When it comes to food, most people associate Japan with sushi or noodles, even though their national dish is considered to be curry and rice (who’d have guessed?). In the west though, sushi is considered the quintessential Japanese dish, and many travelers visit just to taste the best sushi dishes that Japan has to offer.
Sushi lovers visiting Japan are spoiled for choice, with restaurants across the country catering to every taste and budget. But what about those of you who are looking for a more luxurious experience than the average traveler? Whether you’re a regular at some of the top restaurants in the world, or you’re simply looking to splash out, Japan has a multitude of high-end dining options, and Tokyo’s close proximity to the ocean means its upmarket restaurants have some of the freshest fish to be found at any sushi restaurant. What are the 5 best sushi restaurants in Tokyo, and what should you know about fine dining in Japan before you visit?
We’re going to take a brief look at the history of sushi in Japan, how Tokyo’s finest sushi chefs (say that 10 times really fast, I dare you) expect you to eat their creations and the five best places for award-winning sushi in Tokyo. (Skip ahead to get straight to our list).
5 Of The Top Sushi Restaurants Currently In Tokyo
You can eat award-winning sushi across the entire country of Japan, but to keep our list from reaching legendary lengths, we’re going to focus on the finest restaurants Tokyo has to offer.
1. Haneda Icheban Ginza 7
Japan, 〒104-0061 Tokyo, Chuo City, Ginza, 7 Chome−14−15 杉山ビル B1
Ginza abounds in sushi restaurants, but Ginza 7 has a reputation for some of the best sushi this district has to offer. This small, but luxurious restaurant boasts some of the freshest “neta” toppings you can try, some of which are caught and flown across the country that very same day. You’ll also be able to try some excellent quality sake to complement your meal.
Price: Lunch – ¥10000 – ¥14999, Dinner: ¥10000 – ¥14999
〒106-0031 Tokyo, Minato City, Nishiazabu, 2 Chome−11−5 カパルア西麻布 1階
Taku is a Michelin-starred sushi restaurant not too far from the lively Roppongi district of Tokyo. It’s unique among its peers in Japan, because as well as the traditional sake offered alongside your sushi, it has a sommelier who will offer wine and champagne too. It also opens later than most sushi restaurants, so it’s perfect for night-owls who want to enjoy the vibrant Roppongi nightlife after their meal. With one Michelin star, you’re guaranteed a delicious and upmarket meal.
Price: ¥20,000 ~ ¥29,999
3. Sushi Matsumoto
〒107-0052 Tokyo, Minato City, 12, 赤坂 3 12 18 第8荒井ビル 3F
Another Michelin starred restaurant, Sushi Matsumoto is owned and run by Chef Matsumoto, who is considered to be one of the best sushi chefs working today. He’s worked at some of the highest calibre restaurants in Japan – Kyubey, and Sushi Kanesaka (which aren’t included in our list because I was too spoiled for choice, and because I could break the rules and mention them here instead). Here you’ll enjoy omakase-style dining, and a higher number of nigiri than other chefs tend to offer. You’ll also be able to try some truly unique dishes, such as nebuto, and uni.
Price: Omakase ¥ 30,000
4. Sushi Fukumoto
〒155-0032 Tokyo, Setagaya City, Daizawa, 5 Chome−17−6 地下一階 B1F
Having held its Michelin star for over 11 years, you can trust that Sushi Fukumoto has some of the best sushi to offer in Tokyo, and perhaps even the world. This restaurant is small, but the compact setting only enhances the intensity of flavours you’ll experience. As with several other chefs, the chef at Sushi Fukumoto buys his fish at the Toyusa market each day, but he will only accept the freshest of ingredients. He’s so serious about serving you the best possible sushi, that he’ll call to cancel your reservation if the fish at the market is not up to standard that day. For that reason, it’s probably best to book this one at the start of your trip, although cancellations are a very rare occurrence.
5. Sukiyabashi Jiro
〒104-0061 Tokyo, Chuo City, Ginza, 4 Chome−2−15 塚本総業ビルB1階
No “best sushi restaurant” list would be complete without a trip to Sukiyabashi Jiro – arguably one of the best sushi restaurants in the world, run by the best sushi chef alive today. The restaurant is run by chef Jiro Ono and was the subject of the 2011 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”. Jiro is in his 90s, and he has been making sushi since he was a teen. He is considered by his contemporaries as “the greatest living sushi craftsman” (https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/30/dining/sushis-new-vanguard.html), and those lucky enough to have eaten his sushi, including Barack Obama, definitely agree. Jiro pays attention to every last detail, every grain of rice, and every single step of the process. The food is served omakase style and consists of about twenty pieces of sushi. The chefs make each piece of sushi as you’re ready to eat it, and they can make smaller pieces to accommodate a smaller appetite.
