A writer and restaurant editor for the LA Times, Angeleno, and MadeMan.com., Stacy Suaya knows a thing or two about food and travel. So, it's no surprise that her recent trip to Japan was nothing short of an epicurean's dream. From snacking on onigiri and yakitori, to feasting on okonomiyaki and uni, Stacy shows us how to eat your way through Tokyo.
Up until I moved to Los Angeles two years ago to take a job as a restaurant editor, Asian cuisine was my weakness (read: not a knee-weakening love affair, rather a gaping void in my dining record).
On the contrary, there was my guide and husband Adolfo, seasoned like the perfect bowl of udon. He arrived to L.A. 25 years ago by way of Buenos Aires, and quicker than Pacman on a power pellet, chomped, slurped and dipped his way through Chinatown, Thaitown and Koreatown, opening his own restaurant along the way: Gaucho Grill, serving Argentine cuisine (though fundamentally modeled after Chin Chin and Take Sushi.)
So perhaps it won’t surprise you to read that on our first trip to Tokyo, as we waited in the Admiral’s Lounge at LAX, Adolfo spotted Tomo San, chef and owner of Kokkekoko, a yakitori house in downtown L.A. (open since 1987, it just closed), who would be sitting next to us on AA flight 169, nonstop to Narita.
On that flight, Tomo told us that when we arrived in Tokyo we’d absolutely have to eat together at one particular restaurant: his favorite yakitori house. He even offered us a ride there, once the 10-hour flight landed.
Tomo made good on our pact and after a two-hour highway ride, we began swerving through the serpentine surface streets of an industrial zone, under Blade Runner-esque bridges and into alleyways.
One pocket buzzed with briefcase-swinging men and sinewy women with faces partially ensconced by surgical masks. It contained a row of tiny restaurants, smoke billowing onto sidewalks, permanently embedded by the smell of tori (chicken).
Here, Tomo ushered us into Torishigi, a yakitori joint with a u-shaped bar, where we were seated serendipitously adjacent to a pair of students from USC (this place is a well-kept secret by those in the culinary know.) Wooden skewers began to grace our plates, each piercing several pieces of pulchritude: glazed chicken wings, livers, hearts and my new favorite food, quail eggs. Bite into one of these soft-boiled uva here and the yolk oozes out, creating its own sauce. And after a sampling of my first ever gingko beans, I marveled at their bitter potency, dense texture and oily shell, then made a joke about gingko biloba and how I could actually taste the beans sharpening my memory.
“Actually, when families with small children order gingko, they only give each child one or two beans, no more. Three gingko beans usually give small children a bloody nose,” said Tomo San.
Everyone knows that beans are legendary for their side effects, but this one was one for the books.
Eventually drunk on sake, we hailed a taxi to the Park Hyatt where we couldn’t refrain from childishly asking the bellhop, “Where’s Sofia Coppola?” just before we succumbed to the jet lag fairy.
The Coppola remark, of course, refers to 2003’s Lost in Translation. An astronomical marketing vehicle for the Park Hyatt Tokyo, it’s where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson spent many of their insomniac nights. The hotel itself occupies floors 41 through 52 of the Shinjuku Park Tower, where views span from Yoyogi Park all the way to Mount Fuji.
On that next morning, we admired the extent of this vista from the indoor pool on the 47th floor, topped by a glass roof. After swimming many laps to combat our jet lag, we showered up and met our pre-hired tour guide downstairs in the lobby.
Before the trip, we had learned that tour guides in Tokyo must undergo rigorous training to qualify, so when we spotted a petite woman with long, jet-black hair and a giant, laminated ID badge around her neck, we knew this was our guru. The woman gave a delicate bow and gently said, “My name is Mochicko, but you can call me Chico.”
For the next eight hours, Chico took us to some of Tokyo’s most famous landmarks: First, the Sensoji Temple and Market, with its grandiose gateway including a massive red and black paper lantern, leading us into a crowded shopping street called Nakamise, smoked by incense and flanked by stalls hawking kimonos, folding fans and wood-block prints. If you go, be sure to partake in the array of street foods that encircle this temple: octopus, ika (squid), plums, plump sea snails (sazae), scallops, red meat, yakitori, all presented on sticks.
