Breakfast in Tokyo

In relative terms, breakfast is not a big part of the culture in Japan compared to other parts of the world where a full breakfast is almost ritualistic. In the U.S., there are places dedicated to serving hearty breakfast or brunch foods. Australians take their breakfast culture seriously that many of them can't begin their day without a proper breakfast. In Tokyo, many Japanese bakeries only open at 10am or after. Some kissaten (coffee shop) that only serve coffee drinks open at around noon. There are some bakeries in Tokyo that open as early as 8am, but they are European bakeries rather than Japanese ones. Travelers visiting Japan who are looking to start their day with a proper and full breakfast are usually directed to hotels where breakfast options are available.

Among other items, a traditional Japanese breakfast consists of items such as rice, fish, and miso soup though these are more commonly prepared at home (and served at a ryokan which is a traditional Japanese guesthouse). Of course, the word traditional is emphasized here. At present day when working people leave home early in the morning to join the commute, time cannot be afforded to eat such elaborate breakfasts at home everyday. So one might ask, how do the locals live and where would they go grab a quick bite in the morning before going off to work?

Hole-in-the-wall noodle shops open as early as 7am and early morning commuters go in, slurp up the bowl of delicious noodles in minutes, and are on their way. A bowl of hot steaming noodles in the morning especially in winter? We are sold. In fact we are instant fans. Jet lag means waking up early for T and I; we walk the streets of Ginza and then stumble upon a standing-only udon shop. We walk in and order our udon toppings. Tempura items are on the counter and if you'd like to add any of them, put them in your bowl; your bowl will be charged accordingly. We pay for our meal and stand by the high top tables with bowl in hand while slurping the slippery noodles that are perfectly al dente. What an inexpensive and satisfying way to start off the day.

Another morning we chance upon a diner which we like very, very much so. Located in at the Tsukiji Fish Market where Sushi Dai usually (and rightfully) steals the limelight from other eateries in the area, this diner offers non-sushi items at the fish market. Sitting on the high stools at the diner counter, we feel like we are transported to 1960s Tokyo. Lone customers come in (most of them are men) and grab a seat at the counter. After placing the order of coffee and their meal of choice for the morning, they open the day's newspaper which they bring with them.

People come here for an early morning meal and popular orders include butter toast, cucumber sandwiches, fried rice, and pasta Naporitan (Neopolitan). Lest you think fried rice or pasta are too heavy for an early meal, trust the Japanese diet-- how do they stay so thin? A simple pleasure like butter toast can be so tasty here. The Japanese in general bake their bread so well it's known to be soft and fluffy. Once it's toasted and slathered with butter and melted on the hot toast, it's heaven. Pasta Naporitan is a must-try in Japan even if not during breakfast. A very popular dish obviously inspired by Italian pasta but modified to suit Japanese tastebuds, the spaghetti noodles are stir-fried with ketchup, ham, onion, green peas, and mushrooms.

It's never too early to start our day with Pasta Naporitan, or a heartwarming bowl of udon.

The standing-only udon shop is located along Showa-dori, just off Chuo-dori in Ginza. 

The diner at Tsukiji Market can be found in the Outer Market area along the narrow alleyways of restaurants and shops.


Sushi Kanesaka

It's February 2013 and we have quite a bit of catching up to do here in this blog. We've traveled quite a bit at the end of 2012 (Istanbul in November, Tokyo and Kyoto in December) and when life gets back to normal in Chicago, it also gets busy. We've had wonderful memories with the very friendly Turkish people, and then a few weeks later experienced the exceptionally gracious hospitality of the Japanese. We couldn't have asked for a better way to cap off 2012. It's February and we still go back in time reminiscing Japan. Wow, wow, and wow.

