Ten-yo-ne tempura: Under the tracks in Yurakucho

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013



I have a soft spot for these hard places under the tracks in Tokyo. They scratch out an unglamorous life in the shadows of this gargantuan city.

Tenyone close up tendonTen-yo-ne is a minute or two from Yurakucho station and a world away, in a few hundred meters, from the glamorous Ginza.

For decades, Ten-yo-ne tempura has been serving up Edo-style tempura, dark and savory, cheap and delicious.

It’s a tiny place, of course, with a pale blond counter of smooth hinoki seating six.

On the other side of the narrow kitchen are a few small tables filling an unadorned dining space illuminated with the thin timeless wash of fluorescence. Every once in awhile, you can make out the rumble of trains passing overhead.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREA rack of newspapers and manga are available for free reading while you wait for your tempura to fry.

The jo-tendon (¥1450) is the dish of choice here. Glistening in their burnished gold batter, atop a bowl of freshly prepared rice, are two large prawns, a kisu white fish, some mushrooms, a shishito green pepper, a shiso leaf, and a small kakiage “dumpling” of sliced, mixed veggies and tiny shrimp.

The teishoku set menu includes a small dish of well-made pickled vegetables, a bowl of miso soup, and a tiny dish of seasonal vegetables sprinkled with sesame seeds.

A counter seat over on the right side is the most interesting place to sit.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREPositioned there, you can see the crowd of fresh vegetables waiting in the wings for their turn on the tempura stage.

Plus you can observe the master while he cuts, batter-dips, fries and assembles your tendon bowl.

The lunch for about ¥1000 is a great deal at Ten-yo-ne.

You can sit elbow to elbow with salarymen, office women, and sales staff from the nearby department stores and shops.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREIf you are up for an adventure, stroll down the underground passageway to the left of Ten-yo-ne. This narrow, tunnel-like alley is perhaps a kilometer or so long, filled with tiny restaurants, bicycles, and the ghosts of Tokyo past.


2-1-10 Yurakucho, Chiyoda Ward. Tel: 03.3591.0926. Open Monday to Saturday 11am to 9pm.




Nihon Saisei Sakuba: offal, offal, lovely offal

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

Nihon Saisei Sakuba is Tokyo at its low-down liveliest. This standing-room-only tachinomiya eatery, in the center of one of Shinjuku’s busiest entertainment districts, sells the highest quality pork motsu offal, carefully grilled on bamboo skewers over binchotan charcoals.

The extensive menu, pasted onto two thick pieces of cardboard, lists delicacies such as larynx, spleen, birth canal, tongue, choice uterus, brain, rectum, diaphragm, and cartilage—all at rock bottom prices.

The restaurant is supplied with the best quality offal from its parent butcher shop in Chofu, a nearby suburb. Don’t let any preconceptions deter you. These grilled innards are surprisingly delicious. Try the mixed plate of five sticks with a dab of fiery mustard.

Grilled vegetables such as shiitake, long onions, and shishito-togarashi sweet green peppers, are excellent too. And don’t miss the grilled “bread rolls” made with rice flour.

College students stand next to middle-aged salarymen, who stand elbow to elbow with laborers, as they quaff down mugs of draft beer or tumblers of shochu. The name saisei sakuba means re-energize yourself. And that’s exactly what this place does for you.

The joint fills up quickly, but that makes it even more fun.

3-7-3 Shinjuku. Tel: 03-3354-4829. Open daily from 3pm to midnight. Nearest subway station: Shinjuku san-chome, Exit C3. Marunouchi Line.

Omoide Yokocho: Memory Alley in Shinjuku

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

Entering Omoide Yokocho, Memory Alley, just a short stagger from Shinjuku Station, can deliver the same surprise and shock that the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion, and Dorothy experienced in the  “Wizard of Oz” when Toto pulled back the curtain on the great and powerful Oz to reveal, behind the flashing lights, gimmickry and glitz, a simple old man imbued with kindness and generousity.

