Sushisho

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People who know sushi know Keiji Nakazawa. His name rarely figures on high-profile star-ranking systems, but he is probably the most influential sushi chef working in Japan today – and Sushisho is more than just his restaurant. To his growing band of protégées, it is an academy; to devotees of his cuisine, it is Mecca. Nakazawa’s philosophy falls within the broad church of Edomae sushi, or ‘sushi in the style of Edo’ (the old name for Tokyo), which in its purest form is the combination of sliced raw seafood on top of vinegared rice. For inspiration, Nakazawa reached back in time to the earliest traditions of Edomae sushi, while at the same time evolving the cuisine in directions that are both innovative and stunning to behold. For example, modern sushi norms dictate that the fish must be as fresh as possible, yet before refrigeration technology it was commonly treated to make it last longer. Nakazawa resurrected this tradition by ageing, marinating, simmering or searing his seafood to achieve maximum flavour. He is also fastidious about rice, and uses two different grains depending on the seafood they’re cushioning: simple white rice for simple, delicate fish; and less common red rice for fattier, fuller flavoured species. He varies the seasoning – vinegar, salt or soy – to balance the taste, and famously serves his rice warmer than is customary. The fixed omakase course service at Sushisho can begin with a delicate slice of cooked squid stuffed with rice and dotted in three places with concentrated soy sauce. It may include a pocket of aji (horse mackerel) filled with threads of ginger, shiso and cucumber. It will certainly include slithers of tuna, yellowtail or squid laden with taste from being aged for days or even weeks. And extras such as monkfish liver lying back-to-back with pickled baby watermelon on a bed of red rice would be a crime to miss. Nakazawa set his sights set on becoming a shokunin (artisan) of sushi when he was just 15 years old. His journey began on a delivery bicycle, weaving the crowded streets of Tokyo with boxes of sushi piled high on his shoulder. Later, he travelled the country “like a nomad” honing his skills and learning regional traditions and techniques. The sushi world became his family: he lived with the other apprentices, ate and drank with his teachers, and learned to enjoy interacting with customers. In January 2016, Nakazawa upped sticks and moved to Hawaii for his next adventure, opening a branch of Sushisho in Waikiki. But his spirit lives on at his former restaurant and in the talents of those he schooled in the Sushisho way. “You can’t run a restaurant alone,” Nakazawa says. “More than skill, teamwork and communication are most important.” He is mentor to several of Tokyo’s most highly regarded young sushi chefs. To them, he is always – even in his absence – called oyakata, a term that combines respect with endearment, marking him out as akin to an honorary … Read More

Tanyaki Shinobu

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Every evening, when most other restaurant owners are waiting anxiously for their first customer, Shinobu Uesugi is already hard at work taking orders, passing out plates, and pouring cold beers. Soon after 6pm, Tanyaki Shinobu, her specialist beef-tongue restaurant, is full. It’s been this way ever since Uesugi opened her restaurant in 1979. “For the first two or three months, we didn’t even have a sign out front. People from the neighbourhood just dropped in,” she recalls. Although grilled beef tongue (tanyaki) features on the menus of many Japanese restaurants, even in Tokyo’s diversified dining scene, few would dare to make it their specialty. The menu at Shinobu includes eight beef tongue dishes – grilled, boiled and stewed. The tongue stew at Shinobu is simmered for 10 many hours, starting the night before it’s served, until the meat is so tender it’s practically falling apart. Uesugi’s husband, Tokujiro Uesugi, opened his first restaurant the young couple were still in their early twenties. They served western food like pizza and steak in Kabukicho, an area of Shinjuku that later developed a notorious reputation. As the neighbourhood went downhill, the Uesugis decided it was time for a change. Moving to the business district of Yotsuya, local ‘salarymen’ became the couple’s core clientele. Many of them come back at least once a week, and Uesugi and a handful of ladies in pinafores serve them with the rough familiarity of favourite aunties. “I added some vegetable dishes to prevent the regulars getting bored of tongue,” Uesugi says. “But people who come here often know they can trust us, and just ask us to serve whatever we recommend.” The home-cooked style of the cuisine fits the rustic interior, for which the wooden posts and beams came from dismantled storehouses that were reassembled using a traditional form of carpentry employing no nails or screws. To accessorise with this structure, the tables and stools are made from logs and slices of tree trunks. On weekends, the suits and ties of the salarymen are gone, replaced by a younger and trendier crowd of smartphone-enabled foodies. Old-fashioned dishes like tanyaki are making a comeback. And Uesugi’s maternal hospitality never goes out of fashion. “These days, people find us online and trek here from all over the place,” she says. “It makes me happy to see all these young faces.” Looking back over almost four decades of restaurant work, Uesugi isn’t shy about explaining her decision to settle on such a specific cuisine: “I had thought about opening a yakitori restaurant. But that means starting work early in the morning to cut all that chicken and skewer it. With this, you just have to season it, cook it, and serve it,” she says. “We provide speedy service, and our patrons enjoy the food. Everybody’s happy!”

