Archive for February, 2009

Trattoria I’bischero

Friday, February 27th, 2009


What draws the nightly crowd to far-flung Kiba and Trattoria I’bischero? Perhaps it’s the tagliatelle with duck meat sauce or spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil. Maybe it’s the gorgonzola and rucola risotto or even the grilled steak di manzo. What draws me, though, to this unlikely location at the end of a lonely residential street, are the white beans with Sardinian bottarga. The pot at the end of a Tuscan rainbow ought to be filled with those savory beans.

Tomoya Hayakawa, the young, self-confident chef and owner of I’bischero was once a Tokyo salaryman. One day he got restless, quit, went to Italy to knock around, and was lucky enough to land a job at the small, family-run Trattoria Pandemonio in Firenze. Working there four years, he ate every meal with the family and staff, and educated his tongue to the tastes of Tuscany.

Hayakawa champions a slow food approach to dining, and his carefully crafted menu includes many of the same dishes as Pandemonio—dishes with simple tastes, a little sophisticated, but with no extra arrangement or garnishes. Thus, his tagliata di manzo: tender Japanese sirloin seared, then quickly grilled, sliced, and laid on a bed of fresh rucola. Nothing added but a bit of olive oil and sea salt. Perfetto.tagliata-di-manzo

The menu features some ten to fifteen choices each for antipasti, pasta and risottos, and main dishes. After several meals there, I’ve eaten through much of the menu and have discovered no duds. Even if you normally eschew tripe, the trippa alla fiorentina might convert you to that humble, delectable fare. With his risottos, Hayakawa bucks tradition using long-grained jasmine rice instead of Italian or Japanese rice, and the results are delicious. In season, the oyster risotto should not be missed.

white-beans Hayakawa’s favorite olive oil, Fattoria Regli Ulivi, can’t be found in Japan, so he imports it. This fine oil reveals its character with those heavenly white beans. Cooked to perfection, each bean has a luscious creamy texture, yet still remains firm. Their earthy taste is accented by hints of sage, rosemary, onions, and garlic, which meld with the fruity notes of the olive oil. Generous shavings of bottarga (preserved grey mullet roe) then add a lively, salty counterpoint to the dish.

I’bischero is airy, simply laid out, with warm woody tones. In the main dining room, rustic beams run along the ceiling and large windows allow plenty of natural light. Off to one side is an alcove with a few tables lit by small candles for the more romantically minded.

Prices are very reasonable at I’bishero, though the wine list, which covers all regions of Italy, could benefit from a few more inexpensive bottles. The house wine, though, a sturdy Tuscan Antinori Santa Cristina, priced at 2500 yen, is more than adequate. One small quibble: when ordering the house wine, you won’t get proper-sized wine glasses unless you ask for them.

The days when Italian food was the most popular “foreign” food in Tokyo are long gone. Hayakawa choose his out-of-the-way location with that in mind—only those people, he says, who care enough about good Italian food will come to Kiba to find him.

Trattoria I’bischero: 5-11-2 Toyo, Luminas Kiba Koen 2F, Koto Ward. 03.5635.5077. Well worth the subway ride to Kiba.

The Minstrels of Golden Gai

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009


Marenkov, Tokyo’s oldest nagashi, sits in the corner of Bar Shino, under a light bulb shaded by a plastic bag—the glass shade broke years ago—and strums crisp soft chords on his battered Yamaha guitar. Marenkov is a sprightly 79 years old. “Or maybe I’m eighty,” he says raising bushy eyebrows and grinning widely. His career spans 57 years so far.

 Bar Shino is in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai, Marenkov’s haunt for almost 40 years. Sometimes called the Montmartre of Tokyo, this warren of some 200 bars is a haven for mavericks, radicals, bohemians, artists, writers, and other free-spirits. It’s a fitting locale for a nagashi. The profession has its roots in the anti-establishment songs sung by young men in the Meiji Period. Its heyday, says Marenkov, was the Taisho period over 80 years ago. Work has been declining ever since.

