Sakurai: The Ultimate Tokyo Tea Experience

Sakurai: The Ultimate Tokyo Tea Experience

The season of Autumn is upon us, though it hardly matters to those of us who reside near the Equator.

In Japan however, it means that temperatures are slowly dropping, typically reaching a cool range of about 23˚C to 28˚C in the day. With clear skies and cooling weathers, there’s no better time to explore Japan on foot. And if there’s one place that never stops giving, it’s Tokyo. A reason we love the capital of Japan is its ability to surprise you with a hyper-modern façade that hides pockets of centuries-old tradition in plain sight.

Enter Sakurai, a cosy 8-seater café that offers a comprehensive and exclusive inculcation into the world of Japanese tea making and appreciation. Helmed by tea master Shinya Sakurai, this small and intimate space is hidden five stories above the bustling alleys of Tokyo’s fashionable Aoyama district.

The entire space embodies the core design values of Simplicity founder Shinichiro Ogata, who helped conceptualise and design Sakurai. Ogata is well known for bringing the contemporary and the traditional together. What you get is a minimalist, but elegant space that places focus on the deep-rooted tea culture in Japan.

It is a full sensory ride as you enter the quaint shop of Sakurai. You’ll first smell the waft of the deep and earthy aroma of green tea leaves flowing through the air which soothes the mind and body. Your eyes then take a gander around the shop that is outfitted with copper fixtures and warm wood accents, adding to the calming atmosphere of the small café.

Behind the 8-seater bar are tea masters clad in laboratory coats serving up a wide array of teas and wagashi (sweets). You can choose your preferred tea leaf from the rather extensive menu or opt for a course tasting set that features a variety of tea leaves from steamed sencha, roasted hojicha, and powdered matcha. The tasting sets also come with small bites and traditional wagashi which pair amazingly well with the various teas.

The tea masters guide you through the process, educating and entrancing you with their methodical and delicate performance.

All in all, Sakurai offers up a masterclass in Japanese tea culture, exploring and imparting the intricacies of a time-honoured tradition through creative brewing methods and experiences hardly seen elsewhere such as eating the very same tea leaves that gave you those exquisite brews.

While Sakurai holds steadfast to its tradition, it doesn’t forget to keep up with the times and innovation is given equal importance. Apart from tea brews, Sakurai offers an exclusive range of sakes, tea-infused beer, and liquor that will perk anyone’s attention.

When you’re meandering through the busy streets of Aoyama, be sure to seek the quiet haven that is Sakurai. It’s just about the best way to learn about Japanese tea that has become so crucial in their culture, and take a breather from bustling Tokyo.

Address

5-6-23 Minamiaoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Opening Hours

Daily 11 AM to 11 PM

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5 Time-tested Traditional Restaurants in Asakusa Tokyo

5 Time-tested Traditional Restaurants in Asakusa Tokyo

It seems like almost everyone is waiting with bated breath for the next big food trend to sweep the world. 

And we totally get it, bizarre food combinations or funky flavours are a trendy topic, injecting new life into the food world that can get stale for an everyday person eating the same few selections day in day out. 

In Japan, the country holds steadfast to its traditions and culinary heritage, and it’s typical to see small 15 to 20 seater shops that have been open for business for generations, unflinching in the face of rainbow grilled cheese or the latest food fad. 

In today’s foodscape, funky flavours or Instagrammable food has become a thing, and if you’re not caught up with the times, it’s easy to fade out of the minds of people. 

Traditional Japanese restaurants however, care not for the latest “in” food but focus on working tirelessly at perfecting their craft. If you’re looking for restaurants that have stood the test of time, serving decades old recipes, we recommend you pay these five venerable establishments a visit.

1. Asakusa Imahan

Asakusa Imahan has been serving traditional Japanese hotpot (Sukiyaki and Shabu-Shabu) for 124 years now, opening back in 1895. An institution in the Asakusa area, this historic culinary establishment is a stone’s throw away from the famed Senso-ji Temple. 

The preparation and consumption of both hotpot dishes are generally straightforward and simple — for Sukiyaki, beef (usually, though there are pork options) and vegetables are simmered in a sweet-salty sauce before being dipped in raw egg and for Shabu-Shabu, beef (again, there are pork alternatives) and vegetables are cooked in a broth before dipping in various sauces and taken with rice or noodles. 

