After a heavy night at Ten Ten Ten I got up at the usual hour on Saturday to make my weekly call to Sara on time. It’s Friday night around 10pm for her when I call her at noon on Saturday my time, and this night she was at her sister’s house watching movies. I asked her if the next day would be a better time to call her and she agreed, not wanting to be rude to her hosts. Not gonna lie, here. I was relieved. I had already showered but had no proclivities what-so-ever toward passing the fuck back out for a little while. Our dinner reservations weren’t until 6 and it doesn’t take long to get to Roppongi from Shinjuku.
Jeremy and Chin were at Kappabashi street this day and I had told Jeremy the day before that I found a small katsuobushi-kezuriki (dried bonito shaver) for home use at a knife shop out there. At about 4pm he shot out a group message wondering where that shop was. I found a really nice large one that would suit a restaurants uses at a shop that sold soba equipment, but he was interested in the smaller one that I bought. I jumped out of bed, did a quick search online and in my class notes (I remembered that Otani sensei told me about the knife shop I bought it at and I had it written down in one f he notepads I carry with me at all times), so I shot out the name of the place. The universe aligned and Jeremy found his dried fish shaver. And it was time for me to get fucking dressed.
I shot a message to Damian, set up our meeting time and place, and off we went. Destination: Sushi Bar YASUDA. Having traveled to
Roppongi many times on this trip I knew how long it would take us to get there and planned accordingly and without much in the way of empty space. We didn’t get there 2 hours ahead of schedule this time, is what I’m getting at. We found our way to the restaurant at the expected time, even a few minutes early, and descended the narrow stairwell to Yasuda-sans establishment.
We were met at the door by the hostess/server who confirmed my name and how many on the reservation and then showed us to our
seats right at the end of the counter. As we walked in, passing the threshold, through the glass doors, heading toward our seats that were just a few steps away from the front door (it’s a small place that seats 14 people max) I was a little startled to be face to face with Yasuda himself. Both he and the server/hostess were immediately concerned about Damians comfort, as the seats are a little small, they put us on the end with our backs to the wall, and Damian is a bit of a giant. He was fine though. He could fit in the seat and there was room enough for me to squeeze by him to get to the bathroom later on. Yasuda is shorter than he appears to be in the media, but his personality is larger than life. He greeted us with a large smile and once we had a couple minutes to look over the drink menu we placed our order. All he does is omakase nigiri with a couple rolls thrown in, maybe a hand roll, and soup if you’d like, but there are different course counts to choose from. In our typical fashion we went for the one with the most courses. Even half-jokingly telling a later patron (we were the first ones there) that we told him to keep feeding us until either we couldn’t move or he felt he needed to have us removed. He asked us if there was anything we didn’t like or if there was anything we would like extra quantities of. We told him we’ll eat anything he wants to feed us, everything is good, no special requests, we want all of the things!
He started us off with one of the hits, like a rock concert, maguro akami. The red portion of the tuna that has the richest and deepest flavor. His nigiri are formed much smaller than most places would make them as well as more spherical in shape rather than the very specific oblong shape the school and most other places say is ideal. I really enjoy the smaller size. You are expected to eat a piece of nigiri in one bite but if it’s too big it becomes difficult, even uncomfortable to chew. I came to the conclusion long ago that nigiri should be a little smaller than is conventionally thought of and when I was at Ignite in MGM Grand Detroit I would make them a little smaller. From there he went to his specialty otoro that he painstakingly removes all sinew from so that the meat literally dissolves on your tongue before you’re even halfway done chewing the rice. The next course was uni, but it looked way different from any other uni I’ve seen. It was smaller and with less moisture so it wasn’t as soft and creamy as most uni, but what really stood out was the color. It was very reddish at the pointed tips fading to an orange hue at the broader end. Its flavor was very different as well, still bright and ocean-flavored but milder in the aquatic offal flavors and heavier on the other flavors usually associated with uni. I liked this one a lot. He revealed to us that it was from Russia.
The whole time we were sitting there he was asking us questions, explaining his techniques and philosophies to us. It started off slow but as more people started showing up he warmed up and took to entertaining the crowd. He started at the obvious starting point of where we’re from, what are we doing in Tokyo, and how long are we here. When he heard that we were in a sushi program he politely but in no uncertain terms conveyed to us his feelings about schools. He doesn’t like them, he doesn’t trust them, he values real world experience WAY more than any piece of paper from ANY school, ANYWHERE. A sentiment I agree with whole-heartedly. We assured him that we were here to study and that we understood that 2 months in any school wasn’t going to magically turn us into great sushi chefs, and that we both have 20+ years of experience cooking already so we get why he feels so strongly about this. He also doesn’t like sashimi courses, as he revealed later in the evening. He said that they are nothing more than fisheries promoting this idea and trying to insert it into the food culture for the lone purpose of selling more fish. He was not shy in sharing his opinions OR his knowledge. At one point in the evening he referred to Western sushi as “a lot of funny rolls”.
After the Russian uni he moved on to amaebi. The twist here was they were tiny. Three or four to a nigiri, and like I said, he makes
small nigiri. Next was bonito. It was not as deep red as what one would expect when hearing that but it was a lighter, deep pinkish hue. He explained that the fish we are used to seeing under the bonito name is skipjack tuna, and that true bonito was much paler and milder. I actually thought they were the same fish with multiple regional names, as so many fish have. Next out was flounder, followed by akagai himo, the lip around the edge of the ark shell clam. A small string of flesh that runs around the inside of the shell, the length of the opening. It’s slightly chewy but has a distinct clammy flavor. Next he highlighted 2 different types of salmon. A fresh water steelhead followed by a salt water Tazmanian sea trout, which is essentially the same fish with regionally different names and harvested at different points in the life cycle. The difference was subtle but noticeable, both in texture and flavor. The oceanic version was richer and fuller while the softer fresh water variant had a milder but slightly fishier flavor due to a higher fat content. Following that was saba, and as he was setting it down I said that this is always one of my favorites. Upon hearing this he asked, “you like shiny fish?” We both replied with an emphatic yes. He started listing off a bunch of silver skinned, oily fish of the kinds that we love and we agreed to all of them. From there our courses focused a bit more on those types of fish, but he spaced them out, not hitting us all at once with them.
Baby sardine gunkan-maki was next in line. Briney, slightly fishy, but less than one would expect, and very juicy. Later in the evening one of the other guests asked him what it was as he was setting it down, and before he could tell her. His response was “eyeball fish”. By this point in the night the sushi counter was filling up. Four women from Australia, 3 of whom were of Asian descent but that was belied by their distinct Aussie accents. There was another couple from Australia at the other end of the counter and a couple from Texas front and center. The dude told Yasuda after he asked if there was anything he didn’t like to avoid roe, scallops, and another thing that escapes me now but struck me as another typically American food eversion. Whatever. Suit yourself.
Shinko was next on our plates. Spotted sardine that is harvested very young so that in a typical sushi bar you need 2 fillets, or one
whole fish, to make just one nigiri. Because of this most chefs don’t like to touch them because they are extremely labor intensive to clean a tiny little fish that you will only get one nigiri out of. When we covered these fish in class we used kohada, the next size up and a staple of most sushi bars here. There are 4 different sizes of these fish that the Japanese use and shinko is the smallest. Yasuda-san makes his nigiri so small that only one fillet was needed. While he was making this course he had his little grill turned on and was grilling off some mushrooms. Those were next for us and he split the matsutake into slivers and secured them to the rice with a strip of nori.
Every piece of nigiri we ate had soy sauce brushed over it and wasabi inside, so there was no need for any more. You eat what the chef puts in front of you with no extra soy, wasabi, or ginger applied. In fact, I think he might get violent if he saw a guest put a slice of ginger on their nigiri. As special as his house made pickled ginger was, that is not its intended purpose. He also has 2 different types of vinegar he lightly dabs over nearly every nigiri right before the soy sauce is brushed on, a red rice vinegar and a clear rice vinegar, using whichever of those is appropriate to the fish in his hand.
After the matsutake was ika. Lightly scored and soy brushed on just one end, the end facing the guest when he serves it. Geoduck clam hit our plates after that. Thick and meaty and only a little chewy, this was surprising. It was really good, and didn’t taste at all like what I was expecting. Poached ebi with the tail fins removed that he blanched and iced a few minutes prior was placed in front of us at this point. Garnished with a little rock salt and no soy this time. When asked what type of salt he uses, if he has a specific type he likes, he said, and I’m paraphrasing, that he doesn’t much care as long as it’s salt and it has large grains. The salt he was using this day was French, but he had no region or country that he was loyal to in that regard.
A single lobe of Mexican uni laid over rice made its way to us next. Big and luscious and creamy and juicy and full of all the usual flavors associated with uni and I still like the Russian uni better. Damian disagreed, but he’s wrong. Gunkan-maki filled with ikura and garnished with a little coarse salt followed. Oyster nigiri that was as rich and creamy as the uni followed the ikura. Then iwashi, sardine. Sanma. More salmon. Sea bass. More akami maguro. By this point in the night he was getting busy and he knew we would eat whatever he threw at us so there were a couple repeats like that. He would just make a couple extra of whatever he was making for another guest. We didn’t care. Keep it coming.
Fresh water trout was in season and Yasuda had a special preparation for it that removed the muddy flavor usually associated with freshwater fish. Super clean tasting, and very delicate. More otoro was after that, again because he was making it for another guest and just made extra for us. We were not about to complain. Raw red shrimp, and then dueling eels hit our wooden blocks next, after the ebi. One piece anago (sea eel) and one unagi (freshwater eel), both grilled and served with their respective tsume sauce. In the states eel is generally bought frozen and premade eel sauce brushed over top once broiled to bring it back to life, but in places where the eel is brought in fresh it’s simmered in a water, soy, sugar, mirin, sake blend and once the eels are finished cooking that simmering liquid is reduced by 90%, much like a demi-glace, and the result is tsume sauce. The real-deal eel sauce.
Onion sprouts next. Simple, straight forward, cleansed the palate after the sticky tsume and fatty eel. Next was hotate, scallop. I usually don’t like scallops completely raw, I think they benefit from a little bit of intense heat to caramelize their natural sugars and add an extra layer of flavor and texture. These scallops were really good, though. Tamago followed, then a negitoro roll, and I knew that meant the end was drawing near.
He made us hand rolls with wasabi and kaiware, radish sprouts, and told us as he handed me mine, “this is Tony Bourdains favorite roll”. Name dropping your friend is, I guess, ok, but it did settle in a little weird. He wasn’t done surprising us yet, however. The soup course landed in front of us and it was amazing. Just broth, miso, and kaiware sprouts for garnish, no tofu, no wakame. The broth was sticky on the lips and tasted of fresh fish, not dried and smoked fish. Much more like a French fumé than a dashi. After he asked us how it was and we, asking in return, how it was made the chef informed us it was indeed made more like a fumé. He blanched salmon and Hamachi bones and made the stock with those, and the miso was 2 varieties, red and white, to accentuate and cut through the fish stock. 35 courses later, some falling a little flat but most of them brilliant, we were very sad to be at the end of the meal.
We chatted with Yasuda and the other Australians around us for a little while and reluctantly decided to leave. Though as soon as we agreed “yeah, let’s go” Yasuda turned to us and asked if there was anything else we would like. I don’t think he heard our conversation, as he was at the other end of the counter and we were talking softly, but it was on the money as far as timing goes. Already having resigned ourselves to leaving and knowing we were staring down the barrel of a hefty bill, we just went with our initial decision and requested the bill. An amazing meal with great entertainment and spot-on service. If you’re ever in Tokyo and you know you will be a couple months in advance I highly recommend you get reservations to see Yasuda at his little temple of awesome in Roppongi.
The next day I reached out to one of the translators from TSA to see if he had anything planned, since he dropped the hint on the last
Sunday class that he will now have Sundays off, so if anyone wants to hit a bar… Kaz is a Japanese chef with a heavy American accent from the many years he spent on both East and West coasts of the United States, he told me of a huge festival and parade that was happening in his own home area of Tokyo. The Oeshiki festival in Toshima-ku is one of the Autumn festivals that has several significant meanings to the Nichiren Buddhists. Every neighborhood in the area constructs a large and ornately decorated lantern that stands up to 3 meters high with arms resembling the tines of an umbrella that nearly reach the ground, each arm is decorated with spherical puffs of white tissue paper and this is carried by one member at a time through the parade route, changing out as they get tired. The procession around each of those contains a group of revelers with hand drums, bells, and sometimes flutes, and is followed by a cart of some kind that contains the power source for the large lantern being carried as well as a large drum. Also in the each group is at least one “mini shrine” mounted on the end of a hand-held pole that is decorated with long, narrow strips of fabric that flap like the arms of a jellyfish when spun around in an elaborate method that everyone mimics. These, too, are handed off between participants as the bearer gets fatigued, as well as the duty of beating the large drum on the back of the cart. Some of the power source carriers were scooters and at least one (very) small truck. This is a loud and raucous festival, with the drums, chimes, and chanting with the whole procession following roughly the same rhythmic percussion pattern. Some are more enthusiastic than others, with members shouting in unison at certain points in each bar. The members of each neighborhood also dress alike, so each unit of the parade procession is easily distinguished from the next.
Early that day the worshippers take these lanterns through the Kishibojin temple that will be the ending point of the parade to borrow some of the divine spirit and good luck the temple holds. They take it back to their neighborhood to distribute that good luck, then go to the starting point of the parade route, just off the east exit of the Ikebukuro train station. From there they assemble and start the drumming up to an hour before the parade starts moving. Over the course of the next 2 hours they walk the parade route back to the temple and walk each lantern through its heart to return what they borrowed for the day. The temple grounds are turned into a carnival of target shooting games, food stalls, and drink vendors with the energy and density of a rock concert. An intense experience and very interesting. I got a good amount of video on my phone that night that I need to edit together into one continuous piece rather than the fragments they are in now.
Monday in class was the nigiri test we’d all been waiting for. We were given a whole Hamachi to break down and slice for nigiri, keeping at least the 40 nicest pieces for the test and the rest were to be used for test practice runs. The test was after lunch, to give ample time for practice runs, and ample time for anxiety build-up.
For lunch break we had the option of eating the choice bits of Hamachi, which most of us had beaten to a pulp for practice by that point, or as always, we could go out. I opted to take a walk but by the time I found a place hadn’t already been to there wasn’t enough time to eat before I had to be back for the test. Returning to class on an empty stomach, it was crunch time. Do or die. I had enough points for graduation already, but this test didn’t count toward that, this was a test that we had to pass for graduation. This was the moment of truth. Pass or fail, this test would decide.
