Why Did the Gaijin Cross the Pond?: A Tokyo Travelogue Week 3

The creepy guardian of Kappabashi Street.

The creepy guardian of Kappabashi Street.

The trip to Kappabashi ended up being just Damian and myself. Tyo had things to do, Nelson was hung over from Friday nights marathon of debauchery, and the other student that mentioned he wanted to go, Majeed from Canada, never gave anyone his contact information so we had no way of contacting him. They missed out, or sure. We met up at the planned time of 1pm and headed to the nearest train station. When they call Kappabashi street “kitchen city” they really aren’t joking. Up and down both sides of the street for a stretch of about a mile there are nothing but shops selling wares you might use in a home or restaurant kitchen. Each shop specializing in a particular category. Pots and pans, baking pans, knives, ceramic ware, tea pots, signage, the lanterns that hang outside of restaurants and izakayas, menu covers and designers, interior design, and soba noodle accessories all have their own specialty shops on Kappabashi Street. There are even a couple of shops devoted entirely to chopsticks of varying quality and design. From large bricks of disposables to a couple hundred dollars a set. We were like kids in a candy shop. Damian picked up a yanagiba that set him back around $1,200 and I grabbed a few little things I’ve been needing or wanting for a while. A saya for my sashimi knife, a rust eraser for the new set of knives I got from school, a small bonito shaver (katsuo kezuriki), a cheap bread knife, and a shark skin wasabi grater. There were few food options available on this stretch of road, however, and
The shops on Kappabashi, selling all manner of kitchen equipment.

The shops on Kappabashi, selling all manner of kitchen equipment.

when all the shops started rolling down their gates around 6pm (?!) we noticed that we were nearly ready to eat our own shoes. Damian had mentioned this yakitori joint a few times already over the course of the last two weeks, a place he heard was supposed to be the hot-shit new place for grilled chicken bits and innards. We decided that it was a solid plan and another short train ride later and some searching through the bowels of the building it was located in we landed at our destination. Bird Land was a very clean, efficient operation. The English- speaking host/server/bartender was behind a U-shaped bar that was the majority of the seating area. About 12 seats at the bar, 4 seats on each of the 3
Curtain leading to the kitchen at Bird Land and bearing their logo.

Curtain leading to the kitchen at Bird Land and bearing their logo.

sides, and a couple of small booths comprised the dining room. The window from the kitchen where the cooks placed the finished orders at the back of the bar area was visible from the seating area, meaning the host/server/bar tender had and area of about 3 steps to cover between picking up orders from the kitchen window and delivering to the guests seated at the bar, with the drink coolers and beer taps accessible in the center of that path. Just behind the kitchen pass was the grill in plain view with the pale blue ceramic plates the used for 75% of their dishes lined up along one side. All of these factors combined to ensure that the service was completely flawless. The space between courses was perfect. Just enough time to discuss and contemplate what was just consumed and the next plate was in front of you. And yes, this is a yakitori joint that courses out the meal. We each got a separate tasting menu that included an amuse, a tomato salad, pate, grilled cabbage with truffle salt, house made tofu, a skewered and grilled log of cheese (don’t laugh, it was awesome), grilled ginko nuts on a skewer, soup and pickle, and dessert courses to break up the monotony of skewered meats. One of our tastings was the traditional mix of various chicken parts and offal including thigh with negi onion, breast with wasabi (medium rare), teriyaki thigh skin-on, heart, liver, gizzard, chicken meatballs, and wings. The other tasting was a variety of meats including pork and white onion, duck breast with leek, and lamb meatball served medium rare. No part of that meal sucked. Everything was on point. Everything was well thought out and well executed. This was neck and neck with the tonkatsu at Butagumi for the best meal and service of the trip so far. We left pleasantly full and VERY happy.
Lightly grilled chicken breast (medium rare) with spring onion.

Lightly grilled chicken breast (medium rare) with spring onion.

Lamb meatball at Bird Land.

Lamb meatball at Bird Land.

Skewered ginko nuts? Sure. Throw that shit at my face.

Skewered ginko nuts? Sure. Throw that shit at my face.

 
Last course before dessert. Clear chicken soup, pickles, and oyakodon. Zero fucking around.

Last course before dessert. Clear chicken soup, pickles, and oyakodon. Zero fucking around.

Blurry picture, but this is the window into the kitchen at Bird Land and that guy in the window is the grill cook at his station.

Blurry picture, but this is the window into the kitchen at Bird Land and that guy in the window is the grill cook at his station.

