tokyo

A Taste of Tofu in an old Sake Distillery / Tokyo

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In the shadow of the iconic Tokyo Tower, a former sake distillery transplanted from the countryside provided the setting for an unforgettable dining experience we enjoyed in Tokyo last fall.

When Larry and I stepped inside the gates of Tokyo Shiba Toufuya Ukai restaurant we were welcomed by a beautiful garden and kimono-clad staff and felt immediately transported back to the Edo period of Japan.

As we entered the restaurant beneath a traditional noren (curtain) hanging in the entryway we felt immersed in the history of this 200-year-old sake distillery which was relocated to this site in its entirety. As with the outdoor garden, the interior decor reflected the period of traditional Japan.

Toufuya Ukai is located in the Minato-ku Prefecture, home to many foreign embassies and headquarters for some of Japan’s largest companies including Honda, Mitsubishi, Sony, Fijitsu and Toshiba so it is a very popular spot for business meetings and receptions.

As we were escorted to our private dining area we proceeded through the reception area where the original sake barrels and press were on display.

We also passed by beautifully designed vignettes inspired by the autumn season before entering a winding hallway connected to quiet passages leading to private rooms. In all, there are 55 rooms, many furnished in the zashiki-style with tatami mats and sliding screens. We paused to remove our shoes before entering our dining room with a view of the traditional Japanese garden outside.

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We had made our reservations well in advance and opted for the last lunch seating at 2:30 so we could retire to the restaurant’s lounge after our meal for a drink at dusk. It happened to be a national holiday on the day of our lunch so the restaurant was only offering the 9-course Tsuki menu option which was about $120 per person. It was a little more than we had planned on spending but the upgraded menu included Wagyu beef which turned out to be one of the highlights of our meal. The menu changes throughout the year to highlight seasonal ingredients at the peak of their flavor but the main dish on any of the tasting menus is tofu, for which the restaurant is famous. The tofu here is crafted with high-quality soybeans and spring water and cooked with wood charcoal.

The courses were served on colorful and sculptural plates, bowls and cups or nestled in lacquered bento boxes because Japanese food is as much about the preparation and presentation as it is the food itself. Attention was also given to the seasonal garnishes which included rice stalks and pine needles, reflective of autumn.

Here’s a gallery of the nine courses we enjoyed.

After lunch we retired to the art-nouveau and Japanese style lounge (Kisshou-an), for a glass of sake an yet another view of the garden illuminated at dusk.

Tokyo Shiba Toufuya Ukai
4-4-13 Shiba-koen, Minato-ku, Tokyo 105-0011
International Call +81-3-3436-1028














The Art of Japanese Wagashi - Confections of the Seasons

Wagashi has always played a role in Japanese tea ceremonies albeit a supporting one. The purpose of these beautiful confections was not to stand out, but to enhance the taste and enjoyment of Japanese tea. These delicate confections are the work of artisans who have passed down their skills from one generation to the next and can be found in many sweet shops throughout Japan including one of the oldest, Toraya. Toraya was founded in the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) and has been a purveyor to the Imperial Palace since the reign of Emperor Go-Yozei from 1586-1611.

Founded in Kyoto, Toraya today now has 80 shops throughout Japan, a boutique in Paris and operates three factories. We visited Toraya’s Tokyo Midtown Shop and Tea Room in Roppongi for a sampling of these sweet treats during our visit last fall.

The ingredients in wagashi are simple - rice flour which is turned into a sticky, chewy dough known as mochi; bean paste; and agar-agar, a jelly-like substance. In the deft hands of a wagashi artisan these simple ingredients become a work of art as the dough is molded by hand and finished with traditional shaping tools to create delicate and intricate designs.

The Tokyo Midtown shop in Roppongi features a gallery and rotating exhibitions. During our visit, various forms of food preservation techniques were on display including canning, bottling and drying. The tea room is located behind the noren curtain in the back where patrons can enjoy items from the special seasonal menus.

Wagashi confections are not just pretty to look at, there is also a story behind every design. Birds, flowers, animals and scenery of the seasons provide inspiration while history, literature and architecture guide context and structure. Wagashi is also designed to stimulate all five senses, which it did!

Here are the stories behind the wagashi we enjoyed at Toraya. The fall Harvest Moon was the inspiration for the bunny bun. The design reflects a rabbit who stood up from the grass to admire the moon. Many artisans use rabbits as inspiration for their creations during moon viewing time. The tradition is based on an old Japanese legend about a mochi-making rabbit living on the moon.

The second, two-color wagashi is named “Pine.” The green represents the color of pine and the purple is reminiscent of a color found on costumes of the Heian noble society. A shade of purple now only worn by Shinto priests during religious ceremonies like the the Shinto wedding below. We came across this wedding party exiting the Hokoku Shrine in the Osaka Castle park. At the time, we didn’t know how rare it was to see an actual Shinto wedding and a priest wearing this color or that it was the inspiration for a sweet treat. Robes in this purple color are usually hanging in museums. Toraya first began making the Pine wagashi in 1834!

Another sweet treat we experienced during our time in Japan was the Umegae Mochi. Fukuoka Prefecture is famous for this beautiful, little confection and it is hard to find elsewhere in Japan. The town of Dazaifu is lined with dozens of umegae mochi vendors and store fronts. It’s a little dumpling filled with red bean paste and wrapped in mochi-rice cake. The buns are cooked on a griddle and embossed with an apricot flower motif. The name umegae mochi translates to plum rice dumpling but the confection is not made with plum. The name comes from a legend about a plum tree in Kyoto flying to Dazaifu to follow a scholar who moved away.

In ancient times, sugar was very rare in Japan and so fruits and nuts took the place of sweets. Even to this day, fruits and nuts are considered a delicacy and are often used as gifts which are wrapped and presented exquisitely. I experienced the custom first-hand when a beautiful cluster of red grapes was delivered to my hotel room at the Tokyo Grand Hyatt along with a note from the hotel manager wishing me a happy birthday. Fruit in Japan is considered a luxury item and is an important part of the country’s gift-giving ritual.

So when you visit Japan be sure to visit the department stores and sweet shops to see the beautiful array of wagashi, fruits and nuts. Toraya has a beautiful assortment of wagashi featured on its Instagram feed (toraya.wagashi) and is worth checking out to know the story behind various confections before you visit.

Toraya Tokyo Midtown Galleria

Address: D-B117, 9-7-4 Akasaka, Minato-ku,
Phone: +81-3-5413-3541 *Only in Japanese
Open hours: 11:00-21:00 (Every day)

Toraya Tea Room
11:00-21:00 (Every day) Last order: 20:30 *Pursuant to requirements by Tokyo Midtown

https://global.toraya-group.co.jp