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A metropolis of nearly 14 million people, Tokyo is unashamedly trendy and rapidly matches the taste of its modern urbanites. Acutely attuned to the dining scene in New York, it’s only ever a few paces behind importing the latest fashionable gastronomy. Indeed, the country has a long history of doing so. When Japan finally opened its borders to the outside world in 1868, it was quick to develop and embrace yoshoku – its own versions of Western classics – such as hamburg, hamburger patties topped with Japanese-style demi-glace sauce or the more bizarre Napolitan which adds Japanese green peppers and frankfurters into a ketchup spaghetti mix. While much of this kind of cooking is now distinctly uncool – the preserve of smoky cafeterias one’s grandfather might visit, newspaper tucked under one arm – culinary creativeness continues unabated.
By publishing the stories of our local heroes, visiting them on culinary tours, or directly fundraising for them when they are in need, we attempt to honor their work and their essential role in maintaining the fabric of the city. Our purpose is twofold. Yes, we want to get travelers to some good places to eat. But we also want to make sure that some of these spots and the artisans making food there find a new audience and get the recognition and support they deserve. They are holding back the tide of globalized sameness, which is not easy work – even if it’s done unknowingly. But we believe that every meal counts and, with the help of our audience, they will add up. We are committed to their perseverance and hope that our modest efforts encourage them to keep at it. Our work is also guided by a belief in: Honest Tourism: The places where we eat and craftsmen that we feature on our culinary tours are all selected with this purpose in mind. We’d never accept a free lunch or consider a discount for our tour groups, because that would contradict our central goal, to support them. Nor do our guides receive any commissions from shopkeepers. Honest Journalism: The same principal is applied to the publishing of stories. There are no sponsored posts or even advertising on CB. The writers and photographers are paid fairly for their work on stories that we all believe in.
The cities we are drawn to all have a culinary tradition of untold richness as well as a certain tension, be it political instability, the tug between East and West, the clash between modern and ancient identities, migration, rapid gentrification, bankruptcy, or a post-colonial hangover. Our decision to get started in a city is always the result of a trip filled with many meals where we are given in intimate view of that tension, right there on the table. By getting lost in this warren of independent food purveyors struggling to preserve or adapt tradition in fast-paced urban life, we start to discover the deep complexity and true flavor of the city. At present, you’ll find our regular dispatches from Athens, Barcelona, Istanbul, Lisbon, Los Angeles, Marseille, Mexico City, Naples, Porto, Queens (NY), Shanghai, Tbilisi and Tokyo.
As travel to most of the cities where we work has resumed, Culinary Backstreets is working with a new set of safety guidelines designed for the physical well-being of our guests, guides and members of the local community that we encounter. These guidelines have been developed in line with the best practices published by governments and health officials in the countries where CB works with regard to restaurant and tour and trip operation. With these procedures in place, our guests — led by our team of professional guides, who are being trained accordingly — can explore with peace of mind. The new procedures we are instituting include:
Culinary Backstreets’ mission has always been to preserve, protect and celebrate local culinary traditions and the unsung heroes of the kitchen. Now, more than ever, we remain focused on this goal. These days, we are paying close attention to the physical, economic and psychological well-being of the local communities and the people who keep them fed. We view this as an opportunity for cities to develop a tourism model that makes sense for them and that avoids the mistakes of the past, and for companies like Culinary Backstreets to be part of that process by renewing our commitment to a more sustainable way of traveling and working. By joining our tours and trips, you are contributing to this effort, which includes:
Culinary Backstreets is offering maximum flexibility for our guests, as we realize that travel this summer and fall might involve unexpected cancellations or postponements. So that our guests can book with confidence, we are putting in place the following cancelation policies:
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Tour the Backstreets of Tokyo With Us
Beyond Sushi: Neighborhood by Neighborhood, Bite by Bite
Our Backstreets Envoys, Always Searching for the Next Hidden Gem
Dennis, Tokyo Walk Leader
Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Dennis backpacked around Asia for over a year before deciding to settle in Japan. He spent 4 years living in the beautiful countryside near Mt. Fuji working at school for blind children before settling in Tokyo and starting a family. He is a fan of all Japanese cuisine but especially loves home-cooked Japanese meals and is constantly searching out the best mom-and-pop restaurants across Japan, some of which have become his family away from home.
