Sushi, sake and 7-Eleven: My top 8 eats and drinks in Japan

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In two weeks I head to Japan, one of the best food and drink cities in the world. Last time I was there, I was green, gullible and a little lost. I ate at places I stumbled on that simply looked good — I had no reservations — and bought drinks at random bars or even from beer vending machines. This time I’m prepared. My eats itinerary is tight and structured, and I’ve wisely left a few days open for discovery. Below are eight of my top food and drink destinations in Tokyo and Kyoto:

1. Tokyo boasts more Michelin Star restaurants — 230 — than any other city, making the neon-marinated metropolis the world’s number one food destination, according to France’s revered (and feared) Michelin Guide. I can’t afford a 2-star or 3-star outing — like Sushi Jiro, whose stardom skyrocketed after the worshipful documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” — nor will I subject myself to the fussy rigmarole of trying to reserve a spot at one of them, itself an Olympic event demanding backflips, secret handshakes and blood oaths. I did, however, after some patient, nimbly maneuvered reservation action, land lunch at Ginza Iwa Sushi, a 1-star Michelin destination, whose fixed-menu fee ($101) makes me blanch. One of the most popular sushi joints in Tokyo, Iwa serves a 12-course lunch and is known for its elegance, tradition and finesse. And wallet-thinning powers. 

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Ginza Iwa Sushi

2. Though I never dream about it (unlike Jiro and his sushi) and only eat it about every three years, yakitori is one of my tongue-tingling tops. It’s primarily grilled chicken skewers, but also features eel, myriad meats and grill-happy veggies. For my yakitori fix I’m going to Sumiyakisosaitoriya Hitomi in Kyoto, an unpronounceable place so popular I had to secure a reservation through my hotel concierge months ago. It’s considered the best yakitori in Kyoto. Online reviews speak of chicken transcendence.

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Yakitori at Sumiyakisosaitoriya Hitomi

3. I know, well, nothing about one of Japan’s national drinks, sake. (It’s rice wine, right?) I’m here to learn. And drink. Hence the Sake Tasting and Lecture I’ve booked at the foolishly early hour of 1:30 p.m. (on Halloween, no less). It’s set in an izakaya — a snug local bar where a variety of small dishes and snacks are served with alcoholic drinks — where pupils of the potent potable will taste eight to 10 kinds of sake under the affable tutelage of a guzzling guru named Murata. I’m actually not a big sake sipper, though I had some the other night at, what else, a sushi dinner, and it was cold, smooth, savory. Teach me, master (small bow).

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4. My last time in Tokyo I visited the legendary Tsukiji Fish Market at the crack of dawn, extremely punchy from staying up all night, mildly partying before quaffing Starbucks. I was a beet-eyed mess, weaving through the warrens of stalls and stands filled with fresh-off-the-boat fish and sea creatures, snapping zesty photos, lost in the briny commotion of frenetic commerce. Rudderless, I just wandered where my soon-soaked sneakers took me. I didn’t know where to eat some of the fresh catches, which is something you definitely do at the market, and I didn’t know where to go next. I needed a guide. That’s what I’ll have with the Tsukiji Fish Market Food and Culture Walking Tour, a 3.5-hour expedition, starting at 8:30 a.m., through the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world, and one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind. Sushi, sake, fried fish cake, tea and a Japanese omelette are just part of the menu. Sobriety is another part. 

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5. I’m in Japan, one of the supreme culinary capitals in the world, and what I’m craving, with impish urgency, is … an egg salad sandwich from 7-Eleven. This, I swear, is a thing. Convenience stores (or conbinis) are rampant across the country — there are at least 50,000 — with three reigning chains: 7-Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart. Here’s where you find whack Japanese to-go cuisine, from dried squid and deep-fried quail eggs; to insta-noodles and syrup-filled pancakes; to 9% alcohol beer and ongiri (seaweed-wrapped rice stuffed with savory fillings). And, of course, the homely, homey egg salad sandwich (tamagosando). Celeb chefs Anthony Bourdain and David Chang have sworn by their tastiness and websites are devoted to them. 7-Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart offer variations on a simple theme, using fluffy crustless white bread and the Japanese mayonnaise Kewpie. “Japanese mayo tends to be more tart than American mayo, with a mild sweetness and robust umami that gives it a bit more flavor,” writes a blogger, who conducted an egg sandwich showdown between those at the three major conbinis. (Spoiler: 7-Eleven stuffs the most egg in its sandwiches, as seen below.)

