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…
Tokyo is a vibrant metropolis of neon lights and raucous party districts, 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. work days and all night manga cafes were salarymen who have missed the last subway home can catch a few hours sleep before sunrise. It’s can be chaotic and crowded…
And yet, there are parts of Tokyo that are strangely idyllic, isles of solitude amid the mayhem. One such area is the neighborhood of Daikanyama, a district I would want to call home…if a move to Japan was ever in the cards. What really distinguishes it for me, besides the tree-lined roads, quiet side streets, and generally laid-back attitudes is the prevalence of dog owners. If you want to meet some dogs, Daikanyama is the place to go. And, today, I did. And did.
And another half-dozen dogs who moved so quickly, the photos I snapped were unusable.
Earlier in the day, we enjoyed an excellent lunch at Sushi Kanesaka. Some of the highlights:
We were served by the affable Chef Sanpei who spoke pretty solid English. According to him, one of their former regulars was an English teacher who used to come in twice a weak and give the staff lessons while he ate. They’re obviously fast-learners!
A great place for sushi enthusiasts who are a little apprehensive about the language barrier.
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
We sure are experiencing a lot of turbulence, I thought to myself in my sleep-addled state. Suddenly, I stopped brushing. Wait a minute. I’m in my hotel room.
“Did you feel the earthquake?”asked Akemi as I stepped out of the bathroom. The national news was already reporting on the 4.0 quake, a relatively minor that, to me, felt a little more significant. But business as usual here I suppose.
Yesterday, Akemi and I headed over to Roppongi for a little pre-lunch stroll through Roppongi (it of the giant spider art, Das). The plan was to check out Le Chocolat H but, alas, our favorite Japanese chocolatier had packed up and moved to Shibuya. So, instead, we walked back to Mori Hills and checked out a two-day farmer’s market. It was just like back home complete with food trucks and guys dressed up like giant vegetables. I am a sucker for samples and try to avoid them as much as possible, especially here in Japan where everything is delicious. On this occasion, I didn’t – and ended up buying a bag of oranges to take back to the hotel with me.
Oranges in tow, we made the fifteen walk over to Nishi-Azabu where we were meeting Akemi’s family for lunch at Butagumi, my favorite tonkatsu restaurant. Situated in a quaint old building in a back alley, Butagumi specializes in crispy, almost ethereal, fried pork cutlets from all over Japan – and beyond. On this day, we enjoyed three different varieties along with the traditional slaw, pickles, rice – and one of my very favorite dishes: the braised pork appetizer.
The talk of the table was, of course, Akemi sister’s, Hiromi’s, upcoming wedding. The ceremony will be steeped in tradition. Everything will be exact, from the exchanging of the vows to the specific envelope in which the money gift is presented. Unfortunately, Akemi hadn’t a clue which of the dozens of money envelopes on display at the local Ito-ya would work, so she had her sister and mother pick one up for us. Elaborate, no?
After lunch, we sent Akemi’s family off with some oranges, then Akemi and I headed back the way we came, making our way over to Tokyo Midtown…
I was in the mood for a little dessert but, it being the weekend, the place was so crowded I gave up in favor of some chocolate-covered waffles at the little stand-up shop in Ginza. Which also had a line-up, so we returned to the hotel where I ate a couple of oranges.
For dinner last night, I paid a return visit to one of Tokyo’s most dynamic restaurants, headed by one of its most creative chefs: L’Effervesence. It’s a bit of a walk from Omotesando, tucked away in a little alleyway – but if you can find it, it’s well worth the trip!
I met up with my good friend, Tomomi. who introduced me to the place last year. And, like last year, the meal was nothing short of spectacular. Some of the highlights included:
Other standouts included an appetizer mousse made up of Hog’s head cheese and Japanese sweet potato, the restaurant’s signature whole cooked turnip (slow-cooked for four hours before being simmered in butter and served, incredibly flavorful and, amazingly, still firm), roast Hokkaido venison served with a fig and red wine reduction, chanterelle mushrooms, and yarrow leaves and –
Pictured above, the house signature salad that includes 50 different salad, fruit, vegetables, and herbs.
