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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.  

Why Did the Gaijin Cross the Pond?: A Tokyo Travelogue Week 2

Under way.
20150906_134609

Not even rocking hard could break those clouds, so it wasn't for a lack of trying.

After an eventful first week our little merry band of pirates went our separate ways for the most of the weekend. Damian, Tyo, and I doing our own things, while Nelson went to a “jazz festival” that he said wasn’t very jazzy (apparently they don’t really know what that means in these parts). Three of us did get on a train on Sunday and make it down Roppongi, though, an area where I have several dinner reservations and the area contains a few places that were on my personal to-do list. After disembarking from the train we wandered for a bit before I started to steer the group to the Hard Rock Café. Smaller than its counterparts in other places, the Tokyo Hard Rock has a gift shop that’s in a separate building you pass on the way to the main bar further down the same drive way. There was a small selection of gifts right inside the entrance to the café, enough selection for me to grab what I wanted to. The walls were lined with all the things you’d expect at one of these. A couple guitars from notable musicians (Eric Clapton, Prince, Cheap Trick, Nikki Six) along with articles of clothing worn by musicians as well as signed drum heads, portraits, and album sleeves. Having done what we came to do in short order, we left and wandered some more. We passed a place called the Pizzakaya that was of interest to Sara, but when we passed by they
A rather impressive Prince display.

A rather impressive Prince display.

were closed (it was 3:30 and they opened at 5). Requiring sustenance more immediately than an hour and a half, we made our way to the sublevel of a high rise looking for the advertised restaurant section. After much searching and even more turning up of noses we found a suitable place for lunch; I was NOT going to eat at a faux American diner while in Tokyo, regardless of how hungry or how close the proximity. One thing this trip has taught me about dining in Tokyo is never settle. There’s always another option just around the corner. And so there was. Not even 20 more minutes of wandering yielded results. A top notch
Exceptional pusher of fine pork products. Ask for them by name.

Exceptional pusher of fine pork products. Ask for them by name.

tonkatsu purveyor offering 3 different cuts of pork in as many different levels of quality. Damian and I went right for the throat, going for their top-of-the-line Berkshire hog loin, while Nelson went for the tenderloin. We got what we paid for. The loin chops were an inch thick and the 2 pieces of tenderloin on Nelsons plate were essentially the whole tenderloin cut in half. Served with all the usual suspects, but even those were well above average. The miso soup was wonderful with nameko mushrooms, the plate of pickled napa cabbage was outstanding, and the dressing for the shredded cabbage was vibrant and well balanced. We had a couple appetizers before that, and they too were exceptional. The service was also worth mentioning. With some command of English, the female service staff were all decked out in the same chef’s whites as the cooks and cut a striking visual as well as being a nice thematic touch. Butagumi was well worth the wait to find it and was still being talked about the next
The full spread at Butagumi

The full spread at Butagumi

day, and into the next week. Bill paid, out the door, wandering some more. I was hoping to walk off lunch and be hungry enough to hit the Pizzakaya before we headed back to Shinjuku-ku, but no such luck. Those were some thick-ass pork chops, and a lot of food all together. With reservations at Nobu, omae XEX (the Morimoto restaurant in Tokyo), and Sushi Bar Yasuda all in Roppongi as well I’ll have my chance to return. Yasuda only offers 2 different tasting menus so that might be our opportunity if that falls short or we get out early and decide to hit one of the local bars. After the tonkatsu we quickly ran out of steam and headed back to our respective hovels. Monday morning class was fun and brought a new experience in butchering, cleaning, and making nigiri of a whole cuttlefish that was about 18 inches long from tip of the head to the tip of the longest tentacles with a good 4-5 inch diameter body. I’ve cleaned whole squid before, the kind we use for calamari in the States, but this was much more difficult. More peeling, and cleaning, and trimming involved to get the desired outcome. I’m also starting to see improvement in my nigiri technique. A couple points that were vexing me have been figured out. We continued with our hosomaki practice, and I’m doing quite well in that arena. After class no one wanted to come out and play so we all went home once again to rest up for the week to come. I did laundry. Yay.
Here comes the rain again.

Here comes the rain again.

Something was brought up in Roppongi that we all agreed would be a great idea but we needed to figure out the logistics. Nelson wanted to go to Osaka, the street food capital of Japan, for the weekend. The problem was, this coming Sunday we have class, as well as the following 3 Sundays. Our 8 week class schedule is 4 weeks of 5 days, and 4 weeks of 6 days. The added Sundays being for “Japanese Cuisine Lessons”, intended to add more value to the curriculum and break the monotony of rice and fish. With all the other reservations I already had it looked like it was going to be difficult to make that a reality. But once I got home and looked at my calendar and shuffled some things around I came up with a solid plan that might actually work. So on the weekend of October 9-11 we will hopefully be in Osaka. I was thinking even before I made it out here that I would want to go out there too, so hell-fuckin-yeah! There’s tons of yakitori here in Tokyo but not much okonomiyaki, takoyaki, or yakisoba. Osaka is the place to go for those, and I love all of them, so I’m all in. Tuesday was yet another rain day, and so was Wednesday, but I wasn’t about to let it keep me in by that then. I
Fortuitous refuge from the deluge.

