Oden … and the most fucking amazing guide to Tokyo

Excuse the F-bomb in the headline (I know, so inappropriate but whatever. This is my fucking blog and I can fucking drop fucking F-bombs heeeeeeere… weeeeeeeee) but I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to contribute to a once in a fucking (another F-bomb!) lifetime comprehensive guide to Tokyo that nothing out there even fucking (and another one!) comes close to.

There is so much information about everything one requires when planning a Tokyo trip. Beyond that, though, the writing is high quality and puts my writing to shame. (Note to self: step your game up.)

The guide is here and everyone with even a remote interest in Japan and Tokyo needs to smash the bookmark button a bajillion times over and share with all.

…anddddddd somehow, I snuck in.

Still in disbelief I’m included and in no way am I posting this because I contributed. It’s a beautiful, informative, fascinating look into the complexity of Japan from various viewpoints and an excellent guide. My contributions are: decoding conbini (convenience stores), unraveling Tabelog (the most accurate dining compass of Japan) and share mid-range priced sushi; I eat at spots that aren’t expensive as shit and here’s the proof.

Hope you enjoy!

Bonus: you may or may not know this fact but massive editing takes place (of course). My pieces would be NOTHING without the editors. Seriously, they are all stars. But just for shits and giggles (loving the ability to freely curse, obviously) there are several parts of my conbini piece that were massively edited (and for good reason). I wasn’t attached to a lot of the parts the Eater editors vanquished but I just can’t let the oden part go so I’m side-barring here.

On Eater:

Oden

From September to mid-April, there are often large, heated metal trays or pots near the registers of most conbini. Inside the trays are different ingredients — tofu, daikon radish, boiled eggs, and fish cakes — floating in a hot, fragrant (almost pungent) dashi broth. This is oden, Japan’s winter comfort food. While the absolute best typically comes from chefs who have spent a lifetime perfecting their broth and curating the ingredients to pair with it, the conbini version is fun to try.

Butttttttt lemme tell you how I really feel:

From September to mid-April, there are huge pots with weird shaped ingredients floating in a funky broth near the registers. This is oden and a Japanese comfort food staple, delicious when properly prepared. Conbini oden is more symbolic. When we see oden set-up in conbinis, we immediately think: start of winter and once they are cleared, we know that summer is here. I have never seen anyone actually buy conbini oden but if you happen to be here while it is served, it may be fun to try. Oden is best home cooked or at oden specific restaurants where chefs are usually 70 year old men who have spent their lifetimes perfecting their broths and hunting for foods that pair perfectly with their broths.

Oden properly prepared is like this ↓ and I also wrote about it here

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Random Japanese Factoid: Plastic Food

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source

Ever wonder who and how the infamous plastic foods of Japan came to be? Well, 121 years ago on September 12th, 1895, Iwasaki Takizō was born. Though he didn’t invent plastic food, he was the first one to bring to plastic food to mass market, when only high-end department stores made and displayed them.

The very first plastic food sample he made was an omelette and following the success, he opened up a factory with the help of his wife in 1932. Thus, saturating Japan with plastic food in all shop window fronts.

Plastic food became such a global phenom, in 2016, there are now plastic food tchotchkes like plastic food fridge magnets, cell phone straps, keychains, etc.

You can find plastic food for purchase in the following locations (industry plastic food cost A LOT. Like thousands of dollars)

Tokyu Hands
Tokyu Hands is like a Target, Spencers (random junk store that used to be in every single shopping mall in the US back in the 90’s that sold lava lamps, edible underwear, gag gifts, etc.), Bed Bath and Beyond, Container Store, Home Depot and Ikea all in one!)
Find the nearest location here: http://www.tokyu-hands.co.jp/en/shoplist.html

Kappabashi aka Kitchen Town
It’s the area in Tokyo where restaurant supplies and such are sold. Just Google Kappabashi.

Super Duper Insider Info: New Sushi Mitani

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Sushi Mitani is notorious for having an impossible waitlist (currently it’s at 3 years). Earlier this year, Mitani-san suffered from a heart attack and was out of commission for a few months. Sidetrack for a second and imagine waiting two and a half — possibly longer — years for a booking only to find out he isn’t well. Man, I don’t know how I would feel and what kind of person that makes me…

Anyway.

