Food and Food: Asia and General and Travels30 Mar 2008 05:53 pm

As if to spite me, Mike got the Michelin guide to Tokyo a week or two ago, and I’ve been reading about all the other places we could have eaten in Tokyo. We didn’t do badly at all, but … there is so much left to eat there. Must return. We’ve also been watching a great series called Japanorama, released in three series on BBCThree. It’s amazing.

Anyhow, I realized I haven’t actually written a lot about our trip to Tokyo. Obviously five days is all but a skimming of a city of Tokyo’s size, but I feel like we did everything we wanted to and it only whet our appetites for more. I can only say I’m nuts for food touring.

Even though the time we were to spend in Tokyo made up less than 10% of our trip, I was definitely the most excited about it and spent quite a bit of time researching things and trying to plan how to get to places. I was excited about things like gardens, general sightseeing and shopping, but the biggest reason we wanted to visit Tokyo was mostly for the food. With thousands of restaurants I wanted a general idea of where to start, so after finding a place to stay I pored over epicurean forums and review sites, magazine articles, anything that would point me in the right direction.

I perceived the language barrier and address finding would be difficult in Tokyo, so I found a few websites useful; reviews by Robbie Swinnerton from the Japan Times were extremely well written and included precise directions to the restaurants. Chowhound and Sunnypages were also useful, but I took the reviews on them with a grain of salt. Travel + Leisure magazine and the NYTimes also offered guidance. I did buy a guidebook, the Lonely Planet Tokyo urban guide, which turned out to be extremely useless in the streets as the directions were poor (even completely wrong in some cases) and were mostly good for sights to see and general prefecture information.

We picked out the things we wanted to eat, specific Japanese cuisines. Sushi topped the list of course, followed by udon and soba noodles, izakaya (specifically those serving whale and horse), yakitori, kobe, tonkatsu and tempura…basically eat as much as possible.

We ended up staying in a long-stay serviced apartment chain called Oakwood. I was dying to stay at the Park Hyatt, of course, but am not ready to spend that much on a hotel. The Oakwood (Shinjuku) was perfect for what we needed. $120 a night, a beautiful fully functional room (with only a double bed, though) in a great area. Shinjuku out to be a great place for two first time visitors as it was never longer than a few minutes ride on the train and no huge fares to get to the major other prefectures and sights. We stayed in the smallest studio room, and although I was honestly expecting a closet, the place was extremely well designed and laid out, even hiding a washing machine and kitchenette. Every nook and cranny had a purpose and although it was a bit tight with luggage and two people (one well over 6 feet tall) dancing around eachother, it was perfect.

The main hallway. There was a small nook to the right, like a reverse L, for the
double bed to hide in.
Double bed.

With over 200 exits and millions of people transiting everyday Shinjuku was a surreal train station to navigate at rush hour. Miraculously the seas of people parted as we walked ourselves and our luggage through the station, looking for the west exit (the hotel had provided decent directions but it was still disorienting to find where to start). I would highly recommend looking for the two maps posted in every train station and near every exit; the train station map and also the vicinity map. They are extremely useful and we were not the only people using them. The Tokyoites were often by them comparing a map on their cell phone to the vicinity maps. Streets are not always clearly marked, but eventually we realized we were heading the right way and soon were at the hotel.

Our first night we just ate at the first place we found. I think it was just a tempura/noodle joint, part of a chain. It was okay, but probably the worst meal of the trip. But, it got some grub into us and we went back to collapse in bed.

The next morning at about 8:30am we immediately headed to Tsukiji market. Although we got up relatively late, we didn’t actually want to go see the market in progress, just wanted to eat! (most people would recommend going as early at 5 or 6am to see the market and also to avoid lines waiting for a restaurant)

There are quite a few sushi and udon restaurants in the area, very few of them marked in English in any way. We walked from one of the exits at Tsukiji-shijo station taking a left then another left and through a truck loading zone. We weren’t even sure we were heading towards the actual market at that point and had no concept of where we were. We walked down one of the many side alley/walkways, passing rubber boot shops, souvenir joints and some restaurants. Down one there were two huge lines. I had read that any decent restaurant in Tokyo will probably have a line up, but we were also looking for either Sushidai or Daiwa Zushi to try, so we wandered a bit more, hoping for some clear sign for where we were.

