John Ashburne introduces the hidden culinary gems of downtown Asakusa, in the company of lensman to Swedish royalty, Jonas Borg.
Read part 1 of this story here.
And so we do. Asakusa’s Sensoji Temple has hardly changed since the intrepid Yorkshire-born explorer and proto-anthropologist Isabella Bird wrote the following, 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”.
Namikaze Dori Sensoji
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 tat and treasure, where you will find every Shitamachi-related souvenir known to mankind: kimono in the local style; folding sensu fans painted with folklore heroes and courtesans; salt shakers in the design of the Tokyo Sky Tree.
We stop by the incense-burner and waft its clouds of acrid blue smoke over the ‘afflicted’ part of our body. Like most visitors we 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 1916. Its forbear, the famed Kanda Yabu Soba burned down in 2013 after a venerable history dating back long before 1750, and, pardon the sacrilege, I have never been a fan of Ueno Yabu soba’s ‘cheap and cheery’ décor, a real turn-off. Favorite of the Japanese buckwheat cognoscenti, Namiki Yabu Soba however is the real deal.
I go for the simplest item, zaru soba, plain soba served cold with the shop’s signature deep, smoky, soy-sauce tsuyu dipping sauce. The secret is to just coat about one third of the fine, light-coloured soba into the sauce, and slurp noisily away. The proprietress looks on in approval. It’s the done thing.
The afternoon is turning into evening, but we’ve still three ports of call left. We stop at the tempura specialist next to Kaminarimon, Sansada where, unusually for Japan, they sell directly onto 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 their signature alcohol, Denki Bran, literally, ‘Electric Brandy’. It’s a potent blend of brandy, gin and wine 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 of photographers, and the Sensoji 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 at a pittance.
Our last port of call is an izakaya, the cheap-and-cheery restaurant-cum-bars that are 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 out-of-towners.
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 get talking to three young Japanese, 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?”
A version of this article first appeared in Delta Sky, the in-flight magazine of Delta Airways and is reproduced with kind permission of the publishers. Images courtesy of Jonas Borg at Fotograf Jonas Borg, Sweden.