“No Reservations” season 4, episode 16: Tokyo

Location: it’s Tokyo time! Bourdain finally makes his pilgrimage to every food host’s favorite culinary destination, the capital of Japan and one of the world’s largest cities.

Episode Rating: Three bloody meat cleavers out of five. Bourdain made a concerted effort not to do the traditional “this is Japan” food show. It made for interesting subject matter, but the episode also seemed a bit disjointed as well.

Summary: In Anthony Bourdain’s mind, Japan is all about the relentless pursuit of perfection. No matter if it’s food, art or sport, the Japanese are almost religious in their attention to quality and detail. It is through this lens that Bourdain takes us on a tour of Tokyo, one of the most famous but also most confusing places to visit on earth (after visiting earlier this year, I would have to agree). After an earlier No Reservations visit to Osaka, where Tony proclaimed he was not going to “do the traditional” Japan visit to Tokyo, it was interesting to get an entirely different Bourdain perspective on the country, one which was noticeably more subdued than his previous visit.
There’s no better insight into Japanese culinary culture than noodles, and Tony starts his visit by meeting up with famous Japanese chef Masaharu Morimoto for some soba. Made mostly from buckwheat, soba noodles are “one of the most fundamental foods” in Japanese cooking. The noodle shop they visit has been perfecting the art of making the perfect noodle since 1789. Each noodle is cut to the exact width of 1.6mm to ensure proper cooking time and consistency. It was clear Tony was loving his noodles, and the camera work here confirms this – we see some serious “noodle porn” with plenty of close-ups and slow-mo effects for good measure.

Not to be outdone by Japanese noodle-making is the Japanese fanaticism for quality cocktails. To better experience the phenomenon, Tony visits Bar IshinoHana, world-famous for its exquisitely-crafted cocktails. According to Tony, the bartender spends an “agonizingly” long time making Tony’s drink – relax man, it’s going to be one-of-a-kind! In the pursuit of his hypothesis that the Japanese are obsessed with perfection, Tony asks the bartender what inspired him to become a bartender. Amusingly enough, the bartender answers his idol is Tom Cruise in Cocktail. How’s that for an odd source of inspiration?

In order to work off his designer-cocktail hangover the next day, Tony visits a sports complex to learn more about Kendo. The sport, involving the ancient martial arts techniques of sword fighting, is as much a mental exercise as it is a physical one. Participants use their shinai, or bamboo sword, to try and outmaneuver and out-think their opponent, aiming to strike body hits.

Back in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, Tony reunites with chef Morimoto after-hours at his restaurant, XEX. Morimoto prepares Bourdain a surprisingly delicious multi-course dinner using a whole Monkfish. Not a single organ is wasted – Tony gets to sample the liver (tastes like foie gras), fried monkfish with seaweed and bamboo shoots, and a “Nabe” (NAH-bay) made with Monkfish cartilage and skin. All unexpectedly prepared and unexpectedly delicious.

Tony seems to be tired of Tokyo, so he hops on a Shinkansen bullet train to take in some of the other nearby sites. I think Bourdain must be getting up there in years, because the next 5-10 minutes of the show take an unexpected turn into HGTV territory while Tony learns about the art of Ikebana, or Japanese flower arrangement. Really? Look, I don’t doubt that it’s a cool art form, but it really did seem out of place in your typical No Reservations episode that centers on gluttony, shooting firearms and killing animals. Perhaps Tony is becoming more mellow as he ages?

All the arts and crafts have made Tony hungry, so he heads to a famous Yakitori joint known for their top-notch chicken skewers. Let me tell you – there is not a single fingernail of that chicken which Tony did not eat in this scene, where he devours rare chicken breast, spleen, chicken sashimi, the chicken tissue connecting the liver and heart, chicken skin, and chicken tataki. I swear, I will not make any “tastes like chicken” jokes here. Tony makes a point of commenting on the raw chicken, which he finds surprisingly delicious. Apparently illness is not an issue, as the chicken is killed immediately before preparation.

Tony ends his adventure outside Tokyo with a visit to a knife-making shop in Sakai City, and with a traditional Kaiseki meal with chef Morimoto, prepared using fresh seasonal, regional ingredients. Tony samples some Cod sperm during his meal, but this kind of weird food indulgence almost seems routine at this point.

Appropriately, Bourdain ends his Tokyo visit with a trip to one of the city’s most famous sushi establishments. The sushi is simply made, amazingly fresh and accompanied by perfectly-made rice. Tony can’t help but hide his glee, proclaiming it the best sushi he’s ever had. Another reminder that when it comes to anything in Japan, the “devil is in the details.” Anthony Bourdain’s Japan is much of the same – an idealized vision of perfectly crafted foods, supreme attention to the little things and an overarching philosophy of minimalism. In modern Japan, that’s perhaps only half the picture – there are plenty of elements of Japanese culture, technology and bizarreness that Tony intentionally leaves out here. But for a show with a singular focus on food and spinning us a pretty narrative, it makes for a nicely packaged hour of television.