In Japan, I was told that there are three things that you must eat in Tokyo: Sushi, Wagyu beef and tempura. In less than 24 hours there, I managed to consume two out of three.
First, beef. We had spent our first few days in the country being served gorgeous, but often inedible, kaiseki meals that contained oddly textured fish and tofu dishes that you’d never see in a Japanese restaurant in the United States. We were ready for some red meat.
The meal came at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, which became internationally famous back in 2003, when a small film called Lost in Translation was filmed there. I watched the movie again on the plane ride over to Japan, so while I knew the hotel’s bars and skyline views were touristy, I was looking forward to seeing it in person.
Our dinner took place in the New York Grill. This was the only place on our 12-day trip where Westerners outnumbered the Japanese, and one of the only hotels that seemed full. I kept glancing around to see if any celebrities were in the mix.
The waiters brought cuts of raw meat to the table for us to choose. I’m not much of a red meat eater, but I had Wagyu beef once before and knew how different it would taste from your garden variety steak.
And we weren’t disappointed. The steak came out, and although it was more medium than rare, it still blew other cuts of meat that I’ve had out of the water. It really does melt in your mouth. Our sides included whipped potatoes, creamed spinach, and macaroni & cheese with leeks. Absolutely decadent.
The rich food and red wine meant that I fell into bed in a meat-induced stupor. All to soon, my alarm went off at 3:30 a.m., preparing me for my next indulgent foodie outing.
Shinji Nohara, the Tokyo Fixer who has set up meals in Japan for a constellation of food writing stars, met me at 4 a.m. for a trip to Tsukiji Fish Market. The bad news was that visitors were forbidden to visit the market’s famed tuna auction. The good news? We’d be among the first in line at Sushi Dai for breakfast.
As we waited, Shinji told me a little bit about the history of sushi. The practice of eating fish and rice wrapped together started in early Tokyo (when it was known as Edo). It appealed to the working class, who ate it from stalls run by food vendors.
Sushi Dai isn’t the only sushi restaurant open at Tsukiji Fish Market, but it’s one of the best, as evidenced by the lines. Doors open at 5 a.m. and the lucky first 13 file in for breakfast, greeted exuberantly by the staff.
Shinji pointed out a few differences between American and Japanese sushi restaurants. For one, the rice is served warm, not cold, and it’s always made fresh. The pieces are put on the bar directly, as soon as they are created. And you don’t use chopsticks; instead, you pinch the sushi with your fingers and eat it. There’s even a saying, Shinji said: “Let’s go pinch some sushi.”
I was still full from my meat indulgence the night before, but I started to get hungry while watching the chefs at work. It’s hard to turn down fresh fish.
Shinji did the ordering, and the pieces kept coming. I did decline sake; at 5 a.m., it seemed like it would be a little hard on my stomach.
The piece de resistance? A clam so fresh, it arrived writhing on the bar. I laughed, and bit right into it. It tasted crisp and briny, not chewy as clams often do in the States. Shrimp was also a revelation – so much sweeter and better than you’d find here.
Besides clams, Shinji encouraged me to taste a few other species of fish I hadn’t had before. I tried sea bass, which came slightly salted with pink rock salt, jackfish with ginger and scallions, and Japanese gizzard, which is a type of fish, not innards (it’s pictured above).
The meal cost about 7,000 yen (about $95 US) for both Shinji and I. That may be a lot for breakfast, but it’s nothing compared to what you’d pay in the States for fish that fresh.
Coffee is an indulgence in Japan, a nation of tea drinkers, and places like Starbucks are quite expensive. Switch to tea while you’re in the country; black tea has the most caffeine.
After my sushi breakfast, I returned to the Park Hyatt where I indulged in a swim and hot bath in the hotel’s spa. The workers at the pool were very adamant about swim caps, while the spa attendant chided me for wearing my bathing suit in the spa.
Next time I go to Japan, I’m going to schedule more time in Tokyo, just for eating. I’ll return to Sushi Dai, visit one of those tempura places that Shinji talked about and hit up some ramen shops. The city is a playground for food lovers, and I need another play date.
My visit in Tokyo was sponsored by the Park Hyatt Tokyo, but my opinions are my own.
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