The metal chopsticks hold a shrimp head, which the tempura master deftly dips into a bowl of batter before plunging into seething hot oil, swirling it around then laying it on my plate. The tendrils and claws have been rendered crisp — it looks both terrifying and delicious. I take my camera and begin to focus on the crunchy crustacean but the chef tells me off. From his small amount of English, I gather that what he has served me must be eaten within moments of it hitting my plate. Tempura is all about temperature — the hot, crackly batter encases either seafood, fish or vegetables in a few moments of sublime harmony. To let this go cold and soggy is the ultimate sin.
I arrive in Tokyo late in the evening and wander bewildered looking for a place to eat near my hotel. On my list is Tenichi in Nihonbashi, one of a chain of fabulous tempura specialists across Japan. I’ve been warned not to be snobbish about chains here, nor about restaurants often being located in the middle of shopping centres.
Seated at the counter, I’m mostly bamboozled by the menu so I opt for an omakase (leave it up to the chef) set. The tempura master places piece after fried piece on an oblong platter before me, and for the first time I truly understand how exquisite tempura can be. I try sweet shrimp, kusu fish (no, me neither), radish, shiitake stuffed with shrimp, cuttlefish, ayu (a sweet fish), eel and flower of coltsfoot (a bit like an edible dandelion head). I learn from the master that while the dipping sauce and grated wasabi are both lovely, the best flavour combination comes from simply dipping the battered morsels in salt and lemon. The final dish is sakura shrimp kakiage, tiny cherry prawns fried together in a ball and served on rice.
It feels like I’ve eaten at the altar of tempura, but I’m told the reverence I feel here — the exaltation of one cooking style — can be experienced all across Japan. In Tokyo — the city that gave birth to Edomae-style sushi which we know as nigiri — this sometimes means that you will often have to join a long and patient queue before you get your seat for lunch and dinner. I join the back of one such line, at a cluster of noodle shops known as ‘Ramen Street’, down in the bowels of Tokyo Station. I’ve chosen Rokurinsha, a tsukemen shop where cold noodles are served with hot broth. At the end of the queue, I am waved to a vending machine displaying images of various bowls of noodles and additional extras. I eventually sit down to a bowl of lip-stickingly gelatinous stock, bright with umami and bobbing with a soft-boiled egg and slices of pork — the al dente noodles slip into this bath to be warmed slightly before being slurped and bitten. Beside me on the bench, men eat noisily, inhaling while they swallow their soup — we are all wearing paper bibs, a much-needed protection against noodle splash.
Even at the crack of dawn in freezing rain, there are people huddled under umbrellas at the sushi stalls and noodle vendors that skirt the outside of the famous Tsukiji fish market. Some will wait hours — the fish here is as fresh as you can get. Sushi began with fishmongers, making snacks by placing pieces of the freshest fish on top of little ovals of rice, something that they could eat on the hop. These days, though, people like to sit down and eat it, taking it altogether more seriously. If there’s not a queue in this city, then there’s more than likely a reservations book filled up well in advance.
I’m lucky enough to bag a counter pew at a lunchtime sitting at Sushi Sora, a sky-high restaurant with views out across the city. I barely look over to the windows as I am transfixed by the skills of master chef Yuji Imaizumi who is working on rolling mats and chopping boards directly in front of me. He shows me a box with shimmering fresh fish fillets and explains that everything here is seasonal, dependent not just on what the catch is and what vegetables are abundant, but also the weather. One thing is constant though — the most important thing, the rice, which Imaizumi makes himself every day, mixing it with his own specially-made rice vinegar before storing it in an ohitsu, a cedarwood container that absorbs the moisture of the rice. “Don’t add more soya sauce or salt. I would appreciate it if you just enjoy it as I make it,” he advises. “Sushi is served a little bit warm, if you leave it on the counter it changes very quickly. You don’t have to eat it right away but you probably should.” Imaizumi lightly brushes a piece of tuna cheek with soy, then lifts it with a pair of chopsticks and delicately places it in front of me. He entreats me to eat this exquisite offering immediately, while the creamy, soft fish is still slightly warm. I do as I’m told and the almost buttery taste and milky texture of the tuna is a real but lovely surprise.
