If you happen to be in Tokyo last minute or without dining reservations, you can find a great, if not incredible meal, simply by getting lost. In fact, many great restaurants do not take reservations (Tsuta or Nakiryu ramen, Obana or Hirokawa unagi, Manger tonkatsu in Osaka, Narikura tontaktsu in Tokyo, and many others). That being said, dining at the most sought after restaurants requires advance planning, patience, resilience and luck. I have identified three categories of restaurant reservations.
1 - Most Michelin-star restaurants
As a foreigner who does not speak Japanese, it is extremely difficult to book high end restaurants by yourself. There are three options.
First, you may rely on a booking service like Pocket Concierge (reservation fee is hidden in the price) and Tableall (4,000円 reservation fee). These are great resources, especially for last minute reservations and for some high quality restaurants that you can book while staying at a very low cost hotel. It is also very convenient, and although their selection of restaurant is growing, sadly most restaurants are not available through those services. For example, Sushi Sho Masa and Tagetsu are on Pocket Concierge; Kohaku and Ishikawa, and many others are on Tableall. Overall, Tableall is the best website. Voyagin's reservation fee is often also more than 7,000円 per person, which is too high. You can get a hotel room with a concierge at Gracery Tamachi Hotel for 7,500円 on certain days for two people.
Second, you can book a hotel that has concierge services, and that hotel will book your restaurant reservations for you. This is the most flexible option if you are in Japan as a tourist for a short period.
Third, Visa Infinite Concierge has been able to book many restaurants on my behalf, including great ones. However, what they can do is more limited than hotel concierges, because some restaurants (for example Jiro or Sawada) only want to deal with hotels. I do not have an American Express card, but my understanding is that the Visa Infinite concierge is faster and more responsive. My Visa Infinite card only costs $120 per year.
Four basic things to know about hotel concierges. First, they will not book a meal for a day other than on the days you stay there. Of course, if you cancel your hotel reservation, they will cancel your restaurant reservation. Second, concierges will often require your credit card information to make the hotel reservation and will charge you a cancellation fee should you cancel last minute. Third, do your research when picking your hotel. Of course, you can go for the ultra high-end hotels. However, if you are like me and you want to keep more money for the restaurants and less for the hotels, you can find one of the rare 3 or 4-star hotels with top concierge services equivalent to 5 star hotels. Finally, getting the most expensive hotel will not help you. I could not find any evidence that restaurants prefer a more expensive hotel. The only exception that I know of is Sawada, for which I was told reservations are only accepted from luxury hotels.
In my opinion, you do not need to go to the most expensive hotels. One of the most important thing is to find a concierge who will be dedicated to helping you, because making reservations for several restaurants will require time and resilience. It is not easy to know in advance, thus if you find one that you like, thank them properly and go back to their hotel next time. I would search for “concierge” and “restaurant reservation” on reviews websites to see which hotel actually have concierge services that are useful. If someone writes that their 3-star hotel got them a reservation at Jiro, this is a great start.
For most restaurants, reserving in this manner either 1 month or 2 months in advance will be enough. This is the case for getting a reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten, who takes reservations on the first day of the month prior. I got a reservation at Jiro for lunch on my first try with a 4-star hotel. I got my second reservation with a 3-star hotel. However, lucks plays a large role and some of my friends were not successful despite staying several nights at expensive hotels. Be patient and resilient.
My best advice is to find out very early what is the reservation policy for the restaurants you are interested in. For example: Yukimura, Sushi Sho, Jiro, Miyasaka, Sato Burian take reservations on the first day of the previous month. Kohaku, Torishiki, Uchitsu take reservations on the first day two months in advance. Hashiguchi accepts the reservation exactly one month before the reservation day and only for two people or more, Den and Makimura accepts them exactly two months ahead.
Find this information in advance through your credit card concierge. As for hotel concierges, ask them specifically to tell you when reservations are accepted first, instead of telling them to book a restaurant without knowing what the policy is. Some concierges are more helpful than others and will be more or less willing to help, which has nothing to do with the price of their hotel. Another example is that some concierges will prepare sheets with pictures of the entrance and a map for each reservation, others will not. This can be important as some restaurants are difficult to find, even for Japanese taxi drivers.
Side note: the bill at some restaurants could be a bad surprise. For example, a meal at Kimoto costs 60,000円 and at Kurogi 53,000円 for lunch, both restaurants serving you expensive foreign alcohol whether you ask for it or not. You should ask your concierge the price of the meal in advance if you are not sure what the price will be. If you did not expect such a bill, it may ruin the meal.
