Japan’s capital city of Tokyo, is divided into 23 ‘special wards’. Yep, that is the exact name given to the 23 municipalities that made the original Tokyo City. After 1943, Tokyo City was abolished, and instead was officially named Tokyo Metropolis. And one of the special wards, was Chuo.
Although Chuo – which literally means ‘Central ward’ in Japanese – is the second smallest ward in Tokyo, it has historically been Tokyo’s commercial center, challenged only by Shinjuku in Japan’s recent history. It is further divided into 3 zones: Tsukishima, Nihonbashi and Kyobashi. Tsukishima is an island. Nihonbashi is home to the Takashimaya department store chain and also the ‘zero point’ from where all distances in Tokyo are measured.
That leaves us with Kyobashi. The home of both Tsukiji and Ginza.
Everybody visits Kyobashi for the Tsukiji fish market. Tsukiji literally means ‘reclaimed land’, and in actuality, is on land reclaimed from Tokyo bay. Only thing is, this land reclamation took place as early as 18th century! The Central Wholesale market, better known as Tsukiji fish market, is the largest fish market in the world, and is a tourist attraction thanks to the fresh Sushi and Sashimi available everywhere. It was so popular, that I saw people queueing up to eat at the many sushi-restaurants in Tsukiji!
I stood in the queue too, and had a sumptuous breakfast at Tsukiji. But for lunch, I had other plans. Much grander plans.
They involved finding a restaurant established by a Keralite, all the way in Tokyo.
Aiyappan Pillai Madhavan Nair, or A.M.Nair, was born to the Nair Community in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, in 1905. After his schooling, he moved to Japan, where he studied Engineering at the Kyoto university. After engineering, he became a follower of Subhash Chandra Bose – first becoming his valet and later becoming a leader of the Indian national army founded by Bose. After India gained independence, Nair San – as he was affectionately called in Tokyo – stayed behind in Tokyo and established an Indian restaurant.
Right here in Ginza. Which I was on the search for.
Ginza – the “Silver Mint”
Ginza literally means “silver mint”, thanks to a historic silver mint that was established there in the 17th century. The mint may not exist anymore, but the glitter stayed behind. Getting to the Ginza subway station was easy. It is directly connected to the rest of Tokyo by atleast 3 different subway lines (Marunouchi, Ginza and Hibiya). I would also find out later that Nair’s restaurant was right next to Higashi Ginza Station, if I had taken the Toei Asakusa (A11) subway line.
I knew what to expect in Ginza. Ginza was home to many famous department stores and boutique restaurants. But I didn’t expect to see one right at the entrance of the subway.
Another thing that I did not expect was Chuo Dori (Chuo Street). I have heard of Ginza’s main shopping street, and was aware that I would be facing a lot of high-end shops and department stores. What no one told me, was that Chuo-Dori was closed to motor traffic on Saturday and Sunday, and instead, there was something called a Pedestrian’s Paradise!
Pedestrian’s Paradise has been happening for nearly 50 years now, and attracts shoppers of all kinds, who hunt the street looking for cheap bargains. Also joining the crowd are the buskers, entertainers and families who just come down to try some of the street food and beers. It was a festival atmosphere out here!
The Search continues…
After a short while of clicking the street atmosphere at Ginza, we continued our search for Nair’s restaurant. I say ‘we’, because by this point, I am joined by my friend Kayo San (‘San’ is a term of respect in Japan), who I met previously in Singapore through couchsurfing. I had almost given up searching the restaurant on google maps, as everything there was written in Japanese. And there was no results for Nair’s restaurant anywhere.
After a while, Kayo San decoded the map for me. I was searching for Nair’s restaurant all this while, and it kept taking me a similarly named restaurant in Karnataka, India. Well, that’s because the name for the Ginza restaurant in google maps, is a very boring ‘Indian curry restaurant’.
Here, this one.
Nair San’s legacy
Nair San may have passed away in 1990, more than 25 years ago. But his son continues the legacy even today, as we found out when we entered the restaurant. From our table, we could see the Kabuki theatre of Ginza on the other side of the road. That could be an after-lunch event.
The owner, Nair San’s son, saw me straight away. And I stood out, primarily because I was the only Indian at this time of the day – all the other customers were Japanese. And secondly because I had walked in with a Japanese friend. So he came up and started chatting. He asked me where I was from. And I told him Kerala, the same place that Nair San hailed from.
“Naattil evide?” (where in Kerala?), he asked. His eyes shone bright. Obviously, it wasn’t everyday that he found a fellow keralite walking into the restaurant.
“Kozhikodeinte aduthu. Mahe” (Near Kozhikode. Mahe)
He told me that the entire staff at the restaurant, was from Kerala. And all of them spoke both fluent Malayalam and Japanese. We continued the conversation for about 10 minutes even before we started to order anything. And then, he let me get back to my food.
I ordered the chicken curry and rice, which was supposed to be a speciality of the restaurant. The prices were slightly higher, but it was understandable for the location. The chicken curry tasted nothing like Kerala, as the spiciness was toned down a few notches. Many Keralites may crib about this, but this is understandable too. The curry was cooked in such a way that it was palatable for anybody, whether Indian or foreign.
I would also learn that the curry powder used, was made at the restaurant itself. In fact, it was even available for sale, both at the restaurant and on online shopping sites like Amazon and Rakuten. Nair San may have had differences with Jawaharlal Nehru. But he was fond of Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, who would go on to become Prime Minister of India on her own merit.
So, it wasn’t surprising at all, that Nair San named his curry powder after her.
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