We were strolling though the market when we found ourselves stopped in our tracks by the smell of grilling meat. The mouth watering smell was coming from a little yakitori restaurant called Daitoryo smack in the center of the market underneath the train tracks. We stood there, looking to see what they had and if there was a place to sit, but the signs (hundreds of them) were in Japanese and every seat was taken.
Then, the moment.
There was a small group of guys sitting at the tables in front of the restaurant and one of them said, “sit here!” We did as we were told, ordered a couple of beers, and were presented with a menu in English.
Of the five sitting at the table, one of the older gentlemen (in the red jacket) spoke English because he had spent time in the US, and through him, everyone offered advice on what to order.
We ordered grilled peppers (not really spicy even though they looked like jalapenos), grilled chicken, beef, and tofu. We also ordered eggplant which came out pickled and later, some extra beef and chicken because they were really, really tasty. We did not try any off the offal offerings because David is not a fan of what he calls the “nasty bits.” One of the older guys seemed surprised that we liked tofu. They were also surprised that I was drinking a beer which gave me the impression that Japanese women don’t tend to drink beer.
The two younger guys sitting at the table were bikers and both wearing motorcycle jackets. One of them had a serious crush on our waitress. The three older guys at the table were hard core regulars, drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes while eating. The five were not friends, but knew each other as regulars at the restaurant.
While we ate they asked us dozens of questions about where we had traveled, what we thought of Japan, and if we had been scared to come after the earthquake and tsunami. We told them where we had been, how much we adored Japan and no, we weren’t scared. The gentleman in gray sitting next to me, who smoked like a chimney (the cigs in the photo below were his), offered to buy us a second round of beers. I declined but David did not which pleased him. They asked what we did for a living and how old we were (and very nicely acted surprised when they found out my age).
Our lunch was about 3000 yen. These guys were genuinely welcoming and sharing a table with them was a treat. As we walked away, we looked at each other and said, “Did that just happen?”
One night we headed out for dinner into the neighborhood around Shinjuku station to a restaurant called Watami. It inhabits floors 3-6 of an office building, so take the elevator up. Watami is an Izakaya style restaurant, meaning it offers dozens of small plates which go well with beer, specifically Suntory Malt beer, the beverage of choice there. I had this place on my list because they are open late, until 3 am and on Fridays and Saturdays, until 5 am. However, we were not partying and went at a respectable 9 pm. the place is a warren of small rooms and we were seated in a “non-smoking” room with 6 tables, two of them already filled.
The first menus we received were all in Japanese, but there are pictures for everything to help you figure out what to order. Later we were brought English menus which helped a little. I noticed the prices on the two menus were different and finally figured out the one in English included tax in the menu prices.
We ordered the Suntory malt beer, of course, along with some gyoza, fried small fish (very much like smelt) and barbecued pork belly. We enjoyed it all, even though the fish were a little over-fried. I would love to come to a place like this with a big group so we could try lots of different things.
Our one mediocre food experience was at a “floating” sushi place in Kyoto, one of those places where the food goes around on a conveyor belt. It was sad and it had been recommended to us by the concierge at our hotel. The flipside of this was that we also had excellent sushi in two places in Tokyo; Daiwa Sush at the Tsujiki Fish Market and a place in Shinjuku called “Standing Sushi Bar.”
Sushi at Tsukiji, Tokyo:
Our plan was to go to the Tsukiji Fish market but we weren’t in a hurry since I’d read that visitors we not currently allowed inside the popular early morning tuna auction. The number of visitors allowed inside has been limited for a while now, and after the earthquake some people were saying the vendors (some of whom don’t like tourists in the market) had been lobbying to keep them out all together. So, while it’s a good idea to get there early because the inside section of the market with the fresh fish seems to start packing it up after 10am, we didn’t feel the need to get there at the crack of dawn.
The Toei Oedo metro line (the pink one on the map) goes from Shinjuku station to Tsukiji station and upon exiting, turn left and the entrance to the market is right around the corner. It’s a pretty vast area and it took a little while to figure out what was going on and where things were. There are side “streets” inside the market area selling dry goods, restaurant supplies and housing some small restaurants. Here we saw the famous “Sushi Dai” restaurant with its notorious 2 hour wait. At about 9:30 am there were about 12 people waiting in line outside and all appeared to be foreigners. We decided to forgo the wait and get some food now so we picked a place a couple of doors down with no wait (which I later figured out was the equally well known Daiwa Sushi), seats at the counter and a sushi chef with a welcome smile and a small amount of helpful English.
It’s funny how when I travel my notions of a typical breakfast go out the window. Perhaps it’s having my body in a different time zone, but I have no problems eating raw fish or a bowl of noodles for breakfast when that’s what’s for breakfast where I am. The smiling man behind the counter suggested that we could share a set sushi menu so that’s what we did. The set included tuna, squid, uni, unagi, halibut, miso soup and more and was just the perfect amount to get us started. Was it the best sushi I’ve ever had? No, but the fish was impeccably fresh and the service was quick and friendly. It was pricy at 3600 yen, that that price was comparable in other places for what we got, however less expensive sushi can be found.
We were in and out in about 20 minutes, anxious to get into the main fish market. Outside, the line of tourists at Sushi Dai had not moved at all.
Standing Sushi Bar, Tokyo
On another evening we headed back out into the bright neon lights of Shinjuku. We wandered, checking out the electronics store and looking at menus of a couple of dozen restaurants, eventually stopping at a place called “Standing Sushi Bar.” It’s about a block away from Watami Izakaya (above), on the same side of the street. The restaurant is a tiny place with only a bar at which yes, you must stand (no stools to sit on). But the prices are reasonable, the sushi chefs friendly, and the fish is fresh. We ate our fill for about 1500 yen (though David said he could have eaten more once he saw the bill).
Okonomiyaki Kiraku, Kyoto
About 3 blocks downhill from the Westin in Kyoto is Okonomiyaki Kiraku, at the corner of Sanjo Street and Okazakimichi St. They are open for both lunch and dinner (until midnight), closed on Mondays.
The restaurant is small, 8 seats at a counter and 4 tables, but the waitress and the guys cooking behind the griddle were friendly, generous, and patient with our attempts to order. They have an English menu which was greatly appreciated, yet I think we were the only tourists in there at the time. This place has figured out how to handle the big hotel down the street for those travelers willing to forgo the hotel restaurants in search of something different, yet maintain its own local flavor.
For our first experiences eating Okonomiyaki, I was very happy to have them cook it for me, but I understand that some places they give you the ingredients and you make it yourself.
We each ordered a “single”, mine with pork, shrimp and squid, and David’s with pork and shrimp. I also ordered some eggplant, which turned out to be two short Japanese eggplant, sliced in half and cooked on the griddle with some soy sauce and topped with shaved bonito. They arrived soft and perfectly cooked to the center, a little sweet from the caramelized soy sauce and nicely balanced with the saltiness of the shaved bonito.
Then came the Okonomiyaki, served up on the griddle in front of us to stay warm, and with a squeeze bottles of sauce (sweet soy and a mayo) to put over it. It was surprisingly filling and I can’t imagine eating a large one.
Watching the guys cook was fun; they weighed and measured everything before putting it on the grill. We watched as they made another dish, like a very thin crepe, covered with about 2 cups of sliced green onions or small leeks, and when they cooked down, covered with another crepe. This was served up to the guy at the counter next to us, who offered us a taste of his meal (it was excellent) and the line cook pointed out what it was on the menu (some sort of vegetarian dish). Along with 2 beers, 2 Okonomiyaki and the eggplant, dinner was about 3000 yen.