OK it’s been just under a week since we got back from Japan and I finally have some time to save and savour the sights and smells and TASTE of our recent trip to Japan to preserve them in more than just my memory. It’s been a long time coming, and D and I finally made our first trip to Japan. Tokyo for the first weekend, Kyoto mid-week, followed by a final weekend in Tokyo again.
I’ve read and heard and watched that the relationship that the Japanese have with their food is as it should be. Passionate, ritualistic, if you’re going to do anything with it – be it cook, fry, slice, dice, toss, serve – you name it, you’d better do it well. I read that there is one eating establishment in Tokyo for every sixteen people. That’s a LOT of restaurants. And with that sort of competition, they all need to be good – from the most humble bowl of ramen, to the most lavish dinner.
D and I managed to eat pretty much every type of Japanese cuisine while we were there and the common theme was centred around wonderfully fresh produce, prepared simply and with no fanfare, presented beautifully.
We were fortunate enough to be shown around a lot of the food by a friend of ours who spent his youth growing up in Tokyo and most recently has spent five years there, and is engaged to a Japanese girl – so language was no barrier to what were specials for the day in all the places at which we were fortunate enough to visit.
The first night we arrived we went to a local “noodle house” near I-Sarago, Takanawa, where the specials for the day were fresh blue-fin tuna, scallops and kingfish sashimi, which were bought from the Tsijuki markets that morning. Smelling like the sea and wonderfully firm and sweet, this was the simply the basic standard for seafood served in this country. We also ate small servings of tamagoyaki – a rolled omelette mostly served in Bento boxes, but this one was the salty (not sweet) version where the layers of the egg, when rolled made what was a solid piece of egg seem light and airy. Tempura followed and the meal ended with the chef coming and serving us the house speciality, soba noodles, hand-made that day on the premises, chilled and to be dipped in a sauce of soya sauce, mirin and dashi, to which is added finely shredded scallions and if desired, some freshly grated wasabi. When eating noodles, we were taught to slurp. Forget all the etiquette lessons you have been taught – for the Japanese, slurping your noodles (sometimes surprisingly loudly) allows you to “aerate” the noodles, like a fine wine. This accomplishes two things. One is that you get to smell and savour the flavour of the sauce as well as taste it, allowing for a more robust and complete flavour, and, in the instance of eating hot noodles, allows you to enjoy the noodles as freshly as they are made, without burning your mouth, as the slurping simply cools the noodles.
The next day we wandered around Akihabara – techno-central for the geek in you. All that electronic drooling built up an appetite for ramen – which we found in a food court on the top floor of one of the giant complexes. Chabuton ramen is a chain which has hit the shores of Thailand and the US. It serves simple tonkotsu ramen, and lots of it. Small and cramped like most ramen places, the idea is to buy the ticket for your meal in a vending machine outside the restaurant, give this to your waitress when you are seated, eat, leave. The broth is complex and rich, warming us up from the inside, perfect for the cold rainy weather outside.
Knife shopping in Kappashi Dougugai-Dori
We then went to Kappabashi Dougugai-Dori – also knows as Kitchenware Town, which is a street solely devoted to wholesale kitchenware. There are general stores, and stores that specialise in only one thing – like chopsticks, and for what we were looking for – knives. We found a specialty knife store about halfway down the long stretch of road, and with the help of our Japanese-speaking friend, I found my perfect knife. It was a general purpose or sontoku hocho kasumo knife for cutting meat and vegetables. Kasumi knives are made from two materials, like samurai swords: high-carbon steel and soft iron forged together (known as san mai blades), with the steel forming the blade’s edge and the iron forming the blade’s body and spine. Mine was made for a right-hander (Japanese knives, unlike European knives are sharpened so that only one side holds the cutting edge) and I chose one with a dimples on the blade to stop food from sticking to it when cutting. Once the design and size were selected, five knives that looked exactly the same were presented to me – the purpose being that as each knife was hand made, each would have slight variations and so I could select the one which I felt most comfortable with. Once this was done, the owner chiseled “happiness Carol-San” into the blade for me. What an incredible experience. (I have since used the knife back in Singapore and it is assuringly, terrifyingly sharp – where resting the blade on a ripe tomato and with the slightest touch, the blade slices cleanly and quickly through the tomato. I am in heaven).
After a few hours of not eating and drinking, we decided to try to find a place to rest our tired legs and warm up with some sake. We chanced upon a robotayaki restaurant where we found respite from the cold rain outside, as well as some finely prepared pickles, ginko nuts and tsukune were ordered, along with many, many rounds of sake, beer and lemon sours (Japanese soju with soda and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice). The Japanese never rush you, never make you feel like you are anything but welcome in to their restaurant, their house. We were not the only people there who had the same idea – three other tables of locals simply sat there, slowly talking and drinking. It was just lovely.
Steak tartare at Juju
That night, our friend was intent on showing us just how much meat a South African can order and eat. We went to Jujus Yaki Niku at the awesome Nishi-Azabu crossing. Apparently an institution, this Korean restaurant sells just about every cut of meat known, from the more well known short rib, to the more unusual outside skirt. We succumbed to our meat coma from the non-stop meat dishes that arrived at our table, from a steak tartare with finely sliced wagyu, to salted beef tongue and beef short rib, to be cooked over charcoal until crispy. All the meat was marinaded and served so that each course was increasingly meltingly tender, it’s almost impossible to believe. We even tried the beef intestine and tripe. I’m a fan of tripe, but never have tried intestine, and I definitely prefer it cooked for a little longer over the charcoals than was recommended, but at that way, we could experience the almost explosion of the collagen rich fat when you bit into the crispy exterior.
Asparagus wrapped in kurubota pork
The next night D and I braved Tokyo dining alone – visiting Gonpachi restaurant back at Nishi Azabu – where Kill Bill was famously shot. “Gaijin-friendly” (read: English-speaking), it was the first dining experience since we arrived where there was any other non-Japanese diners. Gonpachi has a sushi restaurant upstairs but the recommendations from our friends was to eat on the ground floor where you can eat yakitori. We sat at the counter, as always, enjoying a preview of other diners’ orders and practising our basic Japanese on the very patient staff. The vibe is fun and friendly, the food wonderfully done, the sake list extensive – what more could you ask for ?
1F, 1-13-11 Nishiazabu, Minato-Ku, Tokyo 106-0031
Our final eating was on the shinkansen en route to Tokyo – apparently a very “Tokyo-thing” to do is to buy your Bento at the train station, to be eaten on the bullet train. With the excitement of boarding the shinkansen to experience speeds of up to 300km/h, from Tokyo to Kyoto in 2 hours 20 minutes, the experience was indeed fun, but fast-food bento boxes leave me, well a little cold. But never mind, onwards to Kyoto for round 2…
And we even saw Mount Fuji, meant to be a good omen if you see it on your first trip to Japan. Superstitious ? Maybe, but I’m happy to take on that old wives’ tale.