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Letters from Tokyo, September-October, 2022: Autumn is for Eating

Autumn in New York was romanticized long ago by the eponymous 1934 jazz standard, and the phrase remains classic. Everyone knows the season is romantic in climate and hue, especially in Central Park and along the Hudson, where you can actually see the leaves change color against the backdrop of the buildings.

But autumn in Tokyo can be equally inviting, if not more so. For one thing, its drop in dew points can be a lifesaver for the heatstroke prone. Plus, it lasts longer.

I first learned about dew points in high school from my friend Jim. The higher the dew point, the stickier you feel. Your sweat has nowhere to go so it stays on your skin and your pores can't breathe. Jim was the goalie of our soccer team but dreamed of becoming a meteorologist. Today he works for the US National Weather Service in the mountains of upstate New York. And I live in Tokyo, where I keep a close eye on dew points every time autumn rolls around.

September, per usual, felt like an extension of summer, its heat easing in the evenings but still suited to short sleeves. Before I had to fly back to New England again near the end of the month during the chaos of Abe’s State Funeral, Tokyo was still closed to most tourists. Excursion bookings were quick and easy, restaurant reservations a breeze. As Covid infection numbers dropped weekly, a lovely window opened where most of us began feeling calmer and safer even as we continued wearing masks, washing hands and sanitizing.

It was nice to go out in town and get out of town. My walks around Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park were uncluttered and quiet. Kids and young adults had returned to the running track, soccer fields, foosball and basketball courts at the south end of the park, but their numbers were still thinned, their grunts drowned out by crow caws. The entire Events Square near NHK with its concrete Hatch Shell-like concert stage remained empty, its international fairs, concerts and sponsored markets postponed, which was fine with me. I’ve been to too many to notice much that’s new each year, and with a few seasonal exceptions (like grilled ayu and sanma), the greasy fare from yatai food stalls is the kind of junk food I can now easily pass up.

But that lovely window was closing fast. The government’s staggered announcements about lifting restrictions were confusing (first yes, then no, not that one, then: okay, maybe all of them) but its direction was clear: Japan was adopting US and European style post-Covid openness, not China’s zero-Covid crackdowns.

My first priority was to support nearby eateries, especially those locally owned and operated by people you see onsite nearly every time you visit. This is a lot easier to do in Tokyo than in large American cities. Tokyo has more restaurants per square kilometer than any other city in the world, and seems to have more restaurants period. While some of Tokyo’s major rail hubs have fallen victim to mallification, with floor upon floor of Starbucks, Uniqlo and Muji outlets, the backstreets and warrens of its residential neighborhoods still abound with small, sometimes tiny, independent restaurants and bars.

Returning to Tanbo, a humble shokudo and teishoku joint just around the corner, felt like a homecoming. Having been away for the better part of a year, I didn't quite realize how deeply I’d missed the restaurant’s specialty: fresh rice from a seasonally shifting variety of northern regions identified on the menu board, with fish or donburi toppings or packed into thick onigiri rice balls, served alongside smoky miso soup and diced pickles.

After consuming so many sometimes-delicious sweet, savory, often sauce-covered meals at restaurants in Florida, California, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, the taste of fresh nori and soft white rice hit me with Proustian force. Just like mama made—except my Japanese mother, who has spent most of her life in the US as an American citizen, never once prepared for me homemade onigiri.

Next up was an Italian (er, Japanese-Italian) favorite just down the block, La Buona Vita, which is slightly larger than an L-shaped hallway with a counter. Sea urchin and salmon eggs atop black squid ink pasta would not have appealed to me back when I was a semi-regular at Italian restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but now it’s “to die for,” as they say, though that's something I’ve never actually said. Founder and chef Motokazu Ishii is almost always on the premises, gliding around the kitchen and peering over the counter to survey the scene.

Of course, living in Tokyo for so many years has also made me a Goldilocks about serving sizes. Much is made in the US of the health value of, say, leveling off that mountain of fries or making do with one pizza versus adding a second at half-price, but presentation also matters. I find food a lot more appetizing when it’s not served in a massive heap or spilling out all over the place.

That said, a return to Shinjuku’s famous Ramen Jiro or a breakfast at any onsen-yado is a reminder that Japan does massive food heaps just fine. I skip Jiro these days to preserve my arteries, but a return to a favorite little onsen in Izu was an irresistible pre-tourist rush.

Rakuzen Yasuda is tucked into a hillside in Izunokuni and its rooms are unearthly quiet. Every floor is tatami-matted; you pad and glide through its hallways like a ghost. The private in-room baths and the outdoor rooftop rotenburo face the hill’s dense greenery of cypress and cedars limning the sky. It’s even possible for someone like me to gaze without thinking for a while.

Each portion is modest and delicious, but the cumulative morning and evening full-course meals are huge. Your body displaces water as you slide into the tub and you begin to envision your next breakfast back home in Tokyo: a bowl of Bifix yogurt and a slice of banana or pear.

I re-landed in Tokyo in early October, just as tourism restrictions were lifted and our window of native calm closed. It seemed apt to sneak in one more stealth reservation, this time, ironically, at the recently opened Tokyo branch of Peter Luger, one of New York’s oldest and most famous steakhouses. The aged steak was flown in from the US and aged some more in the Ebisu facility, which, our waiter politely explained, we were not allowed to see.

Our T-Bone from New York was warm, juicy—and pricey. That much travel and time extract a heavy cost, as I know full well.

Now we're in mid-season for sanma, that slim but meaty blue fish whose rich juices are a lot better for you than red meat, wherever it’s sourced. Unlike New York, Tokyo boasts an autumn that stretches far into November and even early December. The dew points have dropped, the tourists are back, and the foliage is making its way south into the city’s parks. Come on in! See you in Meguro.

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1 Comment

Nov 14, 2022

Very interesting indeed! Descriptional, detailed and educational. Thank you! Waiting for the next letter)

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