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Sunday, 4 December 2011

The London Foodie Goes to Japan - Tokyo (Part 1)

When I first started working in finance over 10 years ago, it didn't take me long to realise that my heart wasn't really in it. I was crazy about food even then, but only now have I had the confidence and means to leave my job in investment banking to pursue my true passion in life - cooking.

It was a long thought out decision, requiring years of planning and saving to finance a year at the full-time Cordon Bleu Grand Diplome course which I start in January 2012. During this period, writing The London Foodie has kept me more or less sane, by putting me in contact with others who shared the same feelings as I did, and motivating me to keep going.

Happo En Park in Meguro

Having a two month break between leaving the bank and starting Le Cordon Bleu, I decided to come to Japan to research and learn more about the food of my ancestors. For those who read this site, it is no secret that Japanese food is one of my great passions, and having started a series of Japanese supper clubs at my home, I felt it was time to gain a greater depth of understanding of this cuisine.

Shinjuku's Kabukicho District

Where to Stay in Tokyo

I came to Japan at the end of October, and rented a flat in the lovely Tokyo neighbourhood of Meguro. Renting in Tokyo is not easy. In the UK, I searched for flats using two of the main accommodation websites for foreigners in Tokyo - Sakura House and Tokyo Apartments.

Top of Mitshukoshi Building in Ginza

At the lower end of the market, Sakura House offers cheaper accommodation that ranges from guest houses to self-catering apartments. The catch here is that the flats are in distant suburbs, and are very small and unattractive. Tokyo Apartments offers serviced flats mostly for a minimum 90 day stay. Flats here are geared towards the ex-pat community in Tokyo and therefore are much more expensive, but also of far better quality. While searching on the Tokyo Apartments site, I noticed a price discrepancy between similar apartments depending on whether it was let to locals or foreigners. It would help if you had a native speaker who could help you search the Japanese accommodation sites as well as the ones in English.

My flat is spacious, with a large fitted kitchen (very unusual for Tokyo), and perfect for my purposes - cooking.

My Tokyo Flat's Kitchen - where I spend most of my days!

What to Do in Tokyo

Japanese Cookery Classes in Tokyo (in English)

The flat is owned, and is adjacent to the home of Kazuko-san, one of Japan's most renowned food stylists, who is also giving me a series of 1:1 cookery lessons throughout my stay here.

Classes take place in her beautiful American-style home (her husband is from the USA). Before each class, we go shopping for ingredients together at the local market, a valuable experience considering that labelling is all in Japanese. Kazuko-San explains the ingredients as we buy them, and when and how they should be used.

Cookery Class at Kazuko-San's

For my first class, we cooked an entire meal together over 2-3 hours. Of the five dishes we cooked, one of my favourites was the pan-fried tofu and chicken steaks served with two different sauces- oroshi ponzu (grated daikon radish in yuzu ponzu dressing) and teriyaki with strands of white spring onion. This would be easy to replicate in the UK, and looks and tastes fantastic.

Another lovely dish was a simple miso soup with aubergines and sesame dressing. We used a strong brown miso which was a good partner to the meaty aubergines. The aubergines were fried in pure sesame oil, which imparted a lovely nutty flavour to the soup. It was also interesting to learn her gomadare sauce (toasted sesame dressing), as her recipe differed from the one I usually use.

Work Experience at a Japanese Restaurant

I have also been fortunate enough to arrange work experience at an izakaya (Japanese small eats restaurant) in Naka Meguro. The izakaya is owned by 'Big Mama', a lady in her sixties who works single-handed six evenings a week cooking, and serving her customers. The place specialises in Yaki Niku (grilled meats) but the menu changes daily according to what she finds in the market and feels like cooking. There is a tiny printed menu, but her customers (mostly regulars) do not look at, ordering instead 'Omakase' (chef's choice).

Tiny Counter at Big Mama's Izakaya in Naka Meguro

The quality of the barbecued meats is outstanding, my favourites being thin slivers of fatty beef diaphragm which she seasons simply with a mixture of rock salt and kombu crystals (from seaweed) and marbled wagyu beef which she briefly dunks into a mixture of soy sauce, mirin and sugar before grilling.

