Tokyo has more Michelin star restaurants than any other city in the world. Slightly less elegant, but just as authentic, are the glowing red lanterns of the pop-up Yokocho restaurant scenes under bridges and along narrow alleyways in every neighbourhood. From Piss Alley to Memory Lane, townhouse-style yakitori stalls seating up to 10 offer skewered meats, fish and vegetables cooked on charcoal burners and paired with cold beer and saké. These make-shift izakayas have a unique charm for the forced sociability of their cramped spaces, and everything is delicious. I devour steaming hot morsels of soy-glazed grilled chicken and scallions with a bowl of rice. We eagerly hop from one pod to the next. For a different taste-of-place, Ebisu Yokocho is located indoors, and in Yurakucho, look for it under the train tracks.
It’s not easy to sip an espresso with a Burmese python wrapped around your neck. Why not pet your own goat? Feed a bunny? Let an owl perch on your head? Animal cafés are found around Harajuku where kawaii girls dress like life-size Pez dispensers and shopping ranges from Goth fashions to dresses made of popcorn. The 3-D latte art trend is still a novelty, because it’s always fun to have a frothy bear or giraffe protruding from your mug. But, if all you want is an excellent brew, Tokyo’s “third wave” coffee trend is worth a flight. Artisanal coffee houses abound for hipsters and coffee geeks, reverently tending to small batches, and grinding beans to order. They are the finest in the world. En route to the Tsukiji Fish Market, I enter Turret Coffee, so named for the three-wheeled delivery trucks in the market. Their peanut butter latte macchiato tempts me, but when the espresso passes my lips it sets off a symphony for all to hear. So richly textured and mellifluously balanced, there is such smooth mouth-feel, and an enlivening freshness on my palate. Japan has given the world instant coffee and canned coffee. I was not expecting this high level of attention to detail and quality, and I have not enjoyed another espresso in the same way since.
We think of Japanese cuisine as healthy. It is, depending on the ingredients. As Japanese farming practices meet the demands of globalization, an organic movement is budding in the health conscious and ecologically minded. Dr. Torako Yui’s Toyouke Organics restaurant in Tokyo is on the vanguard of homeopathic natural farming methods. Dr. Yui’s organic farms in Hokkaido andcShizuoka cultivate practices that optimize the life force of the harvest. Visting her farms, I am awestruck by the size and vibrancy of her crops. In the rice field we begin each row of planting with a Shinto prayer. Farming here is sacred. Vegetables, herbs and cereals all display more vitality. Dining at the restaurant we are seated around the open-style kitchen in the centre. Each dish is clean, pure and spirit-nourishing. Never would I have imagined lettuce could be delicious. Chicken, fish, greens and herbal teas are all instructive with respect to health, but also to the potential deliciousness and enjoyment of a meal. Dr. Yui’s warm charisma, and growing recognition as an agricultural guru, attracts an ardent following. In her specialty shop adjacent to the restaurant, and beneath her school, she generously gives me a bottle of “active plant broth” comprised of 75 kinds of fermenting plants. “Take this home to your mother,” she smiles. This is the elixir of life.
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Associate Publisher and Executive Editor of DINE and Destinations magazine.