During the Edo Period (1603-1868), a typical samurai meal consisted of a bowl of husked rice, an unassuming grilled fish, and a dish of some sort of pickled vegetable, perhaps garnished with shaved daikon radish.
Unadorned, yet riddled with nutrients, these meals reflect what we understand today as bushido aesthetic and discipline. Nowadays, finding healthy simplicity outside of the home is difficult, even in Japan. But when I did encounter a restaurant that served such wholesome fare, I was not surprised that I found it in Asakusa, a neighborhood in downtown Tokyo known for its many hostels and touristy attractions that historically was the site of the Edo Period’s entertainment district. To this day, it is still redolent of geisha, sake, samurai, kabuki, matsuri, and other symbols of plebeian Edo culture that are now cherished as quintessential Japan. Asakusa is divided by a boulevard bearing its name, from which ramify many little alleyways in succession, some of which lead to souvenir shops, others of which lead to karage, yakitori, and pork bun shops.
Along this colorful street, about two blocks from Tawaramachi station, we turned a corner at a Softbank. Jarringly, we spotted a little shop that jutted out of the concrete cityscape with a wooden overhang and porch, evoking the nostalgia of a old-fashioned tavern alongside an unpaved road. This lantern-lit izakaya was called Sumio. But more enticing than the eatery’s homey feel was the primitive smell it emitted, one of smoke, wood, and meat—the basic elements by which we nourish ourselves. Our stomachs grumbled.
We approached the porch cautiously, unsure if we would be welcome, but welcomed we were. A waitress happily sat us down and handed us menus, which, unfortunately, were written in calligraphic Japanese. Much of it was beyond my deciphering and reading abilities, but I did manage to select some horse sashimi and Sapporo beer. The smell that had lured us was coming from a small pyre of wood around which fish were stabbed onto iron rods; they hung like flags, their flesh blackening into crisps and flecks of ash. This type of cooking is called genshiyaki, meaning primitive grilling style. Of course, we did not need the menu (or so we thought); we knew what we wanted.
Things were going smoothly until the waitress asked me which fish we wanted grilled, but I did not know any of the names, just generic terms. She smiled patiently at my fumbling and disappeared for a moment only to emerge with a giant platter of fresh fish, slick from ice water. The spilled on top of each other—bulging eyes and gaping mouths—post-squirming, slimy alien encasements of flesh.
I picked the second largest of these and asked in Japanese what it was called. Its name was announced in a hiss: saba. Mackerel.
Our saba crackled whole on the flame, almost exactly as it had been found in nature that morning, while we quaffed pints of beer and sampled oysters and sashimi. It was almost as if we were countryside travelers from long ago, stopping for brief repose at a seaside inn. When our fish was served, we admired the spread of food and began picking apart its exquisitely flakey and juicy flesh apart with our chopsticks. I remember the dark meat towards the tail end was purple and the most flavorful part. Satisfied, we looked out into the urban night from the safety of the porch, our faces warmed beneath the lantern light.
Densha stations: Tawaramachi station or Asakusa station