On June 26, 2013Melinda Joe answered the question:If you only have time for one fine-dining experience in Tokyo (after you’ve already gotten your high-end-sushi fix), make it a kaiseki meal. Kaiseki-ryori, which originated in Kyoto, is traditional Japanese haute cuisine: a series of dishes served on exquisite ceramic and lacquer ware, in a particular sequence. These elaborate meals, which can sometimes take up to three hours, begin with an amuse bouche followed by the hassun, the dish that expresses the theme of the season.
While some naysayers argue that you can only have an authentic kaiseki experience in Kyoto, few can fault the precision and elegance of Tokyo’s top kaiseki restaurants.
At Azabu Yukimura, chef Jun Yukimura walks diners through a subtle palate of seasonal flavors, and then dazzles with dishes like wagyu beef shabu-shabu, thinly sliced and flash-cooked in dashi broth seasoned with tongue-tingling sansho (Japanese pepper) flowers.
Toru Okuda of Koju never fails to impress with his pristine ingredients, many of which arrive at the restaurant daily from all over Japan. Cubes of grilled wagyu beef and crispy-skinned mackerel are served simply with a dab of wasabi. For a more casual meal, you can try his second restaurant, Ginza Okuda, located in the same building.
Chef Hideki Ishikawa of Ishikawa in Kagurazaka takes an exacting but inventive approach to the kaiseki form. Deep-fried ayu sweetfish, paired with matsutake mushrooms and ginko nuts, leaves a lingering taste of early autumn.
On June 21, 2013Melinda Joe answered the question:It all depends on the kind of experience you want to have there. Meiji Jingu Shrine, with its contemplative, pebble-covered paths and serene gardens, can be an oasis of calm in frenzied Harajuku if you visit on a weekday afternoon.
On the weekends, it’s more crowded, and you’ll likely have to push your way past thongs of teenagers, elaborately decked out in theatrical “gothic” costumes, along with the gawkers who hang around to photograph them.
On Sundays, especially in late spring, you may catch sight of a traditional wedding procession through the courtyard.
For a quintessential, if somewhat claustrophobic, Tokyo experience, head to Meiji Shrine at New Year’s. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, thousands of people pass through the 40-foot-high torii gate at the entrance for hatsumode, the first prayer of the year. Steaming hot cups of amazake -- thick, sweet sake -- are offered to take the edge off the chill. Once you’ve paid your respects to the gods, you can snack on street-food treats like takoyaki (octopus dumplings) at one of the stalls nearby. The shrine is packed from the 1st - 4th (with over 3 million visitors annually during this period), but the thrill of taking part in the festivities is exhilarating.
On June 17, 2013Melinda Joe answered the question:With its swarming crowds and relentless pace, Shinjuku is the archetype upon which every modern Asian metropolis has been modeled.
The station itself is a marvel of civic engineering, a teeming nexus at the center of a vast network of underground tunnels lined with shops and eateries. It’s possible to walk from the skyscraper district of Nishi-Shinjuku, all the way to the cluster of bars and restaurants of Shinjuku 3-chome on the east side of the neighborhood, entirely underground.
Get lost in the crush of humanity during morning rush hour before 8am, and then head to one of the most peaceful corners of Tokyo, Shinjuku Gyoen, for a stroll along tree-lined paths through beautifully landscaped gardens. Stop in for brunch at Slappy Cakes, the newest addition to the city’s pancake scene, or leaf through international books and magazines while you have a coffee at Brooklyn Parlor.
Hit one of the many department stores -- Lumine, Takashimaya, Marui, Isetan -- to shop for the latest fashions, and don’t forget to check out the excellent depachika food floors in the basement of Takashimaya and Isetan.
Catch the view from the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observatories, or wait till sunset and grab a seat at New York Bar and the watch the lights go on in Tokyo (Note: there’s a hefty cover charge after 8pm).
On June 11, 2013Melinda Joe answered the question:It’s a good weekend for sake lovers. On Friday, June 14, from 11:00 am until 8:00 pm, the Japan Sake and Shochu Producers Association will hold the 7th Annual Sake Fair at the World Import Mart in Sunshine City in the Ikebukuro in Tokyo. It’s a massive, day-long event (technically, it’s two events in one), and an excellent opportunity to try 400 award winning sake from the National New Sake Contest at Public Tasting, as well as local brews from around the country at the All Sake Exhibition next door.
At 3pm, there will be a special presentation in English by sake guru John Gauntner, followed by a tasting of sake paired with regional dishes. The lecture is free, but you have to sign up in advance, or email Etsuko Nakamura at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Admission to the All Sake Exhibition is 1,500 JPY, and 3,000 JPY for the Public Tasting. A combined ticket for both events is 4,000 JPY at the door. More details here.
If you can’t make it to the Sake Fair on Friday, check out this tasting of sake from Toyama Prefecture, exhibited alongside one of the area’s specialties, kamaboko fish cakes, on Sunday. Tickets are 2,000 in advance, or 2,500 at the door, from 3pm -5pm at the Kotsukaikan in Yurakucho.
