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Tokyo food scene melds new and old

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The vibrant 'eating out' scene in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Picture: PA Photo/iStock
The vibrant 'eating out' scene in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Picture: PA Photo/iStock

On a three-day eating tour of Tokyo, Ella Walker quickly learns that having dinner is an exercise in exploring the culinary edges of tradition, etiquette and technology.

“Just eat,” says our sushi master jovially, plating up individually hand-formed bites of sushi rice draped in bright, fleshy pieces of tuna, before following up more severely with a strict shake of his head: “No soy sauce.”

It turns out, adding more soy sauce to sushi – particularly when the grains of rice have already been respectfully soy-daubed with a delicate brush – is the equivalent of rudely squirting ketchup unceremoniously all over your dinner.

You just don’t do it.

So, with each new morsel that appears on the tulip-red counter at the dimly-lit Seamon Ginza, during our 20-course omakase (which translates as ‘I’ll leave it up to you’), we tell our chef: “Oishi” (delicious), to keep him on side.

I’m in Japan with YO! Sushi who, famed as they are for their food-topped conveyor belt, are gearing up to launch their first non-belt, full-service restaurant, YO! Kitchen White City in September.

Tokyo provided the initial inspiration for the brand’s founder Simon Woodroffe, and remains an endless source of menu ideas for group executive chef Mike Lewis.

And so, in honour of the new concept, Lewis is leading me on a three-day eating tour of the city, to experience Japan’s food culture, and feel old collide with new.

We lunch the next day at modern kaiten (conveyor belt sushi) chain Hamazushi, ordering via screen.

The restaurant’s track technology sees 100-yen bites whizz to you directly, rapidly, freshly made and accompanied by a jingle; no human interaction needed.

It’s as charming and futuristic as the slightly dim robot waiter in the foyer.

The question of reverence versus modern efficiency rumbles beneath every edible encounter: I leave a gentle, sacred and perfectly timed tea ceremony at Hotel Chinzano Tokyo to be greeted by boxy vending machines that uniformly line the streets like mechanical wallflowers, swallowing yen in exchange for cold sweet green tea in futuristic bottles.

Both are as ingrained in the city’s fabric as the ginkgo trees are in the pavements.

And when you’re not sliding from the traditional straight into the modern, Tokyo just goes and melds the two.

After a frenetic, psychedelic show at the Technicolor tourist trap that is the Robot Restaurant, then karaoke (of course), we go for 4am noodles at ramen chain Ichiran in Shinjuku.

It’s the level of detail and care applied to everything that strikes you repeatedly, whatever and wherever you’re eating in Tokyo.

• Ella Walker, PA

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