Tofuya Ukai

At the foot of Tokyo Tower is a 100-year-old reconstructed sake brewery nestled in a beautifully manicured garden. Tofuya Ukai, a restaurant that focuses on tofu, calls this place home. Everything about this places emanates the Japanese culture-- grace, nature, delicate foods. 

Our experience with the food and service at Tofuya Ukai are flawless from start to finish. We check in with the very pleasant hostess and on the way to our private dining room, she explains to us that the building is a former sake brewery. We remove our shoes before entering our private dining room and walk in. The hostess helps us take our coats off, folds and places them inside an open box that is laid on the tatami covered floor. Finally she covers it up with a piece of floral cloth. Once we are settled in the room, our shoes outside the room are kept away and traditional Japanese slippers are placed on the steps outside. The slippers are to be used when we go to the restroom.

Kaiseki [kai-seh-ki], known as a traditional multi-course meal, is where the skills and techniques of the chef are greatly showcased. Each course is delicately and exquisitely prepared. Some even describe kaiseki as the haute cuisine of Japan (Note: kaiseki originated from Kyoto). At Tofuya Ukai, the kaiseki is focused on tofu. Lunch is a good time to dine at Tofuya Ukai as the lunch prices are almost half the price of dinner. Two lunch options are available; two of their dinner options are also made available at lunchtime. We decide on the Matsu lunch with the difference between this and the cheaper option being that the Matsu option comes with an extra course of spanish mackerel.

We begin our lunch with some sake served in a beautiful ceramic bottle poured into delicate drinking cups. Each time a course is served, our server slides open the door to our dining room, brings the tray of food in, carefully places them in front of us, and gracefully leaves the room again while sliding the door shut behind her. She leaves us to enjoy our food and we do that while enjoying the view of the beautifully manicured garden outside.

*Matsu Lunch*

1. Boiled quail meatball, pumpkin
The pumpkin mochi stands out with its perfect texture without being too chewy.

2. Deep fried tofu with sweet miso sauce
The thin slices of tofu are so perfectly crisp that we can hear us biting into the pieces.

3. Assorted sashimi
Yellowtail, amberjack, and tuna

4. Simmered crab, fried tofu ball

5. Ikura (salmon roe) and turnip, shrimp covered with rice crackers, and mushroom and green vegetables

6. Tofu in seasoned soy milk
The highlight of the meal is the soy milk soup made from fish stock resulting in an incredibly amazing soup with a savory-umami flavor that is usually not expected of soy milk. The server recommends enjoying it with a dash of shoyu (soy sauce) and dried kombu (kelp). Shoyu helps bring out the complex flavor from the combined soy milk and fish stock.

7. Spanish mackerel grilled with yuzu citrus

8. Steamed rice with sweet potato

9. Sweet azuki beans soup, sesame crusted mochi
Sweet and (very subtle) savory flavors surface on our taste buds at each sip and it doesn't feel odd to have a combination of sweet-savory for dessert.

At the of our meal, we are served a pot of hojicha (roasted green tea leaves resulting in brown colored tea). Our server asks how we enjoyed the meal and T says to her "Oishii" (it's delicious). She sincerely looks very happy to hear that, sits on her knees on the tatami mat, takes a deep slow bow with head almost touching her knees, and says "Arigato gozaimasu" (thank you very much). She leaves the room, brings our shoes, and places them outside the room for whenever we are ready to leave.

Tofuya Ukai
4-4-13 Shibakoen
Minato-ku, Tokyo


Golden Gai in Shinjuku

Tucked away in the bustling entertainment area of East Shinjuku is the inconspicuously located Golden Gai. Here, there are rows of narrow alleyways filled with tiny dive bars. The term hole-in-the-wall takes a literal meaning here with each bar seating only an average of 6 people at a time. Walking along the quiet alleyways feels like there's nothing much going on here but in fact there's an interesting world that exists behind these narrow doors and walls.

Every door is narrow; some are left open and some are close. All doors are opaque which means that for those that are closed we are unable see what is behind them. Closed doors, however, do not mean that the bar is shut for the evening. We see someone opening one of the closed doors to a bar and we quickly catch a glimpse of what's inside: there's life going on in there. This is a speakeasy scene at its best. Bars located on the second floor are accessible via narrow stairs. The bars may look shanty from the outside but word is that Golden Gai attracts even the rich and famous with many bars having their own regular customers.

Space is incredibly tiny in each of these bars but the number of them in existence (about 40) along the narrow alleyways is impressive. The sheer thought of the whole lot of speakeasy bars congregating together in this small area puts the meaning of "nightlife", "speakeasy", and "bar hopping" to shame in other countries.

