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Old-fashioned eats: Japan's soul food
The time-tested classics that built a nation and where to try them for yourself
We know it’s obvious, but Tokyo is home to the best Japanese restaurants on the planet. Countless thousands of them, in fact.
So many, it’s hard to know where to start. From the outside everything seems so sleek and modern, you feel you could be anywhere.
Behind its modern façade, though, Tokyo still has many restaurants where tradition rules, both inside and out -- in the kitchen, on the table and in that unmistakable ethos that you can only find in Japan.
Here are five all-time classics to try if you want to sample Japan’s true soul food.
Botan is legendary. Firstly, there’s the setting -- a stately two-story timber townhouse built in the early 1930s that survived the bombs of war and has been lovingly preserved ever since.
And of course you dine in the age-old style, sitting at tiny low tables on thin zabuton cushions on the tatami mats.
But what’s really remarkable is that there’s only one dish on the menu, chicken sukiyaki (¥6,900).
Better yet, it’s prepared in exactly the same way as when Botan was founded 120 years ago: Cooked in a heavy cast-iron pan over a glowing charcoal brazier set right next to your table.
Most of the actual work is done for you by the waitresses, all no-nonsense, kimono-clad matrons who bustle around ferrying beer and sake.
They get the sukiyaki sizzling, then add just the right amount of the special sweetened soy sauce, and show you how to season the various cuts of chicken with the dip of raw egg. Just the way it’s always been done.
Botan, 1-15 Sudacho, Chiyoda-ku; +81 (0) 3 3251 0577; 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. (last seating 8 p.m.); closed Sunday and holidays.
For more than half a century, Tsunahachi has made a virtue of serving quality tempura at prices that don’t cost a shogun’s ransom.
The approach has been so successful it’s sprouted offshoots around Tokyo and other parts of Japan.
While most of those branches are smart, bright and modern, the flagship restaurant remains in its original premises, a well-worn wooden building that flies the flag for tradition in the increasingly brash back streets of Shinjuku.
Rather than a single dining room, Tsunahachi offers tables and semi-private alcoves over two floors, as well as several counter seats where you can sit and watch the chefs at work, serving the tempura directly from their deep-frying woks to your plate.
Seafood, vegetables, mushrooms and more, everything is crisp, tasty and piping hot.
Certainly, the batter is not as ethereally light and delicate as you’d find at one of the high-end tempura houses. And yes, the stairs and beams do betray the ingrained patina and aroma of age and cooking oil.
But you can’t argue with the prices. The set lunch menu is great value at ¥1,500. In the evening, count on spending more -- from ¥3,500 a head.
Tsunahachi Honten, 3-31-8 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; +81 (0) 3 3352 1012; daily 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. (last order 10 p.m.). www.tunahachi.co.jp
More on CNNGo: 2012 Ultimate Tokyo Dining Guide
Unagi (freshwater eel) was long considered a food of the Tokyo townspeople: The aristocrats didn’t know what they were missing.
Prepared in the classic kabayaki style -- broiled, steamed, broiled again, slathered with sweetened soy sauce and served with rice -- this is one of the unsung delicacies of Japanese cuisine.
Nowhere does it better or with a greater sense of tradition than Nodaiwa.
Standing in the shadow of Tokyo Tower, this proud old restaurant looks as though it’s been there for centuries.
In fact, the core of the building is an old storehouse that was transported down from the highlands of Takayama some 40 years ago.
Inside and out, it’s a masterpiece, with sturdy pillars and beams, dining room seats upholstered in red velvet and a polished staircase leading to the private rooms upstairs.
Since the old days, unagi has been considered an energy food, touted for its restorative properties especially in the heat of summer.
The current owner, Kanemoto-san, is a living advertisement for eel power. Now in his 80s and so spry he goes mountain hiking most weekends, he is the fifth generation of his family to run the business,
With his son working by his side in the kitchen, this long tradition is in safe hands.
Nodaiwa, 1-5-4 Higashi-Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo; +81 (0) 3 3583 7852; 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m., 5-8 p.m. (last seating), closed Sunday. www.nodaiwa.co.jp
4. Kappo Yoshiba
If there’s anyone who still thinks Japanese cuisine is all dainty and delicate, two words in your ear: Chanko nabe.
The staple diet of sumo wrestlers and the secret behind their massive girth, these hefty one-pot casseroles of fish, clams, meat, vegetables, mushrooms and noodles are hearty and satisfying, perfect for keeping out the winter chill.
Tokyo has many specialist chanko restaurants; most of them run by former wrestlers.
None has a pedigree to compare with Kappo Yoshiba. Not only is it named after a former yokozuna grand champion, but it’s also housed inside the actual building where he lived and trained, just a short walk from the Kokugikan sumo stadium.
Yoshiba’s imposing roofs and gables evoke a cross between a kabuki theater and an old-style public bathhouse.
But it's the inside that really impresses. You sit at low tables set up around an actual dohyo, a sumo ring that once shuddered under the weight of the man-mountains in action. Tucking into your hotpot, you can almost hear the thuds echoing around the soaring beams and ceiling overhead.
Kappo Yoshiba, 2-14-5 Yokoami, Sumida-ku, Tokyo; +81 (0) 3 3623 4480; 11.30 a.m.-1.30 p.m., 5-10 p.m., closed Sunday and national holidays. www.kapou-yoshiba.jp
Kanda Yabu Soba is more than merely a restaurant -- it’s a veritable institution. It has been serving soba -- hand-rolled, hand-chopped buckwheat noodles -- for almost as long as Tokyo has been the capital of Japan.
Founded in 1880, it is revered by connoisseurs not so much for its noodles, worthy and nourishing as they are, but as a living, breathing monument to a traditional way of eating that has all but vanished.
The setting is unique in Tokyo: A single-story wooden villa set in its own little compound, complete with a minimalist garden.
Waitresses in kimono show you to your table (either with chairs or on tatami mats), then relay your order to the kitchen in a curious lilting chant.
At lunchtime, people drop in for simple noodle dishes -- the cold seiro soba (noodles with a dip, ¥700); or the house specialty ten-tane soba, the same cold noodles served with a side order of tempura shrimps on the side (¥1,400); or anago (conger eel, ¥1,400).
Later in the afternoon, locals congregate for leisurely sessions with beer or sake, simple side dishes and conversation aplenty.
Kanda Yabu Soba, 2-10 Kanda-Awajicho, Minato-ku; +81 (0) 3 3251 0287; daily 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. www.yabusoba.net
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