Archive for March, 2009

Sakura sakura — sakura saké

Friday, March 27th, 2009


“To see the cherry hung with snow…”

Tokyo’s cherry blossom time is starting this weekend. Junior-most office workers are being sent off to Shinjuku Gyoenmae Park, to Ueno Park, to Chidorigafuchi moat near the Imperial Palace, to Aoyama Cemetery or to a bank of the Sumida River near Asakusa (to name a few popular venues) to tape off and reserve prime viewing spots for drinking parties under the prettiest boughs.mizu-no-eau-sakura-sky

The weather has turned a little cold again. The forecast, though, is for sunny but chilly weather, so for about ten days the cherry trees will canopy singing, romance, cavorting, dancing, and red-faced pull-out-the-stops drinking parties. Mark Twain once said the first of April is the day when we remember what we are like the other 364 days of the year. As for drinking, singing, and having a merry time in Tokyo, he was right.

Tokyoites so love their bloom along the bough that no matter what the weather, they’ll be out by the hundreds of thousands celebrating the loveliest of trees, the cherry now. Under the blossom-heavy boughs, they will sit on blue plastic tarps, on sheets of cardboard, on blankets or on handkerchiefs. School worries, old lovers, past arguments, office stress, and lost youth will be forgotten. Another winter has been survived. Some will compose haiku, others will look forward to the freedom of university life starting in April, while others — four years senior — will contemplate the first day at their new company.

Sake will be poured; onigiri rice balls, bento boxes and yaki tori will be unpacked. Grandfathers will play with grandchildren. Couples will sit on benches holding hands, their heads tilted each to each. Small boys will cavort and catch a falling petal mid-air, then stretch it carefully between thumbs and forefingers and blow — achieving, if they are careful, a thin reedy whistle and a smile.

mizu-no-eau-label-2You ought to stake out a spot too. Try to find a bottle of the Mizu no eau Sakura, a delicious daiginjo saké flavored with essense of sakura. The brew is a lovely shade of pink with a luscious soft cherry finish. I found it at Kinokuniya Supermarket in Aoyama, but was told it’s available in selected saké shops across the city. It’s about 1500 yen. Look for the distinctive sakura-pink cylindrical box.

After these ten days have passed, the air of Tokyo will fill again with snow—the pink snow of falling petals swirling in the breeze. And legions of street cleaners with their gasoline-powered air blowers will emerge to tidy up, blowing with their noisy engines the fallen petals into gutters.

If I had time…

Monday, March 23rd, 2009


If I had time, I’d like to write about the smell of green tea roasting in the small shop in Shibuya station. A spicy, powerful scent like autumn’s burning leaves that always stops me in my tracks—that and the free cup of tea. Or the airy fresh-cut hay smell of the thin igusa matto (sheets woven from the same straw as tatami) that are sold in early summer to spread over old tatami to refresh and cool a muggy room with a meadow-like scent.

I would philosophize on the sandy blonds, strawberry blonds, and auburn gold-streaked blonds—men and women—that appear every summer across Tokyo. The proliferation due to the newest, improved hair dye, I suppose. I would rhapsodize about the shimmering summer shades of gold, green, blue, and orange toenail polish that adorn the thin-strap sandaled, pedicured feet in Shibuya and Omotesando. I would devote a paragraph or two to the glittering slogan “Mentor Aleatoric” boldly displayed on a tight T-shirt across the chest of a young lady seated on a train. And maybe another paragraph to the Jungian question of whether it was random chance to have noticed such a prominent slogan.

I would wistfully reflect on the straw hats that some elementary school children wear to school, along with those red or black leather book bags on their backs that are often bigger than the child herself.

I would talk about the wood cutter’s shop in Ningyocho that provides white oak kindling from the far provinces for Tokyo’s high-class Japanese restaurants that wouldn’t dream of cooking rice any other way than over an oak wood fire. Or report on the basket man who still weaves and lacquers light-weight bamboo baskets for storing kimonos—just as his family has done since Edo times. Or if I could find him at work in his ramshackle shed, I’d deliver an exclusive interview with the woodcarver and lacquer-maker of soup bowls and chopsticks in Tsukudajima and have him to explain how he gets such heft and balance into his slim Edo-style octagonal, lacquered chopsticks.

