So I was back in Japan again in May.
Now, May is an awkward period – too late for cherry blossoms, too early for the festivals and fireworks (Jul-Aug). May is like a filler between seasons where things take a hiatus before the real deals start rolling. Still, there’s enough to keep the eyes peeled and the bellies filled and when palates are satiated, nothing is a problem.
And here are the belly-filling recommendations.
Tokyo Station – A 105 Year Old Dame
I dread going to Shinjuku (Station) because somehow, without exception, my inner compass will malfunction.
But Tokyo Station is different. I generally fare better in Tokyo Station (c.1914, refurbished 2014) though I did get lost once or twice, probably in search of the same restaurant – Yonezawa Beef Oouki 米沢牛黄木 (here’s my earlier blog). This is proof that people invariably make the same mistake, not once but at least twice.
Tokyo Station didn’t intimidate as much as Shinjuku and if you really explore the place, you’d find it very well organised and accessible. By accessible, I mean it is easy to get to (many) eateries and shops from the gates and entrances.
As reference, Oouki is located at B1 in Kurobei Yokocho (Blackwall Alley), near to the Yaesu North exit. An adjacent passageway nearby leads to First Avenue where you can also find Ramen Street, Tokyo Character Street and Okashi Land (get uniquely Japanese snacks here). Kitchen Street is on the first floor, just above Kurobei and Kitamachi Dining is on level 2. Other dining areas ie Gransta, GranRoof, GranAge and Kitte Granche are located in different sections of Tokyo Station.
Oyakodon – A Perfect Family Meal
We went to Donburiko at Kitchen Street on the first evening for a few reasons: it was in Tokyo Station, it was popular, it was spacious (at least from diners’ photos) and it was suitable for families (nothing too fancy).
I was curious how the humble Oyakodon could be elevated from a housewife staple into a restaurant specialty. I thought the key was the quality of the eggs and chicken used. But that wasn’t just it. When the Oyakodon came, we were teased by a faint aroma of charcoal. That’s the source of their magic – the grill.
The signature was of course the Oyakodon which we could order in various sizes: Small (900¥), Normal (1100¥) and Large (1200¥). My favourite, however, was their # 2 item: the Chicken-don (1500¥), a rice bowl generously topped with large succulent chunks of beautifully char-grilled chicken thighs which gave off a pleasant aroma of real charcoal. I couldn’t get enough of that smell. Like wok-hei, it gave the dish an extra punch.
Another notable mention was the Yakitori-don which was a medley of char-grilled chicken innards, quail eggs, leek and chicken meat. This one was pretty to look at, and of course, smelt and tasted good too.
Shinbashi Torishige Donburiko 新橋 鶏繁 どんぶり子: 1 Chome-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda City, Tokyo 100-0005, Japan (1st floor, Kitchen Street)
An Sizzling, Flashy Stone Grill
Another immensely popular joint in Tokyo Station was Denko Sekka 電光石火, in First Avenue. This place specialises in Hiroshima-styled Okonomiyaki which differs from the Kansai-style we tried in Osaka. Instead of mixing the ingredients into the batter before turning out the pancake, the ingredients are cooked separately and layered on starting with a heap of cabbage, a thin layer of batter (maybe), noodles (soba or udon), meat (pork), squid, prawn and eggs, in that order.
Punch in your orders at the vending machine at the entrance then pass your tickets to the staff. This may be pretty daunting for foreigners especially with a queue behind you but there will be staff to assist. If not, just punch in anything that takes your fancy.
We tried all the recommended favourites. First up was the signature Denko Sekka (1250¥) which had meat, fried squid, shiso (leaf/vegetable) wrapped in an egg omelette and topped with a generous sprinkling of thinly cut onion. The most eye-catching one was Yume (Dream, 1460¥) which had fried squid, cuttlefish, meat, prawns loosely wrapped in an egg omelette, topped with onions and a sunny-side up.
Tappuri Cheese (Plenty of Cheese, 1350¥) was accompanied by meat, fried squid wrapped in omelette and lots of melted cheese. King of Rookie (1250¥) had a double portion of meat plus offals, ground red chilli pepper was was doused with spicy sauce tehn loosely wrapped with omelette.
