Saturday, June 27, 2015

My Japan Sushi Tour Begins at Takashimaya in Kyoto

Endless Choices at Takashimaya in Kyoto
A Variety of Hand Rolls in Takashimaya's Food Halls
Squid and Shiso Hand Rolls

Japanese Food Rules My World

I could live in Japan. Seriously, I mean, immerse myself in the culture, learn the lingo (far beyond food terms), go onsen-hopping nightly, live on a diet of pickles, sea urchin, sour plums and sushi, and be perfectly content for the rest of my life. At least that’s how I feel when I visit the island nation.

But for now my foray lasted less than two weeks, and I felt as though I were pumped full of methamphetamines as I tried to keep up with my flitting travel companion as we speed-walked (and flew) from Osaka to Kyoto to Tokyo; we ate as if there were soon to be a food shortage in all of Japan, felt moderately guilty for overindulging in our fair share of what seemed like torrents of seafood, then ate some more, if only because we soon grew hungry again from so much walking.

For my edification, my travel tour guide/companion made sure I experienced a broad range of Japanese cuisine, from amazing kushi katsu to Tsukemen dipping ramen, to green tea-inspired desserts and even potstickers at Tokyo’s Gyoza Stadium. But for the sake of this blog, I will be staying on the subject of sushi. Don’t worry…plenty there to be covered still.

In Japan, food overflows, from bountiful food halls in just about every department store and subway station, from tucked-away eateries and supermarkets and convenience stores. Dotonbori in Osaka is like a seafood-themed Universal Citywalk on steroids. And with our dollar currently stronger in Japan (81 cents to 100 Yen) than in years past, we felt it was high time to eat our way through the three major cities.

Kyoto is a city in which the modern and traditional coexist; despite the massive steel-and-glass Kyoto Station, beautiful temples can also be found in this town, along with the famous geisha district known as Gion.

From the food halls of Kyoto’s Takashimaya Department Store, the unusual, wonderful combination of squid and shiso in a hand roll beckoned from inside its glass-encased confines. It wasn’t your common California roll, or the average spicy tuna roll with cucumber inside; it wasn’t even a typical shrimp tempura roll that was sitting there and getting soggy from being out of the fryer for too long. This was squid with shiso…wrapped in seaweed!

In the States, squid can be a dodgy sushi item to order because it can be chewy and tough, depending on the caliber of the restaurant serving it. Yet here were these cylindrical hand rolls, not tapered at the end like a cone, nor cut into slices; this brought back memories of the way hand rolls are served in Australia. These were also cheap, and ready to eat (¥195 each, or about $1.60 each in U.S. dollars. You couldn’t find a squid and shiso hand roll for this low of a dollar amount in the States).

I tried one and not only was it fresh, without the cold “refrigerated effect,” but the squid was soft and not hard to chew at all. And there was something else here, perhaps ume (plum paste) had been applied inside the roll to make it taste just a bit tart, which blended perfectly with the shiso. And lightly dotted throughout were what appeared to be tobiko, or flying fish eggs. I wanted to stand there and ingest at least five more of them, but I knew there was more food around the corner to explore.

Of course, the assorted crab sushi box was the next thing that grabbed my attention, and I had to have it. I devoured it—the gunkan-style ones, the maki, the nigiri, feeling a tad of compunction about leaving behind some of the sushi rice so I could continue to eat more without getting too full. (I noted this crab sushi assortment tasted better than a similar crab sushi box from the food halls of Matsuya Ginza, which I had visited years before.) So many choices, so little time.

Takashimaya Department Store 52
Shincho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto 600-8001,
Kyoto Prefecture, Japan
+81 75-221-8811

Dotonbori: Flamboyant, Upbeat, Insane

Dotonbori: A Seafood Lover's Mecca

Too Many Choices, Too Little Time
Ajitsuke Kazunoko (Herring Roe) Sushi

Dotonbori: A Gastronomic Paradise in Osaka, Japan

Dotonbori is insane. It’s an over-the-top, flamboyant, neon-lit mecca of a gastronomist’s paradise, with oversize illuminated billboards and screens. A gigantic crab almost seven meters long marks the Kani Doraku Restaurant, which sells everything crab—from charcoal grilled crab to boxes of crab legs and crab sushi.

It has been called the heart of Osaka’s nightlife, and I could see why as tourists milled about in this place called Dotonbori, running between theaters and clubs, and stopping by eateries galore that offered takoyaki, gyozas, munificent plates of crab (I have never seen so much crab in my life) and weird sushi.

