Japan Eats

Japan Eats Podcast, Episode 27: “25 Cafes”

We discuss Tokyo’s cafe scene with Brad Stephenson of 25cafes.com.

The Japan Eats Podcast is presented by Garrett DeOrio, Marcus Lovitt and Christopher Pellegrini. To listen, click play on the audio player below:

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Here are some links to what we discussed this week:

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Japan Eats Podcast, Episode 19: “Tokyo’s pizzerie: do they deliver?”

We talk pizza with special guest, Dave Perry.

The Japan Eats Podcast is presented by Garrett DeOrio, Marcus Lovitt and Christopher Pellegrini. To listen, click play on the audio player below:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

You can also subscribe to the fortnightly Japan Eats feed via iTunes or directly with our RSS feed.

Find the Japan Eats Facebook page here. Have something to say? Drop us a line.

Here are some links to what we discussed this week:

You can e-mail us at lovitt@japaneats.tv

Follow us on the Japan Eats Twitter feed. And please “Like” Japan Eats on Facebook.

Healthy eating in Tokyo

Christopher Pellegrini reports on the capital’s healthy food options.

Foodie’s paradise, Tokyo, is claimed by many to have the most eateries per capita of all the cities in the world. True or not, finding something that is both healthy and easily accessible can pose a dilemma, especially if you’re not comfortable with the all-Japanese intricacies of information gatekeepers such as the excellent restaurant ranking website, Tabelog. Far too many people find themselves restricted to an onigiri, a jelly squeeze-bag, and a plastic bottle of green tea when they’re looking for a low-cal meal.

In order to provide you with some of Tokyo’s more heart and waist-friendly dining options, we talked with Justin Berti, a yoga instructor, fitness trainer and health nut who for years has scoured this fair city for dining options that jive with his strict diet and that he can recommend to his clients.

Soba

Soba: a standby for vegetarian visitors.

Supermarkets

Sometimes it can be a real bear to find healthy food options at the supermarket nearest your train station. Everything seems to be over processed and packaged. The following supermarkets are chains but carry a decent selection of imported items and health-conscious options.

Natural House has 25 locations in and around Tokyo.

F&F has 11 shops in Tokyo with another five in Kanagawa.

Seijo Ishii doesn’t have an English website, but they do have dozens of locations around Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures.

Berti recommends the bentos at Natural House and F&F, and he mentions Seijo Ishii because it has plenty of “fresh salads and healthy options.”

Restaurants/Cafés

Restaurants often have menu items that look like they might be vegetarian friendly, but don’t think that you can always get an informed answer from your server. There’s fish and beef in almost everything (including potato chips!), and you’d be foolish to assume that the folks preparing your dinner accept the same definition of vegetarianism that you do (vegetarians don’t eat fish?!).

The following are some healthy dining options that have at least a little something that’s safe for vegetarians.

Nouka no Daidokoro is a good option for vegetarians as they offer some 100% vegetable course meal options. This chain of earthy restaurants added two new Tokyo locations within the past 12 months and has a salad bar that is not to be missed.

Nataraj is a small vegetarian Indian restaurant chain that has a few options in Tokyo and they occasionally have evening entertainment options such as belly dance shows.

Little Heaven near Otsuka station is a full-fledged vegan restaurant with somewhat limited hours. Dinner is served 6-9PM every day, and lunch is available Tues to Fri from 11:30AM-2PM.

Shamaim is an Israeli restaurant between Ekoda station (Seibu-Ikebukuro line) and Shin-Ekoda station (Oedo line) and is a good source for hummus and falafel west of the Yamanote loop.

Eat More Greens in Azabu Juban bills itself as a vegetable café and bakery modeled after those found in downtown New York City.

Earth Café Ohana in Sangenjaya caters to vegans and vegetarians and tries to use organic ingredients whenever possible.

Crayon House is a vegetarian-friendly restaurant across from Brown Rice Café (scroll down) that also has a veggie shop in the basement. Be sure to specify that you want food with no meat or fish if that’s your prerogative, they’ll understand.