 Unlike a karaoke machine, a nagashi provides musical encouragement and a tailor-made accompaniment for the eager barstool singer. Marenkov is expert at matching the pace and pitch of a melody to each individual. With a soft “hai!” and a nod he signals when you should start singing a verse.

 shinos-barThe owner of the bar, Shino-san, a lively, engaging woman of a certain age, is happy not to have a karaoke machine in her establishment. Person to person communication is most important, she stresses, gesturing with an ever-present cigarette. Karaoke would overpower the conversational intimacy of such tiny bars. Marenkov’s guitar, on the other hand, is an acoustic pleasure that adds to the mood.

 Nevertheless, karaoke machines have ended most nagashi careers. “Only a few nagashi are still around,” says Marenkov, his voice a hoarse whisper. “There are four in Shinjuku, two in Shibuya, two in Asakusa, maybe two or three in Ikebukuro and a few other places.”marenkov-2

 Marenkov’s family name is Kato, and that’s as much as he’ll allow. He started work as a postman, but delivering mail didn’t pay well. “So I took some guitar lessons from a nagashi association,” he explains. “I thought I had no talent and wanted to give up,” he adds, “but I liked the drinking.” Early on someone remarked that he resembled Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s successor. The name stuck.

 Marenkov first performed around Shinjuku station, an area which after the war was teeming with cafes. “When I entered a cafe with my guitar,” he says, “five or six girls would always flock around me.”

 But paying customers are now scarce. The zashiki, old-style Japanese restaurants, once a sure venue, have almost completely disappeared, and the few remaining can’t afford to pay a nagashi. The going rate is 1000 yen for two songs. “When I started out, I would get 100 yen for three songs, and I had to split that with two other guys, an accordionist and violin player,” Marenkov recalls.

 He hesitates to say how much he makes in a week, but he’s been able to support a wife and son. There are weeks, however, when he doesn’t earn much at all. But he’s content just having his guitar and enough money for a meal. “I’ve always managed to eat somehow,” he says with laugh.

 A customer at the counter offers Marenkov a beer, but he refuses. He stopped drinking some years ago. “It’s a nagashi’s duty to drink while working,” he says, “but I would get into arguments and have been punched out many times. I’ve fallen asleep drunk outside in the rain, had my glasses, cap, wallet, guitar, jacket and shoes stolen by homeless people. I was lucky I wasn’t killed.”

 Another customer chimes in that Marenkov once had his own guitar smashed over his head, but Marenkov waves that accusation aside.

 Marenkov still works most evenings except when it rains or when his legs ache. “As long as my fingers move and my legs work, I’ll keep on doing what I do.” He plays a few bars from the St. Louis Blues and smiles.

 About 50 meters away, but a world apart, is Kabukicho, Shinjuku’s red-light entertainment extravaganza. Bar Freude, a quiet friendly spot tended for 50 years by two generations of the Hoshino family, is a regular stop for another nagashi, Suzuki Isamu, who performs under the name, Yuji. He’s been at it for only 35 years.

 yujiYuji, 56, is built like a bouncer—stocky with short-cropped hair, thick strong arms, shoulders and neck. His gestures are quick and energetic. With his black shirt, black leather vest and snow-white jacket, he cuts a dashing figure. When he sings, he closes his eyes and his husky voice is soulful and expressive. Sometimes he adds a Latin flourish to the melody line on his nylon-stringed guitar.

 “I’m lucky to still be alive,” he admits over a glass of beer. “I’ve had a glass ashtray hit me in the face, beer bottles broken over my head, and once even a thick Pepsi bottle smashed on my head,” he laughs. “My head must be tough.”

 Yuji is to the point about why he likes his profession—jiyu, freedom, he says, but quickly adds, “And I like drinking.”

 Being a nagashi is “aruku no shobai,” he explains, walking work. Yuji usually starts his rounds around 8pm. and will work until midnight or 1am. “But sometimes I go home early. Sometimes I work all night. It depends on my mood.”

 A good singer doesn’t equal a good nagashi, he explains. “It’s not just singing,” he says reaching for his beer, “you’ve got to listen to people’s problems and complaints. Otherwise you won’t do any business.”

He pauses for a moment searching for the right words. “Some people want to release their bad feelings by drinking” he continues, “and they don’t dislike fighting.” Sometimes when entering a new bar, Yuji has been beaten up by irritated customers. Luckily, he says, there are many cops in Shinjuku and they always come quickly.

