The Hungry Man's Tokyo
There's so much more to Japanese food than sushi, but you have to be willing to stick crazy-looking things in your mouth. Fortunately for us, that describes Adam Sachs to a T.
For every subcategory of cuisine, a subculture of obsession accompanies the food. Consider something as seemingly simple as a bowl of ramen. Countless noodle shops around the city serve more than 40 regional varieties of ramen. And for the armchair ramen aficionado, there are competing ramen-rating guidebooks, ramen awards, ramen TV shows, and a heated ramen debate that seems to boil like a broth just under the surface of polite society. (Worldramen.net is a good place to follow the debate in English.)
I never understood all the fuss until I went to Kyushu Jangara Ramen. After one slurp of the rich tonkotsu (pork bone-based) soup, I realized I had largely squandered my noodle-eating life. A little quality time at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum helped me atone for years of ramen ignorance. The ground floor is home to a gift shop, displays on the history of ramen, and, this being Japan, photo booths where you can get stickers printed up with an image of your face poised to eat a bowl of your favorite style of ramen. I now have stickers of myself with the Kyushu style, which has a rich broth and braised pork belly, and also often includes chopped scallions. Whenever the weather is below 100 degrees, some small part of my brain is always thinking about this soup.
Downstairs at the Ramen Museum is where the real action takes place. Two basement floors have been transformed into a virtual 1958 streetscape (a significant year, if only because that's when "instant noodles" hit the shelves). The neon-lit scene--with bars, street vendors, and lots of steamy ramen stalls--feels like a movie set. No matter how surreal the spectacle, however, nothing can top the truth: It's a museum dedicated to noodles.
In between working my way through the Japanese culinary classics, I enjoyed paying my respects to some of the less heralded oddball variants. Monja-yaki is a kind of food found in Tokyo that probably won't be the next hot trend anywhere else. For one thing, it's difficult to define. Imagine a liquid that becomes a solid that will probably end up in a gaseous state sometime later in the evening. (A Japanese friend described it as "like a sauce that's the meal.") Monja-yaki is as much an activity as it is a dish: The tables in a monja-yaki restaurant all have a hot griddle onto which a mishmash of batter, cabbage, and other implausible toppings are spread out and cooked until the concoction reaches a consistency somewhere between a pancake and fried cheese. There are hundreds of toppings to mix and match--squid, spicy cod roe, various meats, a blob of food called "pizza" that was hard to place. Diners at the table cook their own bits and serve themselves using tiny metal spatulas.
You'd think maybe one or two monja-yaki joints would be enough for any city, even one as big as Tokyo. But a few blocks from the Tsukishima subway stop is a long, narrow avenue called Tsukishima-Nishinakadori, surrounded by the impossible-to-forget sight of 70 nearly identical little restaurants that all serve this strange, fun, collective treat.
And then there's chanko, the food of sumo wrestlers. Sumo wrestlers feed themselves heartily, and after their championship days are over, some of them open restaurants with enormous, anything-goes hot pots engineered to bulk us all up to fighting weight. At Chanko Dining Waka, run by the retired sumo wrestling star Wakanohana, a diminutive non-wrestler tended to a pot of boiling vegetable broth in the center of our table. He used wooden tongs to shape chicken meatballs that he plopped into the bowl, and he returned every few minutes to add more protein and vegetables to the broth. It's unpretentious late-night food, perfect for those moments when the exquisite subtlety of sashimi is not at all what's called for.
I have eaten some strange things in this town. Chicken sashimi. Raw horse. Whale steak. Even cod sperm-sac sushi. (1. Puddinglike. 2. Never again.) Come to think of it, I've also ordered in some strange ways. Te (pronounced tea) is a cool little lunch counter in Roppongi Hills where you order and pay via a retro-futuristic vending machine in the front of the store. Then you go inside and wait for your meal. A filling plate of spaghetti with mentiako (spicy cod roe) is about $7.
But for all the wild fun they have with their food, the Japanese are exceptionally serious about quality and freshness. The obvious place to see this devotion on display is Tsukiji, the biggest fish market in the world. Hauling giant, blood-red tuna carcasses, carts whiz down aisles lined with what appear to be every last one of the world's exotic sea creatures, laid out on ice. Beyond a small section of plastic cutlery stalls near the Kaikou-bashi entrance (in the general direction of Ginza), two long lines snake outside two sushi restaurants located three doors apart.