Eighteen nigiri in 3 minutes, in 3 rounds. The good looking ones as chosen by the presiding sensei would have the neta (fish topping) peeled off and the rice balls weighed. Of the 54 we were required to make in the 3 rounds of the test 37 had to be acceptable and with a rice weight of between 15 and 17 grams. That means 13 in every round have to be on point to pass comfortably. In test runs the week before I was conducting in practice after class I was nailing 19 a round with 15-17 in the right weight range. I wasn’t sweating this by now. Practicing after class every day to develop a rhythm with the new technique the school wanted us to use had paid off.
I ended up passing with 39 in the correct range. A little too close for my comfort, but all of the shari balls that were out of range were light, and I can deal with that. The nicer the place the smaller the nigiri to facilitate being able to chew them easier because a nigiri is supposed to be one single bite, and it also allows the guest to sample a wider variety of delicacies than if the rice ball was bigger and more filling.
I passed. And I didn’t even need to worry about the katsuramuki test. If I completely bombed that one I’d still get my diploma. Most of the class passed, in fact. A few students had to do make up tests. In the end I think everyone nailed it, though. The instructors were ecstatic at the results. They were very impressed how far we had all come, and they were not shy to tell us. A few students still had points to get, however. Not everyone had done well enough in the previous tests to pass on points without getting something on the dreaded katsuramuki.
A few of us went out to celebrate that night. A few of the Japanese students that also had their graduation locked down already along with Damian, Nelson, and myself. We took up residence for a few hours at a yakiniku style joint that is close to the school, specializes in fish (there’s a giant aquarium visible from the street through the front window), and they’re open 24 hours a day. They also serve beer. That’s the important part. It’s kind of a shithole and the food is subpar at best, but like 7-11, they’re not always doing business, but they’re always open. Upon that point alone we’ve paid them a few visits.
The night ended early and we all went back to prepare for the final test on Tuesday. This one was going to be 2nd period, rather than 3rd. Since peeling a radish doesn’t really require much prep time we were given another lesson with the akagai, the bloody little clams we had played with once previously. As an added bonus we were also given a geoduck clam, or mirugai, to disassemble for sashimi. Once shelled out and blanched very quickly, the skin on the outer part of the “foot” peels away extraordinarily easily and the texture of the foot is similar to that of other clams. The surprising part of the geoduck is that it is very sweet and tasty as hell. I walked into that thinking it was going to taste muddy and dull, but I was happily proven wrong. Another surprise was a strip of meat that runs along the edge of the shell and has a completely different taste and texture from
the tube-like foot that’s connected to it. Azuma sensei lead that lesson and told us that bit wasn’t fit for sushi, but was better for appetizers and marinated preparations. I completely disagreed. When he and the interpreter, Raphaela, came by my table I let him know as much. His immediate response was, “do you like oysters?” and without saying another word it clicked in my head why I like this part of the clam so much. It has a taste and texture mildly reminiscent of a Pacific Northwest oyster, mild brine, subtle sweetness, toothsome but forgiving texture. Azuma sensei admitted he wasn’t a fan of oysters, so the bias was revealed. I will be seeking these out in the future.
Leading up to the sashimi demo we did a practice run of the katsuramuki test so that we would have some peeled daikon to julienne for sashimi garnish. I did horribly on this. More horribly than I thought I would. The previous week I was at least getting something worth scoring. This time nothing. So when the test time came I was fairly certain I was going to bomb spectacularly. I was already in the passing zone so this was only going to raise my GPA if I got any points at all, which I was certain by this point I would not.
To reiterate, we were required to make a 10 centimeter wide and 40 centimeter long strip of daikon peel. It had to be 40 cm to even qualify for a score. Points started at 100 and any imperfections meant points would be deducted. Any tears were counted and points were deducted in 5 point increments. If the sheet was over 40 grams it was cut down in length or width if the width exceeded 10 cm and there was a sliding scale of point deductions for how long it was once it had been trimmed down to 40 grams. If the sensei had to trim it down to 15 cm or lower it was still a fat 0. We were going to do 2 runs timed at 10 minutes each and the best score of the 2 would be counted. More than enough time to meet the requirements several times over, in skilled hands.
Test time came and I had some kind of out-of-body, Rainman-esque, idiot savant moment and ended up with a radish peel that was fully 80 cm in length. I examined it and cut out the bit with the fewest tears and that looked the thinnest. I had quite a few tears so that was the hardest part. None of them were beyond 5 cm, though, which would have disqualified that particular strip and not counted as a continuous piece. Azuma sensei was giving me shit for poor performance during the trial run, and he looked equally surprised that I pulled this out of my ass. I was too. He counted the tears, 5 of them in total which meant a deduction of 10 points. He then weighed it. 33 grams. Below 30 would have been -5 points, 24 grams is a perfect weight, this put me in the -10 range for weight. Final score on katsuramuki. A mind-boggling 80%. I don’t know how it happened, but it happened. An alien transmission taking over my brain, a Zen oneness with the radish, a lack of fucks about the result because I already knew I was going to pass, whatever caused it remains a mystery to me. But I certainly am not about to argue with the results.
If one were to get a perfect score AND a perfectly straight sheet it would be an extra 10 points, for 110 on this test. Jeremy did just that. Twice. After sensei scored his first attempt he actually did the fist-pump and let out a “yes!” slightly under his breath. He was the only one in the room that was surprised he could do it. We all knew he could. When he got the second 110 Damian reminded him that he could only use one, and I accused him of showing off at this point.
On my second run I was back to sucking out loud.
Other students didn’t fare as well. Graznya and Danny both needed points to graduate. They made it though. Just barely, but they made it. Danny passed his nigiri re-test as well. All of the international students passed the course.
That night Damian and I had planned on hitting Golden Gai, as he had missed out on the previous trip with Nelson. He insisted that
he needed to be back early and start packing, however, so 6pm was his curfew this night. I told him none of those bars open before 6 but he still wanted to see the place. Sure enough, nothing was open. He did get to see inside a few of them though, so he got the idea of just how tiny these bars were. There’s a well-known ramen shop that feeds the drunks of that area and they weren’t even open yet. We ended up hitting a run-down, seemingly ancient ramen shop on the way back that had the vibe of a truck stop in the middle of now where. White walls, a curving counter with red vinyl topped stools, and peeling, worn paint all over. The bowl of noodles wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. Meh. We separated and went our separate ways back to our apartments.
I sent out a call to adventure on our messenger group chat since I was planning on bar hopping in Golden Gai and had nothing else on the agenda. Nelson answered and we went to a ramen shop by my apartment that I’d been meaning to try. It was inexplicably closed, however, so I led him to another ramen shop that Damian and I tried that was nearby. Once we got there we decided to scout the promising looking allies nearby which led us to the area around the Nakano Broadway mall. We ended up in a ramen shop in the Sun Plaza mall and I gave him a tour of the area. Most of the shops in the Broadway mall were closed or closing but he got the idea. Then we wandered the streets around the mall and he was amazed by how many restaurants were there. He was extremely excited to return.
Wednesday in class was “course meal”, a guided tour through a traditional multi-course Japanese meal spread. We started with a sashimi plate of cuttlefish and amaebi, moved on to a small dish of tako sunomono, a tempura plate with ebi, eggplant, shishitou, and obha, dipping sauce for that, chawanmushi with mushroom and ebi, miso soup made from the shrimp heads, and maguro zukedon. Marinated tuna over rice with nori, sesame seeds, gari, and wasabi. And that was lunch. It was a late lunch due to all the preparation involved, but after that we cleaned up and called it an early day.
Later that night Damian, Tyo, Jeremy, Chin Ya, and myself gathered to check out a tempura place in Shinjuku that Jeremy had heard about. Tsunahachi was a 2 level place that Tyo arrived at early because he was already in Shinjuku so he went in and secured us a table. Chin Ya, being a rather petite girl, got a smaller set than the rest of us. The guys all opted for the 2nd largest set they offered, as the largest included 12 different items and sounds like a bit too much fried stuff to shove in our face-holes for one day. The spread included the usual pickles, rice, soup, dipping sauce, and flavored salts that included purple shiso flavor, wasabi, and plain. The fried
items in the course spread we all went for came out in groups, the other items all came out at once. First plate out was shrimp, fried shrimp heads, lotus root (softest I’ve ever had) cuttlefish, and maitake mushroom cluster. Next plate was medium rare fried scallop (fuck me, was that a good one), abalone, and nori wrapped uni, with lemon and wasabi on the side. Last plate out was an anago eel and a handful of small shrimp matted together with batter. Fry cook skills leveled up to master class. Everything was light and airy and not too oily. Exceptionally good.
The next day in class was counter practice again, always a fun exercise. We spent the first period of class preparing some of the ingredients, and used some of the leftovers from the previous day’s class as well. With no special instructions, we were broken up into the same groups we had last time and set loose to run the show free-form as we saw fit. There was soup and tea provided again for the FOH players to serve and the senseis were going around giving pointers still. The camera crew that had been in and out of class once a week or so for the duration of the course was back to take some final interviews with the international students as well as the locals. The program they shot will be edited together into a half-hour segment and will be on the Japanese TV station NHK World as well as their website on October 29th. We were all interviewed at least once, Damian and I twice, and I couldn’t help being reminded of the M*A*S*H episodes where a TV crew was interviewing everyone in the unit. We’ll see if I made an ass of myself or not. Probably so, as it was more uncomfortable than I anticipated when they first announced that we would be filmed, but hopefully they edit out my stammering if they use any of my footage at all.
Thursday night was the going away dinner and get together set up by the Japanese students and attended by all of the international students, most of the local students, and all but 3 of the senseis. They made reservations at an izakaya not far from the school and, in fact, in the basement of the same building that housed the main office of the company most of us international students went through for our lodging while in Tokyo, Sakura House. There was a large tatami room in this establishment that suited our needs perfectly. A shoes-off, table sunken into the floor type of room, getting seated proved a challenge for those of us with bad knees, but not an insurmountable task. I was seated at a table with Nishida-sensei, Danny, his GF, Sato-san, one of our translators, and Rina, one of the local students. At the table to my left was seated Damian, Nelson, Tyo, and Otani-sensei. At the table to our right was Graznya, Majeed, Jeremy, and Chin Ya. The three tables on the other side of the room contained
all of the other attending Japanese students and the other three senseis that came along, Azuma-sensei, Kurimoto-sensei, and Murakami-sensei. The food they served was simple but nice.
We sat down to thickly shaved bonito flakes for snacking, steamed edamame, and medium rare seared chicken thigh served with chopped negi and ponzu. They had a 2 hour limit on drinks as well, included in the price of ¥4000 per head. After about half an hour they brought out table top butane burners and pots of gelatinous chicken broth with raw chicken in the bottom and a heaping mound of sliced negi on top, then turned on the burners and placed the pots on top to melt the chicken jello and bring to a simmer. The
diners would then ladle out the broth and chicken pieces as they saw fit when they had cooked long enough. After another half hour to 45 minutes had elapsed they brought us a plate of fried chicken wings and a plate of seasoned and fried potatoes along with thinly sliced and starch coated fried burdock root.
We sat and ate and reflected on our time here, chatted with the senseis to get their perspective on it all, got to know them and our classmates a little better. Toward the end of the night, right after the free drinks ran out, Nelson got a message from a friend of his from back in Switzerland. His German friend was visiting Tokyo and had just arrived at Shinjuku station so he needed a guide to get to the izakaya. Nelson had consulted with me ahead of time and I agreed to help him since he had the direction sense of a dead squirrel and I had a working GPS in Google maps on my phone that he relied on more than once on this trip. So we told the group we would be right back and made our way to the station.
I set my phone to be a mobile hot spot and let him use it as a means of communication to get his friends exact location. We found him right where he said he would be and after a short detour to a money exchange booth we headed back to the restaurant.
When we arrived the group was just starting to suit up to leave, moving on to whatever was decided on for the next activity. We all headed back out into the night and there was a lot of discussion as to what would be next. Damian and I had discussed earlier separating from the group and heading to Golden Gai since he still wanted to see that in action, but the whole group, Damian included, gravitated toward a nearby karaoke bar. There was no reasoning with any of them at this point, though I tried to peel a few away to go to Golden Gai. My efforts were in vain.
Azuma sensei, who in mine and Nelsons absence to pick up his friend had apparently let his barely contained wild-child side out and turned into a terrorizer of students, was the first to grab a mic and proceeded to belt out a Japanese punk song. Head-banging and thrashing about all included. Shortly after he got a phone call and vanished into the hallway, never to be seen again that night.
The room they put us in initially was quite cramped for this size group, so as soon as another room was available they moved us to a larger space. There, nearly everyone took a turn with a microphone. Murakami-sensei and Nishida-sensei did a drunken duet at one point, with Damian sitting next to them following along with a maraca as a mic. Half-way through the night he started calling for me to grab a mic. I made excuses for as long as I could. There was no remote near me, I
couldn’t figure out how to work it, it was in Japanese, the interface sucked and was not very user-friendly. He persisted though, eventually breaking into the reasoning of, “there is only one professional singer in this room right now… Jack, grab a damn mic and get to it” at the top of his bellowing lungs. I countered with, “I’m not a professional singer, dude…” He reasoned, “Have you ever been paid to sing?” “Yes” was my reluctant reply. “Then get to it!”
The Japanese students near me were more than willing to input whatever song I wanted to choose. I went for it. No more excuses could be made and they were having none of it anyway. I chose a Sepultura song, Refuse/Resist. The reaction to my performance was varied. Some rocked out, some were astonished, others kinda had the feeling that I had that in me already. I did the one song and was not bothered to do another.
I don’t remember paying the bill when we left, but apparently I did. I do remember having to walk Damian home because he was so intensely obliterated we had to stop a few times for him to puke, he fell down at one point, and he was hi-5ing every pedestrian we passed. The odd thing was, they all went along with it. Every one of them. Despite him being a hulkingly large and dangerously drunk foreigner they all played along happily. His spirits were obviously high so that benevolence beamed out and most like contributed to the willingness of the locals to indulge him. Whatever the reason, it was funny as hell.
We got him home and turned to get ourselves back to our rooms, Jeremy, Chin Ya, and myself. Tyo stayed in the same building as Damian so he made it back with us, Nelson and his friend vanished after karaoke. This is where things get very fuzzy for me. I know I was staggering, giggling, and not walking straight at all. I did make it back to my apartment without trouble though, and by my estimation from what the others told me the next day it must have been around 1am. I woke around 5am still fully clothed and in bed. I went to the bathroom, undressed and crawled under the comforter. My alarm at 7:30 was going to come way too early, but it was the last day of class and graduation so I had to attend.
