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Dining in Old Tokyo

Mark Parren Taylor

Photos by Mark Parren Taylor.

John Ashburne tucks into the hidden culinary gems of the historic Asakusa neighborhood.


Pictured: Asakusa Koyanagi's toriji: roasted chicken on rice.

 

My friend Tomio Motohashi—mushroom farmer, mycologist and gourmet—put it succinctly, back in 1986: “If you want to get to the heart of Tokyo and if you want to eat well, there’s only one option: Head for Asakusa.” I took him at his word, and now, some three decades later, I’m still a devotee. For fantastic food, at rock-bottom prices, and for a glimpse of the “real Tokyo,” it is unbeatable.

Much has changed in Japan since those heady “bubbly economy” years, yet Asakusa—with its impressive Kaminarimon (thunder gate), the bustling Nakamise-dori shopping street and above all the magnificent temple Senso-ji—remains a must-see for any inbound tourist.

Contemporary visitors are in good company historically. On October 24, 1881, England’s Prince Albert and Prince George (later King George V) chose Asakusa as their first port of call, braving the autumn rains to visit the area by the de rigueur travel contraption of the age, the jinrikisha, literally the “human power vehicle,” or ricksha. By all accounts, the British royals enjoyed the exotic spectacle of the temple hawkers, believers, tradesmen and fellow travelers before the pair headed off to get their arms and upper bodies liberally covered in irezumi, or traditional Japanese tattoos.

I am in Asakusa not to get inked up—though that still very much happens in this part of Tokyo—but rather to indulge in another favorite Japanese pastime, the art of tabe-aruki, or eat-walking. It is a kind of itinerant gourmet-ism, whereby you plan a route in advance that connects a series of hotels, preferably those renowned for their excellence and perhaps a local food specialty, then you slowly amble from one to the other, eating—and often drinking—until the body cries, “No more.”

I rendezvous with my collaborator in gluttony for the day in front of the huge, red paper lantern that adorns the Kaminarimon. Jonas Taro Borg is a strapping young Swedish-Japanese photographer friend, a ramen fiend and a fellow with a prodigious appetite. I am, in truth, what the Japanese describe as shoshoku, one who eats very little. I’ll need his help.

A uniformed tour guide leads a multinational group through the gate, raising a marker high in the air so that her charges won’t lose her in the crowd. It is a Hello Kitty doll perched on a stick.

We, on the other hand, head west, away from the shrine and the subway station, because today we are eschewing the tourist trail and taking in Asakusa’s finest, and lesser-known, eating spots, the ones I’ve spent the past three decades seeking, and to which I immutably return. Jonas can barely contain his glee, for we are to begin with his favorite, ramen, and not just any old noodles. I am taking him to the home of Tokyo ramen.

 

       
Taking a ricksha ride through Asakusa's lanes.

       

Raishuken, tucked down a small side street in Nishi-Asakusa, is one of the city’s oldest and finest ramen shops. As anyone familiar with the late, great director Itami Juzo’s famed ramen Western Tampopo will acknowledge, the Japanese are obsessed with their yellow noodles. There are ramen novels, ramen TV extravaganzas and ramen smartphone apps. Ramen stars rise and fall, good places go bad, soup fashions wax and wane, but Raishuken has remained an unchanging beacon of excellence ever since it was founded in the early 1950s by my dear departed old friend Ochiai-san.

I part the white noren curtain at the shop entrance, and the standard “Irasshaimase!” (“Welcome!”) is quickly replaced with a surprised “John-san, ohisashiburi!” (“Long time no see!”)

It’s been a few years since I last dropped by, but the welcome from Ochiai-san’s daughter and the staff is as warm as ever. The noodles, also as ever, are to die for. Raishuken serves old-school Tokyo ramen, a deep shoyu soy-sauce broth containing thin slices of char shiu pork and bright yellow, “curly” Taiwanese-influenced chijirimen noodles topped with Naruto, a whirlpool-patterned slice of fish paste. We also order the tasty shumai pork dumplings over which we drizzle soy sauce and add some fiery mustard to taste. Jonas, a miso ramen fan, is an instant convert. “This is sooooo good,” he exclaims, “Simply . . . superb.”

The bill for two, including cold beers, is less than a few thousand yen, but the Ochiai ladies refuse to let me pay. “Just send us a postcard from Kyoto,” they laugh, and with that we head off to our next culinary appointment.

 

       
Classic chilled zaru soba and tsuyu dipping sauce at Namiki Yabu Soba.


       

“For a food writer, you’re suspiciously skinny,” says the old lady sitting by my side. Shitamachi folk are famously friendly, and within minutes of sitting down at the table in the crowded, elegantly appointed Asakusa Koyanagi, the 85-year-old from neighboring Yanaka has already learned occupations and marital status and explained that she is here to pray at Senso-ji for her friends and relatives who survived the fire bombings that leveled much of Shitamachi during World War II.

“I was saved from the firestorm by the Goddess Kannon-sama in the guise of an old man carrying his belongings who led me to the safety of the stone-built local bank,” she explains, without a glimmer of irony. It’s easy to forget amid the souvenir tat and tourist bustle that Senso-ji temple, where Kannon-sama is enshrined, is very much a thriving place of worship. “But enough of the past,” she smiles. “You’d better order. They’ve just rebuilt this place last November, but the taste is as good as it’s always been.”