This ramshackle collection of 44 tiny eateries jammed together elbow to elbow is Tokyo behind the curtain.

A city with dirt under its nails.

A neighborhood that thinks that the limit of progress and change is replacing a burnt out lightbulb.

Every night souls by the hundreds fill this enclave for yakitori, nikomi (simmered tripe), nikujyaga, beer, shochu, and the companionship of fellow drinkers.

Food is cheap here. Alcohol too. But the yakitori are carefully attended to. Beer, sake, and shochu are fairly poured.

Some joints serve up rather delicious eats.

Others offer only basic sustenance.

Wander in. Look for an empty seat or two at a crowded counter. Everyone is welcome.

In the film, the great and powerful Oz exhorts, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” But you ought to take a closer look at Omoide Yokocho. Click your heels together three times, and you might find yourself home.

Food for thought: bell crickets and coffee in Jimbocho

Monday, September 6th, 2010

Mr. Takai doesn’t care much for ordinary crickets. He’s a connoisseur. For the last 20 years, he’s been raising “suzumushi,” bell crickets, so that in September his knife, scissors and hardware store will ring and sing with cricket song.

Nestled among the used bookstores of Jimbocho, the Nozaki Cutting Tool shop, now under the stewardship of Mr. Takai, has been selling bladed tools for almost 100 years. In times past, there were other such shops in the neighborhood, but bookstores have crowded out the hardware competition. One wall of the narrow Nozaki shop is lined with 100s of scissors—left-handed scissors, long-bladed tailor’s shears, delicate German scissors shaped like a crane—and a wide range of the hand-forged, one-piece Japanese scissors found in every home sewing kit. Above the rows of scissors are kitchen knives—beautiful tools with the Nozaki named stamped into the shoulder of each blade. Kitchen knives and scissors are on perpetual sale—20% percent off.

Mr. Takai sells tweezers, nail clippers, toenail clippers, ear cleaners and barber shears. He’s got two-inch long Victorinox Swiss Army pocket knives in assorted rainbow colors and a Victorinox machete with a 15-inch blade. Also in stock is a large stuffed 4-point antlered buck’s head. He’s got a samurai-like sharkskin-handled knife with a gleaming 180mm blade. He’s got knives to cut paper, slash bamboo, or hack through branches, and knives that are works of art—handle-less knives shaped like a dragon, a bird, a bamboo shoot, a feather. He sells traditional Japanese planes of all grades. Other traditional carpenter’s tools crowd the back wall. Hand-made hammers—some with heads the size of a thumbnail—the odd pliers, screwdriver, or rasp fill spaces on lower shelves or behind the counter.

Mr. Takai is a bit of a collector. On the top shelf of a dusty glass cabinet is a small assembly of old pocket knives, antique nutcrackers, a small metal camera, a few straight razors, and a fountain pen or two. Those are not for sale, he says, but offers to show me a nutcracker.

But what brought me into the Nozaki shop was the sound—the choir of cricket song pouring into the street. Covering the counter, on the floor, behind the counter, and next to the grinding wheels on which Mr. Takai will sharpen your blunt knife or dull scissors for about 800 yen, are plastic cages filled with his suzumushi. Suzumushi are not as lovely as the korogi, the lithe field cricket.  Bell crickets are long-legged, pot-bellied bugs with the nasty habit of cannibalizing their cage mates. So every autumn Mr. Takai must purchase a few crickets to top off his breeding herd.

He says suzumushi are not difficult to raise. The female lays her eggs (which are so small you might fit ten into a grain of rice) near the end of September. Mr. Takai tends the cages through the winter keeping them clean and not too cold. When the hatchlings emerge in May, he lets them feed on slices of eggplant or cucumber, and fresh watermelon in summer. The standard technique is to impale the food on small bamboo sticks stuck into the dirt to keep the food unsoiled.

