Taimeiken

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The line outside Taimeiken forms early on weekends – dozens of patrons waiting patiently for an hour, perhaps two. Ask any one of them what they’re waiting for and their reply will be the same: omuraisu. To the uninitiated, this does not sound like a dish worth waiting for: an omelette (omuretsu) filled with rice (raisu) that’s been fried or seasoned with wine and ketchup, and served with a demi-glace sauce. But slice into it, and a history rich in the idiosyncrasies of modern Japan spills out. Taimeiken specialises in yoshoku, a curious cousin to Japan’s admittedly varied stable of fare. Literally translated, yoshoku means ‘Western food’ – although few Westerners would recognise its dishes as their own. Its lexicon includes kareraisu, or curry rice, which uses a natively-produced curry that Indians and Brits find extremely mild; hambaagu, akin to a hamburger without the bun; and Napolitan – spaghetti cooked with vegetables and dollops of ketchup. The restaurant was founded in 1931 by the late Shingo Modegi, a lover of food and kites (his museum of Japanese kites is on the fifth floor of the same building). Today his grandson Hiroshi is in charge of the family business. Hiroshi’s hobbies – surfing and tanning – reflect a different era. But his commitment to the family business is clear. “When I was a young boy,” he recalls, “I found a letter from my grandfather addressed to ‘The Third Generation of Taimeiken’. I was the eldest son, I knew right then that it was my honour and responsibility to take over the family business.” The restaurant feels intentionally nostalgic, a throwback to a tumultuous era. In the late 1800s, after centuries of self-imposed isolation, Japan reluctantly opened up to the world. The arrival of the American ‘Black Ships’ had demonstrated the military and economic superiority of the West. Japan’s leaders felt small, both figuratively and – as the Americans towered above them – physically. They were desperate to catch up. Members of the elite were dispatched to Europe and North America. They returned with lessons to bolster Japan’s military and economy – and it’s cuisine. They believed that if they ate Western food they would quite literally grow bigger. The dishes they brought home were localised, becoming collectively known as yoshoku. They are eaten not with chopsticks, but with knives, forks and spoons, and served in dining rooms by waiters and waitresses wearing quaint uniforms long since discarded by most Western restaurants. Taimeiken’s menu is a comprehensive collection of yoshoku dishes, including everything from macaroni gratin to beef stew. But its most famous product is its omuraisu, which was featured in the classic Eighties film Tampopo. Other varieties of the dish commonly have the rice contained inside the omelette, but Taimeiken’s ‘Tampopo Omuraisu’ places the egg on top. Eating it involves its own ritual: it is sliced lengthways down the middle of the fat, yellow mound to expose the runny insides, before the demi-glace sauce is poured into its core. “Our sauce … Read More

Star Bar

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Hisashi Kishi, Bartender of Star Bar, legendary Ginza bar

“Think about smartphones,” says Hisashi Kishi. “They’re very simple on the surface, but there’s a lot of technology underneath that the consumer doesn’t need to know about. The same is true of cocktails.” Or rather, it’s true of his cocktails. Kishi, a former world – and five-time national – cocktail champion, has little interest in newfangled recipes and avant-garde ingredients. You won’t find homemade bitters or chunks of dry ice at his Star Bar. He probably won’t even tell you about the original cocktails that won him his silverware. He’s likely to suggest something classic – martinis, manhattans, moscow mules and the like. But it’s his execution of those classics that sets him apart. “The recipes are the same from bar to bar, but the results are not,” he says. “Think about red wine. The basic process is the same, yet there’s so much variation in flavour. You can produce sensational wines like Château Lafite and Romanée-Conti. And it’s like that with gimlets. I’m trying to make the Romanée-Conti of gimlets.” Probably, you won’t notice how he does it; that he juices his lemons and limes lengthways, massaging each segment over coarse ceramic to avoid squeezing bitter oils from the skin. Or that his shake pattern changes from drink to drink, adjusting the level of chilling, dilution and size of the bubbles. The figure-of-eight motion of his ‘infinity shake’ is designed to create what he calls ‘micro bubbles’. “Nobody thinks about bubbles when they shake, but they greatly affect the flavour,” he says. In truth, Kishi doesn’t care if you notice his techniques. He says showboating won’t make his drinks any better; that his tricks are behind the scenes and below the surface. And that the proof is in the drinking. Kishi first picked up a cocktail shaker as a 20-year-old student. He quickly found his passion, quit college and enrolled in a bartending school. But it wasn’t until he began training in an elite Ginza bar that he became obsessed. “The first time I ate sushi in Ginza I could tell it was far superior to anything I’d tried before. Then I went to drink whisky and realised I didn’t know how to gauge its quality,” he says. So he studied. Within nine years he was a world champion, and four years after that he turned a Ginza basement into Star Bar. His ‘Romanée-Conti of gimlets’ is more aromatic and less astringent than others. Likewise his sidecar, which has become something of a signature drink. He uses an electric creamer to froth the cognac and triple sec, before shaking with juice and ice. To an untrained eye it looks like cheating; for Kishi, it’s the only way to do it. “You can shake bubbles into a drink, but they disappear fast,” he says. “I wanted to make them last and found the creamer adds air that stays in when you shake, while reducing the alcohol’s piercing bite. It’s like the sushi chef’s nikiri process of bringing his vinegar recipe … Read More

SCAI the Bathhouse

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SCAI the Bathhouse, Ambitious art space with humble neighbourhood origins.