              Sunday was the first day of Japanese traditional cuisine (washoku) classes at TSA. We were guided through a series of preparations and ingredients culminating in the construction of a platter of the kind one might see at a seasonal banquet. Grilled whole fish skewered in such a way as to make it appear to be swimming, grilled whole shrimp, fried salmon spring roll, crab and avocado salad, a couple of simplified sushi varieties, and simmered whelks were all part of the day’s activities. It was a shorter day than the sushi classes, but it was crammed full of information and detailed techniques.
Washoku party platter.

Washoku party platter.

Monday through Wednesday was pretty much a bust this week, with more rain, everyone being sick of it, not wanting to go out. Thursday saw a slight break in the deluge so Nelson, Tyo and I took advantage of it. Nelson had gone too long without yakitori and there was a place by his apartment he told us was good, but he wanted to return to the lively little place we were at a week and a half before. The problem was, we couldn’t exactly remember where it was. We all met up at a market that is pretty much right between my apartment and Nelsons. I was a little late because we
Yakitori destruction commencing in 3... 2...

Yakitori destruction commencing in 3... 2...

thought the place was closer to my end of town so I took a couple short detours to search for it with no luck. Nelson was determined to find it, so we all went back the way I came and tried to retrace our steps from that night we found it. We started to wonder if we had found the Shangri La of yakitori, forever to be a myth. It turns out if I had gone one more street farther West in my initial search this night I would have found it. I thought that street looked too wide from a distance. I thought I remembered that place being on a smaller alley than a street large enough to command a stoplight. But whatever, we found it! We walked in to a resounding “Irasshaimase!” from the owner and his help, a diminutive woman we had not seen on our last visit, presumably his wife. With bench seats clear in the back we found our stations and set about doing everything in our power to destroy his in-house supply of chicken parts. We ordered our drinks and tried to figure out how to tell her, “we don’t care how or with what, just feed us!” We stumbled through what little Japanese we knew and what little English she knew before we came to an understanding. Not all establishments in Tokyo know the concept of omakase, surprisingly, but she did. And so it began.
Whole fish aji sashimi I made in class.

Whole fish aji sashimi I made in class.

Three by three the skewers trickled out to us. There were 12 people there at this time, a busy night for a place that only seats 15, so as long as our drinks were full and the food was on the way we weren’t going to make a fuss. It started with all the usual suspects, chicken thigh and green onion, chicken breast with wasabi, hearts, livers, tsukune. After about 45 minutes the flow stopped. After another 15 we inquired if there was more on the way, and if not, please continue. Soon after, the dishes started coming out again. Whole chicken wings, skin, gizzard, bacon wrapped tomatoes, and more thigh made there procession to our table, three by three. Then, in another 45 minutes, there was another pause, and we took this opportunity to figure out what non-meat items he had. I knew from last time he had mushrooms and shishito peppers and I was able to decipher a few things on the menu from the hiragana script (one of the 3 Japanese alphabets) I learned for the trip, so we ordered the peppers, shiitakes, eringi, and enoki mushroom skewers. The enoki came out wrapped in bacon (no other way to keep them on the skewer, really). At the end of it all we counted the discarded skewers in the cup on our table, the tattered and charred evidence of our crimes against this poor, poor small business owner. One course had no skewers (the wings) but all told we had 17 courses EACH. Bill paid. Gratitude expressed to the chef. Out the door and back into the night. Our tour of Tsukiji market was going to be in the morning, though, so we decided to call it and retire for the evening. We had to meet at the market at 8am and find our own way there, so we planned on meeting at 6:30 in a train station that was central to us all, and the student from Singapore was meeting us there as well. We, the international students, were the C team, teams A and B had gone on different days earlier in the week.
Morning is early... A collection of food vendors near Tsukiji market.

Morning is early... A collection of food vendors near Tsukiji market.

Nelson, Damian, Tyo, Jeremy, and myself met at the appointed time at the Nakano-Sakaue station. We found our train, got our tickets, and headed out. The early morning train ride was thankfully not as crowded as we expected it to be. Those subway trains can get absurdly packed with people, quite literally like the proverbial “sardine can”. The 45 minute ride was fairly quiet. We arrived and found the spot where we were supposed to meet everyone else a half an hour early, and on the way to that point we passed a long row of micro-food vendors hawking their creations to the
Breakfast ramen before the market tour.