Fortuitous refuge from the deluge.

pretty much got drenched to the bone (umbrellas only help so much) but it was worth it. I wandered Shinjuku solo that day after class. Damian was going to head back in to join me but the rain started coming down harder after he got back to his pad so he thought better of it. While I was wandering from covered area to covered area the intensity of the downpour fluctuated wildly. It would lighten up every few minutes and I would seize that opportunity to run to the next covered or semi-covered area. It was during one of these upticks that I just happened to duck into an alcove with several advertisements for dining establishments. In particular were 2 different yakitori spots. One on level 2 and one on B1 level (Basement). Kushi No Kura on B1 looked the most promising so I headed down. The young man at the host stand spoke VERY limited and broken English but he was eager to provide great service so we found ways to communicate using a combination of my limited and broken Japanese, his almost equally bad English, pointing, and gestures. I got a variety platter of sashimi, a variety platter of yakitori, and a grilled atka mackerel. I had never heard of that particular fish before, but it was a variety of mackerel, chances were pretty good it wasn’t going to suck. It did not. The standard blue Japanese mackerel is
An impressive display by any standards.

An impressive display by any standards.

much richer, but the atka was pretty tasty. The sashimi platter was beautifully put together and had some very unique elements. Hotate scallop sliced and presented with thin slices of lemon between each piece, a pile of scallion in the center, pristine buri belly slices, skinned octopus tentacle disks with the suckers lined up at the bottom, Suzuki slices, and salmon with garnishes that included sakura cut shaved carrot, the usual suspects of shredded carrot, obah and shredded daikon, and an inch and a half long chunk of fresh wasabi root leaning up against a mini grater at one side
Yakitori. Again. This is becoming a habit.

Yakitori. Again. This is becoming a habit.

of the plate. An ingenious touch that made the experience interactive as well as attractive and tasty. The yakitori spread was pretty good, but lacked the wow factor of the sashimi. Tsukune, thigh, heart, skin, and wing served with as many different miso based condiments for dipping as well as a large chunk of cabbage with its own dipping sauce. All told it was a good experience and I am extremely happy I did not just hunker down in my apartment and wait for the rain to pass. Speaking of mackerel, in class this week one of our main focuses was silver-skinned fish. Namely saba mackerel,
Saba, saba tataki, and aji all with yuzu-kosho.

Lunch. Saba, saba tataki, and aji all with yuzu-kosho.

kohada, salmon, and more aji mackerel. Starting from whole fish on all of them and making nigiri with them at the end of the process. We also touched on cuttlefish again and sweet shrimp, or amaebi. My lunches this week have been awesome, as the classes are set up to get butchery done early, in 1st and second period, so you can make your lunch out of the choice cuts and use the rest for nigiri practice in 3rd period. I learned a few new tricks and presentation methods. We started playing with the brûlée torch too, as these types of fatty fish are good for giving them another layer of flavor and texture in this way, applying the flame to the finished nigiri or roll. Dinner on Thursday consisted of a couple stops. Damian and I wandered Shinjuku yet again searching for something
Boucherie. French for "not trying hard enough", or "hoping fusion alone will be a solid concept without trying too hard".

Boucherie. French for "not trying hard enough", or "hoping fusion alone will be a solid concept without trying too hard".

interesting and new grottoes to explore. We hit an udon place as a starter. They had a novel way of ordering that utilized a list of the dishes they offer just outside the front door and on the wall next to the door is a vending machine-style ticket delivery system. You figure out what you want and how much that comes to, drop the money in the machine, punch in the corresponding buttons, and the device spits out your order in ticket form that you then take into the establishment and hand to the person behind the counter right by the front door. It’s a speedy system (so long as there are no gaijin who can’t read the menu, requiring assistance and mucking up the gears) and I imagine it’s pretty economical for the outlet as they don’t really need servers, as much as
An exceptional charcuterie platter. If you discount those baguette slices. They were bullshit. The rest was great, though.

An exceptional charcuterie platter. If you discount those baguette slices. They were bullshit. The rest was great, though.

just a runner. They seat a total of 12 people, so at peak hours like lunch time turning tables quickly is priority both for the guests with limited time for lunch break and for the business that wants to get as many heads through the door as possible. Unfortunately, the food was lack-luster. The broth was a bit flaccid and the toppings were languishing in it for an indeterminate amount of time. The noodles were good though, so at least they got that part right. For part 2 of dinner we decided to see what was in the main Shinjuku train station, a small city within a city. Levels 7 and 8 are the dining levels, and there are quite a few options to choose from ranging from traditional Japanese, family dining, sushi, noodles, yakiniku, Italian, an oyster bar and the place we selected. Boucherie touts itself as “French Yakiniku” specializing in wagyu beef. With a grill in the center of every table, a partially bilingual menu of Japanese and a little English that contains mostly French food, and a service staff that speaks next to no English, it felt a little disjointed from the onset, but we soldiered through it hoping for a payoff. We both ordered a variety platter of meats, each coming with several different cuts of fatty bovine goodness from various parts of the animal, as well as a plate of veggies to roll across the grill and a house made charcuterie platter. The charcuterie was surprisingly good, with smoked beef tongue, large chunks of bacon, duck breast, genoa salami, pate, rillettes, pickles and whole grain mustard. The only disappointing part of that plate were
An impressive array of sauces does not a good dining experience make. Multiple slices of multiple cuts of wagyu beef help, but even that failed to make a cohesive meal.

