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Brian Oh: {food, travel, photo}

Japan (viii): Noodles, Coffee, and Whisky

It's been a long time since I'd felt as excited as I did to go back to Tokyo on my way back from Timor-Leste in November (which could have something to do with how ready I was to leave Dili after 5 weeks there). It was also the first time I had returned to a city for leisure travel. Having been in Tokyo before, I no longer felt the pressure to cram is as many things each day as I could (not that I've done everything already). In between some amazing meals, I spent my days walking through some smaller, quieter neighborhoods like the interior of Omotesando. One of the things that makes Tokyo so great is that it's so dense that even the less traveled streets are filled with boutiques and restaurants that all look so cool and inviting and rich with stories that I imagine take place there.

I'll make one call-out to a specific meal I had because it was one of the best things I've ever eaten in my life. Daisuke, who owns Daikaya and is thus an immediately trusted authority on Tokyo dining, turned me on to a little tendon shop in Asakusa called Tendon Masaru. Just steps away from the Sensojin Temple, Masaru is a 50+ year old tendon shop that basically serves one thing-tempura over rice. Only open a few hours a day for lunch and sometimes not at all if the chef can't find the best ingredients at the market on a given morning, it's the kind of shop that I love about Tokyo-such unwavering dedication to craft and quality. I arrived just as they were opening and stuck my head under the noren to make sure I was in the right place. A petite woman waved me in and seated me at the counter with just the phrase, "edomae tendon?" I nodded vigorously and minutes later was presented with a perfectly composed bowl of beautifully golden, lightly fried tempura eel, fish, and prawn over a bed of tiny jewels of rice and a bowl of rich, smoky miso soup. So incredibly simple, but absolutely delicious. It's hard to imagine such unembellished food having such a range of quality, but each component of this meal was utter perfection and complementary. I'm often reluctant to recommend restaurants in Tokyo to people that ask because, though I've been to a decent number, there are still hundreds if not thousands of noteworthy places I haven't been to, but I have no qualms about recommending Tendom Masaru. Go to Tokyo. Eat this food.

I also spent a good amount of my time scouring the city for bottles of Japanese whisky. I came out with a few Chichibu releases and a couple of cool Suntory bottlings, but pickings were pretty scarce. The popularity of whisky has skyrocketed in the past few years that everything sells out immediately. Not a bad haul for just a few days looking though.

Other highlights: tsukemen at Fu Unji in Shinjuku with broth that was so rich I would have thought it was pork, but it was actually roast chicken and fish, and perhaps the most flavor rich ramen noodles I've ever tasted; the coolest little coffee shop in Omotesando, called Omotesando Koffee; and Zeotrope in Shinjuku that had the largest selection of Japanese whisky I've ever seen where I was able to sample a number of the Hanyu playing card series bottlings.

Japan (iv): Stations, Giants, & Riots (Day 3)

When planning out my last full day in Tokyo, I made a point of plotting out a route that included as little walking as possible. I was already fairly worn out after the first two days. So there was minimal venturing outside the immediate vicinity of a few train stations. I started out by visiting the Roppongi Hills shopping district, which consisted of a lot of upscale shops and restaurants. I didn’t have any intention of buying anything, so I just meandered a bit before heading out. From there I took the train to Tokyo Station.

Tokyo Station is one of the largest train stations in the city where much of the lines converge in a giant hub and labyrinth of corridors and underground passages. It was originally built during the colonial era, so its architecture provides a stark contrast to that of the modern high-rises around it. Salarymen and women filed in and out in nearly identical outfits of white shirts and gray suits or skirts on their ways to and from work. Like other large stations, it’s also the foundation for massive shopping and dining complexes. I wandered through the catacombs lined with shops beneath Tokyo Station for a lot longer than I wanted to. All of the hallways looked the same and I had trouble finding where I was going. I was looking for one particular section of the food court called “Ramen Street.” The naming conventions in Japan involved calling a lot of locations “Streets” or “Stations” or “Stadiums.” I passed through a “Character Street” that was filled with souvenir shops from all of the different anime companies hawking trinkets with their characters’ visages plastered all over them.

