I’m so often asked about Japanese whiskey, it’s about damn time I update here too.
Tokyo has hundreds of phenomenal whiskey bars with jaw-dropping collections of whiskeys that are near extinct. Over the years, I’ve found my go-to bars and through frequenting these bars, I’ve learned so much from the bartenders. These bartenders (or masters, as they are called in Japan) are spirit shokunin, masters of their trade. The amount of knowledge they have is unreal. And the best part is every one of the barmasters are extremely generous with sharing their knowledge.
The only problem is, these dudes only speak Japanese and if you don’t speak Japanese you’re, well, SOL. Or shit outta luck.
Enter this piece. So on Twitter, I connected with a bartender-slash-writer who wrote an exceptional, most relevant piece on Japanese whiskey (as of 2018).
He touches upon an up and coming obscure brand called Ichiro (like the baseball player) that I was introduced to in Tokyo a few years back. One of my obsessions was whiskey ‘slept in’ Mizunara barrels for a while. I say slept in because it is the literal translation from Japanese — nekaseru ねかせる — meaning resting, sleeping, etc.
I first stumbled upon Mizunara wood at Gen-san’s, as his bar counter is made from Mizunara. Then I tried Yamazaki Mizunara at the Aman a few years back Then I discovered Hibiki also has a Mizunara blend (but still expensive and hard to find). And then, Ichiro has two types. One solely aged in Mizunara and another, a blend. Personally I prefer the latter vs the former. It has more depth.
Since I shared this knowledge on Twitter, thought I should post on here too. Afterall, Tweets just … disappear into the Internet blackhole.
As of late, I spend most of my time in Bangkok but I’m back in Tokyo for a quick trip and… it SNOWED.
The snow in Tokyo is exactly like this country: Soft, unobtrusive, calm, peaceful, beautiful. The tidying process is pretty efficient so there are barely inconveniences caused. At least in the areas I navigate (Ebisu, Aoyama, Shibuya, Roppongi) so it’s not a massive pain to get around and panic doesn’t break out like it did when I lived in NYC.
Well, it’s not technically ‘fast food’ but more diner food, there is a genre of chain restaurants called ‘fami-resu’, short for family restaurants. Like a Denny’s.
Anyway, there is a chain Royal Host and I’ve heard from locals Royal Host is super yummy but they aren’t really located in areas I spend time. The other day I went to my very first Royal Host and suffice to say, it exceeded expectations and blew my mind.
Look at my lunch!!!!!
This was chicken with a soy (sauce) butter sauce topped with a creamy, melty, egg, served with french fries and rice and soup or salad, all for around $7USD.
Not only was it delicious, the cost performance was 100000000%. Aside from lunch deals, there are tons of other dishes ranging from Japanese (rice bowls, udon, Japanese curry) to Western (clubhouse sandwiches and all day breakfasts). Everything looks so tasty I want to eat through the menu. I wish there was a Royal Host near my house, I would seriously eat here everyday.
No one really talks about fami-resus because it’s not fancy but they are underrated imo. Definitely recommended for second or third time visitors to Japan.
Troll the menu here → click this
Denny’s and Jonathan’s are also highly recommended!
The other day I was just given an address for the spot we were going to for dinner. Looked up directions and got the most unhelpful navigation ever. “Unnamed roads” both on phone and computer in Tokyo (somewhere around Ginza/Akasaka-ish). The directions read like I’m in some farmland deep in the countryside!
“Turn left, cross the road, cross the road, cross the road.”
I meannnnnnnn seriously?! JAPAN, YOU ARE RIDICULOUS!
In 2009, when Michelin decided to uncover Japan’s culinary scene by including us in their guide, two things happened. One: the world got a glimpse of our extraordinary cuisine. Two: it caused absolute chaos to the reservation situation in Tokyo.
Frankly, it’s now shit.
There is way more demand than supply since most spots seat only 8-10 people and for those who aren’t Japanese or speak the language, they are SOL (shit outta luck). Sadly a lot of crappy tourists bail last minute or worse, don’t show up or even call (seriously, who does that?) and have ruined it for others to score bookings. Nowadays, a majority of the higher end and exclusive places are invite only for quality control. This isn’t because Japanese people don’t like foreigners. It’s because when a place is so small they only serve 20 or so seatings a night, it hurts the business a lot when people don’t show up; especially since ingredients are purchased daily.