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Egg salad from FamilyMart, 7-Eleven and Lawson

6. Hailed by many cocktail connoisseurs as one of the best bars on the planet — and easily the best in Tokyo — Bar Benfiddich, in the city’s sleepless Shinjuku district (where my hotel is, conveniently), pours classics with radical twists. Show-runner Hiroyasu Kayama has been dubbed an alchemist, whose design for the bar was a “moonshine den, dark and mysterious, with dusty 19th-century bottles and jars of arcane herbal infusions.” It is intimate. How so? Try eight seats and two tables. I’m lining up. Now.

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Bar Benfiddich

7. I lust for ramen — I’m partial to mazemen, or brothless — and it had better be excellent. I like my noodles thick and savory and chewy. The best ramen in Kyoto, they say, is Kyoto Engine Ramen. No reservations, so I’m crashing the place. I only know what I’ve read in the noodle-sphere, the bulk of it stellar, exalting the omnivorous varieties and vegan options. Ordering’s a breeze: From a vending machine you purchase a ticket with your selection on it, then slip it to the server. “The space itself is groovy and modern. Cool jazz was playing. A nice touch was the cute little Shintō shrine behind the bar,” writes a guest. I wanted more about the ramen (photos show mouthwateringly complex bowls). Then I read this: “The ramen is bomb!!!” Pow.

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8. Beyond the go-to Suntory brand Bill Murray shills in “Lost in Translation,” Japan distills several top-shelf whiskies, most of which can be sipped at LiquorMuseum Pontocho in Kyoto, a seatless, stand-at-table whisky pub run by surpassingly knowledgable whisky whizzes. They serve 1,000 types of drinks at the esteemed bar. All drinks are 500 Yen (including tax), or about $4.65. And there’s no service charge. I’ll have another one, bartender-san. 

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LiquorMuseum

Tokyo visions

So I return to Japan in late October, my first time in several years, and the anticipation is giving me fits of insomnia. The capital, Tokyo, is one of my favorite and most indelible cities, part of a troika that includes Paris and Istanbul. I was skipping through some photos from past trips — people and places inside and outside of that teeming, gleaming metropolis: pagodas and Harajuku Girls; whale meat and cherry blossoms; lakes and a big, cool silver orb that, in its own odd way, sums up the reliable surreality of Tokyo.

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(Yes, I’m afraid this is a whale feast.)

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Japan by mouth

There’s a popular documentary from 2011 called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” As I plan a trip to Japan, I also dream of sushi. And ramen. And Sapporo. And yakitori. And sake. And squid. And Godzilla. 

If Jiro, a wispy 90-ish sushi master, merely dreams of sushi, I fully rhapsodize about sushi. (OK, I exaggerate. I only think about sushi, mm, twice a week. But it excites in ways other foods do not: Its silken, room-temperature raw-dacity; glistening, quivering slipperiness; palate-dancing umami-ness. Does that make me a sushi master? I think it does.) 

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Sushi swirls around the dreaming Jiro’s head. He dreams of sushi. He swims in it. He wonders: Why so much sushi? He dreams of retirement.

What I’m saying is I will ingest gobs and globs of raw fish during my 12-day fall journey, to the point of possibly getting mercury poisoning, which would be one hell of a souvenir. Sushi, that artisanal seafood delicacy, isn’t cheap, one reason why I eat it sparingly. Another reason is that where I live fine sushi is as rare as Rodan sightings. And mediocre sushi, like a half-ass steak, makes one ponder existence darkly. 

Therein lies the miraculous ingenuity of Japan’s conveyor-belt sushi (kaiten-sushi) — not amazing, not bad, but invariably cheap and gratifying seafood that winds through the restaurant on exactly that, a conveyor belt, like an assembly-line of deliciousness. Its brilliant utility blots out its majestic absurdity.

Round and round the little plates go, each saucer’s cargo a slab of prepared-before-your-eyes nigiri, circling a seeming mile on a tiny conveyor belt, waiting for you to snatch it at your desire as it rattles by. Each plate or piece costs about a buck-fifty or less, so a meal, for me at least, ranges a not-bad $10-$15.