One of Tokyo’s foremost galleries for contemporary Japanese artists, SCAI The Bathhouse has, as its name suggests, remarkable premises. “It turns out a disused bathhouse makes an ideal art gallery,” says director Masami Shiraishi. “It has natural light, high ceilings, and plenty of the ‘air’ that showing contemporary art requires.” Until the nation’s economic modernisation following World War II, every district shared a bathhouse where neighbours would wash, in the Japanese manner, first scrubbing themselves clean before jumping into a communal tub to soak and share news and gossip. But though in recent decades, Tokyo’s bathhouses have become largely demolished, and in 1993 the charming one found in Yanaka, a quiet corner of old Tokyo, was saved and repurposed as a gallery. “Since the younger generation of Japanese contemporary artists such as Takashi Murakami came to the fore, Japan is on the world art map,” says Shiraishi, a former deputy director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, and founder of what’s now known as Art Fair Tokyo. “It has been a big change.” Murakami is one of a number of big names on Shiraishi’s roster, alongside Anish Kapoor and Julian Opie. But one of the biggest challenges for contemporary art gallerists like Shiraishi is how small the domestic art market has become. “People now are very interested in Japan and are looking for good Japanese art. But so many of our most talented artists leave our shores. They become accepted by the international art world, and don’t come back.” Fortunate, then, that the gallery is located near the prestigious Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, and is a short walk from the museums of Ueno Park. With it the founder hoped to create more than just an exhibition space – he envisioned the sort of place that is common overseas but rare in Japan: a platform for supporting the top contemporary artists. And so today SCAI The Bathhouse represents internationally recognised talent, including the Japan-based Korean painter and sculptor Lee Ufan, glass bead installation artist Kohei Nawa, and the young multimedia artist Daisuke Ohba. Shiraishi says Nawa is one of his most successful discoveries. “He’s very contemporary because his work reflects social and technological trends of our time,” he explains. “For a long time, Japanese artists wanted to express or explain Japan through their work – to ask questions about our identity. Nawa’s thinking is very international, but is still unique.” While the gallerist chides the Japanese government for not providing adequate support to Japanese contemporary artists, he hopes SCAI The Bathhouse can help in its own way. “This neighbourhood bathhouse was a place where people in the community could not only take a bath but also gather, talk and find out what was happening around them,” says Shiraishi. “Its history is appropriate to its new identity. I think SCAI has the same purpose today.”

Kumu

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Kumu, Serene and minimal, this small gallery shop showcases works by dozens of Japanese creatives.

“Connecting people,” says Noriko Konuma, smiling as she sips tea from a white porcelain cup at a naturally-hewn wooden table inside Kumu Tokyo, the intimate design gallery and shop she curates. “It’s all about bringing people together and creating special moments in their daily lives.” In the years since Konuma opened her gallery on a quiet lane in the eastern Bakurocho district in 2015, Kumu (“to connect” in Japanese) has showcased the works of dozens of Japanese creatives, from paper artists and contemporary incense makers to potters and floral designers. She calls them “family”, which makes Kumu their collective home. The small, two-storey structure, renovated by Atelier Etsuko Architects, has a minimal industrial feel, with swathes of original concrete, high ceilings, a warehouse-like window façade and green plants. For Konuma, it’s a very personal space: her family’s businesses previously occupied the building, and she grew up across the street in the same house where her father was born. “The Bakurocho neighbourhood feels different from the rest of Tokyo,” she explains. “There are few big businesses, it’s still very local, and people form friendships naturally.” That openness is attracting a burgeoning creative community, including art galleries and garment makers, ceramics stores and independent cafés. Kumu’s ground floor is home to a shop with a permanent collection of design products – mostly contemporary takes on traditional craftsmanship – and a gallery space hosting up to 15 exhibitions a year. A clean, white upper floor and plant-populated roof terrace host workshops and events. Centre stage in the shop are works by designer Masanori Oji (who also created Kumu’s circular, interwoven logo), from the angular warmth of his metal household fixtures to the clean petal-like lines of his white ceramics. Thick canvas bags by Kurashiki Hanpu and incense handcrafted by Chikako Perez of Tokyo Kodo come encased in ‘washi’ paper by Chiaki Morita – one of several collaborations made possible through Kumu. “It’s not so important that we sell things,” says Konuma, warm, softly spoken and ever-elegant in minimal monochromes. “Of course, sales keep creative techniques alive. But the essential thing is creating new connections, because together these people form the DNA of a Japanese spirit that links the traditional with the future.”

