5 no-signboard restaurants in Japan you need to visit

by Yuko Ogane on 24 March 2018

In your next visit to Japan, take the gastronomic road less travelled and dine like a bona fide Japanese. With some of its best-kept food secrets obscured by the most unassuming, nondescript shopfronts, Japan offers plenty of delectable delights to discover in its numerous nooks and crannies. Getting to these hidden gems might be just a little frustrating – they include back-lane eateries and restaurants with barely-discernible Japanese signboards – but the most dogged and adventurous diners will receive the best reward of all: an authentic, top-notch Japanese dining experience to remember.

1. Tsukemen Gonokami Seisakujo (Tokyo)

Tucked away in a quiet back lane across from Takashimaya in Shinjuku, it’s all too easy to miss this tiny 15-seater restaurant, where all guests are served at a single counter. The only clue that you’re on the right track is a daily queue of locals glued to their smartphones near a small wooden signboard with the image of a shrimp on it.

Miss it, and you’ll miss out: behind its bland exterior, this tiny noodle shop serves up bowlfuls of vibrant flavours. The eatery is best known for its signature tsukemen, a kind of thick Japanese noodles which became popular in the 60s. The tsukemen here is the perfect blend of springiness and chewiness, and is served with a velvety, bisque-like shrimp broth which comes in three variations – basic shrimp, shrimp miso or shrimp tomato. The shrimp tomato option is served with a perfectly complementary dab of fresh pesto and a slice of toast, which is perfect for a tasty mop-up. With typical Japanese efficiency, orders are taken via an automated kiosk in Japanese – so it’s worth knowing what you want ahead of your visit.

Address: 151-0051 Tokyo, Shibuya, Sendagaya, 5 Chome−33−16, シャトレー新宿御苑第, Japan

2. Mizunara CASK (Tokyo)

Cloistered in an upper level of a nondescript building in Roppongi, this whisky bar is practically invisible to those who aren’t in the know. Among discerning local diners, though, Mizunara CASK is a favourite not just for those looking for a late-night tipple. Regulars understand that a trip here is never complete without sampling some of the bar’s gastronomic offerings, such as its signature beef curry rice served with flavourful onions that have been caramelised for eight days for extra sweetness. The rice is served with these caramelised onions on the right, and beef curry perfectly seasoned with Japanese black pepper on the left. Diners are instructed to begin with the right, then the left, before finally blending both for a spectacular finale to the meal. Other visitor favourites include the bar’s “secret” herbal soup – a blend of 13 medicinal herbs which packs a huge flavour punch. Ask for the bar’s suggested whisky pairings for a satisfying meal, served on a handcrafted bar counter carved from the trunk of a 500-year-old tree.

Address: 106-0032 6F, 6 Chome-1-8 Roppongi, Minato, Tokyo 106-0032, Japan

3. Okonomiyaki Chitose (Osaka)

Okonomiyaki is often referred to as the soul food of Japan, and Okonomiyaki Chitose in Osaka is often regarded as the purveyor of soul. This tiny, unpretentious eatery serves these sizzling circles chock-full of goodies such as pork belly, octopus, shrimp and even cheese, right off a hot griddle. Located in a back alley in a residential district, Okonomiyaki Chitose can be quite a challenge to hunt down – the key, regulars say, is to bring a keen nose to sniff out the unmistakable aroma of Okonomiyaki around the corner from a row of bars and karaoke joints.

A favourite among diners is the eatery’s signature Takasuga Yaki, a fry-up of mochi, fried noodles, pork and shrimp. Expect bold flavours juxtaposed against the curious texture of melted mochi – slightly sticky within, but crisp on the outside. Be prepared for a wait, however: lunchtime crowds can be significant, and indoor seating is limited to just two tables and a counter.

Address: 1 Chome-11-10 Taishi, Nishinari Ward, Osaka, Osaka Prefecture 557-0002, Japan

4. Gion Kinana Honten (Kyoto)

It’s worth getting acquainted with some basic Japanese hiragana characters ahead of visiting Kinana, or you just might miss this ice creamery’s near-indiscernible entrance. Tucked away in a quiet back alley in Kyoto’s Gion district, visitors in search of the perfect sweet treat are in for quite the hunt – but the silver lining is working up an appetite for what lies behind Kinana’s plain-vanilla shopfront.

Kinana serves up all-natural ice cream made from kinako, or soy bean powder. The result is refreshingly light, delicate ice cream which is low in calories. Visitors can choose from six flavours: plain, black sesame, red bean, matcha, brown sugar and yomogi. Be sure to try the dekitate, or freshly-made, never-frozen ice cream special which changes daily. All orders are served with a thoughtful pot of strong tea – the perfect foil to Kinana’s frozen delights.

Address: 570-119 Gion-machi Minamigawa, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, Japan

5. Endo Sushi (Osaka)

No trip to Japan is complete without an excellent sushi meal, and Endo Sushi in Osaka delivers just that at wallet-friendly prices. This tiny eatery in Osaka’s Central Fish Market is over 100 years old, and serves up an array of expertly prepared sushi by the restaurant’s fourth generation of owners. The quest for great sushi begins with a long, winding walk from the JR Noda station – a journey best undertaken with GPS in hand. The final leg of the route is through a dark, covered walkway which leads right to the welcome sight of Endo Sushi’s turquoise roof.

Here, diners may choose from a fixed sushi set or dine omakase-style, where the chef decides what to serve based on the day’s catch. Most diners opt for the omakase option, which includes five pieces of amazingly fresh sushi, one of which will be toro (bluefin tuna). Diners who don’t eat raw fish need not fret – Endo Sushi serves up excellent anago, or saltwater eel sushi which is a must-try.

Address: 1-1-86 Noda Fukushima-ku Osaka City, Japan