This is part two of a three-part series that recaps my recent vacation to Tokyo. You can see part one here.
FISH ‘N DIPS
My husband and I love sushi, but not enough to wake up at 3 a.m. in time for the live tuna auction at the Tsukiji Fish Market. Instead, we take our leisurely time and arrive in Chūō to the outdoor Tsukiji Outer Market around 9:30 a.m..
No coffee is needed to explore the expansive outdoor market with the number of dizzying sights to take in at once: fishmongers whizzing by on loud scooters and forklifts; hawkers selling tamagoyaki for 100 yen; fishermen slicing fresh tuna to mesmerized passers-by. It’s a wide open bazaar chock full of items to buy—dried fish, fruits, nuts, nerimono, wagashi, donburi, knives, kitchenware—and to even sample fresh sashimi right on the spot at various vendors.
As one of Tokyo’s most popular tourist attractions, we struggle to weave through the stalls in the outer market without bumping into fellow tourists armed with DLSR cameras, strollers and umbrellas, and we finally duck into one of the alleyways to find a sushi restaurant that is not as popular as the revered Sushi Dai. For under $50 USD, we sample some of the best and freshest nigiri possible—an assortment of fatty tuna, fresh uni, and ikura—before heading off to Akihabara, also known as Electric Town, to explore the famous otaku enclave for its electronics and host of maid cafes.
As luck would have it, one of the best ramen shops in Tokyo is minutes from our hotel. We walk there in less than five minutes and remember that we actually had considered entering the popular ramen-ya our first night in Tokyo. Fu-unji in Shinjuku is famous for its tsukemen (dipping ramen) so we oblige and queue in line patiently and wait for our turn to the vending machine.
The shop is tiny and the wait is relatively short, but uncomfortable, as customers must wait directly behind people slurping their noodles at the counter. People eat and politely leave quickly at most ramen shops (unless it’s a tourist), so we sit down in probably less than 15 minutes.
Soon after, the ramen chefs asks us “medium” or “large” portion of noodles, which is the same cost for either, two bowls land down before our faces. One bowl is the chicken and fish broth, a tincture that’s viscous, salty and very concentrated. The other is full of springy, thick noodles that we soon dip into the broth that’s adorned with ajitama, menma, nori, negi and char sui. The noodles are coated with the thick broth and then it is “slurp’s away” until it’s gone. At Fu-unji, you can also conveniently dilute the thick broth with the pitcher of hot light broth to tip off the rest of your bowl’s contents if you wish—it’s called soup wari. For only $10 USD each, the meal is extremely filling and weighty enough to take a carb nap, so we head back to the hotel after completing our ramen duties.
TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN
We venture one hour outside of the city for a bit of a bucolic reprieve to Mount Takao. Despite being one of the most popular hiking retreats near the city, it’s not too busy on a weekday morning. The weather is cold, enough for a vest and heavy jacket, and my husband grabs a snack, a skewer of mitarashi dango (sweet rice flour balls slathered in a savory, sweet teriyaki sauce) from the many pathway stalls before heading out on the ascent. We reach the apex of the mountain at 1,965 feet in less than two hours, passing several Shinto-Buddhist temples along the way, and celebrate the achievement with a picnic lunch consisting of egg salad sandwiches courtesy of a Lawson convenience store that we had picked up beforehand, though we can smell the tempting wafts of the soba noodle shops in the vicinity.
Securing a reservation at Sushi Iwa, a one-star Michelin sushi restaurant in the heart of Ginza, was no easy task. But for those with a little perseverance, no conversational Japanese skills, and a VISA credit card concierge service that’s willing to go the extra mile, it is possible.
We arrive to the indiscriminate doorstep of Sushi Iwa early, afraid that any tardiness would upset the chef. It turns out that three businessmen and two other tourists, a son and his father, with reservations have similar thoughts and we are soon waiting in the doorway, waiting for the restaurant to open for lunch service. Moments later, a host leads four of us down the stairs into an intimate spare room, with nary any decor, to a sushi bar with only six place settings.
Chef Shigeyuki Tsunoda-san, a svelte, young-ish looking man with beguiling eyebrows, quietly emerges from the kitchen and begins lunch service after inquiring whether we want the lunch or dinner service. What follows is a careful, almost ritualistic, meditative procession of Edomae style nigiri sushi.
We proceed with a small bite of a seaweed salad and finish as Chef Tsunoda-san begins to grate fresh ginger for each of us. He proceeds to slice each type of fish with deft knife skills and the four of us sit there in silent awe, watching closely and he molds the slightly sweet, vinegared sushi rice in the nook of his palm, dabs of bit of wasabi, and places the flounder on top.
He does the same motions throughout the 13-course omakase lunch, presciently waiting for us to finish each piece before moving onto the next. In the sparse room, there is no choice but to concentrate on each piece with the sanctity that, frankly, it deserves. It’s hard not to be imbued with a sense of serenity as we savor each piece of clam, shrimp, uni, anago, squid, lean or fatty tuna that’s laid before us. The only sound is the occasional buzz of a camera hurriedly trying to capture the fleeting beauty of each jewel before it’s consumed. Throughout, Chef Tsunoda stays mostly silent, opting to stay focused and steady in his nearly two-hour performance.
The lunch concludes with a silky tamago, a light cucumber roll and warming bowl of miso soup.
As we pay our bill (a shade over 18,000 yen or $160 USD for two), Chef Tsunoda-san comes out behind the bar and chats us up—in pretty good English!—for a bit. He’s warm and friendly, and we learn that he’s only 39 years old and has had over 14 years of experience. He lived in San Francisco for several years during middle school and then returned back to Japan to study.
We exit Sushi Iwa with the personal escort of Chef Tsunoda-san, ecstatic, and in a bit of shock, knowing that we may have just had the best sushi of our lives.