I made it to class on time on Friday, though with the biggest and most intense hangover I think I’ve ever had. Damian had a flight to catch at 4 so his plan was to cut out at lunch time and miss the ceremony. He didn’t show up until right before lunch break. Nelson showed up about the same time. He had no recollection passed where we landed at the karaoke bar. Totally blacked out.
Even though it was our last day and all we had to do was clean the room and do the graduation ceremony the senseis still took the first period to show us 2 new fish and how to clean them. Sanma had become one of my favorites next to saba on this trip and sayori has a very similar anatomy, though completely different taste and texture. Both being long, thin, almost eel-like fish, they were relatively easy to fillet. Skinning them was also a technique we had mastered by this point as it was the same as skinning aji. Just peel the skin off by loosening a bit near the head, pinning it to the cutting board with the spine of a yanagiba, and pretty much scrape the fillet right off. Though the skin of these fish is much more delicate than aji so it doesn’t take as much effort to do so, and can easily be torn if too much pressure is applied. We made sashimi plates and nigiri with the fillets, charred the skin of a few of the sanma pieces, wrapped the peeled skin of both fish around skewers and charred that as well. The senseis collected the entrails from the sanma, cleaning out the bitter bits and the stomach which usually contains the leftover scales of its last meal, and made a sauce for the charred bits by cooking them and pushing them through a strainer then mixing with soy sauce and sake. They made another sauce out of yellow onion grated to a fine pulp mixed with soy sauce. The two were fairly interchangeable but the best recommendation was to use the entrail sauce on the charred sanma sashimi and the onion sauce on the charred skin skewers. The sayori, when skinned properly, has a silver stripe down the length of the fillet. I’ve seen this in the past and thought it was the result of some sort of fancy knife-work witchery, but it happens naturally if done right.
Using some of the leftovers from the previous days counter practice we also made some chirashi-zushi, which is simply bits of sashimi, egg, nori flakes or shreds, gari, wasabi, tamagoyaki, and whatever other garnishes you desire and scattering the over a bowl of sushi rice. The name literally means “scattered sushi” and there are no hard and fast rules about this one. A product of the much more relaxed Osaka style sushi, as opposed to the fussy and refined Edomae sushi, or Tokyo style, that we’ve been learning. All of that was lunch on our final day of class.
Right before the chirashi demo Damian showed up, and shortly after Nelson, in uniform. Damian was just there to say his goodbyes and pick some stuff up before heading to the airport to catch his flight to New York. Just before the demo was done I had to excuse myself to the men’s room. When I came out Damian was just heading out the door. We shook hands, had a hug, and I told him how grateful I was there he was there, as I had someone of similar age and experience to hang out with. Nelson and Tyo were great guys and great fun, but there was a certain sophistication that they lacked being so young. The sentiment was not lost on him, nor did it need much explaining.
Nelson was in rough shape, still. Even being hours late. He wasn’t there in time to have any sanma or sayori to eat for lunch so he settled happily with a bowl of chirashi, which he could barely choke down on its own. After lunch we disassembled the room and cleaned everything. From there we were instructed to remove our aprons and go upstairs to the lecture room on the 4th floor for the graduation ceremony.
There were speeches by Otani-sensei, Kurimoto-sensei, and the principal, Goto-sensei. After calling us up one by one to be handed our
diploma by Goto-sensei we returned to our seats to be called up one by one again to give a short speech of our own to express our gratitude and thank everyone, or whatever we felt we needed to say to the group. After that we gathered out front of the school, using the entrance as a backdrop, for a class picture. Several other smaller group, pair, and “clique” pictures were also taken. That was the end of it for the Japanese students. We cleared out our lockers and left the keys in the locks for the next class to come through and hopefully emulate our experiences here. The international students weren’t quite done yet, though. They had a focus group set up for us in the lecture room to get our feedback and see if there was anything we were looking for from them moving forward and if we had any suggestions for them to improve their curriculum or experience for future students. They
had several ideas in the works to provide further support for the international students beyond graduation that included full-time support for questions and an expanded jobs website that would soon be in English for both job seeking graduates and employee seeking graduates that start their own venture. We were told they were prepared to provide more in depth training videos for the graduates to show their own students, as well.
We already knew of the new facilities they were opening near the Tsukiji market that was going to be exclusively for the international students. In fact, I heard, we were supposed to be the inaugural class of that new school but they weren’t ready to take up residence just yet by that time our class started. We were asked what we thought of separating the students like that and all of us answered nearly identically and since the conversation started before everyone had reached the room, all of our opinions not only mirrored each other
but were not influenced by the group as each new person to join the discussion answered without having heard what came before. Our feeling was that it’s much better for the students to experience the cultural exchange of being in the same class as the native students. If I had been given the option early I would have gone for the English only class, but now on the back end of it, the whole experience was better for everyone, international and native students alike, with a mixed class. It lent itself to generous exchange of culture, foods, ideas, and experiences that would not have been possible in segregated classes. It was an interesting conversation but we’ll see how productive it ultimately was.
After class was over Jeremy, Chin Ya, and I all headed out to Roppongi. I knew the area
fairly well by now and they had not been there yet, but had no specific destination in mind. We ended up going to a restaurant that Sara prompted me to hit and that previous visits to the area hadn’t afforded me the time to. The Pizzakaya was located on the second floor of a nondescript building near the center of the district. Calling themselves a California style pizza kitchen, the open kitchen and bright red walls were decorated with kitschy and sarcastic posters and plaques next to toys and nick-knacks that were meant to convey “Americana”. Homer Simpson trying to pull down a Lard Lad donut statue next to Transformers and comic book figurines on a shelf, a sign that reads “We don’t serve women here, you have to bring your own” along with a poster that affirmed “Don’t worry, our staff is used to stupid questions” combined with the shaggy haired American owner (I’m guessing he was the owner) and lacking service all conspired to reinforce that this was not a native run establishment. All of the
staff spoke English and the menu, far from what the name vaguely implied, was a straight forward pizza kitchen menu. No Japanese twists anywhere in sight. Wings, cheese sticks, fried mushrooms, fries, salads, pizzas. None of it was bad, either. The wings were tossed in a sauce that wasn’t Franks but it was close enough to represent some authenticity, the pizza crust was a little bland but had nice texture, and the toppings were pretty solid. A good portion of the pizza menu was available in half and half orders as well, meaning we could sample a greater cross section of the menu. The wide screen TV on the wall opposite the kitchen was playing live music the entire time we were there. A vintage Heart performance was on when we arrived, but quickly ended and gave way to a more recent performance by Metallica at Rock Am Ring in Europe. Not a bad night, and I always
enjoyed hanging out with Jeremy and his lady-friend. They were very level headed and intelligent. I wish I had been able to spend more time with them on that trip and not discover just how cool they were until late in the game. Jeremy hit on an idea that I made sure the rest of the group heard, though. He mentioned organizing all of us international students and gathering again in Japan, not necessarily Tokyo, for a week or two every couple years to stay in touch and ensure we all got to return to this country that is only more captivating now that we’ve spent a fairly significant amount of time there. The idea seemed to be met with luke-warm reception but there’s only so much excitement that can be conveyed over messenger group chat, so we’ll see how that plays out. Group outing or not, I will be back eventually.
Saturday turned out to be a fairly boring day. No one really responded to a call to action so I headed out to Shinjuku to explore the
area south east of the train station that we had so far neglected to check out. There wasn’t much to see out there. I found a pretty solid Vietnamese restaurant, though. So there’s that I guess. Vietnam Garden had all the charm one would hope for in its dark wood lattice work and tables. The menu had all the hits on it, so I got the usual things I would get in such and establishment. The spring rolls had obha leaf instead of Thai basil, which was a bit distracting and out of place. In fact, the whole meal had a noticeable lack of spice and herbs. Cilantro was used sparingly, as were the chili peppers. The papaya salad was ok, but not the best I’ve had, and the pho was good. The beef shank in it was exceptional but the meatballs were kinda meh. The garnish tray that usually accompanies pho was light on herbs too, had a lemon wedge instead of lime, and consisted mainly of bean sprouts. Over-all the meal was good enough to scratch the Vietnamese itch, but I’ve had way better in Michigan. I retired to my apartment after that. I had one more day in town and I was determined not to waste it.
Sunday came and I called Sara to sort out how we were going to handle the following day with my return home and her picking me up at the airport, as well as catching up on an eventful week. My initial intent was to head to a shopping district to grab one last gift before I left. I was thinking Shinjuku again but when I put out the call to see if anyone wanted to come out with me on my last night in town Kaz responded and
recommended we go to Kagurazaka and that I should check out Harajuku again for the gift idea I was looking for, being one of the high-end shopping districts. I had been looking for a reason to revisit Harajuku since our shochu tasting so it was decided. I was heading out early, hitting Harajuku, and meeting up with the guys (Kaz and Tyo, who also agreed to join us) in Kagurazaka around 6pm.
I was in Harajuku by 4, and wandered around, looking for a department store I had seen last time that had an insane entrance escalator surrounded by walls composed of a mosaic of mirrored surfaces set at opposing angle to create a dizzying kaleidoscope effect. I saw street vendors selling kimonos and coats of varying styles, and not really knowing exactly what I wanted to get, just hoping something would jump out at me, I investigated. Nothing jumped out at me. I moved on.
Just when I was about to give up on finding the 2-sory high funhouse entrance I found myself across the street from it. So I went in to investigate. It was, indeed, a department store and each level up was a different department. Up and up I went, not finding anything that caught my eye, until the 5th of 6 floors, a store called Tokyu Hands that offers a variety of crafted leather good in styles that were vastly different from Luis Vuitton and Gucci. They had a more naturalistic and utilitarian feel. Much more practical and appealing designs, but still very well made and attractive. I found what I was looking for.
After my purchase I went up to the observation deck that functioned as a service and lounge area for the coffee shop on the top floor and looked out over Tokyo. The sun was
setting by this time, and I grabbed one last shot of the sunset over Tokyo. What I thought would be the last of my trip. With the purple and red lights and bustle of Harajuku in the foreground providing a striking contrast to the orange, blue, and gold in the sky on the horizon. I felt a little sad at the realization that it would be the last time, for a while at least, I would get to see this. One of those tiny moments that leaves a massive imprint on your recollection of a place.
It was after 5 by now and I needed to move. I had to be in Kagurazaka by 6 to meet up with the guys. I hauled ass over to the train station. I made it to our destination district 20 minutes ahead of the other two, and on the way got a message from one of my oldest and dearest friends, Mark. He was wondering if I had time for a phone call but I was still on the train and it’s frowned upon there. I told to give me 20 minutes and I would shoot him a call via Skype. I was at the next station and on street level within 10 minutes and tried to
connect. We chatted and caught up for half an hour when Kaz shot me a message that he was almost there. It’s always a pleasure to talk to Mark. One of the most insanely positive and honest people you will ever meet. We wrapped up and I waited for Kaz to show, I didn’t wait long.
Tyo was still a ways out so Kaz proceeded to give me a tour of the area, highlighting some of the tiny back allies, some little wider than my own shoulders, and contain some of the oldest restaurants in Tokyo. Buildings that still remain from the Edo period some 150 years ago and some were the dwellings of the samurai, they now serve as a hidden gem of winding allies containing some high-end restaurants that you would walk right by without noticing if no one pointed it out to you. Tokyo is packed full of such places, it seems. Also in the area is a large number of French and
Italian themed restaurants, the highest concentration of them in Tokyo, from what I’m told, as well as the restaurant run by the TSA that they rarely even mentioned in class and I never heard them tell of its location. Kaz knew where it was, however, and he knew the chef so we stopped in just long enough for him to drop something off and say hello. They were full up that night and I wasn’t in the mood for sushi, anyway. We carried on.
With Tyo still in transit we looked for an izakaya to settle into, and he knew just the place. But an oyster bar right by his selection caught my eye just before we breached the entrance so we started there. Kaz was worried that Tyo would have a hard time finding us, and mentioned it a few times during his tour of the area, but I knew by this time that Tyo was very good at catching up to the group. As long as you shoot him your location via messenger he will find you.
Kakiya Oyster & Wine bar was a sleek little place on the second floor of the building. Up the typically narrow and winding staircase, we
found ourselves at the host stand. Quickly ushered to a table, menus in hand, we went for a tasting plate containing 2 each of 3 different varieties of oyster spanning the spectrum of the flavor range they offered. The first was a brine bomb, the next was both creamy and a little briney, and the final was as creamy as uni with little salt at all. I shot Tyo our location and instructions on how to find us as soon as we were seated and he arrived right as the oyster plate hit the table. As the name denotes, they had an extensive wine list. I was not looking for wine at this time so luckily they also had a limited, but well selected, beer list including Kona brewing from Hawaii, Brooklyn Brewery, and Anchor Steam.
We finished up, paid our bill, and headed out. The plan was to hop around and hit a few places, not stay at one. Though, our next destination, the izakaya we were about to walk into when the oyster sign caught my eye, would end up being the last one of the evening.
We found our seats and Kaz proceeded to go ape-shit ordering food and drinks. Getting a bottle of sweet potato shochu, hot soba blanching water to mix it with, stewed beef with udon and chili peppers, soba with tradition garnishes, cucumber sticks with barley miso to dip them in, and Tyo and I saw yakitori on the menu so we got 4 sticks each of heart and thigh. Half-way through that Kaz orders a plate of tiny river
shrimp, fried whole and tossed in salt, a perfect drinking food, along with aji tataki complete with fried skeleton. Most of that down the hatch and some plates cleared, he ordered some Hoppy to make more cocktails to finish the shochu, some beers, a plate of Japanese-style cheese fries that had cod roe under the cheese, and through my limited understanding of written Japanese I saw takoyaki on the menu, so that was ordered as well. With most of that round gone, he proceeded to order tempura fried red ginger with shishitou and bitter melon stir-fried with egg.
Shochu gone, a few beers later, and a LOT of industry talk, our night was drawing to a close. I didn’t want it to. I knew this meant I had to go back and get to bed. That meant the morning would come sooner. I would have to leave Tokyo. This was not an ideal situation at this point in time, but there’s no denying or shrugging the inevitable. I was starting to miss home a little and Sara a lot, though, so the thought was as bitter-sweet as the stir-fried melon.
It was 12:45 by this point in the night and the trains had stopped running long ago. Tyo and I found a taxi with help from Kaz and we said our goodbyes. Tyo had not made it to any of the Sunday classes that Kaz translated for and Kaz only made it out to a weekday class a small handful of times so this was effectively the first time they really got to interact. Tyo and I boarded the cab which quickly had us back at the Nakano-Sakuae train station that functioned as a meeting point for us on several occasions. Upon exiting Tyo and I said our final goodbyes and good lucks and headed back to our respective rooms. I stayed up for a little while, as if fighting what would come whether or not I wanted it to. I succumbed and went to bed soon, though. I needed to be prepared for the morning.
