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Anthony Bourdain ‘Parts Unknown’ in Japan: Just the One-Liners

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The globe-trotting host gets an epic tour from sushi legend Masa Takayama

Anthony Bourdain and Masa Takayama.
Anthony Bourdain and Masa Takayama.
Courtesy of CNN
Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

How does one become the chef at America’s most expensive restaurant? In this week’s episode of CNN’s award-winning travelogue Parts Unknown, globetrotting chef Anthony Bourdain returns to Japan to visit the former stomping grounds of renowned chef Masa Takayama. “To call him America’s most respected sushi chef would be an injustice, as he is more than that — much more,” Bourdain says. “What was it about him that set him apart, took him from a rather bleak farming community in rural Japan to become first the toast of Los Angeles and later the king of New York? It is a fascinating story.”

The journey starts off in Omi-cho Market in Kanazawa, a place that’s famous for its arts, crafts, and aesthetics — as well as the seafood. Together Takayama and Bourdain stroll through the market eating urchin roe, fresh snow crab, grilled eel livers, and oysters at the stalls. This is the essence of the trip — a lot of drinking and eating outstandingly fresh seafood at some of Takayama’s favorite haunts.

In Kanazawa, the pair visit one of the region’s last remaining geisha-run tea houses where Takayama says he learned to be more sophisticated. The pair dine at a kaiseki restaurant and visit the sushi legend’s ceramics craftsman in Yamanaka Onsen. In Tokyo, Takayama introduces Bourdain to the chef at Ginza Sushiko, the 130-year-old restaurant and training ground for young sushi chefs and the place where the Masa founder practiced his skills.

The pair also travel to Takayama’s hometown in the countryside to meet his mom, daughter (a pastry chef at the French Laundry), and brother (also a sushi chef). Finally, Bourdain and Takayama wind down Japanese-style after a difficult vacation eating more expensive seafood than most of we laymen will ever enjoy in our lifetimes. Here now are the 26 best quips and quotes from Bourdain and Takayama:

1. Bourdain on the fresh oysters at Omi-cho Market in Kanazawa: “These are the size of freakin’ clown shoes.”

2. Bourdain again, on those beautiful shellfish: “Wow, just one oyster is a meal. It’s, like, as big as a steak. Tender for a big oyster.”

3. Bourdain on the geisha (or “geiko”) profession: “Wearing elaborate kimonos and makeup, geikos are paid to entertain by singing, dancing, drinking — basically making older men generally feel good and welcome for an hour, maybe two.”

4. Bourdain, questioning Takayama about the handmade ceramics at his restaurant: “When do you make the drawings for the ceramics that you want?” Takayama replies: “When we’re drinking.”

5. Bourdain on the difficulties of commissioning from a distance: “So when you’re in New York and the ceramics come, do you ever go, ‘What the…!’” Takayama laughs as replies: “It happened. I get pissed.” Bourdain shakes his head, adding: “Your design man.” Takayama says: “Exactly.”

6. Bourdain, on Takayama’s meetings with his design friends who live in Yamanaka Onsen: “They get together, cook, eat, drink large quantities of unfiltered, slightly chunky sake, and enjoy the country life.”

7. Bourdain, to Takayama in a great back-and-forth: “Is umami a flavor or a sensation?” Takayama explains: “Umami is essence, strong essence.” Bourdain: “So it’s a mysterious force?” Takayama: “Yeah. Much bigger than the universe.” Bourdain: “Bigger than flavor?” Takayama: “Of course.”

8. Takayama, on how his sushi master would react if he did a bad job: “He didn’t slap, but [there was a] lot of punishment.” Bourdain says: “You don’t go home feeling good.” Takayama adds: “Yelling.”

9. Bourdain asking the owner of Ginza Sushiko about Takayama: “Wait. Is he any good at saxophone?”

10. Bourdain, upon finding out that Takayama would practice his saxophone in the bathroom at the restaurant: “You were a very unusual man.”

11. Bourdain on bullet trains: “Why don’t we have these in America, by the way? Ask your congressman.”

12. Bourdain, on the meal at Takayama’s mother’s house: “Comfort food is one thing, and damn it’s wonderful, but Masa being Masa you’ll notice there’s a mountain of decidedly luxurious sashimi brought out from Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo this morning.”

13. Takayama, on the meal: “This is what we do all the time. Very simple, easy.” Bourdain, facetiously: “Yeah, just a nice big pile of incredible beautiful uni like that. I do that all the time.”

14. Bourdain on what’s served at the “simple, easy” lunch: “Some sea urchin roe or uni and some high-test otoro tuna that any New York sushi enthusiast would cheerfully cut their best friend’s throat for.”

15. Takayama’s mother on the meal: “This is better than Masa’s sushi.” Bourdain says: “Bold words.” Takayama concedes: “Maybe better.”

16. Bourdain on the high-quality fare: “Typical Japanese meal: Champagne, Sancerre, country cooking at its best.”

17. Bourdain, on middle-school students practicing the Japanese martial art of Kendo at school: “Boys and girls alike compete with bamboo swords — sensible stand-ins for actual samurai swords, but the same thing, man.”

18. Bourdain, on Takayama’s Kendo bout with a middle schooler: “He’s trying to psych the kid, but I don’t think it’s going to work, frankly.”

19. Bourdain after Takayama wins the match: “You still got it, man.”

20. Bourdain on the grilled unagi at Takayama’s brother’s restaurant: “They could serve this at the French Laundry, right?”

21. Bourdain, on chilling out Japanese-style: “The Japanese often bear a heavy burden of responsibilities, societal expectations, family obligations, tradition, work. But when they relax, they really do it well. They are better than anybody.”

22. Bourdain to Takayama while sitting in an outdoor sulphur pool: “It is Suntory time, my friend. It’s time to relax.”

23. Bourdain, on another method of relaxation: “Get together with some friends and cook up some al fresco mountain-style sukiyaki bitches, maybe a little tempura made from foraged wild asparagus and fukinoto [a kind of green leafy shoot]. And when it’s sukiyaki time after a whole lot of, shall we say, homebrewed sake, you just kick back, stir in the maitakes and the shiitakes and some Tochigi beef and enjoy the day.”

bourdain and masa outdoors Courtesy of CNN

24. Takayama on the joys of al fresco dining: “Outside tastes much better.” Bourdain agrees: “Everything tastes better outside.”

25. Bourdain, on Takayama’s interest in America in high school: “You weren’t dressed up like John Wayne or anything, no cowboy boots?”

26. Bourdain, comparing Takayama’s home with where he is today: “They say you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. I’m not sure if that’s true, but New York City, in Masa Takayama’s case, seems far, far away from the little town he grew up in.”

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