Sushi, Sake, and Soy Sauce – Consuming and Imbibing in Tokyo

It would be difficult to describe the culture and atmosphere in Tokyo without experiencing the culinary delights that are available, a particular highlights for any traveler visiting the Japan, as the city ranks amongst the top food destinations on the planet.  From greasy noodle shops to high-end kaiseki meals, from smoke-stained yakitori joints to the temples of fish that are the sushi bars, you’ll never run out of options as far as how to fill your belly.  In fact, a recent comparison of the largest metropolitan areas worldwide showed that not only were there more restaurants in Tokyo than other city on the list, but that Tokyo had three times the number as second place finisher.  Add on top of that the fact the Japanese are as exacting and discerning about what they eat as any other culture on the planet.  When speaking of how long a particular chef has to train to master his or her specific craft, the time frame isn’t in weeks or months, as we may normally think in the West, but in years or even decades.  The cuisine here has been elevated to a such a level that meals go beyond merely sustenance and include seasonal elements (both in the ingredients and the presentation), artistic touches from the chef, flashes of tradition in the etiquette of serving, and a bit of wiggle room for improvisation to enhance the personal experience where necessary.

The best point to start the culinary tour through the city is that of Tokyo’s kitchen: Tsukiji Market.  A sprawling mega-market that is famous for its seafood (which is shipped all over the world, in fact), it also has a fruit and vegetable market that one shouldn’t overlook, as well as a variety of cookware vendors, prepared food stalls, and sushi restaurants.  And even though the public is allowed to visit during certain times, this is still a fully functioning market, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled, else you’re liable to be run over by a forklift carrying a few thousands pounds of live fish or a get caught by one of the many sprayers that periodically clean the aisles.

Additionally, for those who are really into sushi, they offer guided tours of the tuna auctions — where a single fish can, on occasion, fetch prices upwards of $100,000 — but unfortunately for me, the payoff of watching a group of fisherman stand over a frozen fish and yell in a language I can’t understand at 5am in the morning wasn’t really up my alley.  I decided to arrive fashionably late around mid-morning, when the seafood wholesaler’s market is first opened to the public:

The Tsukiji Market as seen from above (though I’m not sure climbing up to the roof was really allowed)

Cutlery for sale (though I must question the safety of their storage methods: a big pile)

Aisleways of the vegetable wholesaler’s market

An entire shelf of Matsutake Mushrooms. I shudder to think what this whole lot would cost

It was quite a challenge not to simply dive into these nearly perfect grapes

Soy Beans, a backbone of Japanese cuisine that are used in the making of such ingredients as shoyu (soy sauce), tofu, miso, and natto

Although the fruit and vegetables section was certainly interesting, the heart of Tsukiji is the Seafood Wholesaler’s Section. If is swims, crawls, glides, filters, breathes, or otherwise lives underwater, you can almost certainly find it here

This particular guy was my favorite – I named him “Jim”

See all those foamy bubbles in the tank? That’s from the rapid wriggling action of these very-much alive eels — I’m looking forward to when these get turned into Unagi (see below)

Leading off with Tsukiji makes for a nice transition into one of Japan’s specialty foods — and specifically that of Tokyo — in that of Edo-mai zushi, otherwise known across the globe simply as sushi.  Developed in during the Edo period of Tokyo’s history as one of the world’s first fast foods — being that you can eat it on the go with your fingers — sometime in the early 1800’s, it undoubtedly resulted from an unknown chef’s epiphany to place sashimi (small slices of raw fish) atop a finger of vinegared rice.  And although much of the sushi world is focused on the taste and texture of various cuts of raw fish, raw fish certainly doesn’t encapsulate everything, as many ingredients are often soaked in shoyo or soy sauce, some are simmered quickly before hitting the rice, and on occasion (in today’s newfound pursuit of “unique and novel”), you’ll even come across a fried or tempura bit — though this is far from traditional.  To start my sushi feast in the city in which it was born, I made sure to stop by the famous Daiwa Sushi before leaving Tsukiji market:

Even at 9am in the morning, the wait to get in stretches to over an hour at Sushi Daiwa

The sushi bar with the chefs attentively awaiting your order.  And although I ordered a feast fit for a king, I’ll try to hold back my slide show to the few best bites of the day

There aren’t many better ways to start than with chu-toro, or semi-fatty tuna – a perfect balance of the strong flavor of the lean, red tuna (akami) with the luxurious texture of the fatty tuna (o-toro)

One of my all-time favorite foods on the planet: Uni, or Sea Urchin Roe.  It is pure briney, creamy bliss

The chef-recommended Aji, or Horse Mackerel

Seeing that I obviously indulged in sushi on a nearly daily basis, I made a point of trying my way around a variety of unique offerings reflecting a broad range of what is available.  Here are a few of the other highlights from my time in Tokyo:

Kazunoko, what was the chef described to me as “sea tangle with its roe.” If you are a fan of bitter flavors, this would pretty much be a home run for you

Anago, or “sea eel,” which has a milder and more delicate flavor than that of its ocean-going cousin (Unagi), which makes it more suitable for sushi

Akagai, or “Ark Shell” — the taste was excellent, but it was pretty much the consistency of thick snot

Madai, or “Red Snapper” – it’s has a simply, straightforward flavor, but the texture is really where it shines

Chirashi is another great way to go in regards to sushi, as it allows the chef to choose a sampling of what he feels is the best sashimi (small cuts of fish only), all laid out on a bowl of vinegared rice (so it is still filling enough to be a meal)

Although the quality may not reach the vaulted peaks of the sushi elite, conveyor belt sushi restaurants offer a cheap and fun way to dine. Simply grab whatever floats by and they total you up at the end by the number of plates in front of you

As a side note, I almost hesitated to post any pictures or write about sushi when speaking of Japan, as this is so commonly thought of as the foundation of Japanese cuisine or the crux of what is available, a misnomer and cliché that I didn’t want to perpetuate.  Given that it is one of the regional specialties of Tokyo, however, I persisted and threw it out there anyway.  But alas, there is still so much more to discover.  For a brief intro as far as what is available, a great option is to head to any of the the depachika, of the major department stores, which can be found anywhere in the high-end shopping meccas such as Ginza or Harajuku.  In addition to the clothing, perfume, and whatever else it is that department stores sell (I’m not really much of a shopper), the basement floors here in Tokyo are mini-shrines to all things edible.  This vaulted ground is the land of perfect fruit, perfect vegetables, and the perfectly unreasonable prices to match, unfortunately.  But alas, whether one plans on buying anything, a quick stroll through is more than worth the time:

The heart of the food scene here, however — the everyday, working man’s type of grub — comes in a plate (or bowl) of perfectly cooked, starch-laden noodles.  Whether it’s a cheap and greasy bowl of ramen (Chinese egg noodles in a soup-like broth), the chunky texture of udon (thicker and made with wheat flour), or the pleasingly nutty flavor of soba (made with buckwheat), nothing quite satisfies the locals like a steaming bowl of noodles in any of its thousands of variations.  Although there are some specialty shops selling gourmet versions of this tubular fare — always competing with each as to who has the “best,” whatever that means — noodles are usually just about the quickest and least expensive way to satiate your hunger, and a comfort food for just about everyone.

Looking down the counter at a local noodle joint

As opposed to sitting down and having a waiter or waitress take your order, you’ll usually find a vending machine near the front, where you’ll select your entrée, pay, and then simply hand your ticket to the chef when you take a seat

A hearty bowl of ramen (this version with spinach and an egg)

An alternate option for those particularly hot and humid days is to choose the “zaru” option — seen here is zaru soba, for example — in which the cooked noodles are served cold and unadorned, allowing the noodle’s flavor and texture to shine even more. You can give them a quick bath in the provided dipping sauce, which, when you’ve consumed all of your noodles, is then mixed with hot water to create an almost tea-like drink with which to finish the meal