Up until 2020, Sukiyabashi Jiro held three Michelin stars – the only restaurant of its kind to do so. The stars were removed this year, not because the quality of the food had dropped, but rather because the restaurant no longer takes bookings from the general public. To eat here, you need to have the right connections, be a regular, or make a reservation through a high-end hotel. This unfortunately makes Jiro’s sushi a little inaccessible to the average traveller. But we’d be remiss to exclude Japan’s best sushi from this list. Plus, at $300 per person, if you’re planning on eating here, there’s a good chance you’re staying in a luxurious hotel already.
Price: ¥40,000 plus tax
Japan Didn’t Invent Sushi, They Adapted It
While sushi may be synonymous with Japan in most parts of the world, they didn’t technically invent sushi. Raw fish is something that’s been eaten for as long as man has been around. The combination of rice and fish originated in the third century, in a place along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. The people living along the river would have seasonal abundances of fish with no way to store them, so they came up with a pretty creative idea.
Those river residents would clean and gut the fish they’d caught, and then completely cover them in a mix of salt and rice. The heavily salted rice would preserve the fish for months at a time, and in some cases even longer. Unfortunately, the rice they’d used would be discarded when they were ready to eat the fish because it was far too salty to eat. When this dish reached Japan, they named it narezushi (literally “salted fish”), and it became an important source of protein for Japanese people. Sushi has changed dramatically since that day, but narezushi is still a specialty in some regions of Japan.
Around the 14th century, vinegar had replaced salt in the role of preservation, and it was incorporated into the preparation of narezushi dishes because it tasted better too. Despite this progression, it wasn’t until the 17th century that sushi began to resemble the dish we know it as today. It was developed over the centuries in Osaka, but of course, made its way across the country as people clamored for fish served over rice with vinegar and nori seaweed – or nigirizushi.
Today, despite there being many award-winning sushi restaurants around the world, many people will argue that you won’t taste better sushi than they make in Japan. Having eaten sushi in only two places in the world (England and Japan), I can agree with that statement as much as my readers will allow. I also must say that eating sushi in Japan will possibly ruin all other sushi for you. It definitely did for us, as we returned to our favorite Japanese restaurant in England and realized that it would never taste quite as good as it did in Japan. In fact, it’s been argued that even convenience store sushi is better than most mid-range sushi offerings in the U.K. and U.S., but of course, I could never make such a sweeping statement.
In spite of its humble beginnings, sushi has developed from a simple, preserved dish, to cuisine with hundreds of variations. If you’re planning on splashing out at one of Tokyo’s finest sushi restaurants, you’d better know what type of sushi you’re eating, and how you should eat it.
The 5 Main Types Of Sushi
Let me be clear – these are just a few of the types of sushi it will be helpful to know about before you head to Japan. There are countless others that branch off from this list. Knowing about the main “categories” will help you decipher what you’d like to try.
Nigiri – 握り寿司
Literally “hand-pressed sushi”, nigiri is the kind of sushi most people would recognize even if they’ve never tried it. It seems to have been invented by a fisherman in the 19th century, who would press cooked rice into an oval in his hand and top it with a slice of fresh fish to sell at the roadside. Nigiri is one of the most popular types of sushi there is, partly because of its convenient shape, and partly because of the wide varieties of flavors this style can accommodate. While usually topped with raw, fresh fish, nigiri can also be topped with cooked fish, eggs, chicken, or vegetables. It’s also often served with a dab of wasabi between the rice and the topping, so anyone with a wimpy palate should beware (I’m kidding…mostly).
Maki – 巻寿司
Maki is another sushi staple, with rolled rice, filling, and seaweed ingredients being a staple of perfectly framed Instagram posts the world over. Makizushi literally means “rolled sushi”, and it’s one of the most versatile types of sushi since the seaweed allows for all kinds of things to be placed in the middle of the rice. Not to be confused with ‘California rolls’, makizushi can have a wide variety of flavors – fish, meats, egg, vegetables, and much more. You’ll see perfect maki rolls in every single establishment that sells sushi in Japan, and especially in convenience stores – it makes for a quick and healthy lunch, and when done right can be a perfect balance of flavor.
Temaki – 手巻き
The ice cream of sushi, Temaki is notable for its conical shape (much like an ice cream cone). Usually made with rice, raw fish, and vegetables (there’s definitely a theme here people), temaki is a more modern dish that’s increased in popularity over the last couple of decades. It’s most likely derived from the popular Japanese lunchtime staple onigiri, which is essentially a rice ball held together with seaweed, and very popular as a meal “to-go” or in bento boxes. Neither of these types of sushi are particularly common in high-end sushi restaurants, but they’re definitely worth knowing about (primarily so you don’t try to like your cone of sushi by mistake).
