Sakaezushi and the Last Days of Tateishi

Sakaezushi and the Last Days of Tateishi

Time is running out for the Tateishi shotengai — that warren of covered arcades, zinc pan structures and narrow alleyways that define the essence of downtown, Shitamachi Tokyo. Whether it happens in 2019 or 2020, the bulldozers are coming.  The wrecking balls are ready.  The developers, as always, smell the money.

My son and I arrived early on a Saturday around, 1:30pm.  Tateishi is an early town with many izakaya closing at 9pm.  Unfortunately, some of our favorite places — Edokko for yakiton, Torifusa for fried half-chickens and even the un-named, seedy kushi-katsu spot — weren’t open for business until 3pm. You have to find the sweet spot in terms of time when you visit Tateishi — the moments when both the shops and the restaurants are in full, operational mode.  We wandered through the arcades, checking out the Oden spots, the purveyors of wholesale udon and ramen noodles; we had a leisurely coffee; we went to the shrine where the namesake “tateishi” (standing stone) barely exists — a giant engraved stone now whittled away to a nub barely one centimeter high. In one market stall, beautiful cubes of tuna and jewel boxes of uni caught our eye.  “I’d kill for some sushi,” my son said.  Some of the izakaya had opened, curtains revealing older men already getting the red hue of drunkeness.  My son is mature for his age and I really suck at judging degrees of what is appropriate for 12-year-olds, but the 4-seat izakaya, cloudy with cigarette smoke and the scent of shochu, seemed a bit too seedy even if they seemed to be serving those cubes of tuna.  We decided to get on the line for Sakaezushi, a stand up sushi place that has been open since 1958.  It always has huge lines and the one time I attempted the wait, the waitress made an apology at 5:30pm: there was no more fish left. So, I figured at 2pm, we might have a while in line but we were going to eat.  It is hard to see inside the restaurant, white curtains blocking the windows, so all you get is the view of the weathered exterior. There is a sign hanging outside the restaurant.  It lists three prices (100 yen, 220 yen and 300 yen) and what fish you get for what price.  Sakaezushi is not in the surprises business.  The guy ahead of us had a tote bag illustrated with variations of “fuck you,” perfect fodder for my son’s laughter. The line, while long, moved fairly briskly.  Classic Edo-style sushi was an early form of fast-food — something to be eaten on the go, with the fingers.  Japanese people still respect this and do not dawdle, no matter how delicious things might be.

Once inside, the aged, chipped yellow linoleum counter holds about 12 people, all standing.  There are  4 chefs making sushi and a woman serving cold Yebisu beer, sake and the Tateishi perversion of shohu with sweet plum.  There are no chopsticks here, just small plates for soy sauce. Spoon some pickled ginger onto the counter and eat it with your fingers as you will when the sushi arrives.  We started with uni (300 yen per piece), and  dunked it lightly into the soy. It was sweet and creamy with just the faint ting of iodine.  We moved onto regular tuna (100 yen), the botan ebi (220 yen), which the chef said was the last one, and bonito (100 yen).  The pieces were made quickly, the knife-work practiced and masterful and deposited right onto the counter — as always the wasabi was already added in the preparation.  It is hard to explain, when sushi is made up of such minimal ingredients and preparation, but Sakaezushi was perfect. It completely eclipsed the typical flavor profiles associated with Japan’s cheap-but-good sushi chains and restaurants (which blow away New York’s btw).  Of course, Sakaezushi doesn’t hit the heights of the very very expensive places where each bite is a mini-nirvana, a treatise on the concept of fish itself.   But, it is not far-off.   First off,  the rice was perfect. The highly polished, good quality grains, a few degrees above room temperature,  warm your fingers as you lift the sushi off the counter.  A hard act to pull off with consistency.  Secondly,  each piece of fish spoke of long and deep relationships with the fish market.  The fatty tuna was luxuriant. The sardine melted on our tongue, the mackerel had the right bite, the precise chew.  Ahh…Its Super Good I said to my son.  The chefs laughed and up and down the bar customers and chefs alike shouted “SUPAH GOOD!” and gave me a cheers.  The restaurant is old, walls seasoned with nicotine and lubricated with 60 plus years of delivering joy. My son was in a glazed-eye sushi zone:  “Its so good,” he moaned. “When my friends come from America, I want to take them here!”  We ended up eating about 20 pieces altogether. Price?  A little over $20, drinks included.

“Its so unfair that all of this is going to be destroyed,” my son said as we walked off our lunch, thinking about the possibility of later yakiton snack. “I love Tateishi.”  There are not a lot of 12-year-olds capable of seeing the beauty in the hard scrabble, run down charm of this neighborhood.  I am lucky that my son is one of them.  In the years that follow, when condos and food courts and a 24-hour gym, have replaced the rancid toilets, barely standing zinc-pan shacks of Drunkard’s Alley and the other spokes of the Tateshi Shotengai my son will be blessed with the memory of a Tokyo as human and warm as his tender heart.




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