Big Mama at Action!
In addition to the barbecued meats, there is always a daily special. As the evenings grow colder, recently we have had shabu shabu. This is a hotpot cooked at the table on a slow flame burner, using a base of light dashi stock, with vegetables and thinly sliced beef or pork. It is lighter in style compared with the sweeter sukiyaki, or more robust nabe or oden which include chunky root vegetables, tofu, eggs and koniyaku (yam jelly) among other ingredients.

After the shabu shabu ingredients are nearly all eaten, to use up the tasty broth, noodles or white rice are added together with a raw egg or two and heated through. It's a fantastic hearty dish, perfect for autumn and winter, and I will be serving it at my Japanese supperclubs.

Big Mama Cooking Shabu Shabu

Where to Eat in Tokyo

Tonkatsu (breaded, deep-fried pork cutlets) has never been high up on my list of Japanese culinary experiences, but an invitation from an old friend Atsushi (whom I met in London 20 years ago) proved me completely wrong. Atsushi promised me that Maisen Restaurant served the best Tonkatsu in the whole of Tokyo, so I didn't need much persuasion to give it a go.

Maisen is situated in the district of Harajuko, a young, hip shopping area equivalent to Camden Town in London. Tonkatsu dishes are normally served with thinly shredded cabbage and white rice and Tonkatsu sauce- a sweet brown condiment the colour and texture of HP, but sweeter and less vinegary. 

But what makes this restaurant a real standout is that it occupies a former pre-World War II public bathhouse. The main dining hall was once the changing room and sports a high ceiling and original architectural details. There's an English-language menu, but lunch specials (available until 4pm) are listed in Japanese only, though there are photos.

Tonkatsu dishes are sold at around ¥800 (around £6.50 at ¥120/ £) in most restaurants. At Maisen, they retail at around ¥2,500 (around £21 - price depending on the cut of pork chosen). As I savoured my first bite of meat, I understood why they could charge three times the going rate and still be so popular. The meat was delicious - soft and tender, with a crisp, ultra-light and virtually oil-free coating of panko breadcrumbs. Even the humble cabbage was crisp, green and flavoursome. I always thought this a very uninspiring accompaniment but could appreciate then why it goes so perfectly with the rich pork.

Since the introduction of deep frying to Japan by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the Japanese have taken a great fondness for the method, elevating it to a high art, as illustrated by the dish of tempura. Like sushi chefs, tempura cooks serve an apprenticeship of around 15 years until they have fully mastered the technique.

As is common in Japanese restaurants, Maisen specialises in just one savoury dish - in this case tonkatsu. For many years Maisen has been using the same local black pigs as the source of their pork, and the resulting tonkatsu is indeed the best I have ever eaten.

If you go, I suggest either an early or late visit, because as Atsushi and I left at midday, there was a massive queue of customers waiting to be seated. Highly recommended.

Travel Essentials

For accommodation in Tokyo, the two websites I recommend are Sakura House (budget, ranging from hotels, guesthouses to self-catering flats) and Tokyo Apartments (dearer, serviced apartments, higher quality).

For Japanese cookery classes, Kazuko-san speaks English and may able to offer cookery classes with or without accommodation to foreigners in Tokyo. By recommendation only. Contact me for more details.

For izakaya dining, if you would like to visit Big Mama's, the izakaya is at Naka Meguro. As you leave the tube station, turn left on Yamanate Dori, walk 50 metres along this road. Turn left again past Book Off (bookshop), the izakaya is a few metres along this narrow street on the right-hand side.

For the best Tonkatsu in Tokyo, visit Maisen Restaurant on 4-8-5 Jingumae, Harajuku, Tokyo. Phone: 03/3470-0071. Directions: from Omotesando Station (4 min.) - take the A2 exit and turn right on the side street between Ito Hospital and McDonald's (the one with HARAJUKU above it); take the 1st left and then an immediate right. It will be in the next block on the left.


  1. Luiz, it's so good to see you finally following your dreams, and lovely that you can take this breather between leaving the bank and starting at Cordon Bleu, though we've certainly been missing you here in London.
    Enjoy the rest of your time in Japan, and look forward to catching up with you in the new year.
    I hope you'll be blogging regularly about your experiences during the diploma, either on The London Foodie or on a secondary blog?
    x x x

  2. Amazing Luiz, I hope to read much more about your Japan adventures! I have never been to Tokyo, would love to go, I love Japan.

