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February 17, 2012

Tokyo - Day IV

A Shrine Dominic Armato

Day four got off to a start that would have been comical if it weren't so sad. For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to save the two places I most wanted to visit for the morning we left. It wasn't entirely irrational. Neither kept especially late hours, and priority one was work... hitting them during the day would have taken us well out of our way. Still, in retrospect, I probably should have made the effort.

My first planned stop for the day was a cutlery shop on Kappabashi Dori, Tokyo's restaurant supply district, where I intended to seek out a fine Japanese knife while resisting the urge to tell the proprietor I was in search of Hattori Hanzo's steel (this clearly would have been funny only to me). And for some reason I can't possibly explain -- perhaps the sleep deprivation -- I thought it entirely reasonable to assume they'd be open at 9:00 AM. The prior evening, it was pointed out to me, in more polite language, that this assumption was stupid. So much for Hattori Hanzo's steel.

Rokurinsha's CounterDominic Armato

My second boneheaded assumption of the morning involved number one on my ramen hit list. Rokurinsha, now with a satellite location in Tokyo Station, houses the rock stars of Tokyo's tsukemen scene. Tsukemen isn't a ramen style so much as it is a format, one that puts a sharper focus on the noodles. It works like this. Dedicated ramen chefs work hard to produce fabulous noodles with texture and bite. Then, after putting in all of this work and carefully cooking them to the proper consistency, they dump them in a bowl of hot soup. What this means is that your first few bites are perfect. But as the noodles sit in the hot broth, they continue to cook, so that by the time you're midway through the bowl, they're no longer at their peak. Tsukemen involves cooking and then shocking the noodles so that the cooking process stops. The noodles are then served side by side with the soup, presented instead as a dipping sauce, thicker and stickier than your typical ramen broth. You dip the noodles as you eat them, thereby ensuring that they're at their peak from first bite to last.

The problem is that Rokurinsha is popular. Wildly popular. And it isn't unusual for the wait to top an hour. So when I discovered that they were open for breakfast, it seemed obvious that the thing to do was go early in the morning, right when they opened. Surely, there won't be so much of a line at eight in the morning, I thought to myself. And on this count, I was right. When I arrived, there were only four or five people ahead of me in line and I waited no more than ten minutes. The problem presented itself when I arrived at the vending machine to purchase my ramen ticket. The button with the ramen... the ramen... Rokurinsha's famous ramen... was darkened and inoperable. No, in its place was a different type of ramen, a breakfast-specific ramen, and by the time their normal ramen was available, I'd be on a bus riding to the airport. What the precise differences were, I can't say. I have no point of reference. But at the very least, I could see that the magical powder of incredible seafood intensity about which I'd read so much was absent. For somebody with a dedication to maximizing every experience, this was (and continues to be) more than a little torturous.

TsukemenDominic Armato

Still, I did my best not to let this snafu ruin my enjoyment of what turned out to be, even in this less potent state, one kick ass grade A bowl of ramen. I mean, wow. Starting with the noodles, because that's where it starts for these fellows, they're thick, bordering on udon thickness. And the chew, though not as aggressive as those I had at Gogyo, was incredibly satisfying, with a little give but only just so. They were almost cool, having been shocked to halt the cooking, and when I married them to the broth, the result was... formidable? Robust? Abusive? I mean these all in the most positive interpretation possible. That's one helluva soup, there. It wasn't as thick as I expected (Breakfast variation? Who knows?!), but the flavor was a tonkotsu base with some serious seafood swagger, like they captured the essence of a few large fish and crammed them in there. Those who haven't made their peace with Japanese fishy intensity probably aren't going to get along with this too well. Shaved bonito dreams of being this intense. But for me, it was gobsmackingly delicious. And though there's a vat of broth for you to water down your sauce to a soupy consistency once you're done dipping, I say screw the broth. I'm drinking this stuff in its full dippy consistency. You say dipping sauce, I say rich soup. I was simultaneously elated to have tasted such an incredible concoction, and tortured by the lunchtime broth I didn't get to sample. Still, to complain would seem ungrateful in the face of such a fabulous foodstuff. Should I return, I'll gladly wait that hour plus. This is some killer, killer stuff. I don't know that I'm sold on tsukemen. I'm considering the possibility that I would have preferred this ramen assembled in traditional fashion. The temperature contrast between cool noodles and hot soup means that when they come together, they meet somewhere in the neighborhood of lukewarm, and I do love a steaming bowl of ramen. But I'm not making any grand proclamations after just one bowl, and truth be told, they can serve this stuff to me however they like. I'll take it.

