A glimpse into Tokyo’s high-end sushi scene

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A glimpse into Tokyo’s high-end sushi scene

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Sushi Arai
Sushi Arai

Tokyo is a sushi lover’s paradise. But while the city is home to the best sushi restaurants (sushiyas) in the world, it’s notoriously difficult to get a seat at the very top venues.

If you know your sushi, you’ll know that a seat at the counter of Sushi Arai, Sushi Saito or Sugita is regarded as the pinnacle of Tokyo dining. You’ll also be aware that it’s near-impossible to secure a reservation at these exclusive eateries, with even the most persistent of gastronomes finding the odds stacked against them when it comes to getting in.

Japan is the world’s fastest growing travel destination – more than 28 million overseas travellers visited the country in 2017, up 250% from just five years prior in 2012. Visitors to Tokyo could once reliably score tables at the most exclusive sushiyas by staying at the very best five-star hotels and relying on the concierge; today, the main counters at these feted establishments have absolutely no openings for new customers, especially foreigners.   

Limited seating is a key reason – these restaurants offer only 6-10 seats at the coveted main counter in front of the head chef. The most exclusive venues will often be booked out up to two years in advance – regulars generally book their next visit with the chef while they’re dining. 

Sushi Arai - Sushi

In Japan, sushi restaurants are driven by the interaction between the chef and his customers. For this reason, regular customers receive preferential treatment and bookings from foreigners who don’t speak Japanese (“gaijin”) are generally not welcome. If the chef cannot speak English (and many don’t), he cannot communicate and explain each piece of fish, nor create the intimate atmosphere that most top sushi chefs feel is an essential part of the overall experience.

Chefs at these top venues enjoy getting to know their regular customers and will often prepare something especially for their guests based on their knowledge of their specific likes and dislikes. Ensuring their seats are available solely for regulars is also a way of repaying the loyalty their customers have shown them over the years, as is Japanese culture. 

Unless you’re invited by a regular, even Japanese-speaking foreigners find it close to impossible to secure a reservation. “Ichi gen san okotawari” (which roughly translates to “new customer, no admittance”) is used to describe the unspoken policy of Tokyo’s top sushiyas. 

To land a highly desirable seat at one of Tokyo’s best sushiyas, you’ll usually need to not only be with a Japanese speaker, but with someone who’s known and well regarded by the chef. Plan Japan Director, Rachel Lang – a self-confessed “sushi freak” who visited 28 sushiyas during her last Tokyo visit – has the mobile phone numbers of most of Tokyo’s top sushi chefs.

Some online services claim to be able to arrange a reservation at venues like Sushi Arai and Sushi Saito, however you’ll find that they deliver a second-tier experience where you’re seated away from the main counter in a separate private room and served inferior food to the best seats.

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If getting into the best of the best sushiyas in Tokyo is on your list of ‘must dos’ in Tokyo, Rachel’s phenomenal network allows her to reliably secure reservations at even the most ‘unbookable’ venues:

Sushi Saito

One of Japan’s most admired sushi restaurants, Sushi Saito boasts three Michelin stars. Chef Takashi Saito goes to extraordinary lengths to source the best ingredients to create sushi described by esteemed chef Joel Robuchon as “the best in the world”. The restaurant seats just eight people.

Sushi Arai

Sushi Arai is one of the hottest sushiyas in Tokyo and has two small counters, one manned by chef Arai-san’s sous-chef Watanabe-san. (This second counter is available to foreign customers and non-regulars, and is where you’ll end up if you pay an online service like Pocket Concierge for a reservation. Guests at this counter are often served a different ‘foreigner friendly’ menu.)

Sugita

This venue is renowned for its difficulty to secure a reservation at, but also the charisma and hospitality of chef Takaaaki Sugita. Sugita-san doesn’t speak any English but is a personable and attentive chef who believes that outstanding service is an important part of the dining experience.

Higashi-Azabu Amamoto 

Owned by chef Masamichi Amamoto, this eight-seat venue was awarded two Michelin stars within six months of opening. Amamoto-san is regarded as one of the best sushi craftsmen in Tokyo who is able to source the best ingredients in Japan. He serves a range of tsumami (starters) and nigiri which he makes before your eyes at the counter. 

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Sushi Umi

Despite taking over Umi when he was just 28 years old, up and coming Chef Ryujiro Nakamura has maintained two Michelin stars at Umi. This venue has become difficult for even regulars to book in recent years, especially since David Beckham pulled out all stops to take his son to dine there in May. 

Plan Japan allows you to experience an authentic meal at one of Tokyo’s enigmatic and exclusive top sushiyas. Each of these restaurants is quite unique – some are almost temple-like while others have a lively atmosphere with plenty of interaction with the chef. Our vast experience allows us to handpick a venue that’s right for your occasion and will deliver an unforgettable experience for you and your clients. 

Plan Japan specialises in creating bespoke travel itineraries for corporate clients seeking an authentic Japanese travel experience away from the tourist trail. Find out more about how we’re able to organise such special experiences for our clients.