In October 2012, I went on a palate-enriching “Amazing Race” food-sourcing trip around Japan with Head Sushi Chef Kazutoshi Endo of Zuma Hong Kong.
Endo’s been kneading raw fish onto vinegared rice as Head Sushi Chef for Zuma London. When Heston Blumenthal wants sushi, he calls Endo up. That means he gets face in Japan. Not bad for a former punk rocker from Yokohama.
We ate and drank through six different cities/towns within a well-organized work week. From soy-sauce tastings at the Yamasa Brewery on Chōshi Peninsula to the most exquisite kaiseki meal paired with BORN sake at the illustrious Kaikatei of Fukui. We woke up at 4am to check out the choreographed chaos of Tsukiji before the 6am tourist hordes and went down to the pristine wilds of Wakayama, visiting the quaint fishing port of Katsuura and artisanal vinegar breweries using the sacred waters of Nachi Falls in ancient Kumano. This was accomplished via vans, Shinkansen, domestic flights, private cars, public ferries and trains and then some.
Despite the hectic schedule and the most bowing I’ve done in my adult life, it was a thoroughly fun trip. Chef Endo and I had an ex-musician camaraderie going on right away, as Endo was in a punk band in his youth. The regimented ceremony of Japanese business and bureaucracy were balanced out by my jazz laissez-faire and his sweet punk anti-establishment ethic.
After a relatively quick subway jaunt from Haneda Airport, we checked into the super convenient Higashi-Ginza location of Tokyu Stay, a business hotel right opposite a reassuring neighbourhood temple. It’s a quaint but bustling street that heads straight into the bowels of the vast Tsukiji market.
I had wanted to clap hands at a Shinto shrine first, but Mother India called, even in Japan. The exotic South Asian stone façade of Tsukiji Hongwanji (Hongan-ji) loomed underneath swiftly darkening clouds in the distant vicinity. I had always longed to visit this architectural curiosity of Tokyo, but have never been around the area with ample free time to wander into this Registered Tangible Cultural Property.
Isn’t this Hindu-style temple smack-dab in Tsukiji marvelously moody, especially with that stormy autumnal sky?
The original Japanese-style temple was leveled during the Great Kantō Earthquake in 1923. This present rock-cut Indian-style temple, evoking chaitya hall number 9 of the Ajanta Caves (which I had just seen at the beginning of the year on my India trip with my guru) was built by Itō Chūta in the early 1930s.
A bit more on Itō: he was an impressive architectural historian and theorist of Imperial Japan. His most famous projects include the glorious Heian Jingu in Kyoto, Meiji Shrine, as well as the main gate of Tokyo University and Yasukuni Shrine. Most remarkable for me — as a language lover — is the fact that he coined the modern Japanese (and subsequently the modern Chinese term) for “architecture”「建築」. Before that it was just「造家學」”study of house-making”.
Endo and I offered a pinch of incense each for an auspicious commencement of our journey. But hey, we just got to Tokyo, and the night calls.
We started off with draft beer at the infamous Gonpachi. Then some of Endo’s Japanese food writer friends came and joined us. Including the super-Tokyo-savvy food writer and sake expert Melinda Joe, who took us to Ippo, a cool sake and fish bar (only in Japan) hidden in the backstreets of Azabu-Jūban, where the awesome piscine dishes and sake were so affordable that we had five bottles.
Melinda had a sake tasting contest the next day and wasn’t supposed to be drinking much. And we’re meant to by picked up at 7am sharp the next day by Yamasa Soy Sauce representatives. Whoops. Oh well. When in Tokyo…
And we ended the night respectively with the most stellar of moves — Endo and Wing dropped by a chef friend’s new sushi bar opening (which meant more sake for him), and I went with my Tokyoite friends to the swanky R2 Supperclub in Roppongi for an impromptu early birthday celebration. In my inebriated brilliance, I bought the birthday boy Tanaka-san champagne to end the night. After all that beer and sake. THANK THE GODS for Ichiran and their 24/7 ramen.
Next post: Day 2 at the Yamasa Soy Sauce Brewery in Chōshi!
A concise version of this journey was published in Prestige Feb 2013, titled “Endo Days.“