In Lima, we bar-hopped to local hangouts in storied establishments. One, with tales of murder and mayhem and another, the birth place of the pisco sour. In Mexico City, we visited taco stands, including one served off-cut meat fillings like beef tongue and heart — liked it all. We’d never have found these places on our own. Food and drink tours do it with amazing prowess for us.
More recently, in Tokyo, we went on a best izakaya tour and another one of the outer Tsukiji Market. (The inner market selling wholesale fish moved last year, opening up land for 2020 Tokyo Olympics parking lot and, in the future, a convention centre).
The izakaya tour by Ninja Food Tours was led by expat Amanda Addey-Jibb from Montreal. She’d moved to Tokyo three years ago to teach English and spoke Japanese fluently so could throw in cultural asides like this: “The kids here clean schools, including the bathrooms and teachers’ rooms every day,” to which the Americans, Canadians and English on the tour looked at her in wide-eyed astonishment.
The izakaya tour ($139.69, with food and drinks) in the electric Shinjiku ward, a city within a city, and we hoofed it through several areas including the Kabukicho area, the red light district where Anthony Bourdain was completely gobsmacked (and drunk) at Robot Restaurant in an episode of Parts Unknown a few years back.
Pachinko parlours deafeningly dominate the neighbourhood with its high-decibel sounds.
“It’s basically like a slot machine and a pinball machine had a baby,” Addey-Jibb said. “Gambling is illegal but there’s a loophole — they win prizes, then take the prizes to a second location where they get paid for them.”
We cut through parts of Golden Gai, a maze of alleyways with more than 200 bars and tiny restaurants built along railway tracks. Another bustling alley, Omoide Yokocho (Memory Lane), Addey-Jibb explained was formerly called Piss Alley.
“That was before the war. Now there are toilets,” she said.
There are dozens of similar narrow alleys squeezed behind train stations or between highrises, jammed with bars and restaurants. Omoide intrigued us enough to return for a yakitori dinner on another evening.
We visited three izakayas, sampling several dishes and different drinks at each.
Garakuta izakaya is known for chicken yakitori. Like at most izakayas, we start with an otoshi, a compulsory house appetizer, a kind of cover charge and insurance that patrons eat some food with their drinks. That evening, it was Japanese style coleslaw. Then, grilled chicken skewers, including heart, thigh, shoulder, breast, and chicken oyster (tail) all sauced differently.
“They use very good quality white charcoal (binchotan charcoal) for the grill,” said Addey-Jibb. We finished with grilled nigiri and miso soup. “Helps with digestion,” she said.
Takamaru Izakaya is all about seafood, and a handwritten menu changes daily — we’d have been lost without Addey-Jibb! We started with lotus root and daikon in broth. The sake was poured sosogi-koboshi style. That is, into a glass, flooding sake into a wooden box (masu). Awkward, but hey, kampai!
I loved the Okinawa seaweed that looked like little jade pearls with ponzu sauce and grated daikon. Then some sashimi, and a cooked yellow tail tuna fish head (here’s lookin’ at you, the eyes said) from which to pick off the meat and finally, a plate of crab croquettes.
At Dandadan, the specialty is pork gyoza and pork appetizers. The otoshi this time was a mound of marinated bean sprouts, followed by gyoza (delicious) and pork chasu.
Then we took a deep dive into the labyrinth of Shinjiku metro station, heading for the best matcha ice cream in the city at Cha no Ikedaya.
“The family’s been doing it for 45 years,” Addey-Jibb said. Everyone had matcha ice cream swirled with vanilla. I opted for matcha rice cake with matcha ice cream filling.
But, honestly, I wasn’t tasting much. I’d screwed up. I had popped into a washroom en route, thinking I’d catch up with the group. Ha! Shinjinku station is the largest maze in the world with over 200 exits.
Addey-Jibb back-tracked and found me (stay put, like in the wilderness!) but in my Roadrunner attempt to catch up to the group, I’d dropped my cell phone. After the group disbanded at Chano Ikedaya, Addey-Jibb retraced steps to the general scene of the loss, asked where security was and within 10 minutes, a uniformed man with white gloves was handing it back to me.
I knew I’d get it back — theft in Japan is rare — but I was freaked at the thought of locating it in Shinjiku station. On the matter of theft, we saw thousands of parked bikes in the city, none of them locked. And one evening, at a small yakitori restaurant (Masakichi, David Chang’s favourite yakitori), we saw two large suitcases parked outside on the street with owners tucked inside without a view. I have a photo if you don’t believe me.
On our tour of the outer Tsukiji Market by Japan Wonder Travel, we met guide Yoshimi Hanaoka at an entrance for a 90-minute tour ($38 without food or drink but there are options with food or a cooking class).
We went overtime as there are more than 400-plus shops and a new fresh market area. We nibbled and shopped our way through the market with Hanaoka guiding us to the best shops that drew foodies like Michelin-starred chefs from Tokyo and Paris.
This outer market, which complemented the inner market, sells dry goods, cookware, Japanese vegetables, tea, nori and other foods, has artisan producers, and restaurants, and still thrives.
We started at 9 a.m. but by 11 a.m., it was very congested. Our first stop was for nigiri sushi at a stall run by an 81-year-old chef; he’d cooked for 60 years and ran the stall for eight years with fish from Toyosu Fish Market, where fishmongers from Tsukiji Fish Market had moved last year, about two kilometres away.
“A lot of people pick up breakfast or dinner here,” Hanaoka said. “Tourist restaurants are more expensive. Stand up is less expensive.”
Shops handed out samples like dried codfish with plum, sesame, and pickles. I bought nori at a place where three-Michelin star chefs shop says Hanaoka and dashi powder (an umami bomb for Japanese cooks) made with three kinds of fish after I sampled some as a hot broth.
I bought sesame seeds tinted red from umeboshi (pickled plums), again after tasting a sample; I thought it would be great sprinkled on hot rice or covering grilled nigiri. My husband downed a gigantic fresh oyster and we had some fish cakes on sticks. We had tamago popsicles (my words) — the chef behind the stand makes perfect rolled fluffy, rich-tasting omelettes (with chopsticks), cuts them into rectangles and serves pieces on sticks.
We then explored a new addition to the area, a retail fish and fresh produce market. Shoppers can buy fish at the market and have it grilled to eat on the third floor and on Saturdays, there’s a do-it-yourself barbecue and picnic area on a rooftop deck with a view to the 2020 Olympics site.
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