Matsushima Yakitori, a place to unwind while enjoying charcoal grilled chicken skewers and Japanese shochu

Sometimes it can be tough to find an empty table at dinner time in Arakicho, an area famous for its many gourmet restaurants. After being turned away from a couple of busy spots, I was starting to feel the stress build up – was I ever going to find a place to have a bite? I took to the backstreets and suddenly came upon a restaurant with a simple but traditional wooden exterior, and a sign beckoning me inside for some yakitori. What caught my eye however, was a small handwritten note above saying “English menu available”. I sensed that my luck might finally be turning and without hesitation stepped inside “Charcoal grilled Yakitori, Izakaya & Bar Matsushima” – Matsushima Yakitori for short – for some chicken skewers and drinks.

2018-09-05   Arakicho, Bars & Restaurants, Araki-Cho, Tokyo,

A couple of chicken thigh yakitori


Feeling a sense of relief after an effort.

Upon entering, I was surprised to find the restaurant relatively quiet and empty. Only the counter tables were lit up. The semi-private Japanese-style rooms on one side of the restaurant were unoccupied and in semi-obscurity. It was, after all, a weeknight and in a location somewhat removed from the main street, so perhaps it wasn’t that surprising. In fact, I appreciated the quiet and relaxing atmosphere. It’s not everyday you can have a restaurant mostly to yourself in the heart of Tokyo. I was even grateful for it, since it can be difficult to get a table at most places in Arakicho without a prior reservation even on weekdays.

The place seemed to be run by a husband wife couple, the husband making the food, while the wife took orders and served the food. I observed that the spacious interior was as nice as the exterior. The counter was wide, wooden and well-lit. The menu items were hand-written on paper strips pinned to the wall, giving it the traditional izakaya feel. The kitchen area behind the counter was small and homely, most of the action taking place on the small charcoal grill. A TV playing at the back of the restaurant reinforced the homely feel of the place. Since Matsushima 100% non-smoking, it’s a good place if you have small children.

After settling in behind the counter, I reflected upon a phrase I had read on their flyer. It said “hokkori toshita omise”, meaning a place that helps you feel “hokkori”. “Hokkori” is an expression that means warm and fluffy but can also describe a sense of relief after making a big effort, for example when arriving home after a long day at work. At a certain level, this was the kind of feeling I was experiencing at the moment.

The spacious counter (photo taken from http://www.sugidaimon.com/matsushima.htmlthis article)

A popular Japanese dish enjoyed in the evening with drinks.

Yakitori literally means grilled bird but a more accurate translation for this dish would be chicken skewers. These consist of bite-sized pieces of chicken meat grilled over a charcoal fire and seasoned with either salt (“shio”), or a slightly sweet, thick sauce called “tare”. Yakitori is usually eaten in the evening with some beers, and many shops and chains will specialise only in this dish. The catch is that it’s not just the usual parts of the chicken that end up on the skewer, but most other parts as well, including the skin (“kawa”) and the cartilage (“nankotsu”). One part I find most unappetizing, for obvious reasons, is the area around the chicken’s buttocks (“ponjiri”).

The first thing I did was to ask to see their English menu. Even though I’m familiar with the Japanese names of most yakitori, it was refreshing to be able to flip through a menu and being able to take in most items at a glance without going through the mentally taxing 2 step process of reading and translating. I have to admit that I am not the most adventurous when it comes to unusual parts of the chicken, or any animal, so I mostly stayed within my comfort zone.

I started with chicken thigh (“momo”) and chicken breast (“sasami”) topped with “umeshisho”, a combination of salty-tasting plum paste (“umeboshi) and minty-tasting shiso herb. Other familiar menu options are “negima” (thigh meat with pieces of spring onion) and breast meat topped with “yuzukosho”, a Japanese condiment made with yuzu peel and chili peppers. Both were flavoured with salt and grilled to perfection. Matsushima uses “tottori daisen” chicken, which is a famous “jidori”, or locally raised chicken that has a special pedigree and breeding requirements. Tottori is located in the Western part of Japan and is famous for its sand dunes.

