Things have been busy...

and not enough time to write a blog. How poor! So may we take this opportunity to thank all our customers this year for their patronage.

Due to so many orders over the Christmas period we can't take any more, but are looking forward to hearing from you in January.

Also to let you know we will not be available from Feb 17th - Mar 16th 2018 as the boss is off to get her 'Japan fix' for a month.




Lessons from Japan : Is Felixstowe the next Shoreditch?

We all know how trendy those old Shoreditch warehouses are, playing host to uber trendy events in London, but perhaps this photo shows the next evolution in trendyness. On your special day what could be better than this beautiful backdrop. We were particularly impressed with the nice positioning of the container crane. Perhaps replacing the graceful origami crane iis a nod to the past?

Japan News agency mistakes waxwork for Prince William

One news employee at Jiji press probably looking for a new job this week after selecting the Madame Tussauds version of Prince William rather than the living thing to promote next year's Japan visit.

Can you tell the difference? - real or wax? Of course Japan has good record in life-like representations itself.

How about spaghetti? (OK the flying fork does give it away a bit)


Or tuna nigiri (perhaps even more convincing without the key attachment)

Otoro tuna Nigiri Sushi key chain

Off to Canterbury to teach members of the King's Society.

Off to Canterbury to teach members of the King's Society.

Must remember to take small change for the Dartford Crossing this time...

The King’s Society learns to make Sushi Wednesday 12th November
Birley’s Pavilion 10.30am
Yuko Sato of Ginko Sushi will be running a class for up to ten people.  We have been kindly granted permission to hold this cookery session in the kitchen of Birley’s pavilion. Participants will learn about the key ingredients in sushi and how to prepare Japanese sushi rice. Using the rice we have prepared, we will go on to make two types of sushi roll – norimaki and uramaki California rolls. Once the lesson is over, Yuko will provide miso soup to eat with the sushi, along with a light pudding and tea or coffee. Each participant will create at least 30 pieces of sushi. No raw fish will be used.
Please bring an apron, a passion for cooking and a large appetite. Boxes to take home any uneaten sushi will be provided!

50 years of Shinkansen

The first Shinkansen departed at 10am on 1st October 1964.  There is a wonderful article on its history (here). Apologies if the link is white, it's beyond our control. The shinkansen cut a previous 7 hour journey to just 4 hours; a life-changing difference that made even a day trip from Osaka to Tokyo a possibility.

I've only ever been late on a shinkansen once. The weather was awful and British trains would have simply given up, instead advising people not to travel. But our shinkansen duly arrived just 15 minutes late. All that extra time was taken up by the guard apologising profusely. In the evening it was on the main news - various shinkansen had even been delayed by 15 minutes. Interviews were of course sought from Japan Rail to explain these dreadful affairs.

The third remarkable feature after speed and punctuality is frequency. Imagine a peak time London-Edinburgh timetable of one train almost every 5 minutes. It's not that frequent all of the day of course, but there are over 300 trains per day shuttling between Tokyo and Osaka from dawn till dusk.

1850-1884: Years preceding the first Japanese restaurant in London

So if 1884 saw the first Japanese restaurant in London, what happened leading up to that. After all, Japan had been shut off from the rest of the world until 1854 when the US fleet of Commander Perry finally negotiated a trade agreement with the Tokugawa shogunate called the Treaty of Kanagawa.

This was soon followed by the British, who agreed an Anglo-Japanese friendship treaty in the same year in Nagasaki (where trade had been uniquely continuing, during the 200 years of isolation, with the Dutch and Chinese) and followed this with its own Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1958. Beyond commerce, this treaty permitted Britons to live in Edo (now Tokyo) from 1862 and Osaka from 1863.

Of course I have no idea currently how the Japanese ended up in the UK but pretty much as soon as Japan opened up, people started to travel in both directions. Here is a rather dry but useful list of Britons who were Emissaries up to 1900. Some of these people or those they worked with must have been associated with such efforts

James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin 1858 1858
Sir Rutherford Alcock 1859 1864.
Sir Harry Parkes 1865 1883
Sir Francis Plunkett 1884 1887
Hugh Fraser 1889 1894
Power Henry Le Poer Trench 1894 1895
Sir Ernest Satow 1895 1900

Rutherford Alcock is of note for setting up the first legation (one step down from an embassy) in Tozen-Ji, a temple in Takanawa near Shinagawa (in Tokyo). 

  • The temple site is still there but the original buildings were lost in the War. Alcock is apparently the first recorded foreigner to climb Mt. Fuji and his successor's wife, Lady Parkes the first foreign lady to ascend.

Hugh Fraser is also of interest, not least because he died in Japan and his grave is in Aoyama cemetery.  

Ernest Satow was one of the most significant Briton emissaries in terms of time spent in Japan and thus time to accumulate detailed knowledge was .

