ya specialise in soba and udon noodle dishes. Most dishes come either cooled with a dipping sauce or hot in a soup with toppings.
These specialise in ramen dishes, Chinese-style noodles served in a soup with toppings. Every ramen-ya has developed its own speciality ramen dish, maybe with barbecue pork, chicken, vegetables or dumplings.
Tonkatsu-ya restaurants serve tonkatsu (deep-fried breaded pork cutlets) and other deep-fried items.
Okonomiyaki, a mixture of pancake and pizza, are prepared on a hotplate built into the table.
Yakitori or grilled chicken skewers are the speciality in a yakitori-ya.
Tempura-ya specialise in deep-fried tempura dishes, using vegetables and seafood.
These restaurants, which are very popular in business areas at lunchtimes, sell teishoku (set menus) that usually consist of fried fish, a bowl of rice and small side dishes.
Informal drinking places offering small dishes and finger foods.
Yatai are movable food stalls found in busy streets. With oden (poaching) restaurants dying out, the yatai is the most likely place to find bowls of oden, alongside ramen and okonomiyaki dishes.
Where we ate…
Agareya (Oden) 2F, 1-5-11, Oji, Kita-ku, Tokyo 114-0002
Doma Doma (Izakaya) 6F, Aim Building, 1-13-16, Oji, Kita-ku, Tokyo 114-0002
Mori Ichi (Sushi) 1-10-15, Oji, Kita-ku, Tokyo 114-0002
Showa (Standing bar) 1-5-12, Oji, Kita-ku, Tokyo 114-0002
Sun-Set (Modern) 2F, Takahashi Building, 2-26-1, Oji, Kita-ku, Tokyo 114-0002