Kata Robata chef Manabu "Hori" Horiuchi knows a Japan that most tourists miss.
Tokyo is a city with much more than just what you'll find in the tourist centers.
The Bar at Gen Yamamoto, a small bar in the Azabu-Juban district of Tokyo featuring a cocktail omakase.
A cocktail at Gen Yamamoto, a small bar in the Azabu-Juban district of Tokyo featuring a cocktail omakase.
Chef Hori (right) with Carl Rosa, founder of the Houston Sushi Club, at Nenohi Cutlery shop in the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.
In Japan, sushi is a special occasion, once a year type splurge, for most.
Yebisu Beer, Chef Hori's favorite beer
Chef Hori outside the Toyosu Fish Market
Tokyo's jaw-dropping new fish market can impress even a world class sushi chef.
Tuna auction at the Toyosu Fish Market
Chef Hori (right) and his guide at Tsukiji Fish Market.
Golden Eye Snapper (Kinmedai), Uni, Salmon Roe, Unagi (freshwater eel) (Photo by Julie Soefer.)
Manabu “Hori” Horiuchi’s Japan is much different than the Japan that most tourists visit. It’s the real Japan, the Japan where small restaurants deliver big wows, beer houses delight and the party can go all night long.
Horiuchi long ago established himself as a key force in Houston’s food evolution. The driving force chef behind Kata Robata delivers the best and most consistent sushi in the city and more from an unpretentious sushi counter on Kirby Drive. His Kata Robata restaurant’s grown into a Houston institution. It’s set to celebrate its 10th year anniversary this month, no small milestone for any restaurant let along one this ambitious.
But Horiuchi also happens to be the best guide to Japan, and specifically the off-the-beaten-path wonders of Tokyo that one could ever find. He sat down with PaperCity to share his favorites. Consider this the chef’s guide to Japan.
“Toyko is something unique, it’s not just what you see in the guide books,” Horiuchi says. “Most people go and see only the touristy spots.”
“…This guide is a little bit different. So I think people will enjoy (my picks) more.”
Horiuchi recommends checking out the Kichijoji district to see a different, trendier side of Tokyo.
“There’s a lot of small stores, small restaurants, it’s all small here” the chef laughs. “There are lots of young people — it’s across from the university. It’s like a trendy city.”
“When I want to see something new, I go to Kichijoji.”
Horiuchi still visits Japan once or twice every year. He buys new gadgets there that aren’t available in the United States yet. He recently picked his wife up a coveted new high-tech Dyson hair dryer. His wife picked up some special knives he ordered on another trip. This is a chef who keeps up on the current trends in his homeland.
But that doesn’t mean he does not still enjoy a blast from the past. One of his favorites remains Tenyru, a humble Gyoza dumplings shop. This is where Horiuchi would go for a quick bite when he first started working in Tokyo kitchens.
“It’s affordable, it’s the best,” he says. “It’s just simple, only dumplings.”
“Simple is best for me.”
If you’re surprised that a high-end sushi chef would say this, you shouldn’t be. Most everyday Japanese residents only eat sushi on very special occasions, on an anniversary or for a major celebration.
“If I ate sushi once a year, that was a lot,” Horiuchi says of his experiences growing up. “That is why I wanted to be a sushi chef.”
The chef laughs. The guy who became a chef in part because of his mom’s love of cooking very simple homestyle dishes such as egg rolls is now an ultra-respected food figure who can enjoy the finest high-end restaurants in Tokyo. Places such as Ryugin and Sushi Masuda, a two Michelin-starred restaurant with only six counter seats.
“It’s very good,” Chef Hori says of Masuda. “So good.”
Another favorite is Kintan, which specializes in Wagyu beef, doing everything with it from sashimi to all types of different grilling.
Still, this world class chef remains a simple guy at heart in many ways. And some of Horiuchi’s favorite Tokyo experiences reflect that. The Yebisu Beer Garden in Tokyo’s Ebisu neighborhood is a Horiuchi must visit. Not just for the beer museum onsite or the relaxing old school neighborhood around it where street food reigns.