From the streets to the sky, a modest subway ride took us to the most sophisticated and sparkling station in Tokyo: SkyTree. Just four days before, history had been made with the grand opening of SkyTree, the tallest tower in the world (the second tallest structure in the world after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa) and the air had been spired with progress.
As we passed through the mall here, there was a line out the door for a café called Moomin. The fuzzy bodies of several white, human-size, stuffed animals were seated in their own chairs at the tables, like members of the family.
“What is that all about?” I asked Chico.
“Oh,” she giggled. “Those stuffed animals are characters from a cartoon that the Japanese love. It is from Finland, called Moomin. They created the café for couples who don’t have children or families with only children, so that rather than there being an empty chair or void, they have the experience of a… friend.”
“Talk about an elephant in the room!” I quipped.
Chico looked serious. “Oh yes, one of the characters is an elephant I think.”
We continued into the market, where we sampled more of the freshest fish of the day, and a boatload more things on sticks
Another subway ride flung us to the Tsukishima district, where a whole street (Monja) is dedicated to “pancakes”. After a half hour of waiting for a table at Oshio Honten, “the best one”, we ducked under the homogenous navy blue awning and into a crowded dining room with yellowed walls with vintage advertisements shoddily slapped on top. Families sat circled around tables fitted with teppan. There were no stacks of silver dollars streaming with blueberries and dusted with powdered sugar to be found here. No, this was the international house of okonomiyaki: Japanese savory pancakes. Derived from the word okonomi, meaning “what you like,” this batter is made of flour, grated nagaimo (a type of yam), water or dashi, eggs and shredded cabbage, and usually contains other ingredients such as green onion, meat (generally pork or bacon), octopus, squid, shrimp, vegetables, kimchi, mochi or cheese. Our young waitress, ripped from the pages of manga comic books, corralled our pancake right there with a metal spatula. And it was delicious: gooey in the center, fluffy for the most part and crispy on the edges. Toppings include bonito flakes, seaweed powder, mayonaise and okonomiyaki sauce (a shoyu-based syrup). More like a cross between an omelet and a crepe than a pancake, the okonomiyakis left us satiated and light on our feet.
On the way home, we stopped by Ishinohana in Shibuya for a light snack and drink (You may recognize this bar from Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations). The best way to experience it is to take one of the counter seats and watch the show. A theatrical experience as elegant as ballet, the vested barman begins by chipping a block of ice into a ball (to discourage melting and dilution, of course). For Adolfo’s Bloody Mary, he juiced a whole Japanese tomato and poured a splash of sherry wine vinegar. For my Wasabi Alexander, white wasabi cream was shaken with cacao and vodka and served up. It’s what makes pistachio ice cream work: Nuttiness and creaminess are a winning combination.
After another brisk morning swim, we relocated our home base. A quick search on Hotels.com turned up a great deal on the Cerulean Tower in the Roppongi district, which was smack dab in the middle of the rest of our to-do-see-and-eat list.
This business hotel opens into a generous rotunda, semi-circled with a business-type lounge and bay-windowed by a rock garden filled with cherry blossom trees.
While I’m sorry to report that our daytime caloric intake was squandered on mediocre ramen and izakaya, we vowed to avenge our mistakes that night.
And the Roppongi district, the Times Square of Tokyo, was our rectification destination. Digital billboards light up across the buildings here like a Hollywood Squares game board, advertising the latest gadget or pop star. Our taxi slalomed through this prismatic maze, then funneled down darkened streets with a more village-like vibe.
“Youkoso!” riveted a chorus of burly voices upon our entrance into Robataya Roppongi. The room was about 400 square feet at best and laid out like a tiny theatre, with a horseshoe-shaped low bar surrounding the main stage. Splayed before the actors, one of whom looked like a part-time Sumo wrestler, was about six feet of display space, steeped like a garden and filled with about 40 pedestals of raw meat and vegetables. A cylindrical aquarium housing live delicacies was front and center; paper menus here would be redundant.
