I had the great pleasure of spending some time with journalist Alan Richman as he tested a theory that food is better in Japan. Why is it that French, Italian, or Chinese food is so good in Japan? Read as he eats his way through Tokyo testing this theory. The story opens up in what may be Tokyo’s best pizzeria, Seirinkan in Nakameguro.
This is one of my favorite article contributions each year. Food & Wine’s Go List – including the best of Tokyo.
Tokyo highlights include Seiji Yamamoto’s Nihonryori Ryugin and Bryan Baird’s The Taproom in Harajuku. Read on for more for the best in the world.
I love the shotengai, Japanese shopping arcades. Filled with ma and pa shops selling tofu, fresh produce, rice, pickles, miso, and other basics of the Japanese pantry. This article recently appeared in Metropolis magazine and features five of my favorite shotengai in Tokyo.
http://metropolis.co.jp/dining/local-flavors/street-eats/ (text follows)
While the one-stop food shopping at Tokyo’s depachika is an amazing experience, the gourmet eats come with a high price tag. At the other end of the spectrum are the places where most Japanese do their daily shopping: neighborhood shopping streets known as shotengai, where you’ll find mom and pop shops selling vegetables, fish, meat, rice and even handmade tofu. The Tokyo Shotengai website (http://meturl.com/shotengai) lists over 550 of these shopping streets; here are some of our favorites.
This foodie neighborhood is filled with many fantastic shops along the main drag. Try 50-ban (3-2 Kagurazaka) for its steamed buns, Kintokiya (2-10 Kagurazaka) for wagashi made from sweet potatoes, and the gorgeous Rakuzan (4-3 Kagurazaka) for tea. Isuzu (5-34 Kagurazaka) offers a variety of Japanese-style sweets and, if you walk along the street far enough, Baikatei (6-15 Kagurazaka) has fantastic handmade wagashi. Nearest station: Iidabashi
Just outside of Nippori station lies the Yanaka shotengai—very typical of what you would imagine an old-style shopping street to be like. Two of the area’s meat shops are famous for their menchikatsu: Niku no Sato (3-13-2 Yanaka) and Niku no Suzuki (3-15-5 Nishi-Nippori). Goto no Ame (3-15-1 Nishi-Nippori) has a colorful selection of candies. There are many options, including deep-fried tofu balls known as ganmodoki, at Musashiya (3-9-15 Yanaka), oyatsu-pan (snack breads) at Atomu Bakery (3-11-14 Yanaka), and skewered and grilled seafood at Fukushima Shoten (3-13-4 Yanaka). Note that a lot of the shops are closed on Mondays.Nearest stn: Nippori. www.yanakaginza.com
The historic Ningyocho district is always a delight to visit. While you’ll find many shops selling the local specialty, ningyoyaki (small cakes filled with azuki bean paste), there are many other interesting stores. On the famous Amazake Yokocho shotengai is Futaba Tofu (2-4-9 Ningyocho), with a variety of tofu products and also the sweet, creamy drink for which this street is named. Hojicha tea is the specialty of Morinoen (2-4-9 Ningyocho), while the long line outside the tiny Yanagiya (2-11-3 Ningyocho) is a testament to the popularity of its taiyaki sweet-bean cakes—considered one of the three best varieties in the city. Ningyocho’s most famous restaurant may well be Tamahide (1-17-10 Ningyocho), renowned for its oyako-don rice bowls. Nearest stn: Ningyocho.
Just north of Kichijoji station is Sun Road, a covered shotengai filled with many small shops. Among the several worth exploring are traditional German bakery Linde (1-11-27 Kichijoji-Honcho) and Meat Shop Sato (1-1-8 Kichijoji-Honcho), which is famous for its menchikatsu and wagyu and which also has a popular restaurant on the second floor, usually with a long line. Okashi no Machioka (1-15-1 Kichijoji-Honcho) will have your eyes spinning with all of the different types of candies, sweets and snacks. In the evening, the Harmonica Yokocho strip is filled with small restaurants that are perfect for a drink and some nibbles. Tecchan is a popular yakitori spot—if you can squeeze in (1-1-2 Kichijoji-Honcho). Nearest stn: Kichijoji.
This popular foodie street in the heart of the city is easy to navigate. The renowned Mamegen (1-8-12 Azabu-Juban) tempts customers with over 90 varieties of flavored rice crackers, including uni, wasabi and curry, but it’s the shio-okaki (deep-fried and salted) that are irresistible. The taiyaki at the extremely popular Naniwaya Sohonten (1-8-14 Azabu-Juban) are made by the shop’s fourth-generation owners. Hasegawa Saketen (2-2-7 Azabu-Juban) has well-selected sake, shochu and umeshu. If you’re craving meat, the yakitori at Abe-chan (2-1-1 Azabu-Juban) will hit the spot. Alternatively, slurp up some soba noodles at Nagasaka Sarashina (1-8-7 Azabu Juban), notably the delicate, white sarashina noodles. Nearest stn: Azabu-Juban.
