Tasting Tokyo

Posted on October 3, 2016

1



I’m just back from a two week extravaganza in Japan and have so much to share. It’s hard to know where to start. Actually, no it’s not: as soon as those plane tickets are booked, read Rice, Noodle, Fish. Such a good intro to the country. Honestly, it’s the best travel/food book I’ve ever read. Bravo Matt Goulding.

Hotels

img_0103The Park Hyatt was made famous by the movie Lost in Translation. Made all the more real for us with the odd poster featuring a Japanese celebrity drinking whisky with a straight faced Tommy Lee Jones. It’s a wonderful hotel, can’t recommend it highly enough. The staff are perfect: helpful, polite, discreet; the views are incredible, particularly at night although on a clear day apparently you can see Mount Fuji; the modern gym wraps around the pool  on the 47th floor; the spa/baths are stunning, one of the best I’ve been to (easy to spend a couple of hours in there, check the Japanese bath etiquette first); rooms are an ideal mix of Japanese and western: simple yet luxurious; and the breakfast is fantastic: Japanese and western, with croissants the best I’ve had outside France (try with their homemade grapefruit and ginger jam). My only criticism is that anything outside the hotel is a walk, shuttle or cab ride. Not the end of the world.

At the end of our trip we stayed at the Capitol Hotel Tokyu (and no, that’s not a spelling error). One of our friends who travels to Japan frequently thinks it’s the best hotel there. They offered us a crazy deal to upgrade to a suite. As it was our last two nights of honeymoon we went for it and loved everything about it – the layout of the enormous space, the views, the comfortable beds, and green tea was sublime. The only thing that annoyed me was the constant pricing of ‘extras’. To use a locker at the gym/swimming pool; to use the sauna; for breakfast; for use of the ‘executive library’. Overall it was pretty damn good, although ultimately I preferred the Park Hyatt (and not just for the croissants).

Shinjuku

img_0145Shinjuku at night is like Times Square or Piccadilly Circus on steroids. Traditional areas such as Golden Gai and Piss Alley seems to have separated into Japanese establishments, and tourist establishments. There are a few mid way, but you have to search. Both are well worth a visit and can easily be seen in an evening as they’re only a few minutes walk in between.

There’s also the Robot Restaurant which I read ‘is an assault on all your senses’ (true). Back in it’s heyday Tokyoites couldn’t get enough of the anime-meets-cabaret. Tourists discovered it and now it’s 90% westerners. Tacky? Yes. Crazy? Yes. Expensive? Yes. But somehow if you go in thinking what it was like, and easy to laugh – then it’s worth it just to see a bit of crazy Japanese-ness.

Ginza

Ginza surprised me totally. This area is the origin of sushi – just an 8 block radius – and now boasts a number of Michelin starred restaurants. This is home to the infamousimg_0249 Jiro, and some of his disciples that have set up on their own. Most of these places are small, serving just 6-10 people who sit at a counter watching the chef prepare each dish.

Sawada is another famous restaurant, and one that I was hoping to try but at $350 for the omakase, I am not sure my palate is developed enough to really appreciate it. Courses at these restaurants are served quickly and you’re not expected to dawdle and chat – sushi is best eaten as it’s served and this is about you, the food and the chef, not your dining partner.

Eating

On our first night we were so exhausted that we wanted a local bite. The hotel suggested the basement of the Park Tower building, part of the office block rather than the hotel and a small collection of restaurants. Stereotypes are true. Each place was filled with Japanese businessmen drinking, smoking and laughing.

Although it wasn’t the romantic/relaxed evening we were looking for it was great to get that glimpse of real life. Much of the Tokyo that we saw, particularly in the first few days is what used to be authentic Japanese but now seems to have stepped to the sideline for visitors. Asakusa included. With a bit more time, or maybe a bit more prior investigation, I feel that it would be easy to get under the skin of this crazy city.

img_0107For a sushi experience we settled for Kuybey in Ginza. Recommended by a few people and ideal for visitors to Japan. It was prefect. Two chefs served 10 people at the bar like counter. We were the only foreigners, much to the delight of our neighbouring couple who asked many questions – in the typically polite Japanese way – although mostly in their native language, of which my knowledge is limited to about 10 words (mostly around food). Much smiling and nodding ensued, which seemed to suit all involved. The chef spoke some English, described each course and, luckily for us, how to eat it. There is only one problem with the meal. It’s ruined us. Each dish was so unbelievably delicious. Some simply so (fatty tuna) and some complex bites that exploded in your mouth (Seabass, yuzu, green onions, garlic). It’s highly probable that I will never eat sushi like it ever again. And grabbing a quick lunch at Itsu? Forget it. At least for a year or so.

A few things we learned:

  • Sushi is best rolled onto the side and then picked up by chopsticks
  • Don’t dip the rice into the soy (it falls apart) just the tip of the fish to season slightly (and only on dishes they tell you)
  • Sushi can be eaten with you hands
  • Ginger is to cleanse your palate only
  • Slurping is good
  • Eat sushi immediately, as it’s served, always in one bite

We wanted to go to Sushitsu but the chef was away on holiday (boo!) so the Capitol Hotel recommended Seamon in Ginza as an approachable, good sushi place. It had excellent online reviews so it may have been that we were spoilt by Kuybey, but we were underwhelmed. To be fair we paid a quarter of the price, so perhaps out expectations were a little off: sushi was good, just not mind blowing.