If you prefer something more down to earth, you can also order the ‘Normal’ versions (from 880¥), which allows you to choose 1 kind of protein (meat, squid, offal, oyster) or kimchi. Pay extra for additional toppings.
Bakurochō – Of Horse and Men
Bakurochō 马喰町got its name during the Edo era, when the Tokugawa shogunate established a huge stable on the site and horse-related businesses flourished. Bakuro was a reference to the guys who handled the horses. In those days, the horse was an indispensable form of transportation (especially for Samurais) so it made sense that Bakurochō was near to Nihonbashi – the CBD of Edo and the terminal point of the Gokaidō (the 5 highways that connect the rest of Japan to Edo).
In its heyday, Bakurochō must have been lively and even boisterous.
Now it is a quiet residential district though of late, hip, foreigner-friendly hostels like Citan and Obi have moved in. Despite its understated demeanour, Bakurochō is host to a good number of excellent eateries, if you know where to look. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time there so I could only go to 2. But 2 out of 2 was still a perfect score.
Happiness is Eating a Good Hamburg
One of these was Sanpukutei. We knocked on its door late 1 night (around 8pm) but were turned away because the cook had enough for only 2 person (and we were 6). We tried again when we returned to Tokyo around lunch time – and got our wish.
At Sanpukutei, you must order its signature Hamburg steak.
The hamburg (pork+beef) came in 2 sizes ie regular (1150¥) or small (~950¥). I dunno what got into me but I ordered the small version then regretted big-time when I saw an old lady, she must be in her 70s, tucking into her regular hamburg with gusto and furrowed concentration. When mine came, it was an eureka moment. The hamburg was juicy and tender and because it was only very lightly seasoned, the demi-glace sauce complemented it perfectly.
For the non-beef eaters, Sanpukutei serves Tonkatsu as well. You can choose from Tonkatsu or Katsu curry or Minced (meat) Katsu. The Tonkatsu was huge yet tender and fried to perfection in a very crispy batter. The Minced Katsu, like the Hamburg, was plump and juicy. I think the Tonkatsu here bested some of the popular Tonkatsu chains I’d been to and at a fraction of the price too (~1100¥).
This was hands down, one of our best meals.
Sanpukutei 三福亭: 1-chōme-4-10 Nihonbashibakurochō (1-2 mins from exit 2, Bakurocho Station)
Soba, So Good
If you are a soba aficionado, you will know why some soba joints specify “Juwari” in their names. Juwarisoba 十割そば is soba made from 100% buckwheat (there are soba made from a mixture of buckwheat and normal wheat flour or other flour that can be used as binding agents).
At Tokyo Passo 十割そば 東京バッソ (Juwarisoba Tokyo Passo), you can have different types of soba: Inaka 田舎 “country soba”, Sarashina 更科 “refined”, Dattan 韃靼 “bitter”, and for an additional 300¥, the special Hitachi-aki 常陸秋 from Ibaraki 茨城 prefecture.
The shop is a modest but tastefully designed little place tucked in an alley behind our hotel. The menu is in Japanese (only) with just 3 items: Ebisu Beef set (omakase, 1350¥), Soba with fried chicken (690¥) and Soba with fried chicken-don (790¥).
We ordered the fried chicken set without stating the soba type (couldn’t read, didn’t know) so by default, Inaka soba was served not that I had complaints because I liked Inaka more than Sarashina anyway and Dattan might be healthier but bitter soba wouldn’t have gone down well with the family.
The serving was generous and the soba was cooked just right – springy, chewy, the kind of texture that allows the noodles to soak up the dipping sauce well yet not turn mushy. The fried chicken was fresh, tender and though I wished there were more pieces.
For the price we paid, this was a very value-for-money meal.
Tokyo Passo: 十割そば 東京バッソ: 1-chōme-3-11 Nihonbashibakurochō
Nagano, the Temple Town
Most cities in Japan developed around castles but Nagano City (371.4m) was an exception. It had its beginnings during the Nara period (710-794) as a temple town and was built around the Zenkō-ji 善光寺. The latest design (c. 2016) of the JR Nagano station, with lanterns also known as chouchin 提灯 perched on its outer pillars is a subtle reference to its lineage.
