Japanese Curry: My Totally Not Comprehensive Guide

Photo: Michael Saechang (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo: Michael Saechang (CC BY-SA 2.0)

So, I’m kind of into Japanese curry. You may have seen that I was in the April issue of GQ Japan, eating curry. I wrote a story about my love for this most perfect of foods in 2008 in WIRED, and it was translated into Japanese and it went viral in Japan. It was a weird time.

With Japanese curry getting more popular in the U.S. as of late, I have to do a lot less to convince people that this strange dish is something they need to try, and more giving out recommendations for where to go. This gets a little trickier when friends go to Japan, because you can’t walk 50 feet without finding some totally new place that serves curry, and it’s usually pretty good, and maybe it’s mind-blowing I-will-never-enjoy-another-food-again good.

In other words, I could go live in Japan for 10 years and still not feel like I knew everything about the curry you can find there. But since I’m often asked about this, I’m writing down what I do know, to give you some kind of starting point.

Update, October 2, 2016: Having just returned from Tokyo, I bring news of more exciting curry options for you!

The Chains

Let’s get the real easy stuff out of the way first. It won’t be too long into your stay in Japan before you instantly begin to recognize the beautiful, gleaming yellow sign of Coco Ichibanya, the nation’s biggest curry chain. This is like the Subway of curry, in the sense that they’re everywhere in Japan. Cocoichi is very good, I eat there a few times every trip to Japan, it always adds some new twist on the curry (the latest as of this writing is letting you select the level of sweetness, not just spiciness). It’s better than almost any curry in America. But it’s not the only great curry in Japan!

Some CocoIchi restaurants now serve vegetarian curry, made without any animal products (so I think it also might be vegan?) — this is specifically in order to help serve their foreign customers who might not eat meat. The branch we found in Shibuya that had the vegetarian curry had a sign on the front door in English advertising it. So if you’re traveling with a vegetarian friend, you can still have curry! But not all branches have it.

Go Go Curry, about which I wrote for WIRED in 2008, is another chain that’s been expanding a lot lately. You’ll certainly see it if you spend time in Tokyo. Go Go is a certain regional variation of curry — Kanazawa curry, which is sweeter, darker, thicker, and has a few other distinguishing characteristics in the way it’s plated and served. I also eat here once or twice every Japan trip. It’s also not the best curry in Japan.

There are lots of other smaller chains, tiny shops in train stations, etc. that you’ll find everywhere. They’re OK! You’re probably not going to have a bad plate of curry in Japan.

2016-curry-1

On this most recent trip to Japan (2016), I finally had Hinoya Curry (above). This is the shop that won the Curry Grand Prix in 2013. It is wonderful! I think this might be my current favorite of the quick-stop curry places — the sauce is sweet and tangy, with a nice complex flavor profile. The katsu is awesome, the balance of the plate is perfect. It has its own unique flavor. They will serve you a raw egg on top of the curry if you want, which works really well, but it’s entirely optional.

Similar to Hinoya, and also one I discovered on this trip, is Joto Curry. Like Hinoya, it’s sweeter, but rich and unique. There also happens to be an unmissable one right on the main street of Akihabara, although the Shibuya branch I visited had a much nicer decor. (They’re both tiny little bar-seating places, though.)

If you’ve had a lot of CocoIchi and Go Go Curry, I’d really recommend you seek out Hinoya and/or Joto on the next trip. I also love how both of them present the curry: They slice the tonkatsu in one direction, then make a big slice in half, so you have twelve small pieces instead of six long ones. This then goes on top of the rice, and curry goes all over the whole thing.

The Gourmet Stuff

It took me longer than I care to admit to learn this, but just like how Tokyo has its videogame district, its nightclub district, and its plastic-food district, so too does it have a curry district: Jinbōchō. This area of the city is better known as being the used and rare book district, but it’s also the hot spot for 欧風カレー. This means “European curry,” but make no mistake, it’s distinctly Japanese. But better. More expensive, but more delicious. The top shelf.

Two places in Jinbōchō you might want to try are Bondy and Persona. Bondy would be my personal pick for “best curry I’ve ever had in Japan.” In that issue of GQ Japan, there’s a place called Kitchen Nankai that I’ve never been to, but that looks amazing.

If you want to try some Jinbocho curry without actually having to go there, we found a great option on our last trip. There’s a small chain of curry stands called 東京カレー屋名店会, or “Club of Tokyo Famous Curry Diners.” They serve curries from five or more different gourmet Japanese curry places, including Japanese takes on Indian curry or dry keema curry, and you can order sampler plates of all five — curry flights! There’s one in Akihabara, in the “Atre” building, and it’s very convenient — it’ll be just to your right as you walk out the Electric Town exit.

Another place I fell in love with last time was called Moyan Curry — there are several, but we went to the one in Ikebukuro (conveniently, right across from the Super Potato retro game store). They actually had a curry buffet for lunch, if you can believe that. I ate a lot of curry that afternoon.

If you want to go even deeper into places I haven’t had the chance to try, Bento.com and this Japan Times story have lists of more upscale, historical, or just plain recommended curry places to get you outside of the Coco-Go Go rut.

Anyway, this is just a starting point, one I will update as I am able to try more places. Going to Japan on a curry binge is awesome. Have fun!

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