These awesome “garbage can” battery powered scooters are everywhere,
delivering fish and assorted goods. They fit down alleys you’d never expect them to,
and soon they’re bearing down on you, honking furiously.
Watch out!

Finally, hungry and a bit cold, we decided to just go for the line up places. Somewhat randomly we picked the right hand lineup; after thirty or more minutes in line, we finally realized it WAS the line for Sushidai, and the other was Daiwa Zushi. The line up for Daiwa seemed to be moving faster, but we stuck to our guns. After a bit a little lady came out and sorted the line a bit. Because we were a group of two we were directed to the left hand sided. The line up seemed to be in a snake, winding horizontally from the restaurant. They would work in larger groups in between the smaller pairs, but it seemed a bit haphazard and random to be honest.

The line for Sushidai.

We probably waited just over an hour to get in. By that point we were cold as hell (packing for both a long trip to Thailand and a short trip to Japan proved problematic) and hungry. With about a dozen seats their turnover was surprisingly quick; the message is clear, eat and then get out. We both got the omakase (chef’s choice, the best of the day) which was stunning. Accompanied with hot green tea in a hand warming ceramic cup and a hot little bowl of fish head miso soup, the sushi came out fast and furious. There were ten pieces of nigiri, plus one of whatever you wanted for 3600 Yen ($36); fatty tuna, sea urchin, eel (conger, I think) shellfish, a seasonal, a roll, egg and few others thrown in.

The warm vinegary rice was hand packed and the fish was sliced on the spot, with just the right amount of wasabi (not freshly grated, sadly) and sometimes a sauce if needed. We were often told “no sauce” when a piece came out, and to be honest very little of the fish needed the assistance of the soy.

Buttery eel, creamy sea urchin, tender squid, clam, mackerel, tuna, even fluffy, slightly sweet and steaming tamago… we downed the pieces eaten right off the counter, hungry for more. We also ordered a few a la carte items, and the bill came to just about $75 for two. It was a magnificent feast for breakfast.

Aji, or horse mackerel with a garnish of scallions.
Our chef, one of three. His English wasn’t too bad, so we had a good idea of what we were consuming.
The bar curves, with just the smallest amount of room for the waitresses to get by to bring you tea and miso.
The sea eel

Some artist friends DEMANDED we check out some contemporary art in Japan, and although we weren’t sure where to go, Roppongi ended up being the destination, as we had a few things we wanted to see in the area. We passed Joel Robuchon’s restaurant and bakery in Roppongi Hills and I regret being so full of sushi (almost) because the baked goods looked so great.

The Mori art museum is on the top floor of Roppongi Hills, and we bought a combo ticket that gave us access to the museum and also to the Tokyo City view. Although there are free places see Tokyo from above, it seemed a good opportunity to get both things done as we were so time limited.

Roppongi Hills is well known for the giant spider sculpture, “Maman”, by Louise Bourgeois outside.

The museum was really great. There were free audioguides which enhanced our visit greatly. Some of the concepts and ideas were mind bending and truly beautiful, and even exposed some bits of Japanese culture which were fascinating.

This is by Deki Yayoi; it’s thousands of imprints of her fingers.
It’s also a totally illicit photo, which is why there are no more.
But the other works were also incredible.

After 90 minutes or so in the museum, we walked around the circumference of the floor, looking at the tiny people and cars 52 floors below. The haze and smog over the city was sadly covering Mount Fuji, but apparently you can see it on the right day.

People gazing out over the city from the tower.

The view below.

Now starving, again, we headed back towards Shinjuku. We originally hoped to find an izakaya but it seemed hard to think straight through the hunger and not get lost in the side streets of the area called “Piss Alley”.

There was a noodle place called Kuro-mon that seemed reasonably popular. We weren’t sure if they had an english menu, but pointing hadn’t done us wrong yet, so we gave it a try. Turns out they had a simple english menu, and they served soba and udon noodles. I got a regular sized plate accompanied by a cold broth filled with leeks and onions, served with some steamed chicken that I ordered as an addition. Mike got the “machinegun” broth, with a warning it was very spicy. He seemed to do alright at the start, but by the end as he slurped down the noodles his eyes and nose were watering. We both got a large mug of beer, complete with the head the Japanese seem to love on their brews.

