Whenever I'm asked what I miss most about Tokyo, where I lived for seven years, I always reply, "My red motor scooter and the food." The Honda, on which I blithely zoomed around the city, symbolized a jaunty freedom that characterized my life at the time. My tiny cold-water flat was ill equipped for cooking, and thus, it was in neighborhood restaurants that I learned much of what I came to know about both Tokyo and the Japanese. I sold the motor scooter when I left Japan. But the restaurants are still there, waiting like old friends to help me recapture the past each time I visit. Here are some of my favorites.
Though ramen—noodles in broth—originated in China, it is the fuel that drives Japan. There are ramen shops on almost every block in every town and city, serving countless regional variations, soy and miso being the most common broths. Soon after moving into my first apartment in Tokyo, I noticed a steady stream of taxi drivers just down the street, disappearing beneath a yellow awning announcing RAMEN. One night I ventured in and got my first taste of Kyushu ramen, named for the southernmost of Japan's four major islands.
I was instantly addicted to the rich pork broth, with its generous heapings of thin noodles, green onions, and slices of pork. There was nothing else on the menu except rice, not even beer (in deference to the taxi drivers). The old man and wife who ran the place worked wordlessly, their eyes on the TV. The Japanese generally don't like garlic, but here jars of minced garlic lined the counter, and on winter nights I'd spoon large dollops into my bowl—the Japanese equivalent of Mom's chicken soup.
On a recent trip back to Tokyo, I returned to Nanpu for the first time in more than five years. Nothing had changed (or, possibly, been cleaned). By the front door there was a small sink and grimy towel so the taxi drivers—and I—could wash our hands. The old man and his wife were still behind the counter. I ordered and he grunted in reply. A Sylvester Stallone movie, dubbed in Japanese, was playing on the TV. Comic books and magazines littered the orange Formica counter. The ramen was still sublime. Loudly slurping the noodles to show my appreciation, I looked up at the old man and smiled. He responded with a subtle nod. Did he recognize me?It was hard to tell; in all the years I'd eaten here, though I was his only foreign customer (to my knowledge), we'd never spoken once.
8-25 Tomihisa-cho, Shinjuku-ku; 81-3/3353-5447; ramen for two $10.
Eventually I tired of a life lived on the floor, Japanese-style. Longing for chairs and a sofa—and a room big enough to hold them—I moved across town to Kitazawa, a charming residential neighborhood south of Shinjuku. This apartment had a real kitchen, where I grew basil and rosemary on the balcony and ate at a proper table with a view of the narrow, tree-lined street below.
Every Tokyo neighborhood has a shotengai, a pedestrian shopping street that begins at the train station. On my latest visit, a Japanese friend and I roamed Kitazawa's. It was crowded with commuters on their way home, stopping at the rice and tea vendors, the take-out sushi and yakitori stands, and the fish, meat, and produce sellers. At a fruit stand, I bought a huge bag of mikan, fragrant Japanese mandarin oranges, for my hotel room.
But we had really come here to have dinner at one of my old haunts, Yoshida Tempura—a nomiya, or drinking establishment that serves inexpensive food. It's a homey place—just a long counter with stools, and four small tables on a raised platform. We removed our shoes, took a table, and ordered beers. At the table on our right sat two small, hyperactive children and three chain-smoking adults. Later, a couple came in, ordered drinks and snacks, took out a deck of cards, and began to play.
The day's menu was penned on strips of paper tacked up over the counter. Tempura, of course. Raw and fried oysters. Fried tofu. Deep-fried heads of garlic (Japan's tastes have changed). Iwashi dango, minced sardine balls in broth. We ordered appetizers and two broiled fish teishoku, served with rice, miso soup, and pickles—"the quintessential Japanese meal," my friend commented.
I was so completely happy (except for the clouds of cigarette smoke around me) that for a moment I contemplated moving back to Japan, to Kitazawa, just so I could dine here every night. And when we settled our bill on the way out (in Japan, the customer pays at the door, and there is no tipping), I discovered that Yoshida Tempura now takes credit cards. Some changes are for the better.
17-14 Oyama-cho, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/3465-1898; teishoku for two $12.
