As some of you may know I recently took a whirlwind trip to Japan where I visited Tokyo, Hakata, Kurume, and perhaps my favorite destination of all the charming town of Hirokawamachi in the space of four days. The trip was organized by my good friend Kazuko Nagao, the Okonomiyaki Queen of NYC, and sponsored by the local government of Hirokawamachi. Before getting into the wonders of Hirokawamachi—and there are many, from artisanal textiles to amazing matcha—this installment takes a look at what I ate in Tokyo. I would like to thank Kazuki Chito of @mcnaieatmecrazy who graciously guided me around Tokyo.
I’d arrived in Tokyo late the night before and hit the ground eating as best as I could. That is to say I ordered a sea bream ochazuke and some grapefruit juice from room service. The dashi broth poured over rice and fish proved most restorative after a long flight.
Luckily Kazuko-san picked a hotel attached to the Haneda Airport. Not only was this convenient for arrival, it was convenient for breakfast. Haneda’s domestic terminal and its shops lay just outside the hotel’s doors and is eerily calm and serene in the early morning. I quickly found Sato Suisan a gourmet rice ball stand. I was particularly impressed to see a gent making fresh onigiri with ikura, or salmon roe. I also took note of a really cute airplane-shaped bento named for the Blue Impulse (Burū Inparusu) the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s equivalent of America’s Blue Angels.
The ikura onigiri—still warm and packed with salmon roe and salmon—was a fine breakfast, but by the time we got to Asakusa at 1:30 p.m., I was pretty hungry. “This is my favorite place for tonkotsu ramen,” Kazuki-kun said as we entered Urimbo. “It’s Hakata style,” he pointed out as he ordered the noodle with egg. I quickly took my guide’s lead and copied his order. Even though the broth was rich, it was cleaner tasting and less unctuous than tonkotsu I’ve had in the States. It knocked out the remnants of a lingering cold I’d brought to Japan from New York City.
Hakata style tonkotsu ramen with takana, kaedama, natch!
Urimbo’s ramen comes with a big bowl of takana, mustard greens with roast seaweed and chili. It’s a welcome add-in reminiscent of the salty-sour pickled greens served with Taiwanese beef noodle soup, but even better thanks to umami and chili heat. When he was about three-quarters of the way through my young friend exclaimed, “Joe-san, I am going to get kaedama,” referring to a second serving of noodles. I once again followed suit and we soon waddled out to make our way to Senso-ji, the oldest temple in Tokyo, which features both Shinto and Buddhist shrines.
I’ve been to some impressive Buddhist and Hindu temples in Queens, but nothing quite like the vast Senso-ji complex. The entrance is marked by the towering Kaminarimon Gate, flanked on the left by Raijin, the Shinto God of Thunder and on the right by Fujin, the Wind God. Also known as the Thunder Gate it was first built in 941, but was destroyed in a fire in 1865. Thanks to donations from Panasonic founder Konosuke Matsushita the current gate was erected in 1960. Just inside the gate was a temizuya, a place to wash one’s hands and mouth in an act of ceremonial purification before entering a Shinto temple. And just beyond that a jokoro, a gigantic incense burner where we wafted fragrant smoke atop our heads. Soon we were on line with hundreds of tourists to pay our respects at the main temple. It was serene, but crowded. Back out on the grounds we explored some of the less crowded areas where there were some lovely Buddhist statues.
We were still pretty full from lunch, but we took a stroll down Nakamise-dori Street, one of Tokyo’s oldest shopping arcades. I bought some super fun cat shaped rice crackers, but was a little too overwhelmed to shop for souvenirs. Soon we encountered some older gentlemen grlling ningyoyaki, little cakes filled with sweetened red bean. Shaped like leaves and birds and filled with sweet red bean they were lovely for me and a treasured taste of childhood for my guide!
By now it was about 4 p.m. and it was time to visit Asakusa Gochiso Yokocho, the legendary food market in the basement of the department store Matsuya. The heady cocktail of jet lag and overstimulation—whole cases devoted to wagyu beef, skewered delicacies, bakeries, tea purveyors—didn’t deter me from sniffing out a high-end unagi purveyor named Miyagawa Honten. For about $24 (¥2,592) we scored three gorgeous burnished pieces of unagi kabayaki, which the dude behind the counter wrapped in fancy paper as if the grilled freshwater eel were an Hermès scarf. Not only was it the best and only department store unagi I’ve ever eaten, it was the best I’ve ever eaten period. Later I learned that we had visited an outpost of a storied unagi specialist that’s operated restaurants in Japan since 1893.
“Okonomiyaki and takoyaki are for beginners,” Kazuko-san had mentioned to me when discussing dinner plans for my first night in Tokyo. “You’re going to try monjya yaki.” Since there was plenty of time before dinner I convinced Kazuki-kun to take me to a slightly less rarefied department store, the vast and chaotic discount emporium known as Don Quijote. Kazuko-san had told me that it was the place to get Japanese Kit Kats. “Wow, you are really into Kit Kat,” Kazuki-kun marvelled as I scooped Shinsu Apple, Sakura & Roasted Soy Bean, and Itohkyuemon Uji Hojicha into my shopping basket. My favorite was the latter, flavored with charcoal roasted green tea. Even though I packed a small duffel bag full of Kit Kat to mule back to the U.S., the punch line of the whole thing is that the selection of Japanese Kit Kats in New York City is far better than what I encountered in Japan.
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Night had fallen on Asakusa and we strolled to our dinner destination Monjayaki Shichigosan. Each table was outfitted with a griddle for cooking okonomiyaki’s more liquidy cousin. We started out with a pork belly and cabbage and soon our server had spread it on the griddle going at it with two spatulas.
Even though she spent quite a bit of time spreading and chopping it never quite seemed to set. We ate it with two small spatulas. As it continued to cook, brownish caraemelized bits, which were my favorite part, began to form. I preferred the second order, which featured salty baby shrimp, but to be honest monjayaki is still an acquired taste. Nonetheless I amused by an IG comment from Justin Warner: “Bro I was gonna ask where TF this is in Queens, but it’s a restaurant I visited myself in Tokyo haha.”
Before heading back to Haneda, I suggested we find a kissaten, or old-school Japanese coffeeshop. We were both mightily impressed by the coffee at Cafe De Royale, and decided to save our appetite for the next day: sushi at Toyosu Fish Market.
We had planned to meet at 9 a.m. but Kazuki-chan’s train was delayed until 10 a.m., which gave me some more time to digest my salted pollack roe onigiri as well as to take in a view of Mount Fuji as seen from outside Haneda’s Terminal 2. Soon we were under way to Toyosu, the fish market that replaced Tsukiji in fall of 2018. By the time we got there most of the market was closed, but we did get a sense of its vastness by looking down upon the market floor from an elevated gallery.
We arrived at our destination the tiny Sushi Dokoro Yamazaki, which was once one of the most popular breakfast sushi spots in Tsukiji Fish Market, at 11:30 a.m. Yes, breakfast sushi is a thing. This spot, which was remarkably uncrowded just before noon is open from 5:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. We enjoyed a brilliant 11-piece omakase at their new digs in Toyosu Fish Market. Each piece was exquisite, but I especially liked the tamago, toro, and unagi done two ways. Not a bad deal at all for $55 U.S.
I am somewhat ashamed to admit that by the time we got to Tsukuji I was pretty tired. I did enjoy looking at some of the stalls though but was grateful for short sit at the decidedly untouristy Tsukiji Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. That afternoon I headed back to the hotel for a much needed nap before a comforting dinner of airport udon with Kazuko-san. We both got to bed early as we were flying to Fukuoka the next morning.