What makes Asakusa Imahan stand out and continue to stand the test of time? The beef. The chefs at Asakusa Imahan insist on sourcing for the finest wagyu beef for its restaurants. 

Whether you opt for Sukiyaki or Shabu-Shabu, the lush marbling of wagyu beef at Asakusa Imahan will ensure that each slice of beef has a good ratio of fat to meat, giving you that perfect mouthful. 

Address:

3-1-12 Nishi-Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo, Japan

Opening Hours:

Daily 11:30 AM – 9:30 PM

2. Daikokuya Tempura

Tempura and Tendon are both supremely famous in Asakusa and there are honestly no shortage of restaurants you can choose from. 

Daikokuya Tempura is not the oldest tempura establishment in Asakusa, that honour probably goes to Nakasei. Daikokuya Tempura is not the most popular one either, that would be Masara. 

Upon entering Daikokuya, you’ll see it on practically every table, the tendon is what you’re here to order. Frying the Tempura exclusively in sesame oil, what makes Daikokuya Tempura special is that they dredge their tempura in dipping sauce before serving which results in it having a darker hue than usual. 

Operating since 1887, Daikokuya Tempura has been serving the Asakusa crowd for over a hundred years now. Also located near Senso-ji Temple, it’s a popular meal spot for anyone visiting the temple. 

Address:

1-38-10 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo, 111-0032

Opening Hours:

Sunday-Friday: 11 AM 8:30 PM, Saturday: 11 AM 9 PM

3. Asakusa Unatetsu

Charcoal-grilled to perfection and slathered with a sweet and sticky teriyaki sauce, a well-done unagi is certainly hard to beat. Asakusa Unatetsu is well known for their Hitsumabushi, which features finely chopped unagi before being placed on top of a bed of rice. 

What makes Hitsumabushi unique as well is the eating process/method. Differing from that of a typical Unadon, the unagi can be enjoyed in three different ways, each giving you a different experience. 

The first step would be to consume the unagi as it is, this will allow you to get a taste of the unagi without any added flavours. Next, add the various condiments (wasabi, chopped leek, etc.) and you’ll start to see how each condiment adds flavours and textures to the unagi. Lastly mix the unagi and rice with the dashi soup stock which would turn the dish into something of a rice porridge which is comforting and warms the body. 

There are many versions at Asakusa Unatetsu and we hear that the Shiraiyaki (eel cooked in fired pottery) comes highly recommended. The eel is seasoned with just salt and there’s no tare (sweet) sauce added during the preparation which means you’ll taste the natural flavour of the eel. Of course, the well-loved tare version is available as well!

Address:

1 Chome-2-11 Hanakawado, Taito City, Tokyo 111-0033, Japan

Opening Hours:

Daily 11:15 AM – 10 PM

4. Asakusa Mugitoro

Asakusa Mugitoro has been around 90 years, serving up traditional mugitoro since 1929. Mugitoro features boiled barley and rice topped with grated Japanese yam (tororo). 

Known for its sticky and slightly mushy texture, the tororo gives the overall dish a sweet taste. Mugitoro, however, is subtle and light, usually paired with side dishes that are generally stronger in flavour such as tuna pickled in soy sauce, or asari clams.

Asakusa Mugitoro offers a popular weekday lunch buffet that features their signature mugitoro which can be paired with a host of various ingredients from tamagoyaki (Japanese fried egg) to sashimi. 

Address:

2 Chome-2-4 Kaminarimon, Taito City, Tokyo 111-0034, Japan

Opening Hours:

Monday-Friday: 11 AM 4 PM, 5 PM – 10:30 PM

Saturday & Sunday: 11 AM 10:30 PM

5. Tsukushi

Tsukushi is the youngest establishment on this list, operating for just over 40 years. The restaurant’s specialty lies in Monjayaki, which is essentially Asakusa’s answer to Osaka’s famous okonomiyaki. 

Monjayaki would be the furthest thing away from being Instagrammable. Cooking on a teppanyaki plate in front of you, monjayaki just looks like a gooey mess and far from appetising. 

