If you know anything about me, it’s that I love Japanese curry. At a party at last week’s Tokyo Game Show, a friend introduced me to someone by way of pointing out that if you Google, in Japanese, “the foreigner who loves curry,” an article I wrote in 2008 was the top hit. He then did this on his phone to prove it.
So as you might imagine, a trip to Japan for me means lots of curry, because it’s the only time I can eat the really good stuff. The Japanese curry situation in America has improved considerably in the decade since I first wrote that piece, assuming you live in one of the few metropolitan centers with a decent curry joint. But even then, Japan is still light years ahead in quality, variety, and (importantly!) customization.
Most curry places give you a great amount of flexibility in how you craft your meal, whether that be through a ticket machine filled with an array of buttons that dispense tickets redeemable for various toppings of the meat and vegetable varieties, or simply through a giant menu like CoCo Ichibanya’s. So while I have my go-to order—tonkatsu and cheese, and don’t knock the cheese until you’ve tried it—this is hardly the only way to eat at any of these establishments.
Here’s a ranked list of the curries I had in Tokyo. Note that these are in no way supposed to be the seven best curries in Tokyo. These are just the seven I ate, in ascending order of goodness.
7. Shakey’s (Shinjuku)
It’s a curry and I ate it, so it has to be on here. You may know Shakey’s as Japan’s premier spot for all-you-can-eat cheap pizza. It’s constructed like frozen supermarket pizza, but they constantly bring out new flavors, of which you can try many since the slices are so small (L-R: Beef and onion, corn and mayonnaise, okonomiyaki).
And while this is not the case with all Shakey’s locations, the Shinjuku branch also has a salad bar and, germane to our discussion here, a big pot of curry and an industrial-sized rice cooker. So you also can have unlimited curry. It’s not amazing, but it’s also not bad. You can make a plate of curry rice or you can do the professional and smart thing and dip the pizza into the curry.
6. Lahore (Akihabara)
Lahore is supposed to be a good place to go for both Japanese and Indian curries, but the Japanese curry (pictured) didn’t do much for me—it was pretty bland in its flavor, and the katsu wasn’t particularly exciting either. With so many other curry places within spitting distance of this Akihabara outpost, I’d skip it.
5. Royal Curry Stand (Makuhari Messe)
If you go to Tokyo Game Show, or any other event at the Makuhari Messe convention center, you’re probably going to want some curry. However, the main cafeteria at the Messe has curry rice that’s generally considered to be the most disappointing plate of curry you’re likely to eat during a TGS trip. If you find yourself with a curry craving during an event here and don’t have the time to escape outside the convention center to a nearby restaurant, consider instead going to the unassuming and easily-missed Royal curry stand inside the main foyer.
Everything’s served in takeout containers and there are no customization options (and no katsu), but it’s actually a surprisingly well-made curry, better than the blandness across the hall.
4. CoCo Ichibanya (Makuhari)
Cocoichi, which has branches in Los Angeles and Hawaii as well, is pretty much the McDonald’s of curry in Japan—it’s there, it’s fine, it gets the job done, but there’s most likely better curry right down the street. Maybe it’s better than McDonald’s. Maybe it’s the Wendy’s of curry. Either way, visitors to Japan tend to gravitate towards Cocoichi, and I try to open up their minds and hearts to better places.
Anyway, there’s one right by Makuhari station, so I stopped by one evening. Cocoichi in Japan is, at least, much better than Cocoichi in the U.S., thanks to the sheer number of options and toppings that the Stateside branches don’t have. In this case, I even upgraded the tonkatsu from the standard factory-food one to a handmade one.
And while all Cocoichis let you adjust the spice level of the curry, Japan’s now let you change the sweetness level as well, and you can even request a little squeeze bottle of fruit-enhanced honey. I put this directly onto the katsu, and folks, it is heaven.
3. Kare Wa Nomimono (Akihabara)
The name of this place translates to “curry is a beverage,” and they do things a little differently here. You choose between their black and red curries, and then choose three free toppings from a menu. The three you’re seeing here are fried onions, fried garlic, and mayo-corn. Everything else—the cabbage, the lemon, the cream sauce over the curry—comes standard. After a succession of eating similar katsu curries for a few days straight, I came here to change things up a little bit. It’s wonderful.
2. Joto Curry (Akihabara)
Originally an Osaka-based chain, Joto has been expanding into Tokyo as of late, bringing its rich, sweet, deep flavor to more curry lovers. This is basically tied for being the best curry I’ve had in Japan. They nail every category: The curry roux is a beautiful symphony of flavors, the katsu is mouth-watering, and the presentation is elegant each and every time. It looks like the curry has been poured indiscriminately on top of the plate, but look again: they expertly leave a tiny gap to rest your spoon in.
And then there’s the grand finale, a raw egg yolk. They give this to you for free in Akihabara (if you want it), although they may charge a small amount for it at other locations. At the top of this article you can see what the plate looked like as they sat it down, and above you can see it right after I punctured the egg. You don’t have to get this to enjoy Joto Curry, but I’d recommend it highly if you like raw eggs on stuff.
1. Hinoya Curry (Akihabara)
While the photo I took of Joto Curry definitely looks more elegant, in terms of pure taste I have to give the slight edge to Hinoya. This is the place in Akihabara that I take everybody when they say they want the good stuff. The roux is actually very similar to Joto’s in its flavor profile, and the plate is laid out in the same vertical style, and it’s really a judgment call as to which you think is better, but I had to pick a winner, so I did.
Hinoya serves its egg on the side, but it’s easy to pick up the whole thing and splash it wherever you like. The little flakes on the curry here are puffed garlic bits, a shaker of which is sitting on each table alongside the traditional fukujinzuke pickle relish and pearl onions. I ate here three times with three different friends over the course of one week—partially to spread the gospel of Hinoya to more followers, and partially because I never got tired of it. One of those friends proclaimed it “ambrosia,” and I would not disagree.