It's a big city and it's filled with delicious food, but you don't want to miss this.
Just one thing… in Tokyo
For people from Australia, there is something that is often hard to grasp about Japanese work culture.
In many of Japan’s industries, but particularly in hospitality, individuals dedicate their lives to becoming excellent at executing one specific task. This tradition was revealed with emotional depth in the wonderful Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and it stands in stark contrast to the Australian tendency to amass many different skills but hone none of them.
At nearly any neighbourhood sushi bar in Japan you can watch a veteran in action – either slicing fish expertly from its skin, or maybe forming rice in entirely consistent packets.
Tonki Tonkatsu is located at 1 Chome-1-2 Shimomeguro, Meguro, Tokyo 153-0064, Japan. It is open from 4pm every day except Tuesdays, when it is closed.
But, it’s rarer to see something of the scale we found at Tonki Tonkatsu.
Tonki Tonkatsu, in Tokyo’s Meguro ward, has been open (although not in this particular building) for almost 80 years. It is dedicated – solely – to tonkatsu, which is pork that has been breaded and then deep fried.
While Tonki’s menu is simple, containing only a few variations on the deep-fried pork theme, its kitchen is not. The entirely open kitchen, which is encircled by the bar seating where punters eat, is inhabited by more than 14 chefs and workers, and each gives their task total concentration.
In the middle of the Tonki kitchen, one worker – who appeared to be at least 80 years old – grabbed the scalding hot pork out of the oil, sliced it in seconds, and then pushed it on a plate toward the next chef in line. While he was bent almost double from carrying the weight of his years at work, he grinned any time he lifted his eyes from his knife to look around the packed restaurant.
Concentrating on one task for your entire life would surely frustrate a great many people living in Japan, and there are plenty of people in the country who spend their lives doing multifarious work or moving from one career to the next. But the experience of being served in a place like Tonki Tonkatsu – where the traditions of hospitality hold fast – is remarkable.
Tonkatsu is a simple meal, and here it remains unrefined. Proper restaurant critics compare the Tonki pork to home-cooked versions, and say there are far superior tonkatsu eateries nearby.
Despite that criticism, the pork tastes robust and the crumb is crispy and comforting. The miso soup, particularly, is delightful – filled with tofu and bits of pork that make it super hearty. The accompaniments – fresh shredded cabbage, rice, and an acidic, spicy yellow mustard – are refilled readily any time you run out, but this is not a place to linger.
At Tonki Tonkatsu there is always a line, and people dedicate themselves to eating their meal almost as closely as the chefs dedicate themselves to making it.
It might not be the most critically-acclaimed restaurant in Tokyo, but it is delicious, and it is not an everyday occurrence to sit amidst a bevvy of locals in a city in which you’re a stranger and be served a meal that has been made with as much care as humanly possible.
It’s exactly the kind of thing that can make you feel at home, even when home is miles away.