If you’re in Japan and looking for something tasty to eat, your first stop will be Tabelog. This giant database of restaurants contains a mind-boggling amount of information on what seems like every restaurant in existance. All the standard Yelp-like data is there, like restaurant names, addresses, reviews and ratings. There are also photos of restaurant interiors and exteriors, labeled and categorized photos of individual menu items, as well as the menus themselves, the average price of lunch and dinner, and map views where you can filter by restaurant genre, price, and average rating. It’s a food-lover’s dream.
The Japanese love to document and rate their meals with wanton meticulousness which translates to Tabelog being extremely detailed and thorough. Any food-serving establishment is fair game whether they be restaurants with 3 Michelin stars or simple takoyaki stalls.
Unfortunately, the site is only in Japanese. But, using a combination of trial and error and a liberal use of Google Translate, I slowly figured out how to use it.
Here are tips on using Tabelog for English speakers:
Tip #1: Google Translate Chrome Extension
When using web sites in other languages, the Google Translate Chrome Extension can be a lifesaver. It adds a little button on your Chrome toolbar that will translate the page you’re looking at to English:
Great for translating the text of links, which will help you figure out how to navigate through Tabelog.
Tip #2: Find a map of your area
From the Tabelog homepage, you’re first presented with a map of Japan, with clickable regions:
If you know where in Japan you are, you can drill down into that region by clicking the appropriate spot on the map.
If you’re not familiar with the map of Japan and aren’t sure how to get to where you are, an easier thing to do is click the link in the rop right corner:
Which will take you to a Google Maps interface at http://tabelog.com/map/:
This is similar to the map view on Yelp, and is the most useful interface for browsing for restaurants in an area. It has a Google Map which will have placenames in English, and it will have pins in the map representing rated restaurants.
So for instance, if I zoom in on Tokyo:
You can see we’ve got a list of establishments on the left, and pins corresponding to them on the map on the right.
Tip #3: Reading restaurant info
Each restaurant on the map shows a small infobox when clicked. Let’s take a look at what each restaurant infobox shows:
- Restaurant name
- Review excerpt
- Overall rating
- Dinner rating
- Lunch rating
- Average price of dinner
- Average price of lunch
The flags are useful for getting an idea of the type of place it is. From left to right, if the icon is colored it means this restaurant is good for:
- Business meals
- Single people
If you click the name of the restaurant, it will open the restaurant’s full entry. It looks like this:
All the same stuff from the infobox is there, plus a lot of other stuff like pictures of food, time-limited deals, and user reviews. Google Translate isn’t quite good enough to make the deals or reviews understandable, so I usually don’t pay much attention to them.
There’s a navbar across the top with five items:
From left to right, they are:
- Top - the homepage of the restaurant’s listing, where you start
- Menu - usually this is user photos of the menu, which isn’t much help unless the menu has photos. Sometimes there will be a transcribed menu, which is marginally more helpful as you can Google Translate the entries.
- Photos - there are four categories of photos, from top to bottom (or left to right on the Photos page):
- Photos of the food
- Photos of the restaurant interior
- Photos of the restaurant exterior (very useful when trying to find the place in person)
- Other photos
- Reviews - as I alluded to before, reviews are hard to read even when translated. I usually don’t read them.
- Map of Location - shows a Google Map with the location, as well as the full written address which can be entered into Google Maps
Tip #4: Searching and Filtering
On every page there are two search fields at the top:
These are, from left to right, Area and Keyword. Unfortunately you have to enter your search in Japanese, so these aren’t very helpful.
On the map view, there’s a button in the top right:
Clicking it brings up the search dialog:
This is where the Google Translate extension comes in handy. Translate the page to see what each search field is for:
As you can see, you can filter by things like budget, flags (translates as “Use”), and hours. There’s also a dropdown to search by “Genre”, which has very general categories like Restaurant, Ramen, Bar, Cafe, etc.
The thing I’m usually looking to filter by is cuisine type, which is conspicuously missing. You’re actually supposed to use the Keyword field for that, but again, it requires you to enter Japanese text.
Now, you could use Google Translate to translate “sushi” from English to Japanese and then paste that into the keyword field, but there’s an easier way.
The link next to the Genre dropdown that translates as “List” will take you to the massive category list:
This page has a very long list of cuisines, and the great thing is that the page translates nicely to English:
Click the cuisine you want and you’ll be taken to the restaurant list for that cuisine. For example, here’s the page for tonkatsu, which is delicious deep fried pork cutlets:
This page lists all the restaurants for that cuisine, and allows you to sort the list by rating, but it’s not geographically restricted, so it’s of limited use to us.
If you scroll down a bit, on the left side you will eventually see this:
Click that map link, and you’ll be taken back to the big map, but it’ll be filtered by the cuisine you chose. So then you can zoom back in on wherever you are, and see the highest rated tonkatsu restarants there:
Now you should be able to browse through nearby restaurants of the cuisine you want to eat. Woo!
Finding the place
Once you’ve picked a place to eat, you can enter the address into Google Maps to navigate to the place. The address is at the bottom of every page of the restaurant listing:
You can copy the address into Google Maps, or you can click the embedded map, which will take you to a bigger map, and then click the “Google” link in the bottom left corner of that bigger map, to be taken to the regular Google Maps site with the restaurant location pinned. From there you can save the location to your starred places, or email yourself a link, so that later on you can look it up on your phone.
Even with all this information, finding restaurants in Japan can still be a bit tricky. Often times restaurants have very minimal signage, and they can be just about anywhere in a building:
- on the ground floor
- on a random higher floor requiring taking an elevator
- in a food court
- in the basement
- down a winding hallway, through some unlabeled doors, and up a random staircase that makes you think you’re going to pop out in someone’s living room or end up in a broom closet
It’s not always easy, but that’s part of the adventure!
Things to pay attention to to ensure you find what you’re looking for:
- The exterior photos in the Photos section. Often users have uploaded photos of the front door of the restaurant, and sometimes they’ll also upload photos of the route to get to the restaurant when it’s buried deep inside some other building.
- Check out Google streetview before you go and try and match up what you’re seeing with the exterior photos.
- Translate the address in Google Translate and look for things like the name of the building, and the floor it’s on.
Finding a building by name
Building names are usually the first part of a street address, and almost every building with multiple tenants will be labeled at street level. Understanding the name of the building is a huge help in finding something.
So for example this restaurant has the Japanese address:
東京都中央区銀座8-5-8 かわばたビル ３F
Tokyo, Chuo-ku, Ginza 8-5-8 Kawabata building 3F
So once you’re in the area, you just have to find the Kawabata building and get to the third floor.
It’s helpful to find the building name in Japanese so that we’ll recognize it on the street. You’ll notice the translation reads “Kawabata building”; in the Japanese address this is “かわばたビル”. I know this because “ビル” is Japanese for building (literally “biru”). So the part before ビル is the building name. The sign for the building will always include ビル, so when you go there in person, you’ll know you’re at the right building when you see a sign that says かわばたビル.
I looked this up on Google Streetview and lo and behold:
Zoom in on the top of that sign:
Now all you have to do is find the elevator or stairs. Often easier said than done!
So I hope this guide helps you enjoy all the culinary wonders Japan has to offer. It’s one of those rare places in the world where the culinary bar is set high and, as long as you employ some common sense and light internet research, every meal you have will be fantastic.
Finding restaurants in a foreign country where you don’t speak or read the language definitely has its challenges, and this guide is most certainly not foolproof, but using these methods I can pretty reliably get to anywhere I’m trying to go.
Leave me a comment with any questions, comments, or tips of your own.