Kit Kats. Lots. Dominic Armato

With time running short, I had to make a beeline for the hotel, but not without first stopping at a candy store across from Rokurinsha. What you see here are Kit Kats. Lots and lots of Kit Kats. In all kinds of flavors. Kit Kats are incredibly popular in Japan, and in their typical "Yeah, we're taking this to eleven" fashion, they've developed scads of different flavors for the Japanese market (Wikipedia's incomplete list names over 100), many of them available only as regionally distributed special editions. You thought green tea Kit Kat was a kick? *pfft* Pedestrian. Sakura Macha, Pickled Plum, Miso, Yubari Melon, Ginger Ale, Blueberry Cheesecake, Beet... the list goes on. I grabbed a few boxes and ran, and it was only later that I discovered I should have simply bought ten boxes of one of them.

Hotcakes Kit KatEden Politte

What you see on the right is a box of hotcake flavored Kit Kat, brought to you by Rilakkuma, which basically translates to "relaxing bear." I like this guy already. What I like more is what's within. Opening the wrapper releases the overpowering smell of butter, followed shortly thereafter by maple syrup. It's a slightly yellow-tinged white chocolate coating, but taking a bite reveals... well... hotcakes. Toasty griddled cakes, butter and syrup and all. I can't imagine that this much flavor was packed in by natural means. Surely, there's some hardcore confectionery chemistry at work here. And yet, it doesn't play like a fakey, cloying artificial flavor. It plays like hotcakes, sweetened and distilled down into three little wafers enrobed in a white chocolate coating. I don't have much of a sweet tooth, and when I do exercise it I almost never do so with a packaged candy bar. And yet I can state with great confidence that this is one of the greatest confections I've ever tasted, commercial or otherwise. Had I tasted them before leaving the shop, I might very well have walked out with ten boxes. Dear reader, should you ever encounter this sweet breakfast-themed ambrosia, do yourself the kindness of purchasing as many as you can carry, and then do the further kindness of sending two boxes to me.

And then, just like that, it was time to leave. But by god, I'd go kicking and screaming. Airports have restaurants, don't they? I can cram in a little more Japanese food while waiting to board the plane, right? There's nothing desperate about that, is there? Is there?!??

TempuraDominic Armato

My mind was reeling with things I'd wanted to sample but hadn't had the chance. Tempura! That's one! The tempura place I'd tried to visit in Tsukiji was closed, but surely there's a tempura place in the airport, right? As it would turn out, there is. Located on the Japan side of immigration in Terminal 2 is Tentei, with more tempura combinations than you can shake a stick at. I hurriedly picked one -- not too big, since I hoped to make another stop -- and shortly thereafter received a plate with tempura shrimp, squash, shishito pepper and a long slab of eel. And it was a crushing disappointment, because it was pretty damn mediocre, neither particularly crisp nor particularly flavorful, with an eel fillet that sure didn't taste all that fresh. This wouldn't do. This wouldn't do at all. I couldn't go out like that, could I?

TonkatsuDominic Armato

Absolutely not, because right next door there's Tonkatsu! Tonkatsu Inaba Wako is a sizable chain with locations throughout Japan. But Japanese chains have a tendency to focus and do something really well, and thankfully that would prove to be the case here. I can't say I haven't had better tonkatsu, but Inaba Wako's is a mighty fine breed of fried pork cutlet. The meat's tender, hot and juicy. The breading is fried to a deep golden brown, and exceptionally crisp and flaky, perhaps moreso than any breaded and fried item I can recall. Even something as simple as the accompanying cabbage, plain as can be but shredded into an ultrafine palate pleasing texture, is done with a level of precision that makes it more enjoyable than it seems like it should be. I poured out some tonkatsu sauce, added a little spicy mustard, and crunched my way through a pretty fabulous cutlet. Chain or no, this is some good stuff.

