A love affair with food

NATASHA HOLLAND
Last updated 14:22 26/03/2014
Southland Times photo
NATASHA HOLLAND/Fairfax NZ
The Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, Japan, sells an array of seafood, making it one of the largest wholesale fish markets in the world.

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There is undoubtedly a neatness, a politeness if you will, to the way of life in Tokyo. 

Then there is the mouth-watering deep fried prawn drowning in mayonnaise delivered in a restaurant where dishes sizzles, shoes are off and jugs of beer flow. 

You know a tour of a city doesn't always have to be by map sometimes it can be by your tastebuds. 

I'd like to say the prawns were the pinnacle of my foodie adventure (they were so good another dish was ordered in quickly) but overall the title may go to an edible flower.  

During a sushi class at the Buddha Bellies Cooking School (www.buddhabelliestokyo.jimdo.com) hosted by Ayuko - a trained professional cook in the fine dining style (Kaiseki) - she says the Japanese cuisine has a variety of dishes but seafood and sushi is dominate fare.  

Sushi was at one time was considered a ''takeaway'' food like McDonalds for the Japanese.

My attempt at making the sushi-sized rice is not good: it takes six attempts to get one sample rolled and shaped at the perfect weight of 20 grams and despite wearing gloves, the rice sticks like glue.

Ayuko's cooking school is held in a tiny library filled with beautiful books on Japanese culture, history and architecture.

Five of us sit around a table to learn Endomae sushi, which translated means Tokyo-style sushi.

Ayuko also teaches English at a university but her great love is sharing her culture. She didn't pursue a career in restaurants instead opting to combine her training with her passion to set up her cooking school.

We start our lesson by sipping on barley tea (it tastes like caffeine) and we're told that the original type of sushi known as nare-zushi developed in South East Asia and spread to southern China before making its way to Japan.

To be a good sushi chef you need to have good fish, Ayuko says.

During the first two years of observing, trainee sushi chefs will go with older chefs to the markets in what is known as ''selling your face'' at the fishmarkets. Fish mongers who know the chefs will keep the best fish for them, she says.

One of the biggest wholesale fishmarkets in the world is the Tsukiji Fish Market. It is famous for its tuna auctions, which take place early in the morning, and tourists who want to view the auctions need to book and go early because numbers are restricted.

The variety of seafood on show as you walk through the tight alleyways of the market is staggering. 

It is hard to appreciate the sheer volume traded at the market given that 13 million people live in Tokyo.

It's hectic, it's vocal and it feels like the ocean has given up her contents to have it placed into neatly iced trays to display the fish of the world.

Perhaps two of the craziest dining experiences you will find include the Ninja Akasaka (www.ninjaakasaka.com) and The Robot Restaurant (www.robot.restaurant.com).

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Walking up to the entrance of the Ninja a  group of Japanese businessmen spill out of the entrance way, thanking one another and hugging, then repeating their farewells before breaking up and making their way down the street.

This is probably the only place in Tokyo that felt like it was perhaps ''themed'' for tourists.

Squeezing into a small lobby a ''ninja warrior'' waitress leads our group through a tiny labrynth, up and down stairs and across a small drawbridge before depositing us inside a cavern-shaped room.

A six-course meal is brought out, and Yebisu beer in cold tumblers washes it down.

A fresh sorbet to cleanse the palate before the main course does its job. 

Having a notorious sweet tooth, my favourite course is the last one, a cheesecake ninja frog on a chocolate biscuit. 

While the Ninja is cosy and quiet, The Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku's Kabukicho district is a kaleidoscope of vivid colour, dancing girls and robots.

However, the restaurant is definitely not about food.

The cost of the show also includes a bento box of food and at intervals during the show a drinks cart comes out. 

In all honesty I didn't even eat the food - the robots, dancing girls, stage show and glow sticks, matched by crazy pumped up dance tracks were too distracting. 

At one point I turned to the diner next to me and we shared the same ''what is this we are seeing'' look on our faces.

The Japanese learn to use chopsticks as early as three years old.

In tourism stores you can find hundreds of chopsticks in a range of styles and colours. However, the size of them relates to the size of your hands as you grow from a child to adult.

Using my chopsticks to grapple with a fresh bowl of udon at Tokyo Mentsudan felt like I had passed a test of sorts.

Bright, hot and shiny, the noodles appeared to offer a challenge to diners used to western cutlery. 

The restaurant in west Shinjuku has the noodles made fresh on site and is self-service.

For those not familiar with udon, it's a wheat flour thick noodle that is usually served hot as a noodle soup, but it can also be served cold in summer.

Starting at the door, you are greeted with intense heat, as at the front of the restaurant to your left are the noodle makers.