Sushisho Masa

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When Masakatsu Oka decided he wanted to become a sushi chef, he knew there was something he needed to fix. Lacking neither passion nor commitment, it was in a sense his body that looked set to let him down. “It’s because, truth be told, I’m left-handed,” confesses Oka, a trait that even today is considered undignified by some Japanese. Not wanting this perceived weakness to ruin his culinary ambitions, Oka could be found nightly practising cutting cabbage into thin strips with his right hand until, in his words, “I no longer feared the knife.” It clearly worked. He moves the blade with swift, deft strokes, lightly scoring a slice of squid with dozens of fine, diagonal cuts. He angles his knife to the right, and repeats the action in the other direction to make a crisscross pattern so that when the flesh touches one’s tongue, it feels like it’s melting. But Oka credits his skills less to his late-night cabbage training and more to his mentor, Keiji Nakazawa of Sushisho (p.XX). “Nakazawa-san is the person I respect most,” Oka says. “If I hadn’t met him, this restaurant wouldn’t exist.” Sushisho Masa, the name of Oka’s restaurant, is testament to that. The practice is known as noren-wake, or ‘dividing the noren’ – the noren being the curtain above the door that bears a restaurant’s name. By permitting him to use the Sushisho name, the mentor gives a public blessing to his acolyte’s new venture, indicating that the young man is equipped to safeguard his legacy. An honour of that level must be earned, and Oka is no stranger to hard work. He says that losing his mother at an early age taught him to be independent. And that the punishing schedule of his early years learning the sushi trade – starting work at 7.30am, and ending around midnight – was a lesson in endurance. “Find out how far you can push yourself and then push even further,” he says, sounding more marathon runner than chef. Indeed, as he works behind Sushisho Masa’s cosy seven-seat counter, Oka controls every movement and every breath. As the cuts of his knife create a staccato rhythm, his words meet the beat, becoming almost meditative as he describes each dish: aji (horse mackerel) is served with a dab of acidic hacchomiso, a deeply flavoured dark miso from Western Japan; rectangles of katsuo (bonito) come sandwiching paper-thin slices of garlic marinated in soy sauce to mellow the taste; and his decadent signature dish of three succulent slices of o-toro lightly layered with wasabi to create what he calls the ‘Masa-feuille’. Oka’s eyes twinkle as he presents rare ingredients such as grilled anago liver, or octopus eggs simmered in dashi – all likely to surprise even the most dedicated lover of sushi. “I always keep my eyes open for new ideas. That’s what I try to teach my guys,” he says, gesturing towards his staff of three young apprentices. “I want them to become the kind of people … Read More

Trump Room

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“I feel like a time machine,” says Hayao Matsumura, meandering around his vintage fashion shop as if to make the point. “I’m constantly travelling to the future and the past.” He’s attempting to explain his love of retro clothing, and he seems – quite appropriately – a little adrift. A more likely explanation, perhaps, is that he was up all night. Matsumura is, after all, Tokyo’s perennial party boy. The owner of Nude Trump and a handful of other businesses, he is rarely seen without his vintage shades and black cap. But he also dons many other proverbial hats: he’s an entrepreneur, a traveller, a trendsetter, and a guardian of youth. As a constant presence at fashion events, members of Tokyo’s creative ‘it crowd’ invariably surround him. All several decades his junior, they politely call him ‘Matsumura-san’, which in such a casual setting is a term of endearment, as well as of respect. Matsumura’s career in fashion started with the ultimate road trip. It was the mid-Eighties, and he was a young man with a head for business and an eye for trends. Witnessing Japan’s then-insatiable appetite for Americana, he drove coast-to-coast across the United States, loading up his car with jeans, boots, jackets, and memorabilia. On his return to Tokyo, he opened a no-name store in his apartment in the bohemian suburb of Koenji. Among the trinkets on sale were decks of playing cards (known as ‘trumps’ in Japanese) featuring images of naked women, which were illegal at the time. Fascinated customers duly nicknamed the business ‘Nude Trump’. Now located in the Jinnan area of Shibuya, the iconic store remains in business, selling a curious jumble of retro fashions, from glam to punk to downright bizarre. “Things my mother wore, items from my grandmother’s closet – these things will all come back into fashion one day,” Matsumura explains. “Nothing is ever completely over.” In 2006, Matsumura heard a rumour that a discount vintage store was planning to open in same building as Nude Trump. He quickly rented the space instead – later taking over the entire building – and turned it into Trump Room, a club-like venue for Tokyo’s bright, cool, creative young things. Elsewhere in Shibuya he owns the tiny back-alley Piano Bar, and another club space, Trump House. Matsumura has decked each out in a style that might be called ‘timeless decadence’: luxurious couches, mirrored tables, antique portraits and animal heads, all meticulously arranged beneath a sea of chandeliers. It appears fantastical, but this is Matsumura’s world. Fast fashion chains have commoditised much of the local area, but thanks to him, there are still pockets of Shibuya where individuality is celebrated. Matsumura understands for most normal Japanese youth, happiness feels impermanent. The hot summer of adolescence must give way to the chill of social obligation: a desk job, a suit, a mortgage. The party will surely end. Unless, that is, you have the guts to shun conformity. “The people who come here, they’re the stylists, designers, beauticians, … Read More