This version of Ramen is made with a stock using pork bones

Another variation called Tsukemen, where the noodles are served separately from the broth (in this case, a bit spicier broth) and the diner gives each mouthful of noodles a quick dunk before slurping them down

Although listing through all of dishes available in this food-centric city would be nearly impossible, I’ll do my best to hit a few of the more common dishes you’ll run across:

Many restaurants display amazingly realistic looking plastic versions of their menu items outside to entice passersby to enter (or at least to let them know what is being served). As an added bonus, if you can’t speak Japanese, as I can’t – these make ordering much easier (“I’ll have that one, please!”)

Pork Tonkatsu – a thin pork cutlet breaded in panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) and then deep-fried. Although I hadn’t applied it yet when I took this picture, it is usually eaten with a thick, Worcestershire-like sauce poured on top (or Miso paste, depending upon where you’re at)

The only thing cheaper than a greasy bowl of ramen is that of Gyudon, or a bowl of rice topped with cooked beef and onions. And before you ask, yes, that egg yolk was perfectly in-tact moments before I took this picture — that is, until I dropped my camera into it.  Mmmm….delicious egg-coated camera….

Tempura – bite-sized pieces of seafood (most often prawns) or vegetables battered in a very light and airy batter (unlike the heavy stuff we use back in the USA) and then quickly fried until crispy

Unagi, or eel grilled over charcoal and then slathered in a thick, sweet teriyaki-type sauce — another great summer treat, and something that I’d be happy eating for every meal for the rest of my life

Gyoza (otherwise known as “pot stickers”) are tiny, bite-sized dumplings with a crispy, lightly charred exterior.  This is a Japanese take on the often dumpling-heavy Chinese cuisine

Curry and rice is a filling comfort food for most, although I opted for the version with a slice of tonkatsu thrown in for good measure

Although they’re not afraid to make meat the main star, tofu is often seen as a major ingredient in many dishes (pictured above is agedashi, battered and fried tofu served soaking in a broth made of dashi, mirin, and soy sauce)

Similarly, the fish isn’t always served raw either. The yellowfin tuna pictured above was a particularly enticing dish, especially when they serve the head along with the filets, although it’s tough to pick out under the pile of julienned ginger (hint: the tastiest bit is in the cheeks)

Costing only about a dollar and a half, these “onigiri,” or rice balls stuffed with various fillings (such as salmon or bonito flakes) make for great snacks on the go

Hidden around the corner from the ultra-busy Shinjuku Station is a tiny little alley called Omoide-yokocho (which translates into “Memory Lane,” but often takes on the moniker of “Yakitori Alley” or even the less tasteful “Piss Alley”).  This is the type of place that you smell long before you see it, as the entire alley is packed with smoke-stained yakitori joints, turning out tiny skewers of meats and vegetables grilled over a specific type of charcoal, called binchotan, and feeding the diners as many cold beers as they can take.

Omoide-yokocho, or “Yakitori Alley”

You can mix and match meats all you like, so I opted for a skewer each of pork meat, pork heart, pork tongue, chicken with onion, and chicken gizzards

Adding a bit of evening entertainment into the mix, Japan also offers many cook-it-yourself meals to occupy both your senses and your inner chef (the most famous being okonomiyaki and tako yaki, but those will have to wait for my trip to Osaka).  Unfortunately, however, these activities are of the sort (i.e. putting often drunk customer in charge of searing-hot, table-side griddles and simmering pots of oily broth) that they’d rarely be allowed back in the United States, as some unfortunate soul would inevitably burn themselves out of their own sheer negligence, sue the restaurant, and effectively ruin the fun for everyone else.  Alas, I guess it just means you’ll have to buy that plane ticket!

