Work travel is a necessary evil, but at least you get to eat well

I used to travel quite a fair bit for work and during a four-year period from 2015 to 2019, I had made 26 round-trip flights to Tokyo for an average of one trip every two months. Each trip lasted between one to three weeks, depending on the duration of consulting projects and number of client meetings.

Given that the distance from Singapore Changi Airport (SIN) to Tokyo Haneda Airport (HND) is around 3,300 miles, my flights to Tokyo alone totaled 171,600 miles or almost seven times around the world.

So, you can understand why I’m not a big fan of travelling for work.

However, given the small domestic market in Singapore and her role as a regional hub, many interesting jobs require frequent travel and I’ve come to accept it as a necessary evil. How this changes after the global pandemic is still unclear, but it’s safe to assume that it will change, and probably very significantly.

One thing that probably won’t change though is the size of business hotels in Tokyo. They are famous for being small, and my usual 20 sqm room at the Courtyard Tokyo Station was no exception.

But despite the cramped hotel rooms and intensive work schedules, I’ve always enjoyed my trips to Tokyo.

First, and foremost, because of my great ex-boss and friend ET, who’s based in the Tokyo office, as well as my wonderful former colleagues there.

Second, because of the amazing automated toilets present everywhere, including in spotlessly clean public restrooms at subway stations (you might think I’m joking, but I’m at least half-serious).

And third, because of the food.

Once you’re armed with a transit card and get used to the Tokyo metro system, you’ll essentially have access to the more than 100,000 restaurants in the city.

Here are some of the memorable meals that I’ve had during the four years when I was commuting to Tokyo for work.

For each restaurant, I’ve provided both their English and Japanese names and included links to Google Maps and Tabelog.com, the restaurant review site widely used by most Japanese.

Ikimasho!

Kai (すし処 會)

Google Maps, Tabelog.com

Although Kai is within the 23 wards of Tokyo, it’s quite a distance from the business district and requires a few train transfers to get there. I would have never found it, let alone be able to make a reservation, if not for ET.

He’s brought me there more than half-a-dozen times, including once when The Wife accompanied me for a particularly long three-week stint. Of all the restaurants that I’ve been to in Tokyo, this is my favourite. It happens to be The Wife’s favourite too.

Nakayama-san is the owner/chef and used to be a professional baseball player a long time ago. As with all good sushi chefs in Tokyo, he goes down to the fish market at Tsukiji (now re-located to Toyosu) every morning, which is quite a distance away.

Nakayama-san says hi

I once asked him (via ET as Nakayama-san isn’t fluent in English) how many hours of sleep he gets every night, and he replied: “Three to four”. Which is amazing when you consider that he’s been doing this continuously for many decades.

It’s a small neighbourhood restaurant and the best place to sit is always at the counter, where you get to see exactly what’s available in the chillers in front of you. There’s always a sense of anticipation when I sit down and start with some hot ocha, followed by an ice-cold sake.

Then I just follow whatever ET orders, and everything is always good.

I’ve learnt over time that there’s a particular sequence that maximises enjoyment of a good sushi meal — start with light-tasting white-fleshed shiromi, progress to heavier-tasting red-fleshed akami and then to robustly-flavoured oily fish. Intersperse with fried or grilled dishes plus whatever vegetables are in season, and end the meal with a futomaki or negitoro maki, some tamagoyaki, a small bowl of miso soup and some fruits.

Once-in-a-while, Nakayama-san will recommend seasonal specialties such as fugu sashimi during the winter months, when they grow fat and flavourful. What is fugu, you ask? Fugu is blowfish.

Yes, that blowfish.

And despite its notorious reputation, it is delicious. Light but flavourful with a pleasantly chewy texture, and best when dipped in some ponzu.

Or a buttery shirako risotto cooked and served bubbling hot in a mini cast-iron pot. What is shirako, you ask? Google it to find out for yourself.

And even after knowing what it is, when you get the chance to try it, make sure you do. Because it is also delicious, once you get over the mental hurdle of what it actually is.

Or, if you’re The Wife, as you’re finishing up your meal, he may flash you a smile and put a beautiful live prawn on the glass counter.

As you watch it moving its feelers and trying to run away, Nakayama-san will swiftly pick it up, bring it behind the counter and, in one swift motion, present you with a fully de-shelled and ready-to-eat ebi sashimi.

