Japan first timer -- need advice

Hello, experts! My wife and I are headed to Japan for the first time in May. Itinerary is Tokyo, Nagano (quick lunch near train station), Kanazawa, Tatayama, Kyoto/Kobe/Osaka. We already secured a rez for Den, but are looking for other greatest hits/must-visit spots from sitdown meals to quick snacks.

Have room in the budget for two more $$$ meals (capped at around $150/pp – ideally one of those would be sushi-focused). Otherwise, open to anything of note – whenever you travel to Japan, which spots are always on your list/where you ate the best ramen/katsu/unagi you’ve ever had. Please let me know if I need to make an early reservation/anticipate waiting in line/should prioritize lunch to save money.

Appreciate all your help!

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Appreciate it!

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About how much time will you have in each city?

Tokyo: 7 nights
Den (reserved)
Yakiniku Jambo (penciled in)
Tonkatsu – Narikura? Butagumi?
Ramen – preferably a style/s not found Stateside or mind-blowing familiar bowls
Sushi – seems like Tachiguizushi Akira Tsujiki is my speed (no frills, inexpensive, high quality). Other candidates via a Japan Times roundup:
Sushi Yuu Tsubasa
Sushi Umiji
Touryumon Sushi Ginza Onodera
Tachigui Sushi Tonari
Soba – old school specialist?
Izakaya – modern spot doing interesting things?
Unagi – not too pricey
Pizza – Savoy?
Any exceptional Michelin spots with a “bargain” lunch?
Other must-east wild card spots that won’t break the bank?

Kanazawa: 1 night
Fuwari (penciled in)
Takayama: 1 night
Ryotei Susaki (penciled in)
Kyoto: 3 nights
Hitomi (penciled in)
Menya Inoichi Hanare (penciled in)
Shigetsu (lunch penciled in)
Steak Otsuka (reserved)
Nishiki Market
Osaka: 1 night
Street food lunch
Moderately priced dinner – specializing in something local

Both are good - Narikura in Minami-asagaya is the best, imo, with a lighter fry. However, Butagumi is easier to get into and a bit more central with 2 locations. There’s one in Aoyama, which itself is very walkable (Aoyama/Omotesando/Harajuku is a nice walkable afternoon), and one in Roppongi Hills complex. Roppongi isn’t my favorite area, but it is close to other attractions particularly if you like art. Also, there are various other food options in the Roppongi Hills complex if you can’t walk in to Butagumi. If you want the better tonkatsu, then Narikura, but if you want a very good tonkatsu and make more of your day with immediate things nearby, then Butagumi. It depends how packed your schedule is that day and how much you want to experience Narikura by traveling 20-40 mins from the main tourism parts of Tokyo. Other options - Ponta Honke in Ueno (if you want to also try other yoshoku dishes like demi-glace beef tongue stew) or Hajime Hanare in Nihonbashi (for big portion katsudon…admittedly the others have better pork).

I’m not a huge ramen guy so I don’t really seek out specific spots, but to make it very easy, you can eat around Tokyo Station’s “Ramen Yokocho” and “Ramen Street” for super convenience and diversity. Rokurinsha’s tsukemen is highly regarded. Dipping style is indeed found Stateside but not at this level. There’s also a few good bowls around Ginza. Since ramen is a 20 minute meal, I prefer not to travel too far and rather make it a pit stop for lunch around an area I want to explore.

For different bowls, I did like the duck ramen at Kamo to Negi, admittedly in Ueno which is an area I don’t really care for. There is a line so you must get there early but at opening you may wait 10-30 mins. It is unique as I believe nobody stateside is focusing on duck ramen. I included it in an earlier trip report of mine. There is fusion ramen at Bassanova in Setagaya, but there’s not a whole lot for tourists there unless you want to experience some vintage shopping in Shimokitazawa area about 15 minute walk away (or 5 min Uber).

Sure standing sushi is a thing with good value.

Consider also Sushi Komari for a good value sit down sushi meal at lunch.

For a modern spot, check out Ebisu Sowado. Doing interesting things with food? Hmm like modern izakaya food I’d have to think about that. Eureka! sake bar if you want to priotize drinking and pairing with some less traditional dishes. Izakaya is sake focused in general at the start, but I’m not sure if drinking is a priority for you. Shizen, with its live fire and fermentation focus, is not an izakaya…but with its short course, it could be like a forward-thinking izakaya. The short course is 11,000 jpy which is about $75 or so.

