A friend recently asked if I had any recommendations for yakitori spots in Tokyo… I mean, how long is a piece of string? Alongside sushi and ramen (which he also asked about and I think is even more of a minefield), yakitori is probably one of the most recognisable Japanese foods. ‘Yakitori’ which translates to ‘grilled chicken’ might just be meat on a stick, but in Japan where everything has a certain ceremony to it, this is meticulously prepared meat on a stick. Every piece of bite-sized chicken, which could be anything from breast, liver or even skin, is carefully selected and threaded onto a skewer before being seasoned with either shio (salt) or a tare made from a base of soy sauce and other flavourings.
During our time in Japan, we chewed through a lot of yakitori. You’ll find some yakitori on most izakaya menus as they pair so perfectly with a cold beer, but we did also visit a few yakitori-ya where they were even more extensive and creative in their use of the whole bird. As offal lovers, we were in heaven… livers and hearts were particular favourites. I think the best way to do a yakitori meal is to park yourself up at the bar, order a beer and get a steady stream of sticks until you’re full. Either let the chef choose (omakase) or get a mixed plate (moriwase) and then repeat the ones you particularly enjoyed!
Watching oversized and underdressed men push, pull, lift, and hold each other is not my usual idea of fun. On paper, it actually sounds a bit terrifying but in reality it was scintillating. My first foray into the uniquely Japanese world of sumo wrestling did not fail in surprising and thrilling me. I arrived at the arena with very little knowledge of sumo wrestling; the common stereotypes of very large men comically charging at each other were the extent of my shamefully uncultured knowledge, but I truly left with a new-found appreciation of the sport. Live sport rarely manages to hold my attention, however the speed and simplicity of sumo had me hooked, teetering on the edge of my seat, and cheering on the athletes like I had been a fan for years. This was without a doubt one of my favourite and most memorable experiences in our entire Japanese adventure so if you happen to be in Japan during one of the tournaments, you must go and experience it for yourself!
I remember that first sip well; it was chalky and abrasive, something I did not want to drink again. In hindsight, trying sake for the first time at a raucous, much-loved local BYO restaurant was not my smartest move. There’s a reason they suggest you bring your own booze. But I was young and stupid, and the bento box dinners were within easy reach of my university student budget. The sake was promptly chased by a gulp of cheap wine and classed as a tick off the drinks bucket list. The few experiences I had since then were better, though still not enough to turn it into a regular drink of choice. Trying it again in Japan would be the final test; my logic was that if I couldn’t like it here then I wouldn’t bother drinking it again. So to give myself and sake the best possible chance of getting along, we joined sake sommelier Yuma from Ninja Food Tours for a sake tasting class!
We may have arrived in Melbourne late into the night, but from the very first moment I saw its dazzling city lights, I was smitten. Often described as a grown up version of our hometown Wellington, and being just as varied but more laid back than London, it was no surprise that I felt completely at home in Australia’s second largest city. It is stylish, filled with culture, and has everything a food-obsessed traveller such as myself could want! I used to dismiss all those reports calling it one of the most liveable cities in the world as skewed promotion, but frankly I’m now a convert and it’s on the list as a possible future home for a certain someone and I.
With only a couple of days in the city, we decided to leave the suburbs for our next visit and mostly stick within the grid of the CBD. Not that this was in any way limiting. Visits to the National Gallery of Victoria, Botanic Gardens and the Shrine of Remembrance, walks along the Yarra River and a spot of shopping was more than enough to hold our interests. There was also plenty to sate our appetites; we only tried but a slither of Melbourne’s eateries but from what I tasted, I was impressed. It reminded me a lot of London’s food scene where the whole world is at your fingertips, there’s something to cater for every budget, and great places spread all over the city. We pretended to be Melbournians and brunched with the best of them, wandered around the city, then checked out some of the wide range of cuisines on offer…
When people ask me what I miss most from Wellington, I dutifully rattle off a list which ranges from the sentimental to the purely practical. This includes: my family, seeing the sea on a regular basis, walking from my central city apartment to my office in under thirty minutes, being on the waterfront with a drink in hand on one of those notoriously good Wellington days, and a hot chocolate from Mojo. All fairly simple and probably in common with other Wellingtonians who have left our windy city… but recently, I realised there was one more thing I would add to that list – the upstairs yakitori bar on Courtenay Place. Your eyes do not deceive you, yakitori in Wellington, even I surprise myself sometimes.
It is a wild card but I often find myself reminiscing about those umami-rich skewers; tended to lovingly by the chefs and devoured hungrily by the diners in that hazy den of a restaurant. It was one of our favourite haunts, the place we went when we wanted some soothing for the soul. I thought it was good back then, but it feels even better now that every attempt to find something to fill this yakitori-sized hole in my life has so far been a flop. However, being a glass-half-full sort, I picked myself up from the last disappointment and dragged us to Sakagura, a stylish izakaya tucked in that unassuming lane behind Regent Street which happens to be laden with eateries.
Aside from having the good fortune (or misfortune, depending on your perspective of family pecking orders) of being the first-born in my family, I’m rarely the first at anything else. I don’t even consider myself to be part of the competition in any sporting endeavours, let alone there being the possibility of coming first. Even in things that I could potentially have a chance at winning (random quizzes, debates, Connect 4 challenges) I think I lack that cut-throat competitive edge to really excel. So can you imagine my surprise when I came first at something, without even trying.
There we were, sitting at the bar in Ginza Onodera, studiously reviewing the cocktail list when I casually commented to the bartender that it sounded like they were still putting the furniture together downstairs. The sound of drilling and plastic sheets rustling around will do that. Turns out that yes, the finishing touches to the dining room were being made and we were in fact, the first people through their newly refurbished doors. Fancy that, me, first in a restaurant… I think I can officially call myself one of the obsessive London food set! I did suspect it as being a bit of friendly bartender banter until I stepped into the vast, very much on the swish side, and absolutely pristine dining room. Yep, I’ll take first place this time.
This was going to be the year I finally got to visit Japan, a country that I have been itching to get to since missing out on a school trip back when I was fourteen. Somewhere towards the end of 2016, we hatched a plan to spend three to six months in Japan, just eating, exploring and hopefully learning some Japanese. The length of time raised some eyebrows but we weren’t phased; we figured, if not now, then when?! Well it turns out, it won’t be now… and the when might actually be next year. Plans: some were made to be followed, while others were made to be broken. I’d like to think this one is just on hold.
The annoyingly sensible decision to put the brakes on this grand plan was made a couple of days before we ventured to Elizabeth Allen’s Shibui residency at Carousel, featuring her take on European and Japanese fusion cuisine. Ironic consolation or just rubbing salt in the wounds? I think if it had been bad, it would have been the latter but it wasn’t, so while we can’t yet experience the real deal, it was a good reminder than there are plenty of places in London where we can savour that taste of Japan in its many guises.