I have been in Tokyo and I have been eating, of course. There are reckoned to be 80,000 restaurants in Tokyo (for a population of 37 million), and everybody tells you it’s very hard to find a really bad one, and I didn't try.
As with so many things Japanese, there’s something simultaneously very alien and very appealingly obsessive about much of the food and the eating culture. Another thing people tell you is great about Japanese restaurants is that they specialize, sometime minutely. Whereas a western restaurant will offer a menu of meat and fish, pasta and a vegetarian option, a sushi restaurant in Japan will only serve sushi, perhaps only eel. People were also talking about a restaurant that specializes only in tomato.
I ate sushi, of course. This is ark shell:
This is flying squid, and no I’m not exactly sure what that stuff is in the middle of it, squid stuff, I suppose:
There were oysters, eaten at a thoroughly Japanese restaurant with the unlikely name of Ostrea; those giant ones are Hirotawans, from Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture:
Elsewhere there was fugu, or puffer fish. Here are some live ones seen on the street:
And here’s the stuff I bought from a supermarket:
In Food Sake Tokyo Yukari Sakamoto’s guidebook to Tokyo food she tells us “It is rare to be poisoned in restaurants, but not unheard of.” I weighed the risk of death against the bragging rights and decided in favor of the latter. And no, it didn’t have a lot of taste, and I tried to convince myself that I was experiencing some tingling in the tongue and lips and but I’m not really not sure that I did, and I’ve since learned that if the fish was farmed then I wouldn’t have tingled anyway.
And most memorably there was naizo – offal, nose to tail eating, at Shinjuki Horumon – a smoke-filled, rough and ready place, behind a metal door and not much frequented by gaijin as far as I could tell (though I did later find out, to my chagrin, that it had appeared on some ludicrous tv show), but the staff were welcoming if slightly amused by our presence. It was a party of three and it no doubt helped that one of us (not me, obviously) spoke Japanese.
To be honest I can’t tell you absolutely everything I ate – and I'm pretty sure it was all beef offal, but don't shoot me if you recognize some non-beef parts in these pics. I know there was tongue sashimi, marinated and made very, very tender and I think the best tongue of any sort that I've ever eaten:
And there was heart:
And there was whatever the things are on this plate:
I know there’s some udder and some intestine and that thing on the back of the grill that looks like a sliced penis, yep, that’s a sliced penis – actually “sao” to the locals.
It tasted pretty much the way you’d imagine, i.e, not actually all that tasty but very, very chewy. And as we reeled out into the night one of these two lads said, in English, “See you again tomorrow.” And I did think we should have gone back the next night, but there were other adventures to be had.
One of the interesting issues about finding somewhere to eat in Tokyo is that the indicators that signal a good restaurant in the west, seem not to apply here. Notions of ambiance or atmosphere or mood lighting really do go out the window, if there is a window, which often there isn’t.
Restaurants that look as brightly lit as MacDonald’s turn out to have amazingly good food, grubby-looking little ten-seater establishments turn out to be wonderful. In places like that, you can see the chef and the chef can see and this bolsters intimacy and trust, or at least I think it does. There was a certain amount of looking at the incomprehensible outside of a restaurant and just plunging in, like this one:
The deep fried squid legs (yes, that's piped mayonnaise!) and the boneless pork toe were knock outs:
There are many restaurants in the subway stations, most famously in Yurakucho there’s Sukiyabashi Jiro, (seen in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi), a Michelin 3 Star with a 30,000 Japanese yen tasting menu (that’s about $250), and word is you’re in and out in 20 minutes. Needless to say, I didn’t go there.
And of course, as everybody tells you, the department stores are amazing resources for food. The basements have food halls, and there are generally restaurants up on the top floors. The store Takashimaya in Shinjuku has 20 or so full-on restaurants, including Katsukura, a place I was told I must go for the tonkatsu – that’s Kyoto-style pork, coated in panko and deep fried, served “Rosu” juicy, fatty, tender, sublime. And in a department store.
The most extraordinary space I ate in was a restaurant called The Moon, part of the Mori Art Museum on the 52nd floor of the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills – a futuristic, slightly dodgy, and I dare say Ballardian urban development where the likes of Apple, Google and Goldman Sachs have their headquarters, and where people live in high-rise “residences.”
The food at The Moon is pretty odd – hybrid Japanese-French nouvelle cuisine of the “have I eaten yet?” variety, that looks like this:
Or this - that's battered bamboos shoot and a cup of sake, and I couldn't work out what the other thing is:
These are the restaurant’s photos not mine. And sure, it was all tasty enough but way too fancy for its own good. Or at least for mine. Still, I could console myself with the view across Tokyo, and the knowledge that somewhere down there are at least 79,999 other restaurants. Maybe you'll stop at one of them on your way home.