Before you wonder why is this even a thing to talk about, let me just say that booking of famous restaurants in Japan is a whole new level of skill to be acquired. I daresay that booking famous restaurants in Japan is way harder than booking Fat Duck in England (sorry Heston, you’re not challenging at all. I got you on my first attempt).
For the record, it was only on my 7th trip to Japan (not counting a short 8hr layover in Narita en route to USA) that I could have a proper sushi meal in Tokyo for the first time! *gasps* To be clear, I’ve eaten sushi at fish markets in Tokyo and Osaka before, and one Edomae sushi meal in Osaka. Osaka doesn’t count because Tokyo is the true birth place of Edomae (literally meaning before the Edo era) style sushi. But basically, yes that’s all the sushi I’ve ever had in Japan. It’s not because I do not like sushi – I really do appreciate a good meal. However, Japanese food to me is more than just sushi and sashimi. If I cannot secure reservations for a good sushi meal, I’d rather try my luck booking something else that I would love just as much. This is why I took 7 trips before finally sinking my teeth into good Edomae sushi! In Tokyo, most Edomae sushi restaurants (or what Singaporeans refer to as eating omakase), especially those highly rated, are notoriously hard to reserve.
1. No online booking system
This problem mainly refers to traditional Japanese cuisine like edomae sushi in Tokyo and Kaiseki in Kyoto and about 90% of these top restaurants only take reservations via phone! Yup you need to literally dial the number and call, they usually don’t even take emails. I don’t know why such an advanced country like Japan refuses to adopt online booking for most of their restaurants with credit card details as guarantee. Perhaps they’re all about that human touch? Language would be the main barrier for foreigners. However, some restaurants serving westernised cuisine like French or Teppanyaki steak houses actually do have online or email booking so if you’re lazy to go through troublesome procedures, you may like to choose such cuisines instead.
2. The seats run out faster than you cay say “sushi”
It doesn’t help that some of these restaurants only have like what, 12 seats? Most restaurants open their slots for the following month, on the first day of the current month (meaning ALL dates for April, are opened for booking on from 1st March), but ultimately the rules varies depending on the restaurant. You need to call in on the dot, when the reservation lines open, on the very day that seats are released to secure your spot.
3. They do not take bookings from foreigners directly
This is the most crucial reason hindering the reservation process for us foreign visitors! Most of these restaurants do even entertain direct reservations from foreigners, even if you can speak Japanese fluently. When they can’t even deal with the demand from their local customers which comes in non-stop, I guess there’s no reason why they should entertain booking requests from foreigners with higher risk of no show.
However, there are always ways to get your prized meal if you try. Did you really try? I have to emphases that you must really try hard. It’s not easy and it’ll be tedious. It could span over a few days before anything gets confirmed. But every effort is worth it because the food in Japan is just too good!
How to book restaurants in Japan
1. Hotel Concierge
Most restaurants suggest request that you go through your hotel concierge to secure bookings if you are a foreign visitor to Japan. This is probably the most accessible way because it doesn’t require any extra fee. However, if you’re putting up at a Airbnb, someone’s house, or budget capsule lodging, I guess you won’t have a concierge to help.
- Book your hotel in advanced
- Make sure your hotel has a concierge service
- Contact them ahead and give them your requests as well as alternatives
I have tried this method for restaurants in Japan before by sending emails, and they almost always kindly oblige *grateful*. However, my choice of hotels are often not the high end ones so they do not have a super dedicated concierge team which works around the clock and would camp by the phone to call in when booking opens. I only managed to secure reservations for restaurants which do not sell out so quickly. For time sensitive bookings, it is really hard because you can’t guarantee that they’ll call in at the crucial moment. Some of the hotels I stayed in do not even have a concierge service so they would pass the job onto any English speaking staff. It could take days before they get back to me, and if there’re questions to be answered via email, it took even longer to have the booking finally settled. Booking of sushi restaurants always failed as a result because these are really high in demand. You’d just be trying your luck, really. For my 2014 Kansai trip, I gave them 3 restaurants to book. They took 4 days to get back to me and only secured a table for 1 of them. I was lucky because it turned out to be the best restaurant and my top favourite for Japan!
For my 2015 Tokyo trip, I wasn’t so lucky. The hotel I stayed in took pretty long to reply me and most of my choices were long sold out, like Sushi Saito (I must be dreaming to even think I stood a chance hahaha) and a whole list of famous sushi restaurants. Only Sushi Kanesaka Palace Hotel had vacancy initially, but by the time they replied me again (it was days later…) they told me it was already full. They didn’t manage to help me book anything in the end.
If you stay in a high end hotel with dedicated English speaking concierge team, it would have a much higher success rate. Perhaps if you stay with them several times and become a regular guest, you could actually get them to help you camp by the phone when the hotline is open. This would require a few trips to Japan before it materializes, but I’d say it’s worth a shot if you want to frequently book your favourite sushi restaurants.
