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.