Lots of options. Savoy yes, PST (Pizza Studio Tamaki) Roppongi Hills, yes. I still haven’t been to Seirinkan. There’s also Marumo in Ebisu, Da Isa in Nakameguro, Napule in Omotesando, and for an upscale experience, Pizza Bar on 38th at Mandarin Oriental.

The nice thing about Savoy is that there’s 2 nearby each other in Azabujuban. And if Savoy Tomato & Cheese is too busy or you change your mind, there’s an excellent burger steps away at Aldebaran. PST is very easy with foreign travelers, however, and has a bigger menu with more appetizers and creative pizzas as well (I had a chicken tikka masala pizza there last time).

I don’t really know what really makes a “Michelin spot” other than having a Michelin distinction. However, I kind of get the feeling that your request implies a value tasting menu. Ode immediately comes to mind. The lunch menu at Ode is around $65. Michelin doesn’t really mean shit in Japan (apart then for business) and is not taken all that seriously by diners. Perhaps you can focus on a specific type of cuisine and you will get better ansewrs, because there’s a whole range of “Michelin” and it doesn’t mean much when it comes to restaurants in Japan.

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Just chiming in on PST that you might want to get there early or reserve. I went for lunch in November and lucked out with a solo seat. Pretty much everyone else after me had a massive wait. If you’re going in without planning then just keep a backup in mind in case things don’t work out.

Meanwhile, in May I went to Savoy on a whim later during the lunch period and, while it was full, there wasn’t much wait. Savoy also had a lunch combo which was an awesome deal while PST was relatively pricey. Both are great pizza so you probably can’t go wrong and pomodoro has highlighted an awesome selection of alternatives.

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This is fantastic! Rec’s were precisely what I was looking for – and yes, Michelin was shorthand for high-end tasting menu.

Great to know! Will likely stick with Savoy since I’ve read so much about it over the years.

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Tokyo:

I still love Maisen. Many locations throughout Tokyo. The location in Chiyoda (at the Gransta metro complex) was my last visit there, and it remains superb. If they have the Tokyo-X hybrid pork, definitely try that (unaccessible outside Japan)…

Not ramen, but still divine-level noodles… Tsukemen Gonokami Seisakusho - Just outside Takashimaya at Shinjuku Station. Shrimp head broth. Yes, shrimp head broth. There’s nothing like it in L.A., if not the U.S…

Ramen Jiro has been emulated a lot by others, but do try the OG in its home temple at Ramen Jiro Mita Honten. Prepare to wait in queue with many Keio University students…

Futabazushi (Ginza) has a really neat storefront and really traditional (but not too expensive) sushi: Definitely fun for a first-time visitor to Tokyo. Sushi Kanesaka and Ebisu Endo are both middle-high-end places in their own rights as well. Hopefully your hotel concierge can also point you in the right direction…

Unagi: Actually Unagi Yondaime Kikukawa (at Haneda Airport Garden!) will definitely check off that old school unagi-don box. But for anago, there is Tamai

Pizza: I like Trattoria Da Isa in Nakameguro, and PST, too. Underrated in my opinion, The Pizza Bar on 38th (at the Mandarin Oriental) is a less spontaneous pie endeavor (reservations highly recommended), but the pizza is fabulous… And the bonus advantage of eating here is that you can walk downstairs afterwards and bang bang with a musk melon dessert parfait at my favorite fruit parlour in Japan - Sembikiya!

@beefnoguy pointed me to Kiyoi (Shibuya), which excels at cuisine best characterized as high-execution homestyle (usually an oxymoron, except of course when it’s Japan lol)…

Teppanyaki - Keyakizaka in the Grand Hyatt Tokyo…

Kyoto:
Takehisa was a young restaurant when I first wrote about it, but these days it seems stronger than ever.

Osaka:
Visit Kuromon Ichiban Market
Binbiya Esakaten (izakaya)

Enjoy, enjoy!!!

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Very much appreciated! We have an evening departure flight so Unagi Yondaime Kikukawa is perfect for dinner. Looking forward to that musk melon parfait.

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Unagi - old school place in Nishiazabu. Concierge at hotel sent us here and it was great

https://g.co/kgs/RgQFWb6

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Ichinoya
https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g14129744-d1669733-Reviews-Nishiazabu_Ichinoya-Nishiazabu_Minato_Tokyo_Tokyo_Prefecture_Kanto.html

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Try at least one place that specializes in each of the following:

Kaiseki
Sushi
Tempura
Soba
Yakitori
Unagi
Teppanyaki
Ramen
Udon
Oden

And try an izakaya.

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