The Japan Series — Imogen Dreams of Sushi

“Are we going to eat a lot of sushi in Japan?” my 7-year-old daughter, Imogen, asked before we left on our trip.

“You betcha,” I assured her.

“Just sushi!?” she clarified hopefully. And it was my sad duty to inform her that we would probably eat ramen and tempura and yakitori and other things as well.

Immy’s first sushi meal in Tokyo

In case you’re checking into this blog for the very first time, this is a theme that comes up with some regularity. That is, that Imogen loves sushi. She is an expensive date.

We had barely gotten off the airplane at Narita when she asked if we could get some sushi. Within the first 24 hours in Tokyo, I found a grocery store with pretty decent bento sushi that would do the trick while we oriented ourselves and slept off our jet lag. But I knew that would only serve as a temporary fix. So I began to scout out the sushi establishments in our neighborhood.

Imogen’s tuna arrives at our favorite Kanda neighborhood sushi bar

The most promising prospect was a tiny place — distinguishable as a sushi restaurant by the photographs of sushi on a board on the sidewalk out front — tucked beneath the subway tracks just outside the Kanda station. In a city where a sushi dinner can easily challenge your airfare for the largest expense of your trip, the prices looked reasonable. And there was often a wait to get in. So one afternoon, I told Immy it was time for a daddy/daughter sushi date, informed the family we’d be back in an hour, and set out for the restaurant.

We sheepishly entered and were greeted with raucous shouts of “Irasshaimase!” (Welcome) There were no seats, and only seven spaces at the bar — five were occupied by salarymen, two were available. We stood.

There was much curiosity and delight amongst the chefs, waitresses and salarycustomers at the big-eyed 7-year-old gaijin licking her chops at the end of the bar. I ordered a beer and a juice for Immy, and then the food — four pieces of salmon and two tuna for Immy; four toro, four anago sea eel and four sea urchin for papa. It was all fresh, generous and delicious. I had another beer, they brought us some green tea… and the bill was $20. Immy and I decided we could live here.

Spicy maguro bowl in Kamakura

At every restaurant stop on our vacation, I would watch Immy’s eyes scanning the menu… And see her dejection if there was no sushi option. Usually, there was something sushi-esque that would satisfy her: a rice bowl with raw fish, or some sashimi.

In the town of Otaru on the northern island of Hokkaido, we braved a rainstorm looking for lunch. Otaru, you see, is a mecca for sushi lovers, with one website promising “some of Japan’s best sushi at reasonable prices that they simply can’t match in Tokyo.” However, as we wandered the city’s charming canals and picturesque restored shopping street, we found nothing approaching the accessibility or affordability of our Kanda hole in the wall. So we decided to get off the main drag.

“That’s where we’re eating!” my wife declared, pointing to a small restaurant up a charming hill tucked well away from the tourist flow.

An expensive lunch in Otaru

We entered the restaurant to find no customers, a gruff-looking sushi grouch behind the counter, and a young, apologetic looking hostess/waitress (probably sushi grouch’s daughter). She seated us and brought the requisite beers and some delicious suimono clear fish soup that warmed us from the cold. There were no prices on the menu, I was worried. I ordered four salmon, four sea eel and four halibut. The bill was $70. The sushi grouch cheered up as we left.

The sushi highlight of the trip, perhaps, was a type of donburi — or rice bowl — we discovered around breakfast time at the Washo Fish Market in the small Hokkaido city of Kushiro. Alternately referred to as Hokkai-don or more specifically, katte-don, it’s a bowl of rice topped with an assortment sashimi. And in the case of the Washo Fish Market, the sashimi of your choice.

Composing katte-don bowls at the Washo Fish Market in Kushiro

Classic Hokkai-don often features salmon, sea urchin, salmon roe and sweet shrimp. At the Washo Fish Market, you buy a bowl of rice, and then you explore the various vendors’ goods to see what you’d like on top of your don. I’m pretty happy with classic Hokkaido, but there was so much that looked good.  So my rice got crowned with toro, sea urchin, red crab, sardines and sweet shrimp, my breakfast completed with a cold Asahi draft.

Immy, on the other hand, went straight for her sweet spot — salmon, and lots of it! We would later discover that katte-don could also be found at other fish markets like the one in Aomori, in case you didn’t plan on leaving the main island of Honshu.

Immy digs in!

“Is there any sushi here?” Imogen would ask at our next stop, Russia’s Sakhalin Island, glancing apprehensively past the piroshki and sausages.

