Visit Japan, and you can conveniently start your day with fried dough from Mister Donut (pronounced "Mis-tah Do-nut-su") or onigiri (filled rice "balls") from 7-11 or another konbini (convenience store). But I prefer to get going with a fuller breakfast, like the one you can find far off the tourist path at Kuoues in Tokyo. Step inside the spartan restaurant and take one of the half-dozen seats at the counter. It's just you and the chef, who comes in early and alone to prepare and serve a traditional Japanese breakfast.
The set menu features a choice of fish, like aji or kamasu (mackerel or barracuda). The fish is grilled and comes with grated daikon, which serves as a sweet counterpoint while helping to digest protein and any oil. Everything is house-made and fresh. The set also includes pungent miso soup, crunchy tsukemono pickles, and a couple of other side dishes, such as my spinach with hiuo (also known as baby ayu or icefish), which comes from Lake Biwa and is available only during a very short season. Even the rice is special—it's made in small batches in a heavy cast-iron pot, yielding evenly cooked grains that hold their short shape while remaining slightly sticky. Tea washes down the whole meal.
You can get order extra side dishes like natto (fermented soybeans), umeboshi (pickled Japanese plums), and salad, but on its own this is a filling meal that's an incredible deal at 840 yen (currently about $8.50, with no extra for tax or tip)—especially since dinner is about ten times that price. (The restaurant closes for lunch.) Kuoues is an unconventional name that honors the chef's favorite potter, Souma Ishiguro, who took the artistic name "Kuo." Visitors dine off of Kuo's (and others') plates, bowls, and cups, some dating back many centuries.
This balanced breakfast—a meal for the senses—is meant to be savored slowly. It's a nutritious nod to the past, packed with protein, minerals, and Omega-3s from the fish, fermented products, and vegetables. As with other Japanese meals, I left Kuoues alert and alive, having appreciated the tranquil time dedicated to tradition, and ready for a short walk to future-focused Harajuku.
7-14-6 Minamiaoyama Minoto-Ku Tokyo 1007-0062, first floor of the Minamiaoyama TC Building (map)
About the author: Jay Friedman is a Seattle-based freelance food writer who happens to travel extensively as a sex educator. An avid fan of noodles (some call him "The Mein Man"), he sees sensuality in all foods, and blogs about it at his Gastrolust website. You can follow him on Twitter @jayfriedman.