Miyako Andon

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[Please make a reservation before visiting Miyako Andon.] A wooden model of an old Japanese house – complete with tiny sliding screens – sits in the corner of Masanori Kizaki’s office. With the flick of a switch, the house illuminates. “My ancestors built models like this as souvenirs for the foreigners who came to Japan after the war,” says Kizaki, the fourth generation of his family to lead their handcrafted lamp business, Miyako Andon. These days, Kizaki’s contemporary lamps – made using similarly detailed Japanese woodwork and joinery techniques, but updated with the his own modern sensibilities – also find their way into homes around the world. “These ones are going to New York City,” he says, pointing at two minimalist cubes destined to hang in a Manhattan kitchen. “A very particular customer.” The business dates from the late 19th Century when Kizaki’s great grandfather was a ‘shokunin’ (artisan) making delicately latticed, painstakingly assembled wooden screens known as ‘kumiko’. His son – Kizaki’s grandfather – began manufacturing lamps before World War Two, and continued selling them afterwards to Americans in the Allied occupation force. An ‘andon’ is a traditional, wood-framed, paper-sided lamp that originally would have contained a small vessel of burning oil as a source of light. Some ‘andon’ were portable and could be carried from room to room, or out into the streets at night. With electrification, however, their utility faded. “In postwar Japan, most people lived in cluttered apartments with pre-installed ceiling lights,” observes Kizaki. “But the younger generation is starting to think more about design.” Kizaki has always thought that way. When he was a student, he would spend his weekends in Tokyo’s fashionable west side – in Aoyama, Omotesando and Daikanyama – soaking up the new fashions and modern architecture. The clean lines and pure geometry of his products reflect his passion for structures and spaces. The Tsukika lamp, a globe of interlocking, paper-covered triangles is his most recognizable design. “Every component comes from another artisan: the wood from northern Japan, the ‘washi’ paper from Shikoku,” he says, referring to a large island in western Japan. “In other lamps, instead of paper we use patterned cloths hand-dyed by a craftsman here in Tokyo.” At his office, a short taxi ride from Nippori railway station, the old and the new stand side by side. The showroom (viewable by appointment) is a simple concrete box – with a void filled by natural light at its core – built to Kizaki’s own plan. The classic Mini Cooper parked outside? That’s his too. Next-door is the old workshop, with sawing machines, wood presses and lamp skeletons, stacked high and waiting to be papered. The company’s seven workers includes five members of the Kizaki family – among them the craftsman’s wife, Toshiko, who speaks fluent English and handles international sales. “To be a successful ‘shokunin’ these days, it’s not enough just to make beautiful and enduring things,” says Kizaki, the last traditional ‘andon’ maker in Tokyo. “You need to adapt … Read More

Mamma Luisa’s Table

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A few steps from one of Shibuya’s main thoroughfares is not exactly where one might expect to find a farmhouse-style restaurant, and yet that’s exactly what Mamma Luisa’s Table is. Opened by chef Pietro Androsoni in 2014, the restaurant was inspired by his childhood growing up on his grandparents’ farm in Florence. “My grandmother made all the food for all the family. Every weekend there were like 15 to 20 people in my house,” Androsoni says. “So I grew up in this environment, with the ingredients from the farm, the animals, the poultry. And I think this is why I am fascinated by this work.” Androsoni started his career at a Michelin-starred restaurant in his native city, before he did a stint at an Italian restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. Disillusioned by what he says was not the America of his dreams and yet still harbouring a travel bug, when he got a call from his former boss asking him to help open a new location in Tokyo, he decided to take a chance. “I said, I’ll come to Japan, but I don’t want to stay longer than six months. And I came here and fell in love with the city,” he says. “Food-wise, I think it’s the best city in the world. You can experience all the cuisines, the styles—there is so much culture about food in this city.” Mamma Luisa’s Table is named after Androsoni’s own mother, and the restaurant has a relaxed, home-style feeling. Black and white photos of the chef’s family hang on the walls, and at the centre of the dining room is a large, eight-seat table. Warm lighting, distressed wood furniture, mismatched rugs and an open kitchen complete the inviting atmosphere. “The thing I love the most about having my own restaurant is the relationships I can cultivate with customers,” Androsoni says. “I feel I am at home, and the guests are also a part of my home.” Androsoni’s food is creative yet comforting, incorporating ingredients from Japan and around the Mediterranean. The menu changes slightly from day to day depending on the vegetables he finds at the markets. “I use really seasonal ingredients, because that’s one thing we’re losing these days,” he says. “People have gotten used to using asparagus 365 days a year. But for me, we have seasons and I want to respect them. Also because I grew up in a farmhouse, and I think this background is something I bring with me. I used to love to go into the backyard and get the zucchini, and then go inside, wash it and cook the pasta. In 30 minutes you go from the ground to the plate.” Cooking according to the seasons also results in more variety, which keeps Androsoni stimulated. Even first-time visitors to Mamma Luisa’s Table will quickly recognise his passion for his work. “Food is so versatile. Once you understand the ingredients, you can create anything. Food for me is life,” he says. “Food is also my way of … Read More