Side note: Please be skeptical of Michelin stars. In my opinion, the guide does not make sense at all in Japan. Usually, the three-star restaurants are predictable and not the best restaurants. You should know that the Michelin guide does not have a lot of resources and they do not visit every restaurant every year. Sadly, I think the guide does not have a deep understanding of the traditional Japanese taste and aesthetics. I hope you will make up your own opinion. Although Tabelog is overall a great resource, sometimes it can be easily influenced by group-think or if the restaurant only has a few reviews. Make up your own mind.
You can learn about the phone reservation system through this interview with the sushi restaurant Sugita:
"As for the counter seats, basically at the beginning of a month, next month’s reservations are acceptable. However, since customers who have visited once might reserve for the next time when they come to the restaurant, thus some seats might be already filled at this stage. At the beginning of each month, telephone reservation service is available from 9 o’clock to 15 o’clock, but usually all the seats would be filled in the first hour."
2 - Restaurants that are booked way in advance
Some restaurants will be fully booked out 6+ months in advance (Kabuto, Amamoto, Mitani, Hatsunesushi, among others) or even 1 year in Kyoto (Ogata). Furthermore, some restaurants (Kabuto, Momonoki, Tokuwo) do not have any English-speaking staff and will only take reservations from guests who speak Japanese themselves. Kyoto in particular seems to take reservations months in advance. Plan early in Kyoto, up to one year in advance sometimes.
3 - Introduction only restaurants
Some restaurants like Mibu, Matsukawa, Kyoaji, Kawamura, Shinohara, Hoshino, Tomura, Iyuki, Morikawa, Kawaguchi, Ajiman, and many others, are “introduction-only” (ichigen-san okotowari), meaning that you will have to be invited by a current regular guest that has been going for years. (It is interesting to note that many of these chefs have trained at Kyoaji.) Other restaurants like Saito, Sugita and Mizai say that they accept reservations by phone, but in reality they are introduction-only because every seat is booked in advance by regulars at the restaurant.
Unless you live in Tokyo, do not waste your time, you will only be disappointed. Do not ask your hotel to make a reservation, they cannot and you will only alienate them.
If you would like to try Saito, and/or if you are staying in Japan permanently, you may consider the subscription service Arry. However, they only have approx. 4 seats per month for Saito, so you can imagine that the tickets are sold out instantly. Arry also has a private club called Mado, where they go to some introduction-only restaurants. Their schedule is private and I am not part of it. To get in this club you would need to be part of Arry for more than one year, go to more approx. than 12-15 restaurants with them and their events, as well as invite other members to join.
Yes, introduction-only restaurants are a big problem. No, there is no way around it. The most expensive hotels cannot do anything for you. I had a western outlook at first. Why are they introduction only? Isn’t that unfair? How is that good for business if they are passing out on people willing to pay a lot more to eat there? Put yourself in the shoes of a chef. You apprenticed for at least 10 years to learn sushi or kaiseki. This is the only skill you have. You decide to open a restaurant, perhaps with your wife (Ogata, Sawada, Nakashima, Eigetsu, Hatsunezushi, Ginya, Imamura, Takazawa, and countless others). This restaurant is literally the only source of income you have and could have for all of your life. Your life depends on this restaurant. This is how serious things are for a chef.
Just when you think you have found out about the best restaurants, you will realize that there are even hidden restaurants, with unlisted phone numbers and no online reviews.
Going to introduction-only restaurants would be years in the making. Again, unless you live in Tokyo, do not waste your time. You will only get frustrated by trying the impossible. Focus on the restaurants that you can actually go to. It is natural to want to try the "best", but there is no such thing as the "best", it is a question of taste. Unless you can compare a restaurant to other top-level restaurants, you could not see what makes it special because the differences are very subtle. By going too early, you would deprive yourself of the experience you seek. The journey itself is the destination.
Other things to reserve in advance
There are some things other than restaurants that can be difficult to book. I note in particular the Moss Temple in Kyoto (must be reserved by return postcards sent within Japan, called 往復 or ofuku hagaki), Tai-an tea house, the Imperial villas in Kyoto (reserve online), and a temple stay at Daishin-in, among others. Ask your concierge or this website to send the postcards for you.
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
Kyoaji, Sushi Kimura, Daishin-in, Shodo, home cooking restaurant.
Making Restaurant Reservations in Tokyo
Cafe de l'Ambre
Sushi Sho Masa
Bear Pond Espresso
Park Hotel Tokyo
New Year in Kyoto
Kwon Sook Soo
Yau Yuen Siu Tsui