An impressive array of sauces does not a good dining experience make. Multiple slices of multiple cuts of wagyu beef help, but even that failed to make a cohesive meal.

the baguette croutons the rillettes were served on. They had a texture like they were 3 days old, stale and flabby. The grill was WAY too cold to effectively sear the thin slices of meat we got on our variety platters before they were cooked through, so we had to try to get some color on the meat while not letting it overcook. A daunting challenge with a shitty grill. With some high points and a few glaring low points, it was an interesting meal, at least. At the end of it we admired their spirit of trying to marry French bistro cuisine with Japanese yakiniku, but if you can’t pull it together in such a way as to make sure the seams aren’t showing the two should probably remain mutually exclusive. Then came Friday night, crashing in like a wrecking ball. I had a ton of crap to haul back to the apartment after school so I did that as well as getting a load of school uniforms and whites washed before heading back out to meet up with Nelson, Tyo, Damian, and 2 of the Japanese students from class. It was a memorable night. We all met at a 24 hour fish joint that grills and fries anything you might want and there is a gas grill on each table as well for an interactive touch. A few of the things we ate were maguro kama (tuna collar), karaage (boneless batter fried chicken bits), and tsukune (skewered chicken meatballs). By the time I arrived, after some searching due to a miscommunication between the maps in our chosen messenger and Google maps, the rest of the crew were under way and starting to get red-faced already. After I got a couple beers in me to catch up, we headed out in search of whatever the night might bring. Nelson was looking for women, but he always is. At 22 it’s not surprising. After a bit of wandering Damian cut out at this point, saying he wanted to drop his backpack off at home and that he would catch up later.
Kohada with diffferent decorative skin cuts and more saba mackerel. I fucking love mackerel.

Another shot of one of my lunches. You wish you could eat like a chef. Kohada with diffferent decorative skin cuts and more saba mackerel. I fucking love mackerel.

One of our Japanese friends acted like he knew where to go to quell Nelson’s nearly incessant yammering about meeting some girls, but we wandered in circles for nearly an hour it seemed, back-tracking and circumnavigating Shinjuku until we found ourselves in the “entertainment district”. Most other cities would call this the “red light district”. After giving up he asked a guy on a street corner wearing an expensive suit where we should go. Suit guy then made a couple calls and escorted us to a bar. I had no idea what was in store next, but I had a strong feeling that I knew where this was headed. We were led to a hostess bar. It felt very much like a high-end strip club, but there was no stage and the girls were not dancing. Rather, they serve you drinks, mostly bottle service, and the girls sit with you and just chat, rotating new girls in every 15 minutes or so. The girls all have the same feel and personality types you would expect of strippers in the States, but they serve you drinks, keeping your glass full for you the whole time, and watering down your liquor the whole time to keep you from getting too plastered as to keep you there as long as possible. All for an hourly fee on top of the inflated cost of the bottles. As soon as we figured out that little detail we paid and left. Screw that noise. We were getting hungry again anyway. As we poured back out into the street and started once again searching for the next destination our hapless navigator
I think the name means "cramped and uncomfortable, but we'll feed you and get you drunk". My Japanese is not the best, so I could be mistaken.

I think the name means "cramped and uncomfortable, but we'll feed you and get you drunk". My Japanese is not the best, so I could be mistaken.

announced that he had to retire for the evening. I was a bit relieved by this. His bumbling and cluelessness where wearing very thin with me. We landed in a super cramped, nearly claustrophobic yakitori place where the seating is so tightly packed there is no room for the servers to maneuver and the guests are inches away from being back to back with each other. There was a stunningly beautiful Japanese woman sitting alone at the end of the counter that sat 5, and there were 4 of us left, so Nelson naturally made a bee-line for the seat next to her. While he chatted her up and our remaining native Japanese classmate helped translate for them as far as he could, Tyo and I enjoyed some conversation about food, sake, and the culinary business. After we had our fill and Nelson wasn’t getting anywhere beyond pleasant chatter with the woman at the end of the counter we once again hit the streets.
Karaoke without the completely public humiliation of just being associated with the activity? Well, if I must. When in Rome, and all.

Karaoke without the completely public humiliation of just being associated with the activity? Well, if I must. When in Rome, and all.

On top of Nelson’s blathering about finding girls he also mentioned finding a karaoke bar more than once. So that was the next destination. Now that our cross-eyed guide was out of the picture our pathways to what we were looking for were much less aimless and far more direct. On the way we were accosted at every turn by guys trying to attract our attention to whatever they had to sell. Nelson fell for more than a few of them. Myself coming from an area where a not insignificant portion of the population prides themselves on their “hustling” skills, I know a bullshit peddler when I see one, so I just stood back and let him learn, while being sure to keep an eye on the situation so he didn’t get taken. I found the situation amusing, it was amazing to me how many times he got sucked into a conversation with one of them. He is a wide-eyed 22 year old and not a jaded 40 year-old, though. No matter how well traveled he is that fact still remains. We finally got to our destination, a karaoke joint with a unique approach. You bring a group of people and rent a
This is Nelson trying to sing Queen, and failing. In the interest of full disclosure and public shaming for dragging me into one of these dens of discomfort.

