Everyone needs an obsession or two. I don’t know how people get by in life without at least one. Well, that’s not totally true. I’m sure there are some dull folks out there who are content to work, watch prime time TV, have kids, and then raise them to work and watch prime time TV. But I don’t think I could do it.
I really shouldn’t knock prime time TV because one of my obsessions happens to be the Japanese comedy show ガキの使いやあらへんで！！ (Gaki no tsukai ya arahende!!) Technically it doesn’t run during “prime time.” It airs Sunday nights during the odd block 22:56-23:26, so it’s more of a late show, but their 絶対に笑ってはいけない罰ゲーム (Zettai ni waratte wa ikenai batsu game) special runs in the primest of Japanese times: New Year’s Eve from 6:30 until (the technically impossible?) 24:30.
My latest Japan Times Bilingual page column “The annual pain and pleasure of punished comedians” (solid headline—props to my JT editor) introduces the batsu game special and why it’s so great. It’s probably underrated compared to Kōhaku, but not by much and definitely not by its main demographic (elementary-school-aged boys).
I have two personal connections that sparked my obsession with the batsu games.
I first visited Japan during the summer of 2002, and I have vague memories of seeing the “Matsumoto Rangers” on a news program during the wee hours of the morning while I was suffering from jet lag. Wikipedia confirms that this did indeed air during that summer, but I think I arrived earlier than July/August, so I’m not sure I was still jetlagged…I might have seen a replay at some point. At any rate, it stood out and was funny, even if I didn’t really understand why it was happening.
In 2006 I traveled down to Kyushu with a couple of JET buddies during the holidays, but I made it back up to Fukushima for New Year’s Eve, and another JET buddy and I spent it in Kitakata eating and drinking and flipping back and forth between the fights and the batsu game. It was the police batsu game, which was the first special to air on New Year’s Eve.
These two connections cemented my obsession, and I’ve since tracked down and watched most of them. A lot of material is available on DVD in Japan. If you live in other regions but are Internet proficient, you should be able to find the other episodes. Many of them are available on the YouTubes these days somehow (and fanboys/girls have even subbed them).
I’ve written previously on the blog here and over at Neojaponisme about the batsu game. Most of the YouTube links are dead on those posts but should be relatively easy to track down. I recommend watching at least the 24時間耐久鬼ごっこ (24-hour Endurance Onigokko) (Youku, Youtube) and the 絶対に笑ってはいけない24時間警察 (You must not laugh 24-hour police) (Youku, Youtube). They are classic classic moments in modern Japanese comedy.
00:35 The music is “Los Dias Sin Dias” from Estradasphere, one of my favorite bands. I’d wanted to do a video about tonkatsu for a while but didn’t know how to structure it until I heard this song on shuffle one day. The idea came to me instantly – the mood so perfectly captures that strung out, hungover feeling.
This is my room. You can see my pole. That’s where I hang my futon when I’m not sleeping on it.
This is probably my favorite of all the videos I’ve made. Maybe number two with the onsen video being number one.
Other things of note: The Meters self-titled first album on my desk (best funk album ever), Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II (sadly I don’t have a record player, but they are fun albums to look at), my UV-blocking curtains I brought with me from Fukushima.
00:42 My futon in action. Things of note: Tempur-Pedic pillows, my mini Mapple, bag for my yoga mat (which lives under my futon), camera case for my Canon HV20.
00:50 Full shot of my room. It’s a mess. It’s a little cleaner these days thanks to a massive purge I went through when I thought I might have to move apartments. I still have too much stuff.
Things of note: gray bags from Tanakaya in the foreground (full of beer), my low-ass chair I bought from the Shinagawa Ward recycle shop (it broke about a month after I bought it and is now stuck in the lowest position), art by Kestutis of Lithuania on the wall.
00:59 My desk. Did you notice what’s on my desktop screen? PAIN. I thought that was funny. Things of note: iPod, DS case, hard drive I use for all my video footage, earplugs, calendar of my yoga lessons, my air-con remote control.
01:09 My kitchen. I’m a huge fan of taking pictures or video very close to small objects to make them look epic. I think it started when I was traveling in South East Asia and started taking close-ups of beer bottles. I got this amazing shot of my friend Faye:
I’ve been looking for an excuse to do something with that picture for years.
01:18 I don’t know why I bought negi-toro. I rarely eat it in any form, onigiri or don. They must have been out of mentaiko or ume – those are the two I always buy.
