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Nihonbashi: The culinary crossroads of Tokyo

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Tokyo residents cross the nearly century-old Nihonbashi Bridge spanned by an elevated four-lane highway in the heart of downtown Tokyo. Today the bridge draws those seeking culinary delights to Coredo Muromachi, three buildings that house specialty shops from across the country.

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For the rest of the world all roads might lead to Rome, but in Japan all roads lead to Nihonbashi.

Just as the Milliarium Aureum (Golden Milestone) delineated the point from which all distances were measured in the Roman Empire, there is a monument at one side of Nihonbashi Bridge that marks the “zero kilometer” equivalent for Japan.

Beginning in the Edo Period (1603-1868), the Gokaido, the famously well-maintained and extensive highway system spread out from Nihonbashi to facilitate travel across Japan. As a result, Edo (now Tokyo) became a cultural — and culinary — melting pot, and Nihonbashi, as a mixed-use district of entertainment, finance and trade, was literally at its center. For good reason, it was known as the “kitchen of Edo.”

There were additional practical and political reasons why the Tokugawa Shogunate put so much effort into maintaining these five great highways. Every other year, daimyo were required to travel in great style (and great expense) from their home provinces to Edo, in a system known as sankin kotai. The daimyo maintained households befitting their station within the capital city, and their families and retainers were required to live there when the daimyo was not present, effectively acting as hostages to protect the capital from provincial rebellion. With the daimyo came goods from across the country, imported to support the voracious appetites of the megacity’s 1.2 million people.

Today’s Tokyo-bound tourist is likely to pass over Nihonbashi for the glitz of Ginza or the more readily apparent history of Asakusa. Nihonbashi can’t boast of massive temples, and its namesake — the last remaining pre-Edo stone bridge — now lives in the shadow of the Shuto Expressway. Despite the passage of time, everything that made Nihonbashi a truly significant cultural conglomerate is still in force today, and there are few places this is more apparent than Coredo Muromachi.

Spread out between three buildings, the first of which opened in 2010, Coredo Muromachi brings together specialty shops from across Japan.

Under the banner of “creating while preserving and reviving,” Coredo Muromachi modernizes the historic Nihonbashi “melting pot” and brings together myriad culinary treasures within easy reach.

For instance, Hakkaisan Sake Brewery, from Niigata Prefecture, serves affordable, high quality sake, shochu and traditionally nonalcoholic amazake. You can have a drink at their counter or grab a bottle to take home and savor over a meal — Hakkaisan’s crisp, smooth liquor is designed to go with both Japanese and Western food.

Across the street is Okui Kaiseido, a specialty konbu seaweed shop from Fukui Prefecture that dates back to 1871. There, you can try konbu that has been dried and pounded into thin strips for snacking, konbu seasoned with yuzu and even a delicately sweet and chewy konbu candy.

Ninben was founded in Nihonbashi in 1699 and specializes in katsuobushi — dried bonito flakes.

You can get freshly-shaved flakes, which have a much milder scent and taste than the fishy, pre-packaged katsuobushi you typically find in supermarkets, or get your own ruby-hued katsuo and katsuokezuri and shave your own. They even sell an umami-rich katsuobushi furikake seasoning you can sprinkle over rice for extra depth of flavor.

Coredo Muromachi brings together enough specialty shops that you can practically make a full meal from what’s available, and that’s exactly what Marybeth Boller, former executive chef for the American Embassy in Tokyo, has done.

As a “food diplomat,” she blends Western cooking techniques with Japanese ingredients, like salmon marinated in sake, served with a wasabi konbu salad and roasted beets. Or fork-tender beef short rib braised in a Parmesan and katsuobushi dashi and garnished with crispy potato chips. “Modern washoku (Japanese cusine) is cooking clean, simple, seasonal food while showing respect for distinct flavors,” she says. “Traditional products don’t have to be intimidating.”

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