This is Nelson trying to sing Queen, and failing. In the interest of full disclosure and public shaming for dragging me into one of these dens of discomfort.

room by the hour with a TV screen and an impressive list of songs to choose from and everyone takes turns. The rooms are pretty private and you figure out the order yourself. No waiting for a DJ to get to your song and call your name. There was a call button to get the servers to bring more drinks, and you were left to your own devices. Our Japanese ambassador set it all up for us, renting the room for 2 hours. It was… interesting. By the end of that 2 hours it was getting very late and we all started parting ways. First our guide, then Tyo, Nelson and I walked a ways together until it was at the point where Tyo had to break off, and then Nelson and I parted ways on the walk back to our beds. It was 4am by the time I got back. I locked up, put my phone on its charger, and passed the fuck out. We had plans for Kappabashi the following day, with a meet-up time at 1pm at a bridge that the four of us have to pass on our way to school each day. The convergence point on all of our routes. Nelson didn’t make it. He sent us a message saying so. After I sent out a group message to see who was still in and getting an affirmative reply from Damian, Nelson replied with: “No chance for me sorry guys” “I’m fucked” To which Damian replied, “Ha! Useless” And I replied also with, “You’re way too young to let a hangover do you in.” So it was just Damian and myself headed to the “kitchen town” section of Tokyo, and all the promise it held for shiny and sharp things. And that’s where I will pick up next time.
Salmon belly, salmon belly tataki, and various presentations of amaebi and cuttlefish.

Another lunch plate. Salmon belly, salmon belly tataki, and various presentations of amaebi and cuttlefish.

Why Did the Gaijin Cross the Pond?: A Tokyo Travelogue Week 1

The 23 wards of Tokyo.

The 23 wards of Tokyo.

Getting Started.
Guardian of Tokyo, this Godzilla bust looms out over central Shinjuku from the balcony of the Gracery Hotel.

Guardian of Tokyo, this Godzilla bust looms out over central Shinjuku from the balcony of the Gracery Hotel.

After landing at Narita International I caught a taxi over to the main office of the company that I’m renting an apartment from. From there I took an Uber (yes, they have Uber in Tokyo and I’m still not sure how I feel about that) over to the new digs. It’s the size of a large closet, but I was expecting that. The garbage disposal procedures needed lengthy instructions and I still don’t fully understand it. I got the impression nobody really does. It needs to be separated into 5 different categories: burnable, non-burnable, recyclable glass, paper, and plastic, and they each have a different pick-up day. And there are grey areas… By this time it was 7:00 pm and I had been awake for 24 hours straight with very little sleep in the 2 days leading up the flight. So the only logical step from here was to start exploring the neighborhood. The Nakano ward of Tokyo borders on the ward of Shinjuku (where my school is at), which is the Northeast quadrant of the central hub of downtown Tokyo. Nakano-ku (each wards name is given the suffix of “-ku”) has a train track running straight East-West through the center of the ward, curving South into Shinjuku-ku. This means that Nakano-ku is split almost evenly North/South of the tracks. The South side of the tracks is mostly residential. Small houses packed in tightly with micro-apartments, narrow and winding streets running through in a completely illogical manner. There is no rhyme or reason to the street layouts. A tangled mess of pavement that in Chicago or Detroit would be considered more of an alley than an actual road. They are very well kept, however. I have seen no potholes or cracks large enough for drivers to notice. Nor have I seen the piles of rubbish and random detritus that accumulates on any American road.
Yakiniku spread. There's a stove-pipe vent over each table that they place the grill under.

Yakiniku spread. There's a stove-pipe vent over each table that they place the grill under.

The North side of the tracks is packed with tiny restaurants and shops, and towering over this multitude of food stalls is one of Tokyo’s many malls. A giant, 4 story structure with a basement level included called Nakano Broadway. Leading up to the main entrance is a 240 meter long covered causeway called Nakano Sun Mall. Boasting over 100 shops on its own, it’s a glass roofed, open air lane of variously themed stores and food stalls. The lower level of Broadway is dominated by yet more food stalls, coffee shops, and food retailers including a fish monger, a butcher shop, and a fresh produce stand as well as a full service super market. The main level is a lot of electronics and high-end jewelry and watch specialty stores. The second level contains even more food stalls and a vast array of anime, kaiju, and manga focused booths as well as a couple booths dedicated solely to coin operated vending machines of the variety that spit out key-chains and mini figurines encased in a plastic capsule. There is a retailer called Mandarake that has 6 completely separate stores throughout the mall and each one has a different theme. Anime reigns supreme among its themes and flows through all of them to varying degrees, but each has a specialized focus on a different type of pop culture. One specializes in pro wrestling dolls, another on models and actions figures of sci-fi and comic books, yet another is a kind of arcade. If visiting Nakano Broadway I would suggest you avoid eating there, unless you hit the Standing Sushi bar in the Sun Mall or the fresh fish market in the basement. The surrounding area is so rich in food stalls it’s hard to justify dining in the mall. Just wander aimlessly down the alleys around it until you find something that grabs you. It won’t take long.
Standing Sushi bar. The name denoted the posture. There are no chairs. You belly up. you order, you GTFO.

Standing Sushi bar. The name denoted the posture. There are no chairs. You belly up. you order, you GTFO.

I spent the first few days exploring the area and eating my way around Nakano. The night I landed I was so stuffed to the gills from the 2 meals on the flight that I just settled in and passed out. The next morning I started searching for a lunch destination as soon as I woke up. I settled on a yakiniku joint around Broadway. For dinner, after wandering through the Nakano Broadway and Sun Mall for a couple hours, I started approaching my daily meals differently. With so many options why stuff yourself on just one? So I hit that Standing Sushi bar in the Sun Mall and then I found, in an alley off an alley between the Sun Mall and Broadway, a tiny yakitori stall, glowing invitingly and in solitude a short
If the question involves yakitori, the answer is always "yes".

If the question involves yakitori, the answer is always "yes".

distance down the dark alleyway. The staff didn’t speak much English but I got the point across. 2 skewers each of the 3 most promising looking items. I was not disappointed. The chicken thigh was great, the chicken breast (usually boring to me) was seasoned with sancho pepper, drizzled with yuzu kosho and nori shreds, and served medium rare. Chicken. Served medium rare. Unthinkable in the States, but for good reason. Satisfied with a day well spent, I retired to my apartment and bedded down for the night. The next day was a somewhat lazy one. Sunday by this point and my first real obligation, a tour of the school. I walked the 30 minutes to the school (it would be 20 minutes by train and I have to pay for that; walking is free) and met with the principal and some of her staff. The facilities are fairly open and self-explanatory so that meeting didn’t take much time. I hoofed it back to my apartment and stopped at a grocery store along the way. Getting back around 3 pm and tooling aimless around the apartment for a couple hours until I was hungry enough to venture back out. I found a noodle place online that looked promising, so I went for it. Ko Sumi, on the Eastern edge of Nakano, specializes in udon, and it was fantastic! A starter of half of a broiled mackerel and then right into the main event. The thick, chewy noodles were swimming in a red miso broth so dense it could almost be called a gravy. All the usual suspects were there with the curve ball addition of tempura crumbs to add crunch and soak up some of the broth. Best meal so far, but it was only 3 days in. There’s still 2 months to go. Get home, get to bed, class starts tomorrow, and it starts half an hour early. I wake before the alarm. First by an hour. Next by 7 minutes. I get up anyway and get out the door to start the real meaning of this whole adventure. Day 1 at the Tokyo Sushi Academy. It was a light day of introductions, opening ceremonies, everyone getting up in front of the other students introduce
2 skewers medium rare chicken breast yakitori with yuzu-kosho and nori shreds, 2 of thigh meat, and 2 of unripe tomato wrapped in pork belly and glazed with tare sauce. Super simple, amazingly good.

2 skewers medium rare chicken breast yakitori with yuzu-kosho and nori shreds, 2 of thigh meat, and 2 of unripe tomato wrapped in pork belly and glazed with tare sauce. Super simple, amazingly good.

themselves and give a little information about ourselves. Any students who were bi-lingual (there are 8 international students and 20 Japanese) were encouraged to make their introductions in both Japanese and English. A few of the instructors and most of the staff speak extremely good English. Of the 8 international students there’s myself, a large wall of an Aussie named Damian, Nelson from Portugal, Tyo from Indonesia, Jeremy from Singapore, Danny from Louisiana, Majeed from South Africa by way of Canada, and Grazyna from France. For the hour lunch break 5 of us headed out together to scour the area and found a passable ramen joint. After the rest of the day in class that consisted of uniform fittings, law of the land, and an outline of what will be expected for us to graduate, we were loosed upon Tokyo to congregate once again the next morning. Of the 5 of us that were together at lunch, 4 of that group gravitated again and decided to wander the streets of Shinjuku purposefully aimless. Most of the international students are already in the cooking profession, and a few of us have sushi experience already, so we all have kitchen culture in common. The Aussie and myself being the elders of the clique, Nelson and Tyo in their early 20’s. With this configuration we explored the high-end malls and dingy, winding alleys of central Shinjuku-ku for the best it had to offer. We were foreign chefs in Tokyo, and we were fucking hungry!
New to me as people tend to be squeemish about this back in the States. Horse sashimi. Big meaty flavor, absolutely no gameiness, very lean and very tender. Ask for it by name!

New to me as people tend to be squeemish about this back in the States. Horse sashimi. Big meaty flavor, absolutely no gameiness, very lean and very tender. Ask for it by name!

20150903_191632

Shochu seminar tasting notes.