With us, it was a full house and no time was wasted in our integration. Drink orders were taken and within a minute, the performers set my sake and Adolfo’s Kirin atop giant oars, then extended them within an inch away from our grasp.
Following a tangy amuse bouche – tuna sashimi with fresh tomatoes, onions and a light vinaigrette – we began calling out our selections: enoki mushrooms, shishito peppers, quail eggs, lotus root, Wagyu beef, chicken, shimmering whole snapper: each arriving via oar in perfect tempo: The moment each plate was finished, it was removed and another appeared before it.
And the moment we surrendered the white flags in our laps, two managers rushed over and plucked Adolfo from his seat. Summoned to the mochi-making pit in a Price is Right, “Come on Down” fashion, the owner handed him an oar and together, they ceremoniously pounded the cinnamon and sugar rice balls which became our dreamy, chewy dessert.
Still reeling from the night’s festivities when the cab dropped us off, a Jack Rose at the Cerulean’s top floor bar overlooking thousands of tiny Tokyo twinkles effectively closed Day Two on a magical uptick.
Day Three commenced in the Cerulean lobby at noon. Chico showed up perkier than before: she was in the groove and knew where to take us.
We commenced with a stroll through Meiji Shrine, part of a manmade forest consisting of 120,000 trees of 365 species, Harajuku was next: The iconic international fashion and shopping district that inspired Gwen Stefani and Nicki Minaj is the flamboyant cousin of NYC’s 5th Avenue. Chico explained that hopeful models from all over the world descend upon its tree-lined streets, hoping to be discovered by the many photographers and scouts who too flock here. And speaking of flocks, with the proliferation of young girls wearing pink, flouncy skirts with petticoats, mary-jane shoes and porcelain faces caked with blush and mascara, Little Bo Peep and Lolita come to mind. So does Tim Gunn’s catchphrase: “That’s a lot of look.”
We passed a row of H&M, Zara, Armani, Tiffany’s, all huge and austere, decked out like giant gift boxes themselves. A light drizzle was quickly mounting into a deluge, wherein we, ill-equipped of protection, made a mad dash for the mothership of all malls: Tokyu Plaza, its jagged, concave façade like a carved-out diamond with a steep, double escalator granting access.
After a touch-and-go tour, we ventured back outside where the clouds were still wringing themselves out. Dampened and daunted, we puddle-jumped to Kyusyu Jangara, a ramen shop that Chico had practically inked in blood on our itinerary that day.
She was right to feel so strongly about it. Cheery rainbows were the overriding design motif here, on the menus, on stickers slapped everywhere, on giant rafters that separated the kitchen from the restaurant. To quote Dolly Parton, we’d had to put up with the rain to get the rainbow. But the silver lining was really in the tsukemen, with its milkshake-straw-thick noodles and viscose bonito and sugary broth, it was like the Bolognese of Japanese cuisine. It had to be the coziest shelter in the history of storms.
For dessert, we took our warm bellies a few doors down. Sembikiya Fruit Parlor is the Tiffany’s of fruit: a single mango puffs up from atop a tiny, turquoise pillow, bananas lie pocketed in foam waffle netting and tucked into individual wooden boxes, a quadrant of pears swaddled in purple wrapping, each tied with a thin, gauzy gold ribbon. And then there’s the sticker shock: $40 USD for a set of four pears, $100 for a cantaloupe, $85 for the pair of mangoes.
Chico explained that “gift fruit” is customarily given as good luck to a business partner, or a “get-well” gesture to a sick family member. And gift fruit is totally different from what you’ll find at your local Trader Joe’s. To wit, that cantaloupe was actually a musk melon: grown in Tokyo, it is meticulously cultivated using devoted greenhouses that keep precise temperature for optimal melon harvesting. The melons even wear hats to protect from sunburn. Three to a vine, only one will make the cut to Sembikiya. Judged by appearance, color, and a peerless taste, they’re actually quite akin to diamonds.
And so we put these haute couture fruits to the test by taking a table. We ordered a mixed fruit parfait, mousse of banana and chocolate, and a pot of orange pekoe tea. Sure enough, it was as though Jose Andrés himself had injected these fruits with his molecular magic.
