Little kid and drying fish in Ameyoko
Warning: these mushrooms are plastic. That makes them poisonous.
I also had no itinerary planned, and the pile of Japanese novels on the bedside table did little more than threaten to topple over my dusty water glass.
The one smart thing I did, though really it was pure dumb luck, was to buy this book:
Food Sake Tokyo, by Yukari Sakamoto, is one of the Terroir Guidebooks. Incidentally, she also writes a Food Sake Tokyo Blog, which I wish I'd found sooner. The series so far includes books on Italy, Rome, Budapest, France, and Burgundy. To show you how unprepared I was for my trip, everytime I looked at my book I kept thinking the second word rhymed with bake. It made sense to me—‘Oh, for food’s sake!’
But the European guides are called Food Wine, not Food Sake. I finally figured out the second word referred to the rice-based alcoholic beverage. As any halfway intelligent person would have realized instantly. What can I say. For the first third of my life I thought there was a saying that went ‘that’s mighty wide of you’.
A shrine next to fish market in Ameyoko
Anyway. Food Sake Tokyo turned out to be a great companion throughout Japan. On the one hand, it’s a guidebook to restaurants, ramen joints, pastry shops, tea shops, and candy stores.
Ningyo-naki stall in Asakusa
It also lists food-centric tourist itineraries, some of which I followed into market stalls under train tracks, through chopstick stores, and around markets and shrines.
These are the ningyo-yaki sold by the Asakusa Shrine. The little cakes are made in stalls, some with extremely mechanized machinery, others by hand in old griddles.
The finished products look like this:
You know what they say. A bird in the hand…
The cakes come with different fillings, but we only tasted the chestnut.
I also visited the stores that sell the amazingly realistic plastic reproductions of restaurant items.
This food is plastic. Do not eat.
But Food Sake Tokyo is more than a tourist guidebook. Chapter two, ‘Food’, takes up nearly a third of the book. All those Japanese words I meant to learn—and some that I never imagined—are listed here. The seafood section lists 41 seafood preparation terms, and the names for 144 different types of seafood.
The sections on produce, noodles, sweets, and meats are similarly thick. What a treat to be able to find out the English words for foods I might come across. Not that it always helped. Knowing Fuki was a ‘giant butterbur’ and seri is ‘water dropwort’ wasn’t that helpful to me. Some translations were unnecessary, or even meaningless. Who knew mizuna is ‘potherb mustard’? I’ve only seen it called mizuna.
Finally, there were times I really wouldn’t have wanted to know the translation. Komekami and nodomoto come immediately to mind: temples and throat. Offal has never been my favorite, which I know is a shortcoming. Pavel did me a favor and saved his visit to the innards restaurant for his next trip.
Best of all, though, Food Sake Tokyo explained the tricky Tokyo address system for me. Other guidebooks do this as well. But here the maps also showed the block numbers—without those, I would have been lost. Ok, full disclosure. Even with them I was often lost. But that never mattered. I was happy just wandering.
Yukari Sakamoto's blogs:
Food Sake Tokyo Introduces readers to Tokyo food shops, a travel guide for curious eaters.
Japanese Cuisine-Cooking Japanese Food at Home Recipes for foods she eats at home and resources for Japanese food.