Sushi Kanesaka

Being able to make it as a sushi chef in Japan is a sign of respect in itself. Being one of the top makes one even more celebrated in this respected profession. Sushi chefs in Japan go through years of training, even up to 10 years. For comparison, a sushi chef in America can land his or her first job after 12-week certification program (oh, shudder). Japanese sushi chefs take their skills seriously and it shows through in their craft. Word is that for Sukiyabashi Jiro (Michelin ***) owned by the venerable Chef Jiro Ono, you should plan on making a reservation up to 1 year ahead and if you are a gaijin who doesn't speak Japanese nor do you have a person fluent in Japanese with you, it is even more difficult to secure a reservation. The very good Sushi Mizutani (Michelin **) is said to not allow cameras as the sushi chef prefers the guest to eat the sushi right when it is served, at the right temperature. Also hailed as one of the best sushi chefs, Chef Shinji Kanesaka of Sushi Kanesaka (Michelin **), is known to be very personable and his restaurant offers a cosy atmosphere without the stern vibe like other places. Chef Kanesaka and his staff speak (basic) English too.

Sushi Kanesaka

Deciding on one splurge-worthy Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo can in fact be quite a dilemma. Having the reputation of holding the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, how do we pick which one to go to in Tokyo? After narrowing our options and based on what we felt like, our choice was Sushi Kanesaka (while already secretly hoping for a next trip to Tokyo so we can feast at the other Michelin-starred restaurants). Our reservation was made about 2.5 months ahead, and then we patiently waited until we got to Tokyo.

Chef Shinji Kanesaka

If anyone has been to Tokyo, you would know that the address system there can be pretty confusing. Not all streets have names; street blocks are numbered and buildings are numbered according to how old they are. Like many restaurants in Tokyo, Sushi Kanesaka can be difficult to find. It's located in the basement level of a building with no English signage. It was our first night in Tokyo and armed with our iPad and using the GPS, we saw a koban that we resorted to for directions. Thanks to a Japanese friend who gave us this practical tip before left for Japan: you can approach the koban (police box) for directions. The locals do it all the time. Even the Japanese get confused with their own address system. At the mention of the name Sushi Kanesaka, the police recognized it rightaway and gestured that it was just across the street from where we were standing.

The restaurants seats 14 people at a time. Chef Shinji Kanesaka takes care of the counter section at the back while his assistant chef takes of the front section closer to the entrance. We of course lucked out and was taken care of by Chef Kanesaka himself. In relative terms, Chef Kanesaka is considered young (he's in the 30s) and yet is impressively ranked among the top sushi chefs that are older than him in age. He is personable and occasionally engages in light hearted and brief dialogues in between moments when he puts his skills to work with the sushi knife and fish.


What makes Sushi Kanesaka so great is that as much emphasis is placed on the premium quality of fish, a great deal of attention is given to make the sushi rice perfect. When a piece of nigiri is served, the rice is very slightly warm and moist. Not too sticky but enough just to hold the rice together so they don't fall apart. In our mouths we feel each grain of rice and its perfect texture every time we pop a piece of nigiri into our mouths. The quality of the fish is unquestionably excellent and fresh.

The restaurant offers offers two options of omakase with the choice of either ¥20,000 or ¥30,000. Our decision to go with the first option turns out to be a good one. The variety of fish presented is excellent and there are more than enough items to make us so full. 

Raw oyster in the shell

Cod sausage liver

Sea bream

Bonito, with dipping sauce on the side (sweet soy sauce, ginger, scallions)

Steamed clam


When preparing nigiri, the chef traditionally brushes soy sauce over the fish so no additional soy sauce is needed. Nigiri is also traditionally and usually eaten with the hands. Pick up the piece of nigiri and put the whole piece into your mouth in one bite.

Maguro; first soaked in soy sauce, patted dry with paper, then served

O-toro, tuna belly



Horse mackerel with dill


Baby shrimp

Giant clam


Ikura; contrasting temperature of cold (ikura) and warm (rice)

Anago; soft and melt-in-the-mouth texture

Rolled maki with minced fish

The meal is capped off with a piece of tamago which sounds far from being indulgent since, you know, it's only egg after all. But the tamago really gave me the urge to say to Chef Kanesaka "This is the best tamago we've had". Inside the tamago the texture is custard-like. Chef Kanesaka's face lights up, smiles humbly, and says "It has shrimp in it". We tasted and saw no shrimp in it but maybe that's the secret to making the best tamago, ever.

