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Tokyo (Day 2)- Whale of a Tale/Silent But Delicious

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So day 2 in Tokyo started off with a terrible hitch since I tried to sleep earlier than normal and rise at 2 a.m. in order to see the world famous Tsukiji Fish Market tuna auction.  I dragged my zombie self downstairs and into a cab.  As we arrived, it looked suspiciously devoid of activity, and I saw the sign said “Regular holiday”…th0gnqw9n0G$#@!  8 hours of sleep and 60 bucks poorer, I threw my sad self into my bed.

I only slept for about five hours, and eventually I decided to check out Matsuya which was right across the street.  Hiromi, the front desk girl from my first post who recommended the fugu restaurant, gave me the name of this place after I asked her for a place where Japanese people eat breakfast.  She was very specific too in insisting that I get the natto special.  For those who don’t know, natto is a popular Japanese breakfast food that consists of fermented soy beans.  So I shuffled my zombie self over to Matsuya, and I looked for brain…er…natto. IMG_3371 I found it on the poster, but then I walked inside to find a machine with pictures and coin slots on it.  I then realized you had to put in your order and get a ticket which in turn would be given to one of the cooks.  Hooray for no language barriers through cold, impersonal technology!  I looked around the convoluted diner counter at the busy salarymen quickly slurping down their noodles or a group of old timers slowly sipping their tea while having a very muted conversation like only the Japanese can.  Suddenly I was chest deep in a Japanese breakfast complete with miso soup, rice, pickled veggies, a boiled egg, dried seaweed and a small tub of natto.IMG_1772  I poured myself a large glass of water from the complimentary jugs on the counter and sipped a bit of my free tea before tearing into this bargain of a meal (only 3 USD equivalent).  It was no Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast by any stretch of the imagination in regard to how hearty of a meal it was, but the fluffy, sticky rice filled me up eventually along with the crispy dried seaweed sheets that made nice encasings for the starchy staple.  The miso soup was excellent since it was warming, bursting with a savory effervesence with each spoonful.  I didn’t find the pickled vegetables to be very delicious which then led me to the star of the show:  natto.  I know my friend, Nathan, who’s with me in Korean now has always extolled the health benefits of eating this soy bean creation, so I wanted to see why he loves it so much.  When I took the seal off the container, I was greeted with a slightly pungent odor, and I watched a guy next to me put the horseradish and soy sauces in the bowl and stir it around vigorously.

That sticky-icky

That sticky-icky

I did the same, and after a decent amout of agitation, I ate a bit.  I nearly gagged with the taste and texture.  Not only were the beans oddly slippery and musty tasting, they were coated in these strings that resulted in me looking like I was munching on a spider web.  It certainly was a surreal experience for breakfast, but not one I would repeating anytime soon.  Lunch, however, I would repeat in a heartbeat.

After a whirlwind tour of the city’s shrines, I was ready to check out Kujiraya in Shibuya which is straight out the Shibuya metro station exit 3a past the 109 store. IMG_3325 IMG_3324Before walking in, I thought this sign was interesting in terms of highlighting the caloric content of the whale meat, and its inherent superiority to beef and pork. IMG_3332 This promotion of whale meat was slightly countered by the Japanese doorman indicating to me on a sheet in at least five different languages that it was an eatery that only served whale; a clear sign that eating this traditional meat could prove to be quite contentious with foreign customers.  While the Japanese are often villified for their continued whale hunting expeditions, there are communities in the Faroe Islands off of Denmak that to this day kill whales just to prove their manhood in a rite of passage.  They don’t even use the animals like the Japanese do, but I wasn’t there to make a political/moral statement.  I just wanted to try this oft talked about delicacy.  I highly recommend coming here during the lunch hour which starts at 12:30 pm since they had a great deal with lunch sets for roughly 15 dollars compared to the dinners that started at 60 dollars. IMG_1774 I got the cheapest option with the fried whale set.  It came with unlimited rice, the whale slices, miso soup, pickled vegetables, and an incredibly fresh salad. IMG_1776  The two standouts were the whale and the salad, surprisingly.  I don’t know what made the salad especially unique, but perhaps Korea isn’t known for having just regular vegetables in a salad sans vinegar or a thick slathering of mayo.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the tangy dressing consisted of, but I could say for certain that it was some type of vinaigrette.   Then there was the whale…Lord, the whale!IMG_1777  I could see why Captain Ahab went made looking for Moby Dick because it was quite possibly one of the greatest meats I have ever tasted.  It was a deep burgundy with slight marbling that had a pseudo-fish flavor profile yet the buttery breading made it taste more like beef.  I would gladly eat it again if I had the chance.  This sustenance provided an excellent springboard to the wonderful and mysterious dinner I would have that night.