Photo by Keigo Moriyama
Tokyo is filled with many options for beer and food. What makes one pub stick out over the rest is the quality of the beer and the Harajuku Taproom is one place not to be missed for fans of craft beer. This article from Metropolis, written by my editor, Steve Trautlein, introduces readers to the great pub in Harajuku, just off the popular Takeshita Dori and the wonderful beers handcrafted by American Bryan Baird. Bryan and his wife Sayuri-san have opened up their third taproom in Japan. You will not be disappointed.
Ken Belson in the New York Times pens a great article on the city of Kawagoe which is just about an hour north of Tokyo. This is a great day trip and my favorite shop in the city is a knife shop, Machikan. I believe it is a seventh generation shop. We have a few knives which we have purchased here and are thrilled with them.
My first restaurant review for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan Journal on my favorite kaiseki restaurant, Nihonbashi Yukari.
http://accjjournal.com/nihonbashi-yukari/ (text follows)
If it’s good enough for the emperor, it’s good enough for me. Third generation Kimio Nonaga of Nihonbashi Yukari recently catered an event at the Imperial Palace for a meeting between the emperor and prime minister Yukio Hatoyama. Chef Nonaga captured the attention of foodies in 2002 upon winning the Iron Chef trophy at the tender age of twenty-nine. While he grew up in his family’s restaurant, he trained for seven years in Kyoto’s renowned Kikunoi under the tutelage of Chef Yoshihiro Murata. Murata is the author of the gorgeous book “Kaiseki,” published by Kodansha International.
Nihonbashi Yukari is just minutes from Tokyo Station’s Yaesu exit. The entrance to the restaurant, elegant and simple, is a stark contrast to the cheap restaurants and office buildings that crowd the area. Inside you are warmly greeted by kimono clad waitresses and are transported to an oasis. The inside is the classic sukiya style of wood and paper shoji screens. In the basement are private rooms for intimate dinners and groups. Diners range in age from young to old, and at lunchtime well-heeled ladies populate the space.
The best seats are at the counter, where you can watch the chef create cold dishes. Hot dishes are prepared in the kitchen. And, if you speak Japanese, Chef Nonaga will share with you the seasonal ingredients.
Nihonbashi Yukari is renowned for serving classic kaiseki cuisine composed of seasonal ingredients presented exquisitely over several courses. And great thought is put into pleasing the customer; for example, if it is a cold day your first course will be a warm dish.
The menu changes daily, depending on what Chef Nonaga has picked up that morning at Tsukiji Market. He is also a big proponent of local produce. No two meals are ever the same – and here is the challenge of suggesting favorite dishes.
The sashimi course is always a highlight. Chef Nonaga cuts the fish different in thicknesses or scores the flesh to create the best texture. I still remember fondly a creamy shirako (fish sperm sac) with a ponzu dressing and an owan (soup) dish of seasonal fish dusted with rice flour and deep-fried until crispy and served in a savory, thickened broth.
Chef Nonaga takes an unusual interest in creating original desserts, often based on Japanese ingredients. Kinako (roasted soybean powder) ice cream studded with black beans, or a cheesecake made with sake lees are just two examples of his creativity. The chef also has an original mugishochu and beer, both that are perfect beverage partners for his cuisine. There is also a nice selection of Japan wines on hand.
One of the great delights of Nihonbashi Yukari is that it is open for lunch, unusual for many kaiseki restaurants. Call ahead and reserve the bento box, as the number prepared each day is limited. For classic Japanese cuisine Nihonbashi Yukari is among the top in the city. If you go, tell him Yukari sent you.
Chuo-ku, Nihonbashi 3-2-14
closest stations: Nihonbashi and Tokyo station Yaesu exit
closed Sunday and holidays
One unique cuisine that is a must-try for adventurous foodies is offal cuisine. This article which first appeared in Metropolis magazine includes several popular restaurants in Tokyo for naizo ryori.
http://archive.metropolis.co.jp/tokyo/785/localflavors.asp (text follows)
Tokyo’s horumon boom has been going strong for two years now—and shows no signs of letting up. Horumon ryori, a.k.a. naizo, ranges from an animal’s mouth (tongue) to its tail (literally), including all the organs and pipes in-between. Though it may seem intimidating at first, fresh and well-prepared horumon is a dining adventure unlike no other—who knew you could even eat body parts like nodochinko (uvula) or fuwa (lungs)? Textures range from creamy brains to kori kori (chewy) intestines, and the food goes well with most alcoholic beverages, which helps account for its increasing popularity among salarymen and OLs. Here are some of our favorite places around town.
