The old adage is true. You never truly appreciate something until it’s gone. Like, say, your appetite. Or even the ability to eat something without having it transform your stomach in a raging maelstrom. At the beginning of this trip, I was on the top of the world, assuming I’d get to try anything and everything. The bechamel-laced gratin croquette from Tokyo McDonalds. The ice cream waffle sandwich from Ginza’s Manneken. A casual lunch-time visit to Pizza Seirinkan in Naka-Meguro. I figured there’d be time. But there wasn’t. Instead, there was a banana and sliced bread and a manuka honey throat lozenge Akemi picked up at Mitsukoshi department store the other day.
Not even a final drink at Star Bar or a return visit to Butagumi for their delicious braised pork appetizer.
Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. I don’t fly out until 6:05 p.m. tomorrow evening. Maybe there’s still hope?
We started our Tokyo trip with lunch at Sawada sushi and ended it with a dinner there. As always, excellent. On last night’s visit, we ended up befriending some of our fellow diners and retiring to Star Bar for a nightcap – cocktails for them and a medicinal stomach-settling amaro for me.
So, we fly back to Vancouver today. By the time you read this blog entry, Akemi and I will already be thinking about eventually heading to the airport to catch our flight back to Canada. Unless, of course, you read it much later in which case we’ll already be in the air.
Thanks for coming along!
P.S. I am NOT looking forward to that 90 minute shuttle bus ride to the airport.
I think I actually put on some weight on this trip. No. Really. Upon my arrival in Tokyo, I had a choice between two notches on my belt – the first, a little tight; the second, a little loose. I opted for the latter and, fourteen days later, that loose notch is actually kind of snug. Wha- happened?! I thought all the walking I was doing would burn off the extra calories. Okay, granted, I have been eating a lot – but no more than on previous visits. I even took a bit of a break today, not so much out of a desire to curtail my culinary spree as it was the fact that I just wasn’t hungry after “the ramen debacle”. I was up most of the night and into this morning nursing a sore stomach and I simply couldn’t do it today.
But that didn’t stop me from trying.
For lunch, we went out for oden, a traditional Japanese “comfort food” consisting of daikon radish, fish cake, boiled eggs, and konyakku, a flavorless potato noodle with a consistency like jelly. It’s all served in a dashi broth and is beloved by many here, including Akemi. Me, not so much, but I didn’t mind. If Akemi was willing to eat deep-fried pork tonkatsu with me, I was certainly willing to eat a giant steamed radish for her. True love, huh?
Otakou: 2-2-3 Nihombashi, Tokyo
After lunch, I was feeling surprisingly “not terrible”, so rather than head back to the hotel, I accompanied Akemi on a stroll through Nihombashi.
Although I still wasn’t hungry by the time we returned to Ginza, I figured I had to get back on the horse, just like a real athlete plays through pain. With only days to go before my departure, I have a lot of ground to cover after all! So we started off easy, sharing a meager two dessert snacks that we picked up at the Peninsula Hotel and brought back to our room:
One of the desserts Akemi was dying to tru was the famed Peninsula Hotel mango pudding, purportedly THE BEST mango pudding ever. So, I had to try it as well. And the verdict? It was pretty damn good mango pudding! I never thought I’d ever say those words.
Akemi also surprised me with a box of assorted chocolates from Madame Setsuko, an Osaka legend. She gifted me a similar box after our first date way back in 2009, dropping them off at my hotel on her way to work the next morning. Sweet, no?
Well, with time winding down on our trip, we’re making the most of our last few days by paying second visits to some of our favorite haunts. Last night, it was L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon for another excellent dinner:
Followed by a romantic night-time stroll through Roppongi:
P.S. In retrospect, that Hattendo fresh cream bun before bedtime was huge mistake. I was up all night!
Nobody appreciates the fine arts like I do and it should come as no surprise that there’s nothing I enjoy more than hitting the local museums whenever I visit a foreign city. Such was the case yesterday when Akemi and I woke up early so that we could catch the bullet train to Yokohama and check out one of its most famous museums: The Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum. There, we checked out the masters who dabble in oils, broth, and noodles…
Truth be told, it’s not really much of a museum. The educational portion is scant, but the hands-on experience is plentiful with a wide variety of ramen to choose from. The lower level of the museum has been transformed into a latter-day Japan complete with winding back alleys, shuttered old time bars, and numerous ramen-yas.
