Eating out in Tokyo as it quickly becomes apparent to us is not only about sushi and noodles. After a disappointing bowl of ramen at a supposedly-famous noodle joint we find ourselves at a retro stand-up bar tucking into smoky grilled intestines, tongue, shoulder, raw liver, and heart. And it’s wonderful.
Eating out in Tokyo, Japan, isn’t as easy as you’d think. On our first morning, in our jet-lagged Lost in Translation state of being, we grab a guidebook off the shelf in our Tokyo apartment rental to look for somewhere for an early lunch.
We had an awesome meal the night before, our first night in Tokyo, at a boisterous izakaya — a Japanese bar or tavern that also serves food — not more than 500 metres from our apartment in our neighbourhood Akasaka. And today we want awesome noodles. Soba, udon, ramen, we don’t really care.
We’re still buzzing from our first night eating out in Tokyo. It had been so much fun, eating colossal summer oysters and plate after plate of amazingly fresh sashimi, that we want another meal that will be just as memorable. We want a bowl of noodles that we’ll never forget.
Eating Out in Tokyo — It’s Not Only About Sushi and Noodles
You see, when we were young travellers on our inaugural trip overseas, Tokyo was the first destination we visited on our freshly issued Australian passports. Armed with Nikon FM2 cameras, backpacks, money belts, and wide-eyed desires to experience everything, we lucked out and found ourselves devouring bowls of sublime noodles in a laneway in Shinjuku.
Flash-forward some 17 years later and here we are once again in Japan. This time we aren’t on a stopover, but a two-week trip where every day we will find ourselves facing the delicious challenge of eating out in Tokyo. For our first lunch, we want to see if we can find some noodles just like the bowls that we still vividly remembered. We don’t want to risk disappointment, which is why we reached for the guidebook…
Thinking we’ve beaten the long haul blues in a single night we wobble out of the apartment into the early summer sunlight and head for the nearest subway stop. Negotiating the Tokyo Metro is straightforward (especially compared to our experience on that first trip 17 years ago!) due to some welcome assistance from a helpful local businessman.
Interpreting the guidebook map on our own is something else altogether. Spatially inaccurate, missing streets and street names, and omitting important landmarks, it isn’t worth tearing up for a poop in a jungle. Half an hour later, no thanks to the guidebook, but once again thanks to another friendly local businessman, we find ourselves at the ‘famous’ ramen bar the guidebook recommends.
The name is correct although the description appears to apply to a place around the corner. It’s the only eatery on the block that doesn’t have a long line of locals out front. But we are too tired to queue, so we decide to take the risk. This is not necessarily a good thing.
The noodle soup the guidebook recommends is bland for something that is meant to be the house special and meant to be famous. Lara thinks it tastes of dishwater. It doesn’t bode well for the rest of the menu. Still, the few workers that are here are slurping away, leading us to presume we have left our taste buds on the plane.
On a wander around the neighbourhood after lunch we spot a few places that look more interesting, including a famous ramen spot that the guidebook should have directed us to, a couple of intriguing eateries, and a few stand-up eating bars— known as tachinomiya — that look like they could be fun places to graze in the evening.
The next night we return to check out one of the stand-up joints, an atmospheric tachinomiya that we liked the look of called Nihon Saisei Sakaba or Japan Reborn Bar. It’s decorated in the nostalgic mid-century style that seems to be popular in Tokyo again, with plenty of wood panelling, vintage posters and retro details. We will later learn that Nihon Saisei Sakaba was modelled on a Nakano stall founded in 1950 by Yoshihiko Ishii, an ancestor of the owner, and its style tipped a hat to the late Showa period of the 1920s to 1940s.
It’s around 8.30pm, the time all good Tokyo drinkers hit an eatery to soak up the booze from their post-work drinks. As I photograph the smoky grill at 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 later that night.
With a warm welcome from the waiter who speaks little English, we find a space at the counter of 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 the 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 guy with a rockabilly hair-do eating beside us who speaks some broken English, we decide what to order. What we’re going to be eating out in Tokyo tonight is the last thing we expected to be eating out on this trip.
Big cold beers in hand, on the advice of our fellow diner again, we order tapas-size plates of small intestines, large intestines, tongue, and shoulder. Each time a dish is delivered, the grill masters and waiter eagerly await our reactions. They have nothing to worry about. It’s all sublime: crispy, smoky, succulent, and, above all, incredibly tasty.
We see the raw meats coming straight from an immaculately clean set of refrigerated stainless steel drawers beneath the charcoal grill, so we know that 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 choice, we know, but they look divine), and raw heart.
Around the counter, we see that fellow diners are also enjoying tucking into the charcoal-grilled offal treats. As we’ll later learn, eating horumon (pork and beef offal or innards) has become popular amongst adventurous eaters in Tokyo and the trend is showing no signs of going anywhere according to our new Tokyo foodie friends.
Horumonyaki or motsuyaki (grilled offal) is part of horumon ryori or offal cuisine which makes use of everything from the animal’s mouth, specifically the tongue, to its tail, and all the — as one Tokyo food writer called it — “organs and pipes” in between. It’s essentially what we know as nose-to-tail eating, only in Tokyo it’s tongue-to-tail.
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 enticing yet. We’re done. Time for another 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 eat every bit of the animal they had killed. This is a good thing in our opinion. Too much of what consumers eat these days — boneless meat in tidy styrofoam packaging, wrapped in plastic — 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. At ¥150 (US$1.30) per skewer (for colon, gullet, pork temple, spleen, tongue, womb) and ¥200 (US$1.90) per skewer (for rarer treats: birth canal, breast, glands, or ‘higher quality womb’), it couldn’t be further from a US$100 a kilo Wagyu or a US$150 sushi menu.
This was one of the unexpected delights of eating out in Tokyo for us — and it was just as delicious and even more memorable than savouring some sublime sashimi or slurping a bowl of noodles.
A tip: no matter how much fun you’re having eating out in Tokyo, don’t kick on and start drinking the local whisky with your new local friends, and don’t ask how I know this. Not yet, anyway. My head is thudding just thinking about it.
Nihon Saisei Sakaba
Marunaka Building 1F, 3-7-3 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Open daily 3pm-12midnight (last orders 11.30pm)
Nearest Station: Shinjuku Station, east exit; Shinjuku-Sanchome Station (Marunouchi, Shinjuku, Fukutoshin lines), exit C3