New Loves: Otsuka, Toshima-Ku

New Loves: Otsuka, Toshima-Ku

The reality is that every neighborhood, every train stop in Tokyo is worth a visit.  No matter how random the location,  chances are good that if you walk around, you’ll find something amazing to eat; a super cool shrine or temple to explore and some sort of weird museum or historic home turned library — in my wanderings I have haphazardly stumbled into the blistering excitement of the Museum of Logistics; been horrified by The Meguro Parasitological  Museum;  had a nicotine fit at The Museum of Salt and Tobacco; was won over by the eclectic — and eccentric —  displays (stuffed raccoons, 1930s firemen outfits, 1960s movie cameras) at the Itabashi Historical Museum and fell in love with the amazing Frank Lloyd Wright designed Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan (School Of the Free Spirit) which exists down a random street in Ikebukuro.  Without any planning or research, these random neighborhoods have delivered some of my favorite restaurants, a great 4 seat izakaya, a shrine that boasted the largest gingko tree in Japan (it was REALLY big) and, most importantly, the experience of day-to-day life in Tokyo.  I would suck as a tour director because this is what I really want to do when visiting a city — see where people shop, where they eat, where they sit and talk.  I would much rather find a great butcher with weird art on the walls than see some mega-highlight Tower with lights and a glass floor.

This is all a preamble to introducing my new lover, my new neighborhood side-chick, Otsuka (pronounce Oat-Ska) in the Toshima ward.  The first time I got off the train at Otsuka (on my way to a meeting with a cap and hat manufacturer that has a warehouse in the hood) I was struck by how unique it looked — contrary to much of Tokyo, Otsuka is hilly; the space in front of the station cut through with gracefully curving tracks from the city’s last remaining streetcar line.  There is a dense warren of shopping streets across from the station — hidden restaurants, spice stores, fishmongers. — penned in by the lovely Tenso-jinja Shrine. Keep walking for a mile and you arrive at the ultramodern Sunshine City in Ikebukuro.   That first visit, I took note a bunch of restaurants, bought some cumin, mustard seed and 4 frozen samosas; ate a passable pho and made plans to return.

Since that first encounter, I have explored Otsuka extensively.  If you were to draw a wide circle around the train station you could divide the neighborhood into distinct quadrants:  to the north, you get some real seediness — a street of chain ramen and yakiniku shops; downmarket “Girl’s Bars” with sleazy touts and weathered women in ball-gowns advertising cut-rate prices.  Northeast, you get office buildings intercut with a few remarkable ramen shops: Kousagi which serves a dangerous bowl of Tantanmen (a rameny interpretation of Dan Dan Noodles) in a thick broth redolent of Sichuan peppercorns and a host of proprietary spices that are guaranteed to make you sweat with pleasure.

Almost next door is Hopukenhonpo Ramen, founded in 1938 and one of the oldest ramen shops in Tokyo. Construction workers, salarymen, taxi drivers crowd the interior or eat standing up on the street-side counter. The ramen is a throwback.  Cheap, simple, satisfying, a wizened elder still capable of throwing punches.  Further down the street is the always crowded Kita Otsuka Ramen which specializes in Chashumen — delectable roast pork over a clear, soy sauce based broth.  To the southeast, the streets curve downhill, the major boulevard sporting some big shops like the “Book-Off” chain selling used books and video games for rock bottom prices; pachinko parlors, an entertainment center with karaoke, bowling, tennis; a love hotel decorated like a castle; Korean restaurants and a chain gyoza spot.  The smaller streets that meander off the boulevard like streams running down a hill contain a host of restaurants and izakaya including a craft brewery specializing in smoked meats (and smoked beer…blech) and finally end in a maze of residential streets.  There was one tiny restaurant, covered in vines and greenery that looked like a hobbit house.  It advertised an all you can eat and drink sashimi special for $25.  Sadly, I never got to try, as a hand-written sign appeared one day stating that the owners had decided to retire.

The south is where the action is — that previously mentioned nest of shopping streets that gently ascend to Ikebukuro.  It is a small area, but every time I come back, I seem to discover a different alley that I hadn’t noticed before. There are two international groceries specializing in Nepalese/Indian spices and foods; a heap of Indian and Vietnamese restaurants.  Oddly, the craft beer motif seems to be an Otsuka thing as there are 3 different “gastropubs” within spitting distance of one another.  I have not tried any of them but a friend of mine highly recommended a spot called Holyhead for its super diverse menu including a cheese-curry-rice lasagna that looks bananas! Down a tight alleyway, clustered with packing crates, cases of Kirin beer, shochu barrels there is a fish store, a butcher shop festooned with the owner’s psychedelic artwork that serves an impressive Minced Katsu; a traditional sweets shop, a sake store. You feel the local spirit here, the bond between neighbors, between shop owners who have lived and worked here for decades.  There are tiny soba restaurants, rolling the noodles in the window; home-made udon; a diner with old people lined up for the $10 lunch special; two or three sushi shops; numerous tonkatsu purveyors.  A hand-painted sign of a heavy set man ogling a sexy woman golfer announces the “Masters Sound Pub” —  karaoke with sexy bartenders in golfware?  Could be!