A chart at the entrance gives you a rundown of the dozen or so chefs and their respective ramen. Then, it’s up to you. Choose a place and enter your order at the little machine outside the restaurant. Then, all you have to do is grab a spot in line and wait to be seated.
The choices were overwhelming, so I simply went with what I thought looked good. We started at a place called Ganja where we ordered…
It was, hands down, the best ramen I’ve ever had. Both broths were incredibly complex, rich with levels of flavor. The thick slice of pork was incredibly tender, the egg I got with my broth perfectly cooked, and the noodles terrific. I honestly could have ordered another bowl – not because I was still hungry, but because I didn’t want the meal to end.
We ordered two small bowls so that we could sample some of the other ramens being offered. The busiest ramen-ya by far was Sumire that had a line-up that snaked around the corner. We dutifully lined up, placed our order, and gradually inched our way toward the entrance…
Wow. And not in a good way. After Ganja, what a letdown. My miso ramen was fine but I found Akemi’s shoyu ramen was possessed of an unpleasant, oily flavor. In fact, both broths were surprisingly oily.
There was a couple standing behind us in line. She didn’t want ramen but he did. Unfortunately, the house rules state that everyone taking up table room must order ramen. So, they compromised. He sat down and ate his ramen while she stood outside and watched him. Weird.
We finished up by taking a tour of the “museum” section and shop that offered everything from ramen keychains and chopsticks to your own personalized box of ramen.
We took a little stroll through Shin-Yokohama, then caught the bullet train back to Tokyo where we took an even longer stroll through Tokyo Station. An unintended one as we got turned around at some point and spent close to an hour trying to find the subway back to our hotel. The place is huge!
Finally, we made it back!
I arrived back at the hotel to discover a package awaiting me. It was from Akemi’s mother and it was filled with what I estimate to be about a year’s word of matcha (ceremonial green tea)! Between this and everything I’m planning to pick up, it looks like I may have to invest in a second suitcase.
We tried to work off dinner with a walk along Ginza-dori…
For dinner we went to Chikuyotei, one of the country’s oldest unagi restaurants. It holds special meaning for Akemi because it was a favorite of her grandfather’s who used to take her there when she was young.
Alas, no tables available so we had to settle for floor seating. And by “floor seating”, I mean we sat on the floor at a low table. Apparently, this isn’t terribly uncommon in Japan and many Japanese have mastered the art. I, unfortunately, have not and spent much to the meal shifting uncomfortably between kneeling, sitting cross-legged, and stretching my legs out underneath the table.
We ordered from an English menu that helpfully warned us to “be careful for the eel bones”. So we were. As for the meal…
Another great meal and, I’m sure, very natsukashii for Akemi.
Chikuyotei: 8-14-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Well, I think the law of averages has finally caught up with me. I fear I’ve done in – not by the little aliens in my soup or the countless cream-filled desserts or even the chicken sashimi. It was the ramen! I woke up this morning feeling like my stomach has undergone a mochi massage…
I have at least one revelatory dining experience every time I visit Tokyo and, on this trip, it was the dinner I had at Esquisse, Tokyo’s hottest French restaurant. Located on the 9th floor of the Royal Crystal Ginza, Esquisse has only been open a year and a half but, in that short time, under the stewardship of the Head Chef Lionel Beccat, it has made a name for itself amongst a host of culinary luminaries.
How great was our meal? Well, it was so good that Akemi, who had hitherto proclaimed herself “not a fan of French cuisine”, did an about face and has now declared herself very much a fan. At least so far as Esquisse is concerned. “The best meal I’ve eaten on this trip,”was what she said. And we’ve had A LOT of terrific meals on this trip.
Every dish was a visual marvel, and the intricacies of its textural and flavor combinations nothing short of incredible. Descriptions would not do any of them justice so, instead, feast your eyes…
If you’re making plans to visit Tokyo, put this one at the top of your To-Do list.