Chef Hori loves the suds, too.
“To me, it’s the best beer,” he says. “I don’t drink much beer, except for this beer.”
Tokyo’s Intense Cocktail Scene
Want a more elevated drinking experience? Kata Robata’s chef has you covered. He also recommends High Five in Ginza (“the best cocktails, huge ice cubes, very quiet”) and Gen Yamamoto in Roppongi, Tokyo’s famed nightlife district. Gen Yamamoto does cocktail omakase — a tasting of six different small cocktails. It is one of the world’s best drinking experiences, but the bar only has eight seats making reservations an absolute must.
That is another one of Horiuchi’s Tokyo tips. Make your restaurant and bar (yes, bar too) reservations very early. In fact, a good rule of thumb is to start making reservations right after you book your flight.
Horiuchi’s even gone as far as making Tokyo restaurant reservations for some of Kata Robata’s regulars, navigating any language barriers to ensure his loyal customers get in. Still, most of the time — especially in cosmopolitan Tokyo — the locals you talk to will know English. Even if they don’t always show it.
“Japanese people are shy,” Horiuchi says. “They have the education to speak English. Most people have at least six years of English (in school). They can talk, but are shy… So you can speak English to Japanese people. But talk slowly. They can understand and they’ll become more friendly. They won’t talk (in English). They are shy.
“But they will help.”
Tokyo’s Fish Palace
Of course, some things are universal. Like the world’s most incredible fish market. Toyosu fish market — a gleaming new indoor, temperature controlled market in Tokyo that replaces an institution that operated for 83 years — is a wonder in any language.
Kata Robata’s chef — one of the foremost restaurant experts on fish in the world — found himself blown away by the new Toyosu market when it reopened last November after two years of delays.
“The fish market was a very big surprise for me,” Horiuchi tells PaperCity. “They did a great job. At the old market, it used to be the fish was room temperature. Now its temperature controlled. Oh yes!”
Some things are not as easily translated. Horiuchi’s heard plenty of funny stories from friends and Kata customers who’ve made the trip to Japan.
“I’ve had people go and have sashimi and not realize it was chicken sashimi,” the chef says.
The custom of putting down soup without putting down a spoon also catches some visitors off guard. “Traditionally, we don’t have soup spoons,” Horiuchi says. “Just drink out of the bowl. That’s good manners. Even ramen soup, too. You can drink it.”
A final Horiuchi recommendation?
Go to a Japanese baseball game if it’s in season, maybe even a Tokyo Giants game. The chef describes the Tokyo Giants as “sort of like the New York Yankees. They have money, expensive players.”
Still, Japanese baseball watching stands out for other reasons. “Japanese baseball is different. It’s a very different experience,” Horiuchi says. “Eating a Bento Box with a beer is the tradition.”
This is the Tokyo that Manabu “Hori” Horiuchi’ knows and loves. It’s anything but a tourist trap.
Chef Hori’s Tokyo Picks
Best Hotel Neighborhoods
Shinagawa: Easy access to other major towns
Roppongi: Good night life and restaurants
Ryugin: High-End Japanese
Tenryu: Gyoza Dumpling
Noike: Anago Sushi
Sushi Masuda: One of my favorites.
Himitsudo: Go for Kakigori, Japanese shaved ice.
Abechan: Get Motsu Nikomi, a traditional Japanese soul food dish.
Kintan: Its A5 Wagyu dishes are the best.
Bar Martha (Ebisu neighborhood): Affordable
High Five (Ginza): High-end
Gen Yamamoto (Roppongi): Cocktail Omakase
Shinjuku Nishiguchi neighborhood for electronics
Kichijoji district — Full of small local shops. Small and cozy stores with handmade local souvenirs.
Yanaka (Cat Goods, Old School Restaurant) — This town has a famous cemetery and Buddhist Temple. It’s a very conservative and traditional town.
Yebisu Beer Garden in Tokyo’s Ebisu neighborhood: My favorite beer.
Toyosu fish market, a massive new indoor fish market opened in November of 2018.