Keilene, Tokyo Walk Leader
Made in Japan but assembled around the globe, having to constantly relocate for her father’s tourism business, Keilene’s mother combined and improvised with the available ingredients for Japanese recipes. These were the fusion dishes that were on the table growing up bicultural and of Japanese descent and created a bond to her home country, Japan. After her studies at Parson’s, Keilene decided to leave the US to pursue a career in fashion in Tokyo. She soon rediscovered the deep culinary heritage of her birth city of Tokyo and her own passion for exploring it. These days you’ll find her elbowed up to her favorite sushi bar, slurping down a bowl of noodles or leading culinary walks in the backstreets of Tokyo.
Kelly, Tokyo Walk Leader
Hailing from a family of lumberjacks in Northern Ontario, Canada, Kelly has called Tokyo home for more than 25 years. A huge foodie and Japanese sake fan, she is also an avid hiker and outdoor photographer who has been on many off-the-beaten-track pilgrimages in Japan. With her favourite place as a home base, she has travelled to more than 40 countries, studying food, drink, language, and culture with an unwavering passion. She has several careers under her belt, including working as an ESL instructor, international art coordinator, children’s entertainer, voice actor, and financial editor in the Tokyo stock market. She is excited to be showcasing her beloved city and the spectacular culinary offerings of Japan to visitors. After 25 years of cumulative study Kelly just became certified by the Sake Education Council and she passed her Japanese Sake Profession Level 2 course, if you have questions on sake, she is your girl!
Mairi, Tokyo Walk Leader
Born in the gorgeous wine region of Hawkes Bay New Zealand Mairi has spent most of her adult life living in Tokyo. Originally moving to Tokyo to study a degree in Japanese language and history she only planned to stay a few years. 25 years and two degrees later she is still constantly fascinated by this amazingly vibrant city. She has worked for many years in live theater and event planning and production and is a keen traveler having visited nearly 50 countries. Having a deep interest in food and especially the relationship between the Japanese diet and their extremely long life span, she has recently completed an online nutrition course from Cornell University.
Phoebe, Tokyo Correspondent & Walk Leader
Hailing from the UK, Phoebe Amoroso has lived in Japan for over 8 years. Captivated when she first visited as a research student, she has travelled extensively, visiting almost all of the country’s 47 prefectures. She currently works as a reporter and a multimedia journalist, which gives her the opportunity to shout about the wonders of Japan on a regular basis. She has a strong interest in Japanese regional cuisine and rural revitalization strategies. Phoebe enjoys hiking, trail running, and cycling in the Japanese countryside – with the next meal never far from her thoughts. She firmly believes life is too short to eat bad food.
CB’s work was started in 2009 by Ansel Mullins and Yigal Schleifer as a humble food blog called Istanbul Eats. The following year we published a book of our reviews, now in its fifth edition. That year we also launched our first culinary walk in Istanbul, a route we are still using today. In 2012, we realized that what we built in Istanbul was needed in other cities we knew and loved. We started CB that year with Athens, Barcelona, Mexico City and Shanghai as pioneering members of our network. In 2013, we added Rio and also launched our iPhone application in Istanbul. In 2015, Tokyo and Tbilisi came into the fold. That year we published mini-guides to Barcelona and Athens and also launched an iPhone application in those cities. Our Eatinerary service, which provides travelers with tailor-made culinary travel itineraries, was also launched in 2015. In 2016, Lisbon – the latest city to kindle our curiosity – joined the CB network. In 2017 we added Naples and Queens, NY – two places with very compelling stories to tell – to our roster and also published full-size eating guides to Athens and Barcelona. In 2018, Porto joined the list of cities we cover.