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Conveyor-belt sushi, like a buzzing food factory.

But why not try Jiro’s sushi shrine, the tiny 10-seat Sushi Jiro, a Michelin three-star establishment/closet located in Tokyo’s Ginza subway station? For one, it’s $300-plus a meal, no exceptions. Two, it is nigh to impossible to net a reservation, though I did spot the so-called Jiro Dreams of Sushi Jiro Dinner & Luxury Tour at a fee of $1,500 per head. This one’s for Jiro cultists/completists and FOMOs only. Plus, men have to wear a blue or white shirt and a blazer and we know that’s not going to happen.

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Edo-style sushi

So I’ll go back to school. Namely Sushi University, a two-hour tutorial pig-out in which you learn while you nosh at a fine Tokyo sushi restaurant. The pitch:

“How would you like to sit at an authentic, Edo-style sushi counter, enjoying sophisticated conversation with the chef? Each excursion includes a skilled interpreter who joins you from start to finish, allowing you to experience the culture and history of sushi as well as learn about the chef’s specialties and style of the restaurant.”

(Smoking and the wearing of perfume are forbidden lest they corrupt the delicate fishy.)

If I’m not a sushi master by now — though I think we’ve established that indeed I am — then surely I will be one after graduating Sushi University. Hai!

On my two prior trips to Japan I was gastronomically rudderless, lost, quite pathetic. I just ambled about, making impromptu eating choices based on whatever looked yummy and inviting in the neon-soaked Shibuya and Shinjuku areas where I stayed. I’d duck into an inevitably minuscule and packed yakitori place or busy conveyor-belt sushi joint, or simply grab some street food. (I ate whale. So sue me.)  I must say, I did eat fine.

Structure is the operative word this time. And learning (see: Sushi University) is part of it. Hence the Sake Tasting and Lecture I’ve enrolled in, aka Signature Sake-Tasting Course, a 10-plus glass sake tasting including sake snacks (or tsunami) and a lecture in English. It’s conducted at one of the most famous members-only sake houses (izakayas) in Tokyo, or so they say. (It could be a bar owned by the instructor’s cousin Rocco.) I don’t even like sake. But I am going for liquid enlightenment, to open my buds and brain. By course end, I will be a sucker for sake, otherwise I will upend the table and demand a refund. And then I’ll probably get roughed up and tossed to the curb.

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My Tokyo hotel is smack in the thwumping heart of kinetic, cornea-cooking Shinjuku, famous for its oceanic bar scene, insomniac nightlife and seedy red-light district — and for sucking up half the world’s electricity in hyperactive signage. I want to dig in with a little help from my friends, so I’m taking the Tokyo Bar Hopping Tour in Shinjuku — Explore the Hidden Bars in Food Alleys. I beg it’s as bulging as that unwieldy title, as our small group weaves through itty six-seat pubs and sake houses of the Golden Gai for food and drink and, I hope, staggering wisdom. Keep your tawdry Love Hotels. I’m not playing around. I’m here for elucidation and libation. Now where in hell do I get a stiff whisky? 

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Shinjuku — batshit.

Capping my Tokyo culinary explorations is an obligatory trip to the famed Tsukiji Fish Market for an early morning, 3.5-hour “food and culture” walking tour at the outer part of the massive market. Here’s some copy that’s as canned as Chicken of the Sea:

Rub shoulders with Michelin-starred chefs as they shop for ingredients at this sprawling, 80-year-old market for all things aquatic. Investigate the various stalls selling fish, shellfish, and everything in between, and sample Japanese favorites such as sushi, dried bonito, fresh oysters, and sake. Eat and drink like a Japanese local.”

Exactly. I want to eat and drink like a local, not a western bobble-head boob. That’s the point of this Edo-education and sake schooling — to figure how it’s done and cultivate an experience of maximum authenticity. I’m more about learning the history and culture than the language, though I do know three words in Japanese. Maybe four. No. Three.

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Tsukiji Fish Market. Looks disgusting. Tastes great.

At this point, I’ll be full up to the gills in raw fish, sake and sundry seafoods. I will have relished a moveable feast, an embarrassment of fishes. I will have been transported, spirited away. Jiro, that old master chef, will have nothing on me. I will have dreamed of sushi, and worlds more. I will at last be sated, and ready to start all over again. After you …