So Mitani-san, the man himself, is okay and back making sushi. His first apprentice Takano-san (who was standing in while Mitani-san  was recovering) opened a new shop in July. The other day, it was announced Mitani-san is closing his shop in Yotusya, moving to Takano-san’s shop, making sushi in the private room.

To sit in front of Mitani-san, the wait is still 2.5 years, as Mitani-san moved all the existing bookings from the original Mitani to the new Mitani. But, seats in front of Takano-san are still available.

As I keep repeating, sushi is personal preference and I’ve enjoyed Mitani-san’s sushi once and since I’ve found my favorite go-to sushi spots I will not be booking. But if you are planning a visit, I would recommend eating at Mitani at least once. The man is a legend. And if you’re into Michelin and stuff, he has two stars.

Hurry and make bookings at the new one while you still can! It will FOR SURE become another place where it is impossible to get seats.

Side-note: Mitani-san’s shop was a 2.5 year wait even when Takano-san was making the sushi. Frankly it doesn’t matter if you sit in front of Takano-san or Mitani-san as you will be able to enjoy the same neta (fish) that Mitani-san has access too, which is equally as important as skill.

Kioichō (I hope I’m spelling this correctly in roma-ji but it’s 紀尾井町 三谷) Mitani
03 6256 9566
Drop this into Google Maps↓
東京都千代田区紀尾井町1-2
Open for lunch and dinner (same price, unfortunately. Around $300 USD before tax and drinks); open 7 days.
http://tabelog.com/tokyo/A1308/A130801/13198197/dtlphotolst/1/smp2/

Kaikaiya – Shibuya

 

Kaikaiya in Shibuya is one of my favorite places and I bring all out of town visitors here. It’s great for groups, the servers speak English, the vibe is great most importantly: the food is good. Their menu is mainly seafood. Wait, the menu is mainly approachable seafood, meaning it’s not weird with like eyeballs hanging off the fish heads or live shrimp dancing while hot liquid is poured on the spot. (They do have both on the menu, by the way. But there is a ton of ‘safe’ seafood. Like the ones you’d find at some European or American hotel cafe.

The sashimi plate is also legit — one of the neatest things is the piece of wasabi that comes and diners can grate their own. (Like in the photo up top.)

The flavors are Western / SE Asian, with a lot of Western / SE Asian spices like cilantro, Vietnamese fish sauce, Chinese chili sauces. The aromas and textures are familiar; but very, very, Japanese. For example, there is a carpaccio that is Vietnamese inspired but the fish sauce is so subtle, shrimp cocktail is ‘fishier’ than the amount of fish sauce used on the dish.

Then there’s the one dish that blows people’s minds:

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Maguro no kama (tuna collar) spareribs. It’s not very pretty but omg it’s so delicious. It’s spicy and tangy and acidic and the fish just melts in your mouth; easily one of my favorite dishes in all of Tokyo!

Another that I always order:img_6960

Crab ‘dip’ with rice crackers. It’s like the Japanese spinach and artichoke dip (LOL)… and tons and tons and tons and tons of other fantastic dishes that range from adventurous to even a kindergartener who’s never eaten seafood can eat it without being queasy.

Kaikaiya is also excellent with two people (request counter seats). This place is so on-point, I make sure to take all my favorite people!

Kaikaiya
Address (drop this into Google Maps)↓
東京都渋谷区円山町23-7

Calling at least two to three days in advance is recommended
http://www.kaikaya.com/index.html

Gen Yamamoto – A Tokyo Must

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Bar Gen Yamamoto is one of my favorite places in Tokyo and I recommend everyone and anyone coming to Tokyo to visit. He is beyond a ‘mixologist’ and more a magician, a flavor savant, a true genius of his craft. I’d even argue he may quite possibly be the best in the world when it comes to surprising and delighting with his cocktails.

People seem to freak out over a four or six cocktail tasting in fear of getting trashed but the thing is, his drinks aren’t boozy at all. The spirits he uses are activators, pulling forth the deepest, richest flavor notes from the fruits and vegetables he pairs them with and so basically, the drinks have only a splash or a touch of alcohol. I doubt anyone could actually get drunk off Gen-san’s cocktails.

