The Japanese have a reputation for being the most easily embarrassed nation on earth. I confirmed this to be true when I became the cause of embarrassment during dinner on my first night in Tokyo. Eager to make polite conversation, I asked how preparations were going for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, assuming that as a native of a recent host city, we’d find common ground.
Yet every Japanese face around the table either blushed or cringed. Surely, this proudly competent, efficient nation couldn’t be behind on its stadium-building? “Oh no! Everything will be on time,” I was told matter-of-factly. “But when Shinzo Abe came out of the pipe dressed as Mario – I mean, it’s 2017; is Nintendo and Pokemon still all Japan has to offer?”
I reassured my dining partners that every Brit I know loved seeing their Prime Minister getting into Gameboy gear for the closing ceremony in Rio – but that just seemed to make the blushing worse.
The conversation exposed a gulf between the country tourists talk about – the incomprehensibly oddball one with high tech loos – and the one loved by its citizens. It’s easy to caricature Tokyo as the land of kitsch, Hello Kitty and kawaii culture. And while it is all those things, the majority live in a smart, sophisticated city with a wealth of craftsmanship and tradition.
There’s no aspect of Japanese culture that’s more emblematic of this than its cuisine. When you tell people that Tokyo is the city with the most Michelin stars in the world – over 225 restaurants earned the accolade last year – they often splutter that they assumed it was Paris or New York. In fact, three of the top five most decorated Michelin cities in the world are in Japan (the others are Paris and New York, to be fair to the splutterers). To most foreigners, Japanese food consists of sushi or ramen, but the reality is far richer.
I started the search in my hotel, the Peninsula Tokyo, which encourages younger guests to run around the lobby picking up Pikachus and making windchimes, while their parents join head chef Teruyuki Kojima on a jaunt to Tsukiji Fish Market. You’ve heard of food porn; this is food horror. Beastly frozen tuna lie across wooden crates, slices carved out for locals to peer at and sample raw. Shimmering sea bream flap on top of each other nearby and octopuses ogle visitors from water tanks.
It’s a vast, no-frills warehouse and the largest, busiest fish market in the world. It’s seen an uptick in interest from tourists in recent years; they shuffle in, jet-lagged, at 3am to watch the frenzied tuna sale. But it got so congested that the auction is by invitation only now.
To add controversy to crowding, the market was meant to be relocated last November to make room for the Athlete’s Village, but those plans have been put on ice since toxic chemicals were found on the new site. So for now, converted milk floats with turbo engines continue to zoom around carrying sea monsters with scant regard for pedestrians. “Do any tourists get run over here?” I ask. “Not every day,” I’m told, nonchalantly.
This is why it’s best to throw out the guide books and go with an actual guide at the less ungodly hour of 7am (in a Rolls Royce, no less, put on by the Peninsula). You won’t see a tuna auction this way, but you’ll be introduced to the suppliers behind the best fish restaurants in the world and taken up to the rooftop, where you can spy Mount Fuji on a clear day.
After some rummaging around in the surrounding groceries for seasonal produce, it’s straight back into the kitchen to learn how to make nigiri – as fiddly and sticky as you’d expect – and tempura, which isn’t for people who are squeamish about peeling shrimp while they’re still alive.
Then it’s to the VIP balcony, overlooking the velodrome-like lobby, to eat a frighteningly fresh four course meal, while musicians tinkle through pop songs in the opposite corner. Trust me, there’s nothing quite like crunching through a pile of shrimp recently murdered by your own hand to a rendition of Bad Romance played on the xylophone.
For tempura in a more down-to-earth setting, Asakusa in the Taito district is the place to be. Once Tokyo’s largest pleasure district, known for its gangsters, geishas and artists, it’s the closest thing you’ll find to the East End in Tokyo. The people are equally no-nonsense too, often living in the area for generations running local confectioners, butchers and hundreds of fast food-style tempura counters.
