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

Drinking and striving

A Cucumber Rickey? That’s a thing?

It is a thing, evidently, an alcoholic thing, a thing that tastes like a wonderful thing.

I recently discovered the Cucumber Rickey (yes, I now know the drink’s been around since Tutankhamun) at the Montreal bar La Distillerie, a packed, ultra-trendy but relievedly casual spot that specializes in inspired, palate-thrilling cocktails without the pretense and rigamarole of highfalutin mixology, and does so at gulpingly cheap prices. My Cucumber Rickey — Bombay Sapphire gin, a truckload of fresh cucumbers, lime juice, simple syrup, and orange and mandarin bitters — was $7.50 in U.S dollars. Another, please.

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Gin, cukes, paradise.

A poor specimen of  a cocktail connoisseur — a kicky gin and tonic does me fine — I’m still keenly curious about and eager to try new alcoholic concoctions. I regret I didn’t have time to sample more from La Distellirie’s festive menu, which boasts 27 specialty drinks, though I did try the toothsome Mohawk — Bombay Sapphire gin, peach purée, lemon juice, elderflower cordial, homemade jasmine tea syrup, soda water — a fragrant sweet and sour pleasure. (What in the hell is elderflower cordial?)

That menu is something else, a disarming, user-friendly catalog tailored to individual thirsts. For instance, if you’re in the mood for a “Herbal, Fresh, Refreshing” drink you can choose from four cocktails, including the ubiquitous Mojito, as well as my dear Cucumber Rickey and Mohawk.

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the Mohawk — sweet, sour, sublime

If you require a “Robust-Intense Powerful Concentrated” drink, select from the Mad Man, Rollercoaster and three others. A quartet of neon-tinged beverages with long French names are located in the “Accessible, Delicate, Light-Soft” category. And so on. There are six categories total.

La Distellirie has three locations in Montreal. I was at the smallest and most popular spot — got there early, beat the crush — in the city’s Latin Quarter (make that Quartier-Latin) on Rue Ontario East. Two doors down from La Distillerie is Pub Quartier-Latin, a ridiculously friendly, semi-dive bar, with a cheery staff, cheap drinks, heaping greasy food and reliable WiFi. I hung out there a lot, writing on my laptop and sipping passable gin and tonics.

My drinking preferences have evolved over time. Fifteen years ago I’d keep a 12-pack of Rolling Rock in my fridge and stock no distilled spirits. A few years later I always had cheap Yellowtail merlot on hand, but still no hard booze, which I drank almost entirely at bars (mostly, blush, vodka cranberries). My beer and wine period seems to have lasted forever, and my liquor sophistication remained downright uncivilized.

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Where zesty cocktails are found in Montreal’s Latin Quarter.

Until, at last, my brother introduced me to the nuanced grandeur of Scotch — the peat, smoke, vanilla, grass, fruit, even hay — all those swirling notes that begin in the nostrils and finish in a slightly seared gullet. He enlightened me by pouring The Glenlivet, Laphroaig and Talisker, single malts reserved for special occasions. (Our everyday Scotch is the smooth, blended, wholly unpretentious Dewar’s White Label.)

We sample gins for the best G&T’s, as we call them, and have graduated from Schweppes to Fever-Tree premium tonic. Our favorite gin to date: The Botanist. Least favorite: New Amsterdam. (Only later did we learn it was distilled in Modesto, Calif., explaining scads.) We quickly realized that Gordon’s London Dry beats out Bombay Sapphire in taste and price.

We make easy Scotch and sodas, the occasional Cape Cod, and try out new ryes and bourbons, Woodford Reserve being a standout.

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My brother’s dreaded Negroni.

As I said before, I’m a cocktail dilettante. My brother’s the aspiring mixologist, who, like a driven chef, derives myriad satisfactions from confecting a complex libation, step by step, following a strict recipe. He’s especially partial to Old Fashioneds and the bitter, face-scrunching Negroni, which offers a delightful finish of ear wax.

When done creating, he always clinks glasses and often smacks his lips after the first sip of success.

He’s particular about his brands and demands his ice cubes just so. This self-anointed beverage snob, a real liquid dandy, won’t drink at any bar that sprays its tonic from a push-button nozzle, or soda gun. That’s commitment.

I don’t care if they fire my tonic out of a gun. Yet I do crave quality, like the tasty bracers at La Distellerie, which take skill and a little heart. I make modest drinks as best I can — my G&Ts, when I slice up some fresh fruit, are really not bad — and I like to think I could pull off my own Mohawk or Cucumber Rickey. All that, even if I do pour my wine from a cardboard box.