“Ramen Street” is a small offshoot that houses eight separate ramen shops. Not having much information on any of the individual shops besides some general idea of what “Ramen Street” was about, I simply picked the shop with the longest line – a strategy that proved effective a number of times. I grabbed my ticket from the vending machine and waited to be seated. After a short wait, I sat down to my fourth bowl of ramen – a shio ramen with a few slices of charsiu and two pork dumplings. Very satisfying and if I were commuting through Tokyo Station, “Ramen Street” would probably be a daily stop for me.

After clearing my bowl, I walked the few blocks from Tokyo Station to the Imperial Palace. It was a little underwhelming. There’s very little open to the public and there’s not much besides large minimal gardens and the views of the top of the palace roofs.

I headed back to the Station to ride out to the Tokyo Dome. I had tickets to see the Yomiuri Giants play the Hiroshima Carp. Unsurprisingly, the area around the Tokyo Dome is a large amusement park and shopping complex, complete with roller coaster. Giants souvenir shops selling the same jerseys, caps, and orange towels formed a ring around the entire stadium. Most of the T-shirts had the name and number of specific players and since I didn’t know anything about them. I bought a shirt that depicted a few cartoon Giants with the word “Laundry” emblazoned across the chest. I think Laundry is a hip clothing brand, but I just thought it was funny.

Japanese baseball games are odd. The actual game was perfectly normal, but everything else was a bit off. Almost all of the hype music was Rihanna. Batters stepped up to the plate to Rihanna. I’m positive they had no idea what they were walking out to, unless they’re all really into S&M. Girls in bright, colorful uniforms sprang up and down the stairs selling beer and snacks. There was even a Suntory whisky girl. At one point, I needed some water, but there were no fountains or uniformed girls selling water. I had to go to one of the refreshment kiosks and pay 200 yen for a tiny cup of water that was basically the size of the cup the dentist gives you to rinse with. Should have just bought more beer. Speaking of refreshments, there are kiosks serving typical Western snacks like hot dogs and popcorn, while next door the kiosk serves noodles and rice bowls. I’d be interested to see which earns more money. A lot of the cheers were also hilarious “Engrish.” My favorite was a chorus of “WE ARE READY! WE ARE READY! OOOOH YEAAHHHHH!”

A few innings in, I met a couple from Melbourne, Andrew and Brianna, and relished the opportunity to have a conversation in English with them. We went over the things we’d done so far and what else we had planned. It turns out we’d done a lot of the same things already. We took turns taking pictures for each other and hung out for a bit before I headed out around the eighth inning.

I headed back down to Shibuya to check out a bar, Goodbeer Faucets, that was supposed to have a large selection of Japanese craft beers. The bar manager turned out to be an expat named Eldad Bribrom and he told me about how the Japanese craft scene has been exploding the past couple of years. They had several dozen crafts on tap, over half of which were Japanese, and I tried three: Chateau Kamiya’s “Akiagari” lager, Brimmer’s “Strong Pale Ale,” and Nide Beer’s “Monster C IPA.” They were all excellent examples of their respective beers; smooth and full flavored. I hadn’t eaten very much that day, so they kind of went straight to my head. Case in point, I started talking to some people in English and was a little confused why they didn’t understand me at first. After some weird glances and chatting with my buddy Eldad some more, I went to go check out the famous Shibuya Crossing a few blocks away.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Shibuya Crossing is an intersection in a busy shopping, restaurant district where the walk light signals a giant flood of pedestrians crossing the intersection from every direction. On this particular evening, Japan had just won a soccer game against Iraq and the Crossing was full of raucous celebration. People climbed light poles and there was one guy that lit a flare and threw it into the crowd. There were police nearby, but they did nothing. Probably because they knew there’s little they could do.

I first found a nice vantage point at the second floor Starbucks on the intersection to take some shots. One of the employees kept coming by to tell people they weren’t allowed to take pictures. But he was helpless and no one listened to him. When he came up to me, I just played dumb and ignored him. After a little while of boxing out a bunch of squealing girls wanting to get up to the window. I headed down to get in the thick of it.

