Christmas in Japan is celebrated as a commercial occasion and not as a religious holiday. On the days leading up to Christmas you'll see lots of decor, amazing light displays and all sorts of fabulous shop windows. December 25 though is a regular working and school day.
Still, the Japanese do have Christmas dinners -- whether with their families, co-workers or friends.
On Christmas night, we were fortunate to have arranged for a dinner with very good friends
from Singapore who were in Tokyo visiting their son for the holidays. The Shimbashi station
area was convenient to both our hotels and has numerous bars, restaurants and cafes.
We didn't have to wander around for long before we settled on a place to eat.
In Tokyo, because real estate is so expensive, many restaurants do not have the luxury of a ground floor location. Some buildings seem to contain nothing but restaurants and bars on all its floors.
Sennen No Utage is an izakaya (japanese bar) that is on the 2nd floor of this building.
I was worried that the restaurant might be full of revellers but it was still quiet when we walked up.
Utage had a number of private rooms -- one of the trends among the bigger, more upscale izakayas is to have small rooms for groups. Perhaps seeing that we were foreigners, we were given the tatami room with a dropped floor under the low table.
An izakaya is a casual bar or pub. Izakayas are usually small, smoky places in narrow back streets and alleys where locals grab a beer and a bite after work.
Sennen no Utage is a modern and more refined izakaya although I could still hear the raucous laughter and noise through the thin walls.
Right after the oshibori or hot towels were handed to us, we were given this complimentary
appetiser, a creamy fish salad with some simmered daikon and green onions.
I was glad to note that appearances notwithstanding, Utage's menu consisted of typical
izakaya fare. We had assorted shio and tare yakitori -- tebasaki (chicken wings), reba (chicken liver), toriniku (white meat and my least favourite), negima (chicken with negi or green onions)
and the high-cholesterol-high-uric-acid but decadently delicious shiro (isaw or chicken intestines)
and bonjiri (chicken bottoms).
Utage's menu was sprinkled with bits of creative tweaks on traditional bar fare.
Because we were so intrigued by the description, we ordered gyoza wrapped in kawa (chicken skin). Instead of a dumpling wrapper, thin chicken skin was wrapped around the meat filling then deep
fried and glazed with a light teriyaki sauce. This was delicious but quite fatty -- I much prefer the normal steamed-flash-fried gyoza.
Grilled beef tongue or gyutan is another common izakaya menu item. The tongue is usually cut in bite sized pieces, skewered on short bamboo sticks and grilled.
At Utage we were served the gentrified version of gyutan -- the tongue was sliced thinly, quickly
grilled and garnished with a bean sprout salad. The gyutan was chopstick-tender and just melted in the mouth. This was the one time throughout the whole meal that I wished I had a bowl of rice.
The Japanese have a strange tradition of eating fried chicken, specifically Kentucky Fried Chicken for Christmas dinner. We decided to order Utage's southern fried chicken, which the menu said was a house specialty. It was like chicken schnitzel -- the meat had been pounded thin, seasoned, breaded and then deep fried. It was crisp, juicy and didn't need any sauce at all.
I don't like avocado but this Avocado Carpaccio turned me into a fan. Thick slices of avocado
were drizzled with a sauce of different kinds of cheeses (blue cheese was definitely present) and
as a Japanese touch -- topped with delicious hijiki, a type of seaweed that is considered as
healthy and nutritious.
Perfectly cold Asahi beer complemented the food, the conversation and yes, the peals of delighted laughter.
Full disclosure. I have to admit that we had two orders of everything. You would think we would
be full after the rich and creamy avocado -- but no, we still had some room for (just) one large
platter of assorted sashimi.
Here we are after our Christmas dinner. Utage was a great place to celebrate Christmas in Tokyo,
in the company of long time, very dear friends. Domo arigato gozaimashita, Anthony, Rina and Johann!
PS. As we walked back to the hotel, I couldn't resist taking this shot of the long queue outside
KFC, all of them lined up and waiting for their Christmas chicken dinner.