We went to Toyko in January to do some ‘research’, which in our line of work means eating and drinking your way around Tokyo.
Straight off the plane, we headed to our first ramen shop, Menya Musashi in Shinjuku, which appropriately, since it’s the city’s classic, serves a shoyu-based soup.
Topped with a perfectly cooked, gooey ganache-like yolky egg and two pieces of thick, sweet pork belly, menma and spring onion. The noodles, which we had ‘katame’ (al dente), were fat, which is a trend in Tokyo at the moment. This is a popular place with tourists and locals, so if you’re going at lunch expect a bit of a wait.
Almost too full to walk after leaving nothing of our ramen but the pattern on the bowl, we left for our first meeting with a noodle machine company – we’re hoping to get one for our bar. The president, the second generation of the family to produce these beautiful machines, came out into the street wearing the ubiquitous ‘masku’, showed us inside and handed out a pair each of pink (for girls) and blue (for boys) faux Valentino mule slippers. Ken-chan looked pretty hot in his:
The machine itself is the result of two generations of precision engineering and if you’re into that kind of thing, like Ken, a thing of beauty, with each part perfectly choreographed, playing its part to produce smooth, perfect noodles.
Back at Shinjuku we headed for Yakitori Yokocho/Alley, unfairly nicknamed ‘piss alley’ by expats. I imagine a similar sort of street in London would be swimming in urine. Perfect way to start the evening with a few skewers of chicken gizzards, skin, shitake and peaman (green peppers) and a couple of bottles of Asahi.
Onward to a smoky, brilliant izakaya for some excellent sashimi, kara-age, tomato salad, tako-su and too many ‘nama’ (draught, literally translates as ‘raw’) Sapporo beeru with honjozo sake chasers. I got lost en route to Big Echo karaoke - bright lights, massage parlours, karaoke joints on every street all looked the same after to much sake.
Ken, not concerned for my welfare out in the Shinjuku streets, carried on happily to Big Echo, his main worry when he realised I was lost was that he’d paid for unlimited drinks and singing and we were wasting time. As we hadn’t bothered to exchange phone numbers (Ken only had his Japanese mobile), and the only way to contact one another was via his wife who was in France happily watching The Killing before having to direct two drunken fools around Tokyo. Little needs to be said about the night from there on, other than:
After 4 hours’ sleep we headed to Tsukiji fish market, an essential part of any trip to Tokyo, where unique wagons, cyclists, traders and punters rush around in what seems a totally chaotic fashion. Of course chaos but perfect order, this is Japan. When you arrive, the lack of fishy smell is noticeable, for somewhere dealing in 700,000 tones of seafood a year, that’s unbelievable – everything is so fresh.
All the fish we serve at our sushi restaurants, Tsuru, is sustainable, and seeing so much blue fin was truly shocking. There seems to be no sign of slowing the sale of this endangered fish.
Like most tradesmen in Japan, these fishmongers were highly skilled and professional. Something that comes with generations and lifetimes perfecting your craft. I could’ve stayed at the market for hours watching them work and discovering new fish, but remembering why we were in Tokyo, at 7.30am we headed to our first ramen joint of the day.
Inoue serves a simple Tokyo shoyu ramen with a light chicken stock soup, 4 slices of cha shu (pork loin), which were a bit on the dry side for our liking (especially having eaten a couple of thick slabs of juicy pork belly the day before) and topped with spring onions and water cress. There was also a shake of ‘mystery’ powder into the bowl, which can only be MSG. Forget Lucozade and bacon sandwiches I can’t think of anything better to get rid of a hangover than this steaming bowl of noodles eaten standing amongst the market workers and shoppers.
We headed over to Sensou-ji temple to try and work off our breakfast ramen in anticipation of tonkotsu ramen lunch…
We were supposed to be trying to get hungry for lunch, but couldn’t resist a plate of tako yaki (octopus balls) on our way from the temple and as usual with these little suckers, the magma inside almost burned off our tongues. This happens EVERY time I eat these things and it’s still impossible to wait long enough for them to cool down. It’s usually worth burning your mouth off for takoyaki, but the worry here was losing our sense of taste for the rest of the trip…
This was the fourth ‘snack’ of the day. By 10am we’d eaten egg on a stick, ramen, a doughnut and takoyaki…and were on our way for Japan’s stinkiest, richest noodle soup: Tonkotsu.
We headed back to Shinjuku towards the tonkotsu ramen shop (I was considering a tactical chunder at this point) hoping to find a foot massage en route, but soon realised most of the massage places in Shinjuku offer an altogether different service, and we almost ended up in a place offering ‘Happy Finishu’ add-ons. It seemed a bit early for that kind of claptrap, so we went for the safe option of a beer back at yakitori yokocho before a stinky, creamy tonkotsu ramen topped with garlic oil at Darumamonue ramen in Shinjuku. The garlic oil was a welcome addition, not only for flavour, but it cut through the fattiness of the soup.
We met Neil Davy of Lambshankredemption and @dinehard fame, who happened to be in Tokyo, in his swanky hotel bar 34 floors above the Shinjuku streets. Check out his blog for Tokyo adventures. Sadly, we had to leave them as they headed to a karaoke bar as we were booked for a more civilized experience (no offence NRD!) at Roku Roku sushi restaurant in Roppongi Hills, where this chap made some incredible sushi.
Watching the chefs work was mesmerizing – not a word was exchanged between them throughout service, they just moved with and around each other in silence. These guys take it to an extreme level, but even in the street ramen shops, the owners and chefs are absolute professionals, working with the concentration of a surgeon as if someone’s life depends on it. And I guess it does, their own livelihoods are at stake, such is the importance of food in Japan.
From Roku Roku to another absolute professional, Hisashi Kishi at Star Bar in Ginza where we sank a few of the best whisky cocktails you’ll find. Star Bar is a small basement bar, which I doubt we’d ever have found without Neil From Cask Strength‘s recommendation, with no cocktail list, just the owner, Kishi-san, and four skilled craftsmen who make all the classics.