  3. I am sooo hungry now! and Tokyo looks pretty cool too :)

  4. Your trip sounds amazing Luiz, definitely would love to go to Japan at some point!

    Hope you have a fabulous trip, and am even more excited about your supper club when you get back!


  5. Gosh, looks and sounds like you're having an incredible time out there Luiz. Looking forwards to learning from you at your next Grazing Asia!

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  7. Reposting. Sounds like you are having a great time, and we are looking forward to seeing you in January (and me and Gina planning our easter Neapolitan menu)

  8. Wow! Jealous of your good eats (Oishii!) and travels in Tokyo. We've been meaning to go back to Japan since the passing of my husband's Japanese host father.

  9. I'm so pleased your following your dreams and passions. I hope to start steps toward following mine next year. Its a nervous, scary and exciting time. Your time in Tokyo sounds absolutely amazing! Enjoy.x

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  11. Hi Luiz,

    So glad to see bits of your adventure and that you're having a good time. Can't wait to hear more when you come back.

    Kay xx

  12. Luiz- It sounds like you are having the most amazing time and I am so thrilled for you to be following your dream in this way.

  13. Congratulations Luiz! It takes a lot of courage to leave the banking world, but I'm glad you've discovered that it is worth it. Sounds like you have already been having some great adventures in Tokyo!

  14. I'm so jealous! Looks like you had such a great time, I'm missing Tokyo now..But great to have you back!

  15. Luiz, I am super jealous! Tokyo looks totally amazing and Le Cordon Bleu has a patisserie course which I lust after...
    You are very brave :-)

  16. Luiz, I am so happy for you and so proud of you! Can't wait to see you and hear everything about Japan and your new life!

  17. Oh, this looks terrific Luiz! Hearty congratulations, I hope you are savouring every minute. x

  18. @ Kavey - thank you my dear for the kind words! I will be blogging about LCB although it will be from TLF, I am hardly managing to keep one blog uptodate, let alone 2!

    @ Ute - thanks Ute, how come you never came to Japan, I know you have been to Japan so why not Tokyo? Hope you will visit it soon.

    @ The Wine Sleuth - Denise, you are supposed to be here, where are you??!

    @ Risha - thanks for your comment Risha, look forward to seeing you again for Japanese Home Cooking Supper on the 7th January.

    @ Qin - thanks Qin, and I also look forward to seeing you in my kitchen again, it is hard work cooking Japanese food so your help will be appreciated.

    @ Federilli - Hi Fede, I look forward to feeding you at the Japanese Home Cooking Supper club and also seeing your Neapolitan Menu for London Cooking Club, so many delicious events to look forward to.

    @ Lily - thanks Lily for your comment, I hope you can return to Tokyo soon, cherry blossom viewing beckons this spring!

    @ Vintage Macaroon - hey Debbie, lovely to hear from you! Thanks for your comment, and I wish you every success, give me a call on Skype sometime, I look forward to hearing about your plans.

    @ Chopstix2Steaknives - thanks Kay, look forward to catching up in the new year, you will be my LCB mate!

    @ Gourmet Chick - thanks Cara, it was a tough decision, but I am now asking myself why I have taken so long to go ahead with it. Hope you are still enjoying your travels, you've been travelling for months!

    @ A Lady in London - it is true Julie, although I was so tired of that investment banking job, it was the right thing for me to do, and I now look forward to the future. Thanks for your comment, and I hope to catch soon.

    @ Joyce - thanks Joyce, I am still in Tokyo until Xmas, and thanks again for your lovely review of my Japanese Home Cooking Supper last October, I hope to be able to feed you and your mum again sometime.

    @ Miss Whiplash - many thanks, as an investment banking product controller yourself, I know you can sympathise! Merry Xmas.

    @ Maria - Ciao cara, lovely to hear from you, and thanks for your comment! It feels like an incredible journey since we first met at the Secret Ingredient supper club more than 2 years ago...

    @ Niamh - thanks Niamh, hope you are also enjoying your time in Hong Kong! Asia is wonderful, isn't it? I could easily live in Tokyo...

  19. Lovely pictures! You have explored Japan in an awesome manner,Congratulations for that. Happy Traveling!

  20. @ Online Foods Menus - thank you for your kind words, glad you enjoyed the post!

  21. What an absolutely brilliant trip you are having! I am drooling over that tonkatsu!


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