Most mornings in Tokyo, toast with jam and coffee is going to be your most straightforward breakfast option. But plenty of days, you’ll set your rice cooker up the night before and wake up to warm rice that you can eat with pickles, natto, leftover fish, and a bowl of miso soup that you probably make from instant dashi, because it’s breakfast.
Or you’ll make onigiri with a piece of fish or a pickled plum inside. But if you want to venture outside, you can find a number of both Western and Japanese ways to start the morning.
Asa is “morning” and seikatsu is “lifestyle”—so asakatsu is “morning lifestyle.” It’s this idea of doing activities in the morning—whether it’s riding your bike or going to a trendy café—that became popular in the late 2000s. As a result, there’s been a pancake boom among young women. Pancakes have been in Japan forever, but used to be called “hotcakes.” Someone changed the nomenclature and now they’re wildly popular. Eggs ’n Things is a Hawaiian chain that serves pancakes and crepes. In Japan, people don’t really go to Eggs ’n Things for breakfast as much as they go to be at a hip new place. It’s a trend, just like the way people in Tokyo pile into Max Brenner to dip marshmallows into chocolate fondue, or line up for four hours to eat popcorn from Chicago.
Bills is an Australian chain and the precursor to Eggs ’n Things in Japan, but Bills is a good restaurant. You go and kick back, drink your OJ, have a cup of coffee, and eat some eggs. Over the years, Bills has been a standby for me. The food is pretty solid. The signature dish is ricotta pancakes with honeycomb butter, maple syrup, and bananas. Last time I was there I got the Fresh Aussie, which was poached eggs, gravlax, steamed greens, marinated tomatoes, and avocado. It was a little bit weird, but it wasn’t bad. And I got a flat white—it’s one of the only places you can get a flat white in Tokyo.
A lot of times in Japan, when I eat Western food, there’s something off. I’m like, Huh? That’s still too Japanese for me. When you’re an expat who’s lived in Japan as long as I have, every once in a while you’ll crave something really, truly Western, and you’ll want to eat it in a Western atmosphere. Maybe you’ll go to the New York Grill at the Park Hyatt and it feels kind of Western. It’s nice for a change. I go to Bills.
Kissaten are Western-style coffee shops, and I happen to love them. Western-style breakfast has been common in Japan for a long time, and usually means a slice of Texas-ish toast with a little jam and a cup of coffee, maybe a boiled egg. (At lunchtime they serve “Napolitan” spaghetti: basically ketchup spaghetti. It’s so bad it’s great.) There’s a chain of kissaten from Nagoya called Komeda’s Coffee, and their deal is, if you get there before eleven in the morning and buy a cup of coffee, you get a thick hunk of Texas toast with either sweet bean paste, egg salad, or butter. I’ve been twice, and one time I got this weird pizza toast that was really horrible.
These are places in Tokyo where you can get a straight-up traditional Japanese breakfast: a piece of grilled fish, miso soup, pickles, rice. You walk in, you go to the ticket machine, and you buy your food. My big thing there is curry rice. It’s 350 yen for a plate, and if you add 120 yen, you can get a sunny-side-up egg and a sausage—I do that for breakfast a lot and I’m in heaven. It’s four bucks, and it just reminds me how fucking expensive New York is. I took my whole family out to eat in Tokyo recently, and it was twelve dollars for the four of us.
At Matsuya—a chain like -Yoshinoya—I’d watch all the guys around me have asagohan, “morning meal.” Last year when I went to my regular place, they had these new crazy ticket machines with giant screens and all these different options. You can get the asagohan and it’ll come with a fried egg and a bowl of rice, and then you can choose either a cup of gyudon (simmered beef and onion), natto, or a piece of griddled salmon, and it comes with little pickles and soup.
Standing Udon Bars
Beneath the streets of Tokyo are a lot of people eating udon for breakfast. Tokyo is a very, very busy city and people have no time, so they stop at a standing soba or udon shop in the middle of the train station to slurp a quick bowl of noodles before they head to the office. Noodles are a totally legitimate breakfast.
Curry rice is a perfectly acceptable breakfast in Japan, and I’m addicted to it. The curry in Japan is Indian curry via England, so a lot of shops will call it “Indian curry.” If you go to a good curry shop, the guys are as insanely meticulous as the guys at any great ramen shop. They’ll really lovingly make a stock all day long and when you eat it, you’re like, Holy cow! It’s deeply, deeply flavorful and really good.
This might be shocking to an American, but bakeries really are a lot better in Japan than they are in the U.S. Recently I was at a bakery in Osaka at eight thirty in the morning, and the thing that impressed me was that every five minutes they would come out with another tray of steaming hot buns, or things stuffed with chocolate cream or ham and Camembert. In America, eating steaming-hot, freshly baked bread is not that commonplace. But in Japan, getting yakitate (fresh-baked) bread is normal.
My first winter in Japan, I was waiting outside with my buddy at a train station in the countryside. We were really cold, so he bought me a coffee from a vending machine, and when he tossed it to me, I was like, What the hell?! The thing was steaming hot. I had never had a hot can of anything. It was really good, and the quality of canned coffee keeps getting better and better. My only problem with it is that I’m a black-coffee drinker, and most of the canned ones are sweetened and milky. But they’re good, and there are probably at least twenty different kinds to choose from. Japanese vending machines are the greatest things ever.