As you walk from the station to the temple, it’s hard to miss the street lamps encased in wooden structures, known as Joyatou 常夜灯, all the way from the station to the temple, all 1.8km of it.
A Saucy Affair
I was looking for a good restaurant within or near to Nagano station and found Meijitei 明治亭 in Midori (JR mall in Nagano station). Meijitei is a Nagano-original founded in 駒ヶ根 Komagane and is known for its sauce katsudon ie Tonkatsu drizzled with a special sauce served on a rice bowl. It also serves Shinshu 信州 soba, grilled beef tongue and horse meat.
Sauce Katsudon is a difficult dish to perfect because the sauce tends to make the cutlet mushy yet the Tonkatsu must have bite and the crust should be crispy.
We ordered the signature Sauce Pork Fillet Cutlet (1445¥) rice which came in a huge bowl. 4 generous slices of pork fillet mounted on a mountain of shredded cabbage heaped on rice (you can ask for more or less rice, price will be adjusted accordingly).
I’m not sure if it’s the cabbage or they fried the cutlet after putting the sauce on the cutlet, but the cutlets were crispy, flavourful and full of bite. None of the mushiness I was expecting. Ok, but that mountain of cabbage made it a challenge for us to reach the rice.
If you want variety, get the Shrimp and Pork Loin set.
Meijitei originated from 駒ヶ根 Komagane in Nagano.
Meijitei 明治亭 長野駅店: 380-0823 Nagano, Minamichitose, 1 Chome−22−6 MIDORI長野店3F
Yamanashi’s Houtou – A Pot of Goodness
Yamanashi 山梨 needs no introduction. It is home to Mt. Fuji, Fuji-Q Highland and Houtou and probably pears.
Houtou is a Yamanashi specialty that looks similar to ban mian. The noodles are thicker, shorter, more chewy to taste and is simmered in a hotpot of miso soup with onions, pumpkin, mushrooms, cabbage, potatoes. Unlike Udon which is pre-cooked before adding the broth, Houtou is simmered raw, together with the rest of the ingredients.
One of the best Houtou place is Houtou Fudo opposite Kawaguchiko station. A very good cure if you are suffering from sensory overload (noise, crowd, sightseeing, walking). It still tasted as good as when I had it years ago.
The Houtou came in a cast iron pot and was placed on a grill.
Houtou Fudo ほうとう不動: 3631-2 Funatsu Fujikawaguchiko, Minamitsuru-gun, Yamanashi 401-0301, Japan
Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum
Shin-Yokahama 新横浜 smells and looks like a sparkly new kid on the block – a city that came to be because of the the train station. Which wasn’t too far from the truth because when the station opened in 1964, the area around it was still largely undeveloped ie just tracts of open land.
Where we stayed, it was only a 6-minute walk to the Ramen Museum (c. 1994). Adults pay a 310¥ entrance fee (senior citizens 100¥) and you get to savour ramen from 6 different shops in a setting that was modeled on Tokyo circa 1958. Kitschy but can be an educational and fun place to bring foreign visitors.
Of course, I went there purely for the ramen. Most of the ramen restaurants offer mini-bowls (half-size) so you can sample ramen from at least 2 joints.
My favourite was Muku Zweite 無垢 ツヴァイテ (zweite is “2” in German), which had its beginnings in Frankfurt. You may balk at the idea of eating ramen that didn’t originate in Japan but make no doubt, Muku was good. I like Tonkotsu 豚骨 and thick noodles and Muku had both. This was easily one of the best ramen joints in the museum and the constant stream of people entering it was a testament to that.
Muku Zweite 無垢 ツヴァイテ: 2 Chome-14-21 Shinyokohama, Kohoku Ward, Yokohama, Kanagawa 222-0033, Japan
Shinasobaya支那そばや was quieter in comparison which was strange because it was also good. It (and Ramen Museum) was founded by the late celebrity chef, Minoru Sano, who was known/feared/respected as the Demon of Ramen. The man himself may be gone but the ramen still wowed. The chicken broth was light and flavourful, not overwhelming and accented by the fried onions garnished on top. It was however the texture of the noodles that became the talking point; thin yet springy, buried in the broth but still al dente.
Shinasobaya: B2F Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum, 2-14-21 Shin-yokohama, Kohoku-ku