We grazed our way through the alleys after scanning the food offerings in a mall whose entrance was a Dior store. The 4 grungy chef scumbags wandering through Dior looking for food must have made for an interesting sight, and one old woman commented on how “big” Damian was. Standing a girthy 6’6” or so, he is an anomaly of sorts in this country. Sensei Otami-san even said he thinks Damian is the tallest student they’ve ever had. To our surprise, unlike high-end super-malls in the West, there was a gourmet market in the sublevels that sprawled half of the level. Including specialty produce, a massive fish selection, pre-prepared obento and sashimi trays, a butcher counter with several grades of wagyu beef (the most expensive was a nearly solid white slab roughly shaped like a rib lion with specks of pink throughout), and a hand-made noodle demo stall in the middle of the action. The chef rolling the dough in his glass cube and employing a self-advancing noodle knife to cut all of the noodles to a uniform thickness, boiling them, and shocking them in ice water on the spot. He’d then pass those off to the people at the counter outside the plexi-glass fishbowl and they’d cover them with a sauce or dole them out to eat chilled. They were handing out small samples and I couldn’t resist. They were very non-descript, with light sauce that tasted vaguely of dashi, and heavy on sesame oil and yuzu juice. The second half of this week’s lessons at the academy were devoted to learning the basics, and I quickly learned how wrong I’ve been doing everything. The central tenant here is “keep-break-progress”, as they put it. What this means is, they want you to learn how the senseis want you to do things. Be able to emulate them infallibly and with speed. Once you’ve learned the proper way to do something and committed it to muscle memory, only then should you “break”, and forge your own path. Once you’ve discovered a way to make the techniques your own without sacrificing your teachings or the quality of the final product, then you have reached “progress”. I need to start back at square one with few things. Primarily nigiri. My form is bad on each of the 7 steps they teach. I’ve been doing it wrong for so long I have to wipe away all of it and try to relearn it from the ground up. I’ve developed a rhythm over the years that has become almost instinctual so breaking out of that is going to take a little work. But I’m dedicated and stubborn, if what I’ve been doing all this time is the wrong way I will reprogram my brain on how to do it no matter how hard it is. I’ve got 2 months to get it done. The next few days were much of the same, wandering the downtown streets in search of whatever they had to offer. On Thursday evening we were privy to a formal dress shochu tasting event that was held in the more Southern area of Harajuku Tokyo. The Aussie wasn’t able to attend as he knocked himself silly not ducking far enough to come out of the bathroom that morning and wasn’t able to attend class because of it, so it was myself, Nelson, and Tyo. Shochu is the indigenous Japanese distilled spirit made from a variety of ingredients. Rice, barley, sweet potato, brown sugar, even buckwheat is used. What makes these distilled beverages different from their Western counterparts of whiskey, rum, and the like is the use of koji in the fermentation process, just like traditional sake. However, we were not told it was a formal dress event and showed up in t-shirts, hoodies, and cargo shorts collectively. No one seemed to care that much and no one looked at us like scum bags. At least not to our faces. Not that we cared much either, to be honest. We may have gotten stares, we just didn’t give a single aggregate fuck so it fell beneath our notice. There was a short and sweet 30 minute seminar with a tasting set for each attendee that the presenter guided us through. Very interesting stuff with slides of maps explaining history and regional variations, tasting notes and broad common flavor profiles for the individual base ingredients, serving suggestions, and recommended service-ware. The reception after the seminar had some food and about 50 different styles and brands of shochu to try. We were given free reign to have as much food and drink as we wanted. Word spread through some of the staff that we were there from the Tokyo Sushi Academy, though, and a couple of them excitedly pinned us down on our way out to confirm our identities as the sushi guys. They seemed genuinely thrilled to meet a group of student sushi chefs who weren’t behind a counter.
Wigged out stair/escalator well leading into one of the may expensive stores in the Harajuku area.

Wigged out stair/escalator well leading into one of the may expensive stores in the Harajuku area.

We met another American while we were there. Ed was in the Navy and stationed to the South of Tokyo. Once we had enough of the crowded tasting party we all headed out to explore the streets of Harajuku with Ed tagging along. There are a lot of high-end stores in Harajuku, even more than in Shinjuku-ku, but the locals seem to roll up the sidewalks at dusk so by the time we were out of the tasting there were few options open for service that weren’t completely packed. We wandered for nearly an hour before we found an izakaya in a basement that nearly slipped past our notice. Descending the stairs, we were faced with a small room of seats fueled by an even smaller open kitchen. The only two visible staff members were a female chef and a female server. There were 4 other guests, 2 groups of 2, who immediately started making comments about us that we couldn’t make out. Not the first time, and won’t be the last, I’m sure. Good thing none of us really give a shit. The server had adorably broken Engrish, but command enough of the language combined with her enthusiasm to understand us made ordering a simple matter. Further aided by the fact that Ed and I were able to put both of our limited understandings of written Japanese together to read enough of the black dry-erase board that functioned as their menu to suss out what they had on offer. Our first round was seared needle fish, karage, crispy chicken, and yakisoba. The seared, bite sized bits of needle fish were outstanding and the chicken thigh karage was fried to a juicy medium-well. The yakisoba was good but I’m partial to my own recipe for it. Informed we were at the last call time for food we made a second pass, this time a double portion of fried squid and 2 more portions of that needle fish. Once those were finished, we paid our bill and we all headed back to our respective dwellings. Ed to his home, and the rest of us back to Nakano-ku by way of the train to Shinjuku station. I got back late and did not delay in getting to bed. Friday morning class was an interesting one. Our assignments were to break down 3 whole aji (horse mackerel), a side of Hamachi, and nigiri practice. These would last until lunch time, in which we were encouraged to eat the spoils of the fish we had just butchered. Especially the aji, as this was our first time (mine as well) dealing with this fish and the preparation procedure is a lengthy and important one so we needed to understand what the final result tasted like. After lunch it was on to start learning how to make hosomaki, the thin rolls with a single ingredient inside and the nori on the exterior. Since we needed to practice as much as possible the nori was replaced by a damp kitchen cloth. Like a paper towel but much more durable, the 3 color coded varieties we use for general cleanliness at the academy work well as a practice substitute for nori. The sheets allow the rice to stick to them but when dampened the rice peels away easily and it’s possible to break up the rice and reuse it. Weights are a big deal in all matters. Weight of the rice for nigiri, weight of the rice for rolls, weight of the neta (nigiri topping), everything must be within very narrow margins and we have to learn to grab and go to execute with speed and accuracy without having to weigh it out to order. We are working on that accuracy right now. Speed always come later, after mastery of technique. After school we all dispersed to do our own things. It has been a long week and we are all a little exhausted from it. Except Nelson, it seems. He has a jazz fest to attend here in Tokyo with one of his flat-mates that he says will last a couple days. We’ll see how long that holds his attention. I have some plans for the weekend that include going to check out the Roppongi area and a few destinations therein, including the Hard Rock Café and a place called the Pizzakaya my girlfriend, Sara, found out about. Being a Chicago native she insisted I go there and take lots of pictures. If I have my way that will be the only non-Japanese food I eat while I’m here. Who knows, though? The Japanese are nothing if not obsessive, so they may have a new perspective to offer on something traditionally Western that I had never considered before. Already this trip is forcing me to recall one of Master Yoda’s lessons, “You must unlearn what you have learned”, so I’m open to anything.  
The heart of Shinjuku-ku.