We wander along and decide on having a drink at Cue Bar, one of the bars which has its door open. The place comfortably seats about 5 people (6 might be pushing it). The "chill dude" bartender is wearing a beanie over his head and R&B music is playing in the background. T and I each get uisukii to kora (whiskey and cola) and after the bartender mixes and hands us our drinks, he picks up his drinking glass behind the counter and cheers with us. A few minutes later, he opens the lid of a pot tucked away behind one end of the bar and dishes out two small bowls of Japanese chicken wing curry for us. We snack on curry and chips with our drinks. (Note: Many bars in Japan have a sitting fee though usually a light snack is served along it). We chat with the bartender-- us in our poor Nihongo (Japanese language) and the bartender in his equally poor Eigo (English). Never mind the language barrier. These are great times getting to know each other. He asks us "First time? Golden Gai Shinjuku?". We ask him if he is the owner and he replied "Staff". This bar has been open for 7 years, we learn. Later in the night, a friend of the bartender comes in and orders a drink. After she gets her drink, she picks up her glass and we all cheers while wishing each other Merii Kurisumasu (Merry Christmas). Oh, wonderful times that we enjoy so much. It feels special to be sitting at a local dive in Golden Gai like we are one of those in-the-know who veer off the very busy and bright neon lit streets of Shinjuku into this world of Golden Gai.

We see some curious tourists who walk pass the bars along the alleyways but they don't enter. As we sip our drinks from inside the bar we know this makes our night.


Omoide Yokocho aka Yakitori Lane

Call this place Omoide Yokocho or any other of the English names it is affectionately known as: Yakitori Lane, Piss Alley, or Memory Lane. Located next to the train tracks on the western side of Shinjuku station, the cramped alleyways of yakitori (skewered grilled meat) restaurants and bars bring us into a view of postwar Japan. Its inconspicuous location makes it a tad tricky to locate initially but once we are there it makes us temporarily forget that we are in Shinjuku, one of the busiest areas for business, entertainment, and shopping in Tokyo. Along Yakitori Lane are many hole-in-the-wall restaurants to choose from with each of them big enough to seat up to about 8 people at a time.

Sign for Asadachi


The most adventurously known restaurant along Yakitori Lane is Asadachi which in fact does not quite focus on yakitori alone but specializes in organs, pig testicles, and the infamous frog sashimi. We are the first customers for the night at Asadachi. We go in and seat ourselves on the bench along the very narrowly spaced restaurant that comfortably seats no more than 6 people. The chef stands behind the counter with his mother who helps out. One of their friends is there who appears just to be hanging out with them while chatting loudly in Japanese. That is when our hilarious evening begin mostly thanks to their friend who seems to be quite a funny lady herself. English is hardly spoken at Asadachi and there is a whole lot of hand gesture going on during our interactions.

Grilled whole frog

We each start with nama biru (draft beer) and then ask about the frog sashimi only to learn that it is not available at the time. The chef then says something in Japanese and his mother and lady friend then point to their own thighs. We figure they mean frog legs and then put in an order for that. It turns out to be a whole grilled frog. We've had frog legs before (it's popular in French cuisine) but this is our first in having the whole grilled frog. It is grilled just until cooked and when served, we drizzle some soy sauce over it and dig into the delicious first item of the night.

Right in front of me on the counter is a tray of unknown seafood and I point to it while asking Kore wa nan desu ka (What is this)? They show great surprise that I know how to say that in Japanese and giggle a little. The ladies proceed to raise both hands to face level, pretend their hands are claws, and make the action of opening and closing their fingers. The event becomes hilarious and each one of us is boisterously laughing at one another. The chef then lifts a crab that he takes from another plate and picks up that unknown seafood which I asked about earlier, and says "friend". Ahhh, so the unknown seafood is a type of crab. Got it.

Rare pig's womb

Stirring hot water into remaining yolk and sweet soy sauce from above

We ask about offal and they start to gesture at their stomachs. At the time we are already having a great time laughing at one another. Not quite getting what their gesture at the stomach means, we say hormone yaki (grilled organ)? Their lady friend (at the time we determine that she is quite a hilarious character) shakes her head, gestures again to her stomach, and says "Baby, baby. Pork". Does she mean cooked pig stomach? But how does baby relate to stomach? Sure, we've had plenty of pig stomach before in Chinese cuisine. Shortly after, the small plate arrives and the thinly sliced pieces are rare and served with raw egg yolk, negi (scallions), and sweet soy sauce. This is not pig stomach, no. Pig stomach doesn't look like this. Later we realize that it is pig's womb-- their earlier gesture now makes sense. They tell us to mix it up with the egg yolk. T is more enthusiastic than I in picking up the slippery pieces and putting them into our mouths but after awhile, I succumb to the idea of eating rare pig's womb. The entire experience is fascinatingly interesting. It definitely does not taste horrible and despite some initial hesitation on my part, I can see how the flavor and texture combine to make this a delicacy. After we are finished, the chef gives us a cup of hot water and gestures to us to pour the water into the plate of remaining raw yolk and sauce and to mix them up. His mother adds the gesture of drinking from the bowl and says "soup". A little later, a couple comes in and we see them getting two orders of the raw pig's womb.

Ankimo (monkfish liver)

Grilled tofu cubes

The chef says something in Japanese with the word "ankimo" in between and we very excitedly say "Ohhh, ankimo!" They burst into a surprise laughter again. We know that is monkfish liver, we've had it before, and we love it. We enjoy the small bowl of perfectly charred tofu cubes and slivers of negi (scallions) by lightly drizzling soy sauce over it. The Japanese potato salad is always a favorite of ours at any Japanese establishment. Lest you think potato salad is American, this Japanese version of comfort food can be found at many local bars and restaurants. What makes the potato salad special is Kewpie, the Japanese brand of mayonnaise that is used.

