By Brian Spencer
“He say what will you do in Tokyo?”
The television crew’s translator asks me another question during my first interview for Japanese television, an impromptu session conducted in the waiting area just beyond customs at Narita Airport. By the time I board the airport limousine bus 40 minutes later, bound for Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku, I’ll have not one but two TV interviews to my credit, both recorded for a program called “Why Did You”, each held with separate crews; ah, Tokyo.
Stomach rumbling, salmon rice balls I’d just purchased burning a hole in my jacket pocket, I’m caught off guard when the first interview is popped on me and my brother-in-law, both of us stifling laughter at the absurdity, microphone thrust towards our faces, shoulder camera zooming and focusing. Uhhhh… what are we going to do in Tokyo? I guess, uh, walk around a lot, go to Tsujiki fish market, play frisbee golf, Piss Alley, museums, uh…
“We’re going to drink lots of Japanese craft beer and eat lots of sushi.”
The verbal vomit stumbles out like I’m a second-grader reading How to Sound Like an Idiot American in Tokyo out loud in front of the class. Deadpan, bored, anxious to update her resume because fucking hell this job gets worse and worse, the translator translates to the host, who extends a similarly blank expression to us before responding:
“He say, so, what else will you do in Tokyo besides drink beer and eat sushi?”
I try to explain that we’ll be drinking craft beer–we’re high-brow drunks, lady, get it straight–because Japan has a number of excellent microbreweries, but the elaboration goes nowhere; neither does the overall interview. Yes, I failed my first shot at Japanese television stardom, but the craft beer and sushi part? That was a success, thanks in part to return visits to a favorite spot in Tokyo: Uogashi Nihon-ichi, otherwise known as the stand-up sushi bar.
Lazy jazz music playing in the background, locals quietly sipping pints of cold beer and mugs of hot matcha, the front door a well-soundproofed gateway into the kinetic streets of Shibuya, nothing had changed since the first time I’d stood here four years ago, my wife and I before we were engaged, the two of us celebrating my 31st birthday with 12 days in Tokyo, Hakone, Yokohama, and Kamakura. Uogashi Nihon-ichi, located near the subway station within one of the many mazes of Shibuya side streets, was one of our first eating stops then, as it was for my brother-in-law and I this time.
You can blow as much yen as you’d like on sushi in Tokyo. Anthony Bourdain, for example, suggests Sukiyabashi Jiro (of Jiro Dreams of Sushi fame) as one of the 13 places to eat before you die, though you just might die of shock after the bill comes: ¥30,000 for lunch. For those of us not on the bottomless Bourdain budget, the sushi joints clustered around Tsujiki fish market are well known for providing top-quality cuts at reasonable mid-range prices, but Uogashi Nihon-ichi is an excellent option for high-grade sushi on the (very) cheap, with the added bonus of multiple locations around Tokyo.
Two-piece plates of nigiri, including salmon, tamago (creamy slabs of egg), squid, and octopus, start at ¥150, while hand rolls and beautiful cuts of hamachi, negi-toro, and seared salmon with mayo run ¥200; the priciest item on the menu is fatty cyu-toro nigiri at ¥600. It’s all served on a banana leaf, and mugs of matcha are complimentary. Don’t expect the plumpest cuts of fish, but as you can see with the hamachi, above,Uogashi Nihon-ichi’s nigiri isn’t exactly skimpy, either. English-language menus are available, or you can simply point at whatever looks good in the see-through case above the counter. Everything is freshly prepared in front of you by a small team of friendly chefs, and as the restaurant’s tagline suggests, it’s standing-room only.
I’ll talk Tokyo craft beer bars in the near future here, but in the meantime, if you find yourself thrust into the spotlight of a Japanese television program at Narita, do yourself a favor: talk about something other than beer and sushi.
There are a number of Uogashi Nihon-ichi branches in the Tokyo metropolitan area; the location covered here is at 25-6 Udagawa-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 03-5728-5451. They do have a website, but it’s only available in Japanese.