Monday April 15, 2013
There are so many side trips you can take in Japan. Tokyo, Hakone, Kamakura and Nikko are all popular choices. With a limited amount of time, we had to save Nikko and Hakone for another time. Today though we were off to a morning excursion to Kamakura.
When traveling on any train, plan your trip before hand on http://www.hyperdia.com. They have all the times available and the site is in English. When we were in line to exchange our JR Rail Pass, a couple was planning their trip at the counter and they were taking forever. I’ll never understand why people plan their vacation while they are on vacation. You can get a lot more in your day if you plan ahead and organize your sights and restaurants in a logical fashion. You’ll be amazed how three months of day and night research can make your trip a that much more efficient.
It’s an hour from Tokyo and can be booked on the JR line. Once you get into the train station, it’s about a 20 minute walk to the great Buddha and a fairly easy walk to navigate. The statue is set within a picturesque hilltop. They only charge a $2 entrance fee, where they get you is if you want to see the inside of the Buddha you must pay an extra 20 cents.
For breakfast, we stopped at a vending machine as we were walking to the buddha. There is almost one on every block and tons of drinks to choose from. There’s Coke, fruit juices, coffee based drinks, sports drinks and tea. For the most part, the drinks are different that what you can get out here, so not a bad way to talk in the culture for a buck. Once you get through all the drinks, there is ice cream, ramen, fruits and vegetables toys, electronics, rice, liquor and of course used panties.
We headed back into Tokyo and made a quick ramen stop at Kirabashi. We walked in with all the seats full, albeit quickly turning over. There was a short line and while the inside temperature was mild, curiously each patron who was finishing up was sweating profusely. The chefs energetically greet everyone who walks in, the food looks fantastic and it feels like a place we are going to enjoy. If only we could figure out how to order. The kiosk is in Japanese with no pictures to help us out this time. We turned to our new best friend, the guy behind us, and he was more than helpful. We got two miso Tsukemen ramens, one was extra spicy with an egg and the other was spicy with extra pork. The ramen is offered at a 1-5 spiciness level. We were slightly ambitious and ordered one at a level 4. This was our best ramen of the trip. The pork was unbelievably tender with an intense flavor. The spiciness of the level 4 is manageable for the first few spoonfuls. After that I slowed down, feeling the heat and knowing that we had lunch at the infamous Sukiyabashi Jiro. Not wanting to introduce myself to the sushi legend by dropping a deuce in his automatic toilet. I backed off, finishing off a few more bites of that pork before throwing in the towel. We were really looking forward to the ramen and it more than delivered. It was a great meal something we still crave a month after we are back from our trip.
(It’s warming up)
Now we are off to Ginza. We had some time before lunch, but we wanted to ensure we were not late. So when we arrived in Ginza we first located Jiro and then walked around the area. Ginza is known as the Beverly Hills of Tokyo and rightfully so, high-end shop after high-end shop. Most of our expensive meals were located in Ginza. After a stroll down a few of the streets and some photos our taste buds had adequately recovered from the spicy ramen and we were ready for lunch.
Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten
Tsukamoto Sogyo Building, Basement 1st Floor,2-15, Ginza 4-chome
Jiro Ono was born in 1925. He is oldest living Michelin 3 star chef in the world. The first sushi chef to be awarded 3 stars and the focus of a 2012 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”. It was a difficult reservation to get, especially considering he has a reputation for not allowing non-Japanese speakers to eat at the original Ginza location. If you manage to get a reservation, some have found the service to be lacking. We had our hotel concierge book this reservation and all this for what, 20 minutes of omakase bliss. New York times food critic Pete Wells recently complained about restaurants demanding a 3-4 hour time commitment this may very well be his ideal dinning experience. At our seating there was another American couple and 4 seats that has just opened up. When questioned I a m told no pictures of Jiro, but I am free to take pictures of my food. We also get a photo-op with Jiro at the end of our meal. Overall we consider this is a relaxed picture policy because most of the other 3 star Michelin restaurants forbid photos if there are other patrons in the restaurant. I order a beer and we are presented with a set menu that is translated in English. I don’t believe we ever got the sole fish as the meal started with the squid. I shoot a picture, eat a piece of sushi and take a sip of beer. The next piece arrives. I shoot a picture, eat a piece of sushi and take a sip of beer. The faster I shoot, the faster the sushi arrives. The fast I eat, the fast the sushi arrives. The fast I drink, the fast the sushi arrives. After a few pieces I am sweating from the forehead. Jiro notices and sends over a wet towel. It breaks the ice for a moment and more sushi arrives. It’s hard to keep up with Jiro’s pace and thoroughly enjoy the meal. It’s out of a scene from I love Lucy trying to keep up with the chocolate factory assembly line. We finally get as moment to savor the meal; the yellow tail, squid, toro, cockleshell, boiled clam, sea urchin, salmon roe and egg were all standouts. The boiled octopus and sea eel are the best to date. When the sushi is over we are asked to transfer from the counter to a table for dessert. Two-thirds of my beer is left behind as we move. A sliced of the fame musk melon is served. It is the juiciest fruit we have tasted. At the end of all of this we pay $700, cash only, and we get a picture with Jiro. We thank him, his son and his staff and we are on our way. It was excellent quality sushi, but no the optimal dinning experience that you would expect from a Michelin restaurant. Luxeats posted a recent blog of Tabelog’s Top 30 sushi restaurants in Tokyo, Jiro was actually number 48.
