Something Fishy at Ramen Nagi

Last month, a friend sent me a message asking if I had eaten at Ramen Nagi in Golden Gai. He must have realized that I spend a lot of time scouting out the best ramen shops in Tokyo for people who come to visit us. I know, the sacrifices I have to make…

Truthfully, I had never been to Ramen Nagi and I was a bit intimidated about eating in Golden Gai but it turned out to be a good experience. Like many places in Golden Gai, it looked a little sketchy from outside with a hand-scrawled sign in English over the door  (and misspelled at that) and a very steep and narrow stairway up to the restaurant. To be fair, if you can read Japanese, it does say Ramen Nagi, open 24 hours on the sign next to the door.

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Once inside, you are seated at a narrow counter with about 12 seats. True to ramen culture, your goal is to eat your ramen as quickly as possible and get out to make room for the people queuing up behind you. Fortunately, I went very early so there were not many people waiting to be seated and I was able to take a few photos.

To be clear, Ramen Nagi is about the fish. The broth is famously made from dried baby sardines and the flavor is, well, sardine-y. If you don’t like sardines, you’ve come to the wrong place. Even the vinegar used to season your ramen is sardine-infused.

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But Ramen Nagi has the mysterious Japanese umami flavor in abundance, and the soup never seems overpowered by fishiness, but rather a nice balance of the smoky, salty broth combined with the fish and nori sheets. The ramen itself is very thick and wavy, a technique used by ramen chefs who want you to really experience the flavor of the broth in every bite. Broth clings to wavy noodles and the thickness absorbs some of the liquid.

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Given that Ramen Nagi is open 24 hours, it would be a great choice for those who miss the last train, voluntarily or involuntarily, and want a bowl of something delicious to see them through to daybreak.

As for me, it broke through my irrational fear of eating in Golden Gai and added another notch on my “best ramen in Tokyo” belt.

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A Ten Dollar Cup of Coffee In Tokyo

In the 1980’s, when the economy of Japan roared like a lion, Americans returning from Japan would shock their friends by telling them that a cup of coffee in Tokyo costs ten dollars. Ironically, it was probably the introduction of Starbucks into Tokyo in the late-1990’s that eventually drove the cost of a decent cup of coffee down below five dollars. Today, with a Starbucks in every neighborhood, Japanese cafes like Tully’s and Doutor at every train station, and gourmet coffee sold even at local combini, cheap coffee is literally a few paces from anywhere you might be. So imagine my surprise when I sat down at the rustic wooden counter at Bon in Shinjuku, opened the menu and found a ten dollar cup of coffee on the menu.

To be more accurate, 1,080 yen, not quite ten dollars at today’s exchange rate, but a couple years ago, closer to twelve dollars. And not just one cup of coffee, but a half dozen different cups of coffee ranging from 1,080 to 1,400 yen. There was even something called “Coffee Service” on the menu that was priced well over thirty dollars.

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On any other day, I would have given the barista an embarrassed smile and quickly excused myself to the nearest Mister Donut, where I could get coffee and a half a dozen donuts for that price. But I had purposely sought out Bon, intrigued by a short article I found in a coffee mook (a “mook” in Japan is a magazine-book). The current crop of Tokyo cafes are hipster-minimalist with unfinished wood tables and exposed pipe in the ceilings. Bon looked like a cafe right out of the 1960’s; from the photos it was almost like you could smell the smoky aroma of cigarettes seeping out of the aged oak counter and shelves. I had to experience it for myself.

In my younger days I played a Nintendo game called “Animal Crossing” where you play a human character living in a town where all your neighbors are animals. In the basement of the museum of your town was The Roost, a dark little cafe run by a pigeon named Brewster. The more you frequent The Roost, the more you realize what a terrific barisa Brewster is. This is sort of how I imagined Bon. After all, I was standing on the sidewalk outside the cafe for several minutes before I recognized the kanji on the sign and decended the steep dark stairs into the shop.