On June 7, 2013Melinda Joe answered the question:In a word: fickle. Although people in the UK are still talking about spring, summer is already under way in Tokyo. Recently, the days have been a mix of hot, steamy afternoons, with intermittent cloud cover, and relatively cool, pleasant evenings. The rainy season, which runs from the beginning of June until mid-July officially began last week, but we haven’t yet had the kind of monsoon-like storms that usually accompany this season. A little drizzle here and there is all.
At the moment, we can’t complain. Temperatures are in the high 70s, with moderate humidity (around 30%, low for summer in Japan), and the sun is peeking out from behind the clouds in downtown Tokyo. There’s a slight chance of rain over the weekend, but that shouldn’t stop you from going out.
Enjoy these mild temperatures while they last: Once it really starts to heat up, you’ll need to walk around with two sweat towels instead of one.
On May 31, 2013Melinda Joe answered the question:It all depends on how much money -- and time -- you’re willing to spend. For a long, luxurious business lunch, Pierre Gagnaire Tokyo is a terrific choice. The tasting menu, with its series of “multi-course” dishes, showcases the French chef’s talent for juxtaposing surprising flavors and textures to great effect. If you’re pressed for time, there are shorter prix-fixe options as well. The restaurant’s location, on the 36th floor of the ANA Intercontinental Hotel, and the 2 private rooms (in addition to the semi-private dining room) are a plus.
For a more affordable but nonetheless spectacular experience, check out La Sora Seed by Kurkku. Perched on the 31st floor of the Tokyo Skytree, La Sora Seed serves modern, Italian-inflected cuisine prepared with local ingredients and offers stunning, panoramic views of the city. Note, however, that you’ll need a minimum of 90 minutes for lunch.
If you’re thinking of impressing your client by scoring reservations at Sukibayashi Jiro, think again. The brisk dining pace (around 20 minutes at lunchtime) is not particularly conducive to lengthy discussion.
On May 28, 2013Melinda Joe answered the question:Being the country’s capital, Tokyo is a melting pot of Japan’s regional cuisines. But one of the city’s greatest gifts to the world of gastronomy is Edomae-zushi, the modern version of sushi we all know and love, which was invented in Tokyo at the beginning of the 19th century.
Head to Tsukiji market (hint: you don’t have to go at the crack of dawn unless you really want to, but it’s best to get there before 2pm) for assorted nigiri-zushi (fish on little balls of rice) or a bowl of chirashi-zushi (various kinds of fish over a bowl of rice) at one of the many restaurants in the outer market. If you don’t mind waiting, try Daiwa Sushi or Sushi Dai -- just look for the long lines. Be warned that it may take up to two hours to get in, depending on your timing.
A far less crowded alternative is Ryuzushi, a couple of doors down from the original Yoshinoya, where the fishmongers stop in for breakfast after the early morning shift. Or try Uogashi Senryo, a hole-in-the-wall hidden behind a dried fish store that serves a specialty called kaisen-hitsumabushi. A kind of chirashi-zushi, the dish -- tossed with various morsels of raw fish, topped with creamy uni sea urchin and a scatter of ruby red ikura salmon roe -- is almost too beautiful to eat.
On May 28, 2013Melinda Joe answered the question:Being the country’s capital, Tokyo is a melting pot of Japan’s regional cuisines. But one of the city’s greatest gifts to the world of gastronomy is Edomae-zushi, the version of sushi we all know and love, which was invented in Tokyo at the beginning of the 19th century.
Head to Tsukiji (hint: you don’t have to go at the crack of dawn unless you really want to, but it’s best to get there before 2pm) for assorted nigiri-zushi (fish on little balls of rice) or a bowl of chirashi-zushi (various kinds of fish over a bowl of rice) at one of the many restaurants in the outer market. If you don’t mind waiting, try Daiwa Sushi or Sushi Dai -- just look for the long lines. Be warned that it may take up to two hours to get in, depending on your timing.
A far less crowded alternative is Ryuzushi, a couple of doors down from the original Yoshinoya, where the fishmongers stop in for breakfast after the early morning shift. Or try Uogashi Senryo, a hole-in-the-wall hidden behind a dried fish store that serves kaisen hitsumabushi. A kind of chirashi-zushi, the dish -- tossed with various morsels of raw fish, topped with creamy uni sea urchin and a scatter of ruby red ikura salmon roe -- is almost too beautiful to eat.
On May 26, 2013Melinda Joe answered the question:Japanese people are extremely polite and will go out of their way to help. It’s not uncommon for someone to walk you to your destination if you are lost. But while it’s gotten easier to use English in major cities like Tokyo, it’s still not widely spoken here (although many people can understand it to an extent). So don’t be shocked.
Fortunately, signs and maps in train stations are written in English, and more restaurants are offering menus in other languages. There are also a few good English-language resources to help demystify the ordering process at Japanese restaurants. What’s What in Japanese Restaurants by Robb Satterwhite is a great place to start.
Still, it’s useful to learn a few basic expressions in Japanese: sumimasen (“excuse me” -- the phrase you’ll use to catch the server’s attention; to ask for the check say, "o-kaikei kudasai"), arigato (“thank you”) domo (“thanks,” “excuse me,” or sometimes used as a stand-in for “hello”), oishii (“delicious”), and kawaii (“cute” -- you will hear this word everywhere).