For dinner that night, we booked two seats at the counter of Teppanyaki Kurosawa in Tsukiji, named after Akira Kurosawa, celebrated director of samurai epics. Housed inside an old traditional home built in 1927, the divide between this and Benihana (oh, my ghosts of culinary past) was stark. The signature dish here is the Wagyu steak served teppanyaki style, and don’t miss it. It was as soft as sashimi and melted in our mouths like butter. No showboating was to be found here either: once again, the chefs commanded their teppans with quiet grace and effortlessness. Aprés meal, guests are encouraged to take their dessert upstairs with a digestif. And so we ventured to the 10-seat mezzanine with its miniscule bar to cleanse our palates with Hibiki 12-year and fresh fruit bathed in rose water, passing black and white photos of the (very approving) director on the staircase.
The rising sun the next day reminded me not only of the Japanese flag, but more alarmingly, that we had slept past our 4am window to hit the famous Tsukiji fish market. At 6am, we decided to go anyway, and it was well worth it. While we missed the auction component (where giant tuna can sell for thousands of dollars), simply walking through the open-air warehouse is an experience that will awaken your senses like no other, especially sight and smell. Taste was addressed at Sushi Daiwa, where landlubbers will wait up to two hours for a sushi breakfast. Our wait was one hour, but well worth every granule of rice. At the counter, we ordered the set menu, which included seven pieces of nigiri, six pieces of maki, miso soup and tea. Once the tamago (egg dessert) came, and it did rapidly as Daiwa is no slow dance, the very marrow of our existence rejoiced. And our trip up ramped down just as quickly – we headed home for a nap, but wisely made reservations for an early dinner at Sushi Mizutani before descending onto any pillows.
Frank Lloyd Wright is the designer of the Imperial Hotel in the Ginza district, our choice for cocktails to calm our nerves before the epic sushi experience that is Mizutani. Modeled in the Maya Revival Style of architecture, the pyramid-like space also loosely copies Maya motifs in decor. The hotel’s Old Imperial Bar on the second floor has iconic status too, and this is where we sipped an Imperial 70 and Mount Fuji in dim lighting, save for the crisp spotlights they assign to the space on the bar directly in front of you where your drink is placed. The former drink is a distant cousin to the French 75 or Sidecar, containing dry gin, Cointreau, lemon juice, angostura bitters with a sugar rim, the latter is the bar’s own, circa-1924 creation: Dry gin, lemon juice, pineapple juice, egg white, and maraschino cherry. Both were delicious, and floated us merrily to Mizutani.
Three Michelin stars usually don’t lie, and in this 10-seat blonde-wooded, sake box of a restaurant on the ninth floor of Ginza’s Juno building, those stars don’t hide either. They reveal themselves in every course of the meal, one you will never forget. You also won’t forget the bill, which is $200 for dinner, $300 if you add a couple bottles of sake. Hachiro Mizutani is the sushi master here, and you may recognize him from 2011’s seminal documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, as he is one of Jiro Ono’s protégés. Like Jiro says in the film, the experience of eating sushi should be like a symphony. All the beats and notes here hit like so, but if you come, do also be advised of some etiquette: don’t be late, don’t be noisy, and this is a cash only, chef’s menu only deal. Chef Mizutani is not friendly, and in our case, neither were our counter-mates. In that respect, the place is akin to a church of sushi. And correspondingly, it was a religious experience.
On our final day, we were off to a brisk start – literally – the Shinkansen (bullet train) flung us to Kyoto for a glimpse of a more calm, romantic and traditional Japan. In 140 minutes (to the second - the trains are known for their laser-sharp punctuality) we arrived to a greener, more imperial, ancient and temple-dotted land of Zen. A brief taxi ride dispensed us to our hotel – the Hyatt Regency, a modern ying to Kyoto’s true-to-its-roots hotel scene yang. Sleek and softly lit like the interior of a lantern, the 5-star Regency’s proximity to Kiyomizu Temple is also an important selling point. Which is where we headed first, and is possible to do so quickly on foot. Know that the incline on this trek can be grueling on hot days, though plenty of teahouses offer thirst quenches on the way up. As do all manner of food stands for hunger alleviation, and many of them offer free samples. An astute marketing tactic, as we often ended up purchasing whatever kit and caboodle they were hawking – taking special enjoyment in the shop of mochi, with its green tea, pear and sesame-flavored varieties in all their gelatinous glory.