And it will be the freshest (how can it not be?), crunchiest and sweetest prawn that you will ever taste. The Wife is not a fan of raw prawns and was slightly hesitant in accepting the morsel, but she was an immediate convert after the first bite.

Despite visiting numerous times, every meal at Kai is always an event for me. The long train ride to the restaurant only adds to the anticipation as I think about what is in-season during that particular time of year, and what I’ll get to enjoy once I’m seated at the hinoki sushi counter.

Ajisen (肴や味泉)

Google Maps, Tabelog.com

Ajisen is a small izakaya on Tsukishima island, two metro stops from the Ginza-itchome station on the Yurakucho Line. It’s where the Tokyo team goes to celebrate significant accomplishments and special occasions.

Image credit: Pixar

The first thing that struck me during my very first visit was how similar looking the obaasan who ran the izakaya was to Edna Mode from the Pixar movie “The Incredibles”.

Keep the big round spectacles, but replace the dress with a Japanese yukata, dye the hair pure white and you’d get a spitting image of the lady who runs the show at Ajisen.

Unfortunately, we found out recently that she’s not in good health and doesn’t work at the izakaya anymore.

There is a strong focus on seafood at Ajisen, and it’s not surprising that you’ll find some of the tastiest and freshest produce served there. The sashimi moriawase is always a must-order, and goes well with the hard-to-find and extremely delicious Juyondai (十四代) sake which they religiously limit to a maximum of two glasses per customer.

I always request for their anago tempura, which is one of the best I’ve tasted anywhere, including specialised tempura restaurants. It’s meaty and flaky with a light and crispy batter that has just the right consistency. Squeeze on some sudachi, sprinkle on some coarse salt and you’ll have an almost perfect bite.

The other standouts include nama uni, yasai moriawase and deep-fried croquettes, but almost everything is good.

But perhaps their best dish is the tamagoyaki. Fluffy and light, or as the locals say, “fuwa-fuwa“, with farm-fresh eggs and flavourful dashi as its foundation. It’s a perfect way to end a night of celebration.

Hitsumabushi Bincho (備長 マロニエゲート銀座1店)

Google Maps, Tabelog.com

I have eaten at Hitsumabushi Bincho more than a dozen times because I’m such a big fan of grilled unagi, and while there are restaurants in Singapore that specialise in cooking unagi, the taste just doesn’t match up.

The restaurant is originally from Nagoya and, unlike most Kanto-style unagiyas in Tokyo, it doesn’t steam its unagi before grilling, resulting in a richer and smokier flavour.

I always start with a glass of Dassai 50 sake, or if I’m lucky and they actually have stock, the Juyondai, together with an appetiser of grilled unagi livers cooked in a sweet tare and topped with slivers of ginger.

My preferred main course used to be the unajyu, a simple dish of grilled unagi on rice, with occasional sprinkles of the green sansho pepper for some flavour contrast.

But I’ve since changed to hitsumabushi, for a more authentic Nagoya style of having unagi. The restaurant even provides a helpful illustrated English guide on how to best enjoy the meal.

Start by eating the unagi as-is, then add toppings like nori, wasabi and sansho pepper to your liking and finally pour the separately-provided dashi into the rice and unagi and have it chazuke-style.

I would have liked to share photos of each of the three steps, but I always forget to take them once I start eating, so you’ll just have to use your imagination.

Tempura Katsumi (天ぷら かつみ)

Google Maps, Tabelog.com

During one trip when The Wife joined me in Tokyo, I told her about Katsumi: “It’s one of the best tempura meals you’ll ever have, and the set lunch is only ¥1,500!”

“Where is it, and how do I get there?” she asked, and when I replied that it was located in the basement of the Kamiyacho metro station, she rolled her eyes and went, “Right… I’ll think about it.”

She gave me the benefit of the doubt and paid them a visit. And then she went back again the very next day.

The chef at Katsumi is a true Japanese shokunin, someone who does one thing, and only one thing, their entire life in order to perfect it. The term shokunin is usually translated as “craftsman” or “artisan”, but that doesn’t even begin to approach the single-minded focus and dedication required to achieve that title. One look at him and you know he’s dead serious about his craft.

There is only one daily lunch set (teishoku) available plus three ala-carte tendons, but the teishoku is the obvious choice. A tray of pickles, ocha, dipping sauce with rough cut daikon and a bowl of rice is placed in front of you.

Each piece is individually fried and served on your paper-lined plate on the counter for optimal flavour and crunchiness. The set lunch usually comprises two ebis, one anago, one kisu and two seasonal vegetables.

