Tokyo: Rhizome City
Stepping on the train for his morning commute, Osamu Sato daydreams a field of grass. The thick covering of earth and stone creates a scene of uniformity, pleasant to look at, nothing out of place. But the grass cannot surface without its system of nodes and roots that connect each blade to the other. Osamu’s mind drifts to that sub-surface realm. The grass roots gain strength from perpendicularity, a peculiar relationship to gravity that allows them propagate across fields from any point along the system. There lies the real beauty, Osamu affirms.
Metaphors are to the Japanese are as they are not to North Americans. We like steady, obvious forms and act with outward compass. This leads to the incorrect characterization of Japan as insular, polite, ordered. We see only the blades, not the roots.
Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ginza, Nihonbashi, Asakusa, Meguro, Minato, Roppongi, Akihabara. Tokyo is a city of cities. Though like other of Japan’s large cities, divided into wards (ku) and districts (chome), Tokyo’s history is one of many villages growing into each other. Tokyo is also a recent capital, with the emperor only moving from the ancient Kyoto in the mid 19th century, though the seat of government was here since the Tokugawa era in the 13th century.
The circular Japan Rail Yamanote Line is an ideal Tokyo metaphor. Connecting each of the city’s major wards, the Yamanote ring has no centre. Though Tokyo boasts over a dozen metro lines more directly linking many destinations, Yamanote is one of the most heavily used lines in the city.
Each of Tokyo’s major wards has its own story, character and traditions. The same is true of food, and while many types of food are available in all wards, you will find a certain concentration of type that matches each ward’s character.
The world’s largest fish market speaks for itself. This is a working market, so though there are plenty of tourists, you also get to see the market in action, with zipping trolleys, restaurateurs seeking the best fish for the day’s meals, and band saw wielding merchants.
Ginza, the ritzy ‘geisha’ ward has one of the highest concentrations of premium restaurants, food outlets and clothiers in the world.
At the corner of Chuo-Dori and Harumi-Dori sits one of the city’s top depachikas (department stores) Mitsukoshi, with two basement floors filled with outlets of many of the city’s finest shops, Parisian and german bakeries, countless food vendors, and the infamous $100 fruits (cultivated, like wine, by dropping fruit from trees in order to concentrate flavour and nutrients into a smaller amount of the best fruit – the flavour is incomparable).
Down the street you will find top Belgian chocolatier Pierre Marcolini, whose chocolate and ice cream is some of the best in the world. The south west quadrant houses one of the world’s greatest coffee shops – Cafe de l’Ambre – a temple to the bean founded in 1948 that sells over 30 beans by the cup, nearly 10 of which are aged for 20+ years. I stopped by for coffee four times, tasting over 10 different cups, all of which were prepared with meticulous attention to detail – individually ground, hand filtered and poured lovingly into beautiful glassware.
The area is also home to dozens of Michelin starred restaurants, though in Japan the need and purpose of Michelin makes little sense. It seems, instead, that Michelin co-opted thousands of years of tradition by claiming to find the best – usually places that have been around for generations and already well appreciated in Japan. I noted that very few Japanese diners were even aware of Michelin rankings, let alone cared about them.
The two starred Tempura Kondo demonstrated that Japanese food refinement is all about subtlety, purity and execution. Each piece of tempura was served individually to allow the diner to focus on the purity of the particular ingredient. Vegetables were cooked just past raw, showcasing texture and the fundamental flavour of each type. An onion had a raw outer layer, but increased in cookedness as you approached the centre – a feat of cooking I still don’t understand. The tempura batter was but vessel to the ingredient rather than the primary flavour. In fact, it was nearly invisible.
