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Postcard from Tokyo, Or, A Summer of Un-Olympian Pleasures

August 14, 2020

Story: Yukari Sakamoto

photo: Yukari Sakamoto

From a sweltering Japan, Yukari Sakamoto considers the appeal of izakaya at home, popsicles dipped in shochu and an Olympic season that never was.

This season, as a survival tactic, I’ve been drinking copious amounts of chilled beer whose labels read “2020,” a nod to the Olympic Games that never came to pass. A true jungle of concrete, Tokyo summers are sweltering, the stifling humidity often bringing the heat index over 100 degrees. Most people wear masks, but the scorching weather makes it hard to breathe beneath them, so out on the streets, people try to beat the heat with parasols and handheld fans.

At home, in my tiny third-floor apartment, some days I find comfort in sake on the rocks alongside salted edamame. Other days, I plop a grape popsicle into shochu diluted with water—my own sort of adult Slurpee—while snacking on crunchy chilled cucumbers swiped through miso dip. On extra-steamy days, I start aperitif hour early with tart and aromatic yuzushu, a sake-based yuzu drink.

Summer in Tokyo is usually filled with outings to pop-up izakaya beer gardens on the roofs of department stores that soar high above the city. Here, communal tables are squeezed close together, strangers rub elbows convivially and the staff enthusiastically call out Irasshaimase! in greeting. Of course, the dynamic has changed; though restaurants and bars are open, the tables have shrunk, are many feet apart and are sparsely populated.

On a normal summer evening, I might meet my girlfriends near the Hachikō dog statue at Shibuya station, and walk to the tucked-away izakaya Kotaro to dine at an intimate counter overlooking the kitchen, snacking on corn tempura and handmade udon while sipping sake from one of the two dozen guinomi (sake cups) offered from a tray at the beginning of the meal. Or I might try Shoto Lamp, recently opened by longtime Kotaro employee Nobu Kakinoki, where small bites are paired with sake and natural wine. It will likely be several weeks or, perhaps, months before an evening out is possible—or feels normal.

It likely won’t be until 2021 that my job as a private guide to the culinary world of Tokyo starts up again. Part of what I love about my work is the constant rediscovery of Japanese culture—the kind of exploration that reveals a new yakitori den simply by following the aromas of smoke produced by meat grilling over binchotan charcoal, or the ritual of sipping a cocktail to the sound of a live jazz band at the Park Hyatt’s New York Bar, encountering this magnificent city, 52 floors below, sparkling at night.

Another survival tactic: recreating izakaya at home. Lately, I’ve been pulling out a variety of vessels—ceramics, earthenware, lacquerware—collected over the years for the cooking school my husband Shinji and I run out of our home. Selecting these dishes alongside a different guinomi from a large basket has become a comforting evening ritual, and a way to rediscover the familiarity of a Tokyo evening in.

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Tagged: postcards, Tokyo

A graduate of the French Culinary Institute, Yukari Sakamoto is also a sommelier and a shōchū advisor. Her book, Food Sake Tokyo, demystifies Japanese cuisine and its beverages and introduces historic food shops and restaurants in Tokyo. She offers food tours to Tsukiji Market, depachika, local supermarkets and to izakaya.