On the Floors of Tokyo*

ImageI’ve just returned from a quick trip to Tokyo, where The Hub was promoting a new film and where we were both doing our best to eat from morning to night.

Eating in Japan is serious business, and sushi is no less than an art form.  The Michelin Guide expanded to Japan for the first time in its history in 2008, and in its debut year, it awarded more stars to the Land of the Rising Sun than any other country, including its native France.   In fact, there are now more than twice the number of cumulative stars found in Tokyo (227) than in Paris (97)!  (Not that any of the Japanese chefs really cared.  One 3-star designee apparently asked, “Why does a French restaurant guide care about what we’re doing in Japan?”).

Over our four days and nights, we ate like kings.  We sampled hot oden noodles, hot ramen noodles, cold soba noodles, mounds of tempura, shark fin soup (supposedly very good for your complexion), skewers of yakatori (basically chicken on a stick, though our selection included chicken skin on a stick, which was inedible), and all sorts of other delicacies that I’ve now lost in a haze of sake and jet lag.  Speaking of sake, we knocked it back – always cold and dry and delicate.   We were also given a shot of something that looked like a weak Bloody Mary but turned out to be 40 proof vodka laced with turtle blood.   My arm hairs were on end for about 10 minutes.

These exotic delights aside, I was there for the sushi. We sampled the wares at three different sushi bars, each of which were in small, simple rooms with wooden countertops and about 12 seats. We ordered ‘omakase’, which meant that the chef is at liberty to choose what to serve based on the season and what was available at Tsujiki Fish Market that morning.

Ah, where to begin?  At Sushi-Sho in Yatsuya, the flavors were under the strict management of our chef, and soy sauce was nowhere to be found.  Other than a small saucer of ponzu sauce for the opener of spanish mackerel sashimi, we popped each piece of fish placed on our plates directly into our mouths.  The toro was sliced into strips and then prepared so that it was seared on one end and still cold on the other – thus letting you enjoy a full spectrum of tastes from cold to hot in a single bite.

ImageAt Enaki in Aoyoma, our chef sliced up delicate curls of deep purple octopus legs which had been hanging from a metal hook like a miniature parma ham.  The wasabi was from a six inch wasabi root – grated on the spot on a wooden paddle that looked like what we use for ping-pong, except it was covered with shark skin.  Flakes of 24 karat gold was mixed into a broth made with fine buckwheat noodles and turtle; the gold was meant to commemorate celebration  (exactly what we were celebrating was left to the imagination).  

ImageThe uni (sea urchin) was piled on to warm rice, three pieces deep, and its gentle creamy texture tasted like a drowsy, early morning ocean. Like one of the other 2 star chefs in the city, our chef was, in his words, a ‘southpaw.’  (I should note that this was perhaps the only English word he spoke all night).   In the US, the sushi knives are sharpened on both sides; in Japan, they are adjusted to account for the chef’s angle on the fish.  ”¥300,000,” he announced, brandishing his specially sharpened left-handed knife.  That’s almost $4000.

We were no less than dazzled by the cumulative experience, as well as humbled.  I naively asked if the uni came from Santa Barbara, like most of the high-end sushi joints in LA.  Both the chef and our Japanese hosts looked at me with quiet amusement.  As our new Irish pal Barry-San put it, I might as well have asked if it came from Azerbaijan.

* You may recognize the title of this post as the opening line of Billy Idol’s 80s classic ‘Dancing with Myself.’ I discovered this gem at 3:00am three nights ago, in a seedy karaoke bar lodged into the 5th floor of a 1960s office building.


A native Californian with an itchy travel bug, Ashley Maddox lives in Paris with her husband, babies, and dog. She's writing about the culture, the philosophy, the flowers, and the fromage on her blog: Une Vache Espagnole.