When Kuniatsu Kondo decided to open his own restaurant, he spent months looking for the perfect name. But he had it, he discovered, in his own hands. “The moment you pick up your owan – that’s the sense I wanted to replicate,” he explains, gently handling, as if to guess its weight, a lacquered wood bowl of the sort most commonly used for miso soup. “Because I want a meal here to be the most comforting part of the day.” Serving eclectic Japanese tapas-style food, Owan is most accurately classed as an izakaya – although most restaurants in the category lack its finesse. “The food is designed to showcase the nihonshu,” explains Kondo, referring to the alcohol better known outside Japan as sake. “Fresh-flavoured unpasteurised namazake to go with simple vegetables in the warmer months, and deeper, richer types when it gets colder to pair with dishes like hotpot.” Kondo has worked in restaurants ever since he moved to Tokyo as a fresh-faced 19-year-old. He opened the first Owan in Ikejiri, a youthful suburb west of Shibuya a decade later. A second, near Yoyogi Park, came a decade after that. “Ten-year cycles seem to be my rhythm,” he says. From the chopsticks held by his patrons to the uniforms worn by the staff, good design is integral to Kondo’s vision. Customers sit along a clean wooden counter surrounding an open kitchen. It’s all simple, elegant and functional. The menus, hand-written each month by a renowned calligrapher, are artworks in themselves – customers occasionally ask to keep them as souvenirs, and Kondo is happy to oblige when he can. “I think the writing even looks delicious,” he says. “It makes you feel hungry and it deserves to be appreciated.” Heading the kitchen in Ikejiri, Kondo has given his most trusted apprentice free reign in Yoyogi, allowing their two menus to diverge within the same plain. The former location is known for sashimi that includes basashi (horsemeat), while the latter specialises in small home-style dishes known as obanzai. At both the meal will begin with a little bowl of homemade tofu and end with green tea and a bite-sized dessert – chocolate, perhaps – served with the compliments of the chef. “Chocolate isn’t a Japanese thing, so I taught myself how to make it,” says Kondo. A self-confessed perfectionist, he also studied flower arranging to make sure the restaurant’s ikebana were up to scratch. “I was always redoing the florist’s work, so I figured I should just do it myself.” Kondo enjoys experimenting. His menu often includes non-traditional dishes such as Chinese dumplings or even cheese fondue with dipping vegetables. His staples, however, are local and simple: grilled ayu river fish, onigiri rice balls flecked with seaweed and sesame seeds, and quail eggs smoked in wood from a cherry blossom tree. There is also a monthly broth-based dish – a crescendo of taste and fragrance as the meal draws towards a close – served in the eponymous owan. Cradling the bowl with … Read More
To explain the Japanese folk art movement known as mingei to the uninitiated visitor, Kyoko Mimura borrows a phrase from Abraham Lincoln. “Mingei is craft for the people, by the people,” explains Mimura, a mingei expert and the former Director of International Programmes at the Japan Folk Crafts Museum – known locally as the ‘Mingeikan’. Completed in 1936, the structure was designed by Soetsu Yanagi, the pioneer of the folk art movement, in the style of a large farmhouse. It still stands in its original location, wonderfully incongruous among the modern mansions of one of Tokyo’s most exclusive neighbourhoods. Yanagi, a philosopher and scholar who had a way with words, coined the term mingei to refer to his vision of elevating everyday utilitarian objects into artworks worthy of study and appreciation. Today the museum’s collection includes the 17,000 or so pieces he personally amassed during his lifetime, including woodwork, textiles, folk paintings, and a vast selection of simple yet strikingly beautiful pottery. Sliding open the museum’s heavy door reveals an inviting entrance hall with a Y-shaped wooden staircase of divided flights. The white stucco walls and ceiling are embedded with planks and beams, and the floor is formed of valuable oya stone – produced with lava and ash from one of Japan’s many volcanoes. “The first time I visited the museum during my childhood I was astounded,” says Mimura, who is now an advisor to the museum. She remembers being surprised that there were few labels to explain the work. “Mr. Yanagi’s idea was to ‘see first, think later.’ Rather than reading a description, he felt that an intuitive response to beauty was very important.” In the creation of his museum, Yanagi received support from a clique of celebrated artists, including textile designer Keisuke Serizawa and potters Shoji Hamada, Kawai Kanjiro, Shiko Munakata, and Bernard Leach. The vast majority of the 30,000 pieces in the Mingeikan’s collection, however, are by unknown artists. Anonymity was one of several controversial founding principles of the mingei movement, and assertions that pieces should be neither sophisticated nor unique led many at the start to consider Yanagi little more than a quirky collector of mundane housewares. “It’s difficult to evaluate him in history,” says Mimura. “The museum is still working to define itself even now.” Mimura inherited her interest in mingei from her mother, Teiko Utsumi, who was the museum’s long-time Administrative Director and Initiator of International Programmes before her. Together they facilitated a travelling exhibition to the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany in the early 1990s – the first introduction of Japanese folk art to foreign audiences abroad – with the younger woman acting as interpreter. “The museum’s history is also one of friends and family working for one cause: to expand the idea of mingei,” says Mimura. “I think it says something quite special that the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the mingei movement’s founders have an inherited feeling of responsibility to preserve and revive the arts and crafts of Japan.”