Bio Café in Shibuya claims a menu with organic options.

Loving Hut recently started selling vegan bentos in the basement of Matsuzaka Department Store in Ginza.

Soup Stock Tokyo has more than 30 locations in Tokyo that feature a revolving menu of low-cal soups and a curry or two. They usually have a vegetarian-looking option on the menu, and you can generally get straight answers about the actual ingredients (hint: ask about lard) which is great for people with allergy concerns as well. Soup Stock Tokyo is essentially a fast food chain, perfect for those times when you only have 20-30 minutes to get a meal in, but it should never be grouped with the ubiquitous burger joints and beef bowl shops of this city.

Saishoku Kenbi Okubo is on a back street between JR Okubo and Shin-Okubo stations and features a vegetarian-friendly and affordable lunch buffet. Closed Tuesdays.

Tenya has shops all across downtown Tokyo and specializes in tempura. This chain can be very helpful for vegetarians who need a quick and cheap bite to eat. The yasai-don is always on the menu, and there are occasionally seasonal variants that get featured as well.

Chaya Macrobiotic has three upscale Tokyo locations and features a menu flush with organic produce and other vegetarian-friendly fare.

Brown Rice Café/Deli in Omotesando adheres to a Whole Foods prep style and specializes in soy, veggies, and of course brown rice. They have a couple of 1,700 yen set meals and a detox juice for 800 yen that purportedly is good for liver overuse control.

Convenience Stores

Konbini are generally not known for selling products that are waist-friendly. However, Berti feels that one chain stands above the rest:

Natural Lawson opened its first shop just over ten years ago, and now there are more than 70 in downtown Tokyo.

“They usually have nuts and dried fruit without added salt. The quality is much better. They also have sweet potato snacks, better fruit cup selections, and a healthier selection of teas–stuff you can’t find in regular convenience stores.”

One of Berti’s biggest pet peeves is the price tags on everything. Even though organic is popular in Tokyo, it can be incredibly hard to find. And when you do find it, you’ll notice that much of it is imported, so “you spend half your rent on an 80% cocoa chocolate bar and almond butter.”

He saves money by ordering from iherb.com, and invites people to freely use his discount code, JUS847, to save five dollars on their first purchase. He also recommends checking out the “Vegan in Tokyo” Facebook group for those that seek strategy tips on finding true vegan fare.

Those who avoid animal products in their food will also be interested in this Google map that details many of the vegetarian and vegan dining establishments available across Japan. The Japan Veg Guide is another resource worth checking out.

So as you can see, there are several health-conscious options available for the vegetarians, flexitarians, weight watchers and pavement pounders among us. Hopefully this short guide has given you a few new ideas for when you’re tracking down your next meal in Tokyo.

Justin Berti is a yoga and fitness instructor at FAB ACADEMY.

An earlier version of this article was originally published by Tokyo Weekender. Special thanks to Adam Gyenes, Mayu Imada and Neill Harper for their valuable input.

Book Review: “Drinking Japan”

Garrett DeOrio reviews Chris Bunting’s Drinking Japan

I tend to approach tomes of this genre with a fair dose of skepticism as they often fall into one of two categories, even when they’re not bad: a. strong on one drink or area, weak on the others, or b. written by authors who don’t know the turf and focus on spots tourists would find anyway.

Drinking Japan

Drinking Japan by Chris Bunting

Thankfully, my skepticism was dispelled within moments of cracking the cover on Chris Bunting’s attractive new release. He included a few places I know and love (which shows he has good taste!) and listed many more I either didn’t know or hadn’t tried. What better way to give a drink or travel book a fair shake than to road test it?

Bunting’s motivating premise, as he sets forth in his introduction is, simply, that “Japan. . . [is] the best place to drink alcohol in the world.”

He allows that the denizens and partisans of other capitals might be irritated by his proposition and grants them their due. He’s being too nice – those who put forth other locales, especially other cities against Tokyo (where the majority of the bars Bunting includes are located), simply don’t get it, which is why his book is so welcome.