The highlight though has to be when the chef asks for your bowl of rice, and after you dutifully surrender it, he puts a petite piece of kakiage on top, drizzles on his special sauce and hands it back to you to enjoy. A perfect ending to a perfect lunch.

Ushinokura Yakiniku Hiroo (薩摩 牛の蔵 広尾本店)

Google Maps, Tabelog.com

Ushinokura is another place where we sometimes go for a celebratory meal. They pride themselves of the provenance of the wagyu they serve, and provide specific details on the farm that they source from. Needless to say, that results in really good meat for yakiniku.

On one particular visit, after the successful completion of an extremely challenging and intensive project, ET brought us there and we ended up ordering too much food. But because the beef was so good, it would have been a waste not to finish everything.

When I got back to my hotel room that night, I remember sitting on the chair and not moving for at least an hour, just so I could digest enough to be able to take a shower and go to bed.

The next day, the only meal I had for the entire day was my morning coffee; there was simply no space for any solid food. You could argue that it was a happy problem, and you would be absolutely right.

Umenohana Ginza (梅の花 銀座並木通店)

Google Maps, Tabelog.com

I was walking back to the hotel after finishing dinner at Hitsumabushi Bincho and noticed an enticing photo of hand-made yuba outside a building along Namiki-dori Street. It was a photo for one of the signature dishes at Umenohana and since I’m such a big fan of yuba, I had to go there for dinner later that week.

The tofu kaiseki dinner I ordered included the yuba dish, as well as other interesting tofu-based dishes. I went back there a couple of times, including once with The Wife, when we ordered the Kiwami set dinner. The photos you see below were all from that meal.

If you’re like me and can’t read hiragana, the restaurant also kindly provides English versions of their menu.

First things first, the dish that initially drew me in, the Hikiage Yuba, or “Yuba cooked at your table”.

You’re presented with a pair of long chopsticks, a pot of ponzu and one whole yuzu lime, together with a mini grater and brush. They then set a square metal pot of soybean milk on the induction stove in the middle of the table and set it on low heat.

As the milk warms up, a thin layer starts to form and you use the chopsticks to harvest the yuba and place it into your cup. Add a dash of ponzu, grate in some yuzu peel and enjoy. Rinse-and-repeat until all the soybean milk is gone, for a satisfying and zen experience.

The other dishes in the course were also delicious, from the appetiser sampler to the crab shumai to the deep-fried yuba to the hot-stone cooked Kuroge wagyu and the dessert duo of soybean ice cream and warabi mochi.

Whenever I feel like having some healthy food to balance out a series of heavy meals like yakiniku or hitsumabushi, I head over to Umenohana for a tofu kaiseki.

Yasaiya-Mei (やさい家めい 表参道ヒルズ本家)

Google Maps, Tabelog.com

Another place that I go to when I need to detox is Yasaiya-Mei, housed in Omotesando Hills within the fashionable Omotesando district. Yasai means vegetables in Japanese, and while the restaurant is not completely vegetarian, it showcases vegetables.

Similar to Ushinokura, it takes provenance very seriously and highlights the various farms, and individual farmers, that it sources from prominently on its walls and menus. The set lunches are always a good way to sample many different dishes that feature whatever vegetables are currently in-season.

If you still need more fibre, I’d highly recommend adding an ala-carte order of their Bagna Cauda, for sweet and crunchy vegetables dipped in an umami-rich garlic anchovy dip. My favourite is the watermelon daikon; see if you can spot it.

Tsukiji Sushi Sei (Ginza Branch) (築地寿司清 銀座四丁目店)

Google Maps, Tabelog.com

The Ginza branch of the Sushi Sei restaurant chain opens until late and was within walking distance of my former Tokyo office. Whenever I finish late night conference calls with the London office, and especially when the calls were long and frustrating, I’d end up there to recover.

The counter seats provide the best view, not only of the seafood on offer, but also of couples comprising of an old man in a dark business suit with his young and well made-up lady friend who smiles demurely at everything he says.

Unfortunately I don’t understand Japanese, and therefore missed out eavesdropping on what I assume would have be quite interesting conversations.

I typically start off with a flask of junmai daiginjyo sake and some hotate sashimi, and then proceed with either a sushi platter or go ala-carte and order individual servings of sashimi.

It’s always amusing to see the chef’s expression when the gaijin (i.e. me) politely declines his offer of an English menu, and orders by pointing to specific fish on display and correctly naming them in Japanese.

