I don’t normally go out of my way for a good meal, but on a recent trip to Tokyo, I became aware of the photobook diner Megutama. Located in the Tokyo district of Ebisu, it was opened three years ago by a Japanese author and photo critic, Iizawa Kotaro. The restaurant showcases his collection of 5,000 photobooks which you’re free to browse. It also serves up drinks and home-style Japanese cooking.
Thanks to Japan’s largest broadcaster, NHK, I felt compelled to check it out because I saw it has a trifecta of things I love: books, food and photography. So how do I locate a small diner in a city with 160,000 restaurants? I figured I’d manage with pocket wi-fi, a smartphone, a Tokyo metro pass and a few key Japanese words learned online. It was also possible to hire an Uber, but in a city like Tokyo this would mean spending around Php5000 – 8000.
Compared to some of the cities I’ve visited, Tokyo’s rail and metro system’s map resembles a plate of fried yakisoba–a tangle of lines and stops that requires time and patience to master. Setting off just before sunset, I take two subway lines and manage to arrive at Ebisu Station within 20 minutes. Afterwards, my smartphone’s map app chose a picturesque route with an estimated walking time of eleven minutes. Despite taking longer than that and almost losing my faith in Japanese technology, I was led to the back of a shed, where I spied a small sign and realized that it was actually the back of the diner.
In that chilly early spring evening, Megutama seemed to glow with warmth. Pushing aside the glass sliding door, I entered its cozy wooden interiors. Directly across the door, a large wooden counter provided the staff’s cooking area, and just behind that was the dining space. More chairs and tables were situated in a small outdoor area, easily seen through the glass wall at the back of the room. The place was chock-full of books and magazines, and while the staff were slightly taken aback that a stranger had shown up in their midst, their cashier, a middle aged lady named Megumiko, fortunately could speak some English–and between us, despite my few basic Japanese phrases, we pretty much understood each other.
Seating myself at the kitchen/counter, another staffer, Natsko, presented me the menu. It wasn’t a very wide selection. The menu claimed that the recipes for some of the dishes were found in novels and short stories like an Edo-style fluffy egg omelet and a steamed rice bran cake. Prices seemed very reasonable with menu items not exceeding Y 3000.
I decided to splurge and go for a five course dinner menu that cost Y 2000. Aside from the rice (white or brown), miso soup and pickles, it would include five side dishes determined by seasonal ingredients. After getting my order, Natsko handed me a big green plastic card and began describing how the book collection was divided. There were works by Japanese photographers from the period before and after World War 2. More recent works were grouped together along one wall, while the opposite wall featured oversized photography books and a few photobooks by photographers from outside of Japan. If I was interested in a particular book, I just needed to place the plastic card next to the book, and it would be brought to me.
When Natsko served my meal, it included boiled spinach, slices of sashimi and a potato salad. There were two main courses. Since it was a cold day, one of the entrées was oden, a boiled dish of tofu and radishes. The other entrée was thinly-sliced fried pork in garlic. Uttering the Japanese phrase for thanksgiving before a meal, Itadekimasu, I had dinner, trying the spinach first, surprised that its bitterness was balanced by something that tasted like peanut butter. From that initial surprise, I worked my way through my meal, assuring a nervous-looking Natsko that it was Oishii (delicious)!
The depth of flavor and texture of the various dishes really worked well with each other. The sourness of the pickles cleansed the creaminess of the potato salad, making way for the sweet/bitterness of the spinach. The softness of the tofu yielded to the firmness of the fried pork slices, while the coarseness of the brown rice complimented the salty firm flesh of the tuna sashimi slices, seasoned just right that it didn’t require additional soy sauce and wasabi. Normally we associate Japanese cuisine with the traditional kaiseki meal, where various courses are served in an elegant fashion. But for me this was the real deal–a Japanese meal that came straight from the heart of the one who prepared it. The better Japanese adjective to describe this meal would be sugoi (great)!
Throughout the meal, I kept up a conversation with both Megumiko and Natsko, and for me it was like a scene from NHK’s shows, where tavern or izakaya owners would treat customers like friends or family members. As I finished my meal, I pondered over dessert choices: soft serve ice cream (with or without powdered matcha), cheesecake, and rice bran cake.
After paying the bill, Megumiko offered to show me the quickest way back to Ebisu station, despite an influx of customers filling up the diner. We traded thank yous and Sorede wa mata (see you again). The last phrase I really meant as I hope to visit Megutama again. And next time, I’d get there faster.
It felt like I’d found a home in the big metropolis that is Tokyo.
Photobook Diner Megutama
150-0011 3-2-7 Higashi Shibuya-ku Tokyo
Telephone/ fax: 03-6805-1838
090 4662 6303
When you exit the mall where Ebisu Station is located turn right at the exit. Walk pass the Koban or police box into Komazawa-dori Avenue. Keep walking straight past four corners. You know you are in the right direction when you walked past two pedestrian overpasses. The restaurant is located one corner after the second overpass.