For dessert, a ginger milk mousse with Darjeeling tea ice cream, apple jelly, lemon preserve, and this favorite:
And, to end things:
After dinner, the ever-humble Chef Shinobu Namae stopped by the table for a quick chat before heading back to the kitchen to complete the evening service. It turns out Chef Shinobu will be heading to our North American neighborhood to take part in the Culinary Institute of America’s World’s of Flavor conference alongside the world’s culinary elite: http://www.worldsofflavor.com/schedule/presenters. Now THAT sounds like fun.
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
Our Tokyo trip got off to a rainy start. But that didn’t temper our enthusiasm. We were up and out at 8:30 a.m., on a quest to track down some convenience store heat lamp spicy chicken nuggets for my breakfast. We were in search of the ubiquitous Lawsons, the one stop shop for everything from whisky to fruit sandwiches. Sadly, a Lawsons proved much harder to find than we expected. Instead, we came across a couple of Natural Lawsons (a weird, bizarro version of the original that didn’t carry any fried foods) and a host of less-impressive Family Mart.
In the end, we decided to table our quest and head underground to kill some time before the stores opened.
We resurfaced to check out another area. Alas, no fried chicken nuggets – but plenty of everything else:
We had lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in Tokyo: Sawada. The sushi was, as always, spectacular. Alas, the restaurant doesn’t allow photography so you’ll have to take my word for it. Akemi spent much of the meal chatting with the surprisingly humorous Sawada-san who talked about his days as a student athlete, training, and philosophy and passion for sushi. We also discussed the new restaurant trend taking Tokyo by storm: standing eateries that see greater profits because of the quick turnover in client. Great if you’re in a rush I suppose – which most everyone seems to be.
While Akemi headed off to Naka-Meguro to get her eyelashes fine-tuned, I went to Akihabara in search of a cover for my new cell phone. I came up empty on that front, but did make these fantastic purchases:
Akemi was still full from lunch when dinner rolled around and, while I wasn’t all that hungry, I couldn’t miss out on a meal opportunity. So, we compromised and headed over to one of the mini malls for some casual Korean…
I figured we’d head over to Star Bar for a night cap but, on the way, we were contacted by Akemi’s mother who had arrived in Tokyo (from Osaka) for her daughters wedding. Whoa, there. Her OTHER daughter, Hiromi. And so, we tabled our Star Bar visit and headed over to Nihombashi…
We met up with Akemi’s mother and sister who were staying at the beautiful Mandarin Oriental Hotel…
By the time we got back to our hotel, I was exhausted. I was in bed by 11:00 and slept, more or less, through until 7:30 a.m.
Woke up this morning to some emails, including a couple from my “point person” on that super-secret project. Very exciting stuff. I just hate the fact that we have to wait until January for the big reveal…
Hello, from the future! November 7th here in Tokyo; November 6th back home for most of you. Having advance knowledge of the day ahead, I wish I could tell you all what is in store for you but, alas, like most travelers to Asia, I had to sign a non-disclosure form while going through customs here. Suffice it to say, some interesting things await. Without, hopefully, being overly-cryptic, let me just offer the following hints: blue, 17, and clydesdale.
Well, once the 11 hour flight touched down and we finally caught the airport shuttle from Narita to the hotel that dropped us off at the Imperial 90 minutes later, and we finally checked in and dropped off our luggage, we were sitting down to dinner at a very respectable 7:00 p.m. local time – and most disrespectful 2:00 a.m. local time. Akemi was exhausted so, rather than venture out, we just followed tradition and grabbed a bite at one of the hotel restaurants, Sans Applause…
We forced ourselves to stay up into the wee hours last night, not going to bed until 10:00 p.m. (9:54 p.m. for Akemi who couldn’t hold out) and slept in until 7:30 a.m. So lazy! I wanted to head down to the Tsukiji Market for some breakfast sushi but Akemi wants to wait until lunch as we’re headed to Sawada for the world’s best sushi meal. So, instead, we’re updating our respective blogs now after which we’ll head off for some early shopping – and maybe a snack for me at the local Lawsons convenience store. Their heat lamp fried chicken looks might inviting!