Esquisse: Royal Crystal Ginza 9F, 5-4-6 Ginza, Tokyo
Overall, it was another of good eating. We were out the door fairly early this morning so that Akemi could check out one of her favorite chocolate shops, Chocolat de H, which had relocated to Shibuya’s Shin Q department store. We walked the basement food section and I snapped some surreptitious pics. For some reason photography is not permitted in the building so, if you report me, I’ll deny any knowledge of the photos or this blog…
We picked up a few desserts (for later) and had just enough time to cram them into our hotel fridge before heading downstairs to meet up with Akemi’s old friend and co-worker, Nihei, who took us to lunch.
We walked the five blocks over to Kushino Bou, a terrific kushiage restaurant. For those not in the know, kushiage cuisine offers an assortment of panko-crusted deep-fried favorites. We were seated at counter and were instructed to simply tell them “Stop” when we’d had enough. And then it began, skewer after skewer after skewer after skewer…
Akemi maxed out at around twelve. Nihei and I managed about twenty. Apparently, the restaurant’s average repertoire includes anywhere from 40-50 different skewers a seating, so if you’re planning to “sample a bit of everything”, make sure to skip breakfast.
After lunch, we strolled over to Akemi’s former workplace, Pierre Marcolini, where we picked up some thank-you chocolates for Nihei.
We bid our host a fond farewell and burned off lunch with a little walk so that we could return to the hotel room and sample the desserts we had purchased that morning…
Not a bad one in the bunch. The cheesecake was particularly intriguing – not overly sweet and a touch salty.
In the afternoon, we did a little advance Christmas shopping. Among the notable sights:
And we capped off our night at….where else?…Star Bar. Check out Master Kishi-san doing his thing. He’s a machine!
If there’s one thing the Japanese love, it’s a line-up. And this fact was reinforced as we strolled through Ometasando yesterday where we noted not one, not two, but THREE line-ups. The first for a newly opened popcorn shop (?), the second for some other presumably new shop of indeterminate nature, and the third…for a Shakey’s Pizza! I mean, come on! Shakey’s Pizza?
We had lunch at a yasai-ya (vegetable restaurant) where we enjoyed a very healthy-tasting meal after which Akemi headed off to a head spa while I caught the subway to Akihabara, Geek central:
And, this time, I didn’t return empty-handed. My new purchases:
For dinner, we met up with my friend Koji, man about town and Tokyo expert, who took us to one of the most happening yakitori restaurants in town: Morimoto in Shibuya.
It was an excellent meal, highlighted by some noteworthy menu selections, among them the house tsukune (minced chicken), the crispy bonjiri chicken butt), chicken heart and even some chicken sashimi…
The verdict? I preferred the chicken butts. Overall, a terrific meal.
Morimoto: Hamanokami building 1F, 2-7-4, Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
From there, our host, Koji, took us to Nombei Yokocho. Located down a side alley, it’s a block made up of a host of tiny stand-up bars and eateries evocative of old Edo. As we walked down the street, Koji gave me the rundown of the various establishments. “This place is owned by an old high school friend who serves up excellent meguro. That one is owned by a very nice Russian woman who tends the bar. This one is run by a former French chef and serves some amazing cheeses and wines.”
We ended up at Saya, a tiny bar belonging to an old friend of Koji’s. And I do mean tiny. About the size of my bathroom, it has counter seating for four and standing room for another three. Still, the cramped confines are conducive to a real get-to-know-you atmosphere.
Four sakes in and I was ready for bed. At approximately 8:00 p.m. I felt like THIS guy –
AND I had the munchies. So I stopped off at McDonalds and grabbed an ebi (shrimp) burger. Then, a mini tonkatsu (fried pork) burger at some other place. Oh, and a chocolate eclair. To help soak up the alcohol and prevent hangovers. Works like a charm. You should try it some time!
An early night as as I have big day ahead of me. Details to come!