There, between the fatty bluefin tuna sushi and king crab sushi in the refrigerated case of a random shop, was the ajitsuke kazunoko, looking fake and strange beneath its see-through wrap. I knew I had eaten this once before—this was herring roe sushi. I had tried it once at Kabuki in Pasadena, thought it was too salty despite Kabuki’s attempt to mollify the taste by serving it with ponzu sauce, a lemon slice and shaved bonito. It wasn’t one of my favorites, for sure, but this kazunoko looked so rubbery and nubbled that it intrigued me. I was stuffed full of charcoal grilled crab, but so what? At only ¥350 (about $3), it was worth a shot.

“It’s intense,” admonished my travel companion. She also explained to me that kazunoko is generally eaten during a New Year’s celebration in Japan, as the roe symbolizes fertility, but it’s an acquired taste.

I considered myself forewarned.

After one small bite, I unceremoniously spat it out. Then I took a deep breath, applied some of the soy sauce and wasabi that came in the package with it, and attempted it again, but still did not like it. It was definitely intense. And too salty-bitter-rubbery, or something. The texture was also a lot tougher than Kabuki’s version of the herring roe sushi I had tried years ago.

Chuo-ku, Osaka 542-0076
Osaka Prefecture, Japan

Traditional, Kyoto-Style Sushi with Very Vinegary Rice

The Traditional Dining Space inside IZUJU
"Deluxe Hako in Summer" (with Red Sea Bream, Sea Eel,
Omelet, Prawn, and Kinome)

Kyoto-Style Sushi at IZUJU

There is such a thing as Kyoto-style sushi, as I came to learn in a restaurant by the name of IZUJU, which has been in business for nearly 100 years in the Gion district. I learned that due to Kyoto’s landlocked location, its residents needed to find a way to keep fish edible, so only cured fish was used.

I requested the “Deluxe Hako in Summer” for ¥1,620, or IZUJU’s “box sushi”—quite literally, as the presentation proved, for it was a square-shaped serving of square sushi pieces using omelet, prawn, red sea bream and anago, otherwise known as sea eel. Each piece of omelet or meat sat on its own mini brick of sushi rice, looking lovely, edible, artistic. (I heard Kyoto is a city that celebrates the seasons, so it came as no surprise when I heard there is a winter version of this that uses different ingredients).

All it took was one bite, and I was hooked on the aromatic, smoky and salty flavors. Even the sushi rice is also delightfully more vinegary here, and there are shiitake mushrooms mixed into it. Kinome, the mint-flavored leaves of a prickly ash tree, is used as a garnish here, and I could see mine through the translucent slices of sea bream (they were sandwiched between the fish and sushi rice).

Some of the other top dishes at IZUJU include sabazushi, or pickled mackerel on sushi rice; and sasamaki, or sea bream, kinome, and sushi rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. The menu also offers assorted selections that feed two to four people, with prices ranging from ¥2,398 to ¥5,400.

IZUJU only makes Kyoto-style sushi; Tokyo-style nigiri, or the sushi we normally see in other countries, is not available here. As is its custom, IZUJU is old-fashioned, down to its very interior decoration—the small space is designed with wooden panels and paper walls.

292 Gionmachi Kitagawa
Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Japan
+81 75 561 0019

A Crab Lover's Dream Come True in Kyoto

Sapporo Kani-Ya of Kyoto
Assorted Supreme Crab Sushi
Vinegared Pincer Meat

Enter Sapporo Kani-Ya in Kyoto, A Crab Heaven

You’ll think you’ve died and gone to Crab Heaven when you enter Sapporo Kani-Ya, which is located within walking distance from IZUJU. Kani-Ya means “Crab House,” and this Kyoto branch specializes in boiled crab dishes.

The Sapporo Kani-Ya restaurant occupies an entire building, and we had to remove our shoes and enter an elevator that brought us up to another level, one that was filled with private rooms. The ambience was so serene, and the service so orderly, that there was even a buzzer on the table in our private room with which to summons a waitress.

I couldn’t believe how detailed, how overwhelmingly crab the menu was. There were endless photographs of crab sets and crab dishes, even a depiction of Crab Hierarchy: the Authentic King Crab, Hairy Crab, Queen Crab. There was vinegared crab, crab miso soup, crab shumai, crab tofu, crab hot pot. There was crab au gratin and crab salad, and even grilled crab innards for the die-hards.

Other pages of the menu were divided into Fascinating Zen Sets, Incredible Kai-seki Sets, and Complete Zen Sets, followed by a “Convincing Crab Guide.” The guide, along with pictures, detailed origins and sizes of their three main crab types: the Authentic King, Queen, and Hairy Crabs.