My limited Japanese vocabulary is almost exclusively restricted to food terms, plus “sumimasen” to help me get out of crowded elevators, “arigato gozaimasu” because it’s always good to be polite and “kafunsho”, after I came down with a particularly bad bout of hay fever one spring.

Tsukiji Sushi Sei (New Branch) (築地寿司清 築地新館)

Google Maps, Tabelog.com

Sushi Sei has two branches located in the Tsukiji outer market, and even though the wholesale fish market itself has shifted to Toyosu, the restaurants have remained. I’ve been to both the main branch (本店) and the new branch (新館), which is just down the same street. Both are equally good but the queues at the new branch are generally a bit shorter and so I end up there most of the time.

The atmosphere at Sushi Sei is more industrial, so to speak, compared to the more relaxed neighbourhood vibe at Kai, but the same elements exist — hinoki counters facing chillers with sushi chefs working directly behind them. And similar to how I’d start a meal at Kai, the first order is always a cold sake.

Then I’d totally ignore the menu and just start pointing and ordering, either one or two choices at a time, and then continue until I feel close to being full and finally end with negitoro maki, tamagoyaki and some miso soup.

When you have a sushi meal in Japan, you can’t avoid having some form of tuna sashimi and the typical choices are either akami, chutoro or otoro; progressing from dark red meat to a cut with more fat and finally to the prized pink pinnacle of tuna.

I usually don’t order akami, and between chutoro and otoro, my preference is for the former as I get to enjoy a subtle taste of the fish, instead of getting an explosion of flavour typical with the fatty otoro. But occasionally, it’s nice to try both, for an interesting taste and texture contrast.

It’s also interesting to order botan ebi because you get to have it two ways — firstly, enjoy the sweet flesh as a sashimi and then secondly, crunch into the deep-fried prawn head served as a follow-up course.

Remember the shirako that I mentioned earlier? If you still haven’t googled it yet, now’s probably a good time to do so. This is what it looks like in it’s natural form, drizzled with some citrusy ponzu.

No, it’s not some kind of brain. Depending on how squeamish or adventurous you are, you might think it’s actually much worse. YMMV.

Tajimaya (熟成肉専門 但馬屋 虎ノ門ヒルズ店)

Google Maps, Tabelog.com

Good Japanese wagyu is expensive anywhere in the world, and even though it’s in the same country of origin, Tokyo is no exception. One place where you can get good dry-aged wagyu at a reasonable price is at Tajimaya in Toranomon Hills. But only if you go for lunch and order their value-for-money lunch set.

The set lunch starts with the usual soup and salad, as well as a small brown cube of some mushy substance is a pretty little container. Does it look like some sort of dainty Japanese appetiser? Like some sort of flavoured mochi?

I certainly thought so the first time I was there, and promptly finished it in one bite. The waiter looked at me a bit funny, and then came back with another identical cube. ET was sitting across from me and asked innocently, but with an evil twinkle in his eye, “You know what that was, right?”

And that’s when I figured out that it was actually gelatinised shoyu, used to flavour the beef to taste, by pinching off small bits with your chopsticks and letting them melt on the meat. No wonder it tasted strangely salty when I wolfed down the entire piece. To this day, he occasionally brings up this amusing anecdote, just to keep me humble.

When ordering the set lunch, you get to choose the weight of the beef you want, starting from 120gm for ¥2,700 to 180gm for ¥3,300, and decide on your preferred doneness. The waiter will urge you to choose their recommended “Black and Blue”, which is exactly what is sounds like — charred black on the outside and still moo-ing within.

The Wife is not a fan of under-done beef and always chooses to have it done medium, but I managed to convince her to reluctantly go with their suggestion. She was not disappointed.

It’s a cliché to say that the meat melts in your mouth, and in most cases, it’s usually an exaggeration. But this is one exception to the norm, and “Black and Blue” really is the best way to enjoy their beef.

Torimikura (鶏味座 京橋エドグラン店)

Google Maps, Tabelog.com

Torimikura has a few branches in Tokyo and there’s one in the building across the road from the office. We go there for a quick lunch of oyakodon occasionally, but I never really thought of having dinner there, even though the location was so convenient.

However, that changed immediately when I saw the Juyondai (十四代) featured on their sake selection blackboard.

You had me at hello

It’s not the cheapest yakitori place, but it’s also not your usual rowdy and smoky salaryman joint either. And the yakitori they serve there is actually quite good, especially their chicken liver and heart, which happen to be my favourite parts. The tsukune, minced chicken dipped in raw egg yolk, was also very flavourful.