Breakfast ramen before the market tour.

workers, customers, and passers-by of the Tsukiji market. We quickly found a ramen joint that looked promising and bellied up. We all ordered the same thing, one of three possible options at this window, and the woman taking the orders directed us to the table area on the other side of the sidewalk. Half covered by the awning that covered the rest of the side walk and the stalls, and half exposed to the trickle of rain that still hadn’t quite stopped from the night before, we waited for our steaming bowls of noodles. It was not a long wait. Out came the 5 bowls, each on its own tray, loaded to overflowing with sliced pork loin, negi onion, simmered eringi mushrooms, kaiware radish sprouts, hot and clear broth, and the el dente noodles. A fairly solid bowl of ramen, it did its job of providing fuel for the coming 3 hour walk at a brisk pace through the market we were told to expect. We slurped them down as quickly as possible and headed back to the rendezvous. Most of the group was there by this time, but our Canadian friend, Majeed, had gotten lost and needed directions from Otami sensei, who speaks very fluent English. Our guide was present as was a couple other people from the academy. The man who would be showing us around the market was a working auctioneer there and that meant he had special access and could get us into places that the public does not see outside of documentaries and travel shows.
Red roofed buildings to the left are where the auctions take place. Black roofs in the middle cover the wholesaler areas.

Red roofed buildings to the left are where the auctions take place. Black roofs in the middle cover the wholesaler areas.

Blue buildings to the right are the shipping docks.

Blue buildings to the right are the shipping docks.

  Before the tour started the guide told us in very precise and unambiguous terms that we need to keep our eyes open and be aware of our surroundings at all times in the back market areas. This is a work area and it is sometimes very stressful, emphatic shouting may be heard. These people have very specific routines and they execute them with extreme urgency and employ light machinery like small forklifts and one man motorized mules to move loads around as quickly as possible. In other words, if you don’t pay attention and accidentally get in their way they will run your ass over and not look back. There is also a lot of water on the floors and a LOT of large sharp objects around, so PAY
Empty auction floor of the dry goods area.

Empty auction floor of the dry goods area.

THE FUCK ATTENTION AND KEEP YOUR HEAD IN THE GAME, DAMMIT! Maybe he didn’t put it quite that way, but I could tell he wanted to. He did add that there has never been an accident with a TSA tour group, so don’t be the first. Our first stop was a fish vendor who bought their supply at auction and sold directly to the public. Next was a katsuobushi dealer who sells several different grades of the dried, shaved bonito flakes that are an integral part of all Japanese cooking. Small sample boxes hung off the front of each wooden bin containing samples of the bulk product for the
Tuna awaiting pick up on the auction floor.

Tuna awaiting pick up on the auction floor.

consumer to try so they can make the decision of which grade will suit their specific needs. Taking upwards of 1-3 years to properly dry and smoke, the difference in the final product is surprisingly stark. Then he ran us through the best ceramic-ware shop in the market, where consumers and restaurants go to get serving dishes of all varieties. From there he took us to the temple located just outside the market proper to give offerings and wishes for successful futures for the whole class. I played along as far as I could, but by the end of the bell ringing, bowing, praying, bowing, more bell ringing, and the orgy of unrestrained deference to whatever mythical magical force was supposed to be listening I was ready to get on with the tour and could barely refrain from the out loud eye-rolling that would have
Live fish holding tanks are available to auction goers who don't want to or can't immediately claim their purchases.

Live fish holding tanks are available to auction goers who don't want to or can't immediately claim their purchases.

surely been in bad taste. He then led us up to the 6th floor of the employee parking structure that overlooked the whole market. He explained the layout and how product flows through and out to distribution centers, retailers, and the general public. The whole place is set up like an unfolded paper fan (and he had a fan on him to illustrate his point). The outer edge of the arc, the (obviously) oldest buildings with rusty red roofs that were closest to the Sumida River, contained the auction areas. Where the money changes hands and the area most commonly associated with Tsukiji. The auction area has its own rules and its own dialect. Very precise hand signals are used to bid on product while the auctioneers rattle off a very specialized vocabulary at a rapid fire pace. Even people fluent in Japanese don’t really understand what the auctioneers are saying. We were too late in the day to witness any auctions, however. I have mixed feelings about that point. On one hand, it would be cool to see that happen, however unintelligible. On the other it goes down at 4-5am. We arrived at 8 and THAT was a fucking hassle. I also suspect that was intentional on the part of our guide to keep us from getting in the way or unintentionally bidding on something.
Fresh tuna cutter and his maguro bocho.

Fresh tuna cutter and his maguro bocho.