Uramaki – 裏巻き
Uramaki is essentially maki rolls turned inside out. Created to accommodate western palates and trends, uramaki is now a common feature of many sushi plates. It’s a great choice for those who are not partial to the texture or taste of seaweed, as the seaweed is rolled inside and harder to distinguish.
Sashimi – 刺身
Ok, so this one technically isn’t sushi at all, since the definition of sushi specifically states that rice should be involved in one way or another. But, I’ve included it on this list because sashimi has become a staple of people’s sushi expectations in Japan, and because you can request rice to eat with it anyway. Sashimi is the simplest of all the dishes on our list; it consists of thinly sliced pieces of raw fish and nothing else. It’s sometimes served with a small side accompaniment, like ginger for cleansing the palate, or soy sauce for *light* dipping, but the focus of this type of sushi is the flavours of the fish. Any garnishes served alongside sashimi should be used to complement the flavours, and not as an alternative to the bowl of fish you just ordered.
Those five elements of sushi should give you a great starting point for your journey through one of Japan’s most loved cuisines. But now you’ve got a taste for what’s on offer, what should you know about proper etiquette when dining in Japan’s finest restaurants?
Manners Maketh Maki Rolls
If you’ve read any of our other posts, or have spent longer than five minutes in Japan, you’ll know that Japanese people take manners and etiquette very seriously, and the country’s fine dining scene is no exception. There’ll be expectations at every restaurant that you follow the Japanese style of dining, but since most of these rules of etiquette are ingrained into Japanese people from birth they tend to follow them instinctively, meaning you won’t always get a friendly reminder from your Japanese companions that you should be doing something differently. This is especially true in the high-end restaurants in Tokyo, so here are some of the most important things tourists should know before eating sushi in Japan.
Making A Reservation
Most of the more upmarket restaurants in Tokyo expect you to make a reservation, even if they’re not expecting to be fully booked. This rule can be a little flexible if you go around lunchtime, even at the most opulent of restaurants, but for evening diners a reservation is a must, especially if you’ve traveled across the globe and don’t want to be disappointed. Your best bet is to make a reservation through your hotel or your host but make note of the reservation time and DO NOT be late. Japan takes timing very seriously, and lateness is considered incredibly rude and disrespectful to the chef. Arriving a mere minute or two late could be enough to cause offense, so aim to be at the restaurant at least 5-10 minutes early, just to be on the safe side.
Don’t Take Photos
Timing is everything, and the best sushi chefs will have prepared your food to be the perfect temperature and consistency at the time it touches your plate. Don’t waste any time getting a selfie with your sashimi – eat the dish right away. I’m pretty sure everyone will believe that you’ve eaten sushi in Japan even if you don’t have photographic evidence. If you simply must have a memento of your visit, ask politely if the chef is ok with your snapping. Alternatively, most sushi restaurants are happy for you to take a picture in the doorway, or after your meal.
Go Easy On The Fragrances
Eating good sushi should engage all five of your senses – wearing too much perfume can interfere with the aroma of the dishes being prepared for you. Great sushi combines a multitude of smells and flavours in a very discreet and delicate way, so don’t wear any perfume if you want your experience to be untainted. Plus, the best sushi restaurants have people sat quite close together, so wearing perfume will affect those around you as well, an absolute no-no in this harmonious societal structure.
Don’t Dip Your Rice
The rice will have been prepared to perfection in the chef’s eyes. Dipping it in soy sauce will not only affect the delicate physical structure of the rice, but it will be an immediate message to the chef that you don’t trust their skills or their palate. Don’t be tempted – you could end up with a bowl of deconstructed soy-sauce-fish-rice and a very unhappy chef.
Some other honourable mentions:
– Don’t separate the topping from the rice (there are no hidden surprises, and it’s one of the greatest insults to a sushi chef)
– Don’t break it into two pieces, since the sushi is made to be a perfect mouthful
– You can use your hands or your chopsticks to pick up pieces of sushi, just make sure that your hands are cleaned with unscented soap if you choose to use them
– Trust the chef! At any one of the restaurants below, you’re paying to eat some of the best sushi in the world, so trust that the chef knows what they are doing. Ask what order the pieces should be eaten in, or dine omakase style (literally “I will leave it up to you”) which means the chef serves you each piece as it is made, in the order they think is best
What If These Prices Are Just Out Of Your Reach?
Above we listed five of the best high-end sushi restaurants in Tokyo, but unfortunately their evening prices mean that many travellers will only afford to look through the window and imagine eating there (although there are plenty of other fun things you could be doing in Tokyo so we don’t recommend this). Don’t lose hope, though! Many award-winning restaurants in Japan offer a cheaper lunch menu that accommodates a wider range of budgets. What’s more, most of the mid-range sushi will be better than anything you’ve tasted in the west, so you definitely won’t be missing out.
Have you been lucky enough to dine at any of the restaurants above? Tell us about your experience in the comments!