Yesterday, we took a day trip to Akemi’s old stomping grounds, catching the Chiyoda line from Hibiya station to Yoyogi Uehara where we transferred to the Odakyu line and finally arrived in Seijogakuen-mae. In short, just a little easier to get there than it is to pronounce…
Once we arrived the first thing we did was go on a tour of the places Akemi used to frequent – like, say, the local grocery store…
Then, we took a stroll through the area. Akemi offered insight throughout the tour. “This is where you can come and get your shirts dry-cleaned,”she would helpfully point out as we’d pass a dry-cleaners. And “This is where you can get your hair cut” – as we’d walk by a barber shop. “And this is where you can buy your insurance.”
Akemi had a hankering for soba (buckwheat noodles), so we had lunch at a soba restaurant called Akatsukian.
For dessert, we headed over to another one of Akemi’s old haunts: Seijo Alpes…
Akemi had a chestnut dessert that I found not sweet enough and texturally kind of strange – but she loved. “Very Japanese taste,”she said. I, on the other hand, had a decadent hazelnut taste. Very Joe taste.
And the overall verdict?
As we walked through the area, Akemi kept mentioning what a great neighborhood it was and how wonderful it would be to live there. I was unconvinced until I came across these guys…
We continued our exploration of Seijogakuen-mae with a little tour of the local bakeries. We picked up a few samples for…well…sampling.
We eventually wrapped up our tour and caught the subway to Shinjiku where two girls complimented me on my awesome Attack on Titan cell phone cover, and we walked some more…
It was a great day – but little did I know that the best was yet to come. Our evening was so awesome, I can’t properly do it justice in the tail end of this blog so what I’m going to do is give our outing its own special blog entry later in the day. Consider it a bonus blog entry.
Now, I don’t want to say too much and spoil the surprise, but here’s a sneak preview…
Akemi: When I was a kid, I had big eyes. Like everyone in my family.
Akemi: I’m not sure. Maybe because we eat a lot of meat.
Well, just a little meat for me yesterday – but a lot of whisky.
We joined Akemi’s family for lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in Tokyo, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, a place that offers terrific high-end value for your money. If you’re looking to sample Michelin-starred cuisine without breaking the bank, this is where you should come.
This was my third visit to L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and I can honestly say that not only have I never had a bad meal here; I’ve never had a bad dish here. That’s damn impressive. So much so that we made dinner reservations for next week.
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon: 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato
We exited the restaurant and just happened to stumble upon (okay, I had this scoped out days in advance) the Roppongi Hills Whisky Festival showcasing a bunch of Japanese blended and single malts.
I sampled the 18 year old Yamazaki (at one third the price of what it cost me for a shot in L.A.) and the 21 year Hibiki. I’ll be coming back for the Hakushu and Kaku.
After the whisky-tasting, I was feeling nostalgic and melancholy – so I figured a trip to the Mori Art Museum to check out the Charles Schulz retrospective was just the thing. We filed through the packed rooms and checked out Peanuts arts ranging from early sketch work through the various decades (Akemi: Snoopy went to war? Me: Yeah. He killed thirty nazis!).
Akemi: “Charlie has a humungous face. How does he support his body?”
Ah, good times. My sister was a huge Snoopy fan – and still has a soft spot for the lovable beagle. Maybe I’ll bring her back something nice from the gift shop for minding my dogs while we’re away in Tokyo.
Mori Art Museum: 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato
While in town, I’m thinking of checking out a Japanese movie:
We returned to the hotel to gather our strength for the night ahead. A little downtime, a little snack:
And we were ready to head out once again:
We had dinner reservations at Fook Lam Moon, a Chinese restaurant with branches in Hong Kong, Ginza, and Marunouchi. Akemi and I arrived early so we killed some time…
We dined with Akemi’s family – mom, dad, brother, sister, and new brother-in-law – and had another great meal.
Despite all we had accomplished on the day, it was still early so we had one more stop to make before turning in for the night. We headed to Ginza and my home away from home: Star Bar. It was great to see the old gang!