Founded in 1935, Koyanagi is a specialist in unagi—eel—a quintessential Tokyo staple. Here they steam the eel and slice the creature open down the back rather than the belly—as they do in West Japan—as Tokyo (then Edo) was the city of the Samurai, and they couldn’t bear the thought of hara-kiri, slitting open the gut, with all its associations of dishonor and defeat.

I order tamagoyaki egg rolls and a glass of cold sake from the Hakkaisan brewery of snowy Niigata prefecture to the north. It’s a perfect match. Then nuta, which in Kyoto is a steamed confection of sweetish, white miso and vegetables. Here, however, Koyanagi’s is maguro (tuna) sashimi topped with a deep, salty almost-black aka miso paste, and wakame seaweed and spinach in vinegar.

My main dish is not, however, eel. I happen to know that Koyanagi is a favorite haunt of young Kabuki theater star/heartthrob Kataoka Ainosuke, and he always orders the toriju, in which the rice served in a lacquerware box is topped not with eel, but with roasted chicken. Ainosuke’s palate is as good as his stagecraft. It’s an inspired, and inexpensive, choice. “Don’t forget to stop by and pray to Kannon-sama,” says the old lady as we leave.

 

       
Senso-ji Temple.
       

And so we do. Asakusa’s Senso-ji temple has hardly changed since the intrepid Yorkshire-born explorer and early anthropologist Isabella Bird described it in 1880: “The popular temple of Asakusa, which keeps fair and festival the whole year round is dedicated to the ‘thousand-armed’ Kwan-non, the goddess of mercy. On either side of this avenue are lines of booths which make a brilliant and lavish display of their contents. . . . It is the most popular of religious resorts; and whether he be Buddhist, Shintoist or Christian, no stranger comes to the capital without making a visit to its crowded courts or a purchase at its tempting booths.” 

Bird was describing Nakamise-dori, where the local residents were granted permission to set up their stalls to supply the needs of the burgeoning 18th-century Edo faithful. Initially, it supplied votive offerings. Then food. Then everything. Today it remains a cornucopia of stuff, where you’ll find every Shitamachi-related souvenir known to mankind: kimono in the local style, sensu folding fans painted with folklore heroes and courtesans, salt shakers in the design of the Tokyo Skytree.

We stop by the incense burner and waft its clouds of acrid blue smoke over the “afflicted” part of our body. We, like most visitors, opt for the head. We drop a few coins in the votive box, clasp hands in brief prayer in front of the main shrine, then head back up the crowded Nakamise-dori and out under the giant lantern. We still have tabe-aruki to deal with.


Across the street from Kaminarimon is Asakusa Namiki Yabu Soba, the youngest in the line of three great Tokyo yabu-style buckwheat noodle restaurants, “only” dating back to 1913. Its forebear, the famed Kanda Yabu Soba, burned down in 2013 after a venerable history dating back to the 1880s. Next is Ueno Yabu soba. And, pardon the sacrilege, I’ve never been a fan of its “cheap and cheery” décor, a real turn-off. Namiki Yabu Soba, however, is a favorite of the Japanese buckwheat cognoscenti and the real deal.

I go for the simplest item, zaru soba, plain soba served cold with the shop’s signature tsuyu, a deep, smoky, soy-sauce dipping sauce. The secret is to dip about one-third of the fine, light-colored soba into the sauce and slurp noisily away. The proprietress looks on in approval. It’s the done thing.

 

       
Denki Bran, Kamiya Bar's unique Asakusa "brandy."

       

The afternoon is turning into evening, but we’ve still three ports of call left. We stop at Sansada, the tempura specialist next to Kaminarimon where, unusually for Japan, you can buy it directly from the street. The shrimp tempura has long since left sea and fryer, so I recommend you sit inside to have the true piping-hot version.

Our next stop is just a few doorways away, at the famed Asakusa institution: the Kamiya Bar. You can eat here, but most customers come for the signature alcohol, Denki Bran, literally, “electric brandy.” It’s a potent blend of brandy, gin, wine and Curacao, drunk straight and devised by the eponymous Kamiya-san just a year after Isabella Bird was in town. We suspect she enjoyed a tipple.

By the time Jonas and I leave Kamiya Bar, night has fallen and the crowds have thinned to a few last stragglers and couples out for a romantic walk. It’s the blue hour beloved by photographers, and the Senso-ji pagoda and giant red Hozomon Gate loom impressively against the night sky. We walk past the shuttered souvenir stands where, the following morning, I buy beautiful, genuine ukiyo-e paintings for a pittance.

Our last port of call is an izakaya, a restaurant-cum-bar that is a ubiquitous feature of Japan’s culinary landscape. Set on “Hoppy Street,” aka “Stew Street,” Suzuyoshi is rustic, unpretentious and fun. It’s also packed to the gunwales with a mixture of locals, students and in-the-know travelers.

Can we really eat any more? Gamely, we order tsukune (chicken balls) with a tare dipping sauce, and motsu yaki kashiwa, the unappetizing-sounding but exquisite salted chicken gizzards.

We start talking to three young Japanese people: a musician, a student and Haruna, manageress of a local rock venue. They laugh when we describe our tabe-aruki marathon. “Kampai! Omedetou!” they shout, as they raise a toast. “Cheers! Well done!” Then Haruna adds, with a wry grin, “Why not do it again tomorrow?”

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