Directly across is Kenny’s Bar — apparently a tiny jazz establishment serving up Kenny’s special curry.  Go get em Kenny!  Further up the street, you will find Nakiryu, one of two Michelin starred ramen shops in Tokyo.

On a fortunate day last week, my wife and I were actually free at the same time.  Remarkable!  We jumped the train to Otsuka and after wandering around a bit decided on Tempura Tsuzumi.  This shop is a bit hidden on another alley strewn with crates. The door is framed with potted plants and a few strange sculptures.  We came early, 11:00, and the owners had just opened the doors.  There is a long counter and two tables on a raised platform; handwritten signs announcing food and drink specials pack the walls alongside various knick-knacks — it is a lived-in space.  The owners are a couple in their 80s.  They have been running the shop for 46 years.  Lunch is limited to the seasonally changing daily set (5 pieces of tempura, miso soup, a bowl of rice, hijiki, salad and, weirdly, half a banana) and one other special which turned out to be a summer vegetable set.  We ordered one of each.   The two were chatty, explained that they get slammed during lunch; they asked about where I was from, where we lived, etc.. Turns out that the wife goes to the dentist in our hometown of Heiwadai! Turns out a radio station from New York was doing a feature on a nearby hotel and wandered into the restaurant for dinner and fell so in love that they did a feature on them as well!  Most tempura sets are fried and served all at once to save time.   Not so at Tsuzumi.  Each piece is made separately and served, piping hot, one-by-one.  The summer vegetable set consisted of baby ginger, ashitaba leaves (direct from Hachijojima!), myoga (which is something like a lily bulb) and manganji pepper from Kyoto.  46 years of making tempura every day creates an ingrained knowledge of precisely how to cook each ingredient.  What arrives tastes of summer, the crunch of the light crust complimenting the essence of the ingredients. The counter is lined with 8 different salt blends to be added as one sees fit.  The miso was handmade, flavored with a handful of baby clams; the rice perfectly cooked; the hijiki tasted of quality; even the unpeeled half a banana, no matter how incongruous, was a REALLY good banana.  Price for 2? $15.

On one of my first visits to Otsuka, I had noticed an old coffee shop.  From the outside, it looked precisely my type of vibe — eccentric, frozen in time.  It took me a few visits until I actually entered,  finding a wonderland of 70s decorative motifs — orange, plastic panels, Saarinen inspired lighting, air filled with cigarette smoke, strong coffee, and cold water.  It was to there my wife and I retreated to nurse our full stomachs with iced coffee.  There might be a Dotur coffee chain two doors down and a host of other cafe’s but the old coffee shop was packed, full of folks eating the dreaded spaghetti Neopolitan and chain smoking.

“I don’t look like a tempura chef” my wife stated.

She is the greatest chef that I know, and her tempura is pretty top-notch,  so I had to disagree.

“The old man asked me if I made tempura.  I said I did and told him, while not as good as his, my tempura is pretty good and he LAUGHED! My face is not tempura face.”

I thought about this, about the old master at Tsuzumi, about the winding streets of Otsuka, about the ways in which you discover a place by stumbling through it, blind but accepting.  The more I thought about it, I realized that the old master did have a tempura face, a certain steely but kind gaze that somehow reflected the lattice-like lightness and crunch of his food.  It is a face you inherit as the price of your work — I wonder if my face reflects anything? Perhaps joy, tempered in a sadness that I will not have enough time on this earth to discover everything that Tokyo offers — there are whole neighborhoods out there that I will mindlessly skip over, whole worlds that will forever be beyond my reach.  But in the meantime, I have Otsuka and all the unseen bounty waiting to be discovered.

(As a post-script parenthetical – I must tell you about the streetcar that stops here in Otsuka.  It is the Toden-Arakawa Line better known as the Sakura Tram.  This is the last remaining tram in Tokyo and it runs from Waseda (near to Shinjuku) to Minowabashi (near to Ueno).  It is an incredibly charming ride passing through northwestern Shitamachi.  You can buy a quite inexpensive day pass and ride its length, jumping off along the various stops to explore all the different neighborhoods.  Highly recommended.)


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