As someone who has always appreciated the art of cooking, design, and presentation, I knew that Tokyo would be a city I’d someday have to see. I have always felt that food reveals so much about a culture, and my appreciation for the culinary world is what navigates many of my journeys abroad. Case in point: When I was twenty and studying in Spain, my number one criteria for my host family was, “they must be great cooks.” Yes, it’s easy to read through blogs, websites, study guide books and inquire friends as to where to dine in a new city, but it’s always so much more fun to learn from a savvy local! And on my first Absolute Travel trip to Tokyo, that is exactly what I got; whatever I was in the mood for – sushi, yakatori, ramen, udon, tempora – my guide, Shinji, knew the perfect place.
But Shinji is no ordinary guide. Known locally as the Tokyo Fixer – and rightfully so – Shinji showed me a side of Tokyo that’s not included in even the most cutting edge travel magazines or food websites. He knew Tokyo only as a local could, and I quickly realized I was learning about this beautiful chaotic city from the perspective of a connected, in the know, culinary god.
Our first stop: Higashiya. Everything inside this modern tea ceremony & sweets shop was stunningly simple. The minimalist décor of white walls, gray slate tables, a few dark wood stools and mismatched handmade ceramics was serene and beautiful. The glassware was also handmade, and hairline thin. Generous ice cubes were chipped from a larger block of ice, and coupled with matcha, a Japanese powdered green tea that is briskly whisked until the tea becomes slightly frothy. Every step of the serving process mesmerized me. We followed the tea with some sort of fruit infused rice liquor that changes according to the season, and then a final cup of digestive tea. To finish off our lovely experience, a selection of sweets was presented in a wooden tray, and we chose three to sample: a toramame cake (a type of kidney bean) cake, a date filled with fresh whipped butter and a walnut, and the last was made with sweet chewy rice. They were the size of truffles, and even had muted colors to go along with the overall tone of the shop. I couldn’t help but buy something on the way out, just to have it perfectly wrapped.
We continued to Nakameguro, an area that has always been known for its cherry trees along the Meguro River that have lured people from all over the world for years. Recently, though, the restaurants and boutiques are also putting Nakameguro on the map – a quiet retreat from the busier side of Tokyo. The restaurants and shops are all located along a quaint canal, where you will find my favorite antique shop, Jantiques, featuring everything from cool old hooks, to vintage frames, to a mix of perfectly worn out army jackets, and even the French St. James sailor shirts from the 70s. For even more vintage and homeware stores, head to Meguro dori, a ten minute taxi ride from Nakameguro station. But even with the best directions, it helps to have a guide help you navigate through the streets that are so typically Japanese — void of any signs or numbers.
Also home to Nakameguro is Pizzaman, a brick oven pizza place set in what looked like a submarine. I was tentative about having pizza as one of my few meals in Tokyo, but I had to trust my culinary guide and understand that it was more than just the pizza I was going to enjoy. There were three very narrow rooms, all connected by a winding staircase, and just two options on the menu: margarita and marinara pizza. Both were finished off with two cloves of freshly cut garlic, olive oil drizzled out of a copper can reminiscent of the can used to oil the tin man in the wizard of Oz, and handfuls of basil leaves pulled right off the plant. Delicious. The only giveaway that I was still in Tokyo was the intricate amount of small details throughout the restaurant, each of which were so thought out, you knew you were seated in the brainchild of an incredibly creative mind. It was here that I realized that it didn’t matter if you were eating Italian food, a French baguette, or Sushi in Japan, every type of food was always served with the same care, precision, and skill. Food just seemed to be taken seriously, and it was more about quality over quantity. Simplicity in the dishes and awareness of ingredients was key, and yet every flavor was so complex. Nothing is overly spiced or sauced, so that you taste the pure flavor of what you are eating. If something isn’t in season, why eat it? This philosophy was also true later in the night as we made our way to a hidden speakeasy bar that only served fresh fruit cocktails. The name of the bar was unknown (it wasn’t even listed in the directory) but Shinji knew to take me to this rooftop lounge where only four people sat enjoying their drinks. My freshly muddled watermelon and mint martini was deliciously refreshing with the salted rim, and once again, I was so excited to be in a place that I never would have found on my own.
But there was one day in Tokyo that I always think back to, a day that started at the Tsukiji Fish Market. The auction has sadly become a bit touristy, but there are always insider ways to have private viewings, which of course Shinji insisted on…
It’s an incredible sight, like no other in the world. The market itself is mind-boggling, especially at 5am when the sun is rising and the fishermen are zooming around on two wheel carts. And it is here at Sushi Dai that I had the best sushi of my life, a meal I will never forget. Sushi actually originated as a quick snack that workers could shove in their mouths when they didn’t have time to sit down and eat a proper meal. That day it symbolized just the opposite; a proper meal made with thoughtful care and precision, a meal I did not want to end!
The chefs were surprisingly smiley and enthused to serve us one piece after another. Each was laid out on the table in front of us, without any plates, and we were instructed to pop each one directly in our mouths as soon as it hit the table. In Japanese, they asked my guide if my pieces should be made with less rice so that I wouldn’t be as full as the boys I was eating with, but of course I kept up just fine! Not every piece needed soy sauce, and we were instructed when and when not to use it. We had raw clams, sea urchin, baby shrimp, a Japanese seasonal fish similar to a sardine but without the fishy flavor, fresh salmon roe, snapper seasoned with rock salt and lime, tuna, salmon, fish soup, green tea, and to finish it all off, a glass of beer. Just as we were finishing, the sun rose, and we made our way out of the market and back to the hotel as the rest of the city was waking up and heading out to work.
Even on my flight home, I couldn’t wait to return. Throughout my journey I learned the art of ikebana (flower arranging), I learned to master the subways, I visited countless temples and shrines that took my breath away, but it was my time with the Tokyo Fixer that made this trip unforgettable. I am not sure if I’ll ever be able to truly enjoy sushi in America again! Shinji, save me a seat, I’m coming back for seconds!