Thursday, June 10, 2010

Fuji, Morishita (藤,森下)

Every day I sink a little deeper into Fukagawa. Which is a shame, because Fukagawa is slipping away a little every day. I hate it when travel journalists strike a maudlin tone about this sort of thing, because the single biggest factor in the slipping-away of Fukagawa's heritage was almost certainly extensive firebombing in WWII, but even the Showa-era construction is largely replaced. And a good job of it too, because based on the surviving buildings it was all built to decay and fall down.

There's a little strip in Morishita that hasn't fallen down, right across from the north entrance to the station on Kiyosumi Dori. Mom and Dad may remember going to a tiny old tempura place on one of their first days in Japan years ago - it's that strip. There are half a dozen seriously old, atmospheric places; I always meant to go to the tempura place again someday, but jogged by about two weeks ago and couldn't get this place out of my head. Fuji is just the owners' name, sort of like if I opened an izakaya called Morihara.

It's Akita food and sake (but seeing the sake selection made me order beer).There's also a bit of banzai on the counter, normal stuff, and some seasonal fish sitting out, ready to be eaten. They weren't really comfortable cutting up said fish for sashimi; it's more like Mom's Home Cookin', and Mom doesn't want to trust your stomach with her fish skills.

So I started off with some eggplant from the counter, and it was really good. But only because I have such a sweet tooth, and they had put a lot of sugar in the boiling liquid.

Then I had to ask - iburigakko? This is the taste of Akita for me, leaving aside kiritanpo, which is nothing but sticky rice pressed into cylinders on sticks and then grilled before being put into soup - in short, it's rice balls, and that's not exciting. Daikon preserved in a turmeric-heavy pickling solution and then smoked, on the other hand, is exciting to me, and that's exactly what we have here. Iburigakko. Ask for it by name.

Looking around, I saw a number of small touches that I wanted to take pictures of. Chief among them was this noren. The name of the place was Fuji,  you'll recall, which is the owners' name. It's the 'wisteria' fuji, not the 'big-ass volcano symbolic of Japan' fuji, and that's why they have this graying wisteria-covered noren hanging over the kitchen door. They've been using it since they opened 50 years ago, when it was bright purple.

There's a TV too. You know why izakayas have TVs? So people can watch them! Everyone at Fuji was just hanging out, having dinner, doing something so they wouldn't have to be alone. Conversation can't fill all the cracks, and people can't always generate enough topics, and TV can help fill in some of those awkward silences. Social lubricant, if you will. In some ways, I think a real izakaya should probably have a TV.

You shouldn't feel nervous about going here, by the way - the cook told me that they have foreigners come in from time to time. For instance, just last year they had some!

Another thing that a good izakaya should have, though it's not compulsory, is home-made liquor. These are mostly plum liquors in various ages, although the one on the left is actually shiso (with some limes thrown in, I think).

When I came in, the waitress/cook/only staff member was predictably freaked out, but once we started talking she was happy. So happy in fact that she called upstairs to where the owner still lives and asked if she wanted to come down to talk to a real. live foreigner. We got to be friends in about 30 seconds, and she cut me in on her private stash of 5-year old plum liquor, shown here with a glass of the shiso stuff. She had this glass in the fridge to chill in anticipation of drinking it, so we went through it together.

From the counter, I also ordered a seasonal grilled fish. Mebaru, if I remember correctly. Salt-grilled is such a good way to eat a fish...and this was such a good fish.

Some other people came in and needed counter seats, so Mrs. Fuji insisted that I sit next to her where she could pat my arm and pour my drink and generally revel in the pleasure of being next to someone her grandson's age. Turns out we're both only children, although of course she's been one for a good bit longer than me, being 83 and all. She's from Akita originally, and came to Tokyo with her husband and opened this shop a touch over 50 years ago. I really enjoyed the conversation, a mix of Fukagawa gossip, history lessons, food tidbits and titters at the drunks down the counter. It's a nice feeling to make old people happy, isn't it?

Interestingly, one of those drunks instigated a new experience for me - in 6 years in Tokyo, this evening marked the first time someone's looked me square in the eye and said "American, eh? What do you think about your country dropping atomic bombs on Japan, huh?" For the record, I thought it was going to go in a bad direction so I tried to say "Yeah, it's terrible, isn't it?", but he responded with something like "Well, but a lot more Japanese people would have died otherwise, how about that?" and at that point the other people at the counter made him stop talking. So it could have been a balanced and reasonable discussion with more time and language skills and fewer drinks.

In a possibly disrespectful but genuinely heartfelt display, I'd like to close with a shot of this lovely lacquer plaque. It's the memorial for Fuji-baa chan's husband. If you stop in, tell her I sent you.

A little deeper into Fukagawa. No pun intended.


  1. Really like this post. It is a wonderful combination of food but more the stories and life experiences exchanged - and the comment about making older people feel good warmed my heart!! You are one great guy!!

  2. Great little travel narrative.

    Was surprised at the comment about dropping the bomb coming from a Japanese person. That is the reason that the Americans always use.


  3. I agree with the last comment. are certainly getting better and better with each food encounter. Your stories are very interesting read, much like Lawrence Sander's Archy McNally....hahaha, really. You may be an excellent investment type, but you may be missing your true calling in writing.

    I've had many strange encounters in Japan. Although I was born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother, I may not look quite Japanese to a Japanese. Just last year a man would not let go of my arm begging and begging why I speak such a great Japanese (hint, hint it's my first language). Sure he was drunk but I think it must have really bothered him. Not in a bad way, but totally puzzled him.