Last GlimpseDominic Armato

And then... and then... and... ah, crap, is it time to board? Trip's over, that's it. Homeward bound. No planning or finagling or sacrificing of sleep would allow me to squeeze in another bite, even though there was so, so much more I wanted to try. I look back at these five posts and feel like I shouldn't be disappointed. I should feel like I made good use of the time I had. But I can't help but think I could have tried more, gotten deeper into the list, shaved a couple of half hours here or there and squeezed in a couple more bowls of ramen, a do-it-yourself okonomiyaki joint, some sand pit robata, a trayful of takoyaki, a Wagyu steakhouse... yosenabe, chankonabe, ankounabe, ANY kind of nabe. The truth is simply that I wasn't even close to being ready to leave. I was certainly ready to be with my family, but I wished it was them coming to me rather than the other way around. It isn't evident from this blog because I stopped shortly after launching Skillet Doux, but for five or six years straight I was blessed with the opportunity to travel overseas every other month on average, and stops in Japan were an almost yearly occurrence. My first international trip since 2006 that wasn’t a surgical strike to Mexico brought into focus just how badly I miss it. The last time I looked out of an airplane window at the Narita tarmac like this, I never would have guessed that it would be six years before I'd return. Leaving is a very different thing when there isn't the assumption that you'll be back before long. I know, I know... cry me a river. Most folks dream of having just one chance at a trip like this. I'm so far beyond fortunate in this regard that I'm in zero position to complain. I don’t mean to suggest that I ever took it for granted, I guess I'm just trying to say that I feel the preciousness of these opportunities far more acutely than I used to. And I hope... I hope I did this one justice.

Tokyo - Day I   |   Tokyo - Day II   |   Tokyo - Day IIS   |   Tokyo - Day III   |   Tokyo - Day IV

Tokyo-to, Chiyoda-ku
Marunochi 1-9-1
Mon - Sun7:30 AM - 10 AM
 11 AM - 10:30 PM
Narita Airport
Terminal 2, Main Building
Mon - Sun7:30 AM - 9 PM
Tonkatsu Inaba Wako
Narita Airport
Terminal 2, Main Building
Mon - Sun8 AM - 9 PM


Hilarious post!

Maybe you will always feel a little sad if your last taste is in the airport.

Sounds to me like you could hardly pack another morsel into your trip without having an extra stomach or two!

I often dream of doing my prep work with a sword rather than a chef knife, but that's a discussion for another time.

I'm kind of amused that you expected more out of an airport tempura shop. Sure, its the Japanese food precision culture, but really, it's still an airport...

I've throughly enjoyed your travel-food log here, Dom. Great stuff.

That's some excellent writing, Dom.

I've really enjoyed all the posts from this trip. Appreciate the thoughtfulness. I'm trying to talk my wife into the feasibility of a vacation to Hong Kong (or maybe Tokyo) next month with our 3 year old, so I've been following this closely. Don't think we'd try to match your pace, which has been impressive.

"I'm kind of amused that you expected more out of an airport tempura shop."

"Expected" definitely isn't the word :-)

Thanks, all!

I've never eaten Japanese food (well, I had sushi once when I was a teenager)(and I make stock with kombu) but I love just rolling the syllables of the names around in my mouth. Thanks so much for posting your meals in Asia - makes me feel like I've tasted them myself!


(long time reader, one time poster)

Yay! And thank you so much for sending me the Rilakkuma KitKats. Your loss was definitely my gain. :)

You are killing me with all these posts! Someday I know I will head to the Far East. But it reminds me to get cracking on strategizing my trip to Madrid and San Sebastian in April. :)

Crackers... When you do, I shall return the envy in kind :-)

Wonderful stories. Wonderful writing. I really enjoyed reading this!
Oishii! Ono! (delicious:)0

Thank you so much for writing about Japanese food. As a Japanese from Tokyo but living in NZ, you really made me homesick. I shall go back to Japan and send you the Rilakkuma KitKats, if possible.

Love reading your blog, the pictures are great! I'm usually not a huge fan of asian cuisine but you make it sound so good. Especially those kit kats! I had to google them to find out more and I stumbled across a site that sells them. I'm sure the shipping is insane, but at least they're not completely unattainable!


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