(What it’s like to eat at Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten)
What I did like about Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten was Jiro was there and still cooking at 87, right in front of us. It was a recurring theme on our trip, chefs actually present in their kitchen and cooking for that matter. They’re not promoting their gimmicky reality show, they’re not balancing their 12th restaurant opening, and they’re not hawking their cheap insignia cookware, but actually cooking and teaching their staff. They’re modest, gracious, hard working, approachable. They don’t throw temper tantrums, they’re not arrogant, they don’t photograph the LA Times restaurant critic. They walk you out at the end of the meal and greet you farewell. It was appreciated, refreshing and worth the price if it cost us a few extra bucks.
Afterwards we wrap-up our visit to Ginza with a stop at the Sony Building tourist trap. Normally I would pass on a Frommer’s recommendation, but Japan just released the 4K Ultra HD TV technology and I wanted to check it out. Amazing quality for an 80 inch TV, but a $17K price tag is tough to swallow.
Akihabara, famous for its electronics shops, is a popular spot for tourists. You can buy camera equipment, appliances, parts and other electronic gadgets. But, I’m not sure when you would want to bring a vacuum home from Tokyo. We just didn’t see the appeal. We walked around for a few minutes, went in some stores and stopped by the Sega complex to try to win a prize via one of their mechanical arm games.
Our next stop was the scenic Sensō-ji Temple, one of the many sights and locations either damaged or destroyed by the World War II air raids. It was later rebuilt and is a extraordinary attraction. The adjacent shops on Nakamise-Dori are an attraction in itself selling all kinds of snacks and souvenirs.
Tokyo Skytree is the latest and most imposing addition to the Tokyo skyline. It’s used as a broadcast antennae, restaurant and observation deck. It was completed in 2012 at a cost of $800 million and currently the second tallest structure in the world after the Burj Khalifa.
The Skytree is 2,080 feet tall with the first observation deck at 1,148 feet and the second one at 1,476 feet. Purchasing tickets beforehand can be a pain. In short, you need a Japanese credit card to buy a ticket to first observation deck and that card must be present when you pick-up the tickets. You also have the option of staying at a nearby hotel that includes a ticket in hotel price. A third option is a tour, but the time commitment wasn’t worth it to us. Lastly, you can show up and wait in line. We got there around 4PM and were given a ticket that tells you what you need to come back, ours was 5:30PM. We had dinner plans at 6PM, so that wasn’t going to work. We just strolled through some shops and headed to dinner early, hoping the line was shorter after dinner.
Apparently, there are two Toriki’s in Tokyo. Both are well regarded. One was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and another that received 1 Michelin star. Both appear to be very popular. Bourdain’s Toriki is located at 3-11-13 Hatanodai, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo. As we were deciding which yakitori place to eat at on our trip, I’m not sure I ever distinguished between the two places, I just voted for Toriki. Now that we’re back and I look at videos of the Anthony Boudain Toriki, I see they are different and I’m glad I ate at the other Toriki as Bourdain never puts down any of the dishes he eats.
In general, I wasn’t expecting much from a yakitori place, but from the first bite of the chicken, it was clear this bird was from another land. This was one of the big surprises of the trip. Chef Yasuhito Sakai slaughters his own poultry each morning, but I was expected the result to be a supremely tender bird. Although, their approach to chicken is different. This is up there with Eleven Madison Park’s Chicken For Two. A much simpler dish, but the White Breast with Wasabi served almost rare is just as satisfying. Piece after piece, the dishes are amazing. Our highlights include Chicken Thigh, Liver, Chicken Meatballs and the Potato with butter.
When we got back to the Skytree after dinner, there no line. Just walk up and purchase a ticket. That’s always your best bet with any popular tourist attraction, arrive early or arrive late. Once you get to the first observation deck, you can choose to purchase a ticket to the second observation deck. There’s a clear glass floor to test your nerves, great views of this sprawling city and a few cheesy photo-ops that even we couldn’t pass up.
(Elevator ride up Tokyo Skytree)