A Stack of Empty Plates

Plate 1 – Kingsland High Street, London

Dalston Kingsland sounds like a hard-nosed L.A. detective with a broken marriage, estranged children, and a fondness for hard liquor. Forced out of the police department, he’s set up as a P.I. and takes any case he can find…

In the real world, Dalston Kingsland is the train station where I found myself stepping off the Overground line and into Hackney; past foreign supermarkets selling yams and plantains, to the monolithic façade of the Rio Cinema. Meeting my brother for a Sunday afternoon double bill of films was a rare treat; more so when the journey took me to stations on the Tube network I’d never heard of.

At least I knew the names of the films we were going to watch, though my usual high standard of preparation turned out to be sadly lacking in other respects.

“What’s this first one about?” Craig asked, while I choked down a slightly stale muffin from the cinema café.

“It’s about an 85-year-old sushi chef,” I replied, because I’d read a plot summary that described it as ‘the story of 85-year-old Jiro Ono, considered by many to be the world’s greatest sushi chef’. As if on cue, the room descended into darkness and saved me the embarrassment of admitting I knew nothing else.

I assumed it would be a charming Studio Ghibli-style animation, all bright colours, quirky characters and fantastic tales: a precocious twelve-year-old girl running the restaurant, and a host of magical creatures doing the elderly chef’s bidding in the kitchen. A cat would probably turn up somewhere, sniffy and uptight and looking for fish.

It had to be like that; it couldn’t be real life because surely nobody still works in a kitchen at 85.

But the film wasn’t animated.

Jiro was a real person – a bespectacled man, serene in his personal philosophy, his entire life anchored by an obsessive desire for perfection. So obsessive he’d refined the length of time for which octopus should be massaged before cooking (to improve the flavour). The inevitable physical fragility of four score years and five couldn’t hide his still-sharp wit, that glinted like the knives that sliced fresh tuna.

Even in possession of three Michelin stars, Jiro refused to acknowledge his place at the pinnacle of his art form. And make no mistake: the sushi he produced was the finest art, pure in its simplicity. Each piece had to improve on the last, a desire reflected in every action – from choosing seafood at Tsukiji market, to serving diners at ‘Sukiyabashi Jiro’, his tiny ten-seat restaurant.

The camera lingered on individual dishes, crisp digital projection showing each one in larger than life detail. I could almost feel the better quality ingredients; I was sure I could taste the care and attention lavished on them. Compared to the pre-packed Tesco sushi I knew, dominated by elaborate California Rolls (the poster-boy of Western-style sushi!), the film left me wanting – needing, even – to experience the sort of purity that only a true artist can attain.

Craig and I emerged from the Rio into the fading evening light. Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and we dreamt of eating Japanese food. We didn’t expect the quality of Sukiyabashi Jiro, and we couldn’t afford a £200 price tag anyway. Battling through the last of the weekend’s shoppers, their warm breath lingering in the chill air, we found a Soho restaurant with a respectable menu and respectable prices.

“How long do you think they massage octopus for?” I joked as a plate of sushi arrived at the table without ceremony. But Craig wasn’t listening and I knew why. We hadn’t just watched a film; we’d looked through a portal to another world.

“I’d like to go to Tokyo,” he said, a bowl of ramen in his hands and a faraway look in his eyes. In my brain, the statement triggered an unknown sequence of chemical processes; what’s commonly known as ‘the heart ruling the head’. There were many Easts I’d never visited: Anglia, Kilbride, Sussex. I’d certainly never thought of going to the Far East, but I was overcome with a sense of adventure and replied without hesitation.

“Let’s go then.”

Plate 2 – somewhere north of Tokyo station

“Look at that!” I cried.

On a shelf of confectionary, next to unexpected-but-reassuring British staples like shortbread and Werther’s Original, perched a most unusual delicacy: grape flavour Kit Kats. My voice carried a little too loudly in the quiet convenience store, but I had to try the green-coloured chocolate. Craig didn’t share my enthusiasm, and successfully communicated it with a single grimace (he was right not to get excited, it turned out…).

A grape flavoured Kit Kat from Tokyo, Japan

The differences in Japanese culture were already bewildering and delightful in equal measure, and we’d only been exploring for a couple of hours. One truth remained constant, however: Kit Kats, exotically flavoured or otherwise, don’t make a satisfying meal. Even if it had been a Chunky rather than the regular four fingers, we’d have struggled to justify the nutritional balance.

By contrast, the difference in language was threatening to be insurmountable. We couldn’t find a restaurant with an English menu anywhere. Our stomachs growled in protest at the sun’s lazy descent to the horizon – not a difficult message to translate – and being choosy about where we ate was no longer an option.

Disoriented, we found ourselves at a retail complex. Our footsteps echoed down wide, empty corridors; the designer stores were all dark and locked up. Inexplicably, a clutch of eateries remained open on the basement level and with no easy way to distinguish between them we simply had to pick one at random.

Lacking both natural light and other customers, it possessed a relaxed mood that dulled the senses. We looked at a list of what were apparently main dishes, the grainy light from yellow lamps hopefully masking our blank stares. Neither of us could decipher kanji, and the staff barely spoke any English. “What do we do?” I said to Craig.

“We could ask for pork,” he half-joked. We were beyond phrasebooks and asking for English menus. The time for mangled conversation was over; sheer determination would have to win the day. Smiling at the doing-his-best waiter, we tried to convey a spirit of ‘let’s just get through this’.

“PORK?” we said in unison, louder than necessary. I shrugged my shoulders for added emphasis. The waiter scribbled something down and left us to our English conversation; we assumed food would arrive and hoped it would be edible.

The meals we received were better than edible. One was pork dressed with sweet, tangy sauce and a salad; the other was pork with a bigger salad but no sauce. In other circumstances they would have tasted good. Here, they tasted great because of what they represented.

That we might get through the holiday without starving.

Plate 3 – Akasaka, and other districts

Day two was a public holiday, leaving the roads eerily free of cars and the people of Tokyo relaxing in the sun. It also left most restaurants closed, meaning we couldn’t enjoy the delightfully named ‘Sushi Pub’. Fun as it sounded, our disappointment wasn’t too great – we had eight more days and our itinerary took in the whole city. We wouldn’t visit Akasaka again, but we’d find other restaurants.

Instead, we settled for an Italian staffed by multi-lingual waiters. They insisted on speaking English; our Japanese needed practice. The result was a near-farce of staff and customers stubbornly speaking foreign languages to each other. The standard of food – almost incidental to the entertainment! – was generally excellent, though my octopus starter lacked flavour. I resisted suggesting that it should have been massaged for longer…

In the days that followed we accepted more help from waiters, and we ordered food by pointing at other customers’ meals to request similar. We explored every corner of Tokyo and its cuisine: donburi, udon, raw tuna salads; even curry doughnuts.

Raw tuna salad at the Tokyo Food Theatre restaurant, Japan

Our eighth evening.

The office workers were letting off steam after another humid day. Convivial warmth spilled from a small yakitori house and, at odds with our reserved natures, we dived in. Amid the haze of lurid light and too much sweat, the harsh taste of warm sake disagreed with the back of my throat. Craig was happy getting tipsy on it so I handed him my glass; the heat of night and the tang of soy-covered chicken made me giddy enough.

At the end of the meal, I readied my favourite soundbite. Painstakingly researched (from a phrasebook), my tongue was developing muscle memory to form the syllables.

Gochiso sama deshita!” I declared. The proprietor, a feisty lady not unlike Carla from Cheers, barked a laugh that suggested I’d overstated the quality of her bar snacks. We might have eaten only a few meat skewers but I meant every word: “It was a real feast.” What it wasn’t, of course, was sushi – and time was running out for that. But it didn’t matter.

I had a plan.

Plate 4 – Tsukiji fish market

Circadian rhythms wrenched through eight time zones; air conditioning fighting noisy night-long battles with irrepressible temperatures. Sleep proved difficult enough for long enough, so we were hardly enthusiastic about setting an alarm when our bodies had just got used to the temporal displacement.

We had no choice though: if we wanted to see the world’s largest fish market in full swing, we had to be up early. It was the last item on our to-do list: breakfast from Tsukiji. The sushi I’d spent months anticipating was going to be the freshest possible.

“Maybe we’ll see Jiro,” said Craig as we set off into the grey morning. The air was cool and refreshing, flecked with a cleansing sea spray. Tokyo looked monotone compared to its night-time neon guise. Public transport was quiet; the streets equally empty, like the city was still in bed. We’d obviously risen early enough to beat the offices opening.