Take one bite with your mini spatula, however, and you’ll be floored with the flavour that is packed in that mouthful. One of the best sellers is “Gomoku” which means “five ingredients” and you’ll typically find seafood such as squid and Sakura shrimp amongst others. 

If you want to give their version of okonomiyaki a try as well, the “Deluxe” is a crowd favourite, featuring squid, shrimp, minced beef, and even pork ribs. 

Address:

2 Chome-4-13 Asakusa, Taito City, Tokyo 111-0032, Japan

Opening Hours:

Wednesday-Monday: 11 AM 11 PM

Tuesday: 11 AM 5 PM

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Food Guide: Tokyo After 22:00

Food Guide: Tokyo After 22:00

Can you get a good meal after 22:00 in Tokyo? Absolutely. Approach any business-attired men and women, and they would gladly point you to the nearest ramen stall. And for the jet lagged who fancy a drink at 3am, head over to Shinjuku Golden Gai and find yourself making new friends in one of the tiniest bars along the neon-lit alley.

And considering what is on almost every corner of the street – the ubiquitous vending machines and 24hrs convenience marts which offer a wide array of food – you’ll find no problems scoring a 3-course meal for ¥2000 or less.

Japanese convenience marts may be the stuff of legend (Lawson’s egg salad sandwich is recommended by no less than Anthony Bourdain himself), but bento, instant noodles and sweet pancakes can only get you so far before you start wondering where the locals go to satisfy their late-night hunger pangs. Try these recommendations.

  1. JOMON ROPPONGI

Because no trip to Japan would be complete without smelling like the rich, charcoal-edged fumes of proper yakitori, we recommend dropping by Jomon Roppongi for their momo negima. The alternating pieces of juicy chicken thigh meat and Japanese leeks – grilled and basted with the cooking style’s signature savoury-sweet sauce – will leave you wanting more.

 

But the world-famous, crowd-pleasing dish nearly wasn’t to be. In Edo Tokyo (1603-1868), Buddhist influence saw the populace rejecting burning meat as a cooking method, regarding the smell distasteful.

Photo by Josh Wilburne on Unsplash

Instead, poultry would be cooked nimono style – simmered in broth – a preparation style still popular today. Thankfully, the Meji Era (1868 to 1912) saw the revival of sweet and salty tare, preserving the yakitori we know and love today.

Yakitori can be enjoyed at any time of the year. It is known for being the salaryman snack as there is always a yakitori-ya (grilled chicken skewer shop) near train stations for the tired men in suits to enjoy an after-work snack with beer.

So what sets Jomon apart from the other smaller yakitori joints that dot the streets of Tokyo?

Located away from the bustling main street of Roppongi, it’s easy to miss this local gem. There is no signage to catch the eye, and the stack of crates piled against the shop front doesn’t help either. But don’t be quick to dismiss Jomon based on its exterior. Instead, let your nose take over – the rich aroma of charred meat that waft off the grills has tempted countless passers-by, and you’ll find yourself joining the queue.

Despite its lack of décor, the cosy ambiance and congeniality of Jomon staff more than make up for it, explaining their popularity with the locals. Take the bar seat for an authentic yakitori experience: watch as the experts grill skewers of meat in front of you on an open fire until crispy on the outside, juicy and tender on the inside. There is also a wide variety of fruit wines and sake to pair with the grilled dishes which the staff will gladly recommend.

And here’s a tip from the locals: The authentic yakitori-ya grills their skewers over Japanese white charcoal called binchotan. If you find a yakitori-ya grilling over gas, move on to the next stall.

Address

5-9-17 Roppongi | Fujimori Bldg. 1F, Roppongi, Minato 106-0032, Tokyo Prefecture

Opening Hours

Mon to Fri: 5:30 PM – 11:45 PM

Sat to Sun: 5:30 PM – 5:00 AM

2. AFURI RAMEN

Ramen is the quintessential fast food of Japan and a culinary hit worldwide. You can find countless high-quality ramen shops offering their own take on the broth-and-noodle combination in Tokyo. Like many others, your first ramen encounter probably took place in the hallowed, history-drenched halls of long-standing franchises such as Ichiran or Ippudo, with the chains’ thick, rich and creamy tonkotsu (pork bone) broth serving as your initiation. But to be a true ramen devotee, you need to pay Afuri Ramen a visit. 