Other than the lunch reservation, our day is wide open. Akemi wants to check out the Mitsukoshi department store while I, of course, want to hit Akihabara in search of a cool anime-themed cover for my new cellphone. At some point in the next couple of days, I also want to head over to Tokyo Big Sight which is hosting the International Robot Exhibition (http://www.nikkan.co.jp/eve/irex/english/general.html). Remember the time I attended the 2009 Exhibition? Of course you do: November 28, 2009: Tokyo Travel Day #4 – Dai San Harumi, Tokyo Big Sight, Les Creations de Narisawa! Now With 60% More Robots! While we’re on the subject – Akemi’s neck is so incredibly sore from the flight that she actually moves like a robot, stiffly, unable to turn her head without moving her entire upper torso. I fear that the locals will see us walking around and assume I’ve purchased one of those state-of-the-art robot girlfriends.
Finally, thanks to archersangel and the rest of you for all the recommendations. The Weird Food Purchase of the Day video will definitely be making a return appearance on this blog very soon.
There are a grand total of three possible sleeping positions on an airplane seat and I exhausted all three today.
I quite like the timing of the flights both to and from Tokyo. On the way there, the flight departs in the mid-afternoon, giving you plenty of time to sleep in and do your last minute checks and cross-checks before jetting off. By the time you get in, you’re thoroughly exhausted so that, once you’ve touched down, completed the 90 minute ride from Narita airport, checked in, and had a late meal, you’ll be read for bed – at about 9:30 – 10:00 p.m. local time – which is about 4:00 a.m. or 5:00 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. If you keep to this schedule, you’ll be waking up at 6:00 in the morning every day, ready for a sushi breakfast at Tsukiji Market, followed by a nice full day and early night.
The return flight is not quite as great. It leaves at about 7:00 p.m. local time and, after about nine hours of flying, gets in to Vancouver at approximately 11:00 a.m. The game plan is to sleep through the flight as much as possible and then stay up as late as possible on the longest day back to force your body back into a sleep rhythm. Taking a couple of melatonin pills before bedtime helps but, all the same, you’re going to come up against certain nights (actually early mornings) where you’ll find yourself, wide awake, at 4:00 a.m., wrestling with a powerful craving for sushi.
Speaking of which – for our last meal in Japan, I thought it would only be appropriate to go out for sushi. We ended up at Dai San Harumi, a tiny, friendly little place in Shinbashi. Some of the highlights –
An excellent final meal that made me kind of sad as a reminder of exactly what I’d be missing.
After lunch, we stopped by Akemi’s old workplace, the Pierre Marcolini Cafe, so that she could say goodbye to her old friends and co-workers – oh, and grab a dessert while we were there.
I had a marron (chestnut) parfait while Akemi had this terrific new addition to the menu –
Afterwards, we made one final trip to the Mitsukoshi department store and picked up some Christmas gifts, then walked back along one of Ginza’s main streets that is always closed to traffic on weekends. On the way, we were stopped by a camera crew and asked to identify a couple of mysterious dollar store items. We failed miserably as both of my guesses, cucumber zester and dog hammock proved incorrect.
The return trip was uneventful. And this is what greeted us upon our return:
It’s funny but, by the end of our time in Tokyo, Akemi told me that she was actually happy to be leaving and returning to Vancouver. Surprisingly, there was little wistfulness at our departure, just happy memories of our trip, the hope to return for an equally short visit some time next year, and an overwhelming desire to see Bubba again.
My friend Moro-san suggested we go to lunch at Restaurant Esquisse, a relatively new addition to the Ginza dining scene. It has only been open for about four months now and yet, in that short time, garnered some great word of mouth. Always up to trying something new, I booked us a table.
I arrived early and had just taken a seat at the table when I was greeted by a familiar smile. It was none other than Chef Lionel Beccat, the culinary magician who had crafted one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had the pleasure to sit down to in Tokyo – which also happened to be my very first date with Akemi (all the details in pictures here: November 30, 2009: Tokyo Travel Day $6 – Ginza La Tour, Michel Troisgros). Back then he was at Cuisine Michel Troisgros. Today, he heads the kitchen at Restaurant Esquisse and, judging by the meal we enjoyed, he is still firing on all creative cylinders.