After previous vacations in the past couple years — Italy, France, Quebec, Boston, Cuba, Mexico — I have enjoyed posting reviews for restaurants we have liked on Trip Advisor. But being that, with the exception of Big Pig, I had no idea of the name of any of the places we ate, I was unable to share the discoveries we had made with other hungry and disoriented gaijin. Suffice to say if you have a 7 year old who dreams of sushi, you will find ample avenues to satiate her need.

*    *    *

serves 2

12 oz. cooked sushi rice
2 oz. thinly sliced salmon
2 oz. thinly sliced tuna
2 oz. fresh sweet shrimp
2 oz. salmon roe (ikura)
2 shiso leaves, chiffonaded
1 oz. wasabi
soy sauce to taste

You will find all these ingredients at a Japanese market. And if you live in the country or a small city, you’ll just have to dream.

Place the sushi rice in two deep cereal-type bowls. Arrange fish in an eye-pleasing fashion on top. Add a dollop of wasabi to the side, and sprinkle the chiffonaded shiso leaf over the top.

Serve with wasabi and a cold Japanese beer.


The Japan Series — Salvation at the 7-11, Big Pig and More!

Our flight arrived in Japan around 3:30 p.m., which for us was 9:30 p.m. the previous evening. We left Los Angeles at 11 a.m., and flew 10 hours in daylight, although when we arrived in Japan it was the next day. On the flight, they served breakfast, lunch, and then breakfast again.

It was around 6:30 by the time we figured out how to take the trains into Tokyo and locate — on streets that do not have names — our Airbnb. We were hungry, although we weren’t sure if we were hungry for dinner or breakfast. I offered to go out and find some take-out while the family got settled, which suited everyone just fine.

Flynn and Willa at the Airbnb in Kanda

Tokyo, from a non-Japanese-speaking westerner’s perspective, is a bit confusing at first when it comes to food. There are many, many restaurants — our little pedestrian walking area of Kanda was chock full of them — but it is challenging to figure what many of them serve. You look into the dark restaurant, there are six seats, and bodies are hunched over plates of something. Many restaurants serve only one thing — eel, for example, which would not have gone over well with 3/5 of my family. The point being, that a jet-lagged gaijin fresh off the plane trying to find some quick, not-to-exotic takeout in a non-tourist neighborhood of Tokyo was not going to have an easy time of it. More

The Japan Series: An Ode to Ika

I always figured I could make a successful business helping the Japanese correct the English on their packaging and signage. That intuition was only reinforced on our recent trip to Japan, who’s sensational and rather wacky culinary culture I shall explore in a series of posts beginning with this one.

Squid cracker package

Helpful squid-centric Japanese observation #1: A good way to keep your kids from eating the rice crackers you brought back from Japan: Choose squid flavored. More

The Cheeseburger Martyr

On our flight from Havana to Los Angeles, there was a Cheeseburger Martyr.

There are many things to be thankful for on your flight from Havana to Los Angeles. You have just experienced one of the most fascinating countries and warmest people in the Western Hemisphere; you will soon have access to your car, grocery stores and bank ATMs; you live in a place where you are free to say whatever you want about the government.

The Cheeseburger Martyr, up first to get his carry-on before anyone else

There is no reason to be shitty.

The man looked pleasant enough as he boarded and sat down in the row in front of us — grandfatherly, fit, Patagonia-esque dress, a kind smile. The facade would soon be betrayed, however, when the food service started. More

The Best Restaurant in Havana

Javier, one of the staff at the Airbnb where we are staying, was walking us through the dusty streets of Central Havana when he paused to point out a crowd of well-dressed people milling in front of a rather grand Baroque portal. A sign above the entrance read: “La Guardia.”

“That’s the best restaurant in Havana,” he struggled in his limited English. “Robert de Niro and Natalie Portman eated there.”

Javier was leading us to another restaurant just around the corner from La Guardia. We had asked him about good, authentic Cuban food, and he assured us that the deceptively named Notre Dame des Bijoux was the place to get it.

Jesus Gomez at his rooftop grill

We walked through a much less impressive portal into what seemed to be someone’s home (many of Cuba’s restaurants are run by people out of their homes). And quite a home it was — an explosion of tropical plants grew up from the floor, one wall was plastered with teacups, another was covered floor to ceiling with framed photographs. And in a throne-like chair, in a satin fuchsia robe with rings on every finger, surrounded by his ten toy dogs, was Tommy Reyes Martinez, a flamboyant former Cuban National Ballet dancer who owned the restaurant. More

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