The most expensive ensemble, known as the “Complete Zen Set,” costs about ¥5,724 (about $46), and seems to encompass it all: crab tofu, snow crab mini hot pot, whole boiled “horsehair” crab, crab shumai, crab futo maki sushi, and a broth soup. Desire a whole king crab? The menu here states you can order one for ¥22,680 (about $185)—or order half a king crab for ¥14,040. If you fancy a whole hairy crab, not only will you have to wait about 40 minutes before it’s served, but there are two sizes to choose from: the medium hairy crab will run you between ¥5,832 and ¥8,424; the larger behemoth might pinch your wallet at up to ¥15,120 each. Or, choose the Queen Crab, which requires advanced booking: the price is “dependent on daily auction rates at the port of landing.”

The array of options were dizzying, and I eventually chose the Assorted Supreme Crab Sushi for ¥1998 (or $16), though if I had more time and didn’t feel so stuffed (it was a wonder I could still continue to eat), I’d have chosen a set, a crab cornucopia that burst in all directions when it finally arrived at my table.

We sat there for quite a spell, my travel companion relishing bowls of crab miso soup; and I, still craving more, ordered a second item: the “Vinegared Pincer Meat” of King Crab, for ¥2,700 (about $22). To my delight, it came with a saucer full of extra vinegar for dipping purposes, which reminded me of the serving style at K-ZO in Culver City when you ordered the Hairy Crab there.

Although Sapporo Kani-Ya offers crab-themed escapism, a note on their website actually suggests that you can “feel free to ask for dishes without crabs.” With the exception of the vegetables and tofu, the only non-crab item I saw on the menu was shrimp tempura. Everything else was sheer crab-infused delight.

Sapporo Kani-Ya
Gion Ishidan Shita Minami
Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, Japan 605-0829

Kyoto's Zany Conveyor Belt Sushi Scene

A Conveyor Belt Sushi Restaurant in Kyoto
Items from the Belt: Only ¥108 Each
Bologna Sushi with Avocado and White Onions on Top
Hamburger Sushi with Mayonnaise, Tuna and Yamakake Sushi
Pickled Eggplant Sushi
Okra Sushi

Conveyor Belt Sushi, Only ¥108 Per Plate

The conveyor belt sushi scene in Japan can be quite a spectacle: zany fun offered with convenience and affordability.

At the nameless one I visited in Kyoto, it appeared at first glance to be some sort of Internet café. All the diners were seated in front of mini screens, which they poked at from time to time with their fingertips. Then I noticed the moving conveyor belts in front of them, loaded with little plates of goodies: sushi, appetizers, desserts, even juice boxes.

What made this place unique: you could special-order an item from the touch-screen in front of you to have it come out on the same conveyor belt. Then grab your item as it coasts by you. Or, simply sit back and take what you want that’s already riding on the conveyor belt. As always, the bill is based on the number of empty plates at the end of your meal.

Everything off the conveyor belt cost ¥108 (about 87 cents). Items from the side menu ranged from ¥194 to ¥216. It certainly seemed to be a restaurant with a sense of humor, for there were the most unusual sushi: there was the bologna sushi with avocado and onions on top, the “hamburger sushi” (with or without mayonnaise), and even a “Roast pork” sushi. From the side menu, you can order French fries with chocolate syrup drizzled all over them for ¥216.

Just like the purplish pickled eggplants I had sampled in all those food halls and shops, at this restaurant there was pickled eggplant sushi being offered. And although it appeared slimy, the tuna and yamakake (grated mountain yam) sushi was quite unique and didn’t taste as funny as it looked. Another unique one was the okra sushi, served gunkan-style.

Quite simply, this is a fun and cheap way to have sushi. The easily amused can have a blast here.

Conveyor Belt and Bullet Train-Style Sushi

Conveyor Belt Sushi at Tekkamaru
Touch the Screen to Order More
A Mini Shinkansen Delivers Your Order to Your Table
Crab with Crab Miso and Tamago on a Bed of Sushi Rice
Creamy Shrimp Sushi

Friday, June 26, 2015

Sushi via Shinkansen

At the Tekkamaru Conveyor Belt Sushi Restaurant, located inside the Kansai International Airport, the setup is similar. You sit in a booth and have the option of grabbing what you want off the conveyor belt, but attached to the edge of your table is a screen where you might search for other options. Only this time, when your customized order arrives, it’s delivered above the conveyor belt on a separate “Express Lane” track.

The tray, made to resemble a mini Shinkansen, or bullet train, carries the food straight out of the kitchen and to the table to which the order was programmed. A sign explains to customers to press the “red return button” after they take their plate off the Shinkansen so that the bullet train may carry on, either to return to the kitchen or to deliver another order to a different table. A whirring sound accompanies the effect as the mini plastic bullet train takes off on the track. Snap!