The steaming baskets for the noodles.
A series of beeping timers helped the chef keep track of what batches were ready.

Day two started with a quick pastry from one of the chain coffeehouses near the hotel, and a hot Suntory coffee from a vending machine. YUM. Hot beverages aren’t dispensed like in North America, where it’s a hot coffee poured into a cup…in Japan the can is heated in the machine and comes out like a hot bullet.

In retrospect this wasn’t the most pleasing day in Tokyo; it was raining and quite a bit colder than the previous day. We spent most of it wandering around Harajuku and Shibuya, lost in mazes of stores that all looked the same. I love shopping, but even I felt overwhelmed by the multi level store complexes with entire floors dedicated to a specific trend/look. Little fit tall Mike, so we were dejected and worn out by the time lunch rolled around.

Still in Harajuku, we first visited Kiddyland (a toy store with several floors) which was an amazing source of childhood figures and icons from the past, but also new ones. There were also some super fun vending machines that spit out toys randomly. Some our scores were octopus bouncing balls, a small display of the female anatomical system and a Nintendo themed mini pen.

I expected an entire floor dedicate to Hello Kitty but instead there was just this “small” corner.

We bought several souvenirs and headed for lunch near Omotesando-dori. We had seen a review for a place that served tonkatsu (crispy fried pork cutlets) called Maisen in a free magazine and decided to walk there, despite the chilly weather.

Omotesando-dori is a pretty significant place for both fashion and architecture in Tokyo, incidentally. We came across the Prada store, and waltzed in, dripping wet and muddy from rain, all over their TOTALLY BEIGE CARPETS and they did not care. There wasn’t a mark on them, either. It was sick. We got an awesome bag for our umbrellas too (every store had some sort of auto bagging device for wet brollies) that had PRADA on it, but I was too shy to ask to keep it and tossed it in the bin with the rest of them.

photo from ManoloShoeBlog.com

Maisen turned out to be just what we needed. We followed a maze of alleys following a series of signs on lightposts to the restaurant (built in an old bath house) which was packed. We didn’t have to wait long, however, and were seated at the bar (which became our preferred seating place, due to it’s service and people watching). I had reservations that it would be a tourist trap, but it was excellent.

We were promptly served by a severe old woman, and warmed ourselves with hot tea that instantly appeared and later, miso. The tonkatsu were divine light-as-air, tender meat pieces, with a variety of sauces to apply. They were served bento style, with accompanying pickles (in addition to the appetizer plate of pickles we got), the aforementioned miso, a haystack of shredded raw cabbage and the cutlet on a wire rack, so as to not drip grease all over…if there was any to start with. Sitting at the bar allowed us to watch the proceedings in the kitchen as pound after pound of pork was marinated, dipped in the panko and fried. It was an efficient and delicious operation. If you do not care to wait, you can get your meal to go at the take out window outside the restaurant.

Somewhat recharged, we headed back out into the city and wore our feet out wandering about Shibuya. We had a few places in mind for dinner, one an izakaya, the other another soba place. After almost two hours of looking we could find neither, although we did manage to find the city’s gay district which was interesting. We seemed totally lost and dejected I’m sure, prompting a local gaijin out with his Japanese friend to ask us if we were lost. Neither him nor his friend knew where the Lonely Planet suggested restaurant we were looking for was, and they couldn’t suggest any (! still boggles my mind !) nearby places to eat other than an “Indian place that’s pretty good, and a Thai place above it that isn’t as good.” Thanks for nothing, dude.

We finally decided to head back to Shinjuku and picked the first izakaya we came across and had a variety of plates with large mugs of beer. Wanting to try more than one place we tried heading to another izakaya we’d seen earlier, only to find it was closing soon. It was Saturday night and there were legions of stumbling drunk young men on the streets, and a few people hurling into bags or garbage cans. It was pretty amusing.

