A recent opportunity to interview Food Sake Tokyo creators Yukari and Shinji Sakamoto has yielded an unexpected happy result altogether unrelated to how much I’d been looking forward to the conversation. That result is its having convinced me beyond all doubt that when my family and I visit Japan, I want Yukari and Shinji to guide us through Tokyo’s food scene, as I doubt we would find better hands to which to entrust ourselves. With Yukari being a professional chef, sommelier, and shōchū advisor, and Shinji a fishmonger and former buyer at the famous Tsukiji Market, to call their combined wealth of knowledge on culinary topics and trends “impressive” is to profoundly understatement the matter. Yukari shared with me on multiple subjects related to Japanese cuisine as well as the country’s standing as a globally-recognized culinary capital, and some excellent Tokyo food shops and restaurants that are still little-known to tourists. This interview brought me on a much-anticipated journey that I’m elated to share. Read on.
Flavorful World: Some time ago, Japan’s rich and unique washoku was submitted for inclusion in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, and earlier this month, it received that designation. What essential qualities of washoku do you feel make it most deserving of this honor?
Yukari Sakamoto: The use of seasonal ingredients, and how healthful the cuisine is, mainly because of its use of dashi. Dashi is rich in natural umami, from kelp (kombu) and smoked skipjack tuna (katsuobushi). It is smokey and has a deep flavor, and best of all, zero calories. And washoku is based on very simple taste, allowing the natural taste of the products to speak for themselves. And, the ingredients used in Japanese cuisine is very good for you. Besides a variety of vegetables, there is a diverse selection of sea vegetables and soy products.
FW: Name your favorite restaurant or food shop that is virtually unknown to tourists, then tell us in what prefecture it is located and cite one aspect of the place other than the food that has earned your repeated patronage.
YS: Nihonbashi Yukari is one of my favorite shops. The chef, Kimio Nonaga, is very passionate about Japanese cuisine.
Chuo-ku, Nihonbashi 3-2-14
His presentation is beautiful, the food delicious, and I always leave with new knowledge about Japanese food.
We actually eat most of our meals at home. I am a chef and Shinji is a fishmonger. We enjoy cooking at home. We also have a three-year old, which makes it difficult for going out to eat.
FW: In a recent blog post, you mentioned that Coco Farm and Winery in Ashikaga, Tochigi held its annual Harvest Festival earlier this month. As a sommelier, what wines would you say are this winery’s best and purest expressions and how reflective is this of current popular wine trends in Japan?
YS: Coco Farm and Winery’s wines are among the best in Japan. I also like wine from Nagano, Yamanashi, and Hokkaido. In particular, German varietals and cold climate grapes like pinot noir do well in Hokkaido.
Japanese wine is very popular here in Japan and there are now restaurants where you can find a wide selection of Japanese wine with a menu of food that pairs well with the wine. My favorite Japanese wine bar is Jip Wine Bar in Shinjuku. It is also a wine shop so you can buy bottles to take home with you.
Jip Wine Bar and Wine Shop
Shinjuku-ku, Shinjuku 2-7-1
FW: Tell us what seasonal foods you most look forward to during this time of year, and where you go to find them?
YS: The seafood! Oysters are in season now. The fresh salmon roe is ending its season now. We have our last batch of home-cured ikura in the fridge now.
Many of the silvery-skinned fish like sanma (Pacific saury) are in season now. We love this as sashimi, or simply salted and grilled. We buy our seafood at local fishmongers. Our closest shop that we love is Uoriki at either Kichijoji or Tachikawa stations.
FW: Choose one restaurant or food shop that you would recommend most highly to a first time visitor to Tokyo who is completely unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine, and tell us you chose that establishment. Choose one restaurant or food shop that you would recommend most highly to a first time visitor to Tokyo who has some familiarity with Japanese cuisine, and tell us why you chose that establishment.
YS: No better place than to visit a depachika. I would suggest Takashimaya at Shinjuku station. You can see a variety of cuisine under one roof, and there is a nice supermarket called Kinokuniya, inside of Takashimaya. Then, after visiting the depachika, head up to the restaurant floors. Most of the restaurants have plastic food displayed so you know what to order.
I would also recommend this for someone who has familiarity with the cuisine, as they will understand very quickly what they are seeing.
FW: What do you feel are the most significant factors contributing to Japan having become a world culinary capital?
YS:It’s always been a culinary capital. It is only recently that it has been recognized as this due to Michelin coming here and starting the guidebook. But, for those of us born in Japan, or who have lived here for a long time, we have always known what a delicious city this is.
FW: In your experiences as food tour guides, what aspects of the depachika do your tour group members seem most impressed by? What questions related to them to you get asked most often?
YS: Just the surprising variety of what is available. It’s really incomprehensible. I worked at a depachika for two years, and even then, I still had not seen all that there was to see. The offerings change at some shops weekly so it is impossible to see it all, even if you work there and are surrounded by it.
Clients are curious about who shops at depachika. Some people would come there and buy all of their food and saké here, but that is rare. Most come in for certain items, or just a few times a week, to pick up a few things. We use our local depachika in the same way. We buy most of our things from a local supermarket. But, if we need special grocery items or seafood, we go to the depachika.
FW: Excluding the name of any of your pre-existing blogs, websites, or print/online personas, tell us what name you would give to your memoir about your culinary exploits?
YS: Izakaya Sakamoto
FW: When the two of you aren’t eating delicious foods and/or guiding others to them, how do you most enjoy spending your time?
YS: Soaking in onsen hot springs. We just finished a trip to Kumamoto for a relaxing trip of onsen and eating basashi (horse sashimi) and the local shochu.
*Note to readers: Yukari Sakamoto is the author of the book Food Sake Tokyo, a chef’s guide to Japanese cuisine and Tokyo’s restaurants and food shops. Together, she and Shinji Sakamoto run a food blog of the same name, which you can and should bookmark right now if you love or are even remotely interested in the best of Japanese cuisine: Food Sake Tokyo. To receive ongoing updates about where they’re going and what they’re eating, follow their exploits on Twitter at @YukariSakamoto, discover truly awesome recipes prepared in their home, and click here to get more details about the Tokyo food tours these two knowledgeable food pros provide.