 Work is scarce in Kabukicho too. Most people who like to sing now go to a karaoke club, he explains. A bar with paying customers one night will have none the next. He shrugs, “Taihen da.” It’s tough. “But this is my chosen path. I like it,” he says with feeling. “I like it a lot.”

 Yuji has no intention of retiring anytime soon. “I don’t want people one day to realize all the nagashi are gone,’” he says finishing his beer. “Marenkov is now 80 years old, so I’ll have to keep working at least as long as that!”

 From the cluttered corner bookcase in Bar Shino, Marenkov takes down a thick, tattered yellowing songbook, the size of a New York City phonebook, and hands it to a customer telling him to turn to song 285. Marenkov starts to play “Akogare no Hawaii Koro”—Dreaming Hawaii Always, a nostalgic tune about taking a slow boat to the tropical paradise, a hit from 1948. One by one the customers along the counter join in until the whole bar is singing together.

Bar Shino 03.3200.8044, 1-1-9 Kabukicho, Shinjuku Ward. Closed Sundays.

Bar Freude 03.3209.6589, 1-8-3 Kabukicho, Shinjuku Ward. Closed Sundays.

Gyaku choco: “Reverse” chocolate in Tokyo

Saturday, February 14th, 2009



Tokyo spends millions of yen each St. Valentine’s Day on chocolate. The big houses—Jean-Paul Hevin, Pierre Marcolini, La Maison du Chocolat, Neuhaus, Godiva, etc.—are thronged.

For some misguided reason, though, St. Valentine’s Day in Japan means that only females give chocolate to males. And the harried young women braving the elbowing crowds must carefully consider just what category of chocolate they’re buying. There’s giri choco, or inexpensive “obligation” chocolate given to male colleagues and bosses. There’s tomo choco, “friend” chocolate given to… well, friends. And there’s honmei choco, “true love” chocolate given to those lucky enough to have found it. 

gyaku-choco2This year, though, a bold marketing genius at Morinaga Chocolate came up with a fourth kind, gyaku choco—”reverse” chocolate that progressive young men can give to women on St. Valentine’s Day. The gyaku choco labels are mirror images of regular Morinaga-brand sweets, but with a special blue ribbon stating, “This year gyaku choco” and  “Thanks to You.” For those puzzled by the weird labeling, a little disclaimer at the bottom explains that the image has been reversed on purpose.

Men usually reciprocate with chocolate on “White Day” one month later on March 14th.  But perhaps Morinaga has a double-reverse choco ready to launch then for women who want give back chocolate for the chocolate they received for giving chocolate.

Ramen at Chez Muta

Thursday, February 12th, 2009


Every week night for more than 40 years now except national holidays, of course, Muta-san starts unpacking his restaurant. Around 6p.m., he wheels it into place in front of Musashi Sakai station, removes the shutters on the narrow counter that seats six elbow-to-elbow patrons, sets out the well-worn stools, hooks up the portable gas burners, and starts unloading the boxes of noodles, chashu pork, hard-boiled eggs, menma bamboo shoots, and the huge pot of soup broth from his black van.

Muta owns and operates a yatai. Those meals-on-wheels wagons are very popular across Japan. Fukuoka City is renowned for its river front yatai row in the Nakasu district which features a cornucopia of cuisines including Italian pastas, Mexican tacos, Chinese gyoza, Korean chijimi pancakes, and Japanese oden, but the vast majority sell ramen, as does Muta.

Over the years, his wooden yatai’s dull brick-red paint has mostly flaked off. The counter has roughened to a dark driftwood grey. Muta sets out the condiments: a plastic container of moyashi bean sprouts marinated in fiery chili pepper and a shaker of black pepper. He unrolls the rattan “walls” that will rest against your back as you eat at the counter, and drapes them with clear plastic sheeting to block out the wind and cold. Once he turns on the old TV set perched in the corner, hangs up the noren, and switches on the tattered red lantern hanging outside, he’s open for business.

muta-making-ramenAs any self-respecting ramen man would do, Muta makes his own men noodles. They plump up nicely in the shoyu-based broth while still retaining an al dente chewiness. For 500 yen, you can have plain ramen, which includes two slices of tender chashu pork, some menma, sliced naganegi onion, and daikon sprouts. Or for an extra 100 yen you can have a hard-boiled egg added, or extra menma, or a dollop of garlic paste. The carnivorous can have an extra helping of chashu for a couple hundred yen more. 

