Why Did the Gaijin Cross the Pond?: A Tokyo Travelogue Week 7

Yokohama just outside the Shin-Yokohama train station.

Yokohama just outside the Shin-Yokohama train station.

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
Yokohama has a bit more foliage than Tokyo.

Yokohama has a bit more foliage than Tokyo.

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!
Front door of the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum.

Front door of the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum.

Ramen museum 2nd level.

Ramen museum 2nd level to the left of the main arena.

Ramen museum, other side of the second level.

Ramen museum, other side of the 2nd level to the right of the main arena.

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.
Ramen museum main arena, 2nd and 3rd sublevels.

Ramen museum main arena, 2nd and 3rd sublevels.

Pig heaven. Cloudy, dense pork broth, thin, straight noodles, chashu of pork leg, negi, and seaweed. A solid bowl of noodles, even though the chashu was a little salty and not belly (?).

Pig heaven. Cloudy, dense pork broth, thin, straight noodles, chashu of pork leg, negi, and seaweed. A solid bowl of noodles, even though the chashu was a little salty and not belly (?).

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
Lighter fish and pork broth blend with thick noodles, generous amount of chashu and a wad of spicy miso. Best of the bunch.

Lighter fish and pork broth blend with thick noodles, generous amount of chashu and a wad of spicy miso. Best of the bunch.

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
Ramen from the German themed joint. Decent chashu, forgettable broth and kinda flat. Looks much better than it tasted, but maybe that was because we hit the best places first.

Ramen from the German themed joint. Decent chashu, forgettable broth and kinda flat. Looks much better than it tasted, but maybe that was because we hit the best places first.

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.
Coin operated slot car track at the Ramen Museum upper level.

Coin operated slot car track at the Ramen Museum upper level.

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
The "museum" area of the Ramen Museum consisted of about 4 pannels like this one and a small seating area in view of all of them.

The "museum" area of the Ramen Museum consisted of about 4 pannels like this one and a small seating area in view of all of them.

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
Ravine that runs north of the Ramen Museum in Yokohama.

Ravine that runs north of the Ramen Museum in Yokohama.

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.
Pork in red curry lunch set with jasmine rice, clear soup, and the remains of the tofu amuse to the upper right that was dressed with sprouts, ginger, and fish sauce.

Pork in red curry lunch set with jasmine rice, clear soup, and the remains of the tofu amuse to the upper right that was dressed with sprouts, ginger, and fish sauce.

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.
Nam pla with chilis floating in on the table in a ceramic jar as a standard condiment. Fucking brilliant!

Nam pla with chilis floating in on the table in a ceramic jar as a standard condiment. Fucking brilliant!

Maisen was a tonkatsu place in Shibuya that Damian had heard was supposed to be awesome, so we made an evening of that on
Central Shibuya.

Central Shibuya.

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.
The statue of Hachiko by Shibuya station.

The statue of Hachiko by Shibuya station.

Just outside the Shibuya train station.

Just outside the Shibuya train station.

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
Maisen tonkatsu.

Maisen tonkatsu.

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.
Appetizer of braised pork belly. Lucious, lucious pork fat...

Appetizer of braised pork belly. Lucious, lucious pork fat...

Maisen tonkatsu set. Meh. The pickles and soup were outstanding!

Maisen tonkatsu set. Meh. The pickles and soup were outstanding!

              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.
Te sign for Ten Ten Ten that hangs over the sidewalk.

Te sign for Ten Ten Ten that hangs over the sidewalk.

Cozy, clean, and comfortable interior at Ten Ten Ten in Nakano.

Cozy, clean, and comfortable interior at Ten Ten Ten in Nakano.

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.
Braised pork giblets of some variety in a pool of their own braising liquid with scallion, myoga, and sesame.

Braised pork giblets of some variety in a pool of their own braising liquid with scallion, myoga, and sesame.

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.
The one lone patron sitting at the counter when we arrived at Hare Tokidoki Ten Ten Ten.

The one lone patron sitting at the counter when we arrived at Hare Tokidoki Ten Ten Ten.

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.
The drunken crowd leaving Ten Ten Ten. Damian left, Chin, Jeremy, Tyo.

The happy drunken crowd leaving Ten Ten Ten. Damian left, Chin, Jeremy, Tyo.

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.
Little ramen shop we've passed a million times. Up top right a decimated jellyfish salad, gyoza to the left, blended broth of fish and pork with thick, wavy noodles, bamboo, negi, nori, and a generous portion of chashu. So damn good.

Little ramen shop we've passed a million times. Up top right a decimated jellyfish salad, gyoza to the left, blended broth of fish and pork with thick, wavy noodles, bamboo, negi, nori, and a generous portion of chashu. So damn good.

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