It is here you select from a menu that also has English titles.

Once you have your noodles on a tray you then walk to the next counter to select your toppings and side dishes.

With the udon sitting in a ceramic bowl, covered in chilli flakes and a coke to drink on my right, a fellow diner summed it up perfectly: 'Let the slurping begin'.

In a city of 13 million people the Japanese excel at creating spots of tranquilty.

Tucked next door to the Tokyo tower and Shiba Park, Tokyo Shiba Tofuya-Ukai is a restaurant that offers traditional dining.

Walking into the restaurant through landscaped gardens that reflect the Edo period (1600-1868), we are greeted by kimono-clad waiters. 

If you've never eaten one before, an edible chrysanthemum tastes nutty and the texture is dense.

This is dining with fine attention to detail. From sashimi served with ice cubes under neath to keep it chilled, to beautiful serving dishes, all of the food is presented simply but beautifully. 

It is also regarded as a restaurant that offers speciality tofu dishes.

The milk jelly and grape jelly along with the flower were my favourite dishes.

The milk jelly had a hint of liquorice. 

One of the nicest rituals when dining out in Japan is being handed a hot wash cloth to wipe your hands before you start eating.

A useful tip is to pack new, clean socks because most restaurants you dine at in the evening require you to remove your shoes.

You can expect to eat several courses in Japan but while there are many, they are not large. 

Perhaps Ayuko has hit on something with the philosophy behind her cooking school.

Let food widen your horizons. And, after a hot day of sightseeing a cold Keirin or Asahi beer will revive the most flagging of travellers.


Experiencing the Golden Gai 

Holding the chopsticks like drums, the most spectacular air-guitar - well rather air-chopstick virtuso - takes place in a tiny bar. 

The Golden Gai is home about 200 tiny bars clustered in six streets in Shinjuku.  

With one barmaid squeezed behind a bar working and smoking, the only other punter in the bar was her husband and our group of six. 

The chopstick virutsio hit the bar, glasses and completely ''rocked out'' while the rest of us attempted to watch by swivelling our heads to the right.

It's hot and steamy when we are served sake in this tiny bar.

Sake refers to alcoholic drinks in general in Japan, but the fermented rice wine is also regarded as the country's national drink.

Our barmaid offers us chicken and cabbage in a small dish, and it is from here the chopstick maniac starts playing them for all they are worth.

Our barmaid keeps us entertained and her knowledge of New Zealand extends, with a little prompting, to the Lord of the Rings, while her husband pipes up with ''All Blacks''.

The little fan propped up at the end of the bar works overtime to try to cool punters, with limited effect. If you are in a big group of people you will struggle to find a tiny bar to fit you all.

It's an unusual experience to be clustered so close together to socialise, but the barmaid is effortless in her movements to serve drinks and food in such a small space. 

Walking down a couple of the streets staring into bars, some of them appear quite daunting because they are dimly lit and overflowing with cigarette smoke. 

The lanes and structures of the bars are worlds away from modern parts of the Tokyo, except for the bright signs outside the doors to entice punters.

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A waiter brings out a bowl of fruit to the table: you choose your fruit and from it the barman makes a fresh seasonal cocktail.

It's a fun way to order drinks and the peach champagne cocktail was a hit. In fact, it was so good it was followed by a peach/feijoa champange extravaganza.

Drinking alcohol has never felt so healthy.

It's a tiny bar that easily looks like the entrance to someone's house.

It is minus any bright lights, and is demure in decor with tiny alcoves with books on the shelves.

Menus are pasted inside books, adding a fun feel.

The main bar is downstairs, while upstairs up a tight stairwell is a seating area of three or four alcoves. 

It's easy to talk amongst yourselves, the music is mellow in the background and the cocktails are superb.

Where is it: 2-13-19 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-Ku.

Hours: Seven days a week from 7pm.

Dining off the beaten track:

If there is one dish that guaranteed to make your mouth water at Teyandei, it is deep-fried prawns covered in mayonnaise. 

It is so good, it's so bad, and without a doubt you will end up ordering a second helping. 

In the neighbourhood of Izakaya at Nishi-Azabu, Teyandei is a two-storey restaurant that is humming with sizzling food and waitresses delivering pitchers of beer to tables.

The restaurant serves a variety of Japanese food. The menu is in Japanese and the waitresses have a little English, so ordering is a bit of an adventure. 

It really feels like a true dining experience off the main tourism beat. 

None of the dishes are large, but after ordering serveral different things, you definitely walk away feeling full. 

Where is it: 2-20-1 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-Ku.

The writer flew business class and visited Tokyo courtesy of Air New Zealand

- The Southland Times

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