Though this snack is meant to be humble, honest fare, the intimate rooms at Tendon Tenya belong to a more refined establishment. Get stuck into deep-fried fish and veg, served on low tables – no shoes allowed – with bowls of sticky rice and dips bursting with umami. I couldn’t tell what my waitress, a middle-aged lady who ran the restaurant with her family, was saying, yet I could tell she was busy and didn’t take shit from anyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re full, the tempura will keep coming until she decides it will stop and there’s really nothing you can do about it.
Read more: A tour of Mexico's art hotels
Don’t miss an opportunity to geek out over knives, chopsticks and ceramics either; Kappabashi Street, also known as Kitchen Town, is a short walk around the corner. Approaching from the south side, an enormous grinning chef’s head greets culinary nerds and local restaurateurs alike. By the time the latter will have traversed this street, stretching between Ueno and Asakusa, they’ll have completely kitted out their kitchen.
A surprising discovery was my Japanese sweet tooth, a vice I may not have come across had it not been Valentines’ weekend. Confectioners city-wide were making enormous chocolate sculptures of anything from shoes to rabbits. It’s traditional in Japan on V Day itself for women to give chocolate gifts to men, and men return the favour a month later with white chocolate on White Day, March 14.
Another unforgettable way to quicken the heart rate is to visit Ame-shin, a highlight of any foodie trip. It’s a workshop in Asakusa that teaches the ancient Japanese sugar craft of Amezaiku. A ball of caramel is heated to 90 degrees celsius until it’s softened, then the artisan has approximately three minutes to pinch and shape it into an animal or object before it hardens up again. It takes years to master and the finest examples – of anything from goldfish to dragons – are painted and prized in Japanese homes.
Though you could eat them, most choose to simply admire the artistry and skill. Lasting for around an hour, beginners are given the same task as any Amezaiku apprentice – sculpting a graceful rabbit, reaching into the heavens with an outstretched paw. My first attempt looked like a rabbit cursing the last moments of a bitter existence, but my final effort looked positively balletic by comparison.
The studied calm and dexterity of the real masters, however, is a stark contrast to the rest of Tokyo’s dining scene – in the UK we go for dinner and a show; in this city, dinner is the show. The theatre begins as soon as you step inside Ukai-tei in the smart district of Ginza.
Read more: Alpaca your bags and jet off to Peru
A red carpet leads up to an ornately decorated room, scattered with crystal ornaments and glassware to be admired on the way to the long teppanyaki tables (it’s one of a handful in a Michelin-starred chain of teppanyaki restaurants).
Often, the most luxurious experiences in Tokyo are the meaty ones. For a country that was once largely vegetarian, sushi, with its delicate slices of prime fish, is still seen as a meal for special occasions. It follows that meat is even more of an extravagance and that road ends with robatayaki, meaning “fireside cooking”.
Robataya is the pinnacle of the genre, and it’s in gourmet central Roppongi. There are about 30 covers around a festival of food laid out in the middle of a room so small that the chef is boxed in behind the grill and he’s only able to enter and leave via stairs leading to the basement directly below his station.
The waiter waits while you pick something out – shiitake mushrooms, say – and the order is immediately yelled around the room like you shouted it into a coastal cave. “Shittake” - “ShIIItakkEE” – “SHIITAKE”. Then the chef begins his frenzied dance of chopping and grilling, scoops it up and delivers it to you on a wooden plank, ending with one more “SHIITAKE” for good measure. It’s flamboyant, loud and the most fun you’ll ever have ordering mushrooms.
In fact, the sushi chains that line our high streets, touting their “clean” detox boxes of sterile rice, are about as far away from the fun and theatre of Japanese cuisine as it’s possible to get. It’s 2017 and there is more to Japan than Pokeman and Mario, and it’s all delicious.
Deluxe rooms from JPY 63,000 (£450) per room, per night. To book visit peninsula.com/tokyo
Return Economy flights with ANA direct from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda Airport are available from £803 (including tax).
Return Premium Economy Class flights with ANA direct from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda Airport are available from £1,581 (including tax).
Return Business Class flights with ANA direct from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda Airport are available from £3,447 (including tax).
Return First Class flights with ANA direct from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda Airport are available from £10,452.05 (including tax). To book visit ana.co.uk.