Our set lunch course included…
A wonderful lunch. Much thanks to Chiba-san for going above and beyond the call to make our lunch as informative as possible (even though, I’m sure, I’ve missed plenty of the details in attempting to jot them down, shorthand, on my iphone notepad). And, of course, many thanks to Chef Beccat for yet another memorable meal. I’ll definitely be back on my return visit to Tokyo.
Last night, we dined at Chez Tomo in Ginza with Akemi’s friend, Megumi. Akemi was particularly looking forward to the restaurant’s signature vegetable plate. I was dubious – but ended up pleasantly surprised. You’ll see why in a moment…
Homeward-bound today and Akemi and I are really looking forward to seeing the dogs.
Today, Akemi and I headed over to Ikebukuro’s Sunshine City Mall, home to Namco Namja Town’s Gyoza Stadium and Ice Cream City. It’s been some five years since my last visit to Ice Cream City (I still flashback to the aftertaste of that squid ice cream) and I was looking forward to the return trip. This would be Akemi’s first time and she was incredibly excited.
So, did it live up to the hype? In two words: You bet!
We started off by hitting Gyoza Stadium, home to about a dozen stands specializing in about a dozen preparations of the Japanese-style dumplings. It’s less a stadium and really more of a theme area, lantern light-lined narrow alleyways and faux watering holes harkening back to a 1920’s Shanghai.
We wound our way through the various gyoza stands, taking in the dizzying array of preparations. In addition to the menu itemizing the various choices, a general rundown of each stand’s gyoza philosophy – thin vs. thicker wrapper, use of garlic, etc. – offered some help in the decision-making process. All the same, it wasn’t easy.
Eventually, we settled on three stands and placed our orders.
From left to right: Garlic gyoza – tiny, but they packed a significant garlic kick. Our favorite. Beside them, a gyoza medley. From bottom to top: regular pork, kimchee, and charcoal. I liked them although Akemi found the wrapper too thick. And, finally, on the far right, mentaiko (cod roe)-mayo gyoza topped with lotus root. Great.
We were done – but not DONE.
From left to right: Mapo tofu gyoza – I figured they would be stuffed with tofu but they were actually stuffed with pork. And a lot of it. It was topped with mapo tofu which is comprised of bean curd and a spicy chili sauce. I liked it but thought it was a bit too meat heavy. Next to it, the spicy gyoza that, after the mouth-blasting ramen I had at Ippudo the other day, tasted downright tame.
According to Akemi, both gyoza were “for men”:
We were pretty done.
I couldn’t resist sampling Gyoza Stadium’s version of the Siu Long Bao. More of a dumpling than a gyoza, I found the skin a little too thick.
We were stuffed. We couldn’t eat another bite.
Of gyoza. So we headed over to Ice Cream City to peruse the some 300 flavors available.
Because I know you guys would have been disappointed if I didn’t, I selected about a half-dozen weird flavors and sampled them with Akemi, recording the results for your amusement:
I sample eel ice cream:
Sea urchin ice cream:
Wasabi ice cream:
Akemi tries the wasabi ice cream:
Sake ice cream:
Squid ink ice cream:
Akemi hazards a taste:
You like chicken wings? You like ice cream?
Kasu ice cream:
Finally, I wish I could have tried all of them but, with easily over 300+ ice creams to choose from, there’s no way I could have even come close. Sadly, here are some of the more interesting flavors I’ll have to come back for…
We worked off gyoza and ice cream by taking a walk through Namco Namja Town’s meandering corridors, bizarre open courtyards, recessed alcoves, and dead-ends…
Finally, on the way back to the subway station, we came across THIS tiny park frequented by a bunch of laid-back cats.
I assume they’re wild but they didn’t seem to mind human company in the least, either ignoring passersby or sauntering over for attention.
Tons o’ fun! If any of you get to Ice Cream City before my return visit next year, please sample the snake ice cream and post the results.