Words: Jasper Lipton
Pictures: Alex Scharf
Our last day. Mine, I guess, since Alex lives here and @spacepope's wanderings will continue a while longer. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't jealous, but my visit ended on such a high note that I'd surely be tempting fate to stay. We had some plans - not many - and outside of those, we resolved to just plain old have a good time.
That good time started at six A.M., which felt earlier due to the two bottles of sake Jack and I consumed the night before while watching Gurren Lagann and eating pickles. I met Jack at Hachiko at 6:50; we were on a train at 7, and at Tsukiji fish market by 7:45. Then we had breakfast. Now, by 7:45 AM, the fish market has been in full swing for hours already; wholesalers buy from fishermen and sell to restaurants and resellers. Some of those restaurants are in the area, serving the day's catch to people working in the area - or to people looking for really, really good food. There are a couple of very well-known sushi restaurants in the area. You can recognize them by their lines - hour-long queues that snake around the block; full of folks waiting to sit down at the four-seat bars and wolf their sushi with the throngs looking over their shoulders at the food. We did not do this. We did not want this experience. What we wanted - all we wanted - was delicious, fresh fish. Thankfully, Alex has a place. We went to the place. There was no line at the place. We enjoyed the place.
There are very few items on the menu. This, in my experience, is a very good thing to find in a restaurant. Well, I say there were very few things on the menu, but it would be more accurate to say that there was one thing on the menu: raw fish. In three levels of price and quality. The more you pay, the higher the quality of the fish. And that's it. Alex and I opted for a platter that fell in the middle of that range; we didn't want the tuna plate (well, we did, but we didn't want just tuna), and we didn't want the base-level selection. Jack went one tier higher than us, and good for him. We ordered, and then we waited. Behind the glass bar full of just-butchered tuna stood the owner-chef of the restaurant, and no one else. One man who has been making sushi for who knows how long. Watching him make the food was...great. So practiced, so precise. Two finger-fulls of rice (Alex likes this place in particular because of the high fish-to-rice ratio), a deft thumbnail of wasabi layered over the glistening grains, then fish placed over the top. The nigiri is shaped and placed with very little ceremony - but great attention - on the serving tray, and the process continues until each piece has been formed and plated. Then it was passed to us. And then we ate.
Oh, boy. What can you really say that would do justice to good sushi? How can you describe the firm-but-tender texture of the fish, or the delicate buzz of wasabi that lingers underneath it, or fully express the perfection of well-cooked sushi rice? I will try. And I will try not to drool on my keyboard.
Sweet shrimp, tamagoyaki, tuna, eel, more tuna, snapper, squid, mackerel, salmon roe, even more tuna...all of these are fish that I have eaten before. I thought I had, at least, but with every bite I realized more fully the depth of my ignorance. I worked my way across the plate; chewing, savoring, trying to commit every bite to memory. The shrimp was buttery, soft, smooth; with a creaminess almost like marshmallow. The eel, seared in front of us, was crisp and tender, brushed gently with sweet soy sauce, and falling apart as I lifted it with trembling chopsticks. And my god, the salmon roe - like water, like air; like the delicate kiss of the ocean. I enjoyed the welcome firmness of the squid afterwards; chewy at first before almost disappearing in your mouth. Snapper followed several heavenly moments after that; and fell somewhere in between - firm but not-quite flakey; sweet and delicate. The mackerel was tender and mild, like no mackerel I've ever eaten. Occasionally I interrupted the parade of fish with a bite of sweet egg omelette, which was itself a triumph - sweet, nutty, and perfectly satisfying.
I saved my tuna for last, because I save my favorites for last. Have you ever seen a tuna in the flesh? Ever admired the way the move? I have. They are massive animals; pack hunters, shaped like bullets and weighing an average of 500 pounds. They can swim 40 miles per hour. Can you imagine what it would feel like to be rammed by a full-grown tuna traveling at top speed? It would probably go straight through you, leaving only a tuna-shaped hole behind. Well, that is what it felt like to eat this tuna. I was changed. The lean meat - the "cheap" stuff, the stuff that comes out a deep, dark crimson, was dark and sharp and savory; fish that gives you strength, makes you feel invincible. But it was the piece of "medium fat" - the piece you can see in the picture above, a lighter red and striated with lines of fat, that truly shone. The richest, most delectable flavor; fatty, regal, sweet and buttery and terminally delicious; a texture at once firm and forgiving, meat that melted away and left behind it the sweetest, lingering sense of loss. I am not sure I would have survived the revelation I imagine ordering and consuming the fancy tuna platter would have birthed.
As plenty of people have discovered, enjoyable experiences make for enjoyable eating. Good food is great; good atmosphere while you eat makes good food even better. Three friends sitting in a near-empty sushi bar on the outskirts of Tsujiki fish market, eating just about the freshest fish you can possibly eat, is something I am not sure I will ever top.
The damage? About seventeen US dollars. The next time I have to go to the grocery store for "California Rolls" I might break down in tears in the refrigerated food section.
We left all smiles, and had enough time for a quick walk through the outer market before it was time to get back on the train. We had one more stop to make, one which I was excited about - Hollywood Ranch Market and Okura, the home of blue blue Japan. More to come later - our stop did not disappoint. Very briefly, the highlights were: the pieces dyed in natural indigo, which have the most stunning blue colors, the friendly shop staff, and the turtles. All according to keikaku, then. Apparently, we're somewhere on the Blue Blue Japan/Seilin & CO./ Okura facebook, if you want to hunt that down.
After that, we were done! Well and truly done, except for all the damn Instagramming I had to do. What a relief. First stop: meet up with @Naka and @MagicalZechs for burgers. The five of us settled down at Blacows and stuffed our faces - not quite the meal we had in the morning, but nice after a long morning of walking. Then we decided the obvious thing to do was sit outside and drink beer. So we did that, at one of Tokyo's only craft breweries. It was OK - not what you'd call a "great deal." But the wooden table we sat at was pleasant, so we documented the moment. Please enjoy my ridiculous cleavage.
Jack said his farewells, off to taste the magic of other cities, and the rest of us wandered until dinner. We stopped at Honor Gathering (where Naka found a great pair of shorts and I found a coat I wanted, but didn't want enough to pay retail for - who charges retail for a sample size?!), Yohji, Lad, and The Soloist. Oh, and Comme, where we once again admired Junya's patchwork clothing. Most importantly, I found a parasol. Nowhere on our entire journey did we feel more out of place than in Harajuku, where roving gangs of middle school girls have the run of the district. As I stood in line to buy my parasol ("Tout Les Filles Sont Des Princesses," proclaim its ruffly edges), another young man was dragged into the stall behind his girlfriend, there to buy tiny, adorable chocolates. We made eye contact as I left, and I nodded to him, his face a mask of dulled horror. You can see him in the photo below, smiling at something, but it was a dead smile. I am not sure our merry band will dare the waters of Harajuku again any time soon - peril lurks there, among the kawaii doggy goods. As we left Takeshita Dori, we saw a stall selling cosmic cat shirts, dubstep pounding from behind the starlit faces. I have never seen a more perfect Thing.
We made our way to Shibuya and navigated the Crossing - something that I, as a tourist, find entertaining and exciting, but that everyone who lives in Japan hates. I tried to take a video of the crowds as we crossed the road, only to look up, realize that every single other tourist was doing the same thing, and put my phone away in shame. We were on our way to dinner at a nicer izakaya, our feet tired and swollen and Alex's leg bloody and oozing, when we saw this wonderful cat and all of us stopped to take a picture.
And then, friends, it was time for the food. We have eaten well this trip, largely due to Alex's tender ministrations, and my last evening in Tokyo was no exception. We had decided (Alex decided) that we were going somewhere upscale, since we hadn't managed to do that yet (aside from our excellent drinks at Ishinohana, which I did not write about and probably won't. Wow, we had a good time. Just about as soon as we sat down, the friendly older couple next to us started buying us Sake. Then they bought us some more sake. Then they bought us a bottle of Japanese wine, which they told us was "Not great, but getting better." They both loved Oregon Pinots, a libation that is close to my heart. I was the only one who spoke no Japanese, but they both spoke English, and it turned out that the husband had studied in the States. In Boulder, Colorado - my hometown. That was worthy of another toast.
Before they left, all smiles, they wanted a photo - who were we to say no to our generous benefactors?
No, I am not really drunk. I just look like a total weirdo. I can't believe I'm sharing this photo.
Then the food started to come. A series of single bites came first, just to whet the appetite - then the real dishes arrived. The first was the sashimi, about which I had more than a few misgivings after our mind-altering breakfast. But it was a different sort; a showcase of paired flavors and textures that offered something very different from the richness of the morning's feast. We worked our way from right to left, bottom to top, sipping our wine and sake and generally feeling good about life.
Next came the grilled seasonal vegetables, crunchy and sweet and dewy. The corn stood out - Alex, apparently, was a corn farmer by hobby when he lived in rural Japan, and I grew up eating sweet corn off the stalk in New Hampshire. This compared favorably. We ate tempura eel, light and flaky and tender, with none of the awful heaviness of fried food. Piping hot and delicious - this one disappeared quickly, daubed with crystals of sea salt and then deposited into happy maws. Then, at last, we had the star of the show: seared wagyu with uni.
Dear Styleforum: if the sushi hasn't already convinced you, fly to Japan just to eat this.
The sheer richness of each bite was shocking; warm and luxurious like molten gold. The fat melted away in our mouths, mingled with the briny lushness of the uni. The crisp vegetables cleared the sea and the earth from our noses, refreshed us. We chewed. We sipped. We laughed - I had thought that any meal after our run through the fish market would be a sour mark on my last day, an event fated to failure. It did not come to pass. We ate our final dish: octopus rice with tomatoes, served in bowls that were at once wabi-sabi, shibui, and mottainai. There is a name for the rice that I have forgotten - Alex was involved in the official naming, and wanted to call it "Morning Dew" or something like that. It does indeed glisten like dew, and we inhaled our final bites with bittersweet triumph. We did good. Not even the chef could think of anything else we should eat.
We stood and stretched, walked back to Shibuya terminal beneath the flashing neons of an unreal city. We stopped to take one last picture. And then - that was it. We shook hands, said our goodbyes, and faded away into the endless multitudes.
So no, there were no endless drinking binges, no miserable days of travel, no crowds of angry people in tailored clothing. Just good people and a great time, and I know which of those I prefer. It is rare that you ever have as much fun as you think you're going to have, whether you're hanging out at home or going to a new country. As I hope you've all picked up on over the course of this too-short trip, I had a blast. I think we all did. There are a lot of people who went out of their way to make that happen, too. Thanks are due (and happily given) to all of the friendly and accommodating store managers and staff members we met along our way, to all of the great friends we met and made in Tokyo (we'll see you again!); to Alex, for making this trip happen, and for his constant and consistently stellar food recommendations - not to mention the excellent photography (be thankful you don't have to see mine) and interpretation; and to all of you guys on Styleforum who make this stuff so damn fun.
Hopefully you've had a good time following along, and I hope that we'll be able to do more cool stuff in the near future. But for now -
See you, Space Cowboys.