The heart of Shinjuku-ku.

 
A variety of grilled pork offal including liver, uterus, heart, tongue, and brain. The uterus and heart were the big winners. The 2 lonely skewers top left are "pork meatloaf".

A variety of grilled pork offal including liver, uterus, heart, tongue, and brain. The uterus and heart were the big winners. The 2 lonely skewers top left are "pork meatloaf".

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

This is going to be long-winded and self-indulgent, but please bear with me. It’s going somewhere, I promise.
In Fight Snacks

All Nippon Airways in-flight snack.

Coming up in the food industry in the late 90's every cook and chef I worked with was in love with sushi. Once I got past the initial aversion to raw fish I also contracted this fascination. They all looked at it with great reverence for the art-form, and there was a mystique surrounding it. An ethereal glow that seemed impenetrable to western cooks. It was too involved, too disciplined, too steeped in indecipherable and occult-like tradition to ever be mastered by someone not brought up deeply entrenched in the culture. It was the untouchable talent. The realm of true mastery. The Holy Grail of culinary skill-sets that no one even knew how to approach. I mean, apprentices in Japan spend their first 3 years doing nothing but WASHING THE DAMN RICE! That's all they are allowed to touch! For 3 years! Your only job is washing rice! When you've mastered that, then, and only then, will they let you move on to more complicated tasks. Like toasting nori! To learn the art and skills needed to make sushi was to devote your life to that one thing. Not unlike a monk. Constantly meditating on rice, vinegar, fish, and knife skills. This was the only way to achieve any competence. That sounded like it was too daunting and too challenging for mere mortals to undertake. Especially if you weren't Japanese. We were forced to be content watching with awe and admiration from the other side of the counter. This was, of course, almost entirely bullshit. The part about apprentices is not, though. Not entirely, anyway. If you spent 3 years washing rice, then you probably needed that amount of time to master it. Regardless of that my fascination for the subject never waned, never decreased, and I researched it extensively. I would frequently throw dinner parties and invite all of my friends throughout my 20’s, and sushi was one of the themes in the rotation. With this hunger for learning more about it I jumped at the chance to work next to a veteran sushi chef. Picking his brain of every little morsel of knowledge I could glean out of the language barrier. And then the opportunity arose for me to join his ranks. Not without a little plotting and scheming, but I was determined. This gaijin was going to do the un-fucking-thinkable! I was going to make the leap and be able to call myself a sushi chef, and I saw just how to make it happen. It went down at a casino in Detroit, of all places. A few months after opening the permanent facility for MGM Grand it was International Auto Show season in the D', and there was a request from Ford Motor Co. to have sushi available for them for the duration. The tapas bar/club we worked at, Ignite, was set up like a sushi bar already so it was a perfect fit. They brought in a guy from a local sushi bar, Jay (his Korean name is No-Houn), to run the show completely solo. I studied his every move. How he washed the rice, how his hands moved when he was making rolls, nigiri, temaki, slicing fish. How he treated every ingredient was scrutinized from a distance that allowed him to work unhindered. His presence there was so well received we kept him on and ran a menu that was split down the middle. A sushi side and an “American Tapas” side. I eventually got comfortable enough with him to start trying to ask questions and assist him, though his English was very broken and my Korean non-existent. We quickly came to a report, though, and communication was slow at times but we both had the patience and passion to make it work. Eventually the powers that were decided to shift the menu and make the whole thing a sushi menu. That meant they would need new cooks that were experienced in sushi and a position that did not exist before needed to be created because this was a specialized skill that needed to be compensated at a higher rate than even the fine-dining crew of 4 cooks that were in there at the time (that I was one of those 4). There was only going to be 2 full-time sushi cook positions available. None of the cooks in there that ran the hot menu knew how to make sushi with any kind of consistency or speed. Well, none of them but me, of course.
Flight Path

Flight path from O'Hare to Narita.