After on-site acupuncture treatments at the hotel, we let our bodies metabolize in preparation for dinner. Because on this trip, even though we were spoiled with many tastebud-defying experiences, the best was saved for last.
If you go to Kyoto, you simply must sit down for a traditional kaiseki dinner: originating here over 400 years ago, it’s a formal, multi-course meal that was originally intended for royalty. The dishes are highly-seasonal and artfully arranged.
Hidden intentionally, our kaiseki choice Gion Nanba was tucked into a narrow alley where geishas in full kimonos and makeup whisk in and out of ryokans, and is only designated by a small lantern that bears its calligraphic name. Once inside Gion Nanba, where Osamu Nanba, the owner and chef, helms the dinners, you’ll not be surprised to find out that he previously mastered the skills of traditional tea ceremony and Japanese floral arrangement. Presentation here is so precious (think vintage sake cups and dishes that look like origami bouquets), that you might be reluctant to eat anything. But you will. You’ll eat ten or twenty courses, depending on which you reserved. And you’ll thank me later. You see, one day in 2010, a Michelin critic slipped off his shoes at the same door, and soon after, gave Gion Nanba a star. To us, it was worth a sky full.
And as that sky turned bright again, we were on our way back to Los Angeles. The curtain had fallen on our Japanese dining show and these words are my literary standing ovation. And the encore? It is planned for next year’s cherry blossom season.
Takemoto Bldg. 1F, 2-9-17 Shinbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo,
Tsukishima 3-17-10, Tel: 03-3531-7423
Daini Yaki Bldg., B1, 3-6-2 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku; 03-5485-8405
４丁目-４-３ Roppongi, Minato, Tokyo 106-0032, Japan, 03-3408-9674
Kyushu Jangara Ramen
Shanzeru Harajuku Ni-go-kan 1F-2F, 1-13-21 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 03-3404-5572
Sembikiya Fruit Parlor
Green Fantasia 201, 1-11-11 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo, 03-3403-2550
2-9-8, Tsukiji Chuo-ku, 03-3544-9638
5-2-1 Tsukiji Bldg 6, 03-3547-6807
Juno Building 9/F, 8-7-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 03-3573-5258
Shijo Hanami-koji Higashi-Hairu | Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0073, 07-5525-0768
Hire a guide
We used Japan Deluxe Tour. It was entirely customizable. Tell them where you want to go, and they can make suggestions too! It’s like when you go to a museum and wear the headsets - these guys narrate your tour with history and anecdotes and believe me, they know everything (seriously - guides in Japan have to pass rigorous tests to become certified).
Stay in more than one hotel
We wanted to stay at the Park Hyatt because we loved it in Lost in Translation, plus we heard it had a spectacular 47th floor pool. It does, and we had cocktails where Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray did (my husband even sang a slightly slurred version of “More Than This” to me) but after a day or two, you might as well check out a whole new place – and more importantly, a new neighborhood. After two nights there, we moved to the Cerulean Hotel in Shibuya. Totally different vibe, and a locus for all new places.
Take the bullet train
It’s amazing! It’s famous for arriving to its destinations on the minute every time. Try it, order a bento box on the way and enjoy all of the gorgeous scenery you’ll pass by – everything goes by fast, but don’t worry, you’ll see a lot.
Try it! Every country has a handheld street food: tacos, currywursts, empenadas. In Japan, you can find onigiri everywhere, from corner stores to their own specialty shops. It’s steamed rice wrapped in seaweed with different additives like tuna. Meal, snack or when in doubt, just eat one!
Any time you leave the hotel, make sure you have a plan because taxis are extremely expensive! Plan to walk as much as possible and take the subway. Tokyo is large – don’t make counterintuitive zigzags all over town if you don’t need to. Also, do your research ahead of going. Ask trusted foodie friends, put out a Facebook call for suggestions, check out Yelp ratings and talk to concierges.