The 23 wards of Tokyo.
Guardian of Tokyo, this Godzilla bust looms out over central Shinjuku from the balcony of the Gracery Hotel.
After landing at Narita International I caught a taxi over to the main office of the company that I’m renting an apartment from. From there I took an Uber (yes, they have Uber in Tokyo and I’m still not sure how I feel about that) over to the new digs. It’s the size of a large closet, but I was expecting that. The garbage disposal procedures needed lengthy instructions and I still don’t fully understand it. I got the impression nobody really does. It needs to be separated into 5 different categories: burnable, non-burnable, recyclable glass, paper, and plastic, and they each have a different pick-up day. And there are grey areas… By this time it was 7:00 pm and I had been awake for 24 hours straight with very little sleep in the 2 days leading up the flight. So the only logical step from here was to start exploring the neighborhood.
The Nakano ward of Tokyo borders on the ward of Shinjuku (where my school is at), which is the Northeast quadrant of the central hub of downtown Tokyo. Nakano-ku (each wards name is given the suffix of “-ku”) has a train track running straight East-West through the center of the ward, curving South into Shinjuku-ku. This means that Nakano-ku is split almost evenly North/South of the tracks. The South side of the tracks is mostly residential. Small houses packed in tightly with micro-apartments, narrow and winding streets running through in a completely illogical manner. There is no rhyme or reason to the street layouts. A tangled mess of pavement that in Chicago or Detroit would be considered more of an alley than an actual road. They are very well kept, however. I have seen no potholes or cracks large enough for drivers to notice. Nor have I seen the piles of rubbish and random detritus that accumulates on any American road.
Yakiniku spread. There's a stove-pipe vent over each table that they place the grill under.
The North side of the tracks is packed with tiny restaurants and shops, and towering over this multitude of food stalls is one of Tokyo’s many malls. A giant, 4 story structure with a basement level included called Nakano Broadway. Leading up to the main entrance is a 240 meter long covered causeway called Nakano Sun Mall. Boasting over 100 shops on its own, it’s a glass roofed, open air lane of variously themed stores and food stalls. The lower level of Broadway is dominated by yet more food stalls, coffee shops, and food retailers including a fish monger, a butcher shop, and a fresh produce stand as well as a full service super market. The main level is a lot of electronics and high-end jewelry and watch specialty stores. The second level contains even more food stalls and a vast array of anime, kaiju, and manga focused booths as well as a couple booths dedicated solely to coin operated vending machines of the variety that spit out key-chains and mini figurines encased in a plastic capsule. There is a retailer called Mandarake that has 6 completely separate stores throughout the mall and each one has a different theme. Anime reigns supreme among its themes and flows through all of them to varying degrees, but each has a specialized focus on a different type of pop culture. One specializes in pro wrestling dolls, another on models and actions figures of sci-fi and comic books, yet another is a kind of arcade.
If visiting Nakano Broadway I would suggest you avoid eating there, unless you hit the Standing Sushi bar in the Sun Mall or the fresh fish market in the basement. The surrounding area is so rich in food stalls it’s hard to justify dining in the mall. Just wander aimlessly down the alleys around it until you find something that grabs you. It won’t take long.
Standing Sushi bar. The name denoted the posture. There are no chairs. You belly up. you order, you GTFO.
I spent the first few days exploring the area and eating my way around Nakano. The night I landed I was so stuffed to the gills from the 2 meals on the flight that I just settled in and passed out. The next morning I started searching for a lunch destination as soon as I woke up. I settled on a yakiniku joint around Broadway. For dinner, after wandering through the Nakano Broadway and Sun Mall for a couple hours, I started approaching my daily meals differently. With so many options why stuff yourself on just one? So I hit that Standing Sushi bar in the Sun Mall and then I found, in an alley off an alley between the Sun Mall and Broadway, a tiny yakitori stall, glowing invitingly and in solitude a short
If the question involves yakitori, the answer is always "yes".
distance down the dark alleyway. The staff didn’t speak much English but I got the point across. 2 skewers each of the 3 most promising looking items. I was not disappointed. The chicken thigh was great, the chicken breast (usually boring to me) was seasoned with sancho pepper, drizzled with yuzu kosho and nori shreds, and served medium rare. Chicken. Served medium rare. Unthinkable in the States, but for good reason. Satisfied with a day well spent, I retired to my apartment and bedded down for the night.
The next day was a somewhat lazy one. Sunday by this point and my first real obligation, a tour of the school. I walked the 30 minutes to the school (it would be 20 minutes by train and I have to pay for that; walking is free) and met with the principal and some of her staff. The facilities are fairly open and self-explanatory so that meeting didn’t take much time. I hoofed it back to my apartment and stopped at a grocery store along the way. Getting back around 3 pm and tooling aimless around the apartment for a couple hours until I was hungry enough to venture back out. I found a noodle place online that looked promising, so I went for it. Ko Sumi, on the Eastern edge of Nakano, specializes in udon, and it was fantastic! A starter of half of a broiled mackerel and then right into the main event. The thick, chewy noodles were swimming in a red miso broth so dense it could almost be called a gravy. All the usual suspects were there with the curve ball addition of tempura crumbs to add crunch and soak up some of the broth. Best meal so far, but it was only 3 days in. There’s still 2 months to go. Get home, get to bed, class starts tomorrow, and it starts half an hour early.
