We arrive a little before the soba shop opens and wait in the rain. A waitress slides the door to one side and hangs up a noren, a traditional curtain used to indicate that a shop is open. She looks at us — two Americans — and says in Japanese that the restaurant is a member’s only shop and that we would not be able to dine there.
“But I’ve been here several times before,” I say, shocked.
She politely apologizes and explains that this is a new policy.
For full disclosure, this Tokyo restaurant, Narutomi, is one listed in my eating guide, “Food Sake Tokyo,” which made the refusal even more frustrating. In the end we did get in, but the experience left a bad taste in my mouth.
Owner Masaaki Narutomi, kindly phoned me later to explain that the reason we were refused was because some tourists “did not understand soba culture,” specifically that it is “fast food.”
I could hear the frustration in his voice as he explained that some customers were “taking too long to eat and sitting too long after eating” while “regular customers were left standing outside.”
The refusal all made sense after speaking with him: There are only a handful of seats at this popular shop and it has a steady flow of regular clientele, even though it is on a quiet side street on the fringe of Tokyo’s Ginza district. And adding a level of difficulty for non-Japanese speakers, the menu is in beautiful handwritten Japanese calligraphy. He simply wanted to make sure that his regular customers could still get in and out on their short lunch breaks.
How does one navigate the myriad customs of Japanese restaurants? Tourist numbers are higher than ever and with the 2020 Olympic Games looming and with an unprecedented number of foreign visitors to Japan, it will only become harder and harder to get a coveted seat at a small restaurant. In the past, I was often the only foreigner dining at sushi counters. Now, on some occasions at the popular Michelin-starred spots, more than half of the seats are filled with non-Japanese. At a press conference in 2014, sushi chef Jiro Ono — star of the documentary “Jiro Dreams Of Sushi” — commented that his regular customers said that they feel like they are dining in a foreign country when they visit his restaurant. That says a lot.
Social media has made it easier for shops to get noticed and, in some cases, has meant they have become too popular. What follows are some tips for making the most of your dining experience in Japan.
First of all, if a shop does not welcome you or it is impossible to get in, go elsewhere. It sounds obvious, but some restaurants, such as sushi restaurant Saito, are notoriously difficult to get a reservation at. Unless you have an introduction from a regular, it is impossible to gain entry for both Japanese and non-Japanese. The same goes if you walk into a restaurant without a reservation: If the staff are welcoming and usher you in, then enter. If not, move on.
If you are visiting from overseas and dining at highly sought-after restaurants is a priority, then book a room at a hotel with an exceptional concierge desk and take advantage of the service. Masumi Tajima, director of concierge services at the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, suggests contacting the concierge desk “more than a month in advance of your trip” and to “advise the staff of any allergies, dislikes and religious restrictions.” She also encourages guests to consult the concierge desk for recommendations on local spots. Some of the most unique and memorable dining experiences are to be had at small, hole-in-the-wall eateries a concierge can share.
If your budget does not allow for a high-end hotel, research ahead of time for restaurants that you can book online. Tokyo’s Narisawa, considered by many to be the top restaurant in Asia, will take reservations directly through their website. Many hotels with outstanding restaurants, such as the Park Hyatt Tokyo and the Mandarin Oriental, accept reservations through their websites. Open Table is another online reservation site worth checking out. Also, see if your credit card company offers concierge services.
Always plan ahead. Many restaurants open up their reservations for a whole month the first day of the previous month. If booking at a restaurant with a set menu, let the restaurant know of any food allergies or restrictions.
Researching restaurants in English is getting easier via online sites such as Tabelog and Gurunavi. Michelin Japan’s English guide is available for free online.
Once you have a reservation, be punctual. If you are going somewhere for the first time, allow some time to get lost. Many smaller sushi shops prefer to start the service for the counter once all the guests are seated for that reservation period. Dress appropriately and avoid wearing strong perfumes or cologne. Before pulling your camera out, ask if it is alright to take photos. If it is imperative that you document the meal, then inquire if it is OK to do so when making the reservation. Koji Sawada forbids cameras and cellphones at Sawada, his six-seat sushi restaurant.
Learn a few Japanese words, such as osusume to ask for recommendations oromakase when wanting to leave the decision in the chef’s hands — especially when you would like to dine at a sushi counter restaurant. Throw in an oishii(delicious) here and there to show your appreciation for the food.
Few of the high-end places are open for lunch, but if they are, they are usually easier to get seats at. Lunch is usually better value compared with dinner prices. Some options in this category include Ginza Kyubey for sushi, Ukai-tei for teppanyaki, or Ginza Maru and Nihonbashi Yukari for a traditional multi-course kaiseki dinner.
Do not be too ambitious and schedule too many big meals. Cancellation fees at high-end restaurants could run the full cost of the meal when a reservation is cancelled only 24- to 48-hours beforehand.
I still have fond memories of eating soba at Narutomi, but there are so many other great restaurants in Tokyo. Often a memorable meal in Japan is the one you don’t plan for, perhaps at a small mom-and-pop shop you stumble upon while walking down a quiet backstreet.
No, not all restaurants will accept non-Japanese, but there are plenty that will. If you’re denied entry somewhere, look at it as a chance to explore the city to find a substitute. Who knows, what you discover may be better.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yukari Sakamoto is a tourist and photographer.