These days I visit him at least once a month — sometimes more if there are people in town. Here are a few highlights from August:  Continue reading

Shin Ika #Sushi

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Shin Ika so smooth it looks like a dolphin’s tummy! Shin-ika, like shinko (baby kohada) is a baby squid and are accessible only towards the end of summer. It’s so smooth and sweet and melts in your mouth!! It was so pretty I just had to share.

Of course this is at Takahashi, my favorite sushi restaurant in Tokyo. Takahashi-san is so talented — I only eat his sushi now. I know, I know, I need to get out more. But I can’t help it. I’m now treated as a regular and as a regular’s advantage, I get special dishes like this ↓ (points below)

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I mentioned in passing the other day I loved his aji tsumami (appetizer). It’s aji with the Saito pesto, egg yolk and sesame seeds. It wasn’t included in this menu but he made one just for me!! It was, as always, super delicious and one of my favorites of all time. Love him!!

Also, he served tako (octopus) which I hadn’t had in a while. But the ceramic (kozara) was one I’ve never seen before. Even more amazing is that it’s shaped like the Bat symbol (from Batman!!)

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Highlights:
– steamed awabi, this time with kimo (liver) sauce that was AMAZING
– lightly charred anago with three condiments: wasabi, tōgarashi (red pepper) dipping sauce, salt and his raw shichimi (he shared the recipe with me this time!!!)
– aka mutusu a.k.a. nodo guro a.k.a. sea bream sakamushi (steamed with a sake base) with ponzu and some sort of sea vegetable OMG this was delicious
– tai (snapper) that was kissed with a touch of smoke

…and who am I kidding. Everything was super delicious. Takahashi-san makes me so happy.

By the way it’s almost time for fall foods. I love fall foods in Japan. SOOOOOO pumped!

Gyoza and Champagne

Gyoza and champagne, two of my favorite things in one place at once? YES PLEASE. It was hard for me to imagine gyoza (ghetto cheap food) with champagne (a ‘special occasion’ drink) but this place pulls it off.

Located in between Shinbashi and Toranomon, the interior is elegant; not smokey and gross at all. They just opened in May, their champagne list is extensive, menu is well thought out with a healthy selection of classy nibbles that extend beyond gyoza. Like their ‘kimchee’ which technically is an assortment of fresh vegetables marinated in the kimchee mix.

But the star is their crispy, juicy gyoza with four delicious dipping sauces: spicy sesame miso (Kobe style), dashi ponzu with chokushichi (直七) a citrus between yuzu and grapefruit from the Kōchi prefecture that is super light on acidity, green pepper and fond de veau, white truffle oil. (My favorite was the dashi ponzu and just eating with a bit of sprinkled salt).

I have a feeling this place is going to end up super popular — give it another year or so. Definitely recommended!

Champagne & Gyoza Bar
Drop this into Google Maps↓
東京都港区西新橋1-18-11 ル・グラシエルBLDG.16 1F

*No website, no reservations, closed on Sunday

Yoroniku

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Yoroniku is this super amazing yakiniku restaurant in the Minami Aoyama area of Tokyo. A friend says “it’s too posh” but there is a reason for that you see. In Japan, beef (and steak) used to be super luxury foods. This derives from the pre-war time mentality when beef was accessible only to the wealthy and royals.

Fast forward to about the 80’s (1980’s, to be precise), post-war, post-industrialized Japan or as we affectionately deem: The Bubble Era when Sony, Toyota, Mitsubishi, etc., were raking in tons of cash as were the people of Japan, meat and other Western foods became commonplace.

A lot of wartime children though, grew up in an era when Korean, Chinese, French, Italian, basically any non-Japanese cuisines were considered ‘exotic’ and even yakiniku — Korean BBQ — was considered special occasion meals. Super high-end yakiniku became a huge boom and you still see some of those effects today. Japanese people are also OCD and anal, so we don’t really like stinking of bbq coals and smoke. Most high-end yakiniku places in Japan have super duper high tech ventilation systems so our attire and hair do not reek of bbq.

The servers at Yoroniku cook the food and they know techniques for every cut of meat to best cook and serve. Every piece of meat is amazing. They also have a ‘hidden’ menu of gyu katsu (steak katsu) made from a chunk of wagyu grilled in front of you (the photos below are of the beef katsu).

I’m not going to go too much into details of the food but every. little. thing. there is so delicious it makes me want to cry.

