New York has 30,000 restaurants, Tokyo has 160,000. 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, some of the Michelin or top Tabelog restaurants do not take reservations (Tsuta, Nakiryu, Obana, Hirokawa unagi in Kyoto, Manger tonkatsu in Osaka). 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 JPY 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, Ichita and Tagetsu are on Pocket Concierge; Kohaku, Ogata, Ishikawa and many others are on Tableall. I like when fees are transparent, and the information about the restaurants is more interesting on Tableall, but there are some interesting restaurants on PC. There is also Voyagin, but sometimes they advertise restaurants that they know they cannot book (for example Saito) and then they will book another restaurant instead, which is a practice I do not appreciate. Voyagin's reservation fee is often also more than 7,000 JPY per person, which is too high. You can get a hotel room with a concierge at Gracery Tamachi Hotel for 7,500 JPY on certain days for two people. Overall, Tableall is wonderful and if you are able to get your bookings through them, that is the best and easiest way.
Second, you can book a hotel that has concierge services, and that hotel will book your restaurant reservations for you. This is what I have done for almost all of my reservations and if you are in Japan as a tourist for a short period, I believe that this is the most flexible option.
Third, I have to admit that Visa Infinite Concierge has been able to book approximately 10 restaurants on my behalf, including Furuta. 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.
Four 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.
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, Jimbocho 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.
The former 3 Michelin star tempura restaurant 7 Chome Kyoboshi does not take reservations for one person more than one day in advance. Many restaurants do not have counters or do not accept reservations only for one person. Side note: the bill at some restaurants could be a bad surprise. For example, a meal at Kimoto costs 60,000 JPY. You should ask your concierge the price of the meal in advance if you are not sure what the price will be. (Even if the food is truly extraordinary, if you did not expect such a bill, it may ruin the whole experience)
Please be skeptical of both Tabelog and Michelin rankings. The Michelin stars in particular really do not make sense, but Tabelog is also not reliable. Some restaurants on Tabelog have very few reviews and are thus subject to be very easily influenced. The Tablelog awards do not make sense: Jiro is given a Bronze award and Sushi Arai is given a Gold one despite Jiro having a much higher rating. Many 3 star restaurants do not have outstanding reviews on Tabelog rankings, such as Yoshitake or Kanda. The best or most loved restaurants in Tokyo most often do not have any stars: Matsukawa, Kyoaji, Furuta, the list goes on and on. Chasing the stars would be misguided. Make up your own mind and decide for yourself.
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 (Mizai takes reservations one year in advance on the first of the month). Getting a reservation at Mizai, even one year in advance, has been impossible for me so far. 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 more than 3 months in advance. Plan early in Kyoto.
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)
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 (Sawada, Nakashima, Eigetsu, Hatsunezushi, Ginya, Imamura, Takazawa, and many 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.
You may become popular because 10 food bloggers write fantastic reviews about you and because the Olympics are coming to town. But 5 years later, perhaps bloggers will turn against you, or perhaps there will be a global recession and tourists will stop going to Tokyo. I believe this is why these chefs build their business around people who (1) completely understand and appreciate what they offer and (2) keep coming back irrespective of fads and the economy. Many restaurants on Tabelog have 30 reviews (for example Kurogi and Iyuki). These things can easily turn against you. Tomoe in Kyoto only has 3 reviews on Tabelog despite being in the Michelin guide since 2010.
Nevertheless, this will frustrate you. The real question is: why do you need to go there? First of all, why follow the taste of the masses. For example, it seems like Saito is praised for incredible consistency and overall perfect execution and balance. Does this mean that it is the most memorable or the best experience? If something pleases everyone, isn’t that suspicious? Second, even if a particular restaurant actually is the best, you may not have the experience necessary to appreciate it. Why not wait two, three or four years to get more experience? Third, trying to “collect” famous restaurants will only lead you to be unhappy. There will always be more exclusive, more expensive, newer, better restaurants, a better menu, a better season to go to Matsukawa. Happiness comes from within.
Should you nevertheless wish to eat there, what choice do you have but to ask hundreds of random people and use everyone in your network until you find someone who will introduce you to someone who will introduce you? No shortcuts in the food, no shortcuts in getting there. There is no other way. 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 these introduction-only restaurants would be years in the making. If it is your first time in Tokyo, do not waste your time, you will only get frustrated by trying the impossible. Instead, go to the following: Tagetsu or Ishikawa for kaiseki, Jiro or Sushi Sho family for sushi. Otherwise, you will waste your efforts and alienate your concierge and those trying to help you, and you will only be disappointed.
Sadly, I note that even if you have been to a introduction-only restaurant such as Matsukawa, you actually may not be able to go again unless you book your next visit while you are at the restaurant.
It is never possible to get exactly what you want. Things will happen and plans will fall apart. Maybe you will feel that it is unfair, but it will be fine no matter what. Sometimes, things are not meant to be.
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 postcards sent within Japan), Tai-an tea house, the Katsura Imperial villa in Kyoto, lodging whilst climbing Mount Fuji, and a temple stay at Daishin-in, among others. I did not know about these the first time I went to Kyoto, but the more research I did, the more I discovered about these incredible gardens and temples. Ask your concierge to send the postcards for you.
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
Den, Kichisen, Kurogi, Dozono, Manger, Tagetsu, Goryukubo, Saiho-ji, Ogata, Ren, Kohaku, Ajiro, Saito, Tai-an, Kasumicho Suetomi, Suetomo, Sasada, Ichita.