Tokyo is a mindfuck.
No amount of research or any guidebook will be able to adequately prepare you for its quickfire, labyrinthine public transit system and virtually endless list of restaurants dotting the utopian-like metropolis. Sure, you can definitely try on your own, but chances are that you won't find things like a chirashi bowl topped with five different kinds of local Japanese uni or soba noodles that are handmade from 100-percent buckwheat flour if you are only there for a couple days.
In case you didn't know, the Yelp app is not very reliable when you travel to another country. TripAdvisor works in a pinch, or at least points you in the right direction, but we all know how unreliable those reviews can be.
This is when Shinji Nohara, a.k.a., Tokyo Fixer, comes in.
He was recommended to me by barbecue and grilling expert Adam Perry Lang, who enthusiastically swore that he would "take good care of me." As a food writer who has occasionally done some fixing work for TV shows, I was curious, if maybe even a little skeptical. Nonetheless, I met the dude—sporting a shoulder-length haircut and a "Social Assassin" Larry David T-shirt—in front of Tokyo's Hachiko statue, and braced myself.
"What do you feel like eating?" he asked.
"Soba? Matcha?" I responded as I hadn't completely thought that far ahead yet.
He suggested that we walk instead of taking the train, and then proceeded to make a quick phone call and spoke to someone in Japanese. In a matter of minutes, I was in a tiny elevator with him, just a couple of extremely awkward inches away from his face. We were heading up to the fourth floor of a nondescript high-rise in Harajuku, and during the short elevator ride up, I got to know a little more about this very tightlipped man who maintained a mysterious vibe.
Born and raised in Tokyo, Nohara used to be a food writer for Japanese publications, and it turns out that he has taken a few high-profile American chefs around Tokyo. (Anthony Bourdain, Wylie Dufresne, Daniel Humm, Naomi Pomeroy, and Ricardo Zarate just to name a few, and he is booked to show David Chang around in a few weeks.) He loves acid jazz, too. Apparently, Nohara works by word of mouth, and thanks to Lang vouching for me pretty hard, it was my turn to get my mind blown with Japanese food as some of America's greatest chefs already had. I was skeptical still, and I reached out Ricardo Zarate to get his opinion on him. "HE IS INCREDIBLE!" he messaged me back.
The impeccable soba noodles, served extra al dente in a cold dashi with slices of sudachi Japanese citrus and with perhaps the best tempura that I have had in my life, was only a precursor of what was to come for the next 24 hours with the guy.
"I decided to transition from being a writer to a full-time fixer after showing Anthony around when he was the host of A Cook's Tour," Nohara nonchalantly told me as I slurped my noodles extra loudly in the Zen monastery-like ambiance of an undisclosed soba restaurant. That small gig catapulted him to international acclaim and he would later get fixing requests from chefs in Italy, France, New York, and elsewhere around the world.
All of his tours are personal tours, maybe a maximum of four people per outing. However, there was one huge catch: You must surrender your menu ordering privileges entirely to him, even if there is an English menu.
This requirement sounded easier said than done, especially if you are a food professional who likes to study menus. The other catches go without saying: It is frowned upon to share the location of—or worse, to write about—the establishments that he shows you. Also, it is expected that you purchase every single bite and sip of his food and drink while hanging out with him, in addition to generously tipping him for his Tokyo food knowledge that took him a lifetime to master.
After the soba, we walked a couple of miles to another spot on the second floor of another random building to have the best matcha and mochi that I've had in my life. After that, we walked through several alleys and tiny streets—past the stupidly long lines of the Tokyo outposts of Dominique Ansel and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon—to his favorite Japanese bakery, where my mind was shattered yet again by the simple deliciousness of a savory curry donut.
"Don't you think these are ready to be the next big trend?" Nohara asked me as he saw the utter joy in my jetlagged face.
"Definitely," I responded, as I devoured two of them, filled with Japanese-style chicken and beef curry, respectively, still warm out of the fryer filled with a mixture of mustard seed oil and rice bran oil. We made our way over to a yakitori restaurant that uses only Japanese white oak—and shocker, my head exploded yet again by the humble deliciousness of a juicy, charred chicken meatball, complete with bits of chewy cartilage.
It was right then and there that I realized the absolute power of Nohara. He has the ability to subdue and impress even the biggest food-obsessed egos in the world with his Tokyo food knowledge, including mine. And because of that, more likely than not, he has probably influenced the Japanese-slanted dishes that you've had at some of your favorite restaurants in the US.
The next morning, I met him at Tsukiji fish market at approximately 4:45 AM. For any other person who was trying to catch the tuna auction, this would have been way too late, since people start lining up as early as 3 AM in hopes to be part of the small group allowed in every morning. But if you know Nohara, 4:45 is actually the perfect time to show up. He is friends with a tuna broker at Tsukiji, and you will not have to wait in line at all. You will also get a behind-the-scenes tour of Tsukiji, which includes being within shoving distance of the grouchy tuna brokers in the early morning—not behind the visitor line a few dozen feet away from where the action happens. His Tsukiji tour package comes with a freshly sliced, thick piece of fatty tuna drizzled with soy sauce for breakfast, shaved by the broker's samurai-like sword, by the way.
After Tsukiji, it was time to say goodbye to Nohara and his vast knowledge of Japanese food. Several hundred dollars poorer, I had no regrets of the money I had just invested in the beautiful walking encyclopedia of a man. I hugged him, said thank you, and left with a whole new appreciation of fixers worldwide.
After all, it is their city—not yours.