Once the product is purchased in the auction areas it is moved to the next layer inward to the individual wholesalers processing areas. The most prominent and largest buildings marked by black pitched roofs. Here the buyers break down, package, and prepare their goods for shipping. This is the area that is the most interesting to chefs as it is the area where the giant tunas get broken down and all manner of fish and shellfish are laying about. Fresh local tuna or whole frozen tuna imported from the Atlantic, both processes are equally fascinating. The fresh tuna gets broken down with huge knives that are barely distinguishable from a katana called “maguro bocho”, or “tuna knife”. Seeing the team of guys needed to take apart a single tuna and the precision with which they wield those medieval weapons to do so is endlessly entertaining to anyone who has ever swung a knife for a living. The frozen tuna dis-assembly process is enthralling for a completely different reason, power-tools. They use a giant band saw to cut through the solid fish-shaped blocks of ice and trim them down with a fairly surprising degree of accuracy and efficiency.
Fish of all shapes and sizes.

Fish of all shapes and sizes.

The next layer, what would be the spokes of the fan just before the hinge in this analogy, is the shipping area. The processed and packaged items then move to the blue loading docks for transport out to the next destination, usually off-site warehouses or right to restaurants. Beyond the shipping area begins the public market area with 4 beige buildings that house sushi bars, noodle shops, knife shops, a book store, gift shops, and more. The inner market, public area, outer market, and surrounding shops and restaurants comprise a district that is nearly a city unto itself. The biggest surprise about the whole place is the smell. Or rather, lack thereof. The smell of seawater is everywhere and once in a while you catch a whiff of something fishy, but most of the odors running through those lanes are engine exhaust and diesel exhaust, especially in the shipping area. They pride themselves on this. In what I’ve seen to be typical Japanese fashion they make sure everything is immaculately clean and organized at the end of the day. All of the processing areas have running water and 2 different spigots. One fresh, cold water, and one of seawater. With its natural salinity, seawater helps wash away the odors and acts as a mildly anti-bacterial solution that allows the workers to maintain the clean and odor free work-space.
Some red cornetfish look on as the blood is soaked out of some inada.

Some red cornetfish look on as the blood is soaked out of some inada.

We were told the market’s days are numbered, however. There are plans in motion to move the whole market 2 kilometers down-river in 2 years’ time. This will be good for the efficiency of the market as they will be able to build out to the specifications they know they will need to maintain and grow the marketplace rather than having to haphazardly add-on every time demand necessitates. There used to be train line that ran through the market before the motorized mules and forklifts were available to move product, and the tracks and loading platform are still visible. The whole market area bears the obvious signs of hurried expansion that look and feel a little disjointed. It’s also a very worn space from the insanely massive volume of product that moves through
The worlds largest ice machine.

The worlds largest ice machine.

every day. Some of the charm and certainly the history will be lost in moving the operation, and there are no plans set in stone for the old market buildings as of yet. It will most likely get leveled and redeveloped. I wonder how the workers feel about this, as the Japanese are well known to be highly reverent of tradition and history. I’m sure there are mixed feelings, but my extremely poor command of the language prevented me from asking any of them those kinds of detailed questions. We were back to class before the day was out and did some hosomaki practice before we were dismissed for the day. There were already plans to hit a bar in Ginza that night, it was Nelson’s birthday on Saturday and he thought it would be a more solid plan to go out on Friday since he and Damian were attending a sumo match on Sunday and they wanted to be well-rested for that. Damian, Nelson and I hopped on the train out to Ginza and Tyo would be joining us later to visit the 300 Bar, a place Sakura House, our lodging provider, told all of us about. It’s called the 300 Bar because everything, drinks and food, is ¥300. That translates to about $2.50, and they also told us it was a popular destination for Westerners so there would likely be people who spoke English there.
Duck ramen nirvana awaits through those doors.

Duck ramen nirvana awaits through those doors.

Once we located the place we set about finding some food before heading down to the basement level bar. There was a row of restaurants one block over that looked promising so we took a stroll to see what it had to offer. With some indecisiveness we settled on a ramen shop that specialized in duck ramen, a somewhat novel concept in that ramen is usually dominated by pork or sometimes chicken. Another one of those places where you drop money into a machine and pick what you want, and then it spits out a ticket for it that you bring to the counter, this shop was the right choice. Nelson and I opted for the thicker broth loaded with garnishes and Damian went for the simpler clear broth. Floating in the dense, almost gravy-like duck broth was perfectly cooked slices of duck breast, chopped and blanched green onion, a partially dried egg yolk, duck meatballs, a single slice of kamaboko fish cake and a matted tangle of thinly sliced burdock root tempura. Richest and most flavorful bowl of ramen I’ve had here yet. Maybe ever. That shit was insane. The broth tasted like the distilled essence of roasted duck and the breast was cooked to a tender and juicy medium. Perfection. http://www.grandcuisine.jp/keisuke/9daime.html
Yes. Duck ramen. So good. So very, very good.

