炉端焼き (ろばたやき) originated in Sendai at a restaurant called 炉ばた, which literally means “by the hearth.” Wikipedia makes it sound like chefs from the restaurant gradually dispersed to various locations all over Japan – Osaka, Hokkaido, Aomori, Fukushima – and spread the unique cooking style: customers seated around a hearth where chefs grill fish and veggies. The cooking style took the name of the restaurant, and now it can be found everywhere.
I stumbled into Musashi in Shimbashi completely by accident the first time I went. The robatayaki across the street was full, and when I did a quick 360 to see what the other options were, the red lanterns at Musashi must have drawn me through the doors to the counter seats around the grill. To be honest, before Musashi I had never been to a true robatayaki. Musashi doesn’t have an irori style hearth, but there are counter seats around a grill, and the grillmaster (seated seiza style the whole time!) does serve up food on a giant しゃもじ. The food is cheap (many items are only 290 yen!) and incredibly tasty. Here’s a video review:
Nattō-bukuro – Fermented soybeans wrapped in tofu bags. The bag definitely cuts down on the ねばねば factor.
Tsukune – The tsukune at Musashi is nice and plump and dotted with sesame seeds. Very hearty.
Nasu – Japanese eggplant with bonito flakes and grated ginger. Add a little soy sauce on top.
Hotate – The scallops are great, as are all the other shells they serve.
Kujira – They serve whale meat in several different ways, raw and grilled being the two that I can remember. A friend I brought insisted that we try something crazy, and whale it was. Surprisingly tasty.
Basically everything they make is good. I guarantee that you will not be disappointed. Here’s a map in case the video wasn’t clear enough (it looks like they actually have a second location further from the station, cool):
The day before I went back home, I jammed my camera and broke it. I was distressed about it for the first few days of my trip – I really wanted to capture some of New Orleans – but I decided to take it as a sign from the universe that I should enjoy Jazzfest intoxicated and totally unencumbered. Which I did. And I can now say that unencumbered is bar far the most preferable way to enjoy Jazzfest. Some folks will bring loads of equipment and camp at the Acura Stage or the Gentilly Stage, but I prefer to roam here and there, catch little bits of different acts, do lots of people watching. Let me repeat myself: skip Mardi Gras, go to Jazzfest.
In the end my buddy Vasu let me borrow his camera for a couple days. I took some video all over my neighborhood. I’ve lived in four houses in New Orleans, and they’re all within 3-4 blocks of each other. I meant to post something like this while I was back home, so forgive the fact that it’s unrelated to Japan. (Also, camera has been fixed, so hopefully new Japan-related videos in the not too distant future.)
Screw Mardi Gras. Jazzfest is the time to visit New Orleans. The city is still overrun with tourists, but there isn’t a total shutdown of roads and buildup of trash during Jazzfest (except for in/around the Fairgrounds).
Yesterday, I witnessed the Watermelon Sacrifice near the Fais Do-Do Stage:
Madness. Love the kid’s face plant into the watermelon at the 1:24 mark. Read more here and here.
I’ll leave you with some crazy locals. This house is a block from the Fairgrounds, and this is at around 7pm, right when everything was finishing. It’s hard to make out in the video, but there are bubbles coming from near the door.
Sometimes there’s a man – I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? – but sometimes there’s a man. And I’m talking about the Master here – sometimes there’s a man who, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there – and that’s the Master at Jintei in Koriyama:
I debated whether or not to make a video of Jintei for a while. It’s a small yakikatsu restaurant, and I wouldn’t wish even one unpleasant customer on the Master (not that I could cause him to get any more attention than he already has). I finally decided to make the video for a couple reasons. First, in twenty years I’ll want to look back at this video and just go, Damn, we ate some tasty katsu at that place. And second, the Master is well-equipped to deal with the attention of any unruly customers, whether they be Japanese or foreigner. Regular customers are well aware that the restaurant’s queue runs on the honor system. There are benches, groups of chairs, and many people even wait in their cars if the weather is uncomfortably hot or cold. Noobz will peek in the door or even ask the Master what the deal is – wtf is everyone doing just chilling outside? – but he always just replies that he takes customers in the order they arrived. There’s no need to form an actual line, the Master knows.
