Being an archipelago of about 3,000 islands, Japan’s best dining often revolves around fruits of the sea. The average Japanese person consumes a whopping 66 kg of fish each year, more than four times the world average. Though very tasty, seafood experiences in Japan can also be challenging, most typically illustrated by a visit to a fugu restaurant for a potentially poisonous encounter with blowfish.
Hazards (or delights, depending on your sense of adventure) also lurk on many a humble restaurant menu. Even when translated into English, names like ark shell (akagai) or gizzard shad (kohada) are difficult to visualize. Pictures, when available, offer few additional clues into unidentifiable sea species or bizarre fish parts. Sometimes the menu is so baffling that it would be tempting to rifle through the chef’s refrigerator and hand him whatever whets the appetite. Zauo goes one better. This theme restaurant’s hook is just that — catching your own dinner.
Ascending the stairs to Zauo’s Kameido branch in Koto-ku, the sight of squid swimming in a tank above you erases any expectations of an ordinary izakaya (bar/restaurant) experience. Beyond an entrance fittingly draped with fishing nets awaits a dining room decked in marine paraphernalia, the centerpiece being a large wooden boat fitted with seats and tables.
From there, armed with a baited rod (a hook tied to a stick with fishing line), diners test their skill at catching fish from several tanks. As we peered into pools to pick out our dinner, staff broke into a congratulatory song and beat taiko drums to signal one angler’s success.
The aquaria of choices suit different budgets and tastes. Every night, Zauo Kameido features 300 to 400 sea creatures ranging from small horse mackerel (590 yen) to giant crab (9,800 yen). Ise-ebi (spiny lobster) look like they crawled out of the Jurassic Period, and yes, those squid in the stairwell aren’t just decorative. The list of fish is long, but you don’t need an ichthyologist at your table when sticking to the popular tai (sea bream, 1,980 yen) and hirame (flounder, 2,580 yen). Having decided upon hirame, I let a friend take the rod while I readied the camera. It wasn’t long before the line tightened, stretching her nerves as well. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who does more squirming — fish fresh out of water or the angler who snagged it. Her cry of “Sumimasen! Genki, genki! (Excuse me! It’s full of life!)” alerted a nearby employee to our aid. The camera was quickly traded for a net to prevent our dinner from escaping back into the pool. Luckily, staff bounce from table to tank assisting panicked customers to haul in their catches. As no English is spoken, you’ll need Japanese to navigate these waters.
The fish are delivered flapping in blue nets to the kitchen where chefs fashion their fate in a style of your choosing. Most are served as sashimi. At the next table, a glassy-eyed bream was still quivering when it arrived with a wooden stake through its head and tail, its body sliced into glistening, mouth-watering wedges so thin they approached translucence. The hirame, which in the water had looked rather thin and unappetizingly covered in ancient brown scales, yielded a surprising amount of pearly white meat, half of which we requested raw and the other half fried.
No morsel goes wasted, as leftovers and bones can be boiled in miso soup. Another option, and my personal recommendation, is to have the rest of the fish fried. Soon after the sashimi, the hirame’s crispy skeleton arrived topped with tender chunks of lightly battered flesh. Although we were naturally hesitant to bite into bones, the crunchiness proved gratifying. With salt as the perfect accompaniment, these bones became unlikely yet addictive finger food.
From head to tail, this one flatfish in its various “incarnations” was enough dinner for two after we had first polished off a sizable crab salad with rich sesame dressing. The vegetarian in our group, however, was noticeably uncomfortable the entire evening, as even salads come topped with a medley of seafood.
Zauo’s decision to go a step further than merely have its customers point to dinner swimming in a tank began when it opened its first location in Hakata, in Fukuoka Prefecture, 10 years ago. The franchise’s theme now encompasses 20 branches across Japan, but menus, prices and atmosphere vary considerably. For example, Zauo Shinjuku is noticeably heavier on salarymen and catches there go unsung. However, the bosses of the Kameido and Yokohama restaurants are brothers, and their menus are closely related, too.
Zauo’s origins predate Hakata to a beachside shack in Kyushu. The Kameido branch retains some of this down-home style with its vibrant staff and family-friendly atmosphere, with parents excitedly watching their children reel in dinner.
Zauo elevates dining into a fun-filled activity with delicious results. This “only in Japan” kind of izakaya is a memorable way to induct newcomers into the country — or send off veterans departing these bountiful shores.
Zauo, 2F, 2-36-11 Kameido, Koto-ku; tel: (03) 5858-1288; www.zauo.com/contents/zauo_kameido.html. Nearest station: Kameido (Sobu line). Open: Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. & 5-11 p.m. (last order); Saturday and Sunday 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. (last order); no English menu; no English spoken; credit cards accepted.
For other seafood adventures in Tokyo, take the plunge with these picks:
Fishing for prickly puffers is best left to professionals when you visit a fugu ryotei (a restaurant specializing in blowfish). Such restaurants are often identifiable by storefront tanks filled with Japan’s most dangerous fish. Fuguyoshi is a reliable choice, and the fish are delivered directly from Kyushu, where the practice of eating them first developed. Locals love the fugu chiri (blowfish soup) in a hot pot with vegetables.
Fuguyoshi, 2-13-8 Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku; tel: (03) 5951-1929; Nearest station: Ikebukuro. Open: Monday-Saturday 5 p.m.-12 a.m. (last order) & Sundays and holidays 4-10.30 p.m. (last order).
If you’re less inclined to work for your dinner and more into eating what others catch, then head to Takewaka. Staff here fish your meal out of large tanks in the center of the room while you watch with chopsticks ready at counter seats ringing the aquarium.
Takewaka, Spice 2 Bldg. B1F, 1-10-10 Nishi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku; tel: (03) 3987-2121; www.takewaka.co.jp/ikebukuro/index.html. Nearest station: Ikebukuro. Open: daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (Sunday until 9:30 p.m.).
Leave your Greenpeace membership card at the door if you intend to visit Kujira-ya, where you will encounter Japan’s most controversial dish, kujira — whale. The tradition of this long-running restaurant stands in contrast to a trendy teenage girl’s fashion paradise at the Shibuya 109 building nearby.
Kujira-ya, 2-29-22 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3461-9145; www.kujiraya.co.jp. Nearest station: Shibuya; Open: Sunday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday: 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m.