Drinking Japan reads like a travel book – not a touring handbook, mind you, but a travel book, replete with anecdotes and impressions, which not only gives the reader a better idea of what they might be getting into, but also allows Bunting to establish a voice. And that voice is one that will make most readers feel like having a beer, or a whisky, or a glass of wine, or shochu, or awamori, or sake, or even makkori, with the man.

After a brief introduction to Japan’s drinking culture, complete with both a few warnings for the neophyte (or for those who just haven’t yet learned their lessons) and some history, Drinking Japan is divided up into chapters based on the sort of drink each of the 112 establishments he includes specializes in or is most-worth going for. These being: Sake, Shochu, Awamori, Beer, Whisky, Wine, and then others. Each of the seven drink-centered chapters is preceded by an introduction to the drink and its history and place in Japan’s tippling milieu.

The drink chapters are followed by a chapter on liquor stores and other retail establishments and a brief appendix on “Bar Japanese”.

Drinking Japan is focused on the good stuff and written for people who are interested in drinking, as opposed to people who just drink. While not every place he includes is pricey, this is far from a guide for the budget traveler. If you believe that you get what you pay for or don’t mind paying more for better drinks and good atmosphere, Bunting has something you’ll like, if not 112 things. On the other hand, if a cheap happoshu nomi-hodai is all you want out of your drinking life or don’t care how knowledgeable the bartender is or how friendly the clientele might be, you probably won’t get much from his work.

As with any effort of this breadth, Drinking Japan has a handful of minor shortcomings. First and foremost is geography: Of the 112 establishments included, 75 are in central Tokyo and a further nine are lumped together in “West Tokyo”. Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city, rates only two entries – both beer bars. The entire Tohoku and Chubu regions merit just one each: Sendai’s Isshin and Takayama’s Pub Red Hill, which means Japan’s fourth-largest city, Nagoya, is overlooked entirely. Likewise, the entire island of Kyushu is represented only by two shochu bars in Kagoshima – nada for the Fukuoka metropolis – and lovely Shikoku is passed by.

Being centered on the drinks themselves, the book also omits a number of neighborhoods known for their charm more than their pure liquid gourmet appeal, although he does include the venerable Lion Ginza 7-chome (the old one) solely for its mosaic and its place in history. Similarly, the inclusion of the cheap izakaya Kaasan – a chain shop for the cheap gourmand and notable for its ability to host sizable parties seems odd. Nothing wrong with the place, and its branches tend to have a more relaxed atmosphere and fewer screaming kids than other chains, but it does raise a question: Why Kaasan and not any of the numerous more worthy entries of the same sort?

That said, I still eagerly took a number of Bunting’s recommendations and largely agreed with him. He doesn’t mind spending a bit at times, but he knows whereof he speaks, gets the details right, and won’t steer you wrong.

If you’re unfamiliar with Japan, especially Tokyo (and that seems to be the target audience), Drinking Japan is a great place to start. If you live here, you’ll still find some new gems.

If you pick it up and decide to try it out, let us know. If you have a beloved haunt Bunting missed, let us know about that, too. Heck, invite us to try it out with you sometime. (We bark a lot, but we rarely bite. Except for that one time, and Pellegrini is really sorry about that.)

Drinking Japan
by Chris Bunting
Tuttle, US$24.95/2,130 yen (may vary), 272 pgs.

After the Disaster: How You Can Help

Everyone reading this knows, probably far better than they’d like, that the Eastern coast of Japan’s Tohoku region was devastated by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami with waves in excess of ten meters on the afternoon of March 11th. In the aftermath of this unprecedented disaster, Japan has endured roughly 600 further quakes, of which nearly half have been of magnitude 5.0 or greater, ranging from the area surrounding the epicenter of the original temblor, off the coast of Sendai, in the North, to Shizuoka, southwest of Tokyo.

