The entrance to Yasuda's tiny little temple of awesome.
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.
Amaebi. You can't really tell, but there are about 4 tiny little tails intertwined on that one little nigiri.
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.
Tazmanian Ocean-caught Steelhead.
Baby sardine gunkan, or "eyeball fish" as Yasuda told one patron.
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.
Wild Japanese fresh-water trout.
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.
Dueling eels. Unagi on the left and anago on the right.
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.
Hamachi and salmon bone miso soup with red and white miso, garnished simply with kaiware.
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.
Yasuda-sensei feeding the full house.
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
The parade begins right outside the Ikebukuro train station.
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.
The fox shrine at the end of the parade route.
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.
Various preparations of akagai and mirugai sashimi.
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
Akagai are a bloody mess to clean. Quite literally. All that is from 3 little clams.
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
The "Mel's Diner" of ramen shops in Shinjuku's entertainment district. The only thing that was open at 4 in the afternoon.
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 class "course meal". Top left and clockwise, tekka zuke don, tako sunomono, tempura plate with obha, ebi, and eggplant with grated radish and ginger, dipping sauce for tempura, ebi and shiitake chawanmushi with mitsuba, sashimi plate of amaebi and cuttlefish, shrimp head miso soup.
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
Tempura plate at Tsunahachi. Of the 3 that landed in front of me I think this one was the most special. Scallop fried to medium rare, whole abalone, a mushroom, and nori wrapped uni, served with wasabi and lemon.
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.
Azuma-sensei getting warmed up.
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
Kurimoto-sensei at a table full of Japanese students.
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
Murakami-sensei far right with a few of the Japanese students.
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.
Left to right, Otani-sensei, Tyo, Damian, and Nelson.
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.
NIshida-sensei, Danny, and his fiancé.
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
Sato-san trying to pose for a picture. This is the best anyone can hope for because the woman is twitchy, giggly, and never sits still. Majeed and the side of Graznya's head behind her with RIna trying like hell to get out of the picture to the right.
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.
Jeremy and Chin Ya talking with one of our translators, Sato-san.
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.
Nishida-sensei and Murakami-sensei at karaoke with Damian following along.
The Azuma-sensei reign of terror continues.
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.
Sayori and sanma skin, skewered and grilled with onion sauce, whole fish sayori sashimi, sanma sashimi, and charred sanma sashimi with sanma liver sauce.
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
Otani-sensei addressing the graduates.
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
Kurimoto-sensei addressing the graduates.
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
Interior of the Pizzakaya.
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.
Pizzakaya half meat-lovers and half deluxe.
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
Vietnam Gardens, south-east of Shinjuku station.
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
A lady sitting out on the patio of a café on the streets of Harajuku had a pet owl perched on her bag. A PET FUCKING OWL! IT HAD RED EYES! How cool is that?!
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.
Lotus dealership in Harajuku. This car was just chillin' out on the sidewalk, for any asshole to walk by and drool 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
Sunset over Harajuku.
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
The school operated by the academy.
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
Round one, fight! Stewed beef with udon center, cucumbers with barley miso, yakitori of thigh and heart, soba trays with traditional garnishes. The milky liquid in the glass to the right is a hot soba cooking water and shochu cocktail.
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
Kaz takes a quick breather between rounds one and two.
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
Cheese fries and takoyaki.
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.
Fried ginger and shishitou.
The path of destruction.
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.
Sub-par udon and gyoza. Meh.
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.
Sunset over Narita airport.
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.
TSA graduating class of October 23rd, 2015.