Yakitori is another Japanese classic. Skewers of chicken are spread with a sweet soy-and-mirin glaze known as tare or teriyaki and they’re cooked over a chargrill, a vigilant chef constantly rotating the meat to keep it juicy. Areas of Tokyo have their own dedicated yakitori alleys, with small outfits huddled together vying for your trade. Many are located around railway arches and are often a challenge for the English speaker. With this in mind, I head instead to Hajimeya in funky Shinjuku. I pop my head in to the restaurant but they tell me they’re full and I should go instead round the corner to their small bar. I sit on a high stool and try crispy chicken skin, thigh and buttocks. By chance I meet a fellow food-loving traveller, and we share several dishes as he tells me of the Wagyu beef, all creamy and marbled and amazing, that he is taking back to Singapore with him. It turns out Lindsey Lam travels to Tokyo once a month and so knows the city like a local. He takes me on a walk around Shinjuku, home to clubs and bars where all oddities and, indeed, sexual peccadillos are catered for. We head to the cluster of groovy bars around Golden Gai and opt for a cute little bar called Albatross.
Tokyo has around 160,000 restaurants and more Michelin stars than any other capital in the world. But living cheek-by-jowl with those culinary palaces are grungy little gems doing great food. Tyler Palma, a guide with InsideJapan, takes me on a tour of some of these izakayas (drinking dens with bites to eat). We head to the railway arches around Yūrakuchō station, where Tyler points out on a map what the different places sell: “This one specialises in fish, then there’s horse, pork, whale and chicken; this one is fish and seafood.” Inside Uomaru-Honten, a seafood place, he orders and pays for a plate of tiny fried gyoza, which is brought to us from another restaurant. We eat raw sea urchin and barbecued tara fish and watch salarymen drink beer and smoke cigarettes. From here we hop along for tonkotsu pork, panko-encrusted fillet served with a sweet curry sauce, rice and cabbage.
Our night ends at a Champagne bar with no name, behind a discreet door in the Ginza neighbourhood with no sign. It’s a cliche to say you’ll get lost in translation in Tokyo, but it’s almost inevitable. Sometimes you embrace it and sometimes you need a friend like Tyler or a delightful stranger like Lindsey Lam to help you find your way — to tell you some of this city’s secrets, to open the lid a little bit and to show you why this is a city to which you must return.
A taste of Tokyo
Take a journey through sushi with a tasting menu that can include bonito fish with shiso flowers, beltfish, squid and fatty tuna cheek. The master chefs will hand roll their rice and cut fish on the ancient-wood counter directly in front of you, turning simple nigiri or makimono-rolled sushi into culinary masterpieces.
How much: Lunch and dinner start at £40 and £102 respectively. This includes an appetiser, nigiri, makimono-rolled sushi, soup and a dessert. mandarinoriental.com
Sit at the counter and order one of the tempura set menus and be guided by what the chef serves you, or order piece by piece, pointing to pictures of fish you might not know but should probably try. Watch as the chef delicately dips fresh fish and vegetables into batter — to be eaten hot, hot, hot.
How much: Set dinner menus begin at £59 and include salad, tempura, rice, miso soup, Japanese pickles and fruit. tenichi.co.jp
Tokyo has a number of ‘Yakitori Alleys’ but they’re hard to fathom when time-pressed and language poor. Hajimeya in Shinjuku makes it a bit easier — try crispy chicken skin, thigh and buttocks, and if you’re bold enough, entrails, gristle and heart.
How much: Yakitori skewers begin at £1.20 and a five-skewer platter is £5.70. Vegetable skewers, sides and noodle bowls are also available.
Five Toyko food finds
Tokyo is the birthplace of Edomae-style sushi, which has become one of Japan’s most successful culinary exports. Opt for a sushi breakfast at busy Tsukiji fish market, or pick your plates at a popular conveyor belt restaurant.
Department Store Food Halls
There are free samples in the basement food halls of major department stores such as Matsuya and Isetan. Try pickles, rice cakes, sweets, cured meats and all the other titbits graciously offered.
The noodle scene in Tokyo is enormous. Choose your kind of broth (usually pork or chicken), your favourite noodles (tsukemen, udon, soba or sōmen) and pick a destination — Ramen Street in Tokyo Station is a good bet.
In an already expensive city, kobe beef from Wagyu cattle will burst your wallet but many foodies make a pilgrimage to the Japanese capital just to eat this fatty, creamy meat considered to be the best in the world.
These little convenience stores — known by the nickname konbini — are everywhere. They sell a wide variety of items including sushi, salads, sandwiches with crazy fillings (think fruit and cream) and hangover-cure drinks.
InsideAsia offers a Tokyo experience from £1,974 per person (based on two, excluding flights), including four nights at the Mandarin Oriental, private airport transfers, a private guide for a day, the Insider Izakaya Experience and a transport pass. insidejapantours.com Flights from London to Tokyo with Japan Airlines start at £596 return.
Published in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)