There was no denying it, I was nervous. I was nervous that every meal I was to be given on the street food tour around Tokyo would be fish. Perhaps a ridiculous thing to be anxious about, but as it’s rarely my food of choice, I was delighted to hear that a Yakatori bar, specialising in skewered chicken, was to be our first stop. From the street, Nimo, our guide, directed us through some curtains which opened out into a small atmospheric bar. We sat around the bar front on stools and watched mesmerised as the Yakatori chef deftly cooked the skewered meat on the barbecue before serving them to the awaiting mouth-watering crowd. Tender and well-seasoned, the appetisers soon disappeared whilst being washed down with a cold Asahi beer. Maybe I could just stay here. This was my kind of food.
Apparently not, as a few moments later it was time to move on. The nervous fish dread was back.
This time I was right to be worried as the next bar specialised in sashimi. After Nimo had detailed some of the strong Japanese traditions linked to how hierarchy plays such an important part of eating and drinking habits in Japan, the fish arrived. Or to be more specific, the raw fish.
There were four different types of fish placed in front of me along with a bowl of soy sauce and a helping of wasabi. Whilst the other people in my group of eight started digging in I simply looked at the plate. Rather than being put off, I started to get curious. The rest of group were all displaying signs of enjoyment, so I had to try it, didn’t I?
I decided yes, I did. Using the chopsticks, I gingerly picked up a piece of raw tuna, dunked it in the soy sauce (for luck more than anything I think) and took a bite. Wow. Not what I had expected. It just melted in my mouth and tasted …. well… tasted not particularly fishy. I was so impressed I went back for more and soon enough my plate was empty. Something I had never thought would happen. I was seemingly loving this sashimi thing.
That was until the next plate arrived. On this plate was a whole fish with a skewer threaded through it and its meat, having been expertly sliced off, lying neatly next to it. More sashimi but the only difference this time was that this fish was alive just minutes before arriving at our table. How was I so sure? Because the head and tail were still twitching. I’m sure the raw meat would too have tasted amazing but this time I was not so inquisitive to try it, so graciously I left it for my new friends instead.
It was then time to travel on to our third destination of the evening: the yokocho or otherwise known as the alleyways. On our walk over, we were reminded that the Japanese are generally shy in character, so restaurants often provide separate rooms where small groups can dine. It was therefore surprising to come across such a social eating scene in Tokyo as these alleyways. As we squeezed through the crowds the undercover alleyway uncovered a myriad of small open-fronted bars, packed solid with people eating and drinking. This felt like the place to be in Tokyo. I would have had very little chance of finding this place without Nimo. Most of the yokocho are post-WWII when they were used to support the black market, nowadays they offer a perfect way to feel like a local. We settled into our reserved spots in a tiny bar and almost immediately a tapas-esque selection of dishes appeared on our table. Okonomiyaki; a squid-filled omelette, prawns and avocado mixed in a mayonnaise sauce and Takoyaki; fried dough balls filled with minced octopus. I was eating more fish and seafood than I ever had. As I delved in, I took in the atmosphere, which was buzzing with Saturday night chat. I strangely felt quite proud of myself. From a fish disbeliever, it seems I had been thoroughly converted. Now time to bring on that sushi…