But as frustrating as the booking situation is, one of the best parts about dining in Japan is the intimate experience. A lot of high-end sushi and kappo (cuisine with heavy kaiseki influence – thoughtful presentation, high quality, hyper seasonal ingredients, open kitchen, usually counter seating where diners get to watch/interact with the chef and his apprentices) spots, the taisho (chef) is extremely generous with his knowledge and every time I dine, I always learn something new.
This visit to Sushi Saito, here’s what I learned:
Male shishamo tastes better than female shishamo. Shishamo is smelt and kokusan shishamo is Japanese smelt. For about 15 or so years now, Russian or Mongolian smelt are served instead of Japanese smelt since there is a shortage and kokusan shishamo is now hard to obtain. Female smelts are widely served carrying eggs (komochi shishamo) but I barely see male shishamo. I’m not sure if I’ve even had it before. Saito-san also shared that male shishamo is served raw (sashimi) and slightly seared in the spring. Amazing.
Kimo is fish liver and the most commonly served fish liver is ankimo (monkfish liver). Fugu (blowfish) kimo is also served — I had no idea. Saito-san told us his first fugu kimo was in a region far up north (I forgot where). When we asked him if it was good, he said: “It’s delicious but I can’t say for certain if it was tasty because it’s so rare or because it is truly tasty. Would I risk my life to eat it again? Probably not.” while laughing. And then he went on to say: “Nothing beats Kawahagi kimo. Ankimo has a kuse.”Kuse, means a distinctness — scent, texture, flavor, what have you — like blue cheese. People either love it or hate it. I kind of think he didn’t really like fugu kimo haha
Saito-san trained at Kanesaka and directly under Kanesaka-san. (Kanesaka is now legendary and has two restaurants in Tokyo, several abroad. I’ve only been to Kanesaka once and didn’t really like it but that’s a story for another day.) Saito-san calls Kanesaka-san, Kanesaka jiisan (Jiisan is old man but for Saito-san to fondly address him by that nickname is a huge sign of respect and signifies their closeness) and told us how Kanesaka-san taught him how to crab and fish. Saito-san also mentioned how they used to go together all the time. So cute ❤︎
Saito-san can tell the difference between a male and female fish; he said he has to feel them though. That’s pretty mental.
“Salt. Fat. Acid. Gyoza is my favorite flavor profile and probably the reason I eat shameful amounts A whooooole mess of latergrams of all the glorious gyoza in my Camera Roll. Some may or may not be taken at inappropriate hours 餃子どんだけ好きやねん。この半年食べた量と種類、、、かなりヤバイw”
I really do eat too much gyoza. So much, I wrote 1,600ish words on gyoza in Tokyo. Do read if you’re interested. The piece is on Eater here.
I get how people visiting Tokyo for the first time go through hell and back planning trips. I can also see why it’s hard to believe when I tell people: relax and just get… lost. But I promise, Tokyo is packed to the brim with good food, booze, and everything in between that all you have to do, is walk a few steps and BOOM. Anything you put in your mouth will taste better than whatever you last put in your mouths in your home countries.
Tokyo is so massive that even after living here for almost four years, I still stumble onto new places to eat and booze. If I don’t notate, I usually forget places I randomly find.
Last Friday, I re-discovered a bar I thought I would never find again because I forgot to notate and, well, my IG caption says it all: “Found this super hidden bar I stumbled onto a while back and thought I would never, ever, ever be able to find again — shocked, delighted, but most of all, elated! My drink of choice: #Yamazaki Mizunara 🥃”
So if you’re planning a visit don’t be afraid to come without hours of research — Tokyo is one of the best places on the planet to wander without a plan. (Unless of course, you are looking to eat at all the Michelin spots).
And just for heck of it, here are some photos from another random bar — every piece of ice is chiseled to fit the specific glassware. So incredible! *pardon the laziness of uploading screenshots of my Insta; as of late, I don’t keep photos on my phone anymore…