Some hotels, on the other hand, will only help you with reservations upon check in. I don’t blame them – they probably just do not want to get in trouble if you did not turn up in Japan and they do not have a credit card to hold on to if the restaurant calls for cancellation charges. For such cases, it would mean that you only have a few days or hours before your meal when you reserve so you better hope that vacancies open up due to last minute cancellations. While it sounds impossible, I did actually score pretty good reservations after arriving in Japan and checking in!
2. Credit Card Concierge
If you hold a card with concierge service, like AMEX or Visa Infinite Card just to name a few, you could make full use of the concierge service they are famed for. This method is probably more helpful than the hotel route (save for high end hotels – that’s a different level) because the credit card concierge is usually 24h and they are dedicated to help you with anything. But again, you should liaise with them in advance because they probably need to transfer the request to the Japanese office, and from there they would need someone to call in at the crucial timing to make your booking.
Again, if there are unanswered questions, it may delay the process if they need to get back to you to clear the doubt before securing the booking. Still, this is better than nothing, and is useful if your hotel refuses to help you and you have no other option.
For my 2015 Kyoto trip, the hotel I stayed in refused to help with booking restaurants. I had my friend ask her credit card concierge to help and they managed to get us bookings at two 3 starred restaurants, Chihana and Kikunoi Honten! Like it was not meant to be, our flight was delayed and we couldn’t make it for the meal at Kikunoi Honten much to our disappointment. We informed the concierge, asking if they could book us on a later date, but there was of course no more availability at such late notice. However, the restaurant very kindly waived off any no show fee since flight delay wasn’t our fault, negotiated through the concierge service.
3. Have a local friend bring you along
Locals should have no problem booking restaurants by themselves, so if you have a local friend willing to dine with you, they should be able to secure reservations by calling in early. If you can converse in Japanese, you could get friendly with the staff/ chef yourselves too and perhaps they will allow you to make reservations as a regular customer in future.
In extreme cases, some exclusive Japanese restaurants stills runs on the old fashioned model where they have regular customers which they priorities. These restaurants would outright reject new customers (foreign or local alike), and you can only dine there if you came with a regular customer.
4. Third party booking concierge
This method differs from the above 3, because you need to be prepared to pay a fee. I still think this does not make sense – why do you need to pay service charge for making a reservation??? Too bad, if this is the only way to eat sushi then pay booking fee you must. But since it is a paid service and they are professionally doing this, you can expect better efficiency and success rate. Currently there are 2 booking services I know of – Pocket Concierge and Voyagin. Some of these Michelin Star restaurants even direct you to these services if you click on the foreign booking option of their website.
For Voyagin, they simply charge you a booking fee per head for successful bookings, and you pay for your meal as per normal when you dine in. I have not tried this before. The booking fee varies starting from $42. For famous restaurants it would cost even more ($82 – $210). Last minute regular reservations cost even more ($142). These do not cover the cost of your food at all. I do not like the idea of outright paying for booking fee so this one will be the last resort.
Pocket Concierge is slightly different. They present to you the respective menus and prices – all fees, service charge and taxes included in the price reflected. You select your desired menu and submit a request for booking, through their website. You will then pay the amount to Pocket Concierge if your booking is successful bookings. You do not need to pay at the restaurants unless you consume more food or drinks outside of what you have ordered online. I used this service for my booking of Sushi Kanesaka Palace Hotel and for some reason, the price I was shown on Pocket Concierge wasn’t any higher than the menu on Sushi Kanesaka’s website, as though there was no booking fee involved! Of course I was happy with this. They responded within a hour of my booking request and got my booking secured. I was amazed at the efficiency! I highly recommend this service if you really want to eat your sushi. For most other restaurants, they do mark up a bit as their service fee though, but I think it’s generally a little cheaper than Voyagin’s so I would recommend this over the latter.
Sushi I would have never eaten if not for Pocket Concierge. I love them for making my sushi dreams come true!
Pocket Concierge: http://pocket-concierge.jp
Note that for this third party service, they do not offer booking for all restaurants. Only the ones listed on their website are applicable, and of course, subject to availability. Sushi Kanesaka Palace Hotel may not be the top sushi restaurant in Tokyo, but I wanted to be realistic since I wasn’t booking right at the moment when slots are release. I was half suspecting there wouldn’t be vacancy but I was lucky to be able to get one on my first attempt with Pocket Concierge. As mentioned earlier, I failed to get reservations via hotel concierge for this restaurant during my 2015 Tokyo trip, so I was really happy to be able to be here in 2017 thanks to Pocket Concierge!
That said, you probably need to visit Japan a few times before being able to dine at the really hot restaurants. Since most of us book our trips before booking the restaurants, it’s really no guarantee that everything will be available on the days you’re there, especially for first timers – it is kinda ambitious to actually secure reservations for all restaurants you’re aiming for on your very first trip. But in any case, Japan is not a country you’ll visit only once. You will want to come back every year, so no issues! Learn the skills now and try harder at booking restaurants again for your next trip. Good luck!