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I ordered the Brazilian coffee from the several different ten dollar types on the menu and watched as the barista ground the beans and made an expert pour-over with the little volcano of grounds forming in the middle of the filter. Minutes later, a small pot of coffee (which was closer to 1.5 cups) was set in front of me along with one of the hundreds of unique cups Bon has on its shelves (which I would later learn was more than 1500). A tray with a bowl of coarse sugar and chilled cream was also provided.

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I would like to be able to say that Bon’s ten dollar coffee was the best I’ve ever had. In truth, it was merely good, better than the overrated Blue Bottle in San Francisco but not as good as little Ekoda Coffee down the street from our church. However, I will say it was the best ten dollar cup of coffee I’ve ever had. And hopefully, the only one.

Everyday Japan – Yakitori

Stepping into the narrow smoke-filled alley, I squeeze past a mix of white-shirted “salarymen”, a gaggle of eastern European tourists, and Japanese hipsters snapping pictures with iPhones. On both sides, impossibly narrow shops consisting of a counter, a few bar stools and a charcoal grill are crammed full of people, shoulder-to-sweaty-shoulder, enjoying a hot summer evening eating yakitori.

Yakitori dining isn’t as much about eating as it is fellowship. It’s a time to get together with friends and throw back a few beers (or something stronger) while dining on skewers of grilled chicken, yakitori. Yakitori can’t necessarily be compared to American BBQ. Yakitori is a chicken head-to-tail delicacy. Yes, there are the old standards of thigh meat, interspersed with Japanese leeks and called “negima” or for the carnivores, just the meat, (momo), grilled wings (tebasaki), and ground chicken (tsukune). But there are also more exotic yakitori: chicken skin (kawa), tails (bonjiri), liver (rebaa), hearts (hato/kokoro), and cartilage (nankotsu).

Outside the West exit of the behemoth Shinjuku Station stands a remnant of the past that remains as popular today as it was when it opened 70 years ago. In fact, it is now called Omoide Yokocho, Memory Alley, in honor of its history, though its actual name in the past was Shomben Yokocho, or Piss Alley. I’ll leave it to your imagination how it got that name. Right after WW2 when food was scarce, entrepreneurial folks set up makeshift stalls outside of Shinjuku Station selling small pieces of chicken meat (and parts) that were easily obtained from Allied occupational forces. These stalls became Omoide Yokocho, and have become such a part of the neighborhood that the community rebuilt the whole area when a fire nearly gutted it in the 1990s.

Quite the opposite of how many people think of Japan, Omoide Yokocho is rowdy and gritty (though not dangerous), full of loud laughter and coarse joking among comrades. Thousands of Japanese salarymen filter through the alley every weeknight, using the easy atmosphere and free-flowing alcohol to blow off steam from their stressful or boring jobs. If the Tokyo workforce seems robotic during the workday, this is a great place to visit to remind yourself that they, like you, are regular human beings who need time to relax and friends to be themselves around.

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Tokyo Redux – Lunch, Compartmentalized

Tokyo Redux - Lunch, Compartmentalized

Let this be a warning to you world travelers. If you love to take pictures of your food but you want to remember the actual restaurant that you ate in, it might be a good idea to photograph the name of the restaurant (menu, outside, or whatever) at the same general time. Otherwise, you end up with a great picture of your lunch and no way to explain to people where you ate it. Well, it’s somewhere in Lumine, Shinjuku. I’m sure you’ll find it.

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Tokyo Redux – Fruit Tart Amazing

Tokyo Redux - Fruit Tart Amazing

Note: While we are preparing to move to Japan, I am going through some of my photos taken over the past few years of things I’d like to share about my experience in Tokyo as a visitor. Even while we live there, I hope to never lose my sense of wonder about what an interesting and other-worldly place Tokyo truly is. These posts will be titled “Tokyo Redux”.

This was one of several incredible fruit tarts on sale by the slice in the depachika of Keio Department Store in Shinjuku. Depachika are the food sections of the department stores, found on the basement levels. While generally more expensive than grocery stores and other places to get take out prepared foods, the quality and selection of the depachika foods is something to marvel at. I encourage you to “window shop” but only on a full stomach!