I wake before the alarm. First by an hour. Next by 7 minutes. I get up anyway and get out the door to start the real meaning of this whole adventure. Day 1 at the Tokyo Sushi Academy.
It was a light day of introductions, opening ceremonies, everyone getting up in front of the other students introduce
2 skewers medium rare chicken breast yakitori with yuzu-kosho and nori shreds, 2 of thigh meat, and 2 of unripe tomato wrapped in pork belly and glazed with tare sauce. Super simple, amazingly good.
themselves and give a little information about ourselves. Any students who were bi-lingual (there are 8 international students and 20 Japanese) were encouraged to make their introductions in both Japanese and English. A few of the instructors and most of the staff speak extremely good English. Of the 8 international students there’s myself, a large wall of an Aussie named Damian, Nelson from Portugal, Tyo from Indonesia, Jeremy from Singapore, Danny from Louisiana, Majeed from South Africa by way of Canada, and Grazyna from France. For the hour lunch break 5 of us headed out together to scour the area and found a passable ramen joint. After the rest of the day in class that consisted of uniform fittings, law of the land, and an outline of what will be expected for us to graduate, we were loosed upon Tokyo to congregate once again the next morning. Of the 5 of us that were together at lunch, 4 of that group gravitated again and decided to wander the streets of Shinjuku purposefully aimless. Most of the international students are already in the cooking profession, and a few of us have sushi experience already, so we all have kitchen culture in common. The Aussie and myself being the elders of the clique, Nelson and Tyo in their early 20’s. With this configuration we explored the high-end malls and dingy, winding alleys of central Shinjuku-ku for the best it had to offer. We were foreign chefs in Tokyo, and we were fucking hungry!
New to me as people tend to be squeemish about this back in the States. Horse sashimi. Big meaty flavor, absolutely no gameiness, very lean and very tender. Ask for it by name!
Shochu seminar tasting notes.
We grazed our way through the alleys after scanning the food offerings in a mall whose entrance was a Dior store. The 4 grungy chef scumbags wandering through Dior looking for food must have made for an interesting sight, and one old woman commented on how “big” Damian was. Standing a girthy 6’6” or so, he is an anomaly of sorts in this country. Sensei Otami-san even said he thinks Damian is the tallest student they’ve ever had. To our surprise, unlike high-end super-malls in the West, there was a gourmet market in the sublevels that sprawled half of the level. Including specialty produce, a massive fish selection, pre-prepared obento and sashimi trays, a butcher counter with several grades of wagyu beef (the most expensive was a nearly solid white slab roughly shaped like a rib lion with specks of pink throughout), and a hand-made noodle demo stall in the middle of the action. The chef rolling the dough in his glass cube and employing a self-advancing noodle knife to cut all of the noodles to a uniform thickness, boiling them, and shocking them in ice water on the spot. He’d then pass those off to the people at the counter outside the plexi-glass fishbowl and they’d cover them with a sauce or dole them out to eat chilled. They were handing out small samples and I couldn’t resist. They were very non-descript, with light sauce that tasted vaguely of dashi, and heavy on sesame oil and yuzu juice.
The second half of this week’s lessons at the academy were devoted to learning the basics, and I quickly learned how wrong I’ve been doing everything. The central tenant here is “keep-break-progress”, as they put it. What this means is, they want you to learn how the senseis want you to do things. Be able to emulate them infallibly and with speed. Once you’ve learned the proper way to do something and committed it to muscle memory, only then should you “break”, and forge your own path. Once you’ve discovered a way to make the techniques your own without sacrificing your teachings or the quality of the final product, then you have reached “progress”. I need to start back at square one with few things. Primarily nigiri. My form is bad on each of the 7 steps they teach. I’ve been doing it wrong for so long I have to wipe away all of it and try to relearn it from the ground up. I’ve developed a rhythm over the years that has become almost instinctual so breaking out of that is going to take a little work. But I’m dedicated and stubborn, if what I’ve been doing all this time is the wrong way I will reprogram my brain on how to do it no matter how hard it is. I’ve got 2 months to get it done.
