A Culinary Guide to Taura, no. 6

This is Ichi no Tori, the yakitori joint par excellence in Funakoshi-cho, on Route 24, just past the train trestle leading to the Keikyu Taura station.

Ichi no Tori is an interesting name for a yakitori place. Ichi is “one” and tori is “bird” or “rooster.” But this is not a normal barnyard rooster (niwatori), it represents one of the 12 zodiac signs (eto in Japanese) that came from China to Japan: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and wild boar. Each zodiac animal represents a year in a twelve-year cycle, a day in a twelve-day cycle, a two-hour period in 24 hours, and also a compass direction. So, for example, our tori represents the hours of 6 to 8 pm. Yakitori bars are drinking establishments, and the ichi no tori (representing 6 to 8 pm) could be loosely interpreted as “happy hour.” Another interesting detail is this kanji looks very similar to the kanji for sake (either the general word for alcohol or Japanese rice “wine”). So, there is a visual pun here, too, for a Japanese person who will see tori as a representation of drinking alcohol, even if that isn’t the exact meaning of the character. Finally, of course, there is the play on “yakitori” (grilled chicken, this tori being a homonym written with a different kanji).

Need I say—I guess I should—that yakitori places serve more than just chicken on skewers? There’s another word, kushiyaki, for non-chicken skewers, but most people understand yakitori-ya to refer to a skewer grill type of place. Yes, mostly they serve chicken and chicken parts, but the skewers often have creative combinations such as grilled vegetables (e.g., tomatoes wrapped with bacon) or tofu, delicious parts of piggies, and sometimes duck or beef. There’s another yakitori place in Funakoshi-cho called Kushi-ichi, which I may report on, if I can drag myself away from Ichi no Tori…

This is Kishinami-san, the chef/owner, who serves ambitiously fine and delicious food (for a yakitori joint). He makes the food a highlight of the experience, instead of relegating his grilled meat to booze absorption.

Pictured above is an appetizer presented to us before we ordered our food: pickled greens wrapped with yuba, kamaboko (steamed fish paste) and cucumber with a saikyo (white, sweet) miso dip, and a stewed sweet potato. The chef has stacks of good ceramics to match plates to food, and the menu is a manageable list of fresh salads, grilled meats, nabe (a few braised pork dishes and chicken hotpot), chicken sashimi, and fried dishes that are—to belabor the point—much better than the basic fried chicken bits you normally get at these places. One memorable dish was slices of renkon (lotus root) stuffed with pounded shrimp paste, fried, and served with green tea salt.

They serve beer and have a selection of shochus (traditional Japanese distilled spirits made from a variety of ingredients), but it’s the sake that I go for. There’s a selection of about six sakes, all of which are respectable names and styles, and not all over-the-top ginjos. They have been featuring, in particular, a local Kanagawa sake (photo below).

The first time I went to Ichi no Tori, I met Taguchi-san, the owner of the sake brewery in Hakone [Hakone? Did I understand him correctly?] that makes an absolutely delicious pure rice sake called Aoi me no samurai (Blue-eyed Samurai), named after William Adams (the inspiration for the Richard Chamberlain character in Shogun). The local connection is that the shogun awarded Adams a fief in Hemi (a five-minute train ride from Keikyu Taura) and an estate in Uraga, a town just south of Yokosuka on the Miura peninsula. Adams was also known as Anjin-sama, Honorable Pilot (as in navigating a ship), and the next station down from Taura is Anjinzuka or “Burial Mound of the Pilot.”

Taguchi-san told me he sells his sake in only three places around Yokosuka—I’m not sure if he meant either retail or in bars, or both—including Ichi no Tori. Aoi me no samurai is a fat, classic sake with a clean rice nose and a slightly sweet, viscous mouthfeel. That first night I enjoyed several glasses under the proud gaze of its maker (although Taguchi-san is not the brewer).

The other day I was telling some new friends about Ichi no Tori, and I said, “They feature a sake I quite like, Aoi me no—”

My friend interrupted, “—Samurai! That’s my favorite! I can’t believe they have that!”

There are seven seats at the bar, and a tatami room in the back for small groups, but it’s a small, intimate place.

The manager/waiter is Saito-san, who is very personable and sweet. We poked our heads in the door the other night and they were fully booked for a party. Saito-san was so pained to turn us away that he gave me a CD of Japanese music as a gift. The next day he called me to apologize again for not being able to welcome us that night, and begged us to return soon.