img_0111Another restaurant that really stood out was Maru, recommended by a number of sources and is meant to have some of the best rice in the world (as shown on the right). Dropped at an unassuming doorway by our taxi we were ushered into a basement (this become a theme for our travels in Tokyo almost every wonderful restaurant and bar is nestled away in a nondescript building). Maru follows the ‘kaiseki’ style (more about that shortly in another post) in a contemporary way, using fresh ingredients from around Japan. Still jet lagged we weren’t quite ready for a ten course tasting menu so we opted for a la carte, including of course their rice. The wagyu was, of course, sublime and in my top few beef dishes ever. But not the best (which I was surprised about, maybe expectations were too high). The clay pot rice was indeed delicious, perhaps wasted on our lack of expertise in this area. Served simply with fish eggs that popped saltily in your mouth, the combination was exquisite. The restaurant was mostly filled with upmarket locals. An excellent restaurant and reasonably priced for the level of cuisine.

img_0276A ‘normal’ eating experience that made an impact was at an Izakaya called Jomon (pictured left). Smokey, cramped, superb yakatori, beer & sake to match, with a mix of locals and tourists: we loved it. You’ll need to book ahead.

Torishiki (also recommended by the book Rice, Noodle, Fish) is an upmarket Yakitori restaurant that was too booked for us to get into. In fact if you’re planning a trip I’d recommend contacting the concierge ahead of time, maybe even a month or two and ask them to book some of the top places – it’s the only way if there are specific places you’d like to try.

Drinking

img_0249Gen Yamamoto was written about in Rice, Noodle, Fish and if you read it, you’ll know why we couldn’t visit Tokyo without trying it out. The menu has two options: 4 course tasting menu, or 6 course tasting menu. And yes, this is a cocktail bar. The book writes about Gen and his bar so much more eloquently than I will be able to do. But if you’re heading to Tokyo, look it up. And book ahead. The bar only seats eight.

Bar Mimi in Ginza, around the corner from the well known Bar High Five, was one of our favourite finds. It’s in the basement of a nondescript building, as many bars and restaurants are in Tokyo. The decor is pretty basic, I don’t remember there being music. And there is no menu. But boy are the cocktails good.

This is how it works: Tell the (absolutely brilliant and fun) barman what you’re in the mood for, give him some flavours you like and the base liquor. He ponders. Then he suggests something. Possibly tweaks it after feedback. And boom, you’re ready to go. My first drink was a refreshing Moscow Mule, which was perfect. For my second drink I wanted more of taste of Japan so asked him to add some Yuzu or Matcha flavours. But I also still wanted that refreshment a Mule gives. So he invented a drink for me, whch was so good that we all drunk them for the rest of the night. It’s now been named ‘The Hopster’.

Bar Trench was also recommended to us but we didn’t get to try it.

Shopping & Sightseeing

No trip to Tokyo is complete without visiting Tsukiji fish markets. Especially as it’s days are numbered and it will be closing down later in the year, moving to a brand new building a little further outside town. This is part because the infrastructure is old, and also because this prime real estate will be developed in time for the 2020 Olympics (or so it’s rumoured). We decided against the 2am start to see the tuna auction – although it’s supposed to be quite a sight it’s also a lot of hanging around and likely that you’ll understand very little. Instead we hired a private guide (from foodrink) who took us to the outer market to explore: bustling stands of produce and small bars with Japanese men eating sushi and drinking sake – bloody marvellous! The inner market opens at 10am to tourists – although if you tell the guards you want to buy food you maybe able to sneak in beforehand.

img_2608We spent that afternoon visiting the Meiji temple in a forest of 170,000 trees. It gave a lovely break of tranquility before we headed to back into craziness with Omotesando shopping street. Check out Kiddyland for some Japanese toy craziness, and the upmarket Omotesando Hills for a beautifully designed shopping mall. When you’ve worked your way to the top floor you will have deserved a sake tasting at Hasegawasaketen. After this we headed to Takeshita street which is full of teenage girls who dress up in extreme garb at the weekends – check out a few photos as a taster (or a warning) here. It’s another sensory assault of bright colours and noise, with a bunch of shops that we still don’t understand (one of which was a room full of photo booths that seemed to be some kind of game).

There are so many things to see in Tokyo: The imperial palace, shrines, temples, Mori Art Museum, Edo Museum…. I’d suggest picking your area, doing some research and then exploring from there. A guide in the first few days can really help.

Sumo

img_2768 One of the absolute trip highlights,  a little unexpectedly so was sumo. We were lucky enough to be in town for one of the three Tokyo tournaments and although tickets sell out quickly, the park Hyatt concierge managed to get us a box fairly easily. There re three main tiers of seating: ringside (able bodied only, risk of sumos falling on you, I kid your not), boxes (areas enough for 4 people sitting cross legged) and chairs on he first floor. Tickets are for the full day 8am to 6pm although most people arrive around 3.30pm in time for the top tier of matches. On your way in pick up snacks and some beer, some had a full blown picnic. Boxes were filled with all ages and mixes of Japanese, there were few foreigners. The individual matches themselves last very little time, often just seconds, rarely over a minute. The rules are simple – you try to get your opponent out of the ring,’or to touch the floor with any part of his body other than the soles of his feet. The later in the day, the longer and better each match. There was much cheering, booing, gasping and other excitable noises in the stadium. It seems so much at odds with the polite discreet, contained Japanese culture.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons I was so surprised by it. My husband had to drag me out of there to get to our dinner reservation on time.

It wasn’t until the end of our trip that I really felt that I understood Tokyo, it’s culture, and it’s curiosities. I clearly need to go back….

Advertisements
Posted in: Asia, Destinations, Japan