Love Letter To Japan

Otoro nigiri at the Fish Market in Yaizu City

I realize today is a day when people are supposed to express their love for other people. At least that’s what Hallmark and your neighborhood flower shop hope you’ll do. But I’m using today as an excuse to write a short note to my new love: Japan. Nothing you’ve experienced in the U.S. can prepare you for the wave of hospitality and warmth you encounter at every turn – not to mention the incomparable food. From the lady who packs up the bento boxes in the train station basement, to the ticket takers and cleaners who keep everything immaculate, the deferential bowing, honoring you as a guest, as a customer, and thanking you constantly with an “arigato gozaimasu” can’t help put you in better mood. It doesn’t matter if you’re a C.E.O. or a bicycle delivery boy, the prevailing sentiment in every corner of this country is one of welcome.


I fell hard on my first visit, about a year ago. Sitting at the 10-seat counter at Sushi Shou in Tokyo, being handed Okinawan sea grapes and cuttlefish with red snapper nigiri, I knew that what I had seen in the movies (mainly “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”) was no fluke. The dedication to a single craft is a pervasive mantra. Cooks at Sushi Shou, I was told, work five years before they can slice fish; another five until they can make the rice.


Its been three years since the earthquake and tsunami that shook the country and its nuclear reactor in Fukushima. I got to experience an earthquake first-hand last week, at 2 a.m., which registered a 4 – enough to freak me out, but not enough, apparently, to startle the locals, as they deal with tremors all of the time. Radiation is something everyone thinks about, as they are told water and fish samples are taken every week, to ensure safe levels are being consumed.  You wouldn’t know anything is wrong by the looks on the women’s faces in the basement of Takashimaya. There, in the depachka, I could spend an entire afternoon, sampling, nibbling and eating with my eyes. The Japanese penchant for display and presentation is without peer. I almost hated to open up any of my treats, they looked so good.


The diet is another thing altogether. Think of a regimen that includes as much seafood as you like (in a rotating seasonal dance that alters menus every week), rice in dozens of permutations (sake, mochi, sushi) and assortments of pickles, vegetables and fruits, all arranged on beautiful platters or in bento boxes. Everyone in Japan is obsessed with food. If it’s not food porn on TV, someone is eating it on TV or talking about it, or asking a friend or contestant what and how they like to eat. My kind of place. Of course, everything is fresh, of-the-moment and of-a-certain-place, but what truly gets me excited each time I come back, is the promise of discovering something new, something delicious and something totally foreign to me, despite whatever notions I had that, somehow, I knew what I was talking about before I even got here. Eating through a week in Japan just makes you realize how little we American “food lovers” really know about this culture. Not just the ingredients, but the rituals, the traditions and the cooking methods. I can’t wait to go back and learn some more.


Here’s a partial list of the places I ate on my two trips:



For information about Yukari Sakamoto’s food/sake tours of Tokyo visit


Sushi Sho

Yorindo Building, 1F

1-11 Yotsuya Shinjuku-ku

Tel: +813 3351 6387


Park Hyatt Hotel (Japanese breakfast is astounding)

3-7-1 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku, Tokyo 163-1055


Otofuku (oden – seasonal veg, fish cakes, in broth)

1-6-2 Senzoku, Taito-ku, Tokyo


Sushi Dai Bekkan (near Tsukiji Market)

Tsukiji 6-13-3, Chuo-ku, Tokyo


Tsunahachi (tempura)

3-31-8 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo


Streamer Coffee Company (amazing lattes and latte art; owner trained Brendan Sodikoff’s team in Chicago)

1-20-28, Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo


Ginza Bairin (tonkatsu – breaded and fried pork cutlets with cabbage)

7-8-1, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, 104-0061


Tonkatsu Maisen (tonkatsu – breaded, fried pork cutlets)

4-8-5 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo


Tonkotsu Bankara (ramen, although there are hundreds of great ramen joints in the city, this is merely one, featuring milky white pork-based tonkotsu broth)

3-13-5 Shinbashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo




Tempura Matsu (tasting menu; must-visit. Despite name, tempura is now only small part of what they do)

21-26 Umezu Ohnawaba-cho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto


Kora-Tei (okonomiyaki, the veg/seafood pancakes with mayo, although much better versions found in Osaka)

943-3 Kamigyouku Simokiyokuraguchi Chyou, Kyoto


Fukujuen (tea and tea ceremony)

Shijo Tominokoji, Shimogyo-Ku, Kyoto-City, Kyoto



Shiogama (in the north, near Sendai)

Sushi Tetsu

Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture City Kaigandori 2-22



Sendai (specialty in Sendai is beef tongue, or “gyutan”)

Dateno Gyutan

4-10-11 Chuo, Apba-ku, Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture 980-0021



In Yaizu City (about an hour south of Tokyo, near the Shin Marusho stop)

I would highly recommend stopping here at the local fish market, which has all sorts of amazing items – boiled seaweed with wasabi, dried eel sweetened with sugar and sesame, herring roe flecked with fresh wasabi – there are also half a dozen restaurants tucked into the market, all serving fresh sushi. You can buy sides of tuna here and some great souvenirs, like shark skin wasabi graters and tons of katsuobushi (dried tuna), the source of umami, along with the requisite graters.

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