  • Satow actually lived in Japan from 1862-1883 followed by 1895-1900. That makes 25 years in total, a far greater length of experience than most modern-day diplomats and business-men experience there. His book 'A Diplomat in Japan' is still in print (£14.50 on Amazon!)

Experience was not limited to diplomats either. Josiah Conder, a british architect was chosen by the Royal Institute of British Architects for the post of professor of architecture at the Imperial College of Engineering, in Tokyo. 

And in the opposite direction, Japan sent its first Embassy to Europe in 1862. Incredibly, in 1863 the first five Japanese came to study at Univeristy College London. They were known as the Choshu Five, having been sent over by the powerful Choshu Domain (Clan).

They were followed by members of the Satsuma Domain in 1865.

See here for more details

According to the venerable Wikipedia and associated references 264 citizens of Japan resided in Britain in 1884, the majority of whom identified themselves as officials and students. But a few were probably chefs!

1884 - First Japanese Restaurant in London

Think you were part of the Japanese food revolution in the UK? Think again. 

In 1884, London got its first whiff of Japanese cuisine at the International Health Exhibition, which followed on the coat tails of the Great Exhibition. Clearly even in 1884 somebody who had probably travelled widely had thought of Japanese food as a healthy option and attracted chefs from a restaurant in Tokyo called Isegen to come over to the UK. Even more amazingly, that same restaurant Isegen still survives in Tokyo.

A review in London's 1884 Morning Post  describes London's first experience of Japanese food located in the upstairs of the Bertram and Roberts' smoking pavilion. It's an interesting read (see full text here on the wonderful Cat's Meat Shop blog). Here are slightly edited highlights, some quite funny:

"The menu on Wednesday consisted of 
  • Sea cucumber and raw turnip salad. 
  • Miso soup broad beans, and aralia pinnatifida. 
  • Kuchitori, a side dish of mushrooms, radishes, and tomato mixed. 
  • Hachimono, a grilled or roast. Choku, dressed vegetables in vinegar. 
  • Han, boiled rice. 
  • Wanmori, soup of meat with vegetables. 
  • Sunomono, salad. 
  • Konomono,vegetables, salted or preserved in miso. 
  • Saké"

The Taste
"The pervading flavour of all these dishes is what the French term aigre-doux - bitter sweet. There is very little taste of the meat or fish left, it all being apparently carefully extracted and concentrated in the soups, which are excellent, but we English are not in the habit of taking two soups at once at the same dinner, as is evidently the Japanese custom. The saké is identified with the Chinese beverage of the same name, and very refreshing, but rather stronger and more intoxicating than most people would imagine".

The Volume
"It might be suggested, that a good curry or stew of a substantial character - and surely there must be such in the Japanese cuisine - could with advantage be added to the present menu, which to the majority, unaccustomed to the extreme recherché and ultra aestheticiem of the Japanese cookery, proves rather, to say the least, unsatisfactory. Several, [...] openly expressed their keen desire for a steak and one or two of the guests were still hungry enough to partake of an extra meal elsewhere".  

The Celebrity Chefs
The names of the Japanese cooks to whose art is due the fact that we in London can now dine as well according doubtless to Japanese notions as if we were in Yeddo (i.e. Edo period Japan), are Kiiti, son of Isegen, and Gensuke, chief cook of Isegen. It is certainly one of the things to do at the Exhibition to dine a la Japanoise ; and no one ought to omit partaking of at least one dinner in this aerial restaurant, which is perched so high up that it commands a splendid view of the gardens and buildings.

So there we are. Of course, you do get Japanese curry and it is a cheap, popular food in Japan. It was originally introduced by the Japanese Navy later on in the 19th Century, who had adopted and adapted from the British Navy, who in their turn had adapted from India. Now Japanese curry is even re-exported abroad as a distinct food.

Which reminds me of a funny story: When working in Japan my English/Pakistan friend and neighbour Akmal made an authentic curry for somebody who had helped us out when I sliced my thumb on a food grater (we'll save that story for another time). When collecting the empty Tuppaware the lady thanked him, said it was delicious but then just as he was about to leave she said, 'but quite different to real curry'. Puzzled, he asked what real curry might be, to which she presented him with a block of Japanese curry roux and told him the complex recipe of diluting the roux with hot water and then adding meat and veg of your choice.

Matsugen : Relaxed Japanese cookery for evening

Matsugen in Tokyo is a specialist noodle restaurant by day, but in the evening transforms itself into a proper restaurant with that Japanese penchant for background jazz music, which I quite like actually. Some foreign web sites have this as a really top restaurant, which I think would be doing a dis-service to those that really are at the top, but nevertheless it is really enjoyable.

They have two restaurants, one near Azabu Juban, the other (where we went) at the Ebisu/Hibiya border. The communal tables are nice and informal, the only downside being that Japan is still a 'smoking OK' country and for half our dinner we were sitting close to two people who appeared to have sponsorship from Japan Tobacco.