The typical items were served here—I enjoyed an ume shiso roll, some shrimp sushi with a cheesy mayonnaise sauce and chives on top—but the most unusual item had to be the crab meat, tamago and crab miso that sat upon a bed of sushi rice inside a crab carapace, eyes intact and all. It was delightfully tacky, if a bit creepy. But it was utilitarian as well as creative, I had to give them that—I have never seen this done anywhere else.

Our bill for this place was also quite low, as each item ranged in price from ¥110 to ¥300. Not bad for a place that entertained as well as served decent food.

Kaiten Sushi Tekkamaru
Kansai International Airport, Terminal 1, 2F
1 Senshukukokita, Izumisano,
Osaka Prefecture 549-0001, Japan

Heaven is a Place Called Sushisho Masa in Tokyo

Murasaki Uni on Sushi Rice
Penshell Edge
Marinated Firefly Squid
Grilled Penshell in Nori
Bonito Sushi with Japanese Mustard, Bonito with Garlic
Torotaku Maki
Kinmedai Sushi with Grated Radish

Pure Enlightenment at Sushisho Masa of Tokyo

Ah, Sushisho Masa. This had to be the capstone of my sushi tour of Japan.

I felt quite privileged as I sat inside this tiny, exclusive 7-seat sushi haven, situated underground (in the basement of a building in Tokyo), which had required us to make reservations at least a month in advance. After all, I was about to try the omakase at a place that my travel companion had first experienced a couple of years ago, which she had declared to be better in quality, as well as friendlier, than the hyped-up Sukiyabashi Jiro—and at half the price (about ¥25,000 per person).

I tried to be mindful of etiquette, for this was that kind of place. Although I consider myself an expert, I knew I had yet to be indoctrinated, for this was the domain of acclaimed Chef Masakatsu Oka, and this was Japan, where surely there were exotic fish that I had not yet heard of.

For such an upscale setting, Sushisho Masa indeed has very affable staff members who are quite accommodating to your needs. If you inquire about a particularly unusual fish, such as Tachiuo, one of the chefs might ever so thoughtfully open a Japanese picture book of fish before your eyes and point to it. They are patient to repeat the names of other esoteric sea life—sea grapes, penshells, whelk—in Japanese and in English, if they happen to know the names in both languages.

The meal began with little slices of octopus and miniscule servings of sea grapes and seaweed. And then it commenced in earnest, an in-your-face explosion of flavors and textures: smoky, raw, slippery, chewy, pickled, charred. This was not a place for beginners or for those unprepared for seafood…four items in, and you were munching on what I think they said were “Giant Clam Insides.” That was soon followed by a solo shrimp head from the Ama Ebi family, which was later followed by a sinuous sliver of mackerel belly.

Of all the tastings we were each served, I think less than half of them came with sushi rice, which was smart (you got to taste more items this way, without filling up too quickly). Each tasting was unique—one item was served on a stick, another in a fold of seaweed, another in a tiny ceramic bowl.

But I think the best thing I have ever put into my mouth was that marinated firefly squid, which was so good that I clung to my friend’s shoulder and started convulsing a bit. The squid was gooey and slimy-looking, not the most presentable, but surprisingly delectable. Its taste, said my friend, reminded her of ika no shiokara, or pickled squid guts. (Well, now I have to look for that.)

Other glorious tastings: the buttery, melt-in-your-mouth ankimo, touched with a hint of the mildest wasabi; the sweet horse mackerel sushi; the kinmedai (golden eye snapper) sushi topped with wasabi, grated radish and tart sudachi fruit. There was the mustard yellow Murasaki uni atop a small heap of sushi rice—so sublime.

I especially liked the way the chefs separately served both the outside and inside parts of a sea critter. This was done with the kuromutsu fish (first the inside, raw and sitting atop a nub of sushi rice; then the outside part, which was seared hot, smoky and flaky). The torigai (cockle shell) was served raw first, then barbequed versions were laid before our eyes. Bonito was served as sushi with Japanese mustard, followed by slices of bonito seared with a tantalizing garlic sauce.

In our two-hour sitting, we were served exactly 50 pieces of perfectly rendered sea life, the rote broken only by a lightly pickled radish in the middle of the meal, then a random slice of eggplant. Finally, our meal was finished off with the sweetest cube of caramelized tamago for dessert.

I reckoned my enlightenment was complete. For now.

Sushisho Masa
4-1-15 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Basement Floor