While horumon refers to innards taken from cows and pigs, a good place to start may be with chickens. Birdland, one of Tokyo’s most famous yakitori restaurants, has chicken so fresh that it can be eaten rare. Bonbochi is the fatty bits near the tail, grilled up to juicy, savory bombs. Liver is rich and tender, sunagimo (gizzard) is chewy, hatsu (heart) has a nice mouthfeel, while nankotsu (cartilage; below) gives your jaws a workout.
B1, 4-2-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-5250-1081. Open Tue-Sat 5-9:30pm, closed Sun-Mon & hols. Nearest stn: Yurakucho.
A shitamachi institution, Yamariki’s original restaurant is undergoing renovation, but the shinkan is still open. This izakaya’s signature nikomi of cow intestines is slow-simmered until tender—the cooks have used the same broth continuously for close to 40 years. Yamariki is known for its yakiton, or grilled bits from pork, including juicy kashira (temples) and chewy teppo (rectum). The restaurant’s knowledgeable sommelier, Mizukami-san, can help suggest French wines to go with your meal.
1-14-6 Morishita, Koto-ku. Tel: 03-5625-6685. Open Mon-Sat 5-10pm, closed Sun & hols. Nearest stn: Morishita (Toei Shinjuku line). www.yamariki.com
Shinjuku Horumon and Saisei Sakaba, part of a restaurant chain managed by naizo specialists Ishii Group, are notable for their top-quality products, knowledgeable staff and deep menus. If you’re the type that loves to cook, you’ll enjoy it here—each table has its own shichirin (charcoal stove), which infuses the meats with a better aroma than gas. If you’re the curious type, Shinjuku Horumon offers the most diverse menu, including pai (breast) and sao (tip of the penis). We ordered an assortment platter, and the friendly staff adeptly walked us through all of them; there is also a helpful poster on the wall explaining the menu. The only thing we didn’t like was that the small space quickly fills with smoke.
3-12-3 Shinjuku. Tel: 03-3353-4129. Open daily 5pm-midnight. Nearest stn: Shinjuku, east exit. http://tinyurl.com/shin-hor
Located on the back streets of Shinjuku-Sanchome, this friendly tachinomiya is our hands-down favorite. The Showa-era décor calls to mind a bygone era, while the six handsome staffers squeezed in behind the counter care for the customers (pictured). We started with brain sashimi—milky and creamy like shirako (cod milt), served with sesame seeds, soy sauce and chopped negi. Then we challenged the grill master to surprise us with five unusual skewers, and he came back with chewy shokudo (esophagus); crispy guts; hizo (spleen), which was similar to liver but with a side of fat; rubbery nodomoto (throat); and meaty komekami (temple). The yudetan (tongue) is simmered all day until tender. The staff was diligent in keeping their work areas and cutting boards spotless—a reassuring sign—and the attentive servers saw that our glasses never went empty.
3-7-3 Shinjuku. Tel: 03-3354-4829. Open daily 3pm-midnight. Nearest stn: Shinjuku, east exit. http://tinyurl.com/saisei
Ebisu Itchome Horumon
This simply designed restaurant features a power vacuum over each table’s gas grill to suck up the smoke. The staff suggested we start off with liver sashimi, which was very fresh but cut too thick. The next course of grilled naizo was our favorite, especially the fatty tontoro (neck) and hearty hatsumoto (aorta). Ebisu Itchome’s signature dish, the kopuchan nabe, is filled with vegetables to balance the fatty small intestines. The loud music explains why our phone calls went unanswered while we were lost for 45 minutes, so make sure you bring along a good map.