First and foremost, thank you to all of you who have been kind enough to ask after our well-being and to offer help. All of us here at Japan Eats and, as far as we have been able to ascertain, our friends and colleagues, were spared the worst.

As of this writing, on the evening of March 24th, Tokyo is inconvenienced more than anything. Insofar as you worry, do so for the people up North who are no different from us but that they are undergoing a trial that even their friends and compatriots but a short distance away can barely begin to imagine.

Readers outside of Japan may have come close to having the worst natural disaster in Japan’s recorded history pushed out of their minds by one of its pernicious side effects: the extensive damage to and ongoing emergency at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Despite what you see on TV, it is inarguably the horrific loss of life, livelihood, property, and peace of mind in Tohoku that is the larger tragedy.

Japan, as anyone reading, watching, or listening to the Anglophone media knows, was just about as well-prepared as it could have been and is a wealthy country with the infrastructure and know-how to get back on its feet as fast as any other place on Earth. The earthquake itself was a triumph for Japanese engineering. It is safe to say that the time, money, and effort spent designing buildings and infrastructure to withstand earthquakes saved thousands of lives and allowed for a better response to those areas in which the truth that mankind will always be smaller than the inexorable forces of nature was brought so relentlessly to bear.

Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of people need your help. Young and old; men, women, and children; rich and poor – they have lost, in some cases, everything, and in nearly all cases are suffering through the bitter Tohoku winter without power, without water, without sanitation, without privacy, without creature comforts and, in far too many cases, without information about their situation and prospects, or even all of their friends and relatives.

Japan Eats is a food and drink site and we, as much as anyone, know the value and rewards of seeking quality, but in these extreme circumstances, we join many, many others in asking everyone who is able to give as much as possible. People in Japan’s Kansai region are cutting down on power consumption and donating the savings to disaster relief. Bars and restaurants in the country’s more fortunate locales have hosted parties and donated the entire day’s takings, and more, to the people who need it most.

Right now, aid organizations say money is the most effective gift as transportation is difficult and needs change from place to place, day to day. There are things most of us can do to squeeze a bit more out. Maybe the reverse-Jesus, for example. Pass on buying that lovely bottle of wine you’d been dreaming of and turn that money into clean water for the people who need it. Or a change of (warm) clothes. Or a book to read to stave off the tedium and fear. Whatever you can do, it will help.

Here’s a list of groups doing good work in Japan who could use your help:

  • Japanese Red Cross Society – Primarily focused on disaster relief, emergency medical treatment, and health and sanitation issues.
  • Oxfam Japan – Primarily focused on mothers and children, as well as on getting assistance to foreigners/non-Japanese speakers.
  • Second Harvest Japan – A foodbank distributing food to shelters and serving meals to disaster victims and the homeless.
  • The Salvation Army – Primarily focused on the provision of basic needs and coordination with other groups to get victims’ more specific needs taken care of.
  • Rescue Japan – A specific relief coordination effort begun by a group of Tokyo-based small businesses. Primarily focused on getting daily necessities, such as drinking water, toiletries, and clean underwear to shelters in addition to distributing items such as books and toys.
  • Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support – A coordination effort between three established animal protection groups in Japan. They do just what it sounds like.

Of course, another way to help that might appeal to our readers is to remember that the people in unaffected areas of Japan are doing all they can to help their stricken compatriots and, while they don’t need charity per se, normalcy helps them. So, if you were considering a trip to Tokyo or anywhere West of Tokyo, or to Hokkaido, please come – it’s still one of the safest, cleanest, best-functioning places in the world. The hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops still have employees and Japan’s economic recovery will only be helped.

We will be back very soon with more specific information about the situation in the Tokyo area, particularly as it relates to safety and, our favorite, food and drink.

Bar/Café Review: Pagliaccio Trattoria (Tokyo/Marunouchi)

This trattoria is a wonderfully decorated café/bar in the middle of the decidedly swank shopping streets behind the two Marunouchi towers keeping watch over Tokyo train station.

