The Japanese breakfast provides a healthy start to the day. It’s rich in vegetables — from both land and sea — often includes fermented foods such as miso soup and pickles, and is rounded out with rice and grilled seafood. Though, it hasn’t always been this way.
The meal has evolved over the centuries. In the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), for example, many people followed a Buddhist-influenced vegetarian diet. In the Heian Period (794-1185) only breakfast and lunch were consumed, and in the Edo Period (1603-1868) breakfast was a simple ichijū issai — literally one-soup, one-vegetable — meal. When Japanese sit down to breakfast nowadays, they’re often presented with the classic ichijū sansai meal: one soup, three side dishes and rice.
Kuouesu is a kappō (counter) restaurant that serves an authentic ichijū sansai for ¥900. On a recent morning, this included hamo (conger eel), pickled turnip and cucumbers, blanched spinach and charcoal-grilled managatsuo (pomfret). The rice is cooked in a cast-iron pot with less water than usual, and served while it’s still a little al dente. Customers can opt for extra side dishes such as nattō (fermented soybeans) or omelet.
Splurging on breakfast? The Park Hyatt Tokyo’s plush brasserie Girandole offers a grandiose traditional meal for ¥4,200. The colorful components include tofu steeped in konbu (kelp) broth, grilled seasonal seafood, several small dishes and fresh fruit. One of the benefits of dining at a hotel is that you can drink coffee with your meal — traditional restaurants will only serve tea. Another plus is that a vegetarian breakfast can be reserved in advance.
For more luxury, try the Yakumo Saryo teahouse. This oasis in the city serves a meditative asacha (a morning tea and breakfast set) that may be one of Tokyo’s most unique starts to the day. Diners are seated in a tranquil, dark tearoom, at either a large communal table or a counter. The ¥3,500 (plus 10-percent service charge) meal is marked by a flight of teas, starting out with a new ginger and Chinese variety that awakens the palate. The meal here includes a wide variety of bite-size dishes, including an array of bright pickles and grilled fish. To finish, diners select a wagashi (traditional dessert) that gets paired with matcha. The quietness in the room is interrupted only by the sound of fellow diners crunching into pickles or of tea being freshly roasted.
For a more quotidian version of the traditional breakfast, look to gyūdon (shaved beef on rice) chains such as Matsuya, Yoshinoya or Sukiya. Their affordable chōshoku (morning meal) sets come with rice, miso soup, nori and pickles. Diners can also select extra dishes, including nattō, grilled salmon, eggs or sausage. Being surrounded by a gaggle of salarymen preparing for a long day at work only adds to the experience.
Kuouesu, 7-14-6 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-6805-0856; reservation required. Girandole at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, 3-7-1-2 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; 03-5323-3459; www.tokyo.park.hyatt.com/en/hotel/dining/Girandole.html. Yakumo Saryo, 3-4-7 Yakumo, Meguro-ku, Tokyo; 03-5371-1620; reservation required; www.yakumosaryo.jp. Matsuya (www.matsuyafoods.co.jp/english), Yoshinoya (www.yoshinoya.com/en) and Sukiya (www.sukiya.jp) offer more affordable options. Yukari Sakamoto is the author of “Food Sake Tokyo.”