Ten thirty am came and my alarm sounded its arrival. Get up, shower, get dressed, vacuum, text Sara, wait for the Sakura House representative to show and check me out. I had everything pulled together and was awaiting the inspector who was set to arrive at noon. My flight was set to leave at 5:55 so I had ample time.
Ten minutes passed noon, no one. Twenty minutes passed, I started to get anxious. Forty minutes passed and I decided to call them. They confirmed my contact number and called the inspector assigned to my room. My phone rang within a few minutes after that, he was on his way. A young Japanese man came purposefully jogging down my street at about 12:50. Confirming my identity and asking if I was in a hurry, I replied with, “I have time, but yeah, kinda”. He made it quick and was apologetic for his tardiness. Everything looked fine, he said, after a 2 minute inspection. My refunded deposit in hand, I was finally on my way.
My suitcase was every bit of 50 pounds by this point. Full of souvenirs, knives, whet stones, class notes, study material, and all padded with clothing and socks. It had wheels but the strap used to pull it broke off on the way out. I had to rig it to be pulled by a zipper and find a way that it would be easiest to do so. My arm was still sore for days after, the lower part of my right bicep tight and worn making full extension a little painful. Combined with my carry-on and my laptop bag that also contained the 2 books I brought as reading material this was a painfully cumbersome load. I should have called an Uber or a cab to get me the quarter mile to the train station, uphill in spots, but I got through it. It took twice the time it should have but I made it. On the train, off at Ginza Tokyo station, back on another express train to Narita airport.
A little less than an hour later I was at Narita. Through baggage check and at my gate just minutes after that, unexpectedly, I set about finding something to eat. There was a lounge with a bar and a limited menu and a sushi bar in that wing of the airport and not much else. Though the sushi bar touted out front an excellent rating from Trip Advisor I opted for the other. I should have went with sushi. I got gyoza (flabby and soggy), udon in broth (bland), and garnished with a mat of tempura small tempura shrinp (obviously a frozen product). The one caveat was I got to sit and watch one last sunset over Japan as the windows in this place faced west. I had a short conversation with a guy from Virginia who lived in Bangkok and was in Japan with a young man of Asian descent who spoke clear English. They were there for an Aikido tournament.
I sat and watched the sunset, one eye on the clock so I wouldn’t miss what be a boring and uneventful 11 hour flight home, finishing the sub-par meal and contemplating what would be next for me. How would this experience effect my future? How would I make it effect my future? What would I do with this experience once I was back in the land of the free, the home of… whatever comes after that? All I knew was that it will affect me in profound ways, personally and professionally, for the rest of my life, and like the raucous cawing crows and bicycles soaring through the streets of central Shinjuku, I’m searching for what’s next. The next thing. The next experience. The next surprise. The next adventure. There is and will only ever be one Tokyo, however.
Until I see you again, Japan, you will be missed.
Saturday’s activities were planned to start with a meeting time of 10am. I don’t do anything before 11 on Saturdays. Besides, I had a standing phone call date with Sara around noon, and talking on the phone while trying to engage in an activity is a bit counterproductive, so I told them I’d catch up later. On the agenda was all of Yokohama. Damian, Jeremy, and his GF, Chin, headed out to grab hold of the Chinatown area of Yokohama as well as the Cup O Noodle Museum (which Damian later described as his favorite experience of the whole trip) while I did my thing, and we would rendezvous at the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum later in the afternoon. “Raumen” is not a misspelling, btw, it’s in their documentation, so fuck off grammar Nazis.
All went pretty much as planned and I made it out to the area of the ramen museum ahead of the rest of the group around 4. They
were still in the Chinatown area, a 20 minute train ride away, so I made a few laps of the area and scouted our destination early. Yokohama has a different feel than Tokyo, for sure. Not quite as clean, though still immaculate by most standards, and a bit of a suburban feel other than the few large buildings in the central hub. There was a large park area by where the museum sat and lots of open space just outside of the main area around the train station.
Once they were on their way Damian let me know, and I tried to get into a position to intercept them on the way to the museum but they got by me. It was a short 5 minute walk to the destination once they let me know they had arrived, though.
Once inside, the space looked a bit odd. The “museum” part consisted of one small area of pictorial displays, with bench seating to take it all in, and text narration all centered on how chefs from around the world are taking traditional Japanese style ramen and putting their own spin on it. There was a coin operated slot car track for the kids and boxes of models lining the wall behind it (a bit incongruent), and a timeline of ramen evolution around the outside of the gift shop area. It seemed to me that the “museum” was a thinly veiled reason to have a gift shop attached to this place. But the fake museum was not all this location had to offer. The sublevels turned out to be way, WAY cooler!
Down a flight of stairs and you end up in a 2 level recreation of a Japanese town set in the style of early 20th century Japanese aesthetics and with a sweet shop, a couple bars, and 9 fully functional ramen shops, each one specializing in a different style. Every shop also sells small(ish) portions so you can sample more than one!
We explored the 2 levels and made our way down to the floor of the arena-like subterranean structure. There was a “courtyard” in the center of the 7 ramen shops and 2 bars on this level in which street performers entertain the audience with seats set up to enjoy the show. Each shop has their own dining room, with one of the shops seating spilling out into the courtyard. That was our first stop.
The Najima-tei shop specialized in pork bone, or tonkatsu ramen. With straight, thin noodles and a slightly viscous opaque broth in which floated a couple nice bits of chashu, chopped negi onion, and seaweed strands, this was a very solid bowl of noodles. The broth had a creamy texture from the ample emulsified pork fat and coated the slippery noodles. Tasty stuff, but not mind blowing. Next.
We hit the first shop we passed off the stairs as we hit the lower level. Jeremy’s girlfriend bowed out at this point, as I later heard they all ate quite a bit in Chinatown. This places specialty was a pork and fish broth blend and they also offered chashu and the option to top it all off with a ball of spicy, bright red miso. A thinner broth, as expected, and thicker noodles that had a great chew to them, combined with the best chashu (actual pork belly this time, as the last place used leg) we ate that day and the great blend of pungent fish mellowed out by the silky pork broth made this the winner of the place. But we weren’t finished yet.
Jeremy now bowing out to join his female companion in watching the current performer, Damian and I hit one last shop. With a German founder that brought his beer and aesthetic with him, this one offered thick, wavy noodles with nori, chashu, scallion, egg, and spinach. Some of the ingredients were thrown in cold in the hopes that the hot soup would heat them. It didn’t. We had hopes that
the German would know how to handle a pork belly. Nope, not as well as the previous place did. The egg was also a little overcooked, to top all that off. The noodles were pretty good and the portion was, thankfully, smaller than the others. We had to power through the last few bites. We had hit the wall and were trying to climb over it.
After we rolled ourselves out and made our way back to the train the pain gradually subsided. It was mostly liquid, we told ourselves, it should get absorbed pretty quick and we’ll be good! The process was not as fast as we’d hoped.
I’ve procrastinated getting a PASMO card for the previous 6 weeks, and said aloud that I should have invested in one. At a transfer on the way back to Tokyo I was fiddling with the ticket machine and trying to figure out how much it was going to be to get back to Nakano
from there when Chin pretty much took over. Pressing the button to spit my money back out and start over, she fed it back into the machine, pressed a couple buttons, and pow! The machine spit out a PASMO card with ¥500 on it at a cost of another ¥500, which comes to about $4.20 for the convenience of just swiping the card at the gate and not having to figure out how much your fair will be, feeding coins into a machine, and retrieving a ticket that’s only good for so far. And the cards are rechargeable. You can add more money to one card indefinitely. I had no idea it was that easy to get one. I thought for sure there would be phone calls or at least a website involved. Nope. You can get a PASMO card at any machine in the subway that sells tickets. As an added bonus there are a lot of shops and restaurants in and around the subway stations that accept PASMO cards for payment.
With no more washoku classes on Sunday I spent the day doing laundry and not much else. I was planning on visiting the Imperial Palace Gardens that day but the forecast was threatening rain. While that hasn’t really been a deterrent so far I was just sick of getting wet.
This week in class was all exams. Monday was the hosomaki test. A pass/fail test that was essential for graduation. We were graded on
a 100 point scale. We have 8 tests in total. Of those, one doesn’t count toward graduation (the written test), 2 are pass/fail (hosomaki and nigiri) and we are required to pass them both to get our diploma, and the 5 other tests are graded on a 100 point scale. We need to accumulate 350 points between those tests to graduate, along with passing both hosomaki and nigiri. The aji horse mackerel test we already did at mid-terms, so we have 7 tests to get through in the next week and a half. The test schedules with my scores are as follows:
Wednesday September 18 – Aji test
2 fish cleaned, filleted, skinned, salted, skinned, vinegared, and sliced in 10 minutes
My Score = 95
Monday October 12 – Hosomaki 2nd term test
3 rolls cut and presented in 4 minutes
My Score = passed (I got a 90 but those numbers don’t count toward the 350 points needed)
Tuesday October 13 – Written test
Covering fish handling, parasites, common causes of food poisoning, and food costing.
My Score = 78 (does not count toward the 350, and 2 of the 4 questions I got wrong were weighted WAY heavier than any other)
Wednesday October 14 – Sashimi Test
3 types of fish each with a different cutting technique, cut, garnished and presented in 10 minutes
My Score = 80 (I kinda choked on that one, for some odd reason)
Thursday October 15 – Morikomi test
Carry-out sushi platter for 2 including 16 nigiri and 2 rolls, cut and presented in 10 minutes.
My Score = 90
Friday October 16 – Inada test
1 medium sized fish (inada = very young yellowtail) filleted, boned out, and skinned, ready to slice for nigiri in 10 minutes.
My Score = 90
Next week are the final 2 tests. The dreaded ones. Nigiri test on Monday, October 19 in which we have to make 18 pieces of nigiri in 3 minutes. The sensei will come by, record how many you made and disqualify any that do not have the acceptable shape. From the remainder the fish will be peeled off and the rice weighed. It has to fall between 15 and 17 grams to qualify. All of the rice balls in that weight range are counted up and we need to have 37 good ones out of 54 minimum total to pass this test. I’ve been getting 19 in 3 minutes pretty consistently at practice and my weights aren’t bad. Not perfect, but good enough to pass.
The last test, on Tuesday, October 20th, is the katsuramuki test. That paper thin peel of radish that is hand cut. The test parameters are extremely rigid and a lot of students really struggle with this one. We have to make a sheet that’s is at least 40 cm long and 10 cm wide. Any tears are counted up and points are deducted for any exceeding 5mm. Any tears over 5cm and the sheet is not counted as continuous. From there it is weighed. It needs to weigh 40 grams, less is preferable. If the sheet is 40 cm long, no tears, is straight, and weighs less than 25 grams, that’s a score of 110 points for form and meeting criteria. If the sheet is 40 cm and weighs over 40 grams, we start with a base score of 50 and deduct 5 points per 5 centimeters that needs to be trimmed to get it down to 40 grams. We have 10 minutes to do this. The best I’ve done in mock tests is 55.
Here’s the thing, though. There are 5 tests that count toward points for graduation and each have a maximum of 100 points available, and an extra 10 if you pull a Rainman with the katsuramuki. We only need 350 points to get the diploma, and there are 510 points available. It is possible to get the points required to graduate and completely bomb the katsuramuki. You need a 40 cm sheet just to qualify for a score. Anything less than that isn’t even considered.
I have 355 points right now. As long as I pass nigiri on Monday I don’t even need to show up on Tuesday. In fact, Otani sensei says he’s seen that happen. Kind of a dick move, though. I’ll still show up. I might not try very hard, but I’ll show up.
Damian is also well over the points needed to pass. Having worked at a seafood wholesaler previously, anything that involved taking a fish apart he scored 100’s on. He said he’ll show up that day and carve a dick out of his radish. Classy guy, that one. Aussies think they’re SO funny. And don’t even get me started on Aussie chefs…
There were a few notable meals during the week. There was an udon joint that Tyo and I went to that was set up like a cafeteria of sorts. You walk in and tell the cooks what you want (generally, hot or cold udon with various garnishes). If you opt for cold they’ll splash some sauce right into your bowl, if hot they quickly blanch the noodles and top with whatever garnish you asked for (I got beef). You put your bowl on a tray and head to the garnish section where there are several different tempura items you can add on at an additional charge. You take your tray to the register, where there are bowls of sliced negi and grated ginger you can add at no cost. They ring up your order based on what is on your plate and jutting out from the wall right next to the register there is a spigot, much like a coffee spigot, but this one dispenses hot soup broth for your noodle bowl. There are various extra condiments on the tables like the ubiquitous soy sauce and shichimi. Not bad, not great, but a very fast and cheap lunch.
There was also another Thai place that we found near the school. The food was pretty close in quality to the other one we found the week before but this had a couple things over Tinun Kitchen. This little joint had 2 condiments on the table, a jar of “shrimp flavored chili flakes” that were fucking brilliant and a ceramic jar with a lid. At first inspection I opened the lid and looked inside. It appeared to be just oil with some chilis floating in it. I did not smell it. When the food arrived (red curry pork with rice and clear soup) I was shaking the shrimp chili flakes over my rice and the server came by and picked up that little ceramic cruet and placed in the middle of our table and said a full sentence, only two words of which I understood. “Nam pla”. It was fish sauce with red chili pepper chunks floating in it. They’re lucky there was any left after that. Tyo and I both immediately started spooning it over everything in front of us. The thought of pouring t in my eyes dashed through my head, but the capsaicin might have made that… uncomfortable.
Maisen was a tonkatsu place in Shibuya that Damian had heard was supposed to be awesome, so we made an evening of that on
Wednesday. I got out to Shibuya and circled the immediate area of the train station, as I thought the place was near there. The Google maps arrow on my phone was spinning in circles like a compass at the North Pole, so that wasn’t aiding my search. In the process of doing laps around the giant Shibuya station I came across the statue of Hichiko. The dog that wouldn’t leave the station for 9 years back in the 30’s because his owner never came back after having a heart attack on the way home from work. They made a tear-jerker “based on a true story” movie out of it. Once we established which one to meet at (there are apparently more than one, and it caused a bit of confusion), I made my way back to a train to go one more stop down where Damian had already found the location he was talking about. He was also unaware that there was more than one location.
