Wednesday April 17, 2013
We arrived late on Tuesday and missed the 120 person limit for the tuna auction viewing. Jen was adamant to see the auction on this trip, so we woke up even earlier on Wednesday to try again. We arrived just past 4AM this time and the guard had us wait outside. We thought we were the first ones this time, but there was some miscommunication and the guard eventually escorted us inside. When we got inside, we noticed there was already about 20 people with their yellow vests ready to go. The good news is we easily made the cut-off for the first group and just waited until 5:25AM for them to escort us to the auction site. On this day the first group of 60 arrived by 4:30AM and the second group filled a couple minutes prior to 5AM.
(Inspecting tuna – Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo, Japan)
Once you get inside, it a bit crammed and there’s tuna being inspected on both sides of the building. There are about 100 to 200 tuna that I can see, each one with the tail sliced open and potential buyers observing the meat quality. One buyer is seen even taking a bite of the flash frozen meat. After about 5 minutes, the first auctioneer gets on his stool and begins the fun. He speaks fast, only understandable to the buyers. After a minute, the auction is done. A few minutes later, second auctioneer begins the process again. Within 20 minutes, we are ushered out and the tour is over.
(The tuna action begins – Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo, Japan)
We had not planned to be at the fish market twice and since we ha spent some trying to figure out which was better, Sushi Dai or Daiwa. We decided to get a shortened version of the previous day’s feast at Daiwa. We wanted to fill in some of the blanks based on the fish we didn’t try at Dai, so we turned down the omakase option. The chef may have been offended and may have led to less than stellar service, which was sub-par compared to Dai. Overall the sushi was good, but clearly a grade below Dai’s quality. If it was up to us, we’d rather wait two hours for Dai than walk right into Daiwa.
Now it was off to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine that commemorates Japan’s war dead. There are two and half millions names enshrined there and that figures includes 14 class A war criminals. The US commemorates its war dead, but we have never done anything wrong like the Japanese did. So , I’m sure how I’d react if we had war criminals enshrined on our memorials. There’s a large torii framing the entrance to the shrine and the experience is worth a 30 minute stop.
We’ve heard stories of employees hired to sardine people into subway cars in the morning at Shinjuku station and we wanted to be a part of that. The station is the busiest in the world and gets over three million travelers per day. We arrived just past 9AM, but no such luck. There are 26 platforms at Shinjuku, so maybe we just arrived on the wrong one. The cars were busy, but not Chinese fire drill busy. Perhaps this is just an old wives’ tale.
(Tokyo Subway Car Unloading)
(A full subway car in Tokyo, Japan)
(Riding the Escalator in a Tokyo Subway Station)
The Imperial Palace is home to Japan’s Imperial Family and is located in the center of the city near Tokyo Station. It was destroyed during World War II and later rebuilt. It is only open on New Year’s and the Emperor’s Birthday. In addition, there advance booked tour available to see most of the grounds. Spaces fill up fast and we barely got booked a month prior to our trip. You are instructed to meet at the Kiyo-mon Gate prior to the tour, assuming you can find it. We were running late and had trouble. We headed to the bridge where if you could find an employee, could not speak English. Then, we realized it was probably a different gate and continue to the next one and the next one. Needless to say, we missed the tour. My advice if you decide on a tour would be to arrive early as the grounds are massive and it may take to time to find the right gate. Keep in mind there are several third parties offering tours of the outside grounds and they can get in the way of you finding the official tour group.
I’ve read about Japanese fruit, how it’s the best in the world and people are willing to pay upwards of $100 for one piece of fruit. Yes the fruit doesn’t come cheap, but neither is the production process. Once fruit develops on a vine, it is left alone. One fruit per vine to maximize the nutrients absorbed. Fruit is covered in individuals caps to protect it from the sun. The pruning is labor intensive and definitive, each fruit are shaped the same on the row and each row is exact in the greenhouse. Vegetables are a necessity for life and fruit is a luxury, which can be delicately wrapped and presented as a gift. That’s the mentality of the Japanese. We had to see this for ourselves. Sembikiya and Sun Fruits are two leading brands in this luxury fruit market. We went with Sembikiya in the Ginza neighborhood. The store is clean and not just Whole Foods clean, it could pass for a high-end jewelry store.
They have all sorts of fruit, each displayed separately. Melons, apples, kiwi, oranges, tangerines, bananas, grapefruit, cherries, mangoes and of course the signature musk melon. The prices range from $3 for a banana or like fruit up to $100 for the prized musk melon. Being from Southern California, the melons didn’t surprise me. I’ve seen some melons that cost more than $100 and I’ve seen some melons that look like they cost a dollar. The cherries were beyond my paycheck, $170 for a small box. That’s $4.25 per cherry with a minimum order of 40 cherries. In addition to raw fruit, they sell juice, jams and desserts. You could also save by buying in bulk. A 14-piece fruit basket at $320 sounds like a lot, but that only $22 per fruit. We were going to get a few musk melons to eat on the subway, but Jen was fearful of the Yakusa gangs. We’ve read stories of them cutting it up and reselling on the Roppongi black market. Luckily we had tried the musk melon at Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten, so we got an apple, banana and a strawberry sponge cake. On the way out we add a strawberry jam to take back home. And lucky we did, it was the best jam we’ve had. There’s store bought jam, there’s farmers’ market jam and then there’s Sembikiya jam.