The next few days were much of the same, wandering the downtown streets in search of whatever they had to offer. On Thursday evening we were privy to a formal dress shochu tasting event that was held in the more Southern area of Harajuku Tokyo. The Aussie wasn’t able to attend as he knocked himself silly not ducking far enough to come out of the bathroom that morning and wasn’t able to attend class because of it, so it was myself, Nelson, and Tyo. Shochu is the indigenous Japanese distilled spirit made from a variety of ingredients. Rice, barley, sweet potato, brown sugar, even buckwheat is used. What makes these distilled beverages different from their Western counterparts of whiskey, rum, and the like is the use of koji in the fermentation process, just like traditional sake. However, we were not told it was a formal dress event and showed up in t-shirts, hoodies, and cargo shorts collectively. No one seemed to care that much and no one looked at us like scum bags. At least not to our faces. Not that we cared much either, to be honest. We may have gotten stares, we just didn’t give a single aggregate fuck so it fell beneath our notice. There was a short and sweet 30 minute seminar with a tasting set for each attendee that the presenter guided us through. Very interesting stuff with slides of maps explaining history and regional variations, tasting notes and broad common flavor profiles for the individual base ingredients, serving suggestions, and recommended service-ware. The reception after the seminar had some food and about 50 different styles and brands of shochu to try. We were given free reign to have as much food and drink as we wanted. Word spread through some of the staff that we were there from the Tokyo Sushi Academy, though, and a couple of them excitedly pinned us down on our way out to confirm our identities as the sushi guys. They seemed genuinely thrilled to meet a group of student sushi chefs who weren’t behind a counter.
Wigged out stair/escalator well leading into one of the may expensive stores in the Harajuku area.
We met another American while we were there. Ed was in the Navy and stationed to the South of Tokyo. Once we had enough of the crowded tasting party we all headed out to explore the streets of Harajuku with Ed tagging along. There are a lot of high-end stores in Harajuku, even more than in Shinjuku-ku, but the locals seem to roll up the sidewalks at dusk so by the time we were out of the tasting there were few options open for service that weren’t completely packed. We wandered for nearly an hour before we found an izakaya in a basement that nearly slipped past our notice.
Descending the stairs, we were faced with a small room of seats fueled by an even smaller open kitchen. The only two visible staff members were a female chef and a female server. There were 4 other guests, 2 groups of 2, who immediately started making comments about us that we couldn’t make out. Not the first time, and won’t be the last, I’m sure. Good thing none of us really give a shit. The server had adorably broken Engrish, but command enough of the language combined with her enthusiasm to understand us made ordering a simple matter. Further aided by the fact that Ed and I were able to put both of our limited understandings of written Japanese together to read enough of the black dry-erase board that functioned as their menu to suss out what they had on offer. Our first round was seared needle fish, karage, crispy chicken, and yakisoba. The seared, bite sized bits of needle fish were outstanding and the chicken thigh karage was fried to a juicy medium-well. The yakisoba was good but I’m partial to my own recipe for it. Informed we were at the last call time for food we made a second pass, this time a double portion of fried squid and 2 more portions of that needle fish. Once those were finished, we paid our bill and we all headed back to our respective dwellings. Ed to his home, and the rest of us back to Nakano-ku by way of the train to Shinjuku station. I got back late and did not delay in getting to bed.
Friday morning class was an interesting one. Our assignments were to break down 3 whole aji (horse mackerel), a side of Hamachi, and nigiri practice. These would last until lunch time, in which we were encouraged to eat the spoils of the fish we had just butchered. Especially the aji, as this was our first time (mine as well) dealing with this fish and the preparation procedure is a lengthy and important one so we needed to understand what the final result tasted like.
After lunch it was on to start learning how to make hosomaki, the thin rolls with a single ingredient inside and the nori on the exterior. Since we needed to practice as much as possible the nori was replaced by a damp kitchen cloth. Like a paper towel but much more durable, the 3 color coded varieties we use for general cleanliness at the academy work well as a practice substitute for nori. The sheets allow the rice to stick to them but when dampened the rice peels away easily and it’s possible to break up the rice and reuse it. Weights are a big deal in all matters. Weight of the rice for nigiri, weight of the rice for rolls, weight of the neta (nigiri topping), everything must be within very narrow margins and we have to learn to grab and go to execute with speed and accuracy without having to weigh it out to order. We are working on that accuracy right now. Speed always come later, after mastery of technique.
After school we all dispersed to do our own things. It has been a long week and we are all a little exhausted from it. Except Nelson, it seems. He has a jazz fest to attend here in Tokyo with one of his flat-mates that he says will last a couple days. We’ll see how long that holds his attention. I have some plans for the weekend that include going to check out the Roppongi area and a few destinations therein, including the Hard Rock Café and a place called the Pizzakaya my girlfriend, Sara, found out about. Being a Chicago native she insisted I go there and take lots of pictures. If I have my way that will be the only non-Japanese food I eat while I’m here. Who knows, though? The Japanese are nothing if not obsessive, so they may have a new perspective to offer on something traditionally Western that I had never considered before. Already this trip is forcing me to recall one of Master Yoda’s lessons, “You must unlearn what you have learned”, so I’m open to anything.
The heart of Shinjuku-ku.
A variety of grilled pork offal including liver, uterus, heart, tongue, and brain. The uterus and heart were the big winners. The 2 lonely skewers top left are "pork meatloaf".