“Eating anago makes you smarter,” says chef Yuji Sato, tapping his temple with one finger. “It’s also chock-full of vitamins and minerals. And it even improves your eyesight.” Sato’s admiration for anago – or conger eel – makes sense considering that his restaurant Tamai is, he says, the only remaining specialist in it in Tokyo. The saltwater creatures once thrived in the waters of Tokyo Bay, making them commonly found in the capital’s cuisine, and Sato still sources his eels locally during the summer. By wintertime, however, the water is too cold and they come from southern Japan. “We only use wild eels – never farmed,” says Sato, a frank-talking golf fanatic who spends most weekends playing rounds with his customers. “Supply is our number one concern.” The filleting process for anago is similar to that for the freshwater eel unagi, beginning with a nail through the eel’s head to keep it still. After that, however, anago is simpler to cook, thanks to its thinner skin and leaner flesh. By far the most commonly ordered dish is the hako meshi – a lacquer box filled with a bed of rice that nestles two slithers of anago, one grilled and one boiled, along with a selection of condiments. But Sato encourages adventurous patrons to try other items from the menu too, because in his words: “the sea eel has many different faces.” In winter he recommends tempura, which highlights its sweet, light flesh. August to October, when local anago are in season, is the time for pure, simple sashimi. Sato, who trained as a sushi chef, was born to the east of the city. After taking over Tamai, he fell in love with his new neighbourhood in the heart of old Tokyo. Despite its location behind the famous Takashimaya department store in Nihonbashi, Tamai feels it has managed to slither free of the tightening grip of modernisation. Most other old buildings in this historic quarter have long since been squeezed out by giant steel and concrete offices. But Tamai’s shop – a former liquor store – is all charm, and in a comforting display of neighbourly values, still shares its kitchen with a sake bar around the corner. “Technically this is a business district, but it’s a place without hierarchy,” says Sato. “People still help each other out and ask how you are or where you’ve been.” In a nod to the provenance of the building, the perfect way to end a meal at Tamai is with a cup of warm anagozake, alcohol that (of course) contains a salted, dried and roasted surprise. It pairs perfectly with hone-sembei, the bones of the eel extracted during filleting and then deep fried to make a crunchy calcium-rich snack. “And there you have it,” says Sato, “anago is even good for your body – it strengthens your bones.”
Oyakodon, Japan’s favourite comfort dish, may also be its most appropriately named. ‘Mother and child rice bowl’, as the name literally translates, combines bite-sized chunks of chicken, with eggs cooked lightly in sweet soy sauce until they just begin to set. This is served over a generous bowl of steaming white rice. Tamahide is the storied home of oyakodon. But Kounosuke Yamada, its bespectacled eighth-generation chef, says his family’s restaurant is about more than just one dish. Tamahide is the only restaurant in Tokyo – and one of only a handful in the country – to specialise in Japanese chicken cuisine. The most important ingredient is Shamo, a dark-feathered breed of bird praised for its lean, gamey meat. According to Yamada, Shamo ranks alongside the best breeds of chicken in the world, on a par with French Poulet de Bresse. The restaurant began trading in 1760, processing chicken for noble families in the city then known as Edo. A dish called Shamo nabe (hotpot) was its original specialty: a version of stew-like sukiyaki made with chicken instead of beef, along with noodles, leeks and tofu, all seasoned with soy sauce and honmirin, a syrup made from sweet rice rich with umami. Oyakodon got its start by happenstance during Tamahide’s fifth generation. A thrifty customer was reluctant to waste some leftover chicken. The quick-thinking wife of the chef suggested he throw it into the seasoned sukiyaki pot with a couple of raw eggs. The result was an instant hit. At the time, Japan’s rice-eating culture deemed it unseemly to soil rice by covering it with other food; only the lower classes would do that. For its first 90 years, the dish as we know it today was served only for delivery to merchants in the local Ningyocho area, never on the premises – Tamahide had an image to maintain after all. Over time, however, donburi dishes (bowls of rice with toppings) became popular among other classes, and Tamahide could sell its oyako donburi with pride. Tamahide has already been in business for more than 250 years. Now the ninth-generation chef, Kunio, is preparing to take over from his father in serving the poultry pilgrims who travel here from all over Japan. People eating alone have no choice but to line up and wait for the donburi. But Chef Yamada suggests parties of two or more try the set menu, for which reservations are accepted. This starts with Shamo chicken prepared in two different ways, and ends with the signature oyakodon, presented in a golden lacquered bowl. Eating oyakodon from a bowl resembling a golden egg seems appropriate at Tamahide. And not only because of the restaurant’s shining success. The bowl is also symbolic of the precious bonds this accidental dish has helped to nurture. Parent to child, from generation to generation.