We stopped to buy some plum wine and snacks near our hotel and spent the rest of the evening in, taking turns soaking in the incredibly small but incredibly deep bathtub that kept the water hot, automatically.

Ravenous the next morning we ate at the first french-style bakery we found, which served more Chinese based buns, with red bean curd and various meats in them. We had decided to stay close to home as our feet were still weary, and skipped on our plan to try and get into the sumo contest that was just getting under way. We had neglected to try and get seats the day previous and didn’t want to risk sitting on cement or even standing the entire day.

After eating we headed into nearby Isetan, and checked out the food hall, immediately regretting our sad breakfast. The Isetan at Shinjuku is amazing. I’m not sure if it’s the flagship store or how the food hall compares to others in Tokyo; I only have Singapore and Thailand for reference, but this place was mind boggling. They had grocery items, from kobe beef at $120 for 100g to a wall of soy sauces. The produce included “Queen’s Fruit” with $200 melons and $4 strawberries (how could we resist? It was excellent by the way).

Musk melons at the low, low price of 20000 Yen.

There were rows and rows of chocolate desserts, baguettes, pastries, cakes, cookies, all being pointed at by young ladies dressed in traditional kimonos and elaborate hairstyles for the coming of age ceremony that was happening that weekend. Salted fish, fresh fish, as well as ready to eat hot items and free samples for almost everything. We even had a mini tasting of sake at the liquor section, and bought a bottle. We got a few gyoza and other nibblies and made a mental note to return the next day for snacks for our flight to Bangkok

The only other thing really on our plate that day was eating more. We had wanted to rent a bike and eat a picnic in one of the parks but the weather was somewhat off putting, and there were too many restaurants and too little time left to mess around. I really need to learn to binge and purge before my next food-cation.

Many websites that discuss food in Tokyo divide the selections into area of the city or food category, or both. I had compiled a list of what cuisine we wanted to eat into areas of the city we wanted to visit so that if we were in an area we could find a suitable restaurant instead of traveling across the city for a place. One of the soba places I had chosen sounded absolutely divine and as soon as we had an inkling of hunger we immediately headed to it in Ginza.

After the horrible experience of the night previous, I was anxious we wouldn’t be able to find it, but it was daytime, it wasn’t raining and we weren’t blindingly hungry, so I was hopeful. In addition, the directions were incredibly precise…how could they lead us astray?

The place was shockingly easy to find, although the entrance was nothing more than a set of stairs down below the sidewalk and a small Japanese scripted sign outside with even smaller “Soba Sasuga” written in English at the bottom.

Not my picture; but this shows the small, unassuming entrance.

We weren’t sure if they had gotten an english menu (the review we read said it was forthcoming), so we had a simple list of three things to try, plus the necessary sake. When we entered the astonishingly beautiful and minimal dining room we were pleased to be seated in the more private back area, and even more pleased to get an English menu.

We still went with our initial picks however, and were graced with some simple chilled sake, a set of three tiny hills of pastes (miso, wasabi and buckwheat based, I believe) as an appetizer, and our main soba selections.

The three ‘hills’ of appetizers.

I got the hot broth soba (only served in the winter months) with a tempura of baby shrimp as a side, which was akin to eating a crispy cloud of shrimp flavour. I also received a small grated pile of fresh wasabi root and could do little to control my joy as I ate. Mike got the soba with hot broth.

The basket the soba are served on, if you get them chilled.

His hand made buckwheat soba came on a small basket plate and was made to be dipped into his broth. Just as his soba was down to the last noodle, a small teapot of sauce arrived and our server informed him he should add it to his remaining broth to drink. We said little as we savoured our meals, but noticed those around us were eating almost our exact meals; save for the champagne they were ordering bottle after bottle. Apparently it’s a great accompaniment to delicate soba.

The fresh wasabi and beautiful earthenware.

Our service was divine, and we weren’t sure how much English was spoken, but at the end the server (owner?) asked how it was. She seemed especially interested in how we liked our appetizers which she was was a traditional Japanese item. Her anxiety was unfounded however, as everything was amazing.

It was still really freakin’ cold out, so there weren’t many cosplayers out, sadly.