Once we arrived and were seated we started looking over the Engrish translation of the menu. The room looked like it could’ve been out of a Bavarian Inn, with white walls accented with dark brown wooden beams and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Before the food even arrived we started to get the feeling that this place has been here forever, and doing things the exact same way for even longer. We saw a braised pork belly on the appetizer menu so that was obviously our first course. It came out in an old-school ceramic dish that had a painted and fitted lid that covered the prize beneath. And it was, indeed, a prize. Pork belly so tender you could cut it with a chopstick swimming in a shallow pool of its own braising liquid and garnished with shredded negi onion. Rich, delicate, balanced. Exceptionally good. Once the tonkatsu set hit the table our sails were
stripped of air a little, though. The fried pork tasted of deep fryer and was a little overcooked. The “Tokyo X” brand pork I received didn’t shine through these imperfections as anything more special than a standard pork chop one might get in the States, and the pork in this country is generally pretty damn tasty. The pickles were really good and the pork broth miso soup with slices of pork belly floating in it was damn good, but the main attraction was severely lacking. We had a much better experience in Roppongi at Butagumi.
Also of note was another ramen place right by school that we’ve passed a million times. Good chashu, fish and pork broth blend, great gyoza, nice jellyfish salad, and this jar of chili paste on the table that tasted like Sriracha but with dried chilis added. All of the flavor and heat of Sriracha with a little added backbone of dried/roasted chili flavor. Shouhei Ramen had some things going for it.
Friday night came around and we all needed to blow off some steam. I came up with the idea the night before to go back to Ten Ten Ten like Damian and I vowed we would do and bring as many classmates as possible. Tyo, Jeremy, and his girlfriend Chin answered the call.
Damian and myself were the first ones on the scene. We found a table, again with only one other patron in the place when we walked in. The server and cook smiled large at us, obvious recognition on their faces. We ordered our first round and told them we were expecting 3 more people. They sent out our drinks with the usual complimentary amuse. Usual in the fact that they always have an amuse, this one was different from the last time we were here. This time around they gave us braised pork innards of some variety (wasn’t lung, kidney, liver, or heart, might have been intestine) with daikon in broth with negi, kaiware, and myoga. Brilliant first course. Light and flavorful.
The rest of the team arrived all at once, we quickly sorted out that we should all get the 8 piece omakase and branch out from there.
They bring them out in pairs for the first round, each stick in the omakase is different. Because there’s only one cook he sent out the rest pretty much one at a time, 5 of everything. We were engaged in culinary and beverage discussions so the progression speed was of little concern. Each new course was met with gracious acceptance, and the server did his best to tell us what was on each skewer as they hit our table. A few of the items we had to figure out on our own from his very limited English, but we got through it with a pretty high level of accuracy. At least I think we did. Whatever the fuck we ate it was mostly skewered pig parts and they were all fucking delicious.
After the initial 8 skewers were depleted we pretty much told the cook to keep it coming, and that we really didn’t care what he wanted to feed us. After a few more courses we decided to shift gears and go for some veggies. I got up (only being one step away from the counter) and surveyed his non-pork, non-meat selection. After a few seconds of pointing out what looked good I just said, once again, “omakase”. It all looked fucking good, and I knew it would be.
Veg courses down, I asked for the meatball, one thing we had last time that hadn’t made its way out yet. It was probably the most well received course of the night, though that is a very narrow margin because it was all great. More drinks, more skewers, loss of count, lack of caring what was brought to us. The night powered on.
The flow of food had slowed and Damian asked for 2 more skewers for everyone at the table, except Chin, she tapped out after the initial 8. And I thought Singaporeans could eat… What we got was 2 sticks of the same thing, and it was a repeat. Pork cheek. Not that it wasn’t good, it was one of the best skewers they offer, but Damian and I both took that as a sign that the chef had run out of things to throw at us. In total we were there for about 5 hours. It did not feel like it. A great night at a great bar with great people.
Earlier in the day, at lunch, Damian told me they had a Facebook page and that he gave them a 5 star rating. Before we headed there that night I found their page and did the same. As we all got up to leave once the bill was taken care of, I was the first in line passed the counter and out the door. As I passed the chef stopped me, phone in hand with FB pulled up and my own profile picture staring me in the face. He wanted to see if that dude and me were one and the same. After I answered with an enthusiastic “yes!” he thanked me for the review, his sincerity laid bare on his face. It was the least I could do. If I lived out here I would be a regular here.
We all said our goodnight and dispersed into the night. It was approaching 12 midnight at this point. I had one last high class reservation made in Tokyo for the following evening. Being the best funded of my new companions and notbeing tied to anyone who was with him on this trip, Damian would once again accompany me on this adventure. Sushi Bar Yasuda awaited us.
Saturday morning started off quietly. Out of bed, into the shower, call Sara. We talked for a good long while. I detailed the previous week for her, she caught me up on some of the happenings back home, it was time well spent. I could hear the weariness in her voice by 2pm my time, or midnight in Chicago, though she wouldn’t admit to it. I wrapped it up to let her get some sleep before she passed out with the phone in her hand and sent a message to my restaurant companion for the evening, Damian. We were going to check out the Tokyo outlet of the Nobu Empire in Eastern Roppongi. Meeting time and place set, we made our way out there.
Situated in a hotel in an area with a lot of government buildings we didn’t get many pictures in that neighborhood, but we made it
there with time to spare so we found an Irish bar close by and took up residence to kill the hour and a half before show time at Nobu. We watched the news they had on the TV, CNN in English (!). There was a group of about ten guys that trickled in starting the same time we got there that was a fantasy sports “league” that took up the entire back room of the second floor Mad Mulligan’s space. The lone bar tender struggled to keep up with that group and our service was a little lax because of it, but if we’d had any more to drink before Nobu we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy it as much. The time drew near and we paid our bill and headed to the restaurant.
Once inside, they led us to our table and the cooks all yelled the traditional
“irrashaimase!” in the same loud and energetic tone one would hear at just about any other restaurant in Tokyo. But this wasn’t just any other restaurant. The spacious dining area was breezy and well spaced out. Not tightly packed in, they gave you elbow room. The lighting was dim and cozy, the aesthetic was sleek and modern but firmly rooted in the traditional. Natural colored wood from floor to ceiling and soft, earthy tones in everything made the interior extremely comfortable and relaxing. Our server spoke English, but somewhat broken and in such a soft tone and low volume that I struggled to make out what she was saying, at times asking Damian if he’d caught what she said once she was out of earshot. I have a difficult time hearing with background noise sometimes, and I hate to keep asking people to repeat themselves, so sometimes even when I did not catch what was said to me I will let the moment pass. I probably come off like a dick at times because of this, but it annoys the shit out of me to repeat myself 3-4 times in a row so I just spare others the frustration. At least that’s how it works in my head. Anyway, my tangent ends here.
We were presented with drink and food menus and there were 3 different omakase options. We both went for the longest course
spread, with Damian asking if they could make sure to include otoro in there somewhere. No problem at all, was the approximate response. We can eat, and Japan has yet to overfill us. They started us off with a bowl of edamame that was tossed in togarashi chili pepper and yuzu zest. We nursed that bowl and it lasted us through the entire meal, giving us something to munch on between courses. The first course that arrived after that was a 4 part plate of various seafood preparations. Monkfish liver in passionfruit sauce with caviar, a raw oyster topped with one of Nobu’s signature salsas, Hamachi tartare with wasabi flavored soy sauce and more caviar, and a ceviche of shrimp, octopus, onion, tomato, cilantro, lime and garlic. The exact types of flavors Nobu is so well known for, and a great start.
From there they gave us the sushi course. 4 individual nigiri on the same plate. The otoro Damian requested, seared tai (seared to make that fish easier to chew), bonito, amaebi. With chunks, not slices, of house pickled ginger on the plate and a divot on the right side for soy sauce that the server poured for us. Next was an impressive salad course of buri sashimi, awabi (abalone), thin slices of multi colored beets, dual colored carrot coins, watercress, and a sudachi dressing. The awabi was tender and the Buri was rich and sliced large, the sudachi dressing cut through the richness of the fish very well. Next plate in front of us was half each of a grilled lobster, basted in butter, garnished with a grilled green chili pepper. The tail had been cut in its shell to make it easier to eat and the claws had the sides of the shells removed for effortless extraction of the meat. Following that was a seared wagyu steak topped with seared foie gras and in a pool of a reduction sauce that included balsamic vinegar and soy sauce. There were a few bits of steamed veg on the plate that were completely extraneous and added no real value or contrast. They weren’t distracting, either, so it was commented on by both of us but we also didn’t really care at this point. Next was a bowl of cold soba noodles in a pool of the traditional dipping sauce and garnished with wasabi and shredded negi onion. The noodles had a great texture and were cut a little thinner than is normal, with a perfectly square cross section. The sharp angles were noticeable on the tongue and the sauce was well balanced.
Our beverages for the evening were understated but well suited to the food on the table. Starting with nigori sake, moving to Champagne, and ending with green tea (being on the verge of too much alcohol at this point). The tea was on the table at the same time as the soba noodles, so that was a fortuitous call on my part, as I asked for tea before the noodles arrived and I had no idea what the next plate would be holding.
From here we were given the option of another course or straight to dessert. There was a communication error, though, as we asked for more but she understood it as bring us dessert. We both received different plates at this point. Mine was a merengue coin tower with a passionfruit custard and macerated fruit in mango sauce to the side of that. Damian received a molten lava cake, to his dismay. I let him sample my dessert out of pity. Overall everything was well executed, with the flavor profiles I would have expected, but the unnecessary steamed veg, short course list, the inclusion of a somewhat antiquated dessert and the highest price tag attached to a meal so far, we were satisfied with the experience but agreed that XEX was superior. Maybe if we’d sat at the counter and not at a table it would have made a difference. I swore I made counter reservations, but oh well. We made our ways home.
Sunday was the last day for washoku class, and it was a good one. We are in just the right time of year now for a few famed and highly sought after ingredients in Japanese cooking, and Kobayashi sensei had some of them. Matsutake mushrooms, raw, shell-on ginko nuts, and what became the star of the show for me, a whole, big-eyed, bright red skinned kinmedai. Sensei broke the fish down and the whole class shared the one fish, as they are expensive and more than that would have been a waste anyway, as each dish that day only required a few slices each. Largely covering steamed dishes, we started with dobinmushi. A small earthenware teapot filled with mushrooms, bits of fish, and whatever else is in season. Seasonal is very important here, as this is traditionally an autumn dish. Covered with dashi broth, lidded, and placed in a steamer for 10 minutes, what came out was eye opening. A matching teacup made to fit snugly over the lid of the pot is placed on it after a mitsuba leaf with the long stem tied in a
knot was dropped in right before serving for aromatics and the base of the cup is used to hold the sudachi citrus that is the traditional garnish. Once served, the guest removes the teacup and citrus, opens the lid of the pot slightly to appreciate the aroma, then samples the broth by pouring out like tea into the cup. The citrus is added to the cup for a second tasting of the broth if desired, but the first sip is without anything to appreciate the unaltered broth. The steamed contents of the pot are then enjoyed. It’s a marvelously refined and delicate way to utilize light ingredients by letting them shine on their own merit and it also has the added benefit of being easy to setup and reserve for restaurant service. Spectacular.
We had yaki-shimo sashimi of kinmedai at XEX as our starter and we used that fish here in this class extensively, so in the last week or
so I’ve been exposed to several different preparations of this fish and unholy shit is it good. Every way, every method, I was very impressed. Screw tai right in its chewy little asshole, kinmedai will be my fish of choice moving forward when looking for something with that bright red hue. The only drawback is it’s highly seasonal, but the reverse side of that coin is that it’s an extremely special ingredient when it is in season. I was holding onto a 4oz. bit of the last loin when we were at the last dish calling for it. I asked Kobayashi sensei where he wanted me to put it (not sure at this point in the lesson if we would need it again) and he motioned to me to go ahead and eat it. I obliged without hesitation or restraint. This is a tasty fish.
We also made use of a wheat gluten cake I had never seen before that was cut into a log shape that had the cross-section of a leaf and was colored in the autumn palette. Namafu is in the same family as seitan but has a vastly different texture. Where seiten is dense and bread-like, namafu is as soft as silken tofu and sensei actually recommended we freeze it to cut it if we ever used it, otherwise the leaf cross-section would be crushed. It had a slightly slippery and chewy mouthfeel, like a steamed bread. I don’t imagine it would be offensive at all to Western palates.
The next dish we made was ebishinjo. Balls of minced shrimp with an equal part of peeled mountain yam and a little usukuchi soy sauce to add salt and umami without adding too much extra liquid. This mixture was then quenelle style spoon-molded into balls and dropped into a deep fryer to brown. The yam gave a great texture and wasn’t gooey or slimey. They were served 3, slightly smaller than a piing-pong ball size, to a bowl and covered in a sauce called “an”. Maitake mushrooms simmered in seasoned dashi and bound with just a tiny touch of potato starch. Fresh yuzu zest and a slice of namafu on top, and it made a very attractive and tasty dish. The real highlight, for me anyway, was that sensei took the remainder of the mixture that hadn’t gotten fried, mounded it up in a bowl, and pooped it in the steamer. What emerged, with the same sauce and garnishes spooned over, was a light and fluffy version that would be quite at home on a kaiseki menu. Extremely delicate and pillow-like, another impressive course down.
Next up was lunch of takikomi gohan, rice steamed with seasonal veg (in this case 3 of the 4 varieties of mushrooms present and some carrot for that orange color) and a soup made from the kinmedai scraps and bones with daikon, carrot, maitake, and chopped mitsuba on top. Light and warming.
Last we did 2 different custard variations. A savory custard with shimeji, maitake, kinmedai, egg, and soy milk that was steamed again and quite tasty. Another very versatile dish. Followed by kabocha squash crème brûlée. Nothing mind blowing or new to me on that front. They translate kabocha as “pumpkin” most of the time here, and that would be a suitable substitute if kabocha was for some reason unattainable. It was a great lesson that I will be taking much away from.
Back in sushi class this week we tackled a few new aquatic animals, some new to me. On Monday we were each given a hirame, or
flounder. The structure of these fish is completely different than any other fish we’ve tangled with thus far but they are also identical to Dover Sole, a fish I have extensive experience with. These lessons were a breeze but it was fun to see some new techniques used to deal with them. Like the sukibiki scaling technique where you shave the scales off in strips with a knife starting at the tail and working your way to the head. This sounds MUCH more intimidating than it is. It’s easy and it’s fun to experience just how much easier it is than you thought it logically should be. A sharp knife will easily slide under the scales and not take off any skin. Going too deep and removing skin and flesh accidentally happens and it’s always a hazard, but it’s way less common that intuition would suggest, even in the hands of a novice of fish butchery. We’ve used this technique with inada (young yellowtail) and hirame, but it is also commonly employed when dealing with
salmon and some other scaled finfish. It’s more time consuming than the well-known techniques of scraping off scales with a special tool or with the blade of a knife, but for fish like hirame that have tiny scales it’s recommended. There’s a tiny strip of muscle at the edges of the fish that the Japanese call the “engawa”. It’s a bit chewy, but that is easily dealt with by shallow scoring diagonally on both sides and it’s the fattiest part of this particular fish so if you deal with it right it’s also the tastiest bit.
