In my work as a food writer I’ve suffered lost reservations and long waits for bad tables but never—never!—have I been subjected to the serial heartbreak I suffered at the door of a neighborhood pastry shop on my last visit to Tokyo. Every morning my partner, Barry, and I would wait in the rain outside the Ginza patisserie Hidemi Sugino—only to learn yet again that some greedy matron ahead of me had just snatched the last cherry financier and fromage-blanc mousse. Granted, Sugino’s creations are baked daily in minuscule quantities, which qualifies them as gentei (limited-edition) and thus extra-desirable: Birkin bags for the taste buds.
I’d come to Tokyo on a mission to sample just such gastro-fads in a city positively bursting with them. Our first morning in Tokyo, we see hundreds of kids lined up to buy cod-roe costumes inspired by a pasta sauce commercial. We see trompe l’oeil fast food—burgers, fish burgers, fries—all fashioned entirely from chocolate and custard. This food-obsessed megalopolis moves on to the next cult comestible faster than a seasonal Kit Kat can fly off the shelves (yes, Kit Kat flavors are seasonal here; ditto Coke).
Whether it’s kaiten sushi or kanten jelly, cone pizza or collagen-packed soft-shell-turtle meat, this city devours it all. In Tokyo, the sublime meets the ridiculous, and handmade collides with high-tech—sometimes all in one bite. Hungry?Here, some tasting notes from the edge.
From Gyoza Stadium to Ice Cream City
Even though the city itself resembles a culinary safari ride, locals also love food theme parks and sometimes downright garish themed bars and restaurants. Cantonese-food fans prowl Daiba Little Hong Kong, an uncanny simulacrum of downtown Kowloon; noodle maniacs head straight to Yokohama’s Ramen Museum. Us, we go to binge at Gyoza Stadium, inside the indoor multi-attraction extravaganza called Namjatown, near the frenetic Ikebukuro Station. The stadium’s riotous kitschy sprawl is part pinball-like pachinko parlor—Namjatown is owned by Namco, a gaming giant—part nostalgia ride through 50’s Japan. Socialist-realist portraits of famed gyoza chefs from various prefectures decorate faux-rustic booths hawking their creations. We try delicate fried shrimp and shiso-leaf pouches; nouvelle multicolored gyoza with black-vinegar dipping sauce; and fat Okinawan pork dumplings in spicy oil. Next, we’re off to Ice Cream City, a sweets spectacular one floor up. After threading past gelato stands and Turkish guys in national garb selling orchid-root–thickened ice cream (I’ve never seen this outside Istanbul), we raid Cup Ice Museum, a theme park within a theme park, for small cartons of the frozen stuff. Among some 300 flavors on offer are Christmas Island salt, soy chicken, and preserved cherry blossom. In the dainty tubs of pearl ice cream—today’s top seller—customers might chance upon a real pearl. And who knew that eel ice cream could taste so compelling, with its caramely salty-sweet teriyaki kick and a dusting of sansho pepper?I can’t resist calling my friend Ferran Adrià in Barcelona. “Ferran está en Tokyo,” his assistant replies. Where else?
There are 70 kinds of salt at the depachika (department store basement food hall) of Takashimaya Times Square, and right now the store’s vinegar sommelier is tempting me with Vermont Drink, a cassis sipping vinegar, and nifty “infuse-your-own-vinegar” kits. After 10 minutes here I’m about to pass out from sheer sensory overload. With 2,700 square feet of space occupied by some 120 outlets of Japanese and international gourmet purveyors, Takashimaya isn’t even the largest depachika in Tokyo (that would be Seibu, in Ikebukuro). Tokyo’s subterranean food halls function like runway shows for global gastronomic couture, and merchants here change with lightning speed. On my frenzied Takashimaya rounds, I note that since my last visit here, the outpost of Peck, the fabled Milanese deli, has swallowed several concessions around it; that the best-selling items are wearing no. 1 flags; that a TV crew is filming the arrival of the season’s first peach éclairs at Fauchon. Trying to dodge the stampede for Canadian blueberry honey packaged in perfume vials, I knock over an exquisite display of $150 muskmelons. I bow apologetically and scurry away.
Pop Goes the Market
If the depachika are teeming cathedrals of food commerce, konbini (convenience stores) are Tokyo’s bright domesticated shrines to consumerism. At their corner Lawson, AM/PM, or 7-Eleven, Tokyoites can pay utility bills, buy baseball tickets, and send parcels 24/7 while slurping down bowls of udon or Neapolitan zuppa di pesce. Konbini are sprouting up at hospitals and schools—even police stations. Yes, they push Mars bars and chips—but in a myriad of novelty flavors. Here are racks of those limited-edition Kit Kats: cherry blossom, green tea, “chocolatier wine.” Grab them while they last (or try eBay). Soda is seasonal too: Pepsi’s Ice Cucumber flavor was discontinued after selling almost 5 million bottles in just a few weeks. Of the current flood tide of soft drinks (a $32 billion–a-year national industry), bihade (beautiful skin) potions reign supreme. If Shiseido’s collagen brew doesn’t deliver the equivalent of plastic surgery in a bottle, try a jelly drink enriched with ( yikes! ) porcine placenta. My favorite konbini chain, Natural Lawson, indulges the current eco-friendly mood with treats like stupendous red-bean-paste–filled organic croissants and dainty whole-grain-bread sandwiches made into sushi rolls. And how nice to be told the exact origin (Miyazaki prefecture) of the hormone-free chicken in your dog-food purchase.