The young, hip counter to stuffy Ginza, Shibuya is also the site of some of Tokyo’s most exciting and unusual fashion. Famed Harajuku is home to many alternative clothing outlets and plenty of counter-culture fashion. Nearby Omotesando houses exciting, modern architecture and some of the world’s top (and most expensive) fashion boutiques. In the shopping centre Omotesando Hills you will find one of the city’s best sake stores in Hasegawa Saketen, where you can sample premium sake with a snack and then peruse the superbly edited retail selection. In the same mall you will also find an outlet for Jean Paul Hevin, another top French chocolatier. French world-class baker Pierre Herme has a cafe a short walk from here.
The side streets of Shibuya are filled with cool restaurants, with a high concentration of Izakayas and bars. This included Le Cabaret, a natural wine bar with a superb bottle selection, including old vintages of Thierry Allemand. The French influence throughout Tokyo is palpable, with that country’s culture being a major influence since the modernization of Japan during the Meiji period in the mid 19th century. France has remained a massive cultural force in Japan – evident throughout Tokyo.
Shinjuku is the hub of Tokyo, with its station being the busiest in the world (millions travel through here each day). Filled with broad streets and big towers, the elegance of Ginza and the excitement of Shibuya elude Shinjuku, but there are many gems here. One of the biggest draws for a food lover is Isetan, the city’s best Depachika, with basement floors that make even Ginza’s Mitsukoshi look provincial in comparison. The sheer volume of world-class desserts astonishes here.
The centre for expat life in Tokyo, Roppongi is growing beyond that reputation. It is also home for the city’s best wine bar: Shonzui, a temple to France’s natural wine movement, and one of the best natural wine bars in the world in my opinion.
The interior feels like it was plucked from a Parisian bistro, but the all-Japanese staff (who all speak some French) are decidedly authentic, cool Tokyoites. The bar itself has more Japanese than expats, and seems to attract a wide variety of individuals. In Japan, a movement like natural wine has a very ‘natural’ place in the culture such that it is not a bastion for the hipster crowd. Instead, it is an extension of the country’s food culture, which prizes purity and non-manipulation. It is not surprising that sales of such wines have surged in Japan, allowing it to develop a niche market that is the largest purchaser of French natural wines outside of France.
The Japanese meticulous attention to detail grounds these efforts. All the wines are shipped, stored and served at the perfect temperature.
If you are a wine lover and go to Tokyo, Shonzui (located on the second floor of a non-descript building down an alleyway) is an essential stop. Ask for Tsubo, the authentic and gracious owner.
Beyond the geographical centres of Tokyo, certain food types have come to define the city. While you can get any type of Japanese food you want here, as well as some of the world’s best French food, certain forms are quintessential Tokyo. One of these is Edo style Nigiri Sushi.
Sushi refers not to the fish but the vinegared rice with which it is served. Sashimi, in fact, is a far older dish in Japan, and raw fish has been a delicacy for hundreds of years. Edo sushi, by contrast, developed far later when Edo became the imperial capital in the 19th century. As such, you will find the best sushi in Edo (Tokyo) at joints that take rice just as seriously as fish.
The two Sushi-Ya’s I tried were both top quality, but also a study in contrasts.
Sushi Kyubey offered refined decor, high quality art and sleek traditional-modern interior, matching its locale in sleek Ginza. The chefs here have incredible knife skills and you will be served some of the freshest fish in the city. Each piece is served to you individually at the counter as soon as it is made. You eat with your hands, placing the piece directly into the mouth. Great sushi is all about the balance between the rice and the fish, the right texture in the mouth, and the subtle saucing that, in most cases, the chef does for you. Usually the sauce is a proprietary soy sauce with which the chefs brush the fish. Kyubey far outmatched anything I’ve had elsewhere in the world.
Contrasting Kyubey was Kizushi, a third generation sushi restaurant in the traditional Nihonbashi area. Housed in an old wooden building and offering a far more dialed down interior compared to Kyubey, Kizushi gives you the opportunity to see traditional Tokyo. There are no tourists here at lunch, when I went, just individual salary men in the universal black suit (anything other than black is extremely rare amongst Tokyo’s conservative white collar class). Father and sons make the sushi with extreme expertise behind the counter. The fish variety and quality is outstanding. Here you can consume the Omakase course of the best cuts of fish in a mere 45 minutes. That’s just the way it’s done. The quality here is equivalent to Kyubey, but the surroundings far less luxurious (by contrast, my Kyubey lunch lasted 1.5 hours). But Kizushi offers an unmediated look into traditional Tokyo.