I’d write about the war-time memories of Mrs. Misawa of Kanda who everyday sits framed in the doorway of her picture frame shop on a small stool above the bomb shelter she hid in as the B-52s flew over the city. Her telephone number on her meishi, if read outloud, reads minikui hodo yasashii—which translates “the uglier you look, the kinder you are.”

Or I would write about why the Yamabushi monks don’t burn their feet in their fire-walking ritual when they step across glowing coals. I would describe the plangent chin-chin ring of the Arakawa line streetcar bell as it sounds each time the train leaves a station. I would ask some men who they think they’re fooling with that hair product that sprays grainy black paint over their bald spots. I would produce 500 words on the life story of the owner of the Tokyo’s smallest Indian restaurant in Tsukiji who hails from Pakistan and whose kitchen is no larger than a telephone booth and whose one table (outside) seats only six.

I would put down on paper the thoughts of the shopkeeper of the knife, saw and plumbing supply store nestled among the used bookstores in Jinbocho, who each autumn keeps bamboo cages of suzumushi, bell crickets, down behind the counter, whose tiny chorus of carillon chimes echo and ping from oiled blades and saws.

And if it were autumn, I would write about the cool evening air perfumed with the scent of kinmokusei, sweet olive, whose miniscule orange flowers along the stems are so fragrant, so evocative, they clear the head of any other thoughts.

But it is spring. The earliest buds crowded along the cherry branches are just starting to open, so perhaps I’ll go to Shinjuku Gyoenmae Park and watch the daffodils unfurl.

Koganei imo, golden potatoes, in Ningyocho

Friday, March 13th, 2009


Kotobukido wagashi shop in Ningyocho has been making its famous koganei imo, golden potato confection, for over 100 years.

kotobukiya-norenPassing through the indigo noren curtain hanging over the entrance is like entering a time tunnel. Kotobukido, rebuilt after the Great Kanto Earthquake, has a narrow vestibule large enough for only six customers to stand along the wooden counter. You are greeted by the smell of cinnamon and a cup of tea served by a young woman in a white smock. The raised wooden floor, the rack of oblong candy jars, the tall wooden shelves, and the ticking wall clock gently remind of an earlier, bygone era.

“We bake from 2500 to 3000 wagashi a day,” said  fifth generation owner Hirokazu Sugiyama, walking up the steep wooden stairway to the cramped work room. Three men hand-mold the fillings, a mixture of white bean paste, egg yolk and sugar, until they resemble miniature sweet potatoes. They are given a thin flour crust and a thorough dusting of cinnamon, then skewered on thin metal rods. The skewers ensure a quick, complete baking.koganei-imo4

Breaking open the small cake, you see the lovely golden texture of a freshly-roasted sweet potato.

“Our customers are all ages. Young and old. Everyone likes these koganei imo,” said Sugiyama. “But I have no children to carry on the business,” he confided. “After five—or maybe ten years—I’ll have to close the shop.”

Kotobukido (0120.480.400 Free dial), 2-1-4 Nihonbashi Ningyocho, Chuo Ward. Closed Sundays.

Mille feuille and jus de tomate at Le Café de Joël Robuchon

Monday, March 9th, 2009


Looking at my previous posting you’d think that I only hang out in old joints with aged beans and even more aged bean roasters, but sometimes I need some chic. When that urge comes upon me, I usually head to Takashimaya Department store and Le Café de Joël Robuchon.

Takashimaya — that grand dame of Nihonbashi with her statuary in the entranceways, her high ornate ceilings, and hand-operated elevators with gleaming brass doors and white-gloved attendants — is the perfect venue for Robuchon’s very chic Le Café. Nestled among the boutiques of Fendi, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Gucci, it’s a stylish jewel box of a shop sharing much of the ambiance of the chef’s superb restaurant L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Roppongi Hills.

salon-de-the-interiorThe petit café is simply laid out — black granite floor, dark mahogany walls, and a sinuous red leather banquette backed by glittering glass curtains of diamond-cut crystal beads. The ample tables snuggle neatly into the curves of the banquette with plenty of comfortable space for sitting. Off to one side is an alcove with a sushi-bar like counter surrounding an open kitchen where you can watch miniature dishes of crème brulee as they are sugared and torched for a caramelized glaze, or watch a sweet souffle prepared from scratch.

The café will celebrate its fifth birthday soon and the queues that once snaked past Fendi are gone. You can usually walk in anytime and get a seat. Everyone is made welcome here, and the service, by eager young staff in well-cut maroon and black outfits, is very good. The lunch, including main dish, small salad, coffee and dessert is a bargain at ¥2835.

But I usually come for the cake set and a seat at the sleek counter. It’s a quiet spot to write or read. For ¥1565, you get a pot of excellent coffee and your sweet of choice — I always choose the shop’s most famous creation, the mille feuille with raspberries and vanilla marscapone cream layered between the crisp bird’s nest-like Greek kataifi pastry.

jus-de-tomate1The other day, though, I also tried the jus de tomate. Fresh tomatoes are blended and the juice then left to meditate for three days. Gravity slowly pulls the red solids down and the soul and mind of the juice is clarified and revealed. Tasting the pale green opalescent juice, with the crescent of salt arcing along the rim of the glass, is a revelation.

If you are in the neighborhood, this little oasis on the 2nd floor is well worth seeking out.

Takashimaya Department Store 2F, Nihonbashi 2-4-1, Chuo-ku, 03.5255.6933. Open everyday 10am-8pm (last order 7:30pm).

Tokyo’s best cup of coffee: Café de L’Ambre

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009


You can’t miss the proliferation of corporate coffee shop outlets on prime Tokyo street corners and in fashionable new office complexes. Starbucks alone has 239 stores scattered about the city. But on Tokyo’s quiet side streets, a long and noble tradition of specialist coffee shops has, for over half a century, been steadfastly maintained even in the face of the Seattle juggernaut.

sekiguchi-san1The patriarch of Tokyo’s coffee houses is Ichiro Sekiguchi, a spry and energetic 96, who still roasts coffee beans everyday 300 grams at a time. Small batches, he says, ensure freshness. He’s been doing this at his Café de L’Ambre for over 60 years.

“I’ve probably roasted at least 100 tons so far,” Sekiguchi says with a chuckle. Over 30 types of fragrant beans fill the glass jars on the shelves behind the polished wood counter. Sekiguchi prefers to drink old bean coffee. Aged beans, he says, like fine wine, develop a fuller, rounder flavor and aroma. His cup of choice is brewed from 30-year-old Cuban beans.

Sekiguchi has been studying coffee since he was 15 years old. “You don’t need to follow a complicated procedure to make good coffee,” he says. “If you know its nature, then you know how to make delicious coffee.”

“I’ve been to a Starbuck’s once for research,” he adds. “What I found strange was that no customer was drinking real coffee. They all had large cups filled with mostly milk!” he laughs.brewing-coffee-11

Café de L’Ambre, tucked away on a Ginza back lane, is a tiny temple to coffee. ”Coffee Only” is Sekiguchi’s motto. He serves no milk, no juice, no sandwiches. And if the framed newspaper and magazine articles that hang on the entranceway wall are any testament, it is some of best coffee in the world. Though the entire shop would fit inside a railway car, its influence has been huge across the city.

Twenty years ago, Taiji Koyama quit his job at a water pump manufacturing company to make coffee his life work. Tsuta, his ivy covered kissaten (coffee shop) in Minami Aoyama, features a large bay window with a view of a Japanese garden.

