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Chef Tyson Visits Japan

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A version of this article first appeared on FoodandWine.com under the title “Tyson Cole Takes Tokyo and Hiroshima“.

Editor’s Note: Chef Tyson and a Hai team of Chefs Kaz Edwards and Masa Saio and Creative Director Sam Martin visited Japan in October of 2016 to film a television show called Esprit Japon, the Japanese version of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown that is produced for a French audience. While there, the team took the time to explore the roots and inspirations of Uchi.

When I was invited to appear on the TV Show Esprit Japon, Japan’s version of Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” I was reluctant at first. We’re in the middle of a couple of new restaurant openings and I wasn’t sure I could take the break. But after some thought and guidance from colleagues (and a thumbs up from the family), I embraced the trip as a way to reconnect with the people and the food that inspired Uchi in the first place.

Our itinerary called for a whirlwind tour up the coast of Southern Honshu, Japan’s main island. We started in Tokyo, took the shinkansen (bullet train) to Hiroshima and then bounced to Mount Koya, and Ise Shima with a few side stops along the way.

The visit was a reminder and confirmation of why I was drawn to the culture in the first place. It’s such a clean country. The people are so kind and respectful to guests and to each other. Their humility is contagious, and the food is as inspiring as ever.

Here’s what we discovered.

Tokyo

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Kyubey “This is one of Tokyo’s best sushi bars, and the sushi was as traditional as you can get in Japan. Our sushi chef had worked at the same restaurant for 35 years. Uchi started from my traditional training as a sushi chef—and we still use many of those techniques every day—but the restaurant has evolved into its own thing. Uchi is rooted in this Japanese craft, but it is so much more, and I’m proud of where we started and where we’ve come.”

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Tsukiji Fish Market “We had to visit Tsukiji because we have gotten so much fish from them over the years. We sampled fresh fruits, dozens of pickled veggies, grilled tuna, yakitori skewers, green tea and many more things. Seeing the actual fish market is a great reminder of where our fish comes from and how it gets to us in Texas from halfway around the world.”

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Ginza Kagari “We heard from several people that Kagari was the hotspot for ramen in Tokyo, so we headed there for lunch. Like most restaurants in Japan, the place was tiny—only eight seats. We waited in line for an hour, but it was worth it. They serve a creamy chicken broth ramen with chukka-soba noodles that will cure any head cold.”

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Kappabashi “This neighborhood is also known as “kitchen town.” Anything and everything a restaurant owner could want is available along this street, including some incredible Japanese knives. When I first visited Japan, my sensei Takehiko Fuse bought me a knife here, so I wanted to keep that tradition going by getting one for Masa, one of the original sushi chefs at Uchi. The one we decided on was a locally made, 27-inch fugubiki, the ultimate sashimi knife.”

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Andaz Tokyo “We spoiled ourselves by staying at this five-star hotel with flawless service and no detail overlooked. There was a rooftop bar with views 50-stories up overlooking the city; I felt like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. Looking out over Tokyo on those first couple of days filled us with anticipation on the possibilities of the trip ahead of us.”

Hiroshima

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Inasa “Our television hosts treated us to a traditional kaiseki dinner when we arrived in Hiroshima. This was the first moment when I truly felt like we were in Japan. We sat at a chef’s counter, where the floors were made of tatami and the servers wore kimonos. We ate hama guri hot pot, local bream and kegani (king crab) sashimi and a kani miso gratin. Our hosts were doing everything they could to make this as great an experience as possible for us, including teaching us how to pour and drink warm sake. To top it off, we learned the chef at the restaurant, Kazuaki Shimohara, trained under Rokusaburo Michiba, the original ‘Iron Chef’ from the Japanese version of the show.”

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Okonomiyaki on Miyajima Island “One of the main reasons we came to this island was for the okonomiyaki and the special sauce they make for the dish. Okonomiyaki is a common late-night meal with noodles, cabbage, bacon, eggs and a barbecue-like sauce. In New York, you get a slice. In Japan, you get okonomiyaki. The sauce here is the real draw, a take on the traditional tonkatsu sauce but a bit sweeter. The Miyajima Island version has become very popular in Japan, and is sold everywhere. After eating half of this dish I wanted to take a nap.”

Kamotsuru Shuzo Brewery “After Hiroshima, we stopped into the brewery on the way to our next destination. President Obama visited here earlier this year during his tour of the country before the G7 summit. We got a crash course on the art of sake brewing from the head brewer. He explained that the more the rice is polished (the outer rice husk is literally polished off each grain of rice) the finer the sake, and the more expensive it is. Most sake falls in the 60-percent polished range. We had some here that was 35-percent polished—called Junmai daiginjo—and the flavors were far more complex than typical sake, similar to sipping a nice scotch.”

Koya

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Eko-im Temple Fire Ritual After spending the night at Eko-im Temple in Koyasan (I swear the pillows were stuffed with wooden pellets), we woke up to a Gomakito fire ritual in a tiny side temple outside our lodging. You write your name and three wishes on a wooden slat and hand it to the head monk as you enter the fire ritual. Then he begins chanting and is joined by a very loud drummer and assistant chanter while praying and preparing the fire. It’s a mesmerizing and jolting experience.

Shojin Ryori We emerged dazed from the fire ritual and headed for breakfast, a beautiful traditional Buddhist meal called Shojin Ryori. There is no meat and no animal products at all since Buddhists are strict vegans because of their beliefs. The meals are incredibly adventurous though, with pickled vegetables, vegetarian miso soup, wheat gluten balls, and various forms of tofu, including sesame tofu, a centuries-old specialty of the region that’s made from arrowroot, sesame seeds, and water (that’s right, no soybeans).

Ise Shima

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Ama Divers We took a boat out to meet some Ama divers, a tribe of women in Ise Japan who have been free-diving for seafood for generations. They handed me some abalone and sea snails that I later cooked for them. This type of sea life is abundant along this stretch of coast because several rivers converge at the ocean and the water is less salty than it normally would be. The Ama women can pick hundreds of pounds of these shellfish every day.

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