Meet Yukari Sakamoto at Kichijoji Shotengai

· Tuesday September 10, 2013

Meet Yukari Sakamoto, a chef, sommelier, writer and culinary tour guide. After growing up in Minnesota, she trained at The French Culinary Institute and The American Sommelier Association and went on to work in Takashimaya's flagship department store in Nihombashi. Later, she worked as a sommelier at the New York Bar and Grill in the Park Hyatt Tokyo.

It was her time in the sake department of Takashimaya's depachika that led her to commence a five-year journey of researching and exploring the city's food culture, in order to share it with a foreign audience. The result, Food Sake Tokyo, is a comprehensive introduction to traditional and contemporary Japanese cuisine, as well as an exhaustive guide to bars, restaurants, markets and all things food related. She currently runs private cuisine tours with her husband Shinji (a former buyer at Tsukiji), catering for tourists, locals and visiting chefs, and continues to write about, and explore, the city.

I met Yukari in Kichijoji, where we explored Sun Road and Daiya-gai, some of her favourite shotengai in Tokyo. Despite having become somewhat gentrified, they retain many of the older specialty stores (or “mom and pop shops” as Yukari says) that sell fresh produce, preserved and dried food, with locals often dropping by daily to pick up certain ingredients to take home and cook with. According to Yukari, a good shotengai will have tofu, produce, meat, seafood, tea and rice shops – she likes it when staff in the specialty stores share knowledge and new recipes while she shops for ingredients.


German bakery Linde is a spot popular with locals and European visitors alike; we popped inside just long enough to resist the temptation to buy a bundle of crisp, just-baked pretzels.


Further along was a popular stretch of specialty shops, starting with Tsukata Kamaboko Ten, which sold all manner of fried fishcakes made fresh instore.


Next door, locals had been lining up through the morning for Ozasa's classic monaka – handmade using a decades-old recipe.


On the other side of Ozasa, an even longer line of people snaked back and forth on the edge of the main thoroughfare, waiting for the famous Meat Shop Sato – known for its menchikatsu – to open for the day. Through a rare gap in the queue, Yukari pointed out the nikudango, one of her favourite last-minute additions to a lunchtime bento.


Inspecting a small corner homewares shop on the opposite corner, Yukari explained the intricacies of children's bento – from themed lunchboxes to onigiri hard cases, nori cutting templates and shinkansen-themed decoration kits.


Afterwards, we stepped inside the regional 'antenna shop' for Kumamoto in Kyushu. Surprisingly expansive, the selection of regional delicacies ranged from karashi-renkon to mugi-miso, yuzu-kosho and dekopon chuhai – made using a local variety of citrus. Yukari recommended a sweeter-than-usual variety of soy sauce that she uses at home, particularly with sashimi.


Continuing our discussion over an early lunch of quiche and omelettes at Rose Bakery, it was fascinating to hear how much Yukari enjoyed community shotengai, places that remind her of visits to Japan as a child.