01:27 Kaiten-zushi at Yokohama Station. I really wanted this shot to be of the dishes going by on the conveyor belt, but I couldn’t hold the camera still enough, and I don’t have a tripod. And in all honesty, I didn’t want to be that weird foreigner with a giant tripod in the sushi restaurant. I was already that weird foreigner with a mini-tripod taking video of sushi, and I think that’s about as weird as I’m willing to get.
01:42 Aji no Tokeidai ramen in Shibuya. I had this bowl right before a big beer session in Shimokitazawa during Kura Kura’s January nomihodai offering. Great ramen. Perfect foundation for beers. I really was hungover the next day, and that was the day I went to Tonki in Meguro.
02:00 Tonki Tonkatsu. The ロース variation. I hate the way the fried batter falls off so easily. That’s my main criticism of an otherwise exquisite place to eat tonkatsu.
02:06 Katsuretsu-an in Yokohama. Very thin katsu, but still tasty. The Katsuretsu-an Teishoku is ヒレ, but I think this is one of the few stores where I prefer the ロース.
02:15 Good God that’s a massive piece o pig. It’s the kurobuta from Maisen. Tasty, but also 3000 yen a plate. The first time I went, the menu was a little confusing (Maisen’s big downfall is that they offer too many variations), and I thought the kurobuta was the only katsu they had.
This clearly show’s Tonki’s flaws – the pork shrinks within the batter or gets somehow gets dislodged during the cutting process. It’s worth mentioning that they cut the katsu lengthwise, which I guess makes the pieces easier to handle. I prefer just widthwise cuts, although there’s a place in my neighborhood that gives you three small diamond-shaped doubloons of katsu for the ヒレ. I always thought that was neat. Tonki still has the best service of any tonkatsu place I’ve every visited. Hard to leave unsatisfied.
02:35 Gnompf, carbs, gnompf.
02:38 I liked the butajiru at Tonki but still prefer red miso with katsu. I guess that’s the second mark against Tonki.
02:41 I can just imagine what went on in the kitchen: “Yo, let’s put another leaf on top.” “What for?” “I dunno. It just looks nice.” “True.” That dude got his bonus that year. Brilliant.
02:46 Karashi really does make the katsu. I only respect restaurants where the karashi is sinus-burningly powerful. Tonki’s is strong stuff, although they only provide you with a small amount. Maisen is self-service.
02:54 You can see from the Tonki clock that it’s right around 4:40pm. They opened at 4pm. Yep, it fills up quickly.
02:58 I was third or fourth in line, right behind this guy. He did things right – brought a newspaper, ordered a beer (which comes with peanuts). Respect. This shot also gives a great look at the pristine countertops. So smooth and clean. Bonus points.
03:07 Don’t be fooled. Maisen has tons of seating. It never takes all that long to get inside. The atmosphere is nothing compared to Tonki, though.
03:13 Love the Katsuretsu-an atmosphere, especially the lantern outside. During the indoor shot, the lady carrying the katsu realizes that I’m filming about halfway across the screen and then tries to skoot out of the way. I thought that was cute.
03:18 They also have very nice countertops. The information in the subtitles I found on Japanese Wikipedia quoting some book, but it has since disappeared. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal that lists a different place as the tonkatsu origin, but I haven’t had a chance to go yet. The article is really nice, but I’m not sure why Maisen and Tonki get excluded. I’m also confused why a tonkatsu restaurant would need a wine list. Call me a purist, but beer is the only beverage that goes with tonkatsu.
I can pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with tonkatsu: tired and probably slightly hungover, early afternoon on a clear, cold Saturday in February 2006, Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture. My friend said we should go to this restaurant near his apartment, but I was skeptical. I’m not sure if I’d ever had tonkatsu before that. I must’ve had katsu curry (rice and tonkatsu ladled with curry) at some point, but it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. We went, stood in line for an hour, and then sat around a table listening to oldies, eating the best food I’ve ever had.
From that day on, tonkatsu were a landmark on my Japanese culinary map. Growing up vegetarian (until I was 12 or so) and in a city with little other than sushi, there’s no reason I would’ve known about tonkatsu before coming to Japan. The yoshoku phenomenon (must read Norimitsu Onishi article on yosohoku) on the whole doesn’t really make it out of Japan. And I guess that’s not really a strange thing: why would an imported food concept be exported back to the area of origin? (I’m sure this happens all the time, to be honest, but…) It’d be like translating English into Japanese on Babelfish and then taking that translation and plugging it into the Japanese to English Babelfish translator. The result would only confuse the natives.
