When it comes to wining and dining, one thing Tokyo is well known for is its themed restaurants. Wether it be locked in a dungeon cell enjoying some one-of-a-kind cocktails, or sitting cautiously at a table not knowing when a sneaky little ninja might pop out from anywhere, Tokyo's themed restaurants are as much about the entertainment as they are about the food. Just recently, we got the chance to visit one of Tokyo's coolest themed restaurants ourselves - Namahage Akita dining restaurant in Ginza.
Namahage is a themed restaurant based around the food and culture of Akita prefecture, which is located near the northern tip of Honshu (the main island of Japan). Just walking in to the restaurant makes you feel as though you have been time-warped back to ancient Japan, and much of the restaurant's decor and atmosphere has a distinct "folklore" feel to it. The bar is nicely set up, with a large selection of Akita nihonshu (日本酒-Japanese liquor) and beautifully lit lanterns to strengthen the relaxing mood of the restaurant. The tables themselves are also very inviting. You can choose to relax with your shoes off at one of the many low tables, or if you are with a group, you can also try dining in one of the restaurant's round huts, which resemble the traditional snow huts of Akita prefecture.
The menu offers a variety of traditional Japanese cuisine based off local dishes from Akita prefecture. We had a nice sampling of the menu during our visit, as explained below:
1. Kiritanpo きりたんぽ
Kiritanpo is a traditional Akita dish that is made by mushing cooked rice and wrapping this around a cedar stick. The stick is then roasted on a grill or over open flame. You can have kiritanpo right on the stick with sweet miso sauce, or you can choose to have it in a hot pot. We opted for the hot-pot, which was served alongside a number of Japanese greens. The kiritanpo itself was soft and scrumptious, while the broth was nice and light. Although we were there during the scorching heat of July, this would be an excellent comfort food to try in the winter months!
2. Hinajidori Tsukune Yaki 比内地鶏つくねやき
Hinaijidori is a special breed of chicken local to Akita prefecture. It is known around Japan for its rich flavour and freshness. In fact, it is so fresh that it is also served raw at some specialty restaurants. We tried this famous hinajidori in a traditional Japanese style called tsukune-yaki. Basically, the chicken is first minced and mashed, then roasted on a cedar stick. After its cooked, the chicken can be dipped in raw egg and eaten right off the stick. It was one of my favourites of all the dishes we tried, having a juicy texture and an extraordinary rich flavour.
3. Iburigakko いぶりがっこ
Iburigakko literally means "smoked and pickled". While pickling vegetables is common throughout Japan, Akita is unique in that it smokes vegetables before they are pickled. Typically, Iburigakko is made from radish, which is what we tried at Namahage. For me, it was the perfect side dish, with a nice smoky flavour and an incredibly crisp texture. My wife seemed to like this too, as when I was away talking with one of the waiters, I came back to realize more than half the plate had been gobbled up!
4. Hatahata Sagohachi ハタハタ三五八
Hatahata is a type of fish that is very popular in Akita prefecture. Sagohachi is the method in which they pickle this fish. Actually, the sagohachi (literally "3-5-8") method of pickling is one of the oldest food preservation methods in Japan, and is made from a base of 3 parts salt, 5 parts malted rice (koji), and 8 parts uncooked rice. Our hatahata sagohachi was grilled and served to us with fresh lemon and apricot. The fish itself had a strong pickled taste, which was nicely complimented by the sweet apricot.
The word, Namahage, is actually a demon-like being in Japanese folklore. They are typically portrayed by men wearing large ogre masks and straw capes. In Akita prefecture, there is a custom each New Year's Eve which involves the Namahage. During this time, men dressed up as Namahage go door to door and visit homes of the locals. There, they try and scare any children who may have been misbehaving or acting lazy, by grunting and yelling things like "Lazy boy!" or "Are there any cry babies here?" Originally, the purpose of the visits was to teach bad children a lesson so that they may behave better in the coming year. At Namahage restaurant in Ginza, we too got a scolding, as we were approached by the frightfully dressed men in Namahage costumes. Wether you are old or young, its just another part of the entertainment that you can enjoy when you visit Namahage.
If you would like to try Namahage for yourself the next time you visit Tokyo, here are a few links to their website and location info: