Tokyo, Day 1: It’s Not Only About the Sushi
We’d had an awesome meal the night before, our first night in Tokyo, at an izakaya (Japanese bar) not more than 500 metres from our apartment, and today we want noodles. Soba, Udon, Ramen, we don’t really care. We’re still buzzing that our first night in the city had been so much fun. We’d eaten colossal summer oysters and plate after plate of amazingly fresh sashimi.
When we were young backpackers, Tokyo was the first destination we ever visited on our first freshly issued passports. Armed with Nikon FM2 cameras, backpacks, money belts, and wide-eyed desires to experience everything, we lucked out and ate some sublime noodles in a laneway in Shinjuku. Flash-forward some 17 years later, we want to see if we can find some noodles just like the ones we still remember.
Thinking we’ve beaten the long haul blues in a single night we wobble out of the apartment into the summer sunlight and head for the nearest subway stop. Negotiating the Tokyo Metro is straightforward due to some welcome assistance from an affable local businessman. Interpreting the guidebook map is something else altogether. Spatially inaccurate, missing streets and street names, and omitting important landmarks, it’s not worth tearing up for a poop in a jungle.
Half an hour later, no thanks to the guidebook, but once again thanks to a friendly local businessman, we find the “famous” ramen bar the guidebook recommends. The name is correct although the description applies to a place around the corner. It’s the only eatery on the block that doesn’t have a line of locals out front, but we’re too tired to queue so we take the risk anyway.
This is not necessarily a good thing. The noodle soup is bland and for something that is the house special and meant to be famous, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the menu. Still, the few workers there are slurping away, leading us to presume we left our taste buds on the plane.
On a wander around the neighbourhood after lunch we spot a few places that look interesting, including the one the guidebook (mis)described as our ramen place, a couple of bars, and a few spots that look like they could be fun places to eat in the evening.
The next night we return to check out one of them, an atmospheric stand-up izakaya that we liked the look of called Nippon Saisei Sakaba (Japan Reborn Bar). It’s decorated in the nostalgic mid-last century style that’s popular in Tokyo again, with plenty of wood, vintage posters, and retro details.
It’s around 8.30pm, the time all good Tokyo drinkers hit an eatery to soak up the booze from the post-work drinks. As I’m photographing the smoky yakitori grill that is the front bar, a group of locals flash the obligatory Japanese double peace signs. This is a good thing. Happy locals are a different breed to the ones fervently tapping buttons on their docomo smartphones on the subway — even though, paradoxically, they could be the same people on a different night.
With a warm welcome from the waiter who speaks little English, we find a space at the front bar and he finds us a menu with some English translation. We initially think this is a good thing — until we read what’s actually on the menu: Tongue, Heart, Liver, Gullet, Trachea, Spleen, Large Intestine, Rectum, Stomach, Temple, Breast, and Uterus. Up a price bracket are Small Intestine, Neck, Spine, Shoulder and Becon, which, of course, we’re hoping is ‘bacon’ misspelt. Or misdiagnosed — seeing the menu reads like an autopsy checklist.
By watching what’s smoking on the wooden skewers the cooks are turning over the charcoal grill, checking the plates being sent out to the hungry/tipsy diners — and with a little help from a rockabilly guy eating next to us who speaks some broken English — we decide what to eat…
Big beers in hand, on the advice of our fellow diner, we order tapas-size plates of Small Intestines, Large Intestines, Tongue, and Shoulder. Each time a dish is delivered, the chefs eagerly await our reactions. They have nothing to worry about, as it’s all sublime — crispy, smoky, succulent, and tasty.
Around the bar, fellow diners are also enjoying the charcoal-grilled treats. We see the raw meats coming straight from an immaculately clean set of refrigerated stainless steel drawers beneath the charcoal grill, so we know we have nothing to worry about.
As soon as a plate of skewers arrives we’re looking at the menu again. “Courageous, courageous…” the waiter mutters in English with a cheeky smile as he scribbles down our next order: Raw Liver, Grilled Vegetables (safe, but divine), and Raw Heart.
We work our way though a series of dishes before pulling up short of Raw Brains. The Raw Heart has pushed us far enough and we haven’t had that much to drink that Raw Brains sounds like a tasty treat. We’re done. Time for a drink.
If this all sounds a little nauseating to you, here’s a thought: for many cultures, killing and eating an animal is a special event. When times are tough, as they were in post-war Japan, people were forced to every bit of the animal they had killed. This is a good thing in our opinion. Too much of what we consume these days — boneless meat in tidy packaging — is metaphorically detached from the origins of the ‘product’.
This wonderful place, now one of our Tokyo favourites, celebrates the tradition of using all the consumable parts of an animal. It couldn’t be further from a US$100 a kilo Wagyu or a US$150 sushi menu, but this is one of the unexpected delights of Tokyo for us, and just as tasty and memorable as a US$10 piece of sashimi.
A tip: no matter how much fun you have, don’t kick on and start drinking local whisky, and don’t ask how I know this. Not yet anyway. My head thuds just thinking about it.