Sushi Kanesaka
Misuzu Bldg B1F 
8-10-3 Ginza

2012 2-Michelin Stars
2011 2-Michelin Stars
2010 2-Michelin Stars


Practical Guide to Istanbul

#1. Carry a map
Use a map, iPad, iPhone, or paper map to orient yourself. Istanbul has many curved and narrow streets. The streets may bend to the right or slope to the left. The city is not built on a grid like Chicago or New York where you can just give straightforward directions such as "Walk two blocks and the restaurant is there".

#2. Explore the side streets
Once you have familiarized yourself with the area, it's time to put away the map. Explore. Wander around. The side streets of Istanbul are very worth exploring. You will experience the everyday walks of local life along the steep and cobblestone streets. Veer off to a side street that you did not walk on the day before and you will find that it eventually leads you to a familiar landmark.

#3. Where to stay
The most frequently asked question is "Should I stay in Sultanahmet or Taksim Square"? Stay in between. Sultanahmet is where the historical attractions are. You will be visiting the attractions during the day but do you really need to stay right by the Hagia Sophia or Blue Mosque? Sultanahmet puts you closer to the historical attractions and that also means the area is extremely touristy; many restaurants there cater to tourists. Taksim Square is in the Beyoğlu district where the main dining and nightlife area at. Beyoğlu is where the Istanbullus go play and dine. Taksim Square, however, is at the northern end of the Beyoğlu district. Staying closer to the southern end of Beyoğlu (near the Tunel station or the Galata Tower) puts you right in between and gives you the best of worlds. In the evening, relax and dine among the locals in Beyoğlu.

#4.  Plan to carry enough cash
We usually use our credit cards when traveling, but in Istanbul, don't be overly conservative when planning on how much cash to bring with you. Though many restaurants accept credit cards, tipping is done with cash only. You can't add the tip onto the amount of your meal to be charged to the credit card.  You don't need to tip as much as you would in the U.S., but it will surely add up especially when eating out at every meal.

#5. WC
You will rarely need to hold your bladder in Istanbul. Every mosque has women and men toilets. Since there is a mosque almost everywhere you go, public restrooms are easily available. Keep a small stash of coins with you for entry into the toilets.

#6. Istanbulkart
The transit card can be used on trams, buses, and ferries. Istanbulkarts can be purchased from stations and also newspaper vendors. A deposit of 10TL is required for each Istanbulkart. You choose how much credit you would like to load onto your card. Keep the receipt from your Istanbulkart purchase. At the end of your trip, return the Istanbulkart together with the receipt to get back the deposit. One Istanbulkart can be used for multiple persons.

#7. Turkish words
While many Turkish people can speak English, a good lot of them also do not. Learning some useful Turkish words or phrases will help you go a long way. Knowing how to say some of the food items in their Turkish names will come in handy. Sure, you can gesture how many of this and that you'd like to have but there's only so much you can gesture. Knowing how to order Turkish coffee the way you like it with the right Turkish words will also prove very useful. In Turkey, you order the Turkish coffee according to the level of sweetness i.e. sade [sah-dey] for plain, az şekerli [ahz sheh-kehr-lee] for little sugar, orta şekerli [or-tah sheh-kehr-lee] for medium sugar, çok şekerli [chok sheh-kehr-lee] for a lot of sugar. The Turkish people are incredibly friendly and will try their best to understand you even if they don't speak good English. After all, it's all about learning from each other.

#8. Street food
You can find many of the street foods sold along Istiklal Caddesi, the main avenue in Beyoğlu. This is by no means an exhaustive list--
Simit: ring-shaped roll with sesame seeds. Think of it as a Turkish bagel.
Börek: flaky pastry with several types of filling e.g. meat.
ner kebap: meat cooked on a rotating spit.
Stuffed mussels: a popular winter favorite, mussels stuffed with flavored rice, nuts, currants, nuts.
Roasted chestnuts: another popular winter favorite.
Kokoreç: grilled lamb intestines
Fruit juice: fresh fruit juice stands are everywhere in Istanbul. Stay away from the overpriced vendors in Sultanahmet. Fruit juice stands are at every corner in Beyoğlu and other areas for half the price.