There are two ways to order at Yoroniku. Choosing between two tasting menus (¥7,000 and¥9,000) is one, the other is telling them your budget and they serve you a meal within that cost. I prefer the latter.

And here is more insider info: there are two sister restaurants that are easier to book. While they may not offer the same exact menu as the original Yoroniku, the other two are more accessible.

Misuji (no website)
030-557308929
Drop this in Google Maps↓
東京都港区赤坂3-16-3 伊勢幸ビル2F

Namaiki (no website)
030-5817-8929
Drop this in Google Maps↓
東京都千代田区外神田6-14-7 2F

And for Yoroniku (no website)
030-3498-4629
Drop this in Google Maps↓
東京都港区南青山6-6-22 ルナロッサ B1F

I can’t guarantee access to the beef katsu (you have to go with a regular to first access and once you order once, you can keep ordering) but, I’ve heard stories of people ordering on their first time…

 

Takazawa Bar

Takazawa is a restaurant in Akasaka, notorious for being impossible to book. The space itself is beautiful and there is a warm, welcoming scent of tea that whisks you into another world. Scent is, perhaps, a huge part of the experience and I would love to try his food one day. The inside only has four tables (I believe — I was only inside for a brief moment) and rumor has it, the wait list to dine there is longer than some sushi restaurants.

In 2015, he opened a bar around the corner from his restuarant and those curious can try his food in more casual setting. ‘Casual’ in the loosest manner, as the bar is pretty posh.

I finally visited the other day. Enjoyed his scaled down vegetable parfait and an extremely intense squid dish.

Three glasses of wine and two appetizers cost apprx: $180~ USD. I was a bit shocked by the bill. The squid dish was too rich and I could only eat half as the capers and acidity from the tomato based stew were way too much, turning the dish into a chore to finish.

The imbalance was my fault, as all three dishes (two appetizers and one otōshi) had tomatoes and it should’ve occurred to mix base flavors…

I probably will not return because of the cost performance and the dishes that were delicious but not so memorable.

Takazawa Bar
http://www.takazawa-y.co.jp/bar/

Sushi in Tokyo Ranking

UPDATE: this is no longer just sushi. Scroll to bottom for all rankings.

Forget Michelin, the Japanese all rely on Tabelog, the Japanese equivalent to Yelp or Trip Advisor. Unlike Yelp or Trip Advisor, though, Tabelog’s rankings are accurate — any place rated 3.5 or higher (out of 5) is 99.99999999999999% of the time excellent.

The reason Tabelog is accurate, is because Japanese are passive. We do not complain directly to establishments when we have bad experiences. We do not tip to show appreciation of places we love. We return to our favorites and become jyōren (regulars). Places we dislike, we tell all our family, friends, colleagues to avoid and… rate on Tabelog. Tabelog is very accurate.

I put this together because I realized most people aren’t food nerds. When people ask for recommendations, they don’t really care about the whats, whys and just want “the best” (whatever that means).

So, for all the list chasers and ‘foodies’ who use Michelin as your food barometers, here you go. Knock yourselves out! Bookings are near impossible though; even through hotel concierges.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  1. Saito
  2. Sugita
  3. Hatsune Hashiguchi
  4. Mitani
  5. Mizutani Sukibayashi Jiro
  6. Tokami Amamoto
  7. Hashiguchi Arai
  8. Sushi Shō Sawada
  9. Miyaba Sushi Sho
  10. Namba Sushi Kimura
  11. Masuda Harutaka
  12. Takumi Shingo Namba
  13. Arai Takamitsu
  14. Kimura Kiyota
  15. Sushi-ya Ichiyanagi Daisan Harumi Sushi
  16. Sushi-ya Sushi Sho Saito
  17. Hashimoto Masuda
  18. Kanesaka Tokami
  19. Daisan Harumi Sushi Uwotoku
  20. Yoshitake

*list updated 4/21/18
Note: Hatsune is closed indefinitely for Hatsune-san’s wife is terminally ill — heartbreaking. See the entire list here (in Japanese)

You’re welcome.

*in case you stumbled onto this post and looking to learn about sushi, I write my take on sushi in Tokyo here

Update 2/21/2017

My Eater piece on Tabelog is here

Update 7/13/2016

Since I get asked for recommendations ALL the time, I’m just going to start listing the Top 10 of everything on Tabelog. So here we go, in no particular order:

Continue reading