If you’re looking for a nice place for lunch, Pagliaccio is an excellent choice. The café menu consists of nine pasta dishes and one salad. The green salad is very generous at 780 yen and will easily accommodate two light eaters if teamed with one of the pasta dishes or a dessert. As for pasta, try the green tagliolini with sausage and broccoli (980 yen) or the linguine with clams and mussels (1,500). You won’t be disappointed.

And the desserts are quite nice as well. All priced at 700 yen, selections such as the tiramisu and the strawberry raspberry blueberry tart are worth repeat visits. An assorted dessert plate is also available for those that have walked enough to deserve the extra calories (1,500 yen).

This trattoria sports a full bar as well. Draft beers such as Hoegaarden cost 900 yen while their 14 bottled beers range in price from 600-950 yen. Cocktails start at 750, and wine by the glass will set you back at least 700 yen. Whiskey is priced on the steep side with a single pour of Jack Daniel’s tagged at 800 yen. The top of the price range is Hibiki 17 yrs. at 1,800 for a single and 3,400 for a double.

Coffee and tea average 600 per cup, and soft drinks are priced in the 500-800 yen range.

This is a great place to meet friends, clients, or colleagues, but there’s very little privacy, so look elsewhere if that’s what you’re after. Including the seats out front and the stools at the bar, Pagliaccio Trattoria can seat around 100, and you’ll feel right at home if you’re wearing a suit. You’d do well to hope for a bit of a crowd as the staff has been known to play poppy American country music at a level that people can actually hear.

Regardless, this is a wonderful café in which to spend a slow lunch or down a few before moving on to the Cotton Club for a jazz show. Expect to pay around 2,500 yen per person for lunch or 1,500 for coffee and dessert.

The café is completely non-smoking during lunch, but it switches to pro-smoking at around three. That said, if you arrive before the lads get out of work, then the English-speaking staff might be able to find an area where you’ll be relatively untouched (the place is big enough).

Directions: From Nijubashimae station (Chiyoda subway line) take exit four and walk straight when you hit street level. Take your second right and walk straight.  From the South Marunouchi exit of Tokyo station (JR, Marunouchi subway line, etc.) find the Marunouchi building and walk down the street on the left side of it (heading perpendicular to the train tracks). Turn left on the street that runs behind the Marunouchi building. Pagliaccio Trattoria is at the end of the block on your right. It’s on the corner next to “Tumi”, right across from “Kate Spade”.

Website: http://www.kiwa-group.co.jp/restaurant/a100446.html

Guru Navi: http://r.gnavi.co.jp/a634284/

Directions: 100-0005 Tokyo-to Chiyoda-ku Marunouchi 2-2-3 Nakadori Bldg. 1F

Telephone: TEL 03-6273-4486

Restaurant Review: Touan (Kichijoji)

Located on the same street as the Emporio Armani store, this basement izakaya, “Touan”, specializes in decent drinks, tofu, chicken, and sashimi. Several private tables, plus a few that look out onto a cellar-type Japanese garden, provide the perfect backdrop for a romantic dinner or small-scale night out with friends. Jazz music plays in the background.

And Touan has a few dishes that will keep vegetarians happy. Try the dekitate (fresh) tofu, at 780 yen, that comes with seven toppings and can be split amongst four if one thinks in izakaya serving sizes (read: small). The large tofu slabs go well with a side of fried renkon (lotus root) chips (480 yen). The negi shiitake kushi (grilled green onions and mushrooms on a stick) are also worth a try at 200 yen each.

Meat-lovers will enjoy the tebasaki no karaage (fried chicken for 580 yen), and the tofu no gyoza (580 yen for six pieces)–sorry, healthy people, this one almost certainly has meat in it. It’s just too good. But everyone can wind down with a dish of tofu ice cream which is astoundingly tasty (380). Another wise selection is the ebi (shrimp)tenpura and cha (tea) soba (680). The tea flavor is more apparent on the nose than anywhere else. Very nicely done indeed.