My hands-down favorite restaurant in Tokyo was Koya, always crowded and effortlessly hip. With its long black counter and tables, its open kitchen filled with steaming cauldrons and sizzling woks, its waiters careering around with trays of food and bottles of beer, Koya made me feel as if I might easily be in New York or Paris. Koya was where I took first dates, friends, and visitors from America. Once, I brought along two New York friends and their host, a famous Japanese feminist, thus endearing myself to the owner's wife, Kato, herself an ardent feminist. Kato soon began pressing me into service whenever I went abroad, requesting bags of spices difficult to find in Japan. In return, I became her guinea pig: she plied me with new dishes her kitchen was perfecting, seeking my opinion.
There was always a line outside Koya. The menu was actually Chinese, yet I thought of it as a very Japanese restaurant, for the food was clean and simple, highlighting fresh ingredients. Many people came for the shina soba, Koya's astonishingly tasty ramen in pork broth, which was all they served at lunch—along with sara wonton, filled with pork and served on a plate with a dollop of hot sauce and cilantro. I would go in the evenings for tofu salad; chewy, sesame oil—infused jellyfish salad; unpeeled boiled shrimp with a chili dipping sauce; and, in season, stir-fried oysters with scallions.
On this visit, Koya seemed as popular as ever, and the food as good. But Kato was gone. I asked one of my Japanese friends, also a regular, and he shrugged. Maybe, I mused, it was divorce. After all, married life couldn't be easy for a feminist in Japan.
8 Sanei-cho, Yotsuya, Shinjuku-ku; 81-3/3351-1756; shina soba for two $10, dinner for two $40.
During my early days in Tokyo, I assiduously avoided all things American. I once fled the apartment of a Morgan Stanley broker who'd had all his furniture and food supplies shipped over from the States and who entertained dinner guests with screenings of Woody Allen's Manhattan. That broker would not have been happy at Sukeroku, a small sushi bar behind Tokyo's Kabuki-za Theater that became, for a few years, my Japanese refuge. The chef-owner, Fumio Sato, treated me more like a friend than a customer, and I've never found better sushi anywhere.
Sukeroku is within walking distance of Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, where Sato bought the freshest fish every morning, including delicacies I'd never tasted in the States: hotaruika, miniature squid that he served marinated; and sazae, or sea snail, extracted from its spiraling shell with a toothpick. Dinner could easily run more than $100 per person, but at lunch my friend Sato offered a generous sushi assortment for less than $10. It was from Sato that I learned the proper way to eat sushi (with fingers instead of chopsticks) and, over time, a lexicon of Japanese words that caused my Japanese teachers to scowl and blush.
On the rainy last day of my visit, I squeezed past the bicycles and motorbikes parked haphazardly on the sidewalk, parted the blue noren curtains, and slid open the door to Sukeroku. Sato greeted me in that wonderfully understated way the Japanese have—as if it had been only a week, rather than several years, since we last saw each other. I shook out my wet coat and sat at the bar. It was mid-afternoon, and I was the only customer. Within moments a steaming hot cup of green tea stood before me, and Sato was preparing my favorites: iwashi (sardine) and negi toro temachi, a hand roll of tuna belly, chopped scallions, and rice. "You look good. Still young," I told him. "You too. You haven't aged at all," he said, without breaking the rhythm of his knife as it sliced a piece of glistening toro. I sipped my tea and sighed. Outside, rain was falling. But here, in Sato's sushi bar, I was home again.
3-13-4 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3546-1869; lunch sushi assortment for two $16, dinner for two $60.
FOOD ON THE RUN
"Tokyo is so expensive," visitors lament after a few days of hotel living and restaurant dining. But the Japanese themselves rarely eat in fancy restaurants — they prefer fast "comfort" food. Here are a few items to try:
Una-don Unagi, or slices of freshwater eel, served on a bowl of rice. Japanese fast food.
Onigiri Rice balls with a variety of fillings, including pickled plums or tuna salad, wrapped in seaweed. Found at every 7-Eleven.
Oden A stew of tofu, fish dumplings, and vegetables. In winter you can get it at outdoor stalls all over Tokyo.
Tonkatsu An example of the Japanese integrating a Western dish — in this case, a deep-fried, breaded pork cutlet — into their own cuisine.
Oroshi zaru soba Cold soba noodles served with grated daikon radish and a dipping sauce; a great summer dish.
Vending machine tea The selection is vast — hot or cold, bottled or canned. Try chilled mugi-cha, a non-caffeinated barley tea with a smoky flavor.