An Adventure in Food & Drink in Tokyo & Kyoto | 东京和京都美酒佳肴之旅
Written & Photos by (作者, 图片来源): Vincent R. Vinci 魏文深
For those of you reading this expecting a sort of guide to places to eat the next time you visit Kyoto and/or Tokyo, that this is not. While I will be mentioning a few of the places I went to at the end of this piece, its more of an account of my journey through a few of the culinary traditions of Japan and what I learned along the way.
Prior to coming to the island nation, my knowledge of Japanese food primarily consisted of sushi, ramen and artfully crafted bento boxes, with little to no understanding of regional cuisine in the country and the reasons for its culinary traditions. This trip, while short, opened my eyes to a whole new world of flavor and dishes that went far beyond the sashimi, sushi and odd fried pork cutlet with rice that I’d experienced in China.
I didn’t experience everything that I would have liked – the stand-up soba noodle joints, yakitori and traditional cuisine of Kyoto went untouched during my stay – but learning about them opened my eyes to new things and experiences, and a few interesting finds, that are worth repeating and exploring further.
Morning of Sashimi
The first day in Tokyo started bright and early with planning and immediately ditching those plans to join a few Indonesian folks I met on a trip to the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market for some freshly caught sashimi. Even though the market itself was closed due to a national holiday, the restaurant street was busy and bustling with tourists and all sorts of sashimi and fish restaurants, stall vendors and merchants hawking everything from grilled squid to fried sea urchin to raw oysters on the half shell glimmering in the early afternoon sun.
The spot we were seeking as we winded our way through the crowds of gawking people and tourists was a busy restaurant down a small hallway crammed beside a sea urchin seller (I would’ve gotten some to try had it not been a bit out of my price range). After a brief wait we entered our restaurant of choice: an establishment selling generous bowls of rice topped with sashimi or grilled fish with walls adorned with colorful menus, special offers and, where we were seated, a drawing of a giant tuna. I ordered a bowl of mixed bowl of tuna, white fish, salmon and squid sashimi with crab shavings. From the first bite, my mouth was filled with flavor. Each piece of fish was light and fresh, with its own unique flavor. The standout was the squid, which was pale white and had a jelly like texture tempered when dipped in soy sauce. Even the rice was amazing, with one of my companions noting that it was the best he had ever tasted.
The Tsukiji Fish Market itself is the largest fish and seafood market in the world, with employees in the market handling over 2000 fresh seafood products a day. The market handles over 400 different kinds of fish and seafood, with more than 700,000 metric tons of seafood being handled each year, a total value in excess of 600 billion yen ($5.9 billion as of 2013). Even though I didn’t get the chance to actually see the market, and it could be considered a little bit touristy, its worth the visit if you want to try some of the freshest fish you’ll ever eat.
Sake & Comfort Food
When the afternoon hit I hopped back on the train and made my way down to Ginza, where I was to meet a buddy from college, Jeff Takano, who has since become an expert and ambassador at a sake store in Tokyo, and learn a little bit about Japan’s native spirit, sake.
Sake, or Japanese Rice Liquor, is made from fermenting rice that has been polished to remove the bran. Instead of fermenting the sugar from fruit, as with wine, sake is made by a brewing process similar to beer in which rested and polished rice is mixed with a specific mold culture and allowed to ferment for 5-7 days before adding yeast and water to the koji (rice mold mixture) and sitting for 7 days.
Then, water, steamed and fermented rice are added in three stages, with the staggered approach allowing for increased volume and becomes the moromi (main mash). The moromi ferments for 2-3 weeks at 15 C (10 C or less for high-grade sake). Following fermentation, the sake is extracted from the solid mixture through a filtration process before remaining sediment (lees) is removed and the sake is carbon filtered and pasturized. Sometimes, distilled alcohol (called brewer’s alcohol) is added to bring out flavors that are sometimes lost in the mash.
The place we were going to in Ginza, Sake no Ana, was a classic sake bar, with wooden bar and fridges filled with some of the best sake from around Japan, even a bottle, as my friend pointed out, of a sake that had been named the best bottle in the world. Considering the price of tasting the bottling, Jeff opted for the second best bottle, Isojiman. For a first-time sake drinker like myself, it was nothing short of amazing. The chilled drink, first poured into a metal glass surrounded by ice for serving, was very mellow on the nose and palate, with hints of fresh berries hidden behind a slight refreshing dryness.