Visual Dispatches from the Frontlines of Local Eating
Where is Tokyo?
Tokyo is located in the center of the Japanese archipelago, on the Pacific Coastal side of the main island. Formerly known as Edo prior to the 20th century, it has been the political and economic heart of the country since the 1600s, and has an urban economy to match – the largest in the world measured by GDP. Home to over 37 million residents, Tokyo is Japan’s most-populated city, and certainly one of the most populous in the world. Indeed, it is often synonymous with urban density in many people’s minds. As a well-serviced transport hub, Tokyo also makes an excellent base for day trips to the greater Kanto region and journeys to other prefectures further out.
What are the best things to do in Tokyo?
With its sheer sprawl and density, there’s very little you can’t do or see in Tokyo. It’s home to lovely gardens like Koishikawa Korakuen and Shinjuku Gyoen, world-class art museums like the Mori in Roppongi, delicious food around every corner and fantastic bars. Whether you’re interested in art, history, culture, cuisine or nature, the city has something for everyone. Plus, its comprehensive train network makes sightseeing around town a breeze – we love being able to bounce from old-school Yanaka to buzzy Shibuya to glitzy Ginza all in the space of a single day.
How would you spend one day in Tokyo?
A good day might begin with a leisurely breakfast of sushi and street snacks at the outer part of Tsukiji Market. Wander westwards into Ginza to experience the inimitable depachika (basement food halls), and then even further northwest for the Imperial Palace Gardens. From there, you could head further north by train into Akihabara – Tokyo’s geek mecca – and onward into Ueno, where you’ll find market street Ameyoko-cho and a handful of excellent museums.
When is the best time of year to visit Tokyo?
Tokyo is an excellent city to visit during most months, except for the summer months of July to early September, as Tokyo summers are exceptionally hot and humid. While shaved ice may offer a happy respite from the heat, it is only temporary. April and November are popular with tourists because of the cherry blossoms and fall foliage respectively, but we’d recommend visiting during winter, from December to February, as Tokyo winters are mild and crowds are more manageable during these times.
What is the weather like in Tokyo?
Like most places with four seasons, the climate in Tokyo is pleasant in spring and autumn, when it’s comfortably cool or warm by turns. The rainy season, which traditionally begins in June, is muggy and wet; the summer months of July, August and early September are hot and unpleasantly humid, with temperatures typically in the mid- to high 90s F. Tokyo winters are comparatively mild, with clear skies. Temperatures rarely fall below 32 F, and apart from the rare event, snow is minimal to non-existent. Summer heat begins to ease off in late September, but this is also when typhoon season usually starts. Through October, this usually manifests in heavy rain and some wind in Tokyo, so it’s best to come prepared with waterproof shoes, umbrellas and a raincoat.
Is Tokyo expensive?
When compared to many coastal cities in the US, Tokyo is less expensive than most travelers might think, especially with the present favorable exchange rate. On average, eating out in Tokyo is less expensive than say, New York or LA. Your mileage will vary depending on what you choose to eat or do. A cup of coffee from the convenience store starts at less than $1, a basic beer just under $4 and a sit-down dinner at a mid-range izakaya can run about $15-30 before drinks. While fares vary by the train line used, public transportation is generally affordable, especially if you use all-you-can-ride day passes on the subway or trains. Taxis are not cheap – a 5km ride can run you about $15 depending on traffic.
Is Tokyo safe?
For a city of its size and urban density, Tokyo is very safe. Violent crime is very rare, petty crime such as pickpocketing is virtually unheard of, and people routinely leave items like phones or laptops at their cafe tables for a restroom break without worrying about them being stolen. Japanese people are famously hospitable and helpful, particularly towards tourists. While Tokyo is also generally very safe for solo women travelers, we would encourage similar levels of vigilance and safety guidelines as you’d observe somewhere else, particularly in crowded trains at peak commuting hours.
What is the best food in Tokyo?
