Step back in time at a legendary traditional restaurant wrapped in gardens in the heart of Tokyo - and savor an atmospheric meal of seasonal, homemade dishes.
Time seems to stand still among the sliding screens, paper lanterns, wooden corridors and windows framing views of stone pathways, century-old pine trees and carp-filled ponds.
This atmospheric setting may tick all the traditional Japanese boxes - yet its location may come as something of a surprise: it sits right at the heart of ultra-modern Tokyo.
Tokyo Shiba Tofuya Ukai is a classic example of the city’s easy mesh of old and new. The restaurant is hidden near the base of the iconic red and white Tokyo Tower in the Shiba district, its traditional architecture discreetly cocooned in exquisite gardens.
It’s one of numerous unexpected culinary gems scattered across Tokyo, a city that has long excelled at hidden establishments which surprise as well as satiate food-loving visitors from across the globe.
The experience begins the moment guests arrive. Staff - the embodiment of omotenashi, that near-intuitive sense of Japanese hospitality - bow gently as guests wander along a stone pathway and pass through split noren curtains.
As if stepping back in time, the atmosphere feels centuries-old - as reflected by the traditional crimson painted walls known as bengara, interlocked timber, tatami flooring, calligraphic scrolls and seasonal ikebana flowers.
The restaurant spans a 200-year-old former sake brewery and farmer’s residence (both painstakingly transported from Yamagata and Niigata in northern Japan), creating an intimate warren of 55 private dining spaces, each with garden views.
Food, however, steals the show. A glance at any dish quickly confirms the season, be it springtime bamboo shoots and sakura shrimp or fresh crab and yellowtail fish in winter, alongside one of its house specialties: tofu.
A modern-day temple to all things tofu, the restaurant is widely celebrated for its mastery of the soybean food, which appears in an array of shapes, forms and textures.
The restaurant prides itself on using the highest quality soybeans and exquisitely pure water from the wild mountains of Tokyo’s western Hachioji area, resulting in a signature tofu with a rich and sweet flavor.
Among its most famous specialties is tousui tofu, a warming dish of handmade tofu with a special fish stock. Another is dengaku, a dish normally made from thin slices of fried tofu known as abura-age. At Ukai, the slices are relatively thick and also contain plenty of tofu, creating a delicious softness wrapped in a crisp exterior. It’s served to guests in a courtyard, where staff coat it with sweet and salty miso before chargrilling it to perfection.
"Tofu is simple and healthy and goes well with many different seasonings,” explains Makoto Fujita, the restaurant’s master chef. “Over centuries, a wide range of cooking methods for tofu has been developed in Japan. Fish, meat and vegetables exist all over the world, but tofu is a dish which is truly representative of Japan.”
Food lovers keen to explore a more nature-drenched side of Tokyo can head to the original Ukai restaurant - Ukai Toriyama in Hachioji, about an hour’s drive west of the city center. Immersed in deep mountainside forest (summertime fireflies are a highlight), it’s an idyllic natural utopia, with 38 traditional buildings - the perfect setting to enjoy its signature charcoal chicken dipped in a secret sauce or grilled ayu sweetfish.