Yamazaki-san does his thing:
Star Bar: Sankosha Building B1F, 1-5-13 Ginza, Tokyo
Yesterday, Akemi and I did breakfast Tokyo Convenience Style, sitting down to a lovely spread: spicy orange-hued chicken nuggets devoid of any real chicken taste or texture, a soggy pork bun, another much better barbecued pork bun we received instead of the actual pizza bun we had ordered, an alarmingly runny aloe yogurt (with the fruit plant at the bottom) and, to wash it all down, a bottle of milk soda. The verdict? I was pleasantly surprised by the milk soda that tasted like Japan’s famed Calpis soda. As for the rest….Well…
With our breakfast sitting in our stomachs like quick-drying cement, we headed to the Yushima neighborhood for lunch at Kurogi, a popular kaiseki restaurant. Having never visited Kurogi, or the area, before, we decided to get there a little early and walk around…
A map of the area showed what appear to be two stairways, one named The Men’s Slope, the other The Women’s Slope. Not sure whether there are any hard and fast rules about men walking up the women’s slope (and vice-versa) but, according to Akemi, word has it that anyone who fall while climbing up either will die in three years – or lose three years off their lifespan. “Where’d you hear this rumor?”I asked her. “Not rumor,”she informed me. “It common sense.”
As we continued our walkabout, I noticed Akemi slowing down. It turned out her feet were killing her. Her boots were NOT made for walking. And so, we ended up stopping off at a discount shoe store where Akemi bought this – er – stylish pair…
Ultimately, she wasn’t that worried about how they looked so long as they were comfortable.
Well, they were comfortable for about a half an hour – after which she had to purchase some band-aids to keep the inside of the shoes from chafing her heel. That helped. For maybe fifteen minutes and, soon, Akemi was back to strolling in her original boots.
We wound our way around the small side streets and alleys, brimming with character and tiny restaurants. I stopped to help a middle-aged woman who had slipped and fallen and couldn’t get up. She thanked my while her friends remarked what a gentleman I was. Oh, tondemonai!
We finally arrived at our lunch reservation and discovered other diners awaiting the 12:30 seating…
We filed in at a little after 12:30 and were seated at the main counter where we were presented with our lunch. No ordering. It’s an omakase (chef’s choice) set lunch comprised of snapper in a sesame-based sauce, pickles, salmon roe, miso soup, and rice. And we were informed we could have as much rice and sashimi as we liked. Akemi had a second bowl of rice. I did both rice and sashimi. The two older women seated to my right had three bowls of the sashimi.
While we ate, we watched the chef’s prep for the more elaborate dinner service. Here a chef prepares the delicacy Bottarga, the salted and cured roe of the mullet fish:
A quick and casual kaiseki meal but no less delicious. And one of the most economical I’ve ever had at roughly $10 per person. Dinner is roughly double the price – but an equal bargain considering the expanded menu. If you’re in town and want to try kaiseki (traditional Japanese meal) without breaking the bank, be sure to make a reservation: http://www.kurogi.co.jp/pg14.html
Well, I haven’t tracked down that Neon Genesis Evangelion cover for my new iPhone, but I did find THIS equally cool substitute:
We unwound back at the hotel, then walked over to the Matsuya department store for a snack at La Maison de Chocolat. A couple of hot chocolates, a chocolate-pistachio macaron, and –
I was especially looking forward to dinner because the place we were headed – in the city’s rougher, working man’s section of Ikkebukuro – was a far cry from most of the high-end eateries I’ve visited over my many trips to Tokyo. We were going to Kabuto, a tiny, family-run restaurant specializing in grilled eel.
The place was even tinier than I expected, comprised of two tiny tables and a long counter. The customers sat on one side, offering about two feet of clearance behind them for people to negotiate the room, single file. On the other side, the unagi master ran the show while (I assumed) his wife and son, did the honors: taking our orders [you have a choice between the small (one eels), medium (one and a half eels), and large (two eels) meals], pouring the sake, plating the food and, in son’s case, gutting and cleaning the eel that were kept in a bucket below the counter. He would pull one up, kill it by severing its spinal cord with a quick slash, then nail its head to a designated area. Thus secured, he would use his knife to slice it neatly in half, remove its spine in another expert stroke, trim off any inedible parts, and then skewer the meat, ready for eating. Oh, he also demonstrated his knife skills by divesting the eel of its heart which is served raw and still beating. But don’t take my word for it. Check out the videos below.