Sukiyaki – where diners sit over a pot of simmering broth and drop an never-ending supply of beef, pork, and vegetables into the cauldron

My choice ingredients enjoying their quick dip in the hot tub

There are times and places in life when one should be cogniscent of their cholesterol intake and attempt to minimize it, however, sukiyaki is not one of those time.  The best part of Sukiyaki is that after cooking the already artery-clogging red meat in simmering broth, you then dredge it through a bowl of raw egg on its path up towards your mouth.

Monjayaki is another of the meal-come-entertainment options. This Tokyo-specific riff on Okonomiyaki is essentially a liquid batter with a variety of veggies and ingredients mixed in, then spread out flat on a griddle in the middle of the table and allowed to cook until crispy

A hunk of my finished monjayaki

And for a quick dessert, or a refreshing treat on one of those unbearably hot Tokyo summer days, it is tough to go wrong with matcha ice cream (green tea flavored):

The Liquid Side of Life:

In Tokyo, as in many of the large cities of Japan, vending machines nearly outnumber humans, meaning that if they ever turned sentient with ill-intent, we’d certainly have a fight on our hands (their two-pronged attack against humanity would consist of dispensing the wrong beverage and not giving back your change)

Along with the extensive options for edibles to enjoy, Japan is a place hell-bent on their hellacious drinking culture, as well.  It is standard practice for salarymen (the suited office workers of Japan) to file out of work in the evening and straight into any of thousands of izakayas, shot bars, and watering holes throughout the city for a long night before finally returning home.  Even though it would be tough to fully experience the city without a few nights out on the town, it didn’t take much twisting of the ole’ arm to get me out and about:

The colorful streets of Shimbashi, one of Tokyo’s nightlife hotspots

Beer Halls — and Beer Gardens, for that matter — are hugely popular here in the city

Another unique nightlife area is the Golden Gai district in Shinjuku, where a series of a few small, adjacent alleys are literally over-flowing with tiny, often theme-oriented bars. And although this neighborhood has one of the highest densities of drinking establishments anywhere on the planet, it isn’t the type of place to go bar hopping. Customers usually choose one place for the night, post up on one of the stools, and then commence drinking until they can’t feel feelings

Another angle at the many bars dotting the streets of Golden Gai

Most of tiny bars in the Golden Gai district only seat 5-6 people at any time, making for a very close and personal experience with your fellow drinking mates

The usual beer of choice in this part of the world is a light, refreshing lager, often brewed with a portion of rice in the mash.  Brands like Asahi, Sapporo, and Kirin are the heaviest hitters in the brewing world.  (Cue smooth, seemless segue into the next portion of the post)

From a historical perspective, Belgium and Germany certainly have the most storied histories when it comes to the brewing arts — the former largely focusing on ales and the latter focusing on lagers.  The beer geeks of the world, however, have been, in recent years, lobbying for something new and different from the traditional beers of these two brewing powerhouses.  So when it comes to the world leader in craft beer, one is bound to lose the argument unless, of course, they are speaking out on the behalf of the push-all-boundries, challenge-all-existing-notions attitude of the United States craft beer industry.  That being said, however, it is impossible to dismiss Japan in the same argument, as they have picked up the torch that was lit in the USA, followed suit, and have incorporated their own unique twists and flavors into the equation (as a side note, Italy probably ranks 3rd in the craft beer race).  And being the good beer geek that I am, I just had to sample some of the brewing magic that is being summoned here:

There are at least a dozen dedicated craft beer bars within Tokyo, but I chose the “Craft Beer Market,” as I figured the English name meant they might be slightly more accessible to foreigners. And just look at all those taps, complete with a selection of proper glassware, too! It nearly brings a tear to the eye…

Can you tell what the specials of the day are? Because I certainly can’t! Regardless, the bartenders spoke some English, so they helped guide me through the tap list (which changes every day) as much as they could

Besides the few Japanese brewing companies we get imported to the United States (Hitachino, Baird, etc.), the world of Japanese-brewed ales has been an almost completely unexplored one for me.  And although my opinion is in no way expert, I can say they have a really good thing going here, making craft beers that can hold their own anywhere in the world