We covered the usuzukuri slicing technique again as well as making those little flowers you see on sashimi plates made of fish slices. Kobujime, or lightly curing a fish by gently salting and sandwiching the meat between 2 slices of konbu was also addressed, for both curing individual slices and for whole fillets. We played with that fish for 2 consecutive days, filling the rest of the time with nigiri practice (I’m making good progress there), tamagoyaki (finally made an omelet that wasn’t a disaster), and morikomi practice (a variety of different types of sushi arranged on a take-out platter, another test that we will be timed on). Wednesday we did tamagoyaki for the last time and made futomaki with them, the large rolls with multiple cooked ingredients that are often seen in bento boxes and picnic style packed meals. Filling the gaps if you finish an assignment early is always katsuramuki and we did a mock test for that this week.
Katsuramuki I have made little progress with. I fear for my ability with that one. My biggest problem has been getting a sheet long enough. It has to be at least 40cm long to even qualify to get graded. Anything less is not even looked at. If the weight is over, they just cut the length down and deduct points on a scale based on how much needs to be trimmed to hit the target weight, and points are also deducted for any tears in the edges of the sheets. A tear more than 5cm in the 10cm wide strip is considered a break and not counted as continuous. As long as you have one uninterrupted sheet that’s 40cm long you get some points, at least. As I’ve mentioned previously, the calculations have already been made concerning what scores I need to get on all the other tests if I totally choke and bomb that one. In the 2 timed, 10 minute test runs we did combined I got 1 sheet over 40cm. The sensei counted the tears, trimmed it down to the 40g target weight (I’m actually not far off on that front, so I only lost a couple centimeters) and he told me that it would count as a 55 point score. At this point I’m not sure if I can duplicate or top that. Damian, standing right across the table from me now in the second half of the course, got and astonishing (even to him) 80 on one run. He now takes every opportunity to rub that in. Even manufacturing opportunities to rub it in.
Along with futomaki and tamagoyaki we were guided through a recipe for ponzu shoyu that’s a bit different than what I’ve seen in the past. Then on Thursday we learned how to clean another bi-valve, the hokkigai, or arctic surf clam. As with all cold water shellfish, it seems, this is one of my favorites. It’s exceptionally difficult to find fresh in the States, at least in the areas I’ve lived in, and it’s not very popular but probably only because it’s rare. The best you will find at any place that carries it will be the cleaned and frozen variety. I’m not a fan, but it’s not that bad. Way chewier than fresh and freezing alters texture. Knowing this, and knowing how it alters texture I had a strong feeling that the fresh clams would have vastly superior flavor and texture, and I was on the mark with that prediction. They take some work to clean out, but at least they don’t bleed all over the place like the akagai did. They have a tube that’s generally full of dirt and sand, but that’s easily washed out with a little diligence. Their flavor is as sweet as scallops but distinctively clammy and the texture is soft and slightly chewy. Not as chewy as squid or octo, or even the akagai, much more supple than that. Really tasty and worth the trouble to clean them. The lip of tissue around the edges we used to wrap around a skewer, stopping it at either end with the adductor muscles which are large enough to shell out and actually use, and then scorched them with the brûlée torch. That could easily be accomplished with charcoal, too. In fact, I bet it’s preferable.
That same day was more sashimi practice and one of the fish for that always rotates according to season. We covered cleaning whole squid and cutting frozen tuna early in the day. For the test next week (!) we will be using salmon, tuna, and sumi ika. The first few times we covered this we used cuttlefish instead of the smaller sumi ika and tai (fuck that fish) in place of the salmon. These two changes are welcome ones. We were also shown a technique to use for the squid that creates a pattern of curls that lift up from the surface and looks especially good on nigiri. By scoring the top on an extreme enough bias vertically, almost as if butterflying the already thin piece of squid, at intervals about 1cm apart along with opposing scoring straight down the center and then making the nigiri with that side facing up. Once you’ve gotten that far, take the torch and lightly burn the tops. The bias scoring will cause those little bits to curl straight up into little waves across the top of the nigiri. A fun and visually interesting presentation.
We covered squid 2 days in a row as well, something I’ve worked with extensively just not whole and guts in. I’ve cleaned out smaller varieties, but the ones we were using were larger and required more cleaning and skinning than the squid that’s more commonly used in America. We were also shown a technique for making a base for irregularly shaped shellfish to be presented on. Clams, oysters, and scallop shells can be scrubbed out and used for a serving vessel, but they aren’t stable on a plate or table. If you mix egg white and salt in the right concentrations they form a play-dough-like paste that is easily molded into whatever shape you need it to be in.
Extracurricular activities were fruitful this week, as well. Damian and I met up on Tuesday to explore the area around Higashi-Nakano
station, as my wanderings of the area turned up a few interesting prospects. We explored out passed where I had been, into what appeared to be turning into a culinary dead zone. But Tokyo will surprise you at almost every turn. We found a little place called Hare Tokidoki Ten Ten Ten that specializes in skewered bits of pork and pork offal. It looked very inviting so we ducked inside.
It was an extremely clean, warm, and hip looking space with natural wood, lightly painted plywood, and metal frames, brightly lit and ignorable, inoffensive, gentle jazzy music piped in at a low volume. For such a small place their food and beverage selections were truly outstanding. Astonishing, even. Most places this size in Tokyo carry a couple sakes, a couple shitty draught beers, and some shochu. Maybe some whiskey if you’re lucky. This place had Japanese craft beers on tap, hard to
find wines from France, bottled beer from all over, well presented plates, well executed food, a staff that didn’t speak English well but REALLY fucking tried to do the best they could to serve us, all with a deep sense of give-a-fuck that permeated every aspect of the experience. We were both extremely excited about this place and extremely saddened that we and one other patron were all that populated the 15 seat space. In any other city, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Seattle, Sydney, Melbourne, name it, this place would have a line out the door and around the corner.
Literally not having a single fuck to give between us regarding what they wanted to feed us, we asked for omakase. They started us with a plate of warm tofu in a soy based sauce and simmered with negi, and topped with shredded negi, spring onion, and myoga. Light and flavorful. The first grilled course hit the table after that. Approximately 0 fucking around in this place. I’m not sure, but I’m pretty certain, this first course was not meant to be the word play that it was, but part of me
wouldn’t doubt it. They served us grilled skewers of pork tongue and cheek. We giggled. The following skewers that made their way to us were all from adjacent parts of the animal. Diaphragm and hanger steak, belly and stomach, heart and intestine. The chef asked us where we wanted to go from here, and we decided it would be a good time to break up the parade of pork with some veggies. Shishitou peppers, eringi mushrooms with shaved bonito, grilled eggplant with shaved bonito, all making their way to our table, every last bite was exceptional. We chatted, I ordered another beer, we contemplated the bottle of sparkling rosé Damian ordered. He recognized it from the time he spent in France. Le Canon Primeur, with its pink, sakura flower emblazoned label, is a sparkling wine made by a Japanese dude that moved to France to produce wines that are completely organic, unfiltered, unfined, and completely sulfur-free. A bit of a maverick in the wine making world, but it pays off. His bubbly rosé has more character and backbone than any other pink liquid I have ever quaffed. Great stuff.
After a little while we decided one more course was in order and the chef recommended the meatball. With a hint of middle-eastern spices, the pork meatball, slightly smaller than the size of baseball, was a great way to end this experience. Damage done, bill paid, off to home and bed to prepare for the next day of class. But not before vowing to return to this spectacular little place with reinforcements.
Friday night started with Damian and I wandering the streets of Shinjuku once again. Purposefully searching in an area that was previously unexplored. Scouring the streets for a bar that was open, though this is a rough proposition at 4:30 in the afternoon when most places don’t open until 6. There are a few outliers, though, and just about every street has at least one. We found our way to what appeared to be a quaint little bar/restaurant/produce market (?) in a sublevel with a girl that couldn’t have been more than 12 hawking to any of the pedestrians who would listen to her spiel, dressed in a Halloween costume consisting of a witch’s hat and a black robe. They were running some sort of Jack Daniels Halloween themed promotion. We initially passed her by, but we decided we did not want to search any further. This place was open and we just wanted to sit down. So we turned back and as we passed the little girl and she noticed we were heading down to the place she was promoting she almost literally exploded with enthusiasm and joy, immediately running in front of us to open the door for us, find a table for us, and get a server over, all while vibrating with excitement and thanking us repeatedly. She must have fired ”arigato gozaimasu!” emphatically at us around 15 times between the street level and us taking our seats.
We both had big lunches but we eyeballed the menu, since this place was more than just a bar and we were seated right by the small but well stocked “produce market” area that consisted of one counter full of pristine-looking iced produce, we ordered something to snack on while we killed our first beers of the evening. Grilled Caesar salad and fried garlic shrimp served with thinly cut fried potatoes and fried shrimp shells. The shells were a little too thick for my liking. The grilled Caesar was not what I was expecting, but it got eaten. We both ordered one of the JD cocktails on special and received scratch cards with them. The server apparently wasn’t sure how this promotion worked, and had to go ask what we were supposed to do with these cards as the scratch off area was not clearly defined and was just white block against the black background where it looked like something should have been printed, but wasn’t. Scratching this white field with the edge of a coin revealed a number that corresponded to a prize. Every JD cocktail ordered came with one. The prizes were little things like sticker sets and refrigerator magnets. We had a few rounds, finished the plates in front of us, and made our way out to find our next location.
We quickly found our next destination. A little bar that opened up to the street with no front wall or doors, just barrels out front at the thresh hold and about 10 seats inside. The all wooden interior and bar top stretched back in one narrow passage and there was a sot right up front behind the barrels for a standing area when all the interior seats were full. They were. We stood with our backs to the street and ordered another round. Damian ordered a small pizza for about $5. It was the saddest little pizza I think I’ve ever seen.
It was about this time I decided to see if anyone else was interested in joining us and suggested we move the party to a place I came upon a few days before. Tyo responded that he was free, Damian said my choice of next destination was a good idea, and so I told Tyo to just make his way to Shinjuku and we’d shoot him our location once we arrived. He agreed, and off we went. The momentum of the whole evening spun on a dime and changed direction, quite fluidly.
Early in the week I was strolling Shinjuku by myself because everyone had other things to take care of, and I stumbled on another hidden gem. There was a menu in an alley I’ve walked by a dozen times at least, but it sits in front of an offshoot alley that doesn’t look like it contains much. I took a closer look at the menu and it was bilingual. Kind of. Enough, anyway. So I made my way down that alley a short distance and there, almost completely tucked out of sight from the main alley, was Uokushi. Specializing in grilled and fried bits of fish on skewers, this place had character and the food was fucking amazing. We did some major damage to that place. Soon after we sat down (Tyo showed up later) and I was narrating the menu as far as my previous experience to Damian, he half-jokingly made the suggestion of trying to eat the whole menu. Well, that’s very nearly what we ended up doing that night…
We started with the variety plate, 1 skewer eack of tuna cheek with negi onion, dried atka mackerel, skewered whelks, salmon with
“tartar” sauce (seasoned mayonnaise is all it really was), whole skewered scallops and tuna loin all grilled over charcoal and served with yuzu kosho and wasabi. Next we moved on to the rest of the menu. Skewers of baby octopus, sardines rolled around umeboshi paste and ohba leaf, mirin marinated saba mackerel, pork wrapped scallops, fried cream cheese on a stick, 5 tiny little silver skinned fish threaded onto one skewer, 2 sandfish to a skewer, served whole, assorted veg skewers of shishitou, shiitake, eringi, asparagus, fried kabocha squash, and fried renkon (lotus root). We didn’t hit the rice bowls on the back side of the menu, but about 85% of his skewered items were sampled by our group of 3. Everything was ordered in 3’s. We weren’t getting one skewer of each thing and sharing. With the required amount of beer to wash it all down. Full and satisfied with the carnage left in our wake, we paid the bill and waddled out. Parting ways for the evening, though it was still an early night.
Our plans for the next day included getting out of Tokyo and going south to Yokohama to see the various sights there. Originally scheduled for Sunday, but it was supposed to rain that day and there were quite a few of us slated to go so we moved our plans up a day. Two of our group received the message late and were unable to tag along. The week ahead is mostly our finals. Except the 2 most dreaded, nigiri and katsuramuki. Those are going to be on the final week, giving us all more time to practice. I know I could use it. My speed is there but my form still needs work for nigiri. Katsuramuki is another matter. As long as I get some points in that I’ll be happy. Crunch time is drawing nigh.
After a long and stressful week and a heavy night out I finally got to sleep in on Saturday. Until 11, anyway. I called Sara for our weekly base-touch phone call and did some laundry. I sent out a message to the guys, Damian and Tyo, of where to meet at 3pm. We had reservations at restaurant omae XEX, formerly Morimoto XEX, in the Roppongi area. I was unaware there was a difference, that Morimoto had sold off the building, for whatever reason. These things happen. If you Google “Morimoto Tokyo” this place is at the top of the list still. Only after a little digging once I got home, after a few things not feeling quite right if this was a Morimoto run establishment, did I stumble upon that truth. The last course they gave us was a holdover from when the Iron Chef ran the joint, only adding to the confusion. Oh, well. It was all still a wonderful experience and damn tasty, all the same.
We made our way to Roppongi early for our 5:30 dinner reservations. Having a couple hours to kill I noticed that I marked the location of the Brew Dog Pub’s Tokyo branch on my map the last time we were out in this area. Brew Dog is a craft brewer out of Scotland that makes some tasty beverages with an unconventional approach and unique branding. I really like their products and was interested to see what they had available. The inside of the pub was very industrial and clean. A diagram made to look like a chalk drawing of the brewing process on one wall, stiff metal chairs with wood seats, wood tables, painted and unpainted brick walls, stainless steel high-top tables around the standing only bar area, and a wall of taps. They had more than just what they made back in the land of kilts, and their menu featured
the usual beer flights as well as “Guest Beers” from other noteworthy breweries. Everything in their flight was solid, and then I opted for a cider in the “Guest” category that was watery and bland. Zeffer Red Apple Cider out of New Zealand kind of made me dislike the Kiwi’s a little. Stella Artois Cidre is even better. Maybe it’s the Michigander in me that is so offended that an apple beverage could suck so much or that any company would think that was good enough to sell. Taste being subjective, and all, and I having very specific expectations from a cider; the more likely culprits behind my vitriol.