The “Naina?” imo shochu at 700 yen a glass, and yuzu umeshu at 620, are excellent choices for herbivores and carnivores alike. The “Hakkaisan” junmai ginjo nihonshu (980) is recommended for those looking for a decent bit of the drink that John Gauntner has taught us so much about.

The drink selection is respectable in several ways. While “Four Roses” is the only whiskey on the menu, Touan steps it up with 14 different bottles of umeshu, 12 potato shochu, six nihonshu, plus wine, beer, kokutou and rice shochu, and cocktails. Draft beer is 580 yen, and wine is 450 per glass. Most alcoholic beverages range from between 450 to 900 yen. Soft drinks are 350.

Directions: JR Kichijoji north exit. Outside the station (looking at the rotary) turn left. You’ll soon pass Baskin Robbins. Go straight until you come to a four-way intersection with a traffic light. Turn right. Walk one block and turn left before Tokyu Department Store. Walk straight (past Banana Republic) and take the second right. Touan is on the left (B1) just before a furniture shop called Kagura. If you reach Emporio Armani, then you’ve gone too far.

Guru Navi Page: http://r.gnavi.co.jp/a045212/

Lunch: 11:30 – 14:00
Dinner: 17:00 – 24:30

Japan Booze Blind: Third type beer

Guests Joe Nakamura and Rachael White join host Christopher Pellegrini in deciding which beers aren’t beers at all…

Boozehound: Bar Albatross (Shinjuku)

If it weren’t for Tokyo’s ongoing economic troubles, Golden Gai – that shanty town wedged between Shinjuku’s Hanazono Shrine and Kabukicho – could well have been turned into condos or (worse!) a Mori-style shopping precinct. After all, it was repeatedly targeted by developers in the bubble years. Somehow this ramshackle collection of bars (about 175 at last count) survived the heady 80s and early 90s. Hanazono Hills was not to be.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about Golden Gai is that it manages to be both determinedly nostalgic whilst never lapsing into self-parody. Anyone who has visited Harajuku or Yokohama’s Chinatown will be familiar with Japan’s penchant for Disneyfication (take something unique, extract anything controversial and wait for the tour buses). Thanks to a new generation of bar owners, however, Golden Gai retains what made it interesting in the first place – individually-themed bars, cramped seating and the whiff of a sordid past.

Hidden on dimly-lit 5th street is a two and a half storey wooden building that enjoys all of these qualities. Bar Albatross resembles a dolls-house with its scaled down furniture and narrow wooden stairways. Burgundy walls are adorned with picture frames and a chandelier hangs from the upstairs ceiling. Make it all the way to the ‘attic’ space above the second floor and you’ll get a great view of the regulars chatting and drinking below.

The bar has a fairly extensive menu mostly priced around the 700 yen mark. There are beers, shochu and a wide variety of spirits on offer. On my last visit I stuck to the relatively unadventurous Moscow Mule, but you’d do well to sample some of the bar’s other cocktails.

The staff are friendly without being overbearing. If downstairs is full, latecomers are encouraged to go upstairs where there is a second bar with space at one long counter. It can be somewhat nerve-wracking watching tipsy guests wobbling up the rickety wooden stairs to the second floor, but most seemed oblivious to the threat of falling.

Given that the seating fee is a low 300 yen per person,  the bill works out to be inexpensive. And the sit-down charge includes a small otooshi – nimono or some similar nibble to balance all that alcohol.

With places like Bar Albatross, Golden Gai’s future has never looked brighter.

Bar Albatross is located in Golden Gai, Shinjuku. Go out of the East exit of Shinjuku Station and turn left. Cross Shinjuku-Dori and make your way to Yasukuni-Dori. Turn right and then left into the park beside Mr Donut. Go through the park and then continue past Champion. The bar is on the right side of 5th street, four narrow alleyways after the karaoke bar. Look for the sign above the door.

Address: Kabukicho, Golden-gai (5th street), Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Telephone: 03-3203-3699
Home Page http://www.alba-s.com
8:00pm-05:00am