An unexpected gem: Hole-in-the-wall kebap diner

Sometimes one of the best things are found after we put our maps away, wander the streets, and then discover a totally unexpected gem. It was our last night in Istanbul and we already had dinner earlier in the night along the lively street of Nevizade Sokak before getting a round of drinks at the local pub. The word "late" never really means anything in Beyoğlu since the night is always young with Istanbullus out and about walking the streets even past midnight. We had an intense craving for good lentil soup after having an excellent bowl at Karaköy Özsüt a few days earlier. Well, the night is always young in Istanbul, right? So we decided it wasn't quite time for our last sleep in Istanbul just yet and went in search for lentil soup. We turned onto the narrow street of Asmalımescit, another cobbled stone alleyway popular for its meyhane (tavernas) and pubs. The most inconspicuous place on this street is a hole-in-the-wall kebap restaurant with the most unattractive facade. An employee stood outside gesturing us in and speaking Turkish to us. We then asked "Lentil soup? Soup?" He replied to us in Turkish and based on his facial expression, we gathered that they either did not have lentil soup or that he didn't quite understand us. He then wildly waved us in to take a look inside. The enthusiastic man went right into the open kitchen, removed the lid from a huge metal pot, proceeded to ladle up what was in the pot, and then showed it to us while saying these three words in English, "It's very good". They had soup and it looked close enough to lentil soup. We looked into the kitchen and the chefs were grilling kebabs on iron skewers on the open grill. Yes, we were sold. The kebap place is tiny with only 3 low tables. The open kitchen was literally just there as we walked in.

The soup was ever so delicious. T and I later figured that it was probably red lentil and bulgur soup. The ufta kebap was especially tasty for a late night meal but the highlight was undoubtedly the very large metal tray that came with 8 types of sides to go with the kebap. The sides included chopped parsley with spices and oil, grilled tomato with spices, pickled whole baby yellow peppers, sliced cucumber and tomato, raw onion slices with spices, tomato and onion salsa mix, and raw garlic cloves. Oh my goodness. The kebap came with thin sheets of flour wrap. We sliced off some meat, placed it onto the piece of wrap, added the side(s) we wanted, rolled it up, and ate. Then repeated with a different combination of sides with the remaining meat and wraps. We sat on the low wooden stools at the low tables, ate, and just watched the Istanbullus walk by outside either on their way to or from the pubs along the street of Asmalımescit. Absolutely the best way to end our night in Istanbul.


Liveliest dinner on Nevizade Sokak

The sun is down and it's time to unwind. Nevizade Sokak is where you will find many Istanbullu that make this street known as the liveliest in Istanbul's Beyoğlu [bey-yoh-lu] area. The cobble stone alleyway of Nevizade Sokak is cramped but there is space for many lively seafood and meze restaurants. People are here for the food and atmosphere. Nevermind the narrow alleyway, every restaurant still makes space for alfresco dining even in the cold and wet weather, thanks to the outdoor heating lamps. Nothing keeps people from having a good time eating and drinking on this street. It's casual. It's loud. It's Istanbul at her liveliest. The very nice thing about Nevizade Sokak is that you can't go wrong with any restaurant you pick so just go with any restaurant that calls out to your stomach.

A large tray with choices and choices of mezes (small dishes) is brought to the table for people to select from the kitchen offerings. The mezes are shared at the table and enjoyed at your own (slow) pace while chatting and drinking. When you are ready for the main courses, place your order and enjoy even more food. Seafood (fish especially) is popular given the close proximity of Istanbul to the sea. A night out is not complete without fish.

We start our night with hamsi (anchovies) that are cured and lightly drizzled with sesame oil. Anchovies are seasonal and a huge local favorite during the winter months. Other small plates include the smoked fish with strips of raw onions and garlic cloves on the side, cold octopus salad, and the very spicy stuffed peppers with cheese. The grilled whole sea bream is a must (or just about any other fish they have). Lightly squeeze the fresh lemon wedges over the grilled fish and eat it with a small side of arugula. Oh my... we could have this every night.