We had the fruit two days later on the train. The banana had minimal blemishes when we bought it and two days later was still radiant. Once peeled, there were no blemishes and tasted great. Was it the best banana in the world. I can’t say the flavor was well above a decent banana, but it had no brown spots. The apple did have a couple blemishes, but this could have been caused from storage or the attempted robbery that occurred in Nara. Regardless, the apple was on the upper echelon of fruit out there. The juice was the only product I’ve seen replicated elsewhere. The cake was also very good, but I would stick with the fruit and the jams.
Nihonbashi MM Bldg., fl. B13-5-12 Nihonbashi
We know Japan’s beef is regarded as the world’s best. When the U.S. first began importing wagyu beef, it was the “it” thing to get on the menu if you were ready for the $100 splurge. Now, we have wagyu, Australian wagyu, American Kobe and Kobe-style. You can get Wagyu steak, Kobe burgers, Kobe tacos. High-end restaurants offer it by the oz., bars offer it by the pound and it may soon be available at school cafeterias. Needless to say wagyu beef has lost it’s meaning. So to get in touch with what true Japanese wagyu is, we decided to go to a Japanese beef restaurant. There are numerous ones to choose from and we needed one open for lunch. We read a decent review of Shima from Chuck Eats and it made our list.
The restaurant has roughly 20 seats and there was a party of three business men seated at the back tables, so we sat at the bar overlooking the kitchen. Chef O’shima was very welcoming when we arrived. He’s worked in London, France and Germany and has been cooking in Japan for over 10 years. A plate of simple olives, a cool dark and light bread arrived at the table with some butter to occupy until the real meal starts. They don’t age their beef, but that doesn’t stop them from aging the menus. We were presented with a stingy handwritten English menu and half the appetizers had a “sold out” sticker on them. We didn’t find the remaining appetizers all that appetizing. So, we went for our handy Iphone and showed Chef O’shima some dishes that we wanted to try. Both weren’t list on the menu, but they were available. We started with raw wagyu beef and a crab croquette. The wagyu was very tender and had a nice light beef flavor. So far so good. Afterwards, he started preparing the crab croquette and dipped the batter crab in hot oil for a few minutes. The crab mixture was so creamy, but in a good way and easily one of the best croquettes I’ve had. It’s a different beast, but would still put 99% of crab cakes to shame. Chef O’shima asked us if we wanted to order a steak. Yeah, that’s kind of why we are here. We’d like to two steaks as that all the was on offer. If there was three or four beef entrees, we probably would have tried another. We talked beef for a few minutes and I was trying to understand what type of beef we were ordering. I’m sure I ever got my answer, but he did give us the certificate that comes with beef when he purchases it. The “thumbprint” on the left is the cow’s nose print. He said they do they to ensure they switch your meat with goat, which is a huge problem in Japan. He was a little hesitant when we order a fillet and a sirloin, but happily obliged. The preparation is fairly simple; just broil it for a few minutes, turning and checking for doneness each minute. When you look at our pictures of the entrees. It looks a little boring, especially the vegetable sides. It actually could double as a Sizzle ad, but don’t be mistaken. They like to keep the accompaniments to fresh grilled seasonal offerings. And the beef with knock your socks off. We were in love with the sirloin, that was until the fillet arrived. The fillet was near perfection.
Chuck was right in that dry-aged beef has a deeper flavor, but we were in cow heaven with how tender and flavorful the beef was. The ample salt really gave it enough taste. The vegetables was great as well.
Shima offers a beef sandwich made with the daily trimmings. We asked for it when we made the reservation, but were told you have to be a repeat customer to get the sandwich. That didn’t keep us from saving a picture of it on the Iphone. As we were finished with our steaks, I was waiting for the right moment to show Chef O’shima the picture and pressure him to give us a sandwich to go, certainly he wouldn’t turn us down to our face. Before I could get the words out, he saw the amount of beef remaining and asked if we would like our leftovers in a sandwich. You bet. We were ecstatic to try it. If weren’t so stuffed, I would have tried it there. We kept in and out of the hotel fridge and it made the trek to Kyoto with us. Two days later it was still great, but it wasn’t until we got home, yes five days later that we were able to apply the proper heat conduction only a microwave could bring to this wagyu sandwich. Just pure heaven, it literally melted.
Located off the coast of Tokyo is the man-made island of Odaiba. It’s popular sight for recreation and shopping. The Fuji TV building, Aquacity, Rainbow Bridge, the ferris wheel and the Tokyo Big Sight are some of the big attractions. To get to Odaiba you take the Yurikamome train on the Yamanote line from Shinbashi station. You can get a round trip ticket or you can get a round-trip pass that covers all stops in Odaiba for $8. We just wanted to get a glimpse of what the island offered so we made one stop at Daiba station. From there you can check out the Fuji TV building and get a picture of the cheesy Statue of Liberty replica. The iconic headquarters of Fuji TV can be photographed from the rooftop parking of the Aquacity mall. Or you can even visit the building and access the observation deck in the sphere. The Japanese are consumed with all things western so it should come as no surprise that they built a replica of the Statue of Liberty. The Japanese weren’t the only one impressed with Frederic Bartholdi’s work as their are hundreds of replicas worldwide. Unfortunately the visit was anticlimactic, as the sites were not as impressive as the view on the outboard train over Rainbow bridge that takes you to Odaiba.