As a final adventure for my time in Tokyo, I knew that I had to explore the local nihonsho scene (known as “sake” in the West, which really just translates to a general term such as “booze” over here) — a brewed beverage made with rice that has a subtle, dry flavor with a flowery aroma and is usually slightly stronger than that of wine.  The brewing of sake is riddled with history and tradition, and before setting off on my great adventure around the world, I had made a point of dipping my toes into the sake culture — learning as much as I could — something that became my hobby du jour, so to speak.  And although it quickly climbed to my “relaxing beverage” of choice, I was quite limited by what few labels we had available to us in Ohio.  Now that I’ve finally made it to Japan, however, I’ve essentially been a kid in a candy store, able to indulge my taste buds in some of the best and freshest sake on the planet.  O, happy day!

To go beyond the everyday tipple, however, I had done quite a bit of research online prior to my arrival, seeking out advice on some of the top sake bars in the city.  I settled on one bar titled “Kuri” that seemed to receive the most rave reviews from sake fanatics in the city.  So I wrote down the address and headed down to the Ginza district, where it was located.  Being a foreigner, however, and unaccustomed to how the addresses are laid out (hint: they are not in numeric order in the slightest), I quickly figured out this was going to be more difficult than I had anticipated.  Eventually, I found my way to the building in question, specifically the back alley of said building, but then the second problem appeared — how do I know which of the dozens of bars that lined the streets, and climbed up 6 stories high, was the correct one given I can’t read any of the signs.  After walking up and down the alley about a half-dozen times, desperately trying — and failing — to make eye-contact with anyone who may be able to help, I finally called it quits and began heading home with my head hanging low.  But as luck would have it, on my way back to the metro station, I spotted the four letters I was looking for, “Kuri,” on a small sign on the second floor.  I’ve found it!

Now, quick cut to the bartender’s point of view: You’re tending to your very upscale bar, serving your customers, chatting with the regulars, when the sliding door opens and a huge foreigner stands in the doorway.  Clearly, he can’t speak any Japanese, doesn’t have anything even resembling a reservation (which in hindsight, was probably a prerequisite), is dressed entirely inappropriately for the atmosphere, has the shaggy, disheveled hair of a traveler, and has clearly sweated through his shirt already.  To anyone with any sensibilities, the correct action would have been to politely, but firmly, turn said customer away.  However, luckily for me (and luck was on my side this night), the bar tender must have seen some glint in my eye that he found favorable, as he made space for me in his tiny spot in the universe and proceeded to take me through several custom tasting menus of some of the best sakes available anywhere.  This experience now ranks near the top of the list of my favorite memories of my entire trip, and the bar has become another entry on the short-list that is “My favorite places on the planet.”

The intimate interior of the tiny bar that is Kuri. In order to establish the best atmosphere for enjoying their nihonsho, rules are in place forbidding smoking, the wearing of any perfumes or cologne, and speaking in anything louder than a murmur

Here are a few of the labels I was fortunate enough to try (although the grand total of sampled sakes grew to over 16-17 — albeit smallish samples, as you can see)

Until next time, Kampai from Tokyo!

About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

5 Responses to “Sushi, Sake, and Soy Sauce – Consuming and Imbibing in Tokyo”

  1. Though a very staunch vegetarian, I loved the pictures!! They look really appetizing!! 😉

  2. I came to your website through a research on japanase culture…for tunisian readers…I am editor in chief for a magazine here in Tunis…Your travels are really great. I do appreciate your commentarys and your great photos. I particularly loved your pertinent explanations concerning Japanese Cuisine and your photos are awesome. Martine Geronimi

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    […] gotten a few messages stating that the email notification for my last post – Sushi, Sake, and Soy Sauce: Consuming and Imbibing in Tokyo — didn’t work properly.  I’ve been fiddling around with the options in […]

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    […] alley of Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood.  You can read my more detailed description of the event here, but suffice it to say that what followed was a personalized tasting tour led by the extremely […]

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