Yes. Duck ramen. So good. So very, very good.

Concrete Godzilla statue in Ginza.

Concrete Godzilla statue in Ginza.

After the meal we proceeded to the bar. Nelson and I ran recon and headed down the exceedingly narrow stairwell to be faced with a proverbial sardine can of a bar. In both size and capacity. There was no way Damian’s 6’6”, built like a lumberjack frame was going to fit anywhere in this place with any level of comfort. I made the call and grabbed Nelson and we aborted the mission. There was another 300 Bar a few blocks away so we decided to try our luck there. It was then that I got the text from Tyo that he was getting off the train in the Ginza station, as I had been keeping him updated as to our location up to this point. So we waited 15 or 20 minutes for him to catch up and headed over to the other 300 Bar where we faced the exact same situation. Basement level, small room, completely packed. Back on the street we continued the search for a worthy destination. Bar after bar we were met with the same thing, full up, no room, some of them even turned us away at the door. That’s when the decision was made to head back to Shinjuku, where we knew there would be a place we could settle in. It was 10pm by now and Damian had apparently had enough for the night, as when we got off at the Shinjuku station he stayed on and headed home. Nelson, Tyo, and I wandered the alleys of central Shinjuku and it wasn’t long before we stumbled on this inviting bar
My favorite kind of shitty little bar.

My favorite kind of shitty little bar.

and grill specializing in shellfish of all kinds. The grill was right out front, practically in the alley itself, to tempt people in with its smoke and aroma. There were scallops in the shell sitting on ice within reach of the chef and hallowed out crab heads used as a serving vessel piled into a large wicker basket. We approached and asked if there was a table available (we could see that there was ample room for us, but we’ve made it a habit to ask as we’ve gotten turned away more than once by owners who simply don’t want to deal with us), and we were asked to please wait a moment in broken English. Any English is a good sign, so we happily waited for a table to be prepared for us. Shortly after we were seated and our first round of drinks was ordered the chef brought us over a plate with 3 skewered and grill shrimp. A
Such an inviting looking grubby little shack.

Such an inviting looking grubby little shack.

complimentary appetizer. Nice touch. The place was run down and eclectic in a very charming way, with deceptively high ceilings and nautical themed decorations hanging above that didn’t feel at all ironic or cheesy like one might see at a seafood joint in the States. I quite enjoyed this place. Nelson invited a fellow Portuguese friend he met here and a lady-friend he met here as well. They both spoke fluent English and were quite entertaining. The female came in with 3 other women, however (at Nelsons request, he was trying to get Tyo laid). One of them was a quiet European woman and the other two were completely obnoxious, but for different reasons. The Australian woman from Sydney, who wouldn’t shut up and had a rather shrill voice, thought she was WAY funnier and wittier than she
Nautical decor in the rafters of this little shellfish shack.

Nautical decor in the rafters of this little shellfish shack.

actually was, and the woman of Asian descent who had an obvious California accent was just a snooty and snide little wretch. Oddly paired as they were they still seemed to feed off of each other, and the quiet European just went along with whatever they were saying. Despite their volume (even louder than us drunken guys) I was able to ignore them well enough, though I desperately wanted to tell the pair of harpies what I thought of them. I ordered more food, just to have for drinking snacks. A variety plate of shellfish sashimi that contained whelks, scallops, red akagai clams, and hokkigai arctic surf clams. I also ordered a variety platter of grilled shells, including more clams, turban shells, and the whole shell-on scallop we saw out front. On top of that we got a few more individual turban shells (though they turned out to be not very good, a little gritty and a very bitter finish), and the dish that utilized the hallow crab head. It was a layered dish that came out on its own stoneware grill. Layered inside the shell was pulled lump crab at the bottom mixed with the all the good stuff that’s in the crabs head and arranged on top of that was shelled out meat from the legs. That one was particularly delicious, as was the sashimi and the grill bivalves.
Grilled variety of shellfish.

Grilled variety of shellfish.

More beer, a bottle of sake, and a bottle of shochu later, into the dwindling hours of the early morning, I decided to call it a night. Nelson, Tyo, and the rest of the crew went on somewhere else, though the quiet European departed in the opposite direction from me. I went home to get what little rest I could. I had to be back in the Tsukiji area in the AM for a soba making lesson at 11:30. I booked this outside of my sushi classes. It was going to be a rough morning, but I was determined to go. Besides, it was already paid for in advance. No rest for the wicked, as they say.  

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