But what if it was an incredibly tasty confusion?
That’s exactly what tonkatsu is. To be more accurate, tonkatsu is pork cutlet battered in egg, covered with panko, and then deep fried. It’s served with white rice, red miso soup, cabbage salad, and some pickled vegetables. The cutlets are covered in sauce and dipped in karashi, a spicy horseradish mustard. The result is almost sinfully delicious. For anyone who thinks Japan is a tofu nation perfect for vegetarians, tonkatsu are one of many dishes that will prove that you are seriously misinformed – the Japanese are, in fact, carnivorous, deep-frying motherfuckers.
Rather than have you all risk clogging your veins with less than the absolute highest quality tonkatsu, I have sought it out for you:
とんき (Tonki) 目黒区下目黒1－1－2
大きな地図で見る Tonki is supposedly the most famous tonkatsu-ya in Tokyo. The main store is just a quick walk from Meguro Station. They open at 4pm everyday, and generally the seats are full by 4:15. I went on Sunday, January 4th for 初カツ, the first tonkatsu of the New Year, and was the second person in line. There was only one guy behind me, but somehow the place still filled up by 4:15.
The store is lit by an array of clean, white lights that hang from the ceiling. The staff all wear crisp white uniforms and keep a careful watch on all of the customers seated at the smooth, wooden counter – the only seating in the store. Tonki easily had the best service of these three restaurants; I was offered refills on rice and salad almost immediately after I finished eating them.
As in most tonkatsu-ya, there are really only two things to order – ロース or ヒレ. ロース comes from the word “roast,” and ヒレ from “fillet.” The former is a fatty cut, the latter a lean cut. Teishoku of either cut at Tonki cost 1800 yen.
Tonki batter their katsu pretty good and fry it up nice and crispy – the fried edge was falling off of the pork. Interestingly, they also serve their teishoku with 豚汁, a miso-based pork soup, rather than the standard red (dark) miso soup with clams.
Tonki is legendary for a good reason: the place is an experience. The katsu themselves might not have been my favorite, but this will probably be the first of these three that I revisit. The decor and service are amazing, presentation is exquisite, and all the little things are taken care of; the toothpicks are covered with a small, glass beer cup and they serve you a small dish of peanuts with beer – details like that.
まい泉 (Maisen) 渋谷区神宮前4-8-5
大きな地図で見る Maisen is the second most famous tonkatsu-ya, according to bento.com. The main restaurant is in Aoyama, not far from Omotesando Station. The building is huge; there’s a counter on the first floor and tables on the second floor.
The service is not quite as top notch as Tonki, but Maisen has a menu with more options, including a gluttonous cut of 黒豚 – black pork. For whatever reason, black pork is popular in Japan at the moment. It will run you nearly 3000 yen for a teishoku, but it’s a thick, juicy cut, and probably the one that impressed me the most. (Their normal teishoku are more fairly priced but don’t include the mikan-flavored ice cream you get at the end.) They also bring out a special sauce jar just for the black pork, which has, I think, grated daikon in it.
They didn’t provide any karashi on the plate, although it might have been in a jar on the counter – I was so hungry that I didn’t notice. It was so delicious that it was almost unnecessary, but I love karashi, so I imagine it could have been even better. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to go back some time and find out.
勝烈庵 (Katsuretsu-an) 横浜市中区常盤町5-58-2
大きな地図で見る Katsuretsu-an (it almost looks Chinese if you write it Katsuretsuan) is, according to Japanese Wikipedia (which cites an interesting-sounding book on tonkatsu), one of the restaurants that is often associated with the invention of the term “tonkatsu.” There are two other restaurants that also seem to claim the term as their own, but Katsuretsu-an is the oldest – the Bashamichi location opened in 1924.
Compared to Maisen and Tonki, Kasturetsu-an was relatively quiet when I went on a Saturday for lunch. The place is very nice on both the outside and the inside; it is equipped with a similar wooden counter as in Tonki.
It also shares a relatively limited menu with Tonki. The special named after the restaurant is really a ヒレ cut, but ロース is also an option. The katsu were thinner than the ones at Tonki and Maisen. Karashi was serve yourself, which made me very happy. Overall, they were nice and light and didn’t sit heavy afterwards at all. Perhaps not katsu with much impact, but definitely worthy of a pilgrimage at some point.