After resting a bit at my hostel, I walked out exit 8 at the Nagatacho metro stop to find the clandestine Ninja Akasaka restaurant.  The door blends into a non-descript corrugated wall below a shopping center, so keep your eyes peeled for the minimally lit seal on the wall that says “Ninja”.IMG_3373IMG_3374  When people think of Japan, they think of robots, Pokemon, samurai, and ninjas.  I was determined to see them all, and it just sweetened the deal to think I could eat in a ninja dojo.  I walked into the place, and it was incredibly dark.  The hostess clapped her hands, and a woman ninja literally jumped out of a wooden panel in the wall.  She spoke English as she led me through the ninja traps that were laid along the way to my table which included two trap doors and a drawbridge.  We eventually got to the dining area which thankfully was a bit lighter, but not much as we walked between narrow ninja cabins and houses on the stone pathway while torches flickered overhead.IMG_3376IMG_1787  My ninja offered to hang up my jacket as I sat down, and I joked saying, “No ninja magic?” which she got a kick out of.  She also warned me to remember my table name if I went to the bathroom because I would get lost in the labrynth.  I got the menu which was a giant scroll, and it’s not the cheapest place to eat in Tokyo.  I obviously looked at the cheaper options for the “ninja” section kept the bill under 50 USD.  I got the shuriken (ninja throwing stars) pate along with the hidden sushi along with a cup of sochu or Japanese brandy on the side.  Surprisingly it was cheaper than the beer at around 4 bucks a glass.  My server warned me it was strong, but I got it on the rocks since I’m a boss like that.  When I got it, it tasted like a weaker vodka with more of a slight floral taste.IMG_1784  The shuriken came out first in an interesting presentation where the black crackers were on a bundle of sticks which gave them the illusion of being stuck in a piece of wood. IMG_1782 The pieces of pate that I smeared on the crackers were also cut to look like throwing stars, and it was a well executed piece.  The crackers were crisp, and the pate was decadent like goose liver paste should be. IMG_1783 Then came my hidden sushi which was minimalist in design but gargantuan in flavor.  It was called “hidden” sushi because the piece of onion was hollowed out to a gossamer-thin sheet and then stuffed with rice to give each piece extra body.  IMG_1785However, it didn’t overpower the chunks of fatty tuna that were extra-tender and high quality.  The proper way to each piece was to couple the onion and tuna together while skimming them through the wasabi and chili sauce streaks on the plate.  Like a well trained ninja, the food vanquished my hunger pangs before I even knew it, but there was still the issue of dessert.  The waitress gave me a small piece of paper for the dessert menu, and I went with the snow frog.  As soon as I made my choice, she said to remember what I ordered and proceeded to light the menu on fire.  It quickly exploded leaving me to wonder what other crazy things these people had in store for my dining experience?  That question was quickly answered when the waitress told me the ninja master was coming to do magic for me.  I was greeted by a large, male ninja who proceeded to pull money out of my ears, hands, and shirt.  I need to take him to Vegas with me, and thankfully my wallet was still full.  He then did some crazy rope tricks along with a cups trick where he created potatoes and cloves of garlic out of cloth balls after he made me tap them a bunch of times while under said cups.  Eventually, my snow frog came out which was creatively presented as a frog literally made out of cream cheese and residing under a leaf on a chocolate cake lilypad. IMG_1789 The snow came from my server grating a sweet cheese over the leaf looking like some freshly fallen snow.  It was so precise and Japanese it hurt in a good way.  The cheese cake was wonderful.  It was stuffed with juicy blueberries, slices of strawberries, and a hint of kiwi.  All of that combined with the chocolate cake was the perfect flourish to one of the most unpredictable meals I’ve ever had in my life.  However, my adventure didn’t end there.  As I was being escorted out through an alternate route that ended up back at the entrance, I walked out the door to the metro stop.  Suddenly, I heard someone yell, “Arigatou gozaimashita!” (Thank you!)  I whipped around to see my ninja guide crouched down on the sidewalk with a scroll unfurled saying, “Please come again!”  It was a wonderful gesture among many others that made my ninja dinner one of the highlights of my entire Tokyo trip.  I’d recommend it to anyone if you’re looking for a dining experience that is anything but ordinary.