A lot of my pictures from the ground are out of focus because I had to keep moving and people were running into each other. While the light was red, people hyped each other up for the giant mosh pit that formed between lights. There were kids lining up like runners at the ends of the crosswalks. On one light sequence, a cab got stuck in the middle and people jumped all over it. The tiny, middle-aged driver looked terrified. I was almost a little disappointed when they didn’t overturn it. There was one brave cop that tried to wave people around the cab sheepishly yelling “sumimasen!”, as if he were posing an inconvenience.

After getting mobbed in the street for a while. I called it a night. It had been a whirlwind few days in Tokyo and the next day I’d be getting on a train for a drastically different slice of Japan. Tokyo was awesome, but I welcomed the change of pace.

Japan (iii): Fish, Sumo, & High Fives (Day 2)

After just one full day in Tokyo, albeit a pretty packed day, I was exhausted. One of the places on my list, though, was the Tsukiji Fish Market. The famous wholesale market where much of Tokyo buys its fresh seafood in the early hours of the morning. One of the main attractions for tourists is the tuna auction that occurs at around 5:30am. I’d read that it’s best to arrive around 4:30am to secure a spot because they are limited to about 60. I figured that, it being a Monday, I wouldn’t need to arrive much earlier than that. I actually debated whether or not I should try to make the auction at all and just go to the main market area instead when it opened around 9am, but I ended up waking up at around 4am anyway. I laid in bed for a minute and figured I probably should at least try. Lo and behold, after a $45 cab ride from an eerily deserted Shinjuku to East Ginza, I arrived at 4:45am and found myself too late. People had arrived as early as 3am and the security guards were just warding off additional tourists with their arms crossed in the universal symbol for “you’re shit out of luck.”

I commiserated with a couple of girls from LA that arrived around the same time as I did and after some wandering around the area and deciding what to do, they decided to head back to their hotel, but I wasn’t going to cut my losses so I opted to wait a bit and just check out the main market. I crossed the bridge over the Samida River, over which the sun was just beginning to crest the high-rises on the opposite bank, and killed some time at a Denny’s. Yes, Denny’s. I had some bad coffee and bizarrely crunchy French toast (I didn’t bother to take pictures of my Denny’s meal) and after about an hour at 7am. I decided to just try my luck in getting into the market before opening.

At first I strolled in the front gate and wandered around for a minute, but I was approached by a pair of guards that spoke to me in rapid Japanese in a very disapproving tone. When I made it clear I had no idea what they were saying and pretended like I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be there, they pulled out a tourist flyer and pointed to the words “Open to public at 9am” and escorted me out the main gate. I promptly turned the corner and went around through another loading gate, but had the same thing happen shortly after. Not one to give up so easily, I then circled wider and went all the way to the back loading docks. I had to dodge and weave through trucks of all sizes, motorized carts, and old men pulling hand trucks that careened around the space at high speeds. It was extremely dangerous and probably for good reason that tourists like me aren’t allowed there that early. I made it inside, despite a few close calls, and once in the thick of it, there weren’t many guards and it was easy to duck into the next aisle if any were coming my way.

The Tsukiji Fish Market is madness. It’s densely packed, people yell across at each other, carts rush past and force you to mind your elbows at all times. There’s fish blood and viscera everywhere. Buckets of entrails and muddied water are regularly poured into the aisles to drain off into the trenches. It’s chaotic, but in a methodical way. Sales are made, stock is placed orderly in towers of insulated Styrofoam crates, old men slice giant tuna with long serrated blades. Others divide frozen tuna with giant table saws. I imagine if this kind of place were open to the public in America, there would be more than a few severed limbs and frivolous lawsuits.

After an hour or so of meandering the market and getting in people’s way. I headed out and passed by the area where tourists line up to eat fresh sushi from the market. I considered it, but a lot of the places were prix fixe meals consisting, in large part, of shellfish. Considering my random allergies, I decided it would be lost on me to pay the $30-40 and not be able to eat half of it. So I got on the train and headed back to my hotel for a nap.

