Late last year it was announced that Tokyo was the city with the most Michelin stars in the world for the tenth year running with a staggering 227 awarded eateries against second-placed Paris’ 94, with twelve Tokyo establishments gaining the prestigious three-star rating.
“You have so many restaurants here — many of them tiny, with just eight or 10 seats — specialising in everything from sushi to teppan, tempura or kaiseki,” Thierry Marais, executive chef at the Ritz Carlton Tokyo, tells CNN. “There’s an advantage over restaurants in Europe where there are 50 or more diners in one service, where consistency becomes more challenging. A lifetime isn’t long enough to begin to understand the restaurant scene in Tokyo.”
It’s no coincidence that the capital cities of Japan and France top the world’s greatest dining city lists, the love-in between Japanese and Gallic gastronomical philosophies goes back a long way — and many of the Michelin-starred eateries in Tokyo actually serve French food.
“While no cuisine actually emerges from a point of cultural purity,” offers Meghan McCarron in