Shima

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Manabu Oshima, Chef. Shima Fine Japanese Beef Header

The highest quality fillets of wagyu beef that arrive at Shima come with a certificate of authenticity. The document details the ancestry of the slaughtered cow, with a family tree going back three generations and most importantly, the name of the prized bull that fathered it. Finally, it’s stamped with an inky impression of the animal’s nose – the bovine equivalent of a fingerprint. The particular fillet Manabu Oshima is preparing for tonight’s customers comes from a cow called Hiromi, daughter of Doi. She was raised, like the chef, near Kyoto. Oshima works with an agent who scours the country seeking calves with good lineage and potential for rearing. Invariably, the animals are from the prized Tajima breed, which originated in the area around Kobe, but is now raised all over Japan and overseas. The beef served at Shima comes mostly from Kyoto, Miyazaki, or Iwate prefectures. “Kobe beef is famous overseas, but it’s just one type of wagyu,” explains the chef. “Only beef that comes from specific slaughterhouses around Kobe has the right to use that name.” Oshima slices to release long strings of tendon, peels them off the three-foot-long fillet, and then trims away the fat. When he’s done, about a third of the volume has gone. The tapered end, the filet mignon, will be used to make steak sandwiches for patrons to take home. The majority is tenderloin, enough for about eight 150g cuts sold for ¥13,000 each. The thick end is the more affordable rump steak, served at lunchtime. Handling meat every day for almost 40 years, Oshima has learned to judge through his fingers. “I can feel if the beef is going to be good or not without tasting it. I can feel if the farmer has raised the animal thoughtfully. Japanese farmers raise cows with the same care as they do their children. You can sense that humanity in the product.” Wearing a crisp white uniform and classic tall chef’s hat, Oshima operates behind the counter in the open kitchen alongside his son, while his friendly wife takes charge front of house. The old, hand-written menu reflects the chef’s early career working in Great Britain, France and Germany, with traditional favourites such as steamed asparagus, foie gras, and onion gratin soup. But the menu isn’t the best guide. “It’s a bit meaningless, to be honest,” Oshima says, laughing. “Just ask me and I’ll tell you what’s good. For example, tonight we have this,” he says, reaching behind him to bring out a boiled cow’s tongue. “And we also have oxtail soup.” He makes the oxtail soup especially for one of his customers, a 94-year-old regular from Hong Kong. Alongside the occasional sumo wrestler, patrons from overseas make up a sizeable chunk of the clientele at Shima. Many of them come to see Oshima – and to eat his steak – every time they come to Tokyo. The chef appears humbled by his patrons’ strong loyalty to his restaurant. Especially given that, typically, they’re self-confident … Read More

Kohaku

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Fumihiko Kimura, Bartender. Kohaku cocktail bar

Fumihiko Kimura was on track to become an engineer. When he graduated from university, he found a job at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. But he lasted just two years. His mother had other plans for him: she wanted him to become a bartender. It was the early 1970s and she was running Kohaku, one of the first western-style bars in Yushima, a former geisha district near Ueno. A discerning crowd patronised the place, including author Yukio Mishima, who liked to sit at the only table and drink gin and tonics. Mrs. Kimura had plans for her son to take over. “I hated the idea,” he says. “I thought working for a company would be more fun, but I didn’t have a choice.” His mother dispatched Kimura to Tokyo’s Palace Hotel to train under one of the era’s great bartenders, a man nicknamed ‘Mr Martini’. Kimura enjoyed the training, the atmosphere, and the camaraderie, but again it ended after two years when he was yanked back to Yushima. Fast-forward four decades and much has changed. The reluctant son has become an obsessive bartender, lauded for his cocktails and vast liquor selection. He says he has around 1,600 bottles – 3,000 counting duplicates – and he knows only roughly where most of them are. Some predate his career, like the tin-capped Haig whisky from 60 years back, or the bottle with a label so faded, it’s near impossible to read that it contains orange bitters. Kimura has contemporary spirits too, but his heart lies wistfully with the golden olden days. “The gins they make now, Scotch, bourbons, rums too, they just don’t have the body they used to,” he says. “My older customers know that, but the vintage bottles are rare and expensive, so I try to find other ways to introduce depth into a cocktail.” He might add brandy where the recipe doesn’t call for it, or a dash of something from Islay. The bitterness of an orange peel helps some drinks, he says. And then there’s his calvados jug, a little brown crock fashioned in France in the 19th century. The intervening century or so has effected some changes. The ornaments have either worn or fallen off. The original cork disintegrated long ago. But inside, something magical is happening. About 20 years ago Kimura filled the jug with a litre of young apple brandy. “Nothing much changed at first,” he says, “and then suddenly it just transformed, both in flavour and in colour.” He hasn’t emptied the jug since. When he serves calvados, he replaces it with spirit from a new bottle. It goes in crisp and alcoholic, swirls around with spirits of years and decades past, teases some 19th-century secrets from the clay, and comes out tasting like something squeezed from an apple pie. Kimura has been wondering whether he could magnify the effect by burying the jug in the ground. If pomegranates are in season the calvados contributes to his Jack Rose, a cocktail more commonly made with grenadine … Read More