At one point during our meal, they ask how we are doing and we say to them "Daijobu desu" (we're ok/alright). The ladies laughed excited and their friend say "Ohhh? Daijobu", again giddily excited about the words we know how to say in Japanese. They ask where we are from and we tell them "America shusshin desu" (we are from America). Oh, what a memorable and hilarious night that we will remember.

We left Asadachi and walked a little more along Yakitori Lane. It is time for some skewered meats found ubiquitously along the alleyways here (Asadachi is the exception on Yakitori Lane that does not focus on yakitori). Many of the yakitori stalls are as tiny as each other and just able to fit the kitchen counter and about 8 seats. At each place is a similar scene: the chef stands behind the kitchen counter grilling while customers (many of them salarymen) sit along the counter enjoying sticks of meat and offal with nama biru (draft beer). No one is bothered by the smokey grill at the restaurants.

Skewered meat, offal, and vegetable

We randomly decide on one of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants and order a round of nama biru (draft beer) with sticks of chicken and onion, pork tongue, pork heart, intestine, and shishito peppers. There is a choice of how we'd like them grilled, either with shio (salt) or tare (sauce) and we decide on shio for all our sticks, just for the sake of wanting to be purists. A popular item at the yakitori restaurants in wintertime is motsu nabe (offal stew) that can often be seen simmering in a pot. Obviously not hungry anymore after coming from Asadachi and then having grilled meat sticks we just ate at this second restaurant, I convince T we have to try the stew while here. He obligingly agrees while stating that I'm responsible in finishing the most of it. Inside the incredibly flavorful and delicious motsu nabe are pieces of chopped up offal, daikon, konnyaku (root with jello texture), and carrots. T ends up eating more of it than expected and I want to tell him, I knew it would be good.

Motsu nabe (offal stew)



We thought we knew what good soba (buckwheat noodle) was but oh boy, were we wrong. Or maybe we weren't quite wrong-- we just didn't know what it felt like to eat gloriously fresh soba until coming to Narutomi. This soba house is well very loved by the locals in Tokyo for their soba that are made from 100% buckwheat flour (soba served at many other restaurants only constitute about 20% buckwheat flour).

We walk in, are greeted by a friendly female server, and hang up our coats on the wall. We get lucky-- two counter seats just opened up -- and we are seated with full view of the chef and his assistant at work. English menu is not available here, nor does the server speak English but don't let that intimidate you. The chef speaks English and pleasantly says to us "How may I help you?" so we end up ordering directly from him. We have in mind to order some of the specialty items which we learnt how to say in Japanese prior to coming to Narutomi (thanks to helpful online reviews!). We sit back, enjoy the lovely afternoon, and watch the kitchen.


At Narutomi, cooking the soba comes down to precision to get the desired consistency of the right texture for the noodles. The process of boiling the noodles is an uninterrupted routine. Unlike the dried and packaged uncooked soba we commonly see at stores, the sous chef takes a bunch of the soft and fresh uncooked soba out from a box, with still some excess flour on the soba. He gently loosens and unclumps the noodle in his hands before dropping the soba into a big pot of vigorous boiling water. Right away the timer is set to count down from 2 minutes. Just as the rising layer of thick foam (from the excess flour from the noodles) threatens to flow out of the big pot of boiling water, the timer rings for the assistant. Perfect timing at its best. He scoops out the soba, rinses it in a colander over cold running tap water, and dips it into the pot of boiling water again but just for one second before placing the noodles onto a bamboo basket for serving. The process repeats as orders come in.

One of the favorites at Narutomi is the kamo nanban which is soba served in duck broth with slices of duck breast and negi (Japanese scallions). The medium rare duck breast is sliced and placed over the noodles. Hot broth is then poured over the meat and noodles, turning the duck from medium rare to medium with a light pink center. The duck is unbelievably tender and the broth is a delight to drink them all up. Despite sitting in a bowl of hot broth, the firmness of the soba is perfect- soft yet firm.

Best known for their scallop tenseiro, this platter of tempura includes scallop, lotus root, and shishito peppers. The tempura is served the purist way with a side of salt. Tempura purists like to eat their tempura by sprinkling some salt over the pieces instead of dipping them into the sauce. If you just want a side of vegetables, the tempura moriawase (chef's selection of vegetables for the day) include burdock root, shishito peppers, and baby corn.

Zaru soba is probably the most simple, popular, and enjoyable way to eat the noodles. Most people are familiar with zaru soba as it is commonly served at Japanese restaurants outside of Japan-- you take some of the soba from the bamboo basket tray, dip them into the small bowl of dipping broth, and slurp up. Then repeat. At Narutomi, the simple ritual of enjoying zaru soba is made a little more special. When you've finished with your noodles, ask for soba yu which is the water that is used to cook the noodles. Add the soba yu into the dipping broth, dilute it, then drink as broth.

Futaba Bldg. 1F, 8-18-6 Ginza,
Chuo-ku, Tokyo