Archive for April, 2009

One of Tokyo’s best burgers: Rainbow Kitchen

Monday, April 20th, 2009


It would be easy to walk past the dingy exterior of the Rainbow Kitchen without giving it a second look. Doing so, however, would mean missing one of Tokyo’s best hamburgers.

The rusty corrugated metal and rough bleached wood that make up the facade are a carefully designed ruse. This funky little spot looks like it’s been rusticating for decades, but Rainbow Kitchen is only going on six.

Owner/chef, Kotomi Sakaguchi, has a thing for unpretentious Americana, thus the interior decor of sun-faded Pepsi and Coca Cola signs, the Miller Time tavern lights, pine plank flooring, and the vintage ‘70s illuminated menu sign with crooked slip-in plastic letters, the type that has graced countless greasy spoon diners across all fifty states.rainbow-kitchen-interior

But Sakaguchi also has a thing for simple, great-tasting food. Sakaguchi plays her industrial-size flat-top griddle like a Hammond B3 organ, turning out juicy, soul-satisfying fare and giving a hamburger the respect it deserves.

The Bacon Cheeseburger (1100 yen) is my current heartthrob. Each hand-formed pure beef patty weighs in around 115 grams. Briefly seared, it’s covered with a metal bell for concentrated frying. A row of five petite slices of bacon are laid out to sizzle. The halves of a sturdy, specially-baked bun are set to properly toast, front and back, on the griddle. Then Sakaguchi readies the accoutrements: a crisp bed of iceberg lettuce, slice of ripe tomato, dollop of mayo and another of her housemade special sauce, and finally the touch that puts this burger into my hall of fame: a spoonful of slow-roasted caramelized onions.

rainbow-kitchen-burger-2Under the bell, the almost-ready burger is given its robe of cheddar cheese. After a good melt, the burger is quickly assembled and served with a small mound of curly fries as cute as pigtails, a dill pickle, and those linchpins of diner food—red and yellow squeeze bottles of ketchup and mustard.

Slip the sandwich into a wax-paper sheath and dig in with both hands.

For the complete Rainbow Kitchen review, and more of my reviews, follow this link to Metropolis Magazine:

Rainbow Kitchen: 2-28-7 Sendagi, Bunkyo-ku. Tel: 03-3822-5767. A 1-minute walk from Chiyoda Line, Sendagi station. Open Tuesday-Friday 5pm to 12 midnight (L.O. 11pm). Saturday 11:30am to 12 midnight (L.O. 11pm). Sunday 11:30am to 9pm (L.O. 8pm). Closed Mondays.

Tsukudani in Tsukudajima

Sunday, April 12th, 2009


Tsukudajima is a neighborhood unlike any other in Tokyo. It survived unscathed the Great Kanto Earthquake and the fire bombings of the Second World War, but other pockets of the city share that good fortune. What sets Tsukudajima apart is the sense of community that has survived for over four centuries.

Originally a grassy island at the estuary of the Sumida river, it was settled at the beginning of the Edo period, at the invitation of Ieyasu Tokugawa, by a group of fishermen from Osaka whose descendents still fish the waters of Tokyo Bay.

Tsukudajima still retains the slow-paced, quiet atmosphere of a rural fishing village. The houses, many of which are superb examples of mokuzou kaoku, traditional wooden timbered structures, are crowded together with only narrow passageways between them. A handful of long-handled water pumps, which still work, are scattered throughout the neighborhood. Docked at a rickety peer in a canal off the river are several fishing vessels and a traditional yakatabune, a tatami-floored party boat, which can be hired out for special occasions.

The small neighborhood is bordered on two sides by a vanguard of nine towering apartment buildings, with more on the way. But if you turn your back on those highrises and look toward the river, nothing looms on the horizon.

The heart of the neighborhood embraces a post office, a liquor shop, a barber shop, and a general store which sells everything from scrubbing powder and dishwashing liquid to jump ropes and penny candy—100 kinds of which attract a constant parade of neighborhood kids. These shops, of course, have been run by their respective families for generations. The neighborhood also boasts three shops which specialize in tsukudani, an Edo-period delicacy.

marukyu-tsukudaniTsukudani is a salty-sweet preserve of tiny fish, shrimp, shellfish, seaweed, or other edibles which have been simmered in soy sauce, sugar, and salt. Often eaten as a topping on rice, tsukudani originated in Tsukudajima.

Kenji Kobayashi, the voluble 6th generation proprietor of Marukyu, a tsukudani shop open since 1859, is most often found behind his small counter lined with red lacquer boxes containing various types of tsukudani.

“Each item is simmered for 3 or 4 hours in a huge iron pot,” he said spreading his arms apart, “large enough for two men to stand inside.”

His tsukudani is made exactly the way it’s always been made. The exact balance of salty and sweet is a secret varying shop to shop. “We make new batches every two to three days,” he continued, “depending on what’s needed.”marukyu-exterior1

“Once all our raw material came from Tokyo Bay,” he said gesturing out toward the river. “The fish, the seaweed, the shrimp—but now only asari (clams) come from the Bay.”

The looming towers don’t seem to bother him much. “We’ve got 3 generations of customers coming here,” said Kobayashi. “Even those new apartment buildings are not bad for us,” he said. “Many young people are living there and some of them come in to try our tsukudani.”

Another member of the community is Yasuhide Nakamura, 11th generation master craftsman of Edo urushii nori, Edo-style lacquer work.

nakayama-working2“My ancestors started in Nihonbashi at the time of Iemitsu Tokugawa, more than 300 years ago,” said Nakamura. The war destroyed his family workshop, and some forty years ago his father moved the atelier to Tsukudajima. The old wooden shack that serves as his workshop is perhaps the oldest building in the neighborhood.

One of Nakamura’s best selling items is the Edo hakkaku bashi, 8-sided chopsticks made from teak or purple rosewood. “These chopsticks will last 20 years,” he said. “And I’ll repair them for free, if they need it.”

“I make real things,” said Nakamura. And what exquisite things they are. The luminous dakkanshitsu (Japanese sweets dish) his family is famous for is painstakingly crafted layer by layer of hemp linen, washi paper and coatings of red lacquer. Three years are required to create a set of five.

Lacquer painting is a tedious process. “It’s paint-dry-paint-dry,” said Nakamura. “You brush on one coat of lacquer and that’s it for the day,” he said with a grin. “Young people don’t have the patience for this kind of work.”dakkanshitsu2

Patience is most important, stressed Nakamura. It takes time to make something strong, beautiful, and useful—until “aji ga deru,” the deeper quality is revealed.

Something similar, perhaps, happens to neighborhoods. Four centuries of remembrance and appreciation have helped to define the unique sense of community that thrives in Tsukudajima.

Highrise by highrise the city slowly encroaches on Tsukudajima, but life still goes on pretty much as it has for generations. A tofu peddler, a young man in baggy jeans and a baseball cap, pulls a cart through the narrow alleyways and ocassionally blows two forlorn notes on a small brass horn announcing fresh tofu and yuba for sale. A housewife stops him to purchase something for the evening meal. Then he is on his way again—blowing his tune into the evening air.

Exquisite wagashi at Kikuzuki in Yanaka

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009


“The world of wagashi is vast,” said Kazuo Aoyama, the third-generation owner of Kikuzuki, a sweet shop operating in Yanaka for nearly 90 years. Aoyama, 87, has made wagashi, traditional Japanese confectionary sweets, for 70 years. At Kikuzuki, run now by his two sons, every step in making his exquisite wagashi—even soaking, boiling, and mashing azuki beans to make the sweet red bean paste anko—is still done by hand.

aoyama-san“Nowadays,” said Aoyama, elegant in his steel-grey kimono, “most wagashi shops buy ready-made or processed anko from a wholesale company. There are just a few shops left that do everything the traditional way.”

Wagashi has been a Japanese delicacy for hundreds of years. Its variations are endless. Anko can be nestled in a bun, covered with glutinous rice, layered between wafers, surrounded by white bean paste, even wrapped in a cherry leaf. Wagashi are often shaped and colored to represent a flower or another seasonal symbol. But creating an entirely new wagashi, not a variation on a theme, requires the skills of a master craftsman and the sensibilities of an artist.  Aoyama created two entirely new wagashi—an astonishing accomplishment.

Recognized by Taito Ward and the city of Tokyo as a master artisan of wagashi, Aoyama garnered many awards, but he seems particularly proud of the poem written by the famous haiku poetess Teijo Nakamura about one of his original creations, the green plum ao ume wagashi.

The framed haiku, which hangs among other placards and certificates on the shop wall, roughly translates: ”It is only in Bungo you get plums as plump as this wagashi.”

This charming confection, with its delicate shades of green, is Kikuzuki’s best seller. Under the soft skin is not anko, but shiromiso-an, a white bean paste sweetened with Kyoto miso. The filling has the same pale gold color and texture as a ripe plum. When you bite into the sweet, you would swear that it has a plum taste, but this is an illusion.

Aoyama’s other original creation is his ambrosial yuzumochi. This soft, gelatinous sweet contains the peel of yuzu, the deliciously scented citron.yuzumochi-close-up

To make yuzumochi, the shop buys every December some 1500 yuzu—a year’s supply—from a grove of ancient trees in Ogose in Saitama. “The fruit is not very beautiful, but it’s the most fragrant in Japan,” explained Aoyama. “We throw away the pulp and juice and only use the peel. If the peel runs out, we stop selling yuzumochi.” He shrugged his shoulders and said with a smile, “It’s a crazy way to run a business.”

This shop is about a ten-minute walk from Nezu station, up toward Yanaka cemetery. You can sample both sweets with a bowl of freshly whisked bitter green tea in the shop in a small café section.

Kikuzuki (03-3821-4192), 6-1-3 Yanaka, Taito Ward. Closed Tuesdays.


Here’s a list of some of my favorite wagashi shops around Tokyo.

Kotobukido (0120-480400 Free dial), Koganei imo, 2-1-4 Nihonbashi Ningyocho, Chuo Ward. Closed Sunday.

Toraya (03-3408-4121), Seasonal wagashi and yokan, 4-9-22 Akasaka, Minato Ward. Outlets in most major departments.

Shimura (03-3953-3388), Tsukumo mochi, 3-13-3 Mejiro, Toshima Ward. Closed Sunday.

Itakuraya (03-3667-4818), Ningyo yaki, Nihonbashi Ningyocho 2-4-2, Chuo Ward. Closed Sunday and holidays.

Chomeiji Sakuramochi (03-3622-3266), Edo-period Sakuramochi, 5-1-14 Mukojima, Sumida Ward. Closed Monday.

Tokutaro (03-3874-4073), Kintsuba, 3-36-2 Asakusa, Taito Ward.

Usagiya (03-3831-6195), Dorayaki, 1-10-10 Ueno, Taito Ward. Closed Wednesday.

Mangando (03-3622-3128), Imokin, 1-19-16 Azumabashi, Sumida Ward. Closed Sunday.

Habutae Dango (03-3891-2924), Habutae dango, 5-54-3 Higashi Nippori, Arakawa Ward. Closed Tuesday.