The next bottle was a slightly fruitier option. Senkin had a lively floral and fruity nose, a bit intense on the palate but still wonderful. Our journey wasn’t complete without small snacks to accompany our impromptu tasting: the waitress serving us, clad in a navy blue kimono, soon approached with a round serving platter covered with small blue bowls filled with three varieties of snacks. Jeff took a bowl of chicken while I took a bowl of pickled vegetables with fresh grated wasabi, nothing short of spicy and amazing.
While we dined and sipped we also tried some of the bar’s sashimi. The salmon, white fish and mackerel offered were, I dare say, superior in flavor to what I had in the morning in Tsukiji; more rounded and a slight umami – to which Jeff commenting that there must be something wrong with my taste buds.
During the whole affair, Jeff took the time to explain sake to me, emphasizing the name first. “Sometimes they translate sake as ‘rice wine’, but you should instead just call it sake or ‘Japanese liquor’” because it is brewed, much unlike wine. He further explained the 5 types of high-grade sakes to me. Junmai (Pure-Rice), the first type of premium sake, is sake that is made solely with rice, water, yeast and koji with no additives like sugar or brewer’s alcohol. Next is Honjozo. Like junmai sake, honjozo uses rice that has been polished down to 70% but contains a small amount of brewer’s alcohol to round out the flavors. Ginjo is sake that has rice that’s been polished 60% and generally is more fruity and light thanks to use of a special kind of yeast and fermenting process. There is also Ginjo Junmai, which is Ginjo sake that’s been made with the “pure-rice” method. Finally there’s the highest level, Daiginjo and Junmai Daigingo. The name Daiginjo means “super premium sake” with rice polished down to 50%. Junmai Daigingo is the same, but made with pure rice and no additives.
After awhile we ordered a third sake, Yorokobi Gaijin, which was my favorite of the bunch. The nose and palate were robust, with a somewhat thicker mouthfeel and hints of cocoa powder and chocolate truffle. Jeff paired this with Tamagoyaki, a traditional Japanese egg dish, and cream cheese with bits of squid, which worked to enhance the chocolate flavor I was experiencing in the sake.
All in all an eye opening experience, the evening was a lesson in a new national spirit and something to explore if you’re ever in Japan. In my opinion, sake is one of the many defining characteristics of Japanese culinary culture, and its something you shouldn’t miss out on or skip. Of course, sake, sashimi and comfort foods aren’t the stopping point on this journey, as there was still much to explore, especially in the realm of noodles.
A stop in Japan, for me at least, wouldn’t be complete without a bit of ramen. Since ramen is available in all regions of Japan, each city and place has developed its own variety of the noodle dish with broth, fixings and large pieces of meat. While the origins of ramen itself are unclear, it is said to probably have originated from Chinese lamian, based on the use of Chinese wheat-noodles.
Ramen became popular in Japan in the 1900s, when Chinese vendors would serve the noodle dish with gyoza (fried dumplings) from stalls or shops, exploding in popularity during the Showa Period in the 1920s and well into the 1980s, especially with the introduction of instant ramen noodles. While there is a science to the creation of ramen noodles and how they work with the broth and other ingredients, it all escapes me now, but to learn more I’d definitely recommend watching the first episode of Mind of a Chef, “Noodle”, you can watch food writer and chemist Harold McGee explaining ramen in depth while flying through space via green screen.
Tokyo and Kyoto both have their own styles of ramen, with the Tokyo-style ramen consisting of a soy sauce-based broth. While I was there, though, the variation that was most recommended to me – often with much enthusiasm and excitement – was Tonkotsu (pork-based broth) Ramen. While there are many popular spots that serve up this amazing bowl around Tokyo, I found a place just down the street from my hostel, Toryuken Ramen (actually its a chain) that did just right.
After placing my order on the kiosk outside – you just input your cash, pick what you want and get a ticket that you take inside to show the staff – I sat down and in a few minutes got a piping hot bowl filled with an umami-packed broth, succulent noodles and tender chashu (cooked pork) that melted in the mouth. They also had some interesting toppings as well, like pickled and peppered veggies, pickled onions and hot sauce, but being a purist I didn’t soil the dish, preferring to slurp everything up until my stomach was full and happy.
It’s All Gyoza
If Tokyo is a bustling metropolis filled with flashing LED and neon lights and all sorts of hustle and bustle, Kyoto is its quieter cousin to the south. Older vibe, older subways, older Imperial Palace, yet more quiet than the big capital and filled with fresh mountain air, blue skies and even ravens. The place pretty much reminded me of my college town, Flagstaff.
