Sunday, 6 February 2011

Tokyo Part 1 - Left To My Own Devices

Tonkatsu joint
Discombobulated. I thought I would be on my first visit to Tokyo, and indeed Japan, but I wasn't. I think that had a lot to do with staying in Ginza, an upmarket shopping district dominated by luxury brands like Chanel and Prada. But I wasn't in Tokyo for shopping; I was there for the food, well technically speaking I was there on a business trip.

Ginza is full of places to eat, and in addition to all kinds of Japanese food, I was surprised to see so many Chinese, Korean, and European/Western restaurants. Some of the western food made me laugh, especially the 'pan-Mediterranean' joints that sold both paella and pasta. I guess this is the mirror image of the pan-Asian joints that are so common in the west.

Noodles! Yeh!
But for my first meal in Tokyo, there was only one thing I was looking for. So whilst my colleague had a Sunday afternoon nap, I went in search of noodles. I wasn't getting much joy on Ginza's main drag – too posh for its own good – so I dived down the side streets. It wasn't too long before I found a tiny noodle joint with about eight seats. Just the job!

The magical noodle machine
My first bowl of noodles in Tokyo
As I can't read Japanese, I chose by picture, and ordered using the machine in the corner. This system gives a whole new kind of meaning to the term, hole-in-the-wall! I went for what turned out to be soba noodles in a soy-based broth topped with shrimp tempura cake and spring onion. It wasn't anything special but it really hit the spot after the long flight from London, and it only cost around the equivalent of £3.

When my colleague awoke, he was hungry and he suggested we go for dinner at a robatayaki. So off we went to hit the streets of Ginza, and after a bit of wandering around, we found somewhere that fitted the bill. We were seated at the counter where beef, chicken, seafood and assorted vegetables all jostled for attention. It was a real education watching the chefs cook on an open charcoal grill, and of all the dishes, the beef skewers were our favourite.

Beef skewer
Japanese-style curry
As much as I enjoyed the robatayaki, you have to be in the mood for it. Other times, you just want something quick and easy, something like a curry. In common with many cultures, the Japanese have their take on curry. So after a long day at work, I was more than happy to find a little tonkatsu joint near the hotel.

Everything on the menu was a variation of tonkatsu (deep-fried breaded pork), and I went straight for the tonkatsu karē, breaded pork loin with curry, rice and salad. The best part of this dish was the excellent curry sauce that had been pimped up with bits of pork belly.

I thought I'd done well left to my own devices but really it was nothing compared to the treats that my Japanese colleagues had in store for me. In the next post, I'm going to focus on where they took me out for lunch.

PS: I'm sorry I can't tell you more about the places where I ate, but none of them had any signage in English or for that matter, Romanised Japanese. Nor according to their business cards did they have a website that I can refer you to. In subsequent posts on Tokyo, I will, wherever possible, link to websites although you may need to use Google-translate for those that don't have an English page.


  1. ooohh....I'm so envious!!! The Japanese iron chef has a restaurant in Ginza and do have a walk in the Shiseido Parlour..their showcase of desserts are amazing!
    Can't wait to read all your culinary meals in Tokyo.
    ps. I have a book (in chinese) on where to eat and shop if you are headed there again next time.
    Have a glutton of a time. =)

  2. Wow, you're in Japan - can you feel the envy radiating from all the way back over here? I love the little ramen joints you can pop into for a noodley snack, and really fell hard for decent katsu places. If you get the chance (and are still over there) try and get to piss alley behind Shinjuku Stn, you'll find loads of rickety yakitori joint all leaning up against each other in place I imagine looks a lot like the ret of Tokyo did shortly after WW2. Amazing.

  3. Just loved the vending machines when I was there sometime back. In a way, it served tourists like us who had to struggle with the language well - just get a ticket and hand it over at the counter, and presto! A pipping hot curry katsu! Erm, that was about the only I ordered over there. :)

    There were lots of standup counters in their metro system as well. Did you had a chance to try out one of those?

  4. Kay - thanks for the tips and the offer of the guidebook. In the case of the latter, it might not be as much use as you think, as my Chinese skills are limited!

    Gworm - I'm sadly back in Blighty now. I read about the alley behind Shinjuku station but I didn't have time to explore. I'd love to go back and spend more time in Tokyo - I just felt that I dipped my toe in the pool.

    LChow - the vending machines are good but I had a fear of what would happen if the machine wasn't working properly! I didn't eat in the Metro, as I was usually stuffed through eating elsewhere!

  5. I loved those machines. Shotgun Noodles I called them.
    Didn't spend enough time in Tokyo as we wanted.
    Only had Katsu Curry at train stations, and it rocked, every time I eat it now it's a memory blast.

  6. Slightly off-topic, but re pan-Asian/pan-Mediterranean, here's an amusing post from howler on Chowhound offering a European equivalent of how a British curryhouse menu looks to him:

  7. Tokyo for business... Oh god. I am very jealous.

    Shame you didn't get a chance to hit Gworm's alley (that sounds dodgy) which is excellent.

    I think my Easter holiday may well be Japan having had such a good time at Xmas

  8. Mzungu - me neither. One week isn't enough to do justice to the foodie delights of Tokyo.

    kake - the boy 'howler' is very militant on his Indian/sub-continental menus! My own POV is that it's OK to mix and match, as long as what they serve is of a decent quality - the problem is all too often, quality is compromised.

    Tom - it was a great trip and one I need to do again. I just scratched the surface and whilst work paid, work did get in the way! Easter in Japan is around cherry blossom season, a great time to go.

  9. I LOVE the idea of ordering food based on the picture used to represent it; quite exciting, I imagine. Really looking forward to your future posts.

  10. Lizzie - it was more relief than excitement that I could order without having to resort to sign language!

  11. Hi My name is Mariko, born and bred in Tokyo now living in Hong Kong.
    It's even hilarious to learn Wiki has "Japanese Curry" page!
    It's so easy to prepare using "mixed sauce bar" which is avairable in any of supermarkets in Japan (of course you can find it outside Japan, such as a Japanese food shop...).
    Judging from the photo, you went to TON-BI (とん美) for looks pretty "local", you were brave!

    1. Mariko - welcome! I wasn't brave, if I remember correctly it was raining and luckily found this fab tonkatsu curry!