Japan's New Style Noodles : Tsurutontan

Japan has such an array of noodle bars it would be difficult to pick the best. Traditional ramen, udon and soba outlets abound and everyone has their favourites.
But if you want something a bit different and with some designer presence you can't do better than a trip to Tsurutontan. Another of Japan's 'specialist chains' it combines great taste, with fantastic presentation.
In addition to the 'normal' flavours they have some of their own inspirations. On this visit I had udon carbonara which is pretty much carbonara with the udon substituting spaghetti and the creamy sauce instead being of a more drinkable consistency. Absolutely fabulous.
Everything is served in oversized bowls for a bit of theatre and the photos here do not show emphasise the bowl size which is something like 30cm across. Imagine lunch arriving in something the size of a small designer washbasin and you'll be pretty close to the mark.

Tempura at Tsunahachi in Tokyo

There are plenty of tempura restaurants in Japan and even the cheap ones are pretty good to the Japanese taste buds. But for a more refined trip visitors should try Tsunahachi. The main shop (picture shown) is in Shinjuku, but like many successful specialist restaurants in Japan they also run several other restaurants as part of a 'mini-chain' while keeping quality high; something we seem generally unable to do in Europe. It may feel less authentic wandering in to a restaurant on the 7th floor of a department store as we did but once ensconced it feels like the genuine article with the benefit that it's just 5 minutes from the exit Tokyo station.

It was late in the evening so we had the smallest Edomae Set consisting of:
Japanese tiger prawn (Kuruma-ebi), squid, two seafood dishes, two vegetable dishes, Anago (sea eel), deep-fried small shrimps (kakiage), appetizer, and a set of rice, miso-soup and Japanese pickles (osoroi)
which at a fraction under 4,000 yen is pretty good for dinner of this quality.

web site: http://www.tunahachi.co.jp

Spot the difference competition

Towns from different countries are sometimes twinned, but surely not supermarkets? Following on from our mention of Tesco withdrawing from Japan, it seems that this newspaper can't quite sort out which country is which in a separate report. We think the Chinese language signs would have been a bit of a giveaway. Is the lady on the left posing for her photo? There are surely better places for a day out...

Sushi at Peterhouse May Ball 2012

Last time we went to one of these we were about 25 years younger and paying guests. How times change. The Peterhouse May Ball was 'the' white tie ball of 2012 and we provided the Japanese catering in a beautiful marquee constructed around a tree in a secluded courtyard. 1,500 sushi and 1000 assorted skewers were consumed in 2 hours flat. Apologies to those who turned up between 11pm and midnight asking where the sushi was - advise them to double the order next time

Tesco withdraws from Japan


Looking like a bizzare photoshop GCSE project for West meets East, Tesco express never did look quite at home in Japan. It is an interesting case for people like us with no formal experience in supermarkets but a modicum of common sense. Carrefour had already gone into Japan and failed, mainly due to forgetting they would need their own warehouses and supply chain if they were going to impose a foreign model. Oh yes, and that about 5 supermarkets might not be critical mass...

Tesco instead bought C two network, a regional supermarket employing around 4000 people. This was more sensible than Carrefour (whose experience is the sort of story horror books are made of) but only just. Supermarkets are already intensely competitive in Japan and require things we don't consider here (like individually wrapped veg). I could never understand what Tesco was to offer in Japan and unfortunately it seems Tesco didn't understand either.

Heston Dinner

A rare opportunity to sample something special. Heston's restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental has been talked about in many places and we were lucky enough to sample it from the Chef's Table, with views over the open kitchen (and the refrigeration room).

Tasting menus are wonderful - none of that messing around deciding what to have - just let the people who should know what they're doing anyway produce it. In many Japanese restaurants you have an even broader opportunity by saying 'omakase' for a certain agreed price and let the chef then do what they want - ideal when you can't read the menu. It's a great way to sample food and have the surprise of what will turn up next. Even omakase at a sushi restaurant will deliver intrigue as to what the next topping will be.

Back to Heston, who of course wasn't there, and his side-kick Ashley, who also wasn't, though they were mentioned (more than) enough times. For us, the star of the show beyond the food was surely the personable Colombian who gave great insight into how each course was made and guided us around both the open kitchen and the 'below decks' area, where the less fashionable hard prep was being done. Intriguing, educational and nice to see everyone so open about what they do.

With about 9 courses it was difficult to select the best. The pate shaped as a mandarin was truly ingenius but described by many others elsewhere, so we have selected the rhubarb - a difficult pudding to get right at the best of times and this one was outstanding. On top of the rhubarb ice cream you can see a shard of rhubarb ontop. Haven't seen such a thin slice of anything since the time I took the end of my thumb off with one of those mandolin slicers when living in Osaka.