Oh, Tokyo. You have earned my lifelong reverence. Your warm welcome (and toilet bowl seats); your culture of respect for labor and laborers; your intricate attention to detail from subway murals to sushi. You are a most beautiful balance of yin and yang, hot and cold, timeless beauty and radical creativity.
It’s also true that Tokyo is a mecca for hard-core foodies. But you will need a tour guide. Otherwise you can only go as far as pantomime can take you. And, worse for the foodie, you will end up going to tourist-y places that only scratch the surface of the flavors of Tokyo.
Happily for me, our tour guide was a historian—professor Ambeth Ocampo, no less. After having taught Rizal and Philippine history for almost a year now at a Tokyo university, he knows the ins and outs of the city, including its foodie nooks. His favorite joints:
For ramen—Tao in Ginza
You think you know ramen if you’ve tried Ukokkei or Tsukiji’s versions? Think again. The ramen at Tao in Ginza will forever erase all your impressions of ramen. Here the ramen was white. The broth felt creamy (even if there was no cream) and was not oily from pork fat at all.
But when you slurped, the strong flavors of pork bone in which it was boiled consumed you. The flavors of the broth also stuck to the noodles.
Proof that it is a place where ramen is revered: I went at the height of lunch on a Monday and the room was silent, with everyone focused on their ramen. They must be praying to it or something.
For sushi—Misaki-maru in Chiyoda-ko
Misaki-maru stands for the name of a fishing boat, and this shop also has a few other branches. But true to its name, the sushi tasted like its ingredients were just fished out of the sea. A bite of the sushi here will inevitably put a smile on your lips.
I witnessed a young boy of around 10 eat seven plates of sushi, and that was a light day. Ambeth said the boy is there almost every afternoon and can consume as much as 15 plates. He may be training his palate to become the next Jiro.
Do not leave Tokyo without having a bite of otoro (fatty tuna belly), whether from this joint or elsewhere. While our tuna was dark pink, this was light pink, almost like salmon. And it felt so delicate and buttery. The chef does not recommend that you dip it in soy sauce with wasabi, to appreciate it in its pure form.
For yakitori—Tengu in Chiyoda-ko
Dean Fumi Terada, a friend of Ambeth, brought us to this cool local joint. Truth be told, this was the place we could relate the most to.
First, the stingray reminded us of our squid flakes. Second, a sour blue eggplant left in salty water overnight was reminiscent of our achara. On sticks: bituka, puso, liver. Parang street food sa kanto. Except less oily. And finally, chicken skin. Also less oily than our version.
But everything was so delectable, and you would not feel like your cholesterol went on overdrive afterward. Oh, do try the yaki onigiri (roasted rice balls), which you can dip directly into the fabulous soy sauce; and also the karaage. Yum!
For tempura—Tsuna-hachi in Shinjuku
I got recommendations from three different people to check out Tenichi, which has branches in Ginza and beside Imperial Hotel. And I did go and loved it.
But Ambeth’s recommended tempura place was even better—and cheaper! Make sure you get seated by the counter so that you can watch the tempura master work his art. Both Tenichi and Tsuna-hachi offer light battered tempura, unlike what we are used to here. It goes through a massive cleansing process so your tempura does not feel like ukoy.
But while at Tenichi the seafood is already presented on a basket when you arrive, at Tsuna-hachi you can still see the seafood alive behind the counter. This is why when you bite into it, the meat of the seafood is still oh so juicy. And while the batter is light, the tail of the prawn is so crispy you can happily munch away.
As in Tenichi, the chef will indicate which items to have with tempura sauce and which ones to appreciate with just salt.
But at Tsuna-hachi, there was also a gorgeous wasabi salt that was addictive!
Finally, you can end your meal with tempura ice cream—the best vanilla ice cream there is, made right in their kitchen with vanilla beans and then fried like prawn tempura.
This was recommended to me by the most gracious Bella Y., who I met through Sandy Daza and Cyrene de la Rosa two nights before I flew to Tokyo, and my father’s Japanese friend Mr. Hideo Nakahara.
I only have this to say: The Kobe sukiyaki here will hurt your pocket, but its flavors are priceless. It makes you finally understand why experts describe Kobe beef as “buttery.” Absolutely excellent.
For strawberries—The Perfect Fruit store, Ginza
“Make sure you try their white strawberries,” Bella Y. also advised. “Why are they white?” I asked.
I found a box at a store where Aleth Ocampo, private dining queen and sister of Ambeth, brought me. Six thousand yen for a box of 12! Namutla ata ang strawberry sa taas ng presyo kaya pumuti! But in the spirit of educating myself, I still bought a box.
The strawberries were larger than the ordinary ones, and perfectly red outside, almost like a painting. But once you sliced it in the middle, you saw it had a white spine. It was juicy in the most delicate way. Truly perfect—the Rolex of strawberries.
There is so much more to learn about and taste in Japan. Hopefully, Ambeth will have more finds to show us by our next visit!