After a couple hours of sleep, I left the hotel around 11am. I headed to the area near Waseda University to check out a little ramen shop called “Gank0” (meaning grumpy or stubborn in Japanese). I was about a half-hour early for Ganko’s opening at noon, so I wandered the labyrinthine neighborhoods between the main streets for a bit. With most of the residents at work or school, the streets and alleys were deserted and blanketed by a kind of dull silence. I could hear the faint echoes of cars from the main roads, the quiet hiss of a radio or TV from an open window, a crow cawing from the power-lines above. I was almost surreal how foreign this little piece of Japan was for me. I felt like I finally understood the imagery and tone Murakami uses to describe similarly, but deceptively mundane settings.

A few minutes before noon I headed into the nondescript alley in which Ganko resides. I knew that it was open because of the giant bone chained to the black tarp covering the entryway. Ganko is utterly unremarkable in appearance. It’s little more than a black tarp covered awning extending a few feet into the alley. Under the tarp, a sliding door leads into a tiny room with 5 seats, a counter, and a grimy, smoke stained kitchen. In that kitchen, an old, graying man shuffles a few feet in each direction to assemble his bowls of shio (salt) ramen that he tops with a hot shrimp oil that produces a satisfying sizzling as he passes the bowl to you over the counter. His movements are sparing and efficient as he boils individual balls of noodles (which he times with a tiny analog clock in the corner) and compiles the ingredients into a plain white bowl. I’ve read that he doesn’t open if he doesn’t think the broth is up to his standards on a given day. It’s amazing how dedicated this one man is to his craft, even with such a small, practically invisible operation.

After Ganko, I headed down the street to get on the train to go to the Ryogoku Stadium to see the September Grand Sumo Tournament. Watching the sumo matches was at once fascinating and confounding. Like most other things in Japan, sumo is incredibly ritualized. The matches are preceded by a ceremonial procession of the wrestlers into the stadium when then stand around the ring as their names are called. Each match is preceded by several minutes of synchronized posturing and positioning. The wrestlers enter the ring, pat their arms, legs, and stomach, stand opposite each other and stomp the ground, and then enter a ready position. But instead of beginning the match, they get back up, walk back to their corners to wipe their faces, chalk their hands and throw chalk into the ring, pat their arms and stomach some more. This goes on for several minutes. There’s even some showboating involved. When wrestlers slap themselves more vigorously and grunt more loudly than usual or throw the chalk higher in the air, this elicits loud cheers from the stadium. When they finally get to the actual fight, it lasts seconds. Sometimes as short as 5 seconds, but usually no longer than 30. One of the most interesting things about it all was the announcer/referee who called everything in a rhythmic chanting voice. As the officials rotated, it was interesting to see how some of them put much more effort into making it a melody.

After watching this for about an hour, I grew fairly impatient with the proceedings. Some of the matches were exciting to watch – matches that became athletic, heavy exchanges of slaps were the most interesting, while those that devolved into the wrestlers entangled trying to give each other wedgies were the least – but figured I’d seen enough. I didn’t know who were the important ones to watch or what exactly was significant, so I headed out to check out the Tokyo Skytree.

The Tokyo Skytree opened in May to become the second tallest structure in the world at 634m, behind only the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. I had expectations of strolling in, paying a small fee, and taking the elevator up to catch the sunset, but I should have known better. I arrived to find a gigantic shopping mall and restaurant complex, hordes of people, and an hour wait just to get in line for the elevator. Thankfully it was less hot and humid in the shaded outdoor area and there were pleasant views of the surrounding Tokyo neighborhoods. When I finally got in line for the elevator, it was another 30-minute wait. By this time, the sun was already setting and I gave up hope for making it in time. It would have been spectacular though. At the viewing deck, I had become increasingly frustrated and annoyed of the attendants constantly yelling directions in shrill, nasal Japanese and the ceaseless lines and crowds, that I just took a handful of shots and got out of there as fast I could. Unfortunately none of the shots I got were particularly sharp, which is a shame because the view was beautiful. Mount Fuji loomed in the distance and Tokyo sprawled out like the sea in all directions.

