But this restaurant is no nondescript chain; it has been in business 35 years and was said to be a favorite of famed film director Akira Kurosawa, who took his staff there to celebrate after wrapping production. As a memento, he left a hand-carved wood block of Bairin's name in Kanji characters, which translates to "plum grove." The artwork greets visits as soon as they enter through the traditional noren curtains.
As soon as our full group of eight is seated, a sliding wooden door opens and in comes a waiter bearing a tray of teacup-sized bowls containing a mixture of sliced mushrooms, fried tofu, and sesame seeds. This opening course is small enough that I have a rush of hope that I will indeed be able to finish all 30 courses. But that dream is dashed when the waiter returns with a giant ezo ibara gani (King crab), with foot-long legs that are pre-sliced so we can easily spear the meat and dip it in a Japanese ponzo sauce with a vinegar and soy base.
The crab is so impressive that Tomoko, a Tokyo reporter for a Western news service, lets out a half giggle and half squeal, which Christine, a communications director for a large Internet company, later calls a "squiggle." Tomoko is the reason we have been served the crab, which is a special entrée; she discovered Bairin with a group of friends and, upon her return, the Bairin management is thanking her with a special treat.
The rest of us whip out our cameras and start taking pictures of the crab. "This will be the most documented meal I will ever have," jokes Colin, a lawyer.
The rest of the evening is a race through course after course. The thing about this much food is that the waiters do not stop serving and, if you aren't careful, you can easily fall behind, which I did several times. The table begins to resemble a Tetris game, plates, bowls and cups fitting together at right angles or clashing awkwardly.
The food ranges from small and delicately prepared (Course No. 11: a boiled, skinless tomato that is sweet like a grape eaten with a shiso leaf) to fried and rich (No. 12: mochi sticky rice tempura served in a warm broth with spring onions) to large and filling (No. 24: four large hanadai fish, with small scary fangs, but moist and tender flesh.)
Course 13 is a huge plate of thick cuts of sashimi, including, in the center, a lobster whose eyes and antennae are still moving even though his flesh has been cut up and is resting in the shell. The waiter removes the shell and it later returns flavoring a miso broth (No. 27).
"I'm beginning to feel like less is more," Colin says.
"It's almost too much food," agrees Ken, a Bangkok-based editor. "You can't really enjoy it."
At this point, the wooden door slides open again and a tiny elderly woman with gray hair is sitting before us seiza-style. This is 79-year-old Reiko Hirao, the proprietor. She oversees seven cooks and six waiters, who serve four private rooms on the first floor and a banquet room that can hold 50 people upstairs. Restaurants like Bairin are mostly used for company parties or special family gatherings. She smiles, then thanks us over and over, bowing so low that her forehead touches the tatami mat.