This is the Part II of guess what, Taste of Japan – Part I.
Food hunting in Shibuya
In the evening, we headed to Shibuya for dinner at a standing sushi bar. Yes, places like these do exist in Japan. Plenty of them. And people actually eat there. Standing.
We went into this very tiny shop with a sliding door. And you bet we picked the one with a little queue outside. Like Londoners, people don’t mind queuing for food in Tokyo. They are happy to give away an hour or two of their lives for a few grains of vinegar-ed rice or a slurp of ramen.
But don’t be too surprised. You would quickly understand once you’ve had a taste of these food. I do now. Though I still couldn’t quite understand the endless queues outside Byron Soho every Friday and Saturday night.
Back to Japan.
This shop was small, most of it taken up by this U-shaped counter with sushi chompers (70% local, 30% intoxicated French exchange students) circling two sushi chefs in tidy uniform.
The moment we entered the shop, one of them and a young petite waitress let out a loud “WELCOME!” in Japanese as if the States has just dropped another bomb. It was almost like a reflex action. Unfussed by the shouting, customers indulged in their eating and drinking while the chefs continued to send off pairs and pairs of hand-pressed “nigiri” sushi at the speed of flying daggers.
To start, we were given the English menu and some hot towels to clean our hands. For this dinner, we decided to go mixing and matching our “all-time favourite” and a few other types of nigiri we’d never tasted.
You are supposed to start with the white fish sushi then move on to the darker colour and fattier ones. But we were too jet-lagged and hungry to be such a snob about this.
Anago, which is a type of saltwater eel. I liked it.
Name-geso, which is raw squid leg. I tried to like it.
Yaki salmon mayo, too embarrassed to be seen liking it.
Uni, sea urchin. Never really a fan, but it’s expensive. So I would say I liked it.
You would know.
Next to it is the Saba, the mackerel nigiri. Yes, the one with very pretty iridescent skin and silver streaks.
I Liked it with a capital L.
Chutoro. I LOVE IT.
Please take your time to marvel at this marbling beauty. Chutoro comes from the belly of tuna and has this very full and fat taste and is good for all mankind regardless of age, race and waist size.
It’s omega fatty acid, you see. Whatever that means, it can only be good for you.
Also, I liked that these fish were sliced with such military precision, we didn’t have to fight about who gets the bigger slice.
Within half an hour, everything was gone with two glasses of Asahi beer emptied.
And the rice, oh the rice. The Japanese really takes their national pastime – rice-cooking – to another level.
I had never had a grain of rice so round and pearly and translucent until I stepped foot in Japan. You know, just the perfect stickiness so it could be delicately picked up and eaten with chopsticks.
I could never imagine myself eating those flat bland rice in the UK ever again. Ever. Who can blame me?
Once bitten, rice shy.
* * *
If you think our dinner ended there, you either (1) don’t know me personally; or (2) are deluded to think that those nigiri sushi were the size of a burger.
At £5 a pair, no sorry they weren’t.
We paid our bill, reciprocated everybody’s bow with another bow then made our way to an underground izakaya which opened till as late as 3am.
It was not the easiest shop to find in Shibuya, but once we climbed down the stairs and glided past another very space-efficient sliding door, we found ourselves revelling in what was the most effortless Time Travel experience in Tokyo.
Here about 10 feet under one of the world’s most commercial and metropolitan intersection, low-browed Hanbey transported us back to post-war Japan with charcoal-grilled skewers, worn out furniture, grubby pots and chain-smoking men in their crumpled work clothes.
All four walls were lined with faded past advertisements, movie posters, guarded by rows of time-honoured, cape-wearing figure dolls. In a corner, rattan baskets hung from the ceiling held abundant of under priced traditional sweets and snacks.
A packet for as low as ¥30, aren’t these things supposed to be priceless?
Back to our seat, we pulled out the menu (Japanese first to re-convince myself I really do not read kanji, then willingly surrendered to English), ordered a variety of recommended skewers and proceeded to fumble with the chopsticks, saucers, dips and relishes.
In front of us were big columns of smoke and a flurry of clinking, clanking, chopping and sizzling. Lots of sizzling, as the chef brushed on layers and layers of sauces onto the skewers of vegetable and meat.
It wasn’t long before our table was filled with food. Or maybe it was, we couldn’t tell, since we were pleasantly distracted all along.
Bacon roll, pork, chicken, mushroom then casually threw in some liver, cartilage and uterus.
Can’t say I savoured each and every piece of them like my last meal on earth, but they did for a second make me feel like I could take over the world or go on an adventure with Bear Grylls.
I have to admit that this sense of fearlessness quickly disappeared as soon as I witnessed the eating of raw guts and uterus from this group of Japanese across the table.
Knowing that I had finished my exotic slash raw food quota of the day, I continued to fill my jet-lagged tummy with fried chicken and takoyaki, otherwise known as “octopus ball” from Osaka. (More on this later.)
The night ended perfectly with just enough amount of food (Japanese portions are quite small), just enough amount of alcohol (sadly, this too) and a quiet but memorable walk across the iconic Shibuya Crossing at 2am.
Ok fine. I also mistakenly ordered a glass of Japanese cold-brewed coffee thinking it was whiskey and coke.
Have a nice day and see you in Part 3.
With love x