Sunday night was a mess. We had rolled off of a twelve hour trans-Pacific flight spanning fourteen hour time zones, made it through customs and took a cab home. Once we got home, I started unpacking our bags. They were full of souvenirs and it hit me, we had spent a week in Japan. It was an amazing time, but one so filled with activity making it difficult to be anything if not in the moment. It was not until I unpacked, when I began to think back on the trip itself.
Tokyo is an amazing place for many reasons. The public transport is second to none. The streets are so clean it is rare to see even the smallest bit of garbage. The history is rich and lengthy and the culture unique and proud. THE TOILETS ARE ROBOTS. Everywhere we went, we were greeted by friendly people, even if it was difficult to communicate. For the first few days, we wondered how Japanese people react to the sloppy US cities they visit.
One of my favorite aspects of Japanese culture was the pride in and zealous approach to good food. From a wooden stall selling katsuoushi at Tsukiji to the two hundred year old Misoten in Asakusa to the ultra-swank three-star Kaiseki in Ginza, the drive to produce the best, most pristine food is inspiring. I suspected, based on reputation, this would be the case, but I did not realize how this ethos was on the thumbprint of the culture (realizing I had a 7 day window into the culture). People seemed to do the most menial tasks with the utmost focus and care.
Taking a step back, L was celebrating a big birthday and as a gift, we arranged a week’s vacation to Japan where her sister and her family are living for the next few months. Since we have kids who we wanted to leave at home, we were limited to a week in Japan, which is woefully short. I had three months to plan and research and she had a little over a week. Even with three months of planning, I struggled to get even a little past the surface of knowing what Tokyo was all about. I had bookmarked about 50 ramen-yas and another 75 spots I wanted to hit which I realized later was seemingly a percent of a percent of what is there. It was difficult going into it, but once I got there, I realized however superficial my knowledge felt going it, it was 100x more superficial once I got there.
Tokyo is enormous and dense. I knew it was big, but could not have fathomed how big and unknowable it is. Every block has a dozen things to know, there are hundreds of thousands of blocks, and there are no addresses. If I was there for a year, I might begin to feel like I know some things. If I was there a decade, I might feel like I had a handle on it. Undoubtedly, if there was no turnover, you could find hidden gems decades after moving there. Even living in a big city like Chicago, I was completely unprepared for the size and density of Tokyo, but being outside of my comfort zone is one of the wonderful things about travel.
I started to get a sense of what we were in for when we took a bus from the airport to the center of Tokyo. We hit urban Tokyo and figured in 20 minutes on the highway, we should be to the center. Nearly an hour later, we exited onto a side road. The next morning I was further reminded how we were no longer in Kansas when we took about a dozen escalators down to the Oedo line of the subway to Tsukiji market and were greeted with the map below.
Keep in mind, this is a limited selection of trains, but, as a kicker, this was a bit overwhelming even for someone who has been riding public transportation for the better part of two decades. When we arrived at Tsukiji with our trusty guide, Yukari, we ventured around the outer market through cooking supply shops, pickle booths, vegetable vendors etc, and then through the inner market looking at frozen blue fin being band-sawed, slices of fresh blue fin being set out as an example of what is for sale, then eels, scallops, bream and other amazing fish on display. Ike jime wires were all around and we saw a eelsman (that is what I call an eel marketeer) ram the wire down the spine of wiggling eel to kill it, we were amazed in all of the right ways. It is one thing to rack a big, clumsy oafish tuna, but an eel is another spine altogether.
Like the rest of Tokyo, Tsukiji could be very overwhelming which is why Yukari was so helpful. She knows the market, she speaks English and Japanese interchangeably well, and has a way of seeing what we need and want to see without needing to spend a whole day at the market. When we talked about using Japanese ingredients at home, she brought me to a katsuobushi vendor with katsuobushi shaving boxes and a selection of both belly and loin dried skipjack tuna. This is one of many times we benefited from her advice during the week. Without hesitation, adding Yukari to our tour was one of the best decisions we made as part of our vacation.
I had spots on my enhanced google map which were out of the way. Bear Pond espresso was a top one, but it was 90 minutes round trip and the espresso was only available for 150 minutes per day between Thursday and Sunday. A few highly regarded ramen-yas in outer neighborhood which are undoubtedly worthwhile, but with a week in Japan, I hardly had time to see what I had to see much less spend a day dragging the birthday girl over far Western Tokyo for a bowl of shio ramen. With the exception of two dinners booked in advance, we managed to find great meals and shops near areas where we were visiting. We visited tea shops in Nihombashi where we drank matcha while shopping for tea. We shopped for miso in a 200 year old Misoten in Asakusa. We shopped for osembai and various other pastry in Azabu Juban. We shopped for ramen gear in Kappabashi. We shopped for everything at depachikas in Ginza, Shinjuku, Shibuya and Nihombashi. We never ventured out for specific shops, but also never failed to find great ones near where we happened to be.
