BACK ISSUE #406

International Dining
Spice world

No stranger to yakiniku and kimchee, Tokyo also boasts a wide range of traditional Korean cuisines. Tama Miyake guides you down the city's seasoned streets.

The signs are there as soon as you step off the Yamanote line—a sale on electronics at Korea Plaza, a kimchee-and-kalbi (broiled short ribs) bento at the takeaway stand, a stack of glossy handouts advertising shipping services, and skin care salons run by Korean nationals.

This commercial outpost one stop north of Shinjuku is a place where even the yaki-imo (roasted potato) man speaks Korean, the karaoke booths boast pages of Korean and Chinese songs, and the night air fills with the sounds of Seoul, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
It's no wonder then that Okubo is home to one of Tokyo's largest concentrations of Korean cuisine. Lining the neon-lit streets alongside 24-hour groceries and pachinko parlors, Okubo's Korean restaurants nearly rival the area's overwhelming number of love hotels. Here you will find more than just barbecued beef, broadening your culinary horizons to include pickled ginseng, salted shrimp and countless kilos of red pepper powder, all washed down with a smooth OB Lager.

Taste test
Okubo, with its network of alleyways and shopping districts, offers arguably the widest range of Korean dining experiences in Tokyo. Tucked in one of the narrow, dark alleys off Shokuan Dori, one of the neighborhood's main drags, and just steps from the Hotel Rocky, is Manito. This 24-hour, family-owned restaurant serves chi'gae, a stew-like soup cooked at the table and flavored with meat, seafood and red pepper. The budaechi'gae (¥5,000), made with sausage, kimchee, vegetables and red pepper paste, easily serves four around one of the six gas burners in this cozy restaurant. In addition to other chi'gae varieties, Manito also serves kimchee chijimi (¥1,500), a savory pancake made with egg, flour and green onion, and an assortment of soups and noodle dishes.
At Ozakyo, a trendy take on a rustic village, a rambling stone walkway leads customers over bridges between cozy booths fashioned out of distressed wood. Diners feast on bulgogi (¥2,500), beef marinated in soy sauce, onions, garlic, sugar and sesame oil, and bossam (¥2,500), a mixture of boiled pork and vegetables. Around the corner at Tokai, seafood is the star. Course menus start at ¥2,500 and include raw fish, seafood chijimi, broiled eel, and at least four varieties of kimchee.
The menu at Soen Kalbi, a basement restaurant lined with bottles of pickled ginseng and posters of popular Korean dishes, reads like a laundry list of yakiniku and kimchee. The portions are generous—a pork set (¥2,000) comes with five side dishes, and lettuce leaves and green onion salad for wrapping with the meat. Other choices include 13 kinds of kimchee, six varieties of chijimi and a large bowl of bibimbap (¥2,500), assorted vegetables over boiled rice and topped with a sunny side up egg.
It's easy to fill up on Okubo's oversize portions and seemingly unending side dishes. But a stroll through this Korean hot spot is hardly complete without a stop at discount superstore Don Quixote and its outdoor hotok (Korean hotcake) stand. For just ¥200, customers get a choice of fillings—red bean, cheese or brown sugar—inside a freshly grilled circle of sweet, moist dough. There's no shame in eating on the street here—hotoks are made to be enjoyed while still sizzling hot.

Seoul sprawl
With Koreans making up more than one-third of Japan's foreign residents, greater Tokyo is home to more than just one hotbed of Korean cuisine. Akasaka, renowned for its all-night entertainment and hostess bars ranging from the seedy to the swanky, is also known as ground zero for yakiniku. A stroll down Tamachi Dori or Misuji Dori, two narrow lanes between Akasaka and Akasaka-mitsuke stations, reveals one sizzling barbecue spot after another. At Chongiwa, a bright and festive spot recommended by locals, the kalbi, beef tongue, seafood, kimchee—and much more—course goes for ¥5,000-¥7,000.
Akasaka, where Seoul is a karaoke bar and Korea is a men's club, may seem designed for expats from across the Korea Strait. But it has evolved into a neighborhood where Japan and Korea come together over a shared love of yakiniku and nightlife. For a more authentic Korean experience, it's back on the train to the cities of Kawasaki and Yokohama, where restaurants, groceries and all-night convenience stores cater to the local Korean communities. Kawasaki's Cement Dori, dubbed Korea Town and flanked by two gates bearing the nickname, is lined with casual yakiniku restaurants and Korean bars. Homestyle Korean cuisine is also available along with traditional medicines and buckets of kimchee.
Fukutomicho, in Yokohama's Naka Ward, is home to Little Korea, another increasingly popular spot for Korean businesses. This roughly 12-block expanse of pachinko parlors, pubs, restaurants, beauty salons and grocery stores serves the needs of local Koreans as well as late-night revelers. Those farther north can also check out Kimchi-yokocho, a small strip of Korean groceries that sprung up close to Ueno Station following World War II. Known for its kimchee and yakiniku, this narrow laneway also boasts Korean butchers and hard-to-find food products.
Far from the pachinko parlors and love hotels, gourmet Korean restaurants are also popping up in the boutique-lined streets of Daikanyama and Aoyama. With so many choices, Tokyoites longing for a taste of Seoul should consider skipping the two-hour plane trip to savor a few meals in their own backyard.


Address book:
Manito. Open 24 hours. 1-13-6 Okubo, Shinjuku-ku. Tel: 03-3209-3665.

Ozakyo. Open 11am-6am daily. 1-12-1 Okubo, Shinjuku-ku. Tel: 03-3202-5471.

Tokai (main branch). Open 24 hours. 1F Morita Bldg, 1-12-29 Okubo, Shinjuku-ku. Tel: 03-5292-4377.

Soen Kalbi. Open 10am-6am. 1-17-7 Okubo, Shinjuku-ku. Tel: 03-3209-5242.

Chongiwa. Open 11:30am-3am. 1F Sociale Bldg, 3-12-7 Akasaka, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3586-2896.

Photos: Tama Miyake/Nobby Kealey