“Just eat,” says our sushi master jovially, plating up individually hand-formed bites of sushi rice draped in bright, fleshy pieces of tuna, before following up more severely with a strict shake of his head: “No soy sauce.” He even moves the beautifully crafted wooden pot of the umami stuff out of reach.
It turns out, adding more soy sauce to sushi – particularly when the grains of rice have already been respectfully soy-daubed with a delicate brush – is the equivalent of rudely squirting ketchup unceremoniously all over your dinner.
Our translator Karin explains that Tokyo might be famous for soy sauce, but “you only need a little bit, it’s borderline offensive to pour loads on a plate”.
You just don’t do it – and don’t even think about asking for more wasabi, no matter how vibrant and bobbly the fresh root is, no matter how much heat you think you can handle.
So, with each new morsel that appears on the tulip-red counter at the dimly-lit Seamon Ginza, during our 20-course omakase (which translates as ‘I’ll leave it up to you’), we tell our chef: “Oishi” (delicious), to keep him on side.
I’m in Japan with YO! Sushi who, famed as they are for their food-topped conveyor belt, are gearing up to launch their first non-belt, full-service restaurant, YO! Kitchen White City in September.
Tokyo provided the initial inspiration for the brand’s founder Simon Woodroffe, and remains an endless source of menu ideas for group executive chef Mike Lewis. And so, in honour of the new concept, Lewis is leading me on a three-day eating tour of the city, to experience Japan’s food culture, and feel old collide with new.
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Been in #Tokyo with @yosushi on a food trip, and we have eaten everything: Omakasi (chef’s choice sushi), 4am post-karaoke ramen, gyoza, tendon (tempura and rice), more ramen, yakitori (skewers), okonomiyaki (an omelette-rosti hybrid), all of the 7-11 snacks, dried skate wings with kewpie mayo, ginkgo nuts, melon buns...
I quickly learn that in Tokyo, having dinner is also an exercise in exploring the culinary edges of tradition, etiquette and technology.
We make the dynastic leap from the intricate, almost solemn and highly personal omakase at Seamon Ginza (soy sauce reprimands included), to lunch the next day at modern kaiten (conveyor belt sushi) chain Hamazushi, ordering via screen. The restaurant’s track technology sees 100-yen bites whizz to you directly, rapidly, freshly made and accompanied by a jingle; no human interaction needed. It’s as charming and futuristic as the slightly dim robot waiter in the foyer.
The question of reverence versus modern efficiency rumbles beneath every edible encounter: I leave a gentle, sacred and perfectly timed tea ceremony at Hotel Chinzano Tokyo, where we slurped bitter matcha green tea from ornate bowls, to be greeted by boxy vending machines that uniformly line the streets like mechanical wallflowers, swallowing yen in exchange for cold sweet green tea in futuristic bottles. Both are as ingrained in the city’s fabric as the ginkgo trees are in the pavements – Karin tells me their nuts are scavenged, skewered and grilled until soft and burnished. They stick to the roof of your mouth like too much peanut butter.
And when you’re not sliding from the traditional straight into the modern, Tokyo just goes and melds the two.
Ramen – properly done – takes hours to prepare: The broth must have depth and savouriness, the meat be falling apart, and the eggs white and glistening on the outside, gooey and daisy-yellow in the middle.
We bop in our orders via plastic buttons on what looks and feels like a fruit machine, from which you win a ticket with our order on, rather than the satisfying clunk of coins in a tray. You hand this to the staff behind the counter, then settle into your solo booth, which even has its own personal water tap – the dream. They pass you your ramen, shut the hatch and you’re left to eat alone. It’s a moment of perfect automation (fruit machine), framed by human interaction (service) and a bowl of something time-honoured and utterly ‘oishi’ (such good ramen).
Even at the industrial, commercial level you feel the anchoring of tradition. At Toyosu Fish Market, incredibly beautiful knives – swords almost – are wielded to splice whole yellow fin tuna, but the fish might just as swiftly be sawed in half mechanically, skilfully dragged through a chainsaw, which cleaves the fish at the spine.
Entry to the market is limited and very, very popular – visitors should expect a crazy early start and orderly queuing (often for more than two hours) to get in, but it’s worth it once you see the cavernous chilled auction room.
Tuna is Japan’s most beloved fish – there is a mad, highly lucrative dash to buy the first tuna caught of the year. Called ‘bullets’, the tuna have their tails lopped off (to grade the quality), guts removed (on the boat), and are frozen solid to retain freshness, colour and flavour – and the fattier they are, the better. They oddly look like canoes.
The market is a huge operation, up to 30,000 tonnes of fish is handled every day, and on my visit, there’s 17,000 tonnes being graded, tussled over and bought.
But despite that – and the towers of polystyrene boxes everywhere, fins poking out – tradition and the old ways are built in: From the male-dominated shop floor and family businesses, to the way the buyers check the fish using a wooden handled tool with a sharp, curved blade, which they use to dig out slivers of flesh from the tuna tails, to defrost in their hands and place reverently on their tongues to taste.
Bits of paper, indicating the fish is sold, are dunked in a kettle of water then slapped on the fish to freeze against the flesh – there couldn’t be a quicker or more sensible way of doing it.
The auctioneers have old-school panache too, as they spectacularly holler their way through the bidding, ringing bells, the sound echoing off the hollow frozen fish and stark white walls.
All of it is done with a sense of ceremony and theatre, so that by the time you’re ensconced in an izakaya (Japanese pub) eating yakitori (grilled skewers) in Omoide Yokocho – aka ‘piss alley’ – in Shinjuku, you find yourself used to the dramatic performances of people using ancient techniques to speedily turn out chicken skewers and dried skate wings with kewpie mayo.
The same goes for the next day, when hungover you opt for okonomiyaki, which is theatrically cooked in front of you on a huge hot plate bedded into your dining table, bonito flakes dancing on a large patty of mayo and ponzu dressed rosti-cum-cabbage-stuffed-omelette.
It’s the level of detail and care applied to everything that strikes you repeatedly, whatever and wherever you’re eating in Tokyo. Be it sashimi from a conveyor belt or a man’s masterful hands, ramen via slot machine and skewers off a charcoal grill from a hole in the wall, to the ‘tastiness, happiness, peacefulness’ promised on the seaweed-flavoured rice crackers eaten on the flight over, before your Tokyo adventure has even properly begun.
YO! Kitchen – YO!’s first non-belt, full-service restaurant will launch as YO! Dundrum in Dublin in autumn. The new menu will feature Japanese-inspired dishes such as Katsu Curry Arancini, Japanese Corndog and Salmon Kushi Katsu. Visit yosushi.com.
- Press Association