(This last time I went, a Japanese couple pulled up in a big van and parked blocking several cars in the lot. The guy was clearly starving – he had his wife jump out and figure out what the deal was. There were several groups of people waiting, but after looking inside, this lady camped out right next to the door, probably thinking she’d be the next one in. Her beau finally got out and went in himself, probably convinced that the other half dozen of us were just sitting outside in the nice weather. The Master came out of the restaurant, the first time I’ve ever seen him do that, and personally assured that the next people in line got in ahead of them.)
I kept the video text-free because anything I could write would only detract from the katsu, so I’ll try to keep this post short, too. Just take this one piece of advice – unless you live within walking distance of this place, the only two items on the menu you should even consider ordering are the “Jintei Special Pork” or the “Jintei Special Chicken.” (The actual Japanese names for these are 仁亭凡焼きかつ and 仁亭チキン焼きかつ, and they are on the far right of the menu, which is printed on a fan.) These are the yakikatsu, either chicken or pork, which are stuffed with cheese, a slice of ham, and leaf of basil. They inspired my love of the katsu.
(Oh, and one more thing – the correct salad dressing ratio is two scoops of the creamy dressing for every one of the dark one with peanuts.)
My freshman year of college, four guys on the floor above me saved their spare change the entire year and ended up with $400. They spent it all on booze for a final party, and because we were freshman and not yet legal, they sent the booze home along different routes; prudent since one of them ran into the Freshman Dean and had his portion confiscated.
Saving loose change might be a nice way to save up a little extra cash in the US, but in Japan, it can be a way to raise some serious fundage:
I was pretty surprised by the relative value of change across the world. US change is practically worthless compared to Japanese coins. It’s 10 times less valuable! In Japan, that $400 my friends saved would have been closer to $4000!
Studies have shown that consumers are less likely to spend bills of larger denomination, and I think this is probably true of the coins in Japan – personally, I feel like I’m more likely to use 100 yen coins than 500 yen coins given a choice.
Because coins in Japan are so valuable (could you ever pay for your phone bill in quarters?), I think this brings about another corollary – people probably undervalue change compared to bills. For any given purchase, I believe people would be more willing to make the purchase with coins and less willing to make the purchase with bills.
A quick example. You’re waiting for a train and see a vending machine. Hmm, maybe I’ll get a water, you think. You fumble around in your pockets and produce 80 yen, not enough for a drink. Now you have to make the decision to break a bill. The above study shows that you’re increasingly less likely to break that bill as the denomination increases. If you’d had the coinage for it, you aren’t forced to make these psychological decisions, and it’s easier just to spend the cash. For whatever reason coins just feel less valuable.
But this comes back to bite you in Japan. We’re more willing to use these coins without realizing that they’re actually worth quite a bit of money, especially that big, beautiful 500 yen coin that’s worth $5.
Here’s some quick math. Say you save around 4-5 coins a day. That’s somewhere around 400 yen/day x 100 days = 40,000 yen = roughly $400. Double that and you can put aside $800 in just over half a year.
Let’s take this even further. Say you put away one 500-yen coin every day. That’s 500 yen/day x 300 days = 150,000 yen or $1500 in less than a full year! They actually make special piggy banks for this exact purpose – parents can teach their kids how to save money and make it fun.
For this project I went on a really strict change diet. I tried to use as little change as possible, going out of my way to use bills and emptying my pockets whenever I got home. The results are clear. From August of last year to April of this year, I saved around 120,000 yen in 500 and 100 yen coins alone. I still haven’t banked the smaller change, but I think it will add another 10-20,000 yen.