Patrons enter with a “domo domo” greeting as they squeeze in at the counter. Some customers drop in every day. One cheerful matron has taken up residence at the far end of the short counter. A couple of nights ago, when I stopped in around 10:30 p.m., she was there dozing with her arms crossed and her chin tucked against her chest. Eventually she looked up and asked Muta, “How many cups of sake have I had?” Muta held up three fingers, “Three, so far.”customer-at-counter

“Give me one more then,” she said. 

When there are no orders to fill, Muta will sit down and light up a cigarette, or take a sip of milk from a thermos he keeps under the counter. “I don’t drink alcohol,” he says.

On the snowy screen of the television, talk show hosts were discussing different types of edible Japanese mushrooms. The matron grinned at me, showing her two widely-spaced lower teeth. “Do you sometimes have a banshaku?” she asked. I admitted I sometimes have a banshaku  “nightcap”—a glass or two of wine in the evening.

And I told her I really liked the taste of Muta’s ramen.mutas-ramen

“You know,” she mused, “this ramen has a light taste. That ramen shop a block away, the one that was on TV, it’s too greasy.”

“It’s too heavy,” she stated taking a sip of saké. “I could eat Muta’s ramen everyday.” She thought about that statement for a moment. “And I do.”

Nodding toward TV screen, she said, “Those mushrooms look delicious.”

“Yes, they do, don’t they,” said Muta.


Muta opens around 8 p.m., and usually closes up shop around 2 a.m. Musahi Sakai station is about 20 minutes from Shinjuku, on the Chuo line heading west toward Tachikawa.

Under the tracks at Daimatsu

Friday, February 6th, 2009


Over the last 15 years, Tokyo has been giving herself a makeover with showpiece projects like Ebisu Garden Place, Roppongi Hills, Shiodome, Midtown, and the facelifts in Ginza, Marunouchi, Shinagawa, and southern Shinjuku. Glossy designer boutiques have muscled out coffee shops, bookstores, bento shops, and mahjong parlors, and entire neighborhoods have been swept clean of untidy city life.

 The area around Kanda station, however, is Tokyo with dirt under her nails, unabashed and unconcerned with what anyone else thinks. The elevated tracks rest on a series of red-brick arches as solid as bridge abutments. Since space in Tokyo is a commodity not to be wasted, the district swarms with enterprise—newsstands, yatai food carts, peddlers, pachinko parlors, bars and even a broom-closet-sized quick print shop run by an elderly typesetter who operates an ancient printing press. Livelihoods are jimmied out of the most unlikely locations.

 nitta-sanA three-minute walk from the west exit of the station is Imagawa koji, an arch passageway too unimportant, it seems, for map-makers to include in their street plans. This permanently shadowed lane is home to a lonely cluster of drinking shops. Once a flourishing village of some 20 tiny nomiya, now just ten shops remain. The proprietors lived upstairs with the constant noise of trains rumbling overhead. Now, after almost forty years, Teruko Nitta is the last remaining resident and the boss of Imagawa koji.

 Every working day at 5:30 pm, Nitta unlocks the wooden sliding door of her nomiya and hangs out the indigo-colored noren declaring Daimatsu open for another evening of drinking. On warm days she leaves the door open and slides a small corrugated piece of fiberglass sheeting across the gap to keep the cats out.

  “The joren will be coming soon“ she says wiping down the pale wooden counter. She sets out a wicker basket of hard-boiled eggs, shells crusted with salt. Customers from other nomiya will drift in around 8 pm. Some of the joren, regular customers, have been coming here for 30 years.

 Nine can sit elbow to elbow on the stools at the Daimatsu counter. Three more can squeeze in around the toy-like table in the wee alcove behind the counter.daimatsu-noren1

 “When I was young, I came to Tokyo and helped my aunt, a geisha in Akihabara. I was around 16,” Nitta pauses and smiles. “If I tell you more, you could guess my age!”

 Asaoka Ruriko, the Nikkatsu film star, first owned Daimatsu. “She ran a mahjong parlor up there,” says Nitta pointing upstairs. “The place was very popular.“

 Nitta, still quite fetching with her bright eyes and quick smile, ministers like a favorite aunt to her customers. Everyone is made welcome.