Tokyo (Day 1)- The Money Shot

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Well, back to Korea again after another wonderful adventure overseas.  This time it was to the Land of the Rising Sun a.k.a. Japan.  Now, I know Japan has left quite a Godzilla-sized cultural imprint on the world with technology, car manufacturing, and maddeningly-cute cartoons like Hello Kitty and Pokemon.  In these posts, like all the others, I will be showing you a gastronomical glimpse of the land that has brought sushi, tempura, and sake to a wider audience.  Naturally, there is much more to Japanese cuisine than just these three components, and I hope to demonstrate this through my Tokyo food series.

Day 1

After touching down in Narita, I was bracing myself for the train system which is the most complicated metro system I’ve encountered on my travels not due to its size but rather due to the number of private train companies that operate different lines which in turn affect fares, travel times, and how one manages to get from point A to point B based on which line and exit they take.  After a long time with the train info lady and making the sojourn to my hostel, I explored the neighborhood a little bit before heading back to my hostel to get some dinner ideas.  I talked to Hiromi at the front desk while showing her my handy-dandy personal guide I normally write up before I go places.  Thank you, Wikitravel!  I asked her about one restaurant, Torafugu Tei, and she immediately lit up with excitement.  It was probably because fugu is a Japanese deliciacy which involves making sushi out of an extremely poisonous blowfish.  Chefs have to have a special license in order to even serve the fish on the premises.   Roughly five people a year still die from this goofy-looking fish whose vital organs are deadlier than cyanide, and it’s the subject of one of my favorite Simpsons episodes where Homer thinks he’s going to die from ingesting improperly prepared fugu.  So I liked those odds for my first dinner in Tokyo.  Hiromi also recommended the sperm sacks which apparently were a winter specialty and her favorite part of the fugu since they tasted like cheese.  Turns out there are multiple locations in Tokyo, and I went to the one closest to my hostel located at 2-14-15 Nishi-Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo.  Mind you, they’re only open from 5 p.m. onwards. IMG_3305 I got a picture of the floating pufferfish, mouths still agape, while thinking this might be my last meal. IMG_3306 I’ve had it before during my trip to Busan in South Korea in soup form and survived, but this was raw fugu in the heartland of Japan.

Eventually I came in the restaurant behind some old Japanese businessmen, and the waitress thought I was with them for some bizarre reason.  She told me to take off my shoes, but as soon as the leader of the old men gave me the ‘What you doin’, gaijin?’ look, I was out of that room.  No one spoke English there, so it was just a humorous episode of confusion.  I was seated in a cosy wooden room, and I went for the fugu sashimi, the sperm sacks, and Hoshuku sake from the Nara prefecture served warm.  They brought out the sake first in a petite flask with an even tiner cup.  It was smaller than the cups I used to drink with my Kindergarteners.  However, it was a smooth, warm elixer with a bit of an acidic, alcohol-tinged bite to the end of each sip.  Eventually, my sashimi came out complete with a sumptuous presentation of each translucent slice arranged around sliced fugu skin, wasabi, green onions,  and a perrilla leaf. IMG_1767IMG_1768 The waitress motioned for me to squeeze the lime to coat all of the fugu pieces which I subsequently did.  She then imitated making mini fugu tacos and dipping them in the soy sauce on the side.  I summoned all of my chopstick skills which was a bit hard since the pieces were sticking to the plate and were extremely delicate.IMG_1769  Eventually I got the wee concoction into my mouth, and it was glorious.  The lime with the subtle richness of the fugu went well with the bolder wasabi and onions.  After eating most of the dish, I noticed my lips were slightly tingling which made me brace myself to hit the floor while being asphixiated, compliments of the poison, but it never happened.  The sake was also a nice palate cleanser to segue into the plat du jour:  the fugu sperm sacks.  IMG_1770They were served in a small porcelain bowl which I uncovered to find four golf ball-sized orbs that seem to have been roasted based on the char marks.IMG_1771  I decided to just take a bite out of one of them, and I was greeted with a piping hot stream of fugu semen.  Even though I was semi-injured due to my tongue being burned and quasi-violated based on what I was eating, I soldiered on after letting the sacks cool off.  I used the spoon that was provided to actually taste the semen, and strangely enough, like Hiromi told me before, it tasted like cheese.  I’d liken it to a cheddar flavor.  When the last drop of sake left the cup and my bowl was empty, I didn’t feel like I was full, but the meal amazingly kept me satiated for the rest of the night.  I guess the danger factor fed my adventurous soul along with my adventurous stomach.  I’d recommend it for anyone in Tokyo looking for a twist on your typical sushi experience.

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