Friday, May 18, 2012

Fresh Sushi in Towering Tokyo

During the first decade of the 21st century, Tokyo finally edged aside New York, Paris, and London to claim the title of the undisputed culinary capital of the world, and its greatest food is sushi. Whether feasted upon at a lavish members-only restaurant or from a cheap and cheerful kaiten, where tempting portions roll by on a conveyor belt, the sushi here is invariably delicious.

Tokyo is one of the world’s great cities, with cultural, historic, and culinary attractions to rival any capital. It is built on a daunting scale and its cityscape changes ceaselessly, but amid the liquid-crystal screens, nonstop rivers of people, and towering overpasses, there remain pockets of ancient Japan in the form of the city’s temples and gardens, which are soothing oases of stillness.
No one takes food more seriously than the Japanese. Tokyo doesn’t just offer every kind of global food and cuisine imaginable; it aims to better the originals. The city has also given the world several great dishes, not least sushi, which dates back to the 7th century, when the Japanese acquired the Chinese habit of preserving pieces of fish in rice. The rice was discarded when the fish was eaten, but by the 15th century the Japanese had started to speed up the process using rice wine vinegar, then eating both the fish and the rice. The seasoned rice became known as sushi. A further breakthrough occurred in the early 1800s, when a Tokyo inhabitant named Yohei Hanaya came up with the idea of squeezing rice into small blocks and adding toppings. This hand-shaped form of sushi became known as nigiri (meaning “to squeeze”); along with maki rolls (seaweed-bound rice rolls), it was to become the best known form of sushi around the world.
Now that sushi has become as ubiquitous as sandwiches in the supermarkets of the West, it can seem a little strange to discover that in Tokyo the Japanese don’t really think of it as a cheap fast food. You can buy packs of prepared sushi in supermarkets (and it will be better than any supermarket sushi you’ve ever tasted), but the Japanese – and Tokyoites in particular – take their sushi much more seriously than that. Here, sushi is a treat, an extravagance. The rice is served at body temperature and very rarely topped with salmon; Tokyo favorites include chilled squid, bream, octopus, sea urchin, turbot, whitebait, shrimp, fish eggs, plaice, sea snails, and, of course, various cuts of tuna. Look for grilled eel and lightly pickled mackerel too.
Eating sushi in Tokyo is a ritual to be savored, from the moment the freshly grated wasabi falls from a sharkskin board onto your colorful, sushi-laden plate.

The busy Shinjuku district boasts Tokyo’s largest concentration of skyscrapers

Best Places to Eat Sushi

Tsukiji Fish Market

There are sushi restaurants in every Tokyo neighborhood, ranging from six-seater bars to larger chains and conveyor-belt or kaiten sushi places. But the spiritual home of sushi are the restaurants in the heart of the world-famous Tsukiji fish market, the largest fish market in the world. The most famous of these restaurants is Daiwa, but its neighbors, particularly Sushi Dai, are just about as good, and they all serve what is perhaps the freshest sushi in the world.
Annoyingly, they don’t take reservations, so you need to arrive seriously early (around 5:00 AM) to avoid the lines. Set some time aside for a walk around the market itself, too, because it is one of the greatest food sights on Earth. Finally, if you want to be guaranteed a sushi meal to remember, there is one word with which you must greet the chef as you take your seat – “Omakase,” which means: “I’ll leave it up to you.”
Tsukiji, Tokyo; open 5 AM–2 PM Mon–Sat (closed on alternate Weds);

Sushi is eaten as finger food, and each piece should be eaten in one bite
Also in Tokyo
The Ginza district in Tokyo is home to fiendishly expensive, exclusive, and often impossible-to-get-into sushi restaurants. The most famous of these is Sukiyabashi Jiro (+81 03 3535 3600; expensive), which was awarded three Michelin stars in 2009 and is run by the eponymous and legendary 84-year-old Jiro-san. He has been making sushi for over 60 years and is said to size up each customer’s jaw and adjust the size of the nigiri to fit their mouth accordingly. Jiro-san’s son runs a more accessible branch in the Roppongi Hills mall.
Also in Japan
Though the style of sushi we know best in the West originated in Tokyo, sushi has its historic roots in Kyoto and Osaka, where it was originally made in large portions that were pressed into boxes and typically topped with pickled mackerel. This zaba-sushi can still be eaten in Kyoto and Osaka. The most famous restaurant for this surprisingly hearty specialty – which is not served with wasabi or soy sauce – is Izuu (+81 075 561 0751; expensive) in Higashiyamaku, Kyoto, which was established in 1781.
Around the World
Sushi’s other great spiritual home is the US, where they have added their own quirks and ingredients to the mix to create wonders such as the inside-out-roll and the California roll. New York’s Sushi of Gari (; moderate) and LA’s Asanebo (818-760-3348; expensive) are highly recommended.
Japanese Food Halls
For a jaw-dropping glimpse into the Tokyoites’ glorious obsession with food, visit one of the city’s great depachika, or department store food halls.
Always to be found in the basement, they are a testament to the Japanese fixation with quality, variety, and innovation in food. They sell up to 30,000 different items, including a vast array of local and international ingredients and finished dishes. The depachikas of, for example, the Seibu, Odakyu, or Takashimaya department stores in the Tokyo neighborhoods of Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ginza, or Ikebukuro rank among the greatest food halls in the world. You’ll find great carry-out tempura, sushi, tofu, noodles, Wagyu beef, fresh fish, wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets), and immaculate fruit and vegetables. In general, depachikas are great places to eat cheaply, or even for free – there are usually dozens of free samples offered.
Three Days in Tokyo
Tokyo has no center; think of it instead as several cities that vaguely orbit the Imperial Palace and are connected by the Yamanoto Line railway. The main places visitors gravitate to are Ginza/Marunouchi, Roppongi, Shibuya/Omotesando/Harajuku, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Ueno, Akihabara, and Odaiba, but there are many more areas to explore.
DAY ONE : Visit the Tsukiji fish market at the crack of dawn and breakfast at one of its famous sushi bars. From there head to Ginza for shopping, before moving on to the vast Imperial Palace complex and gardens. End the day amid the liquid crystal lights of Shinjuku.
DAY TWO : Shibuya, Harajuku, and Omotesando are great for watching the best-dressed people in the world go about their business. If all the Gothic Lolita/Hello Kitty craziness gets too much, take a break amid the green spaces of Yoyogi Park.
DAY THREE : If there is a tournament on, head to Ryugoku to see some sumo. For a final retail splurge, go to Tokyo Midtown in Roppongi, a vast and elegant mall with great restaurants, shops, and galleries.
Getting to Tokyo
Two international airports serve Tokyo: Narita (an hour-and-a-half north of the city by bus or Metro) and Haneda (40 minutes south of the city by monorail or bus). Tokyo has a peerless network of subways and overground trains.
Where to stay in Tokyo
The Welcome Inn (inexpensive) has several traditional Japanese ryokans (inns) that are a good deal in an expensive city.
Citadines Shinjuku (moderate) is reasonably central, modern, and spacious, at a fair price.
The Mandarin Oriental (expensive) has stunning views, gorgeous rooms, and great restaurants.

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