Save for what had featured in the documentary, neither of us had ever visited a fish market. We weren’t prepared for the level of noise, or how many people it takes to bring in and sell the day’s catch. We weren’t prepared for the queues that form at 6am for breakfast. Indeed, we were so unprepared that we had to get all the way to Tsukiji before we realised something was amiss.

What we failed to notice was the lack of noise, smells or general ‘bustle’. Nothing was happening, and we stood perplexed. Clearly, everybody was still in bed! Then realisation dawned and my heart sank. My preparation had let me down again, and this time there was nowhere to hide.

“Oh…“ I said, recalling a paragraph from our guidebook. “Today’s another public holiday, remember?” Craig nodded in glum agreement. I stared at the deserted market and tried to wish it into existence. It didn’t work. We wouldn’t be eating a sushi breakfast – forgetfulness had put paid to that.

With nothing to see and no alternative plans, we did the only thing we could: retraced our steps back to the heart of the slumbering city.

Plate 5 – somewhere near Shinbashi station

Having been denied breakfast, we needed somewhere to eat lunch.

Each of the previous nine days had provided fresh perspective on Japanese food, and we weren’t about to let that effort fall by the wayside. Craig and I, we bonded on our travels; perhaps more so while ordering meals than at any other time. The menus we couldn’t translate and the anticipation of what we’d be served made the prospect of eating enticing, not unnerving.

New experiences remained the order of the day. I still wanted sushi, but the public holiday was severely restricting our choice. In the windows of the deserted establishments, even the plastic models of the dishes normally on offer – freakish representations of food, all faded from exposure to daylight – started to look appetising. We were getting desperate – again!

So desperate that we stood outside an English pub and contemplated steak and ale pie. Hardly a beacon of Edo food tradition, but our decision-making was going round in circles. Would something better come along in five minutes? Or were we stuck with what was in front of us?

We kept walking and – five minutes later! – stumbled on our salvation. It was a remarkable coincidence, one of those occasions that a writer wouldn’t script for fear of sounding contrived. There was a distinct lack of English on display, but what we’d found was unmistakably a conveyor belt restaurant, a sushi-ya.

And it was open.

Exterior shot of sushi restaurant in Tokyo, Japan

For one final time, we stepped into the unknown; into a world of non-existent décor and wipe-clean surfaces. A woman bustled over, guided us to stools at the counter and demonstrated the supply of hot water with which to make our free green tea. Then she left us to it.

The conveyor hummed, carrying dozens of delicious-looking plates of food. In the centre, two chefs worked magic with their ingredients. They weren’t Jiro, but they were good enough for us. Their art still impressed my humble tastes, and they were prolific – the conveyor was full to bursting.

“I’m going to take one,” I whispered, stating the obvious but nervous of doing something wrong. I nodded at a plate passing a few inches away. “What’s that, do you think?”

“I don’t know,” Craig whispered back. “I’m having one that looks familiar.”

We took the plunge and started eating. The meal worked on a different kind of anticipation: waiting for the chefs to finish preparing something we might pick off the belt seconds later. They didn’t show off; sushi was the star attraction, each block of rice a mini-altar on which to offer seafood.

We spotted the menu eventually: a poster on the wall behind us, pictures of various nigiri complete with Japanese description and English translation. It made for an interesting game, matching dishes on the belt to the photographs, and we were the only players. The other customers were all Tokyoites, all older men dining in near silence.

What were their stories? We had no way of knowing, but there was ample time to ponder such questions. We steadily accumulated a stack of empty plates that worked out at £1 each. Apart from Tokyo’s proximity to the sea, we couldn’t work out how it was so cheap. Was it a restaurant sneered at by those well versed in the city’s Michelin star collection? We had no way of knowing that either.

We didn’t pay £200, but the sushi boasted the simplicity I craved. Every piece filled the mouth with delicate, satisfying flavours and a lingering umami aftertaste. It captured my heart like no other meal, living up to every expectation set by the Jiro documentary. Sitting with Craig, sharing an experience we’d only dreamed of back in London, I felt alive! Simply, I didn’t want the holiday to end.

And never have I wanted to return somewhere more.