The idea of doing a homestay during a study abroad program is appealing to me now that I’m past my college years. Back when I actually studied here, I was far more interested in running around Tokyo than sitting around talking with old people who probably would have lived really far from campus. I’m happy with the experience I had, but I was forced to discover a lot of things on my own. Host parents would have been the most effective way to improve my Japanese while also learning a lot about Japanese customs.
I lived in a dorm out in Edogawa-ku on the Tozai Line. The dorm provided breakfast and dinner, but I would occasionally get tired of Japanese style food every morning, so every now and then I’d buy yogurt, granola, and some fruit at the supermarket and eat in my tiny room. I remember eating bananas a lot and maybe some other fruit. I also have my first memories of mikan. I was hesitant to buy them at first, not really knowing what they were, and while I remember enjoying them, I never really understood their place in Japanese culture.
Mikan are often translated as “mandarin orange” or “tangerine,” but they’re actually the fruit called satsuma. They get that name because they were first exported to the US from Satsuma Province, which is the old name for part of Kagoshima Prefecture. Ehime, Wakayama, Nagasaki, and Shizuoka are all famous for mikan, which thrive in cold weather like other citrus fruit, but most areas in southern Japan are rife with the fruit between November and February. Along the southwestern coast of Kyushu there’s a private train line called the Hisatsu Orange Line, in part because you can see groves from the windows of the train.
They are sold in sizes ranging from SS, S, and M up through LL. I am of the opinion that mikan, when eaten, should be consumed in tremendous quantities, so I invariably buy S. The smaller ones also seem to be sweeter and tangier. For a bag of eight to ten, you should expect to pay between 200 to 600 yen depending on the quality. I err on the cheap side for the same reason I buy small. Recently I discovered that an anonymous, home-run convenience store near my apartment sells eight for 180 yen. If you’re really lucky, you can buy a 5kg box for 1000-1500 yen.
In terms of a cultural symbol, mikan are a winter comfort food and strongly associated with kotatsu, the short Japanese table equipped with a heater and a heavy quilt to keep the heat trapped underneath. In the winter, people sit on the floor with the lower half of their body tucked into the warm space under the kotatsu and snack on mikan and other winter foods like nabe, Japanese hotpot. I eat about four to five a day on average, sometimes more. I’m naturally nice and brown, but Japanese who eat too many take on a orange tint.
Mikan are Japan, but unfortunately they don’t penetrate the filter to foreign countries. (Not cute or cool enough?) They are highly underrated abroad and are therefore Volume 2 in the Underrated Japan video series. (You can see Vol. 1 here.) Enjoy:
Any yahoo with $20 can pick up one of the commercial travel guides and head off to a foreign country to see the main sights. The first time I came to Japan, I refused to be one of those yahoos and paid the price; I had no idea where the hell anything was, nor did I know where to go, what to see, or what I was looking at whenever I finally did get somewhere. I gained an appreciation for the guides, and even went on to play a minor role in the creation of a shitty, short-lived edition by a somewhat famous company.
While guides are useful for those with limited amounts of time, they are often ineffective at anything other than shuffling you through a set of main attractions, often giving people the impression they were expecting from a trip abroad. And that’s fine, I guess, but for those who really want to see something more vital, there are few who offer other perspectives.
So much about Japan is highly underrated, especially abroad, so in order to help introduce some of these underrated aspects (which might be more accurately termed “Shit I love about Japan”), I’m starting a video series. I’ll put them up at uneven intervals, so I hope you don’t get your expectations up. I have several ideas running through my mind, so hopefully this won’t die out quickly.
Shinagawa is a great station. Lots of interesting restaurants, supermarkets, a great cinema. Highly underrated itself in the big picture. The morning rush is just insane. There is a period from 7:30am until 10am or so where the walkway out of the Kōnan Exit is just a solid, unending mass of people. I discovered it when I went to meet my dad who was staying at a hotel there. I was honestly worried that I wouldn’t be able to find him. Fortunately I found him and we were able to sit at Dean and Deluca just watching the crowd in amazement. I would definitely put it high on my “must see” list for all tourists.
Here’s what it feels like: (Warning: It’s a little slow for the first half, but give it a chance – I’m trying to set the scene for anyone who hasn’t been to Shinagawa Station before.)