Long before their lives became intertwined as partners and co-creators, the international couple behind Tokyo-based fashion brand Volga Volga were already enjoying parallel adventures. Shiori Kurushima, from Japan, was in Paris making haute couture for the Japanese designer Hanae Mori; and Mikhail Panteleev, from Russia, was doing similar work in Tokyo for Yohji Yamamoto. If it were destiny that they would meet, however, the appointment would have to wait. “My French friend knew Mikhail and wanted to set us up,” Kurushima says. “But he couldn’t speak my language, and I couldn’t speak his, so it took time for us to come together.” Kurushima and Panteleev were establishing themselves as talented, dedicated fashion designers. In their respective ateliers on opposite sides of the world, they were the ones who would volunteer for extra tasks, often working alone late into the night, cutting patterns or stitching garments. “I wanted to learn everything,” Kurushima recalls of her time working as a ‘premiere main’, a coveted position in charge of hand-sewing entire couture pieces. “The other girls probably thought I was the stereotypical Japanese workaholic.” The brand the couple launched together in 2000 is a union of his designs and her technical skills. In their construction, the garments feel effortless, while in their style they are expressive. From afar, the clean lines and muted colours appear minimalist. But up close, the details and textures evoke a deeper emotion rippling below the surface, like a shout underwater. In Moscow in the 1990s, Panteleev held one of the first-ever fashion shows inside the Kremlin. The spectacle was an impressive way to launch his career, but these days he avoids such productions. “When you’re putting on a show you don’t have time to finish anything properly,” he says. “At this point in our careers, we prefer to give every piece of clothing the attention it deserves.” In Volga Volga’s studio – up a narrow staircase inside an old converted office building in the Bakurocho neighbourhood – sewing tables line one wall, rolls of fabric are stacked at the back, and a show space in the middle is where buyers and walk-in customers can view the collection. In Bakurocho – an area of old Tokyo known colloquially as shitamachi, or the ‘low city’ – they have discovered a sense of kinship with the people, reputed to be unpretentious, hardworking, and loyal. Volga Volga’s shoes often incorporate buttons, ribbons, or buckles made by local artisans with a shared commitment to timeless craftsmanship. “Some of our customers are still using the same garments we made for them 15 years ago,” she says. “When it needs mending, they know they can bring it here, and we’ll give it a another lifespan.” Living together in ‘shitamachi’, Kurushima and Panteleev can follow their own rhythm, commuting to work by bicycle, enjoying a slow lunch at the café next door, and – as has always been their way – working late into the night making beautiful clothes. Only now, the atelier is theirs.
It takes Yoshiaki Takazawa 10 hours to make his signature ratatouille, which he asks his diners to consume in a single bite. “Ratatouille is something usually made by throwing everything together into a pot,” the chef says. “But in my version, each of the 15 ingredients is prepared separately, and then assembled at the end.” The dish, a multi-coloured checkerboard terrine balanced on the end of a platinum spoon that’s twisted like a serpent, is the only one the chef guarantees will be served each evening. It has been a constant on his menu since he and his wife Akiko opened their restaurant, then known as Aronia de Takazawa, in 2005. “The aronia is a small berry that is not well known but is really powerful, with stronger antioxidant properties than blueberries,” Takazawa explains. “That’s how I thought of myself when I was getting started: a hidden power with a connection to nature.” Takazawa’s style of cooking blends intense seasonality – the bedrock of all Japanese cuisine – with imaginative presentations more familiar to European molecular gastronomy. Some have called it Japanese-French cuisine, but the chef begs to differ. “There were French and Spanish influences at first,” he says. “But what I really want to do is express Japanese culture. That’s why I use Japanese ingredients and pair dishes with Japanese wines. But having said that, this isn’t strictly Japanese cuisine. It’s just mine.” Despite years of training at a famous Tokyo hotel, the chef has never courted publicity, choosing a discreet backstreet location in Akasaka for his business. An obscure door opens on to a narrow staircase that leads up to the intimate dining room. There is space for just three tables and 10 chairs, which take just one sitting per evening. No patron is ever more than a few metres from the chef as he works behind his smooth metal show counter, and none is denied the delightful Akiko’s attentive service. Takazawa says he designed the experience to be like the Japanese tea ceremony because “it’s my way of presenting our hospitality.” More than that though, Takazawa is a showcase for Japanese culture – its farmers and artisans, its seasons and sensibilities. But it also highlights the chef’s particular sense of humour, through dishes such as Sweet & Sour Prawn, a riff on ebi chilli (spicy stir-fry shrimp) that’s a staple of cheap-and-cheerful Chinese restaurants in Japan. In Takazawa’s version, an elegant kuruma prawn coated in delicate tomato jus comes surrounded by the deconstructed flavours of ebi chilli, all for patrons to assemble in their mouths. And his Dinosaur’s Egg from Miyazaki on the south eastern coast of Kyushu, is in fact a dessert: the shell made using white chocolate, turmeric and chilli; the egg using meringue and mango from Miyazaki; and the footprints formed of wasabi, giving Takazawa’s Japanese accent to a flavour combination that was inspired by a trip to Mexico. Indeed, the chef travels constantly to food events and private functions around the globe. When … Read More