I then tried one of my favourite kinds of yakitori, chicken meatballs (“tsukune”), with egg yolk (“kimitsukune”). I wasn’t disappointed. Rather than the usual 3 separate balls, it consisted of one whole piece of soft hamburger-like meat that covered the entire stick. The tsukune yakitori is always flavoured with “tare” sauce. Before eating you dip and cover the “tsukune” in raw egg. The taste is delightful. I then noticed another item I had never seen before – a cheese “tsukune” (“chiizutsukne”). As a cheese lover, I couldn’t resist ordering this as well and I can confirm that they make a great combination. Finally no yakitori meal is complete without some vegetable skewers. I got some “shishito”, a kind of green pepper, and “eringi” mushroom skewers. Both were generously sized and tasty.

The cheese chicken meatball yakitori
A couple of vegetable yakitori

Each skewer costs between 200 and 350 yen. If you are uncertain what to order, Matsushima offers several selected assortments (“omakase moriawase”). “Omakase” means letting the restaurant or chef decide and “moriawase” means assortment. These range from 5 skewers (1300 yen) to 10 skewers (2650 yen). It’s a great way to discover and enjoy this type of dish. In addition, they have several evening set courses (simply named A, B & C) all conveniently priced at 2000 yen. They consist of different combinations of 4 skewers and served with a small appetizer, miso soup and rice.

Outside sign proclaiming the existence of an English menu

I flipped through the English menu some more. It looked quite professional with no English mistakes as far as I could tell. There was even a useful pictogram chart that could help one quickly identify, what the ingredients are for a particular dish. Very useful for people who have dietary restrictions or allergies!

Sometimes even the English names for the yakitori can seem unfamiliar. If your knowledge of the chicken anatomical parts isn’t that great, you might consider checking the chicken cross-section drawing in the Japanese menu. The different parts are highlighted so you can just point to the ones you fancy. There was one name in the English menu that I just couldn’t figure out – “the pope’s nose”. It sounded like a wrong translation but I thought it might be a fun thing to order. I decided to quickly google it beforehand and was surprised to discover that the “pope’s nose” actually refers to the “pygostyle”, the fleshy part visible near the chicken’s posterior or in other words, the aforementioned buttocks!

A very helpful guide to the edible parts of the chicken
Useful information for those with food allergies

A good place for shochu lovers.

The bonus was the good selection of Japanese drinks. Although beer is the drink of choice for yakitori, I couldn’t resist trying a couple of the 5 different kinds of Japanese sake they kept in the cooler in the back of the store. I tried a “namazake”, or sake that hasn’t been pasteurized, from Hiroshima, and a very dry sake from Yamagata in Tohoku. They were both excellent.

Next I decided to try some shochu, my second favourite Japanese alcohol after sake. Shochu is a distilled alcoholic drink originating from the southern island of Kyushu. The alcohol content is typically 25%. It is made from either rice (“kome” 米), barley (“mugi” 麦) or sweet potato (“imo” 芋). The latter has the strongest flavour and is my favourite but the two first one are more suitable for first-time drinkers, since the taste is milder. For those interested, this article has a lot more interesting information on shochu.

There were 12 bottles to choose from, lined up on the wall behind the counter, with labels mentioning whether the shoshu is “rice”, “wheat” or “sweet potato”, and the price for one glass. After ordering one, you need to choose your preferred drinking style. Some of the more usual ones are “on the rocks” (“rokku”), cut with water (“mizuwari”), or with warm water (“oyuwari”). I ended up choosing a sweet potato shochu on the rocks. However, while reviewing the photos for this article, I noticed that the next to last bottle was actually a shochu based on black sugar (“kokuto” 黒糖), a rare kind that I have yet to taste. I somehow failed to spot it despite sitting only inches away. This will be the perfect excuse for me to go back to Matsushima Yakitori and and feel “hokkori” again!

The Shochu bottle collection
Welcome to Charcoal Grill and Bar Matsushima!

For smartphone users, please click the link below to go to the Tadaima Japan website that includes the place information:
http://tadaimajp.com/2018/05/matsushima-yakitori/

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AUTHOR

David

David

Writer / Translator

I’ve been in Japan for over 10 years although it feels shorter because I am constantly discovering new things and new places. Sometimes it can be hard to get the full Japanese experience because of cultural differences and linguistic barriers. For that reason, I want to share what I have learned in order to enhance your experience in Japan. Having said that, figuring out stuff on your own can also be fun. In any case, I hope you can find here whatever you need in order to make your stay a success.