It’s early afternoon when we finally work our way through the line at Ran Sushi to take seats at the bar, where the two chefs work deftly as they slice through fish at almost lightning speed, producing perfect cuts for sashimi, nigiri, and the handful of rolls they have on their menu. Ran is located deep in the heart of the famous Tsukiji Market, one of Tokyo’s most popular attractions for those with a deep love of fish, raw or cooked.
Wandering through the market is a chaotic experience, between the assortment of restaurants, kitchen supply stores, and other establishments, and the actual working market. Personnel zip back and forth with forklifts full of the day’s catch, dodging members of the crowd with quick nods and cries of ‘sumimasen’ as they push from one place to another. White tourists look deeply distressed at the lack of personal space, seeming to forget that this is someone’s workplace in addition to being a crowded and busy site for visitors to Tokyo.
At Ran, there’s a menu with a number of preset items, all helpfully illustrated for visitors who don’t speak or write Japanese. I opted for the chef’s choice of ten sushi pieces, hoping I’d get whatever was most fresh or interesting, and I wasn’t disappointed. The chef served me red clam, which proved to be intriguing both texturally and flavourwise, along with an old favourite, sea bream. Baby squid made their way onto my palate, delicate and chewy with a faintly salty flavor, and the uni tasted almost unbearably fresh.
At Ran, the crowd varies from businessmen grabbing a bite to eat to tourists like ourselves, a rainbow of faces squeezed into the tiny bar; getting food in Japan requires slipping into tiny restaurants with only a handful of seats, getting cozy with staff and guests alike.
On our first night in town, we ate at Gatemo Tabum, Japan’s only restaurant offering Bhutanese food. It is, be warned, quite spicy, which makes it handy that they serve the food with ample helpings of rice, but it’s also extremely delicious. We try bright, flavorful momo, and tender mushrooms cooked in cheese sauce, and spicy chicken with bold and mostly unseeded peppers scattered across the platter, daring us to take another bite; our lips are burning by the end of the night, but the meal is well worth it.
We eat street food in Asakusa, downing meat buns and fried pastries before wandering through the temple and the abbot’s garden, which is rarely open to the public. It’s a rare moment of contemplative peace in the heart of downtown Tokyo, a beautiful pond paired with cherry trees just starting to bloom, koi flickering through the waters, azaleas in bloom across the grounds. Everything is perfectly in its place, meticulously organised, making the garden seem much larger than it actually is, and a woman offers us cups of macca, which we drink on a bench overlooking the pond, watching visitors drift by.
Some women, and a handful of men, wear kimono. The kimono are bright and colourful in keeping with spring, obi tied in complicated and beautiful knots, with coordinating bags. Wearing kimono requires a delicate dance of steps in tabi and geta, making a distinctive clopping noise that can be heard especially clearly when women move through sidewalk crowds or rush to catch a train deep in the heart of Tokyo’s sprawling and sometimes deeply confusing metro system; Tokyo station at rush hour is a storm of ‘sumimasen’ and staircases meandering in and around each other to change platforms and find the right train.
Namiki Yabu Soba serves us their specialty, cold soba and tempura shrimp, to be dipped into a savory sauce. Top off with warm soba water periodically, and finish by drinking the remainder directly from the bowl: It’s a decision you won’t regret. At lunch, the line is long but the crowd is patient, and it’s worth the wait. Remember to take your shoes off before stepping onto the platform and folding up your legs to sit at the low table, and savor every bite of your slightly sweet, light, golden shrimp.
Making our way to Kamakura, home of the famous giant Buddha statute, leads us to curry in a tiny restaurant off the main drag; it comes with a generous side of vegetables and I eat mine with iced oolong tea, a common alternative to the country’s ubiquitous beer. Japanese curries are delightfully flavourful and the mind level of spiciness makes it easier for the underlying flavours to come through; the wise eater takes the curry with the pickles served on the side, including the slightly bitter, earthy burdock root and crunchy daikon.
We also go to Birdland, hidden deep in the heart of a building that requires you to slip through a flight of stairs (or two) and through the doorway of a restaurant that specializes in yakitori, but in a highly elevated form. The chefs cook the food in front of the diners, selecting whatever’s freshest and most interesting. The gingko nuts prove to be my favourite, but they also offer us liver, chicken with wasabi, and mushrooms, one of which we are instructed to eat with a tiny, wrinkled citrus fruit like a lime, with a more intensely sharp and bitter flavour.
I find myself slowly becoming besotted with Japanese food and the broad nature of Japanese cuisine. In nations like the States, Japan is reduced to the world of sushi and teriyaki, tempura and ramen. Yet, Japan’s food is about so much more than that; the country’s street food is amazing, and the array of pastries served is particularly astounding. They lack the sickly-sweet flavour many American and European pastries have, and they come in exciting and unexpected flavours, including sakura, ubiquitous at this time of year thanks to the trees bursting into bloom all around us; if it exists, it comes in sakura flavour, much to my delight, and I plow through sakura mochi along with agemanjuu, a fried pastry served at Asakusa than I demand seconds of to sate my obsession.
Less than a week into my stay in Japan, I already want to stay here forever.
Photo by stu_spivack, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license