Another essential Tokyo form is Ramen. There are 1000’s of ramen outlets in the city ranging from large stores to counter tops only. I went to the Tokyo Station basement level ‘Ramen Street’ to try Tsukamen style ramen at Rokurinsha. Tsukamen ramen was invented in Tokyo as a play on the traditional Soba noodles, which involve dipping cold noodles into sauce. With Tsukamen, the ramen broth is served separately from the noodles, which you dip into the broth. Rokurinsha was a revelation.
However, ramen is junk food, really. It is the fattiest and saltiest food I had in Japan. It is certainly delicious, but it lacks any refinement. The real art of the noodle in Japan can be found only in traditional Soba restaurants, where the noodles are handmade from buckwheat in a painstaking process.
I ate dinner at the very traditional soba-restaurant Teuchi Soba Narutomi, which lies at the base of a non-descript office building between Ginza and Tsukiji fish market. The noodles here were perfectly textured and carried immense subtlety of flavour. Served with traditional Yakimiso (miso grilled on a wood paddle) and gobo (burdock) tempura, this was a highlight meal.
Izakaya and Sake
The Izakaya is Tokyo’s most popular restaurant – far more common than sushi (which in Japan is mostly high end). These bars range from super casual to very high end, but you can nearly always find a good selection of sake and a base level food quality. I visited three Izakaya’s, each quite different from the other, showcasing the huge variety to be had. Izakayas are also the place where many Tokyoites meet for drinks with friends or after work. As such, the dining environment is far more casual than many other form of restaurant. However, even at these ‘pubs’ you rarely hear music playing. The Japanese have a different aesthetic with food that foregrounds focusing on what you are eating and drinking rather than being distracted. As such, most restaurants do not boast the kind of atmosphere we are used to in North America.
Sasagin, located in Shibuya near the Yoyogi-Uehara train station, is a high end Izakaya with a superb sake selection. Food quality is well above the norm here, which in Tokyo means the food is superb. We were seated next to the one english speaking chef, who helped us with both food and sake selections. In Japan, where food is embued with hundreds if not thousands of years of tradition, there is a proper place and order for everything. This includes the casual izakaya, where there is a proper coursing of food to follow, beginning with the lighter dishes, like a sashimi platter, moving into mid-weight dishes (grilled fish and steamed or broiled dishes), and finishing with the heavy fried dishes. The sakes likewise followed this progression, beginning with lighter bodied, dry sake, and moving into the heavier, slightly sweet sake.
I drank more sake in Japan than I ever have before. I found one of the city’s best selections at Sake no Ana. Though the food was mediocre compared to Sasagin (though better than most places in Vancouver), the Sake selection was huge and the staff brought out 3 samples of sake for me to choose from for each course. This afforded me the opportunity to compare pairing sake and wine with Japanese food. While wine pairings are certainly possible and can often be excellent, it became clear to me that Japanese food really is built for sake, and vice versa. The two evolved together and the huge variety of flavour and texture in a Japanese meal truly pairs best with the tradition of sake, and pouring sake in 120ml sizes (from magnums or double magnums), which allows you to change up the sake for each course. This contrasts with a bottle of wine, which can pair very well with some but horribly with other courses. As such, wine pairing with most Japanese food must be coursed out to work best.
For example, sashimi usually has a clean, soft taste, highlighting the purity of the fish. This requires a soft, dry, linear sake. However, mid-meal courses such as smoked saba or sauced grilled chicken or beef are heavy in umami and often sweet or semi-sweet sauces. These demand a sake with some residual sugar and greater weight. Accordingly, the Champagne that works brilliantly with sashimi, fails utterly with the saba.