The beer they imported from Scotland did not suck, but the service they imported with it did. There was a group of about 10 and a group of 2 to go along with our group of 3 and we had to chase down a server once we needed to leave to get to our seats at the restaurant on time.
Once at XEX, our server greeted us at the door, and I said that I had reservations at 5:30, he already knew the name and how many. He led us to the back, passed the stairs going up to the private dining rooms, passed the tatami room, and passed the stairs going down to the teppanyaki seating, and to the all wood, 10 seat sushi bar. They were just finishing their setup when we arrived and placed our order for 3 beers and 3 omakase. The chef was an older dude who spoke a little bit of English. Enough to crack a few jokes, anyway. As
soon as he heard us say “omakase” he lopped 3 nigiri sized bits of tuna off of a loin and dropped them in a marinade, to be served at the appropriate moment. The procession of courses was pretty fantastic. All 19 of them!
The first thing they hit us with was a cold soup of edamame puree and crab leg pieces with diced red bell pepper. Next was yaki-shimo (flame scorched skin) sashimi of kinmedai. Following that was shime sanma sashimi topped with negi, grated and pickled ginger. Then a tempura course. Scallops, 2 skewered ginko nuts, haricot vert, matsutake mushroom, king crab leg, eggplant, and anago in the lightest
batter known to man, served with grated daikon and ginger. Course 5 was miso marinated and broiled black cod. 6th course began the sushi courses with otoro that dissolved on the tongue. 7th in line was shime saba that was tender and fishy and marinated in vinegar JUST long enough to cut the fat and not long enough to alter the texture of the raw flesh. 8th up was hirame. 9th was otoro again, but this time the chef took it in back and charred one side over intense heat so that one side was scorched and looked like it was grilled, but the underside was still essentially raw. Fucking amazing levels of flavor and texture. The 10th thing he threw at us was uni nigiri, sans nori band. Just rice, wasabi, and urchin roe. Most uni I’ve had benefitted from the nori usually associated with how it’s served because the nori cancels out to a degree the funkiness of uni that isn’t harvested within hours or
minutes of consumption. This stuff was the most pristine uni I’ve ever tasted. I did not miss the strip of nori. Moving right along, 11th in line was the marinated maguro. At this point it had been in the marinade for 35 minutes or so. It was deep, and rich, and powerfully flavorful. Eyes rolling into the back of your head good. No joke, I did that. It was completely involuntary. I prefer that to the otoro, actually. Knowing he wasn’t going to top that with more nigiri the chef served us our next course of rolls, 2 pieces each of 3 different hosomaki. One kanpyo, one anago, and one negi-toro. The final course in his omakase script was rice bran pickled daikon, but first he grated the zest of half a fresh yuzu and swiped half of one side of each of the daikon rounds at it. A beautiful finish, but we weren’t ready to be done yet…
By this time the sushi counter had nearly filled up with other guests, so the chef was starting to get a little busy. We were patient. All three of us are chefs, too, so we wouldn’t dream of rushing him. The server quite early on pegged us for industry and we told him why we were in Tokyo. He told the chef who had heard parts of the conversation but I’m not sure he fully understood until the server translated, and even then he looked completely unimpressed. As he should have been. But at this point in the meal, when he was starting to get backed up and the three of us were still staring at him, clearly not ready to go anywhere, he asked for our patience and with a straight face (he had a straight face the whole night, even while cracking jokes) he motioned for us to come over to the other side and help. We respectfully declined, using the excuse that none of us had our knives with us. He soldiered on.
The chef asked us if we had any requests at this point and Damian was quick on the draw with ebi. When the chef asked “boiled or raw” our unanimous and nearly simultaneous response was “both”. So, without missing a beat, he spun on his heels and pulled six, very much still alive and not at all happy to out of water shrimp from a polystyrene cooler that had been sitting on the floor at his feet the entire time that none of us could see from our seated position. He began skewering 3 of them and ran them to the back, where they were blanched and cooled. While they were cooking he came back and proceeded to take apart the other 3, pulling the meat out of the tails and pulling the tail fins off (not something that is usually done, as they are normally left on for presentation). He then pulled the carapace shell off the heads of those shrimp, exposing the entrails but leaving them in place on the frame. He then served us the raw tails as nigiri, so fresh they were still twitching from the sodium in the soy sauce he lightly brushed over them. He then scooped up the heads and tails left on his cutting board and went into the back again. He emerged with the boiled shrimp, cleaned up the tails and served us nigiri of the tail. Before we could look down and back up again he went back and retrieved the heads he removed the carapace from and tails from the back kitchen. They had been coated with potato starch and fried so that the remaining shells were crispy and with the thickest shell parts removed the whole thing was edible. That’s what you call “product utilization”. Next up 3 oysters materialized on his cutting board. He shucked them and made gunkanmaki with chopped spring onion. The oysters were a little on the muddy side, not as briney as I expected. My only experience with Japanese oyster varieties are the ones grown in the Pacific Northwest, though, and terroir is EVERYTHING with oysters.
While we sat and chatted, contemplating asking for the bill and watching him prepare 4 bowls of a dish that was pretty much straight out of the Morimoto cookbook (tartare of toro and ebi smeared into a shallow wooden box that resembles a picture frame with boxed garnishes at the side arranged in neat rows in the same type of box) and it turned out one of those 4 were for us. He handed it to us and said, “sample”. Delighted by this, we thanked him with an ecstatic “arigatou gozaimasu!” after utterly destroying it and requesting the bill.
Impressive showmanship, impressive spread, and a stunningly gorgeous space, omae XEX is one hell of a meal. A recommended Roppongi destination. Better and cheaper than another Roppongi spot I’ll get to in the next installment…
The rest of the week was sunny and beautiful, finally, and we did nothing with it. It was a pretty boring week. Some
of the things we did in class, however, were lessons I had been looking forward to since I booked the class. Sunday’s washoku class covered a variety of veg sushi, a couple rolls, and simmered whole fish. Monday we got to take apart akagai, red ark shell clams. These little bastards are full of blood. Way more than seems logically possible. I’ve never seen a bivalve that bleeds but these things are out of control. Our cutting boards all looked like a crime scene when we were done with the lesson. They were pretty tasty, though. I’m not sure if the amount of work required to clean them (blood fountain aspect aside) is worth the payoff at the end of it, but it was a good lesson none-the-less.
That was also our first day playing with tai, also known as sea bream or red snapper (though not at all the same as the Caribbean fish by that name). This is a very popular fish in Japanese cooking as a whole and
sushi is no exception. None of the international students like this fish. The meat is rubbery, hard to work with, difficult to cut, and nearly flavorless. Not at all worth the effort. Fuck that fish. There. I said it. The only reason the Japanese are in love with this fish is that it’s bright red, and they love any food that’s bright red. It’s also looked at as an ingredient that tests the skill of the chef. I still say fuck that fish. The end of that days lessons was bamboo leaf cutting.
The next day was anago! Salt water eel! Something a lot of us were looking forward to. Nail the head of the slippery little bastards to the cutting board and bone ‘em out. There are very specific guidelines one must follow and the method of cleaning this fish is completely different from any other fish we’ve touched so far. It’s a specialized skill that people train specifically for and we all quickly learned that the hard way. Azuma sensei led the first lesson and he
made it look extremely easy. It’s not. The best of us were struggling with this fish. The most common error, one that everyone made at least once, was having the knife slip up and cut through the skin before we had gotten to the end of the long and tapered tail. Azuma sensei was happy about this. That even the bests students were sucking out loud at this. He even said in his limited English “I like!” while laughing at the student that has already landed a job teaching at the Singapore branch because he wasn’t doing well on this lesson. He also pointed and laughed directly at me when I made the same mistake as everyone else and nicked my finger in the process. Azuma sensei is kind of a dick. I like him, though. Perhaps almost because he’s a dick. He’s tough and doesn’t let us get away with anything but he’s also extremely generous with his time and suggestions and he has a sense of humor. It’s clear that he wants us all to succeed.
When I was done with the 3 eels that I was given, Azuma sensei came by to inspect. The first one I filleted was nearly perfect. Beginners luck. The other 2 were in a pretty bad way. Azuma looked at them, then looked at me and reminded me of their use for today’s lesson. We were going to be tempura frying them, so they’d be covered in batter and any imperfections would be hidden. We also kept and cleaned the spines so that when we were done frying the eel meat and the softshell crabs (for the afternoon lesson) we fried the spines at a low temperature until the bubbles nearly ceased entirely. Salted and cooled, the spines were light and crispy, with a texture not unlike a thin pirouette cookie and only slightly fish flavored. Makes a pretty nifty garnish. With the tempura we made anagodon for lunch, tempura rolls and spider rolls with the softshells for afternoon class. Later that night I got
a message from Damian over the group chat that he was heading over to a ramen shop that was recommended by Ivan Orkin, a chef from New York that moved to Tokyo, fell in love with ramen, and opened a shop here. He now has 3 more locations State-side as well as his Tokyo shop. So this is a dude that knows what he’s talking about. His recommendation carries weight. It was also a 15 minute walk from my apartment. I was in! Nobody else came though. Just me and Damian.
Jiraigen is a hip little noodle shop in Nakano-ku, with American house music (in which the discreet vocalist was talking about being from Detroit) thumping through the place and a chef sporting a yellow frosted 3 inch wide Mohawk this place was a little different. The whole place had a swagger and attitude. It was pretty cool. It helped that the noodles kicked a fair amount of ass. We both got tickets for the loaded tsukemen ramen and a beer from the ticket machine just inside the door. Very shortly a bowl of cold noodles landed in front of us with loads of chashu, a slightly undercooked egg, and a few sheets of nori alongside a bowl of hot broth with even more julienne chashu, chopped negi, and other goodies floating in it. The broth was a mixture of pork and fish, heavy on both. Strongly fishy but with the dense smoothness of a well-made and robustly gelatinous pork stock behind the fish. Powerfully good, but not for the faint of heart.
The next day in class was more anago. I thought this would be my chance to redeem my poor showing from the day before. No such luck. That very first eel I cleaned on the first day of doing it remained my best effort. Those little guys are kind of a pain in the ass. Luckily there won’t be a test on them. There was a different sensei leading that days lesson, and he started it by saying (through the translator), “I’m not as good at this as Azuma sensei. He used to fillet 300 of these a day. But I will show you another technique.” And the reason for Azuma senseis dickishness on the subject came to the surface as everyone breathed a slight and knowing sigh upon hearing this. The guy is literally a fucking expert at this shit. Anyway, on this day we simmered the eels and made nigiri with them, and for a second day in a row I did not go out for lunch.
Afternoon class was more “Western style rolls”, or uramaki. Rolls with the rice on the outside that are almost entirely absent from menus in Japan. All of the senseis that have led lessons like this have had to consult recipe cards to know what to put in them because nobody orders these in Japan.
The last day of the week we covered kazari-maki, or the cute decorative rolls you see in bento boxes for kids. The rolls with patterns and characters in them that are all over Instagram and other housewife driven sites. They have a special team of women to teach this part of the curriculum and the regular senseis vacate the class room. We all kind of understood without it having to be said that they wanted to be nowhere near this foolishment. Most of us didn’t really want any part of this either. Otani sensei was our translator that day, and as diplomatic and even tempered as he is he pretty much agreed with Nelsons bemoaning of how this is for children and those of us who are professionals will NEVER use this. Meh. It was an easy day. Whatever. It was a little interesting to see how these are constructed, anyway. The presiding sensei tried to say “kazari-maki isn’t easy”, and we humored her. It was the easiest day of class since the first day where we did next to nothing accept introductions and the opening ceremony.
That night no one wanted to come out and play. I decided I didn’t want to spend the whole night locked up in my apartment so I wandered Nakano and explored some areas I had yet to poke my nose through. And that’s about it. Nothing noteworthy happened, nothing noteworthy was eaten, nothing interesting to report. An anti-climactic end to a week of little activity. The following night we had reservations at Nobu’s Tokyo branch, so there was something exciting to look forward to, at least. Nobu is one of my favorite chefs. His style is well defined and seamlessly integrates Peruvian and Japanese influences into something interesting and refined. I went home and went to bed in anticipation of the experience to come.
Saturday morning came way too early. After 4 hours of sleep I pulled my carcass out of bed to head back out to the area of Tsukiji market for a soba noodle class I booked well in advance through a school separate from the sushi classes. I fell in love with the buckwheat noodles after having them fresh for the first time. They are far superior to the dried variety. With a warm, earthy flavor and rustic texture they are unique in the pasta world. I was excited about this class because my first attempt to make them at home ended in abject failure, so I wanted to understand why. I made my way to the train station and the 45 minute ride was rough. I hadn’t even had enough sleep for a hangover to kick in yet, but it thankfully never got too bad. I was a little fuzzy headed in the afternoon hours, but that was the worst of it. I made it to my destination only a few minutes late, but that was due to unavoidable and unforeseeable bridge construction.
Akila Inouye has a cooking studio overlooking the Sumida River just upstream from the market and almost visible from his 4th floor kitchen windows. He conducts private and semi-private lessons in this space that is associated with the Tsukiji Soba Academy and has the feel of a well outfitted, heavily modified apartment kitchen. There are computer monitors mounted everywhere that are accessible though the 3-4 wireless keyboards and
mouse sets set up around the area. The equipment is very efficiently organized and every inch of the limited space is utilized. Akila sensei was a kind and generous instructor, stopping to offer little bits of information about ingredients we were using as we went along, like the highest buckwheat producing regions (Hokkaido is the largest producer but their harvest season is earlier in the year due to their higher latitude and earlier winters), the difference between mirin and sake (it has more to do with the variety of rice used in brewing than just the sugar content of the final product), and a trick to getting a Maillard reaction in a stock or thin sauce liquid quickly and without scorching it (heated iron bar quenched into the liquid), he was full of interesting information and happy to share it.
When I arrived the first thing he did after introductions and giving me the class material was ouline what we would
be doing for the day. First was a walkthrough of dipping sauces, broths and sauce bases used. Next was a demonstration, where he would walk me through the entire process and give me a little hands on each step of the way while doing most of the work himself. Then there would be a tasting with cold soba, a dipping sauce, and a salad application that included nameko mushrooms that would be lunch. After that he would have me do everything, while he guided, so I could get a solid feel for each step of the procedure with my own hands. Then there would be another tasting of soba in hot broth and we would conclude the lesson.