Afuri’s signature yuzu-shio ramen has a light and refreshing broth made from chicken, seaweed and seafood with a hint of yuzu. Each steaming bowl of edible art comes with a seasoned soft-boiled egg, bamboo shoots and a slice of melt-in-your-mouth grilled pork.

 

A clue to the popularity of Afuri Ramen may be discerned in the eatery’s name and logo. Fresh spring water from Mt. Afuri in Kanagawa Prefecture features as an exclusive ingredient in both the broth and noodles, which are made in a central kitchen at the foot of Mt. Afuri.

Photo by Leanne_Koh on Instagram

The original Afuri Ramen outlet, debuted in 2003, is a few minutes walk from Ebisu station. Tucked on a side street of the trendy Ebisu neighbourhood, the eatery features a minimalist, chic industrial exterior.

Ramen restaurants in Japan are designed to be utilitarian – Afuri can accommodate 15 to 20 diners, and one is expected not to hoard the seat after a meal. Upon entering, our presence was fervently acknowledged by young chefs donned in black shirts moving like clockwork in the open kitchen to assemble the perfect bowl of ramen. 

Like most ramen eateries in Tokyo, the ordering is done via an automated machine which can be nerve-racking, especially if you have people waiting in line behind. But fear not, the menu is also available in English. Each bowl of ramen in golden broth can be customised with different toppings and types of noodles. Add that extra slice of chargrilled pork, don’t hesitate. But take your time to savour it – each glistening slice bobbing in your bowl of Afuri ramen is freshly grilled over an open fire upon order.

In the mecca of ramen, Afuri is refreshingly unique, well worth the wait and the extra calories.

Address

1-1-7 Ebisu | 117 Bldg.1F, Ebisu, Shibuya 150-0013, Tokyo Prefecture

Opening Hours

Daily from 11:00am – 5:00am

3. TAKIZEN

Oden is a Japanese one-pot wonder – which seems deceptively simple – made using several ingredients like fishcakes, konjac, hard-boiled eggs, and white radish simmered in dashi, a savoury stock made from seaweed and dried bonito flakes. The key to a good pot of oden is the quality of dashi that brings out the umami taste.

Traditionally, oden is a warming winter stew and usually savoured with warm sake. When trays of oden can be seen in convenience stores, you’ll know winter has arrived.

Is there a place to enjoy oden all year round in Tokyo? Enter Ginza Corridor – a street that runs under the rail tracks which link Yurakucho Station and Shimbashi Station. Here is where you can find just about anything on this street, from chain gyoza restaurants to specialist Japanese wine and whiskey bars.

Look for an inconspicuous bar along the Ginza Corridor – spotting a black wooden door and an outdoor display stand. You’d think that this is yet another drinking spot – but you’d be only half correct. 

Photo by 77aresmars on Instagram

Inside, you’ll find the soothingly lit Takizen, where conversations and laughter dominate the smokeless atmosphere, and the smell of dashi lingers in the air. Follow your senses and you’ll soon spot the the simmering centrepiece at the bar – a large open metal pan of oden. Or, as Takizen fondly described on its menu, the soul food of Japan.

Sidle up to the open pan and pick and choose from different vegetables, tofu and fried fish paste – simply point and smile at the bartender. If you’re overwhelmed by what to order, a slice of daikon and konjac served with mustard on the side makes for a delicious and piping-hot introduction. The humble daikon, bursting with umami after simmering in dashi for hours, takes centerstage here, customary to its position as the one key ingredient no oden can go without. Meanwhile, konjac a gelatinous cake made from elephant yam retains its characteristic flavourlessness, but becomes oddly delectable when consumed with dashi.

To fully appreciate oden – its contrasting flavours and textures – it is best matched with sake. Check with the staff of Takizen for recommendations.

Be sure to try at least one of the tofu products like fukuro (fried tofu pouches stuffed with mushrooms and noodles), ganmo (fried tofu patties with vegetable bits) or atsu-age (fried tofu pieces) – doesn’t it all sound delicious?

Load up your bowl, take a seat at the bar counter, and watch the bartender and patrons keeping the place bumping through the night.

Address

7-108 Ginza, Chuo 104-0061, Tokyo Prefecture

Opening Hours

5:00pm -3:00am Daily (5:00am on Fridays)

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