The Juyondai doesn’t always appear, but whenever it does, and when I walk past, it’s always tempting to drop in for a light dinner with some really smooth sake.

Mimiu Kyobashi (美々卯 京橋店)

Google Maps, Tabelog.com

Whenever the weather turns cold in Tokyo, and when I crave some comfort food, I head over to Mimiu for a hot bowl of kitsune soba. It’s just a simple dish of soba and dashi topped with sweetened tofu skin, but it somehow manages to hit the spot.

The nishin soba at Matsuba in Kyoto would have been a better choice, but that would involve a 500km shinkansen ride, which is way too much effort for a bowl of noodles.

Japanese Restaurant WA

Google Maps, Tabelog.com

This restaurant was a relatively recent find as it’s located just beside the reception of the Muji Ginza Hotel, which was only opened in April 2019. I’m a fan of Muji’s simple and clean esthetic and walked down to Ginza 3-chome to pay a visit. Pretty, isn’t it.

WA was just to the left of the reception desk, and there was a long queue of mostly OLs waiting to be seated, so there was no chance of having dinner there that night.

I came back the following afternoon for an early lunch, managed to get a seat and ordered their Atsumeshi set lunch, featuring a chazuke with seasoned kanpachi with a few small side dishes. It was very good, and explained why the restaurant was so popular with the ladies.

Another popular dish was their toriten, short for tori tenpura, where tori means chicken and tenpura means, well, tenpura or tempura. Which was also quite nice, especially when paired with a glass of Muji-branded sake and other appetisers.

Bakuro Shinbashi (馬喰ろう 新橋店)

Google Maps, Tabelog.com

You know that famous quote by Bubba Gump in the classic movie Forrest Gump, where he goes:

“Anyway, like I was sayin’, shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey’s uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That- that’s about it.”

Well, Bakuro Shinbashi is exactly like that, except that instead of shrimp, they have horse.

I’ll admit that I was quite apprehensive the first time I ever tried horse meat, but when I ate my first piece of horse sashimi (basashi), I found that it was actually quite nice. First off, no, it doesn’t taste like chicken. It was more like a chewy and more flavourful tuna.

So, when a Vancouver colleague who was a huge fan of horse meat flew into town, a few of us ended up at Bakuro, and it was my second time ever eating horse. We ordered almost one of everything and had a nice team dinner. The photos below were only a small sample of what we had that night, and my favourites were the karaage and tsukune.

Would I go back again? In a word, yes. Except that it’s a full-on smoking joint, and I’m not a fan of second-hand smoke. If you’re ok with that, and are game for some game, definitely pay a visit to Bakuro.

Uogashi Asakusa (魚がし 浅草)

Google Maps, Tabelog.com

You know that famous quote by Bubba Gump…

Uogashi Asakusa is exactly like that, except that they have fugu.

A colleague from Singapore was on vacation in Tokyo during the same week I was there and wanted to try fugu for the first time. He got another colleague, a Japanese based in Singapore but on a three-month secondment to Tokyo, to find and reserve a restaurant specialising in fugu.

Sounds complicated, I know, but that’s how all three of us from the Singapore office ended up at Uogashi on a weekday night. We had a course meal of fugu everything, and lived life dangerously, but not that dangerously, because licensed fugu chefs in Japan are extremely careful not to kill their customers.

I’ve had many many meals in Tokyo during the four years, and the ones I shared above were only just a few memorable ones. I’ve pinned them all in a public Google Maps list, in case you’re ever in Tokyo and want to check them out.

Be aware though that not all would have survived the economic fallout from the pandemic, so double-check before you go. For example, it appears that Tempura Katsumi is labeled as permanently closed in both Google Maps and Tabelog.com. If that’s indeed the case, it would be a great loss.

Epilogue

Every time I left the Tokyo office for the airport for my flight back home, I used to say to my colleagues there: “See you next year!” Which, as you can imagine, quickly got stale after I kept showing up in the office, month after month.

But I kept saying it every time, for a total of 26 times, and they would always humour me by laughing politely at my lame joke. I have since left the company, but I will always cherish my time spent there over the past four years.

So, ET, RM, MT and BC, despite the on-going global pandemic and international travel restrictions, this, too, shall pass. And hopefully, I’ll be able to fly to Tokyo again, and drop by the office to see you next year.

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