1-22-23 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-6277-0777. Open daily 11:30am-3pm and 6pm-5am. Nearest stn: Ebisu, east exit. http://r.gnavi.co.jp/g431308
Guide to popular horumon varieties
tan (tongue) タン
tail (tail) テール
nodochinko (uvula) のどちんこ
fuwa (lungs) フワ
burenzu (brains) ブレンズ
tecchan (large intestines) テッチャン
marucho (small intestines) マルチョウ
sunagimo (gizzard) 砂肝
hatsu (heart) ハツ
nankotsu (cartilage) なんこつ
kashira (temples) かしら
teppo (rectum) てっぽー
tontoro (neck) 豚とろ
hatsumoto (aorta) はつもと
pai (breast) ぱい
sao (tip of the penis) さお
shikin (esophagus) しきん
gatsu (guts) がつ
nodomoto (throat) のどもと
komekami (temple) こめかみ
yude-tan (simmered tongue) ゆでタン
While I love nihonshu (Japanese sake), my preference is for the locally distilled spirit, shochu. While working at Takashimaya the company paid for those of us in the sake department to cross train in other areas of specialty. As a sommelier (wine specialist) I could choose from nihonshu or shochu and selected shochu, as there was no one that I knew of that time who was writing in English about shochu, and because I enjoyed it so much.
The coursework was very intense. First of all it was only in Japanese (no surprise here) and the text was filled with kanji (Chinese characters) that were new to me. While I feel comfortable reading Japanese cookbooks the shochu specific Japanese language was a big challenge. One benefit of working in the sake department at Takashimaya is that we talk about shochu, sake, wine, and spirits everyday at work. Also, we were privy to many tastings at the store, and any good salesperson tastes as much as they can to form their own opinions for different beverages. A good friend at the store also was studying for the shochu exam so we studied together. She taught me the kanji and I was able to teach her about the technical process (from my sommelier training).
The exam was intense, a blind tasting, a multiple choice test, and a written exam on service, sales, and promotion of shochu in both retail and restaurants. I passed and shochu is an integral part of my life now.
This article first appeared in Metropolis magazine and highlights the basics on shochu:
http://archive.metropolis.co.jp/tokyo/712/localflavors.asp (text follows)
As the weather cools down, I stay warm with a hot drink—and it’s not tea. What I do is fill up my teacup halfway with some hot water, then top it off with a nice imo jochu.
Shochu is a distilled spirit that can be made from over 60 different base ingredients, which is one of the great splendors of the drink. Among the many flavors are aromatic sweet potato, funky awamori, or ambrosial chestnut. Shochu has been outselling nihonshu since 2003, and while many people refer to shochu as “Japanese vodka,” they often forget to mention that shochu is lower in alcohol. While vodka is typically about 40-60 percent, shochu comes in at a nice 25-40. When cut in half by adding some hot (or cold) water, the shochu all of a sudden becomes 12-20 percent alcohol, or similar to wine.
Shochu is an easy drink to understand, and the tips below will make you an expert in no time.
• Some of the base ingredients used to make shochu include sweet potato, cane sugar, rice, chestnuts and barley. Other varieties are infused with flavorings such as sesame seeds or shiso.
• There are two types of shochu. One has otsurui or honkaku shochu on the label, and the other has korui. Otsurui and honkaku shochu are distilled only once, and retain the aromas and flavor of the base ingredient; they’re meant to be consumed straight or on the rocks. Korui is used for making mixed drinks.
• There are three types of koji mold that can be used to make shochu: white, yellow, or black. This information is not always stated on the label, but if it is, consider it an indicator of the kind of drink you’ll get. White koji (shiro koji) is the standard variety and creates a softer, lighter, easier-on-the-palate shochu. Yellow koji (ki koji) is the same mold that’s used for making nihonshu; shochu using the yellow variety are floral on the nose and also lighter on the palate. Black koji (kuro koji) makes a big, brash, bold shochu that lingers on your palate.
• Familiarize yourself with the names of the prefectures in Kyushu, which is the heartland of shochu (so much so, in fact, that when locals says “sake,” they are often referring to shochu, not nihonshu). Names to look for include Kagoshima, Miyazaki, Oita, Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Amami Oshima and Okinawa.
• Some prefectures are associated with certain base ingredients. Okinawa is famous for awamori made from Thai rice and black koji. Amami Oshima is known for sugar cane or brown sugar. For sweet potato shochu, look for Kagoshima, and for mugi (barley) try Oita.
• How to drink shochu? There are no rules, and this is where you can have fun. Enjoy it on the rocks, or with some water, soda or fruit juice. If you are interested in shochu but aren’t quite ready to start drinking it straight, consider mixing a shochu cocktail. Try some tonyu (soy milk) with some goma shochu (sesame shochu) on the rocks.
• My appreciation for shochu has grown dramatically over the last 20 years. First of all, there is a much wider variety available at the shops around town these days. Shochu is also very food-friendly and often finds its way to my table. And, because it’s distilled, shochu will keep for several months after the bottle is opened. Invest in a bottle, try it several ways, and see if you, too, will become a fan of shochu.
If this whets your appetite, check-out the website www.theshochu.com, which offers the best information on the topic in English.
