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 ‘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 Sensoji, the shopping street of Nakamise-dori, remain a must-see for any inbound tourist.
Contemporary visitors are in good company historically.
On 24th I October 1881 none other than 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 rigeur travel contraption of the age, the jinrikisha, literally the ‘human power car’, more often described as a ‘rickshaw’. By all accounts the British royals enjoyed the exotic spectacle of the temple hawkers, believers, tradesmen and fellow tourists before the pair headed off to get their arms and upper bodies liberally covered in irezumi, 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’, literally ‘eat-walking’. It is a kind of itinerant gourmandism, whereby you plan a route in advance that connects a series of hostelries, 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 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 multi-national 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 that I’ve spent the last three decades eking out, 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.
Raishuken, tucked down a small side street in Nish-Asakusa near the Yawata Jingu Shrine, is the city’s oldest extant, and finest ramen shop. As anyone familiar with the late, great 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, fashions for styles of soup 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 is old-skool Tokyo ramen, a deep shoyu soy-sauce broth containing thin slices of charshiu 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 a cold beer 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.
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 Sensoji for her friends and relatives who survived the fire bombings that leveled much of Shitamachi during WW2.
“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 amidst the souvenir tat and tourist bustle, that Sensoji 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 – for Tokyo (then ‘Edo’) was the city of the Samurai, and they couldn’t bear the thought of slitting open the gut – ‘hara-kiri’ 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 sweetish, white miso and vegetable steamed confection, so I am a little taken aback when Koyanagi’s is maguro tuna sashimi topped with a deep, salty almost black akamiso 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 lacquer ware 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.
Read the story’s part 2 here.
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.