For your own change diet, you can vary how strict you are with yourself to achieve the results you want. Manage your bank account as you normally would, and make decisions based on that. Forget about the change for now and just bag it up. It’s easy enough to switch back to bills – my bank lets me deposit it straight into my account. It only took me about 15 minutes at lunch, but my backpack was ridiculously heavy on the morning commute.
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:
First stop is under the tracks at Shinbashi. No, not yakitori as you might expect, but Dry-Dock, a cozy little bar with a nautical theme. First floor is standing only. There are a few tables on the second floor (really nice decor), but I believe they require a reservation and a table charge. They have a bunch of regular taps which usually have three Sumidagawa beers, Super Dry, Chimay, a kriek, as well as a rotating guest keg that is always something interesting – currently Old Rasputin, but in the past it has been Green Flash IPA, Hunter’s Point Porter, Old No. 38 Stout, and a variety of others. They also have tasty eats, the baskets of kara-age (with fries underneath) being the best value.
Exit on the Ginza side of the Karasumori Exit and head to the right. Cross the first road that goes under the tracks, and Dry-Dock is just around the bend on the right. Maybe a little hard to find the first time.
Dry-Dock definitely has the best blog of any bar I’ve ever seen. It’s easy to keep track of their events and kegs. I’ve even made an appearance! (Here and here.) Worth checking several times a week.
A quick walk through the Ginza brings you to Houblon, home to an enormous selection of Belgian beers. Upon seating, they’ll hand you an encyclopedia-sized menu listing the six beers on tap and hundred or so bottles they offer. They claim to have some super-rare beers (like the lower alcohol Trappist beers that I’ve read are only available at the abbeys) but are generally sold out, and some of their bottles are prohibitively expensive, but the taps and most of the normal sized bottles are reasonable. I can’t speak for the food, but it always has a lot of people, so it’s probably not crap (ha, now that’s what I call a sound recommendation). The best part of all is that on weekends it opens at noon – it might be the only place serving quality beer between 12pm and 5pm.
Bulldog is just a couple blocks from Houblon in the INZ building under the highway, a short jaunt from Yurakuchō Station. I was very impressed with their selection of import beers. I’ve only been once, but when I went they had a couple of Stone and Speakeasy beers on tap and even more in bottles. They have a large food menu and plenty of tables in addition to the bar and the counter along the windows that look out at the willow trees on the street – a very pleasant place to drink away several hours.
Possibly the smallest bar that serves great beer, Towers fits approximately six normal-sized individuals or four normal-sized individuals and one sumo-sized individual; I imagine it spills out onto the sidewalk during events. From Bulldog, it’s just a little further towards Tokyo Station. It’s probably easier to get to from Bulldog than Tokyo Station, to be honest, but if you’re coming from the station, you need the Yaesu South Exit. Awesome atmosphere: no sign, free snacks (although I was not bold enough to have any), 4-6 quality beers on tap (including a hand pump), and the satisfaction that you are cool enough to know of a bar like this.
Speaking of events, Towers is having a Christmas event today and tomorrow. I’ll be the drunk guy with a Santa hat. See you there.
North from Towers, just a block from the North Exit of Tokyo Station, is Bacchus, a basement bar with great atmosphere and a nice group of regular customers. They have regular rotating kegs in addition to Yona Yona brews – both the pale ale and Tokyo Black are mainstays on the hand pump. Also, a limited selection of quality bottled beers. Decent pub eats, too – I can personally recommend the sausage plate and cheese plate, which are both great to snack on. As far as I can tell, Bacchus is the closest bar to Tokyo Station with quality beer, making it a great place for a pre-departure drink.
Once you’re finished with the crawl, there are multiple karaoke venues to choose from, all within a block from Bacchus. After five beers that are most likely 5-6% alcohol or higher, you’ll be in excellent condition to wail your favorite songs – just make sure you get to the karaoke room before you start singing.
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.)