Yakitori and Demitasu

Richie Nakano’s Japan Chronicles, Part 2

Richie Nakano is a chef who owns a pop-up food business in San Francisco, Hapa Ramen. As research for launching his brick-and-mortar restaurant, Nakano spent two weeks in Japan, eating. Here’s part 2 of his three-part journey. Check out part 1.

Everyone in Birdland is off-their-ass-drunk tonight, and the room is brutally hot. The 10-foot charcoal grill is throwing off so much heat it feels like I’m standing over it myself, not sure if my eyebrows are slowly being singed off. My heart rate swells: all this heat and fire and for fuck’s sake we’re trapped underground in a Tokyo yakitori joint! Then the skewers start to arrive: pale chicken breast with wasabi, beautifully caramelized thigh and gizzard, chicken skin with back meat. Also a couple of curveballs: grilled gingko nuts and what appears to be mozzarella drizzled with olive oil.

“Tofu,” the cook says as he hands it over. A slight moment of disappointment in myself: tofu, treated like mozzarella. How have I never thought to do this?

It goes on: livers and meatballs and a perfect piece of white asparagus with sudachi citrus. I wipe the sweat off my brow and down another beer, so full I worry I’m going to pass out. The final plate lands: rice with soft-scrambled egg and even more chicken bits. It’s so beautiful and custardy I spend long moments gazing at it.

I’d come here in part to try Japanese food at its source, in preparation for opening my own restaurant. But what I didn’t count on was the ways that Japan would try me. Earlier that evening—on my first full day in Tokyo—I made my way with Amee (my travel companion and translator) to Ginza, in search of this famous yakitori at Birdland. We stumbled through deafening pachinko parlors, past massive neon billboards, down dark alleys.

Over the next couple of days, between Tokyo and Kobe, there’d be a lot more stumbling. To a mountaintop temple for a memorial service (the reason for Amee’s trip), to early-morning meals of oden, and through a lot of excessive drinking (well, on my part). I’d wander into huge department-store basements that were all food, little stands of French pastry, sushi, or Kobe beef. I’d have my first bite of bad food in Japan, gooey takoyaki that nearly melted the skin from my mouth, like boiling pancake batter with chunks of octopus in it.

There’d also be sleepless nights spent wandering the streets till 4 a.m., worried about home, missing my son. The cooks at my little pop-up ramen business in San Francisco would just be getting their day started when I was supposed to be going to sleep each night—it was unnerving. Flipping through tweets about home was strange. Add to that my complete lack of knowledge about Japan, and everything was adding up to make me feel detached. I was, literally and figuratively, on an island.

Next day in Kobe, dinner is kushikatsu—you know, more skewers, only deep-fried! Again, Amee and I plow through a wide assortment, nibbling on raw cabbage and scallion in between. The chef works directly in front of me, dead silent, one hand behind his back. Instead of doing it Western-style, in a fryolator, he stirs crystal-clear oil in a copper pot with a miniature copper hood directly above it. Eventually, everyone else at the counter sits back, happily full—everyone but me. I soldier on until my skewer count reaches 14. I sit back.

“You’re done?” Amee asks. She says something to the chef and he glares at me angrily, then says something back to Amee.

“He says he has three more for you, unless you really want to stop … but you should eat these last three.”

“Wait. How many more skewers are on this menu?”

“There are 36 total.”

Thirty-six skewers: double the number at Birdland, and more than twice what I’ve already eaten. Which of these polite people in here could eat 36?

“She did,” Amee says, gesturing to the petite woman seated next to her, sipping Cognac. I am baffled and astonished and embarrassed, and so fucking impressed I almost start clapping.

I come to a realization: Kobe feels like home. Maybe it’s the smallness of it, after leaving Tokyo, or the genuine hospitality of the people I’ve met. Or maybe it’s just my Japanese DNA awakening here, the way my heart jumped after my first cup of Japanese coffee yesterday in Tokyo.

Amee and I are standing in front of Chatei Hatou, as I nurse a growing rage: I’ve been awake for four hours, ravenous, and without even a single cup of coffee in my system. “Why. The. Fuck. Does. This. Fucking. Coffee. Shop. Not. Open. Until. Fucking. 11.” Amee takes a drag on her cigarette and scrolls her Instagram, ignoring me.

Suddenly the door opens and like a gear clicking into place, a handful of people—coffee ninjas—appear from nowhere. Once inside, we sit at the counter and stare at the menu.

The well-dressed barista comes over. “Demitasu? Futatsu? Onegaishimasu?” He looks at us blankly. We look back, blankly.

“Jikan arimasu ka? You have … time?” After a flurry of hais and arigatou gozaimasus he’s gone, weighing beans on a gram scale, boiling water, setting up a nel drip pot. The place is dead silent as we watch the coffee ritual, transfixed. Once the beans are ground he starts dripping water over them. Drip. By. Drip.

Forty-five minutes pass. Other patrons stroll in and drink café au laits, eat cheesecake, burn through half-packs of smokes. Still he drips: It’s transfixing, maddening. When he finally delivers the coffee to us, each cup measures no more than 2 ounces—only my throbbing, caffeine-withdrawal headache keeps me from laughing. Not Amee. She says, “It’s the Portlandia coffee sketch in real life.”

With the first sip my pupils dilate and my constricted blood vessels relax. It’s amazing: Rich. Layered. Sweet. Bitter. I’ve never tasted coffee like this. I try to imagine it in the U.S.: a brutally long wait for a thimble of coffee. Yeah, right. But is the beauty in the thimble, the ritual, or the wait? This will become a theme for, well, everything in Japan. Meanwhile, the taste: perfect.

Photographs by Richie Nakano; photo collage by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com

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