As a side note, depachikas are the lower levels of department stores which I dismissed when first hearing about them. I envisioned the basements of Marshall Fields’ from the early 2000s – Frango mints and Cobb Salads. Rather these are similar to Eataly, but in Japan (actually one of them IS Eataly, but we didn’t buy anything there). After visiting, these are the real deal where you can eat very well. My favorite purchases were the pastry and goods to bring home with you (umeboshi, tea, miso). Also, despite your impressions stateside, don’t sleep on the convenience stores. The onigiri and white bread sandwiches from 7-11 are better than 99% of the fast food in the US. Even my airport snacks of smoked squid and kabocha chips were next level.
Lunches were primarily ramen (with the exception of some exceptional Kurobota Tonkatsu in Omotesando and soba in Azabu Juban) in whichever neighborhood we were nearest. The punch card was filled with shio, shoyu and spicy shoyu ramen in Azabujuban, shoyu on Ramen Street, tonkotsu in Shinjuku, but my favorites were burnt miso ramen in Roppongi Hills and Tsukemen where ever we had it. The burnt miso ramen is enhanced by adding a slick of lard which has been ignited, burned and extinguished to a bowl of sweet and funky ramen. It was complex and scaldingly hot. Tsukemen is ultra concentrated broth with cold noodles on the side for dipping. It is an intense experience to be sure, but one I could have over and over. By the end of the week, the multi-sensory experience of a ramen shop was etched into my mind in such a wonderful way. The slurping of the noodles combined with the noises of the kitchen were linked to the warm, delicious bowls of fatty goodness and the aromas from the deep broths. With the desire to avoid being the guy who comes back from vacation and brags up where and what he/she has done and how no where else compares, I will leave it at this. The ramen in Tokyo was very, very good and we did not need to burden ourselves to find it. Here are some photos.
Dinners were all over the board – yakitori, tempura, gindara saikyo-yaki (which ranked among the best things eaten all week), high end sushi, where we had pretty much 20 of the best pieces of sushi I have eaten including a smoked skip jack tuna which was the best thing I ate all week and ranks close to the best thing all-time, and finally, a kaiseki meal at Ginza Kojyu. Ginza Koyju was one of the best overall meals I have had. Perfect service, great sake, and food so nuanced and delicious which left us blissed out from the opening salvo of tofu soup with uni and yuba to the last drop of matcha ending the meal with a stop over of charcoal roasted ayu which were still flopping around when they went on the skewer and were grilled for the first six courses of our dinner by a cook who did nothing else but manage the coals and turn the ayu. At the end of our meal, we saw the kitchen and the private rooms. The server asked where we were headed next and walked us two blocks to a cab without making us feel indebted. We felt like a guest in the home of Okuda rather than two of the last turn of eight diners (yes, spots for 8 diners only).
Two other experiences worth noting are a day trip to Kyoto. Kyoto is known for Kaiseki cuisine, but unfortunately since we had only a day or just 8 hours to be exact, we spent our day hiking and cabbing through Kyoto. We spent a few hours at Nishiki market. The tsukemono and street food here is fantastic. It was in Kyoto where I found a nice carbon steel Japanese vegetable knife. It is gorgeous and I was caught a few times by L on the way home looking at camera phone pictures of said knife.
The other experience was a tasting menu at Bar Gen Yamamoto in Azabu Juban where we were served incredibly complex cocktails made amazingly simply. The flavors of the fruit, tea, and vegetables (yes vegetables) were complemented and enhanced by a small smattering of spirits. It was a truly unique cocktail experience that I will never forget. There was no shaker, one bartender and no more than one spirit with very few mixers per drink.
This visit was really a once in a lifetime experience. Before I left, I wrote how I was excited to learn. That is just what happened. I learned a lot about the culture (for one week). I learned a lot about the food (for one week). I learned that there is no place with more restaurants than Tokyo. I learned the best meals can be had in an 8 seat restaurant on a fourth floor, in the back of a dried fish shop or paid for with a ticket from a vending machine. I learned that I could love a place without knowing much about even the parts that are easy to get to and typically not in my wheelhouse. The places which are harder to get to would take forever to find and I’d be damned pleased to have more time to find them.