As it turns out, Koyama learned the basics of roasting and brewing from Sekiguchi. He even uses the same cotton-felt filters—cutting and stitching the felt pouches to brass handles he fashions from wire, often with ornamental flourishes in the twists.

tsuta-master2Koyama is single-minded about his coffee. He uses only one type of bean—Brazil Santos #2, screen-size 19. “One bean is enough for me,” says Koyama, “because the taste of this coffee changes according to the humidity, the season, the time of day, and even the mood of the customer.“

“I love this work,” he says. “A kissaten is a place where the customer can slow down.” He gestures toward the table next to the window. “I create a space where you can sit, drink delicious coffee, read, listen to baroque music—never symphonies—and look out at the garden.”

The large coffee shop chains don’t affect Koyama much. “I’ve got probably 800 regular customers,” he says. “They understand kissaten culture. I don’t know exactly when they will stop by, but they will.”

Koyama’s own favorite coffee shop is Café Deux Oiseaux in Asagaya. Started 25 years ago by Takao Sou and his wife, the shop has an airy interior brightened by sprays of fresh flowers. Sou too prefers the cotton-felt filter. It comes as no surprise that he also is a disciple of Sekiguchi.oiseaux-master

A master of cotton-filter brewing technique, Sou keeps the tilted kettle motionless against his right side as a stream of water so thin it resembles a string of pearls falls from its copper spout. His left hand moves the filter almost imperceptibly under the beads of water to completely wet the freshly ground coffee.

The aromatic liquid is caught in a small copper pot which Sou then briefly holds over a blue flame to maintain the proper drinking temperature before pouring the coffee into a pre-warmed cup. The finished brew, a medium roast Kilimanjaro, is richly flavored with a clean, bright finish.

Like Koyama, Sou doesn’t worry about the corporate coffee companies. “Almost all my customers are regulars,” he says. “Families come here. Even grandparents bring their grandchildren sometimes.”

A well-dressed matron at the counter looks up from her coffee. “I’ve been to Starbucks,” she says. “They are often near a station, and are a good place to meet someone. But I come here because I like the two people behind the counter.” Sou smiles in response. “And, of course, because the coffee is outstanding,” she adds. “Sou puts his heart into every cup.”

So it goes across the city. Tokyo’s traditional kissaten provide an essential service to the harried city dweller—one a corporation cannot—a private space for both quietude and society, and superb coffee prepared by masters who have made coffee their life’s work.

A short list of Tokyo’s best kissaten:

Café de L’Ambre, Ginza 8-10-15, Chuo Ward. 03.3571.1551

Tsuta, Minami Aoyama 5-11-20, Bunkyo Ward. 03.3498.6888

Café Deux Oiseaux, Asagaya 4-6-28, Suginami Ward. 03.3338.8044

Hatou, Shibuya 1-15-19, Shibuya Ward. 03.3400.9088

Tsubakiya Kohiten, Ginza 7-7-11, 2F & 3F, Chuo Ward. 03.3572.4949

Coffee Erika, Nishi Kanda 2-1-1, Chiyoda Ward. 03.3263.1551

Monozuki, Nishi Ogikubo Kita 3-12-10, Suginami Ward. 03.3395.9569

Jazz Coffee Masako, Kitazawa 2-20-2, Setagaya Ward. 03.3410.7994

New Dug, Shinjuku 3-15-12 B1, Shinjuku Ward. 03.33419339

Saboru, Kanda Jinbocho 1-11, Chiyoda Ward. 03.3291.8404

Bon, Shinjuku 3-23-1, Toriichi Bldg B1, Shinjuku Ward. 03.3341.0179

Classic, Nakano 5-66-8, Nakano Ward. 03.3387.0571

Violon, Asagaya Kita 2-9-5, Suginami Ward. 03.3336.6414

Chez Nous, Waseda 3-15-2, Shinjuku Ward. 03.3208.4037

Lion, Dogenzaka 2-19-13, Shibuya Ward. 03.3461.6858

Takayama, Kanda Sudacho 1-12, Chiyoda Ward. 03.3251.7790