We spent some time walking through Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi park (and checking out the ubiquitous rockabillies and cosplay kids) and then went to a popular chain of izakaya called Tengu back in Shinjuku. It only became apparent to us upon close inspection of the sign that it was the place we were looking for; there is no english and the sign is described as a “long nosed goblin” painted in red.

See the goblin?

The location nearest our hotel turned out to be the second izakaya we had tried to go to the night previous, so it was somewhat fortuitous.

The place was packed!

We again sat at the bar and ordered item after item. Oysters, salted cod guts, pickles, tempura, and two of the items I had chosen this chain for; whale bacon and horse sashimi (Sorry if this offends my polite reader’s sensibilities). While I found it intensely odd and even somewhat morally suspect to be eating whale, I enjoyed the horse more. The whale was paper thin and had a fluorescent pink tinge to it. The horse was so tender it was like trying to pick up butter with chopsticks, and came with onions and a heaping pile of garlic to dress it with.

Whale on the left, horse on the right.

The drinks came fast and furious as well, many sochu or sake based cocktails in painfully unnatural colors. It was a solid choice for a chain, but I want to go somewhere a little less mainstream on the next trip.

We made plans to wake early to go back to Tsukiji and Sushidai again the next morning (our last day!) and awoke at 5am to get a move on. The city was pretty quiet and as we arrived at Tsukiji it seemed that the market was shut down, even though it was supposed to be open. We were pretty sure it was a public holiday, and we were shit out of luck. Fortunately we had a back up plan; it would require spending a bit more money but that seemed alright. We went to a branch of the Michelin starred sushi restaurant, Kyubey (a common alternate spelling is Kyuubei). It turned out to be the best decision of the trip and was a perfect last meal in Tokyo.

Mike got the omakase and I got one of the special set menus. Our meals differed slightly; I got things he did not (that he later ordered a la carte) and he got some things I did not; yet there was no lag in service or obvious missing items. The bill was about $230 for lunch for two.

The bar and chefs of Kyubey.

The fish was immaculate; chosen and cut for perfection on the spot; even seemingly sized differently for the size difference in our mouths. True made to order sushi and nigiri. Some of the fish would come out of the kitchen and our chef would further trim it at the bar if need be. Again, fresh grated wasabi root (which we did not get at Sushidai) and ginger were served right on the bar.

Although I think there is some merit to the idea that some western tongues could never understand the difference between a $20 and a $200 sushi meal, it was apparent to us what the differences were. We tried several types of clam we’d never seen before, tuna belly, abalone, horse mackerel … some unusual things we may not have until our next visit, to be honest.

It was English limited so we’re not completely sure exactly what we got, but every piece was amazing. Also included were miso and a palate cleanser at the end of refreshing daikon slices with shiso leaf and plum sauce in a sort of sandwich. While we were there our chef also prepared some sushi rolls in elaborate wrapping for a woman to take home with her. I couldn’t think of a more perfect present for a food lover.

We visited Isetan again, picked up some satsumas and other little snacks for the plane ride onward to Bangkok. Our plane was delayed quite a few hours and we spent time drinking beer dispensed by the beer pouring robot in the Northwest Airlines lounge, visiting the origami museum in the terminal (highly recommended) and even getting therapy at the oxygen bar for free.

I can’t wait to return to Japan…so many foods left to try, and eat again. I’ve heard some describe the city as alienating and confusing, but I find it was anything but. We never made it to a kobe, shabu shabu or fugu place, so those are definitely on the list.

4 Responses to “Tokyo Food Report”

  1. on 31 Mar 2008 at 2:06 am Design Monkey

    Those Louise Bourgeois sculptures are everywhere! So far, I’ve seen two: Ottawa and Paris.

  2. on 31 Mar 2008 at 11:03 am Kelly

    Yeah, I was surprised once I looked into it. She’s prolific. Apparently the spiders signify her mother…? Creepy, I know.

  3. on 06 Apr 2008 at 12:35 am Roz

    Stunning photos Kel. YOu have such talent in capturing the beauty of everything! teach me!!!

  4. on 22 Jan 2010 at 10:14 am Origami Lover

    Good post. I just found this Origami-inspired Twitter icon at Digg, which you can use on your blog if it is running WordPress.