Eating your way round Tokyo is a lesson in tradition and technology
As YO! Sushi prepares to launch its first non-belt, full-service YO! Kitchen restaurants in London and Dublin, Ella Walker visits Tokyo, the popular Japanese restaurant chain's inspiration
"JUST eat," says our sushi master jovially, plating up individually hand-formed bites of sushi rice draped in bright, fleshy pieces of tuna, before following up more severely with a strict shake of his head: "No soy sauce." He even moves the beautifully crafted wooden pot of the umami stuff out of reach.
It turns out, adding more soy sauce to sushi – particularly when the grains of rice have already been respectfully soy-daubed with a delicate brush – is the equivalent of rudely squirting ketchup unceremoniously all over your dinner.
Our translator Karin explains that Tokyo might be famous for soy sauce, but "you only need a little bit, it's borderline offensive to pour loads on a plate".
You just don't do it – and don't even think about asking for more wasabi, no matter how vibrant and bobbly the fresh root is, no matter how much heat you think you can handle.
So, with each new morsel that appears on the tulip-red counter at the dimly-lit Seamon Ginza, during our 20-course omakase (which translates as 'I'll leave it up to you'), we tell our chef: "Oishi" (delicious), to keep him on side.
I'm in Japan with YO! Sushi who, famed as they are for their food-topped conveyor belt, are gearing up to launch their first non-belt, full-service restaurant YO! Kitchen in London's White City this September followed by a similar restaurant in Dundrum outside Dublin.
Tokyo provided the initial inspiration for the brand's founder Simon Woodroffe, and remains an endless source of menu ideas for group executive chef Mike Lewis. And so, in honour of the new concept, Lewis is leading me on a three-day eating tour of the city, to experience Japan's food culture, and feel old collide with new.
I quickly learn that in Tokyo, having dinner is also an exercise in exploring the culinary edges of tradition, etiquette and technology.
We make the dynastic leap from the intricate, almost solemn and highly personal omakase at Seamon Ginza (soy sauce reprimands included), to lunch the next day at modern kaiten (conveyor belt sushi) chain Hamazushi, ordering via screen.
The restaurant's track technology sees 100-yen bites whizz to you directly, rapidly, freshly made and accompanied by a jingle; no human interaction needed. It's as charming and futuristic as the slightly dim robot waiter in the foyer.
After a frenetic, psychedelic show at the Technicolor tourist trap that is the Robot Restaurant, then karaoke (of course), we go for 4am noodles at ramen chain Ichiran in Shinjuku.
Ramen – properly done – takes hours to prepare: The broth must have depth and savouriness, the meat be falling apart, and the eggs white and glistening on the outside, gooey and daisy-yellow in the middle.
We bop in our orders via plastic buttons on what looks and feels like a fruit machine, from which you win a ticket with our order on, rather than the satisfying clunk of pound coins in a tray. You hand this to the staff behind the counter, then settle into your solo booth, which even has its own personal water tap.
They pass you your ramen, shut the hatch and you're left to eat alone. It's a moment of perfect automation (fruit machine), framed by human interaction (service) and a bowl of something time-honoured and utterly 'oishi' (such good ramen).
Even at the industrial, commercial level you feel the anchoring of tradition. At Toyosu Fish Market, incredibly beautiful knives – swords, almost – are wielded to splice whole yellow fin tuna, but the fish might just as swiftly be sawed in half mechanically, skilfully dragged through a chainsaw, which cleaves the fish at the spine.
Tuna is Japan's most beloved fish – there is a mad, highly lucrative dash to buy the first tuna caught of the year. Called 'bullets', the tuna have their tails lopped off (to grade the quality), guts removed (on the boat), and are frozen solid to retain freshness, colour and flavour – and the fattier they are, the better. They look oddly like canoes.
The market is a huge operation, up to 30,000 tonnes of fish is handled every day, and on my visit, there's 17,000 tonnes being graded, tussled over and bought.
But despite that – and the towers of polystyrene boxes everywhere, fins poking out – tradition and the old ways are built in: From the male-dominated shop floor and family businesses, to the way the buyers check the fish using a wooden handled tool with a sharp, curved blade, which they use to dig out slivers of flesh from the tuna tails, to defrost in their hands and place reverently on their tongues to taste.
Bits of paper, indicating the fish is sold, are dunked in a kettle of water then slapped on the fish to freeze against the flesh – there couldn't be a quicker or more sensible way of doing it.
The auctioneers have old-school panache too, as they spectacularly holler their way through the bidding, ringing bells, the sound echoing off the hollow frozen fish and stark white walls.
All of it is done with a sense of ceremony and theatre, so that by the time you're ensconced in an izakaya (Japanese pub) eating yakitori (grilled skewers) in Omoide Yokocho – aka 'p*** alley' – in Shinjuku, you find yourself used to the dramatic performances of people using ancient techniques to speedily turn out chicken skewers and dried skate wings with kewpie mayo.
The same goes for the next day when, hungover, you opt for okonomiyaki, which is theatrically cooked in front of you on a huge hot plate bedded into your dining table, bonito flakes dancing on a large patty of mayo and ponzu dressed rosti-cum-cabbage-stuffed-omelette.
It's the level of detail and care applied to everything that strikes you repeatedly, whatever and wherever you're eating in Tokyo. Be it sashimi from a conveyor belt or a man's masterful hands, ramen via slot machine and skewers off a charcoal grill from a hole in the wall, to the 'tastiness, happiness, peacefulness' promised on the seaweed-flavoured rice crackers eaten on the flight over, before your Tokyo adventure has even properly begun.
:: YO! Kitchen White City (London) will launch in September, followed by YO! Kitchen Dundrum (Dublin) in autumn. The new menu will feature Japanese-inspired dishes such as Katsu Curry Arancini, Japanese Corndog and Salmon Kushi Katsu. Visit yosushi.com.
:: HOW TO MAKE YAKISOBA NOODLES
Ingredients (Serves 2):
1 packet of YO! Soy, Ginger & Garlic Yakisoba Sauce (available from selected Tesco stores)
1tbsp of vegetable oil
300g of stir-fry ready-to-eat vegan noodles
1 pak choi peeled
1 carrot cut into thick strips
1 red pepper cut into strips
50g of bean sprouts
1 spring onion finely chopped
1 red onion sliced
1. Heat the oil in a wok and add the chopped vegetables, stir-fry for three minutes.
2. Add the noodles and heat through following packet instructions.
3. Add the packet of sauce to the wok, toss and stir-fry for two minutes and serve straight away.
HOW TO MAKE STICKY BBQ YAKITORI CHICKEN
:: Ingredients (Serves 2)
1 packet of YO! Sticky BBQ Yakitori Sauce
800g skinless & boneless chicken thigh cut into chunks
2 red onions cut into wedges
1 red pepper cut into chunks
1 green pepper cut into chunks
1. Pre heat oven to 200C/180C fan assisted or gas mark 6.
2. Remove any fat from the chicken thighs and cut into one-inch chunks.
3. Slice the red onion into wedges.
4. Deseed both red and green peppers and cut into chunks.
5. Thread chicken and vegetable pieces alternately onto your skewers.
6. Generously brush half of YO!'s Sticky BBQ Yakitori (available from selected Tesco stores) over the skewers.
7. Place skewers onto a baking tray and place into the oven for 25 minutes, turn after 10 minutes and brush the remaining sauce over skewers to serve OR place skewers onto the BBQ turning regularly, whilst generously brushing with sauce for an even cook.
8. Serve with a summer salad, buttery corn on the cobs and crisp toasted pitta breads.