Day 14 – Tokyo, Japan
The haze of Amsterdam was still lingering—I couldn’t shake it even after a six hour flight. I took the train into the city from NRT and met up with Diane (who got to Tokyo a day before I did) at our place near Asakusa Temple. First stop: ramen!
This Tokyo post will be very food-centric. A lot of great stuff to do and see in Tokyo, but my days (by design) revolved around the food I wanted to eat. Beware of rushed iPhone photos—I was hungry.
The ramen was damn good. But I don’t think the difference in quality between ramen in Tokyo vs. ramen in California is that big. It’s there, but not significant. (Shout out to Santouka in San Diego and Los Angeles.) Whereas the difference for katsu, chirashi, soba, and sushi were night and day.
One of the first things I did after I booked this trip and realized that I would be in Tokyo for Thanksgiving is try to get a reservation to a really nice sushi restaurant. With the help of my friend Clarissa (who was teaching in Japan at the time) and her local friends, we started from Sukiyabashi Jiro (from Jiro Dreams of Sushi) and went down the list of Michelin starred sushi restaurants. We were able to book Sushi Taichi for Thanksgiving night and Sushi Aoki for the night after.
Writing about my time at Sushi Taichi on Thanksgiving night is a bit daunting. Not only is it the best food I’ve ever tasted, but also by far the best dining experience I’ve ever had.
Getting off the station in Ginza and trying to find the place was an experience unto itself—the only sign, written in Japanese, was the size of an A4 paper. Needless to say, I needed help finding it. After weaving through multiple alleyways and thinking I would miss my 8pm reservation, a local man offered to take me there.
When I finally arrived at 7:49pm, eight guests were already there. I was the last guest (only nine seats are available), but chef Taichi and his two assistants greeted me warmly and showed me to my seat. I started with a Suntory premium pilsner, but quickly finished and changed to a cold sake after I saw that they had a whole tray of uniquely designed sake glasses that you could choose from—like that Holy Grail scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I chose the earth-toned, traditional ceramic looking one.
Chef Taichi made the sushi itself more engaging by telling me interesting facts about the fish I was eating. Like how the sekogani (item #3, above) is in season for only two months of the year. And how the earthquake in Aomori a few weeks ago caused the the uni (item #18) he served me to be some of the best he’s seen—though there would be none leftover for next month. How tuna (#8 & #10) is not interesting to him as a sushi chef because all you need to do is buy expensive, high-quality fish and cut it. Whereas the experience needed to cut and prepare something like kohada (item #9, his favorite fish) or saba (item #6 & #11, my favorite of the night) is more difficult and personal.
In addition to the perfectly selected 22-course omakase meal, the thing that took the experience to another level was the attention to detail and service. My wooden plate got wiped between each piece of sushi. The assistant would go clean the bathroom immediately after a guest came out, before the next guest would use it. (The bathroom had the softest, best quality toilet paper—I stashed a couple squares in my pocket as a souvenir.) The chef even threw out a handful of sushi rice once, because it wasn’t the ideal texture (“you know, al dente”).
The conversation with chef Taichi, despite his limited English and my even more limited Japanese, was just as enjoyable. One of the great pleasures in life for me is watching extraordinarily talented people do what they love and listening to them talk about it. He said he wasn’t as much a perfectionist as someone like Jiro because he likes giving his assistant chefs the opportunity to work. When I asked why he became a sushi chef, he told me a story about going to his teacher and saying “I don’t like sushi.” His teacher, recognizing his talent, responded, “you must.” So he went on to study for ten years at various schools and restaurants. His mother told him to not come back until he opened his own restaurant. He thanked his brother—who is also a sushi chef (“he cooks very well, but I do ‘experience’ better”)—for pushing him.
After the two and a half hour dining experience and a few cups of tea to bring the meal to an end, it was time to go. The handwritten number on the bill was high, but I would’ve gladly paid double or triple that amount for the meal and time I just had. The assistant chef personally walked us out and bowed at the door. After walking twenty or so yards down the alley I came from, I looked back and saw that he was still there. He remained there until I was out of sight. (I peeked around the corner to see him finally go back inside.) It was a completely wonderful experience—start to finish.
Day 15 – Tokyo, Japan
We woke up early to go to Tsukiji Market (the largest fish and seafood market in the world) and ate a bowl of chirashi with uni, crab, and ikura that was so fresh the only way you can get something fresher is by catching it in the ocean and taking a bite on the spot.
We were so full but less than an hour later (the time it took us to walk there), we had some soba at Narutomi—which chef Taichi told me was one of his local favorites.
And dear lord, that tonkatsu. It was from a low-key joint in the basement floor of the Mori Tower. It had the perfect textural balance between the thick, juicy slab of tender pork and the fluffy, crispy layer of fried breading. The head cook brought the same attention to detail as the sushi chef the night before. When one of his assistant cooks was about to send out a plate that wasn’t to his liking, he sternly called it back and fixed the plating ever so slightly and then sent it out again.
Day 16 – Tokyo, Japan
The only thing I absolutely had to do in Tokyo besides getting good sushi is visit the Ghibli Museum.
When I tell my friends and colleagues that I generally prefer Studio Ghibli films over Pixar films, I get a mixture of incredulous gasps and “what’s Studio Ghibli?” I think Pixar’s best films go head-to-head with Ghibli’s best films, but Ghibli’s mid-tier and bottom of the list movies are significantly better than Pixar’s. (The Tale of The Princess Kaguya was my #7 favorite film of 2014.) Anyway, that’s a subject for another post.
The Ghibli Museum had concept art, sketches, storyboards, props, models, etc. on display. They recreated Hayao Miyazaki’s office, desk, and animation station—granting visitors a look into Ghibli’s creative process (no photography was allowed inside). They even had a theater for screening original short films that can only be seen at the museum. Out of the ten or so shorts they have on rotation, Mr. Dough and the Egg Princess was screening on the day I went. And though I was surprised at how quickly you can walk through all the exhibits, the gift shop was glorious. I bought way too many souvenirs and gifts.
Day 17 – Travel
The last day of my trip. I woke up, took a shower, and threw up all over the shower. Maybe I ate something unwelcoming the day before. Or maybe my body was shutting down after 17 days of traveling. Whatever it was, I’m glad there was a wash bucket nearby. I went to the toilet about nine times at NRT and another four times during my layover at MNL (the worst airport I’ve been to). A bottle of blue Powerade and some guava snack kept me alive.
Odds and Ends
- This might come off as trivial, but it was so true:
- They had self-serve green tea stations at a revolving sushi place we went to. Not knowing this I used the matcha powder, thinking it was wasabi, to mix with my soy sauce. I think I had two or three pieces of sushi before I realized something tasted off and Diane pointed it out (and laughed at me).
- We drank a lot of really great Japanese whisky throughout the trip. (The Yamazaki Sherry Cask had just been selected best whisky in the world, over traditionally dominant Scotches.) Photo below at a cramped bar (they’re all tiny) in Shinjuku Golden Gai:
The Polaroid above was taken of the yellow shuttle bus at the Ghibli Museum. It is supposed to be reminiscent of Catbus from My Neighbor Totoro and even has an illustration of Catbus on it. It is the last shot of the trip for my ongoing series.