Meanwhile, the unagi master, the star of the chef, grilled the eel, fanning the morsels. Our fellow diners were positively raucous – and super friendly. It was like one giant friends and family dinner.
Akemi has a heart:
Rustic, raucous, and utterly delicious. By night’s end, I was thoroughly stuffed – and a little tipsy. I bought a round for the two boisterous salarymen we had befriended (“From Canada,”the woman who took my order informed them), then paid the bill (cash only) and headed back to the hotel for my first blissfully deep and interrupted sleep in days. Restaurant Report – Unagi Kabuto in Tokyo – NYTimes.com
Yesterday, I ended up going to Yokohama for the day. It was my first visit to the area and I was wowed. It’s absolutely beautiful, alternately reminding me of New York in parts, Paris in others, and even San Diego at times. My friend, Moro-san, was my tour guide for the day, taking me absolutely everywhere. We walked all day, from the moment Akemi dropped me off (she insisted on accompanying me for the 40 minute trip from Tokyo because she didn’t trust my metro-switching abilities) to our climb up the steep street to our eventual dinner destination. Yes, we stopped for lunch, but it was a short reprieve.
Moro-san calls Yokohama home as do many who make the aforementioned 40-minute commute to Tokyo for work every day. According to Akemi, much of the Tokyo workforce prefer the less costly option of living in the outlying area surrounding the city proper, something that is referred to as “donuts kagensho”, aka “the donut situation”. And, I have to admit, was weighing this fantasy option during my stroll through Yokohama. Over the course of my day, I picked out a potential apartment building, a local supermarket, a dry-cleaner – even a prospective doggy daycare.
Akemi and I arrived thirty minutes in advance of the appointed meeting time so we headed up (and up and up) and out and checked out Yokohama’s famed Chinatown.
I accompanied Akemi back down to the station where I saw her off, then awaited Moro-san’s arrival. While cooling my heels, I checked out some of the advertised activities the area had to offer…
Finally, camera-shy Moro-san arrived and we headed up (and up and up) and out once again for the grand walking tour.
First stop, Yamashita Park:
Then, we headed back to Chinatown for a more thorough walking tour of the district:
We moved on and into the shopping district:
We then proceeded though the quaint, winding backstreets of Moro-san’s neighborhood:
We had lunch at an Italian restaurant called Rega. As we settled in, I complained about how hot it was. I mean, I was really burning up. As it turned out, it wasn’t me, it was my phone. It had remained on camera mode since my last photo and the damn thing was sizzle-hot! I turned it off and set it down on the table, hoping that would forestall any imminent explosion. Fortunately, it did. Unfortunately, the battery was almost completely drained.
We continued our stroll and I continued snapping pics until my phone died…
And that’s about when my battery tapped out. After a full day’s walk, we sat down to a wonderful kaiseki dinner at a place called Chatubo. The chef went to great lengths to achieve the autumn theme, featuring seasonal ingredients and decorating each dish with fall leaves and a sprinkling of fresh water with the shake of a matcha whisk to approximate the look of rainfall.
By the time we were done, I was exhausted. I checked my phone, discovered it had reacquired enough power for me to check and respond to Akemi’s email, assuring her she didn’t have to come all the way to Yokohama to pick me up. I was competent enough to brave the Tokyo subway on my own. And I was – with the exception of the moment I got off at the wrong station and had to wait for the next train.
An early night meant another early wake-up. 6:30 a.m. for me. Plenty of time to upload this entry, set my line-up for this weekend’s fantasy football league match (My Snow Monkeys take on Tebow Sucks and I’ve been deliberating over whether to start Dwayne Bowe as my WR2), and indulge in some in-room dining:
Today, we head to Naka-Meguro for lunch at my favorite pizza place, Pizza Seirinkan, and later tonight to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel for Akemi’s first visit to The Molecular Tapas Bar.
Finally, thanks to everyone who has left kind messages for my sis. The prognosis for her husky, Aspen, is not good and it looks like she’ll have to make the most difficult decision this weekend.