Shochu cheat sheet
白麹 shiro koji
黄麹 ki koji
黒麹 kuro koji
本格焼酎 honkaku shochu
米 kome (rice)
麦 mugi (barley)
黒糖 kokuto (black sugar)
芋 imo (potato)
Some of my favorite shops at Tsukiji Market. This article first appeared in Metropolis magazine.
http://archive.metropolis.co.jp/tokyo/682/localflavors.asp (text follows)
It is no surprise that the bustling, frenetic Tsukiji Market is a popular tourist destination. Nowhere else in the world will you see so many varieties of seafood under one roof. Restaurants such as Sushi Dai and Daiwa Sushi have lines out the door before the sun comes up with customers hungry for fish as fresh as it comes.
The Tsukiji places that I am most familiar with, however, are the many shops in the outer market. These are open to the public, and you can get your hands on the same goods that are stocked in many of the top restaurants in town. Keep in mind that shopping at Tsukiji is not as easy as at, say, depachika. Navigating the narrow aisles of Tsukiji, you must watch where you step and be mindful of the speeding stevedores. But your energies and efforts will be rewarded. Here are some of my favorite shops; I am sure you will discover your own.
If you are allergic to cooking, or are too busy to bother, you can pick up ready-to-go meals. For fans of oden, Tsukugon puts the convenience-store varieties to shame. Served up with some nihonshu, these bites of fish deep-fried and stuffed with goodies like shrimp or gobo (burdock) are irresistible. An oden feast wouldn’t be complete without some tender, slow-simmered daikon, deep-fried ganmodoki tofu, and light, airy hanpen fish cakes, which look like marshmallows.
Fans of dim sum can indulge in the homemade yummies at Yamucha Suga Shoten. The food here is much better than anything you can get at your local supermarket, and it saves you a trip to Chinatown in Yokohama. Chill some beers, pack your steamer with gyoza, shumai and nikuman, and you are ready to chow.
For home cooks, there are plenty of shops to satisfy any urge. In the mood for something hot and spicy? Check out the varieties of kimchi, including negi, sesame leaf and octopus, at Marukita. Fill up your basket with Korean seaweed, sweet miso for barbecues or marinades, and some creamy, sweet makkoli—low in alcohol and an interesting alternative to Japanese nigorizake. Incorporate the kimchi into fried rice, serve it up in a nabe with some tofu and thinly sliced pork, or simply eat it as a beer snack with some of that addictive Korean seaweed flavored with sesame oil and a generous sprinkle of salt.
The variety of vegetables available in Japan is one of the delights of cooking at home. At Vegetable Ishibashi, you will discover produce you can’t find at your neighborhood supa. Check out the kyo-yasai—vegetables native to Kyoto, such as mizuna salad greens. Kyo-imo potatoes simmered until tender are dense and rich, and the sweet, burnt-orange kyo-ninjin carrots will add color to any dish.
If you are excited by the smell of sweet vinegar, and if pickles tickle your toes, don’t miss Juichiya. With over 400 varieties of seasonally changing pickles in their portfolio, this shop offers
a couple hundred at any time of the year—colorful vegetables pickled in salt, vinegar, miso and more. From the ubiquitous umeboshi apricots found in every bento box to the heady narazuke, which is pickled for years and is an acquired taste, you’ll find something here to make you pucker.
The venerable knife shop Aritsugu, from Kyoto’s Nishiki Market, dates back 400 years. At its sister shop in Tsukiji, you can invest in everything from knives to graters to strainers. The cutlery, if cared for properly, will last a lifetime, and would make a great gift for any cook.
Tsukiji is centrally located in the heart of the city, just a short walk from Ginza or Tsukiji stations. It’s scheduled to move to Toyosu in 2012, so come now and dive in to the market before it becomes a part of history.
These shops are open every day except Sunday, national holidays and Tsukiji market holidays (usually two Wednesdays per month).
Tsukugon 4-12-5 Tsukiji. Tel: 03-3542-0181. Open 7am-2:30pm.
Yamucha Suga Shoten 4-10-2 Tsukiji. Tel: 03-3541-9941. Open 6am-3pm.
Marukita 4-9-5 Tsukiji. Tel: 03-3543-5643. Open 5am-1:30pm.
Vegetable Ishibashi 4-10-1 Tsukiji. Tel: 03-3545-1538. Open 5am-1pm (approx).
Juichiya 5-2-1 Tsukiji. Tel: 03-3541-8118. Open 5-11am.
Aritsugu 4-13-6 Tsukiji. Tel: 03-3541-6890. Open 5:30am-3pm.