As the original capital of Japan, Kyoto was once the epicenter of Japanese cuisine, and its regional specialties still remain popular today. While I was unable to try any of these due to the cost and price, its still interesting to explore. The top tier of Kyoto cuisine is Kaiseki Riyori, which has its origins in the Japanese tea ceremony and is a multicourse meal that was once enjoyed by the aristocracy. The more common version of this is Obanzai Riyori, or homestyle cooking, which is made up of multiple small dishes complimenting a main (usually meat) dish and rice.
While in Kyoto though, as I was searching for Bar K6, one of the city’s best cocktail and whiskey bars, to get my Japanese whiskey and cocktail fix, I stumbled across a place nearby called Chao Chao Gyoza that had a ton of reviews claiming it to be the “best gyoza place in Japan.” My curiosity piqued, following a few drams and cocktails at K6 I made my way to the place and found myself in a line of foreigners. I nearly turned away, but decided to try it out and put my name on a list for a 20 minute wait.
When my name was finally called and I entered to find a bar packed with patrons behind which staff were busily molding and frying up a crazy amount of gyoza. The menu had so many flavors to pick from that it was almost daunting, but I finally settled on the classic pork gyoza and special red chili flavor. I was not disappointed. These were probably the best damn fried dumplings I’d had in my life. I was joined on both sides by equally impressed guests, a couple from Texas and another from Spain, who shared my enthusiasm.
Not deterred and craving more, I ordered curry dumplings followed by chicken and wasabi flavor along with a big pint of Asahi. If there was a night in Japan that was worth the wait and the time to check it out, this was it. Definitely recommended if you visit Kyoto, ancient haute cuisine be damned.
With all its ins and outs and organized chaos, Japan is one of the most interesting countries in Asia that you can visit. From ramen to sake to sashimi to gyoza, there’s so much different foods on offer in Japan that you won’t be craving any Western options while there – unless its an extended stay perhaps – and when you leave there will probably be more to try on your next trip. This is my intention for my next journey to Japan, which I hope comes soon.
在京都，在我寻找这座城市最好的鸡尾酒和威士忌酒吧Bar K6去尝尝日本威士忌和鸡尾酒的过程中，我偶然在附近发现了一家名为Chao Chao Gyoza的日式煎饺店，大量评论称这是“日本最好的煎饺店”。出于好奇，在Bar K6喝了一些威士忌和鸡尾酒后，我就去了这家煎饺店，店前排着一条长队。我几乎都要转身走了，但是最终还是决定试试看。
Where to Stay｜住宿：
Oak Cabin Hostel (Tokyo) | オークホステルキャビン
Address｜地址：1-16 Hakozaki cho Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 103-0015 | 〒103-0015 東京都中央区日本橋箱崎町１−１６
Kyoto Morris Hostel (Kyoto) | 京都モーリスホステル
Address｜地址：Umeuniki-machi, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto, 604-0905 (Shin-Karasumaru) 133 | 〒604-0905 京都府京都市中京区梅之木町（新烏丸通）１３３
Dining & Drinking｜餐饮：
Tsukiji Fish Market | 築地市場
Address｜地址：2-1 5-chome Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0045 | 〒104-0045 東京都中央区築地５丁目２−１
Toryuken Ramen (Nihombashi Hakozaki Branch) | 东日本(日本桥箱崎店)
Address｜地址：5-15 Hakozaki cho Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 103-0015
Chao Chao Gyoza (Sanjyakya Branch) | チャオチャオ餃子 三条木屋町店
Business Hours｜营业时间：5:00 PM-2:00 AM
Address｜地址：117 Kiya Town Sanjo Simo, Ishiya-machi, Kyoshi-ku, Kyoto 604-8002 | 〒604-8002 京都府京都市中京区石屋町117番地 木屋町三条下ル
Contact｜联系电话：075-251-0056 (No Reservations)
Sake no Ana | 酒の穴
Business Hours｜营业时间：11:30 AM-11:30 PM
Address｜地址：5-8 3-chome Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061 | 〒104-0061 東京都中央区銀座３丁目５−８ (2 minute walk from Ginza Station Exit A2｜从银座地铁站A2出口出去，再步行2分钟)
Clarification: In the print version of this article, we mistakenly left the names of the three sakes blank along with the name of the egg dish – Tamagoyaki. Also, it should be noted that the name of the sake bar is Sake no Ana, not Hole of Sake.
更正：在印刷版本的《舌尖上的日本》一文中，有部分食物的名称没有正确书写。此外，文中提到的那家清酒酒吧的正确店名为Sake no Ana，而不是Hole of Sake（酒穴）。特此更正，以表歉意。