My Izakaya meals also revealed why many in Vancouver have a hard time getting into and understanding sake: there is actually very little authentic Japanese food in the city, and not enough Izakayas. As such, Shuraku and Kingyo offer the best opportunity in Vancouver to sample sake as it is meant to be served. Unfortunately, these restaurants offer only a small sample of the fullness of Japanese cuisine, and we are lacking in top yakitori, sukiyaki, tempura, vegetarian, etc. restaurants.
One such restaurant in Tokyo was the top yakitori restaurant Yakitori Akira, a temple to all things chicken. Japanese food is anathema to waste. You do not throw things away or leave food unfinished. At Yakitori Akira this translates into use of each and every part of the heritage breed chickens. Grilling chicken neck, ribs and heart, indulging in fried chicken wings and crispy fried chicken skin, showcased both the amazing knife skills of the chefs and the true respect for ingredients in Japan. Served with a superb hot sake (most of the best sake is to be served cold, but it was a freezing evening in Tokyo), Yakitori Akira made for one of the best casual food experiences in the city.
Japanese food is the most varied cuisine on earth. You can choose to eat something different every meal of the day for 50 meals. It’s truly astonishing. Some of my best meals were foods you generally don’t find outside Japan in dedicated restaurants.
The 160 year old Nodaiwa served me the best Unagi (fresh water eel) of my life. Of course, wild eel is all Nodaiwa serves, in multi course meals that highlight all aspects of this great creature. In Japan eel is a delicacy, and so priced as such, and I truly understood why when served a course of eel with no sauce. You simply dip the eel in a small amount of salt and taste the purity of the ingredient. This was, of course, followed by the traditional lacquered box eel served with the delicious sweet sauce that highlights the natural sweetness of the fish. Greatness.
Japan is not just about fish. In fact, the best beef in the world can be found in Japan’s Sukiyaki and Teppanyaki restaurants. I ate at Asakusa Imahan, a Shabu Shabu (hot pot) and Sukiyaki specialist. Here, thin cuts of top grade Wagyu are served with vegetables, sukiyaki sauce, cast-iron grill at your table, and incredible quality eggs for dipping, all in beautifully decorated tatami matted rooms with low seating tables.
Do not forget the lowly Tonkatsu (fried pork), which can be taken to new heights by dedicated restaurants. One of the best is Ginza Bairin, which uses top quality cuts of pork fried to perfection in a casual setting.
Of course, Tokyo also offers the best coffee in the world. Besides the revelatory Cafe de L’Ambre discussed above, I indulged in one of the world’s best espressos at Bear Pond, located 45 minutes from the centre of Tokyo (i.e. the imperial palace), at a tiny joint off a side street near Shimo Kitazawa metro station. Here you will find espresso made using a method not used anywhere else, where 2 oz shots are served that have greater concentration and flavour than any other espresso I’ve tasted, to the point where previous espressos taste watered down in comparison. The owner said his technique improved flavour and texture while ensuring the caffeine went to your brain, but not your stomach.
The Rhizome City
Rhizome derives from the ancient greek rhizoma, which means ‘mass of roots’. Tokyo is a mass of roots. Its paradox lies in a simultaneous lack of centre but powerful, grounding roots. Tokyo is often described as a surprising juxtaposition of ancient and modern. Anime, tech centred electric town in Akihabara versus the wooden buildings and family operated business in Nihonbashi. A city with international influence but an overwhelmingly autochthonous population. These contrasts are true, but my observation was that Tokyo’s true heart lies not in these surface appearances but rather in the interconnection between them, and the undergirding anchors that draw the city’s contradictions together. It is unlike any city in the world, layered, pulled both together and apart. Food is treated not just with respect but with reverence, founded in over a thousand years of tradition. At the same time, the culture embraces impermanence, familiar with disaster (I experienced one of the country’s thousands of small earthquakes during my short visit), both natural and man made. It’s hard to absorb all at once, but endlessly compelling. Rhizome city.