 “We‘re like a big family,” she says. “My words are rough and I’ve got a bad mouth. But it’s okay” she laughs, “my customers are all nice and they don’t mind at all.”

 “Which dish should I put out first,” she muses. Nitta prepares kisetsu no mono, seasonal foods, and a decent meal can be had in the simple daily dishes she prepares: Tohoku-style green beans with miso and sesame, burdock with carrot and chili pepper, tofu lees with shredded carrot and burdock, shredded chicken with wild chervil and wasabi, sliced beef with boiled potatoes, carrots, and onions—foods Japanese mothers make, foods one never tires of.

 “I learned from my customers how to cook well,” she says setting a few dishes on the counter. “Years ago they used to come into the kitchen and cook with me, telling me how they liked it.”

 She gets her vegetables and other foodstuffs from katsugiya, peddler women, from Chiba. “The katsugiya are disappearing,“ explains Nitta. “But a few still come to Kanda. I wake up at 7 am, and get my potatoes or bamboo shoots or eggs from them. By 10 am they‘ve sold out of everything.”

 Goto-san, a manager at a nearby trading company, slides open the door and takes a seat at the counter. He has been coming here for over 25 years. Lately he stops by twice a week. “My father introduced me to this place,” he says. “And a couple of years ago I introduced my daughter too.”

 Tonight Goto has brought along two friends—newcomers. Several other customers amble in. The counter is full. Collar buttons are unfastened. Neckties are taken off, folded, and tucked neatly into shirt pockets.

 Nitta chats and jokes with everyone as she pours sake, beer, or sudachi shu, the citrus-flavored tipple of choice, into large clear glasses.

 imgawakoji-signDaimatsu and the thousands of drinking shops like it across Tokyo are essential to city life—utterly unpretentious joints with no atmosphere except the sublimity of the everyday—where high and low meet at counter level.

 But the future of Daimatsu is uncertain.

 Nitta has been given an eviction notice by the railroad company. Several years ago a small fire broke out in the shop next door. The company is worried that a larger fire might interrupt train service. Only because Daimatsu is also Nitta’s residence, is it difficult for them to execute the order.

 “Besides,” says Nitta.”I offered to become the manager of Imagawa koji, so now the railroad company comes to talk with me about any problem around here.”

 “Still, I don’t know what will happen,” she says with a shrug.

 Daimatsu is the kind of place we all eventually return to. A coin purse hangs from string tied to a sprinkler pipe above the counter. “I put that up seven years ago,” explains Nitta. “I looked inside once. There’s 2000 yen in small change. Maybe the person will come back someday to claim it.”

1-1-10 Kaji-cho, Chiyoda Ward. 03.3252.6061. Closed Saturdays and Sundays.

Coffee at Gekkoso art supply shop

Monday, February 2nd, 2009


You might think of Tokyo as a frantic city—noisy, cramped, hectic—but down a side street in Ginza, in one of Tokyo’s oldest art supply stores, you can sit in church-like quietude as long as you like, on a low stool at a small table, and write a letter or a postcard over a cup of freshly-brewed coffee.

gekkoso-coffee2Gekkoso was founded in 1917 and stayed in their original location until a couple of years ago when they moved to this Ginza neighborhood. I had been wandering all over that section of Ginza trying to find a tempura shop located in a crawl space between two tall Ginza  buildings when I spotted the posthorn logo of Gekkoso and the kanji for kissaten. 

The first floor, behind the stained glass door, offers art supplies: oil paints, brushes, sketchbooks, aprons, and sundry other items. The brushes are handmade by the son of the first craftsman ever to make oil paint brushes in Japan. At least, that’s what the young lady behind the counter told me. All the sketch books are also hand bound. 

gekosso-wall2Downstairs is a small art gallery and perhaps Tokyo’s smallest coffee shop. Two tiny tables with stools. Coffee, Darjeeling, Jasmine or Hoji tea are available for 300 yen each. You are welcome to stay as long as you like. If you are so inclined, tack up an original piece of artwork, or just a note, on the wall like hundreds of others have before you.

8-7-2 Ginza, Chuo-ku. 03.3572.5605. open everyday except the New Year’s holidays 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The entrance is on Hanatsubaki dori.