(Train to Odaiba Island in Tokyo, Japan)
MC Building 3F, 5-9-19 Ginza,
Our first choice for Sushi in Japan was Sushi Saito and Jiro. Unfortunately when we called to book a reservation at Saito two months in advance there was only a table for one available. Mizutani use to work for Jiro therefore we wanted to try a different approach to sushi. Sushi Sawada was mentioned in an Eater article that highlighted 2 star restaurants deserving of three stars. In addition it got the green light from David Chang in a New York times article and the photos we had seen were to die for. The chef has a reputation for aging each ingredient to obtain maximum flavor. Most of the fish he serves is bought the same or previous day and the tuna is aged for about three days. As we walked in you can’t help but be taken back by the interior, to say the setting was pristine would be an understatement. If heaven had a sushi restaurant, it would be called Sushi Sawada. The setting was that glorious. A spotless wood panel stretched from our table to the chef’s counter. It was meticulously clean and there was a small area that held the fresh ingredients he planned to use that evening. There is total of 7 seats, a party of three people preceded us and two seats remained empty. My balloon was slightly deflated when off to the right I saw a sign that prohibited photos. We thought about asking, but when you’re sitting in front of one of the most imposing sushi chefs the anticipation goes away. Koji Sawada doesn’t look like a sushi chef, he is an intimidating figure. If I was in LA I would have thought he was the bouncer. He doesn’t take long to gain respect for his food. The person sitting next to us mentioned to Sawada that her friend said that this restaurant was better than Jiro and asked if that was true. Chef Sawada laughed and said “machine gun Jiro” and began to quickly cock his arms imitating the motion of a machine gun. Given our experience it was easy to relate to the humor, apparently word travels fast. The meal started out with some simple raw and cooked preparations of seafood sans the rice. We then ordered some sake to accompany the meal. It was slightly sweet and turned out to be the best sake of the trip. The highlights of the meal were the squid, abalone, octopus, Otoro slightly seared, stuffed squid but everything was immaculate and there were not many dishes below a 9. They were either some of the best we had, or they redefined the ingredient for us. The restaurant is that good, deserves three stars and was the best sushi experience of our life. I would love the see the the sushi restaurant that can beat this experience. This is what we had on our experience:
Fava beans – 6/10
Snapper – 3 parts – 9/10
Squid – 10/10
Uni – 9/10
Abalone with a abalone jelly – 9/10
Octopus – 10/10
Smoked Spanish mackerel – 8/10
Shirago with shisho leaf – 7/10
A roll baby tai – 7/10
Otoro slightly seared – 10/10
Daikon roll – 8/10
Needlefish – 9/10
Arkshell – 7/10 Mackerel-
9/10 Lean tuna – 9/10
Chu toro – 9/10
Seared otoro 10/10
Smoked Bonito – 9/10
Squid stuffed with rice, Japanese gourd and nori – 10/10
Kohada – 8/10
Shrimp – 7/10
Hokkaido Uni – 9/10
Salt water eel anago – 9/10
Tomago – 7/10
Gooseberry – 8/10
The chef was nice enough to take a photo with us at the end of the meal. Sawada’s wife assists with the service. He didn’t allow pictures, but you can get a full set of pictures on these blogs:
We stopped by the since we were in Shinjuku, which surprisingly enough is the headquarters of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. The design conception was intended to resemble a computer chip and you can kind of see that when you look at it. There are observation decks in both towers, but we just stopped by for a picture.
While we were in Shinkjuku we got our last bite of the night at Torishige, a yakitori restaurant that is recommended by the chef at Takazawa. The restaurant is well regarded for its chicken, but it specializes in inards. We started off with an order of chicken intestines and on the lighter side peppers with grilled chicken. The intestines were very moist and had a fragrant sauce. The peppers with chicken were not bad, but I would prefer more seasoning. We then moved on to a couple beef dishes, including the wagyu with sea urchin and caviar and the grilled beef. Again, you can’t wrong with Japanese beef. We were full at this point, it would have been nice to come back to Torishige on emptier stomachs.
If Ginza is the Beverly Hills of Tokyo then Shinkjuku is the Las Vegas. It’s got Las Vegas’s lights, but it’s not as clean. In that case it may resemble Atlantic City. It’s densely populated with Pachinko parlors and definitely has a different feel then the rest of Tokyo. The moment you step out of the subway station you can tell you’re not in Kansas, there are cigarette butts all over the street. There are prostitutes in the alley ways and unfortunately I was with Jen so I couldn’t take advantage of the areas love hotels. If you really want a feel for the vibe it’s best to get a few drinks before the nighttime stroll.