Almost all major cuisines are represented in Tokyo, and there’s a restaurant for every palate and budget. The city has very little street food, but more than makes up for that with fantastic izakaya, standing bars, sit-down restaurants, counter seat-only diners and more. Vegetarians and vegans are far better catered for now than they were a decade ago, too. High-end sushi is on most travel bucket lists, but other dishes not to be missed include ramen (too many types to list), tempura, tonkatsu, soba, yoshoku (Japanese-style Western food) and gyudon (beef rice bowls).
Where is the best place to stay in Tokyo?
Where you should stay depends on the kind of travel experience you enjoy. First-timers will do well in Shinjuku or Shibuya: both are lively and centrally-located, with excellent access to public transportation and proximity to department stores, restaurants, bars and nightlife. Ginza and the Tokyo Station area are excellent for high-end dining and shopping. For those who have been to Tokyo before, staying in neighborhoods outside the central Yamanote Line, such as Nakano or Shimokitazawa, are good options for an alternative look into local city life.
What is the COVID-19 situation in Tokyo?
Tokyo’s vaccination rate is at about 77%, with 55% having received a third booster shot. Social distancing guidelines are not always followed, but masking is widely practiced, and is par for the course almost everywhere. Most establishments insist on masks as a condition of entry. Over 90% of people wear masks indoors and outdoors, except when eating or drinking. It is less common to see masks in green spaces like parks. Tourists should be respectful and be prepared to follow masking guidelines.
Can Americans travel to Tokyo?
American citizens can travel from the United States to Japan visa-free for up to 90-days, with proof of vaccination.
Can I fly directly to Tokyo?
You can fly directly to Tokyo from many locations worldwide, either into Haneda International Airport (HND) or Narita International Airport (NRT). Haneda is the newer of the two and more conveniently located, and it takes less than 30 minutes by train or monorail to reach central Tokyo. If you are landing at Narita, the JR Narita Express (NEX) is the most expedient route into the city, and takes roughly an hour.
What is the best restaurant in Tokyo?
With thousands of restaurants and millions of discerning diners, Tokyo is an exceptional culinary destination – the world is at your fingertips (or mouth) in this city. We’d be hard-pressed to name just one best restaurant, as you could spend a lifetime eating your way across Tokyo. But we love the simple katsuo flakes on rice at Katsuo Shokudo for breakfast. Whether it’s soup curry or curry rice, curry for lunch is unbeatable. A pitstop at Hinatomaru makes a fine mid-afternoon sushi snack, and there are few better cities than Tokyo for grazing on food and sake all night long.
Are there beaches in Tokyo?
While there are no beaches really worth visiting in Tokyo proper, there are a few beaches along the coast located within a 1-2 hour train ride in neighboring prefectures such as Kanagawa and Chiba. Yuigahama Beach in Kamakura is popular with Tokyoites for water sports, and is accessible by public transport with an hour’s journey central Tokyo. Further along the coast is Southern Beach Chigasaki, which has a view of Mt. Fuji on clear days. Getting there takes about an hour by direct train from Tokyo, and then a 20-minute walk from the station.
Is Tokyo suitable for children?
The answer to this is a resounding “yes.” As the Netflix TV show “Old Enough” makes clear, Japan is overall a very safe place for children, and despite the crowds, Tokyo isn’t so different. It’s not unusual to see young children out and about unaccompanied by adults. Most train stations have excellent elevator access for parents with strollers. Many parents in Tokyo even cycle with up to two toddlers – one in front, and one at the back. Parents should note that fine dining restaurants and izakaya in particular are not very child-friendly, however, and many small counter-only establishments may not cater to children at all (some require a minimum of one order per customer, for example). However, there are many family-friendly restaurants in the city, and we recommend making a note of some before traveling. Restaurants in department stores and large chain “family” restaurants are usually safe bets. Most neighborhoods are generally safe for children, although families may wish to avoid staying in nightlife-heavy areas like Shibuya or Roppongi.