From jumping in and helping him when he needed it and picking his brain when he had the time to answer questions I was getting very good at sushi. My visual art and sculpture background really paid off here, giving me the basic manual dexterity to catch on very fast. Combined with my growing passion for the subject, my 16 years in kitchens already, and my eye for plate composition, I was coming along quickly. The day came to do a sushi menu tasting for all of the executives that had a say in this deal. I knew that Jay had a tendency to lag behind and run a little late with these sorts of things. He always did when there was a banquet event or a tasting. I was not asked by anyone, not even Jay, to assist him, but I knew he was going to fall behind, and I had a plan. His tasting was early in the shift, right before we opened, so I was in the back prepping for the hot menu service that night. I wrapped up what I needed to do and showed up out front (it was an open service kitchen that was out in the actual dining room) 20 minutes before Jay needed to have everything ready. He was behind, just as I predicted. I jumped in and helped him finish up making the rolls he needed and getting everything plated to present to the waiting audience of executives. They were there watching us from the other side of the counter. Just like I knew they would be. My plan was working perfectly. The General Manager of the whole property, the Vice President of Food and Beverage, the Executive Chef, the Executive Sous Chef, and the Banquet Chef were all watching me assist Jay in rolling sushi for the menu tasting to determine what would be included in this new menu roll-out. I never had to apply for the new position. I didn't even need to say I wanted it. It was just kind of universally understood that I was the guy they needed for the job. I communicated and worked well with Jay, I had the skill and the drive and the experience and they wouldn't have to go through any kind of lengthy search or hiring process. It was a no-brainer. With that new role I also had near complete autonomy. Jay and I were given control of the menu, save for a few things they wouldn't let me get rid of because of their popularity, regardless of the fact that sliders are completely out of place on a Japanese menu. But I digress... I started the new position in July of 2009 and the following 2 and a half years were some of the most challenging and rewarding years of my career. I buried my head even further in the study of Japanese cuisine. As I started outgrowing/getting weary of the position and its corporate politics and inefficiencies my eye wandered to Chicago. I could make a name for myself there in a way I didn't think Detroit was ready for at the time. I still hold that it wasn't ready then, but it might be now. Regardless, I moved out to the Chicago area and took a job I was a shoe-in for at a casino in the North-West 'burbs. The F&B department was going to be run by a few of the guys I worked under in Detroit so little was needed with regards to interviews and vetting. But as I quickly learned, Chicago is not the culinary dream-scape it might seem to be. At least not for a white, mid-western chef approaching 40 that had goals of making waves in the Japanese culinary world there. After staging a few times, getting woefully low offers, and botching one interview entirely, I didn’t feel like I was being taken very seriously. I was also starting to realize that if I wanted to find a home for myself I was going to have to create one. I was able to make a small kitchen no one seemed to care much about into the talk of the building back in Detroit, a town and location that at the time was culinarily unadventurous, and do something unique that attracted a following of regulars. I knew I could make that happen anywhere, if given the right opportunity. But that right opportunity wasn’t coming, despite throwing resumes at all of the top Japanese restaurants in Chicago. The problem, I felt, was that I didn’t have the background, an experience I could put on my resume that was more than a sushi bar at a casino. Casino kitchens don’t tend to be taken very seriously outside of casino kitchens. I needed a big name under my belt, I thought. I needed to be able to say I worked for a Nobu or a Morimoto, regardless of whether or not that experience was going to offer me anything in the way of growth. But, as I mentioned earlier, I’m 40 now. That’s a little too old to start at the bottom of the totem pole at a new place, which is what I was facing, regardless of stunningly good performance at a stage. My girlfriend Sara suggested I do an internship in Japan. That’s an experience no one could be dismissive of and would carry a lot of weight, even if I stammered at the interview. Why the fuck not, I thought? After a lengthy search and contacting people and sorting through testimonials I was narrowing down my search. There was a place in California that offered a 6 week course, the option of doing 3 weeks interning at a restaurant in Japan. They also offered several extensions and advanced classes that would turn 2 months into 4 if all options were on order. Then there was a school with an 8 week program, the Tokyo Sushi Academy, located right in the heart of downtown Tokyo. The Shinjuku district, to be exact. Both programs cost roughly the same. The biggest difference was one was based out of California, with 3 weeks spent in Japan, and the other was 8 weeks right in the center Tokyo. The decision was not very hard. Fuck those dirty hippies and whiny socialites in Cali. That was close to 2 years ago. Planning for and saving for the trip went very well. So, as I write the end of this introduction on my laptop 6 hours into the 13 hour flight to Tokyo, I’m brimming with excitement at what is to come in the next 2 months. I already have day classes booked at another cooking school near the Tsukiji market and reservations at several of Tokyo’s top restaurants. I don’t have the coveted reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro yet, but I have a lead on it (they only take reservations by phone and they only speak Japanese, and mine is horrible). My class schedule is pretty intense, at 6 days a week, 6 hours a day, but I’m determined to make the most of it and squeeze everything I can out of Tokyo while I’m there. At the request of many, many people I will be keeping a journal/travelogue here to document this (most likely) once in a lifetime experience. Highlight photos will be included here, but to keep this from becoming almost entirely a photo album more complete photo albums will be maintained on my Facebook page. Hope you all enjoy the ride, vicarious as it is.
In Flight Meal

All Nippon Airways in-flight meal. Veggies and mackerel simmered in miso with steamed rice, fruit, pickled eggplant with edamame and sweet omelette, spinach in sesame sauce with chilled soba noodles and dipping sauce for them top center.

O jikan o itadaki, arigatogozaimasu, bitchez! I look forward to your feedback! What do you want to see? Let me know and if it's not already on my itinerary it might get added. I've got 2 months, after all! Live well and eat better. -Jack

Rogue Estate BBQ

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A consummate nerd, yet still plays well with others.