The first revelation of the day came quickly and went a long way toward explaining the failure of my first attempt. Buckwheat flour is gluten free. One of the biggest fears I had in my experiment was overworking the dough, which any pasta or bread maker will tell you means the resulting dough will be rubbery and the end result tougher. This is due to the fact that overworking, or overmixing a dough causes more glutens to be formed from the flour proteins, and when they get cooked they bind up and get tight, creating a denser bread or noodle. With a naturally gluten free flour as 80% of the mixture overworking the dough becomes nearly impossible.
The next revelation had to do with moisture. Soba noodles generally start with a mixture of flours, 80% buckwheat and 20% AP flour as a stabilizer. The water added to that is much less than one would think logical because buckwheat flour is extremely
hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs water from anywhere, including the surrounding air. For this reason, ambient humidity in the room you are preparing the noodles in should be taken into account when calculating how much water to add. Akila had multiple gauges around the room to make absolutely sure he knew the moisture content of the air in there at all times.
I ended up being the only one signed up for that day so it was essentially a private lesson, and he asked questions along the way to guide the lesson in direction that would best suit my needs. He knew I was in Tokyo attending a sushi school, and he knew I had a good working
knowledge of Japanese ingredients and cooking techniques in general so he skipped over some of the things that a total beginner would need to hear so I could get the most from the experience. He was a good sensei and bursting with enthusiasm for the subject and passing on what he knew. I might go back and see him again before I leave Tokyo.
Sunday washoku class covered a variety of dishes in the donburi family. Essentially a bowl of steamed rice topped with blanket of cooked ingredients sometimes bound with egg, each dish generally has the suffix “don” attached (katsudon with fried pork, gyudon with beef, oyakodon with chicken). While we were doing katsudon we also covered tonkatsu and it’s traditional sides and sauces. I finally figured out what that goofy pan with the handle that sticks straight up I always see in Japanese kitchen stores is for. Cooking the toppings for donburi so they are the perfect size to cover the rice in the bowl.
Monday lunch was at an Indian joint not far from the school and Tuesday was Yoshinoya, a Japanese chain that
specializes in gyudon. The translator in washoku class encouraged us to go there if we hadn’t already and there’s 3-4 in Shinjuku. one of which is 50 meters from the front door of the school so we really had no excuse. Wasn’t bad, wasn’t great. It was a chain, after all. But odd for a chain (perhaps not in Japan) they served a raw egg with your bowl of simmered beef and onions over rice. That’s what is traditionally served with it, but chains like this usually play it sake to point of near sterilization in my experience. Apparently not in Japan, though.
The rest of the week at TSA was full of tests and test preparation.
Primarily we did 3 tests. The first hosomaki test, thin single ingredient rolls. The aji horse mackerel test, consisting of filleting, skinning, and cutting the fillets for nigiri. The last test was the first nigiri test. Each of these were timed. So we had to make 3 hosomaki of 2 different types, cut and presented to exacting specifications, within 5 minutes. For the aji we had 10 minutes, and it was graded on a descending scale, meaning we start at 100% and for each flaw the sensei finds we get marked down 5% (each bone left in, too much meat left on the frame, a broken skeleton, skin left on, poorly cut, not long enough for nigiri, all -5%) and anything over 11 minutes was -10%, over 12 minutes was automatic fail. This test was going to count toward graduation since we weren’t going to return to the subject. We had 3 tries to do it and the highest score we got is the one that was counted. The last test was
nigiri, and this one had me worried. We were to make 15 nigiri in 3 minutes. Senei came around and checked them at the end of 3 minutes and ejected any that weren’t the proper shape. The remainder had the fish peeled off the top and the rice ball weighed. They had to fall between 15-17 grams to qualify. Any that were in that range were counted and the results of 3 runs were tallied at the end. Of the 45 we had to make in 3 tries 32 of them had to be of proper weight to pass.
Hosomaki and nigiri tests are a pass/fail situation. Even if you ace every other test in the finals if you fail EITHER of those you don’t get your diploma. The midterm tests for these were more for us to see where we stand on these, and don’t count toward the final scores for graduation, but it was all stressful, none-the-less. The hosomaki test was Tuesday and I aced that one, coming in under the 4 minute mark the final test calls for, so that was no sweat. The horse mackerel test was Wednesday and I fumbled the first try but I got a score of 95 on the last run, and that’s the test that counted the most at this point, so I was happy with that. The dreaded nigiri test was Thursday, and it had me a little nervous. I was not doing well in the trial runs leading up to that day.
Thursday in class was a little tense, with more dicking around and playful jabs at each other to break the tension. Our days are broken into 3 periods. First period that day they threw a whole fish at us, inada (very young Hamachi) and told us to break it down and slice it for nigiri, setting the nicest 40 pieces aside for the test and the rest would be used for practice leading up to the test. The second period was all practice. Then lunch. Damian, Nelson, and I headed over to the tonkatsu place we went to the first week of class because it was close, easy to get to, and we knew it was solid. The atmosphere was a little dense. Not heavy and hard to breathe dense, but the anxiety for the coming test was there, just below the surface. Conversation was fairly light.
Of the 8 international students only 3 of us passed the nigiri test. Jeremy, the student from Singapore who already has a job lined up at the TSA Singapore branch, took his time and made 15 perfect nigiri each run of the test. A perfect score. Nelson, the young guy from Portugal who currently lives in Switzerland and works at a sushi bar, passed with a little more sweat than Jeremy, but he passed. Of the 32 pieces needed to pass the test I got 32. Passing, but just barely. I got the required 15 each run and I didn’t have any disqualified for shape or size but my weights were what it came down to. For the finals we need to get 18 in 3 minutes and they will be tougher on form so I need to focus. The one test that most are dreading as much as nigiri finals is katsuramuki, the long, thin peel of daikon radish that Morimoto is so famous for. We need to make a 10cm wide, 40cm long sheet that weighs 40 grams or less, and we 10 minutes to do it. This one is not a pass/fail but graded on a point scale so I’ve already figured out what I need to score on all the other tests in order to graduate if I completely bomb katsuramuki. It’s also the very last test we take, so we’ll know if we have passed by that point or if we need some kind of score on this one. I’m shooting for a passing score before we even walk into that test. Of the 7 tests we need to pass 5 are scored, one we’ve already done (aji) and we need 350 combined points from those to graduate. With 95 points in the bag I need 255 points from 4 more 100 point max tests. If I bomb katsuramuki then I need to get 255 in 3 tests, meaning at least a score of 85 or higher on each one. I think I can manage that, I just need to work on nigiri. The give us an extra hour to stay and practice after class every day and I intend to take advantage of that every remaining day until the finals, 3 more weeks.
Friday class had a much lighter atmosphere. All the tests were over and we had a new exercise to run through,
counter practice. First period was spent cleaning live scallops, then they split us into teams of 2 and threw the ingredients at us we would need to run our mock sushi bars. After we were set up, ther were 4 counters to work with for the whole class. They grouped us into teams of 7 this time to run the exercise. The problem with there being 8 international students in the class of 30 was solved by putting Graznya, the woman from France who speaks a fair amount of Japanese, in with the native students. In the Sushi Bar Simulator 2 of us were to act as chefs, 4 guests, and 1 server/FOH. There was green tea and soup made for us to serve (the miso soup was made with added shrimp heads from the whole
amaebi that were broken down for the counters and also included aburaage and was garnished with chopped spring onion). The guests would sit down, order 3 nigiri, soup and tea if you felt like it, and then they would leave and we would rotate jobs so everyone got to play each role at least once as well as guest a few times. This would be our lunch. I went for the guest role first since I was nearing painful hunger by this point. Then I played chef for a round, then guest again, and finished on service. That soup was really good. Mental note on using the fried tofu and shrimp heads. At the end of the day it was a fun and light way to break up what was a stressful week.
Friday night came roaring in after class, and several of the guys headed to yakitori town in central Shinjuku. The network of narrow alleys where all the 7-10 seat, cramped little yakitori and ramen shops are piled on top of each other. I ran back to my apartment to drop off my gear from school since they require us to clear out of our lockers every Friday night so they can use them for the weekend classes. I quickly learned to make this a practice as lugging that shit around when bar hopping the tiny claustrophobic bars is exponentially more difficult with a load of crap to carry around. By the time I was ready to join the festivities I shot out a message to see where everyone was at. I was given a location and I was out the door.
About 15 minutes left of my 40 minute walk I got a message from Tyo asking where I was. In knew this meant they were looking to leave the bar they were in and possibly look for a new destination. I picked up the pace. When I arrived at Damian had already departed and the 2 Japanese students from class that had joined the group
were ready to leave as well. They all paid up and Tyo decided he was calling it a night too, so that left Nelson and myself. He was still up for a night on the town and I was ready to suck down some yakitori so we headed to another stall in the alley. After eating a little bit there we decided to head over to an area of Shinjuku known as “Golden Gai”. A network of tunnel-like alleys not dissimilar to yakitori town but the shop it contained were all just bars. No real food menus to speak of, just drinking establishments. Very few of them seat more than 6-7 people, and that’s pretty tightly packed in. Once we got through the innocuous looking garden entrance we arrived in the maze of passageways around 6pm, right when the bars should be opening. Or at least we hoped. Truth be told there were only a few places ready to seat people at this time. We made a couple laps around the area to survey our option and walked by a bar that was blaring the Ramones out the front door. I made a mental note. All of the bars in Golden Gai are uniquely themed to help them stand out among the myriad of competitors. This competition also means a lot of these places charge a cover to get a seat so you don’t have the urge to wander out and see what another bar has to offer. There are quite a few that don’t, however, and they are advertised as such in large English signs right out front. These were the ones we were looking for tonight, because screw paying a cover. Once we had made an initial reconnaissance run through the labyrinth we passed it once again and headed inside.
With an American theme, the “5 Gallons” bar was decked out with Jack Daniels and Harley Davidson paraphernalia everywhere, American flags, and shelves upon shelves containing various bottles of Old No. 7. The bar-tender was quite obviously the guy who ran this show. A fit, middle-aged Japanese man who wore lightly brown tinted sunglasses, a faded brown denim shirt, and shaggy hair. There was only one patron in this bar when we walked in, a typically demure young Japanese woman that giggled with a quickly covered mouth when she heard us answer the boss-man’s question of where we were from and that we were studying sushi while in Tokyo. Sushi chefs are looked upon with a fair amount of admiration, it seems, and even students of the craft are almost looked at like rock stars. Part of the individual branding in these bars is in their approach to bar snacks, as each one has its own variety. At the 5 Gallons it was a ramekin of cheese puffs made from fried rice cracker balls tossed in cheese powder that the bartender/owner poured out of a bag as soon as we had a beer in our hands.
The music stayed a consistent theme, the Ramones, the entire time we were there. When asked if we would like it to change I informed them that this was the deciding factor when we chose this place. We were soon joined by an American couple, Matt and Lyndsay from San Francisco were on a business/vacation combo trip to Japan and this was their last night. They were scheduled to fly back at 12 midnight the following evening. Though they live in San Fran, it was quickly discovered that Matt was born and raised in the Detroit area, Sterling Heights to be exact. I often tell Sara that I find people from Michigan everywhere I go, and I can now extend that to a global scale. Detroit refugees are every-fucking-where!
After an hour or so of chatting we all decided to see what else was in the neighborhood, so we paid up and moved
out. It wasn’t long before we found another no-cover bar and settled in. A little larger than 5 Gallons, this one was run by a diminutive (even by Japanese standards) woman with an outwardly lively and hospitable demeanor. The bar snacks at his one were a variety of prepackaged, single-serving packages handed out in a wooden bowl to each guest. They were all edible, but one was memorable. A little bag of fried ramen noodles dusted in the seasoning powder one might find in the foil packet that came with instant noodles. The defining feature of this particular venue was the wall of CD’s that sat behind the bar. From 70’s to 90’s, there was quite an eclectic selection. Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, Earth Wind, and Fire, Cyndi Lauper, Iron Maiden, David Bowie, and beyond, she would play whatever we wanted to hear. With a very short discussion (and surprisingly no strong-arming from me) we agreed on Black Sabbath as out first selection. We were soon joined by another group of English speaking guests, mostly of Asian descent but there was one European in the group of 5. We spent the next hour and a half (I’m guessing) chatting with our new friends and enjoying the company.
Once that group decided to call it a night we all decided to move back over to yakitori town to get something to soak up the beer in our stomachs and the sake sloshing around in Lyndsays head. While the rest of us were contented with beer she was hitting the sake like it owed her money. Stall after stall in yakitori alley was filled to capacity, some even turning us away before we even opened our mouths. We finally found seats at a place that had a second floor. Accessible through a steep and narrow stairwell, the cramped little room had barely enough space to maneuver to our table. Once we were seated Nelson and I started explaining to Matt and Lyndsay what they could expect and what would suit their palates. Being American and NOT chefs we took it as a given that they would not be interested in the same steaming pile of grilled chicken offal that keeps Nelson and I coming back to these places. Matt was fairly fearless, and didn’t shy away from it though.
After a very short period Lyndsay needed to get out of the super confined space and get some fresh air. The stale, smokey, unmoving air in the overcrowded room was too much for her to handle at this point. It wasn’t said out loud, but I suspect her already sensitive stomach was a bit turned by the discussion of skewered chicken innards. By the time she made her way back down and Matt vowed to come find her after 30 minutes (he initially said 10 or 15, but she pushed it back herself) our orders had arrived and we sent her down with a plate of tsukune (chicken meatballs) we
ordered for her because they are in no way offensive to Western palates.
After 20 minutes or so, the plate we sent down with her made it back to us via the server with one remaining skewer on it. Taking this as a sign that she was ready to go, we paid the bill and headed back down. We found her at the end of the alley that opened up to the main streets of Shinjuku. We all exchanged contact info, said out goodbyes, and headed off to our respective beds. Nelson dropped down into the first subway station we passed. He had had enough of the light but constant rain that was harassing us all night, and I couldn’t blame him. I was going to walk the 30 minutes back to my apartment. Screw paying money for the subway when it wasn’t that far and walking is free. About 10 minutes in to that walk I was rethinking my decision. I just wanted to be in bed, and it was only 1am by this time. I had already committed, though, and there wouldn’t be another train station without doubling back or going out of my way.
Saturday would be my first day to sleep in for the past 2 weeks, with Sunday classes at TSA and the soba class on the previous Saturday. NO rest for the wicked, though. I had to be up and functioning by noon at least because my weekly call to Sara and then reservations for dinner at restaurant omae XEX awaited me the following day. Formerly Morimoto XEX, but I was unaware of the difference until after our meal. They still had a signature Morimoto dish on the menu, to boot, so my confusion was not set straight by the experience. Oh well. It was damn tasty, still. Which is where I will pick up next time.