Some 200 years ago in Kanda, just a few minutes walk from Mr. Takai’s shop, an astute entrepreneur named Chuzo, who ran an oden stand, caught some suzumushi, put them in bamboo cages, and sold them along with his stew. Together with the son of a samurai, they set up the first business in bug sales. Such business continues. After the stifling heat of summer and after the drone of cicadas which only seems to intensify the heat, have dwindled away, you see people in pet shops, in department stores, in markets and festivals, buying these suzumushi insects. And you see the plastic, cricket-filled cages in train stations, in coffee shops, in police stations, and in bars—for the cricket’s song brings the first cool promise of autumn.

Mushi-no-ne,” the song these insects make, is like the ringing of the tiniest, most delicate silver hand bell. Japanese have always loved listening to crickets. For almost a thousand years, music lovers have collected suzumushi into cages to hear them sing of autumn. Department stores even sell exquisite bamboo cages filled with a few crickets perfectly reproduced in black iron, which will sing uninterrupted when you finger a switch.

Mr. Takai is a reticent, soft-spoken fellow, who chooses his words carefully. Why does he keep raising crickets for 20 years? He just likes the sounds his insects make, he says. He shrugs his shoulders as the tiny chorus of carillon chimes echo and ping from his oiled blades and saws.

Along a narrow passageway behind the Nozaki shop are three kissaten, coffee shops, each over 50 years old, and each recommended by Mr. Takai. Exit Takai’s shop, take the first right then the first left and you’ll spot the brick pile which is Ladorio. This rustic kissa is celebrating its 61st birthday this year. Try their pomegranite “squash” soda.

Next to Ladorio is the venerable Milonga, a Latin music kissaten for tango lovers. And if the crickets are not singing in the Nozaki shop, seek out the mountain hut-like Saboru.

Hidden away behind a pot of ornamental grass near the Saboru entrance is a box of bell crickets provided each year by Mr. Takai. He says they usually start singing just around five o’clock.

Tempura at Iseya in Minowa

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

Doteno Iseya has been serving tempura from this lovely building for nearly ninety years. The venerable old structure is located just across the street from the entrance to the long-faded Yoshiwara district. And many a customer, before or after a night of physical pleasure in that famous red light district, sought gustatory pleasure in a bowl of tendon—a hot mound of flavorful tempura prawns, conger eel, squid, and green peppers crowning a bowl of moist glistening rice.

The tempura is Edo-style: darkly crisp and fragrant from the sesame oil it’s been fried in.

The interior has been meticulously maintained with etched glass panels depicting jumping shrimp, shoji screen panels, opaque glass lampshades, and an ancient grandfather clock ticking against the wall. The low dark wood tables have been polished smooth by countless elbows.

Tendon comes in three sizes: イ、ロ, and  ハ. The first one is 1400 yen and is basically a couple of prawns on a bed of rice. The middle choice, 1900 yen, includes some vegetables, and the last one, 2400 yen and pictured above, is a veritable mountain of tempura goodness. Make sure to order a bowl of nameko mushroom miso soup, 200 yen, to accompany the tendon.

Doteno Iseya is Tokyo as it likes to remember itself. Get there early or late to avoid the queue.

1-9-2 Nihonzutsumi. Taito Ward.

Tel: 03-3872-4886.

Monday to Friday: Lunch 11:30am to 2pm. Dinner: 5pm to 8pm.

Closed Wednesdays.

Nearest subway station: Minowa Exit 3. Hibiya Line.

Takahashi-san: Wine and vegetables at a yatai

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Takahashi-san, a hip winebar yatai a few minutes from Ebisu station, serves only vegetables—exquisitely fresh, pristine vegetables prepared with only a gentle steaming, or perhaps grilled for an interval over embers of charcoal.

Season by season, the vegetables will change. Spring brings fava beans or asparagus: white, green, purple. Summer means sweet corn—long slender cobs of baby corn which Takahashi-san  steams so expertly that you can eat the long twist of corn silk still attached. Summer also means lily flower bulbs or bamboo shoots. The tender bamboo shoots, which Takahashi grills in their sheaths until they are charred black, are gathered by yamabushi monks from the hills surrounding Kyoto. He’ll also have eggplant so fruity you eat it raw as dessert.