I left the Skytree to head back down to Ginza. This time I was heading for Bar High Five, one of the top cocktail bars in Ginza. It’s located in a tiny space on the 4th floor of an office building with almost no signs to indicate that it’s there. Like a lot of the other places I went to in Japan, you have to know that it’s there. When I walked in the door, I was tired, sweaty, and generally pretty gross, but I was greeted warmly by master bartender, Hidetsugu Ueno. I was the only one there that evening and Ueno-san, formerly of another Ginza cocktail powerhouse, Star Bar, and I had a great conversation about the culture of hospitality and perfection in Japan. Ueno-san spoke mostly fluent English, but had some trouble with words like “distillery” and “kumquat.” First I ordered a drink. I told him of my penchant for Sazeracs and Old Fashioneds and that I’d like something I wouldn’t be able to find at home. He thought for a minute, remarked that both of those drinks had distinct cultural qualities, and proceeded to make me a Japanese Garden. Made with single-malt Nikka 10-year Yoichi whisky (only available in Japan), Midori Melon Liqueur, Suntory Green Tea Liqueur, and a prototype, green tea bitters of his own creation, Ueno-san described it as a drink representing all parts of a Japanese garden. Natch. He served it with small dishes of tiny, seaweed wrapped rice crackers and a cracker topped with kumquat and a single, crystal clear sphere of ice. It was subtle and refreshing. A great cocktail and exquisite presentation.

One of the most fascinating things about Ueno-san is that he doesn’t actually drink alcohol. Sharing the same affliction with many Asians, he isn’t able to metabolize alcohol very well. He’s able to make drinks by just tasting a small sip of everything. A Beethoven of mixology. He then told me that he never actually wanted to be a bartender and originally wanted to make coffee. But with the advent of Starbucks and other mega-chains, he was uninspired by the soulless nature of the product (making exception for spots like l’Ambre) and turned to the drink (in the good way). He reveled in the complexity in the art of the cocktail and remarked upon how the job of a bartender never ends. Ueno-san gave the example of the Manhattan and how every step can change the end product. The temperature of the glass or bottle, how it’s stirred, the texture of the ice. Every cocktail demands that he be “fresh” and that each time is like “the first time to make love.” It framed this Japanese idea of the endless pursuit of perfection in a fascinating way.

I had read that Bar High Five made a killer hotdog before I left for Japan. I mentioned this to him and he offered to make me one. In a tiny corner cubby covered by a green flag, Ueno-san whips up a hotdog with a toaster oven and a stove. He tops the hotdog with a house-made bourbon sauce and pairs it with a Bourbon and Soda. A fantastic combination. As I stuffed my face unapologetically, he told me about one of his regulars that loves hotdogs. This regular travels around the world just to eat great hotdogs, but Ueno-san's is his favorite. I found it hilarious that there's someone out there that travels the world for hotdogs, something so mediocre to me, while I was in Japan searching out good ramen.

As I finished my hotdog, a group of drunken businessmen stepped out of the elevator and stumbled around the hall loudly. Ueno-san's assistant, a young woman who had been quietly assisting him the entire time, quickly stepped outside and barked something at them in Japanese to shoo them away. He laughed and told me they were probably just looking for girls and beer. Ueno-san confessed that he has no desire to attract walk-in customers. He doesn't need people coming to his place just looking for a drink. He has his regulars and people that make a point of searching him out, like me, and that's enough.

I finished my hotdog and bourbon, said thank you, and moved toward the door. Both Ueno-san and his assistant escorted me to the elevator as I thanked them profusely. He shook my hand and gave me his card. Later that evening he emailed me with some recommendations for places to go in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Fukuoka. I left Bar High Five having paid a pretty steep tab, but it was probably one of the best bar experiences I've ever had.

I got back to my hotel around midnight and peeled off my clothes. Like every other night in Japan, I sat down with my iPad to plan out the following day and then crashed in an exhausted heap.

The Japan posts are coming slowly, but surely. I’ll make it to the end. Hopefully this new format works out well.