Pairing vegetables with wine is decadently healthy. Descriptions and prices of ten to fifteen different seasonal vegetables are tacked up on the wall behind the counter. No fat or oils are used, except for the olive-oil based bagna cauda which you can order if you like.

As you make your choices, Takahashi-san will suggest a wine pairing for you. All the wines—Old World and New—are available by the glass. He keeps an impressive collection of bottles chilled behind his counter.

Some of my favorite are the steamed kabu, turnips; luscious potatoes, kabocha pumpkin, grilled brussel sprouts, green pepper with freshly shaved katsuo flakes, and the garlic gloves which turn a soft golden brown after thirty minutes in the steamer. Most of the items cost from ¥300-500.

Not to be missed is one of Takahashi-san’s specialities: the steamed shiitake mushroom caps filled with a spoonful of freshly squeezed sudachi juice. He says you’ve got to take the whole thing in one mouthful for the best effect. Delicious.

Takahashi-san’s winebar counter is among a dozen yatai in an enclosed mura. So if you absolutely need some meat, gyoza, or grilled fish to go with your wine, stroll over a neighboring yatai, order some up, and bring it back to Takahashi’s counter. It’s one big party.

Some evenings a nagashi, a wandering guitar-strumming minstrel, makes his rounds yatai to yatai. For ¥500 you can choose a song or two. You can sing, or just let him entertain you with his original songs.

Takahashi-san stays open until the wee hours.

Wine & Vegetable Takahashi-san: 1-7-10 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 080.5527.1117. Reservations recommended.

Yaki soba at Hanaya

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Yaki soba is a humble dish. This concoction of noodles, cabbage, Bull-Dog sauce, and a few thin slices of pork belly is a favorite of vendors at local festivals or of hungry campers spending the afternoon at the river. But in my nearly 30 years of eating in Tokyo, I’ve never encountered a restaurant dedicated solely to yaki soba until I discovered Hanaya in Tawaramachi.

You start to smell the familiar odor of frying noodles as you ascend the steps of exit 3 of Tawaramachi station. Look to the left as you hit the pavement and you’ll most likely see the master in his striped apron literally scraping together a mound of noodles.

For decades he has made the same dish over and over again. No variation. Noodles, sauce, cabbage.

Using two large metal scrapers, he mixes and tosses until the cabbage bits have softened and the noodles are coated with the tangy, slightly sweet sauce. You’ll find no pork belly hiding among the noodles. Adding meat would mean raising the price above ¥350, the rock bottom price for this savory dish.

Hanaya has no pretensions. The Tiffany-blue vinyl tablecloths are thumb-tacked to the tables. Nail heads are visible where the table legs were hammered to the top.

And the paint on the concrete floor has been worn away by decades of customers stopping in for cheap tasty meal or for a taste of their childhood.

All kinds stop in here: a businessman in an expensive suit. A former businessman down on his luck from restructuring. Young couples and old couples looking for nostalgia. Tourists on their way to the kitchenware shopping street in nearby Kappabashi.

The noodles are al dente. The squeeze bottle of tare sauce on the table can add some extra zing if you’re so inclined. If you’re famished, you can order the omori, a larger serving of steaming noodles, for an extra ¥100.

All the chilled water you can drink is free.

Northside Asagaya: Star Road

Monday, July 20th, 2009

Northside Asagaya Buchi

Northside Asagaya is a hip, bohemian enclave of easily a hundred bars, pubs, restaurants, wine bars, snack pubs, coffee shops, and assorted spots for entertainment.

Northside Asagaya ItalianSpots like Buchi Yakiniku (above), or what must be Tokyo’s narrowest Italian restaurant, the newly-opened Don Tsucchi, barely wider that its double door entrance.

Lovely little shops like the art gallery/milk bar, Inelle, (below) are crowded up against raucous-sounding bars like Jamb Jamb and bars overgrown with potted plants and lost umbrellas hanging from door jambs.Northside Asagaya Inelle

Left out of the station and left again takes you into the delta area called Star Road, the main branch of which runs parallel to the tracks. But like any great river, Star Road is fed by many smaller alleys, lanes, and passageways, all of which also seem to be named Star Road.

Northside Asagaya spare umbrellasNorthside Asagaya jazz n' booozThe bars, shops, pubs and eateries are crowded shoulder to shoulder, like passengers on a rush hour train. There are coffee shops open for breakfast and joints that open only after 10 pm, places for Japanese saké and places for “Jazz ‘N Boozz.”

Most of the places are slowly deteriorating into rust and sun-rotted wood. But the owners, both young and old, have spunk and grit: new wire will hold up a sagging sign, a poster thumb-tacked to a door will serve as remodeling, and a fresh coat of paint on the door will hopefully attract enough customers to pay the bills.

North Asagaya Star road wiresAnywhere along your way down Star Road, look up and you’ll see a Tokyo trademark—the skein of power lines and telephone wires, connecting each place to every other place in a web of electric energy.Northside Asagaya Kankara

Reserve an evening for wandering about North- and Southside Asagaya. Then, on another night, do the same for other equally worthwhile “boozz”  and nightlife destinations along the Chuo Line: Kichijoji, Ogikubo, Nishi-Ogikubo, Koenji, and Nakano.

Southside Asagaya: Club Pollen

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Club Pollen vertical

A fire broke out the other day in southside Asagaya. Southside Asagaya is an “entertainment” area—a warren of narrow alleys and streets with bars, restaurants, snack pubs, dry cleaners, ramen shops, a chanko restaurant, green grocers, several joints serving French, and a funky little blues club called Chicago, where Naomi-san, the master, worships at the altar of Guitar Slim and serves Red Eye beer, tomato juice and beer, for 500 yen the glass.

Club Pollen Snack&wiresSirens wailed and a small fire truck made especially for such narrow streets rounded the corner quickly followed by another. They moved through the crowded streets about as fast as I could walk, so I followed—past the snazzy Snack Yuu, past the Sen Sen Record emporium, until Snack Kurumi, where from the other direction, two more engines had pulled up and parked along with an ambulance.Club Pollen Sen Sen Records

Several policemen had already arrived on their bicycles. The man from the dry cleaners stepped out of his tiny shop to take a look. Curious pedestrians started to mill about. The firemen started to congregate in front of a snack bar called “Pub Pollen.” A small wire-strengthened kitchen window of the snack bar had been shattered and thin wisps of smoke were leaking out.

Club Pollen neighbor KurumiNow over two dozen firemen in full gear—helmets, hoods, and oxygen tanks—had crowded into the narrow alley in front of the shop. A large flat hose was unrolled. Coils of rope were made ready. One fireman with a megaphone started speaking to another fireman a meter away, realized the loudspeaker was not necessary, and put it back into the truck. Another fireman stood with a long pick ax. The police tried to keep the onlookers back.

Nothing much seemed to be happening. The firemen spoke excitedly to each other. More wispy smoke, as from a cigarette, slipped out the jagged hole in the window. After a few minutes of walkie-talkie chatter, the hose was rolled back up and stowed. The firemen began loading up their trucks.

At that moment the elderly mama-san, a bent-backed woman wearing athletic pants, a flower print blouse, and a brown knit sweater vest came out, bowed and apologized to the police and the fire department. Evidently, it was literally a flash in the pan that had flared up while heating some oil for fried rice. The window was broken to let out the smoke. The woman apologized several times then hurriedly went upstairs to apologize to those neighbors.

The efficiency of the Tokyo Fire Department was noteworthy. They had arrived within minutes of the emergency call. Fire has always been Tokyo’s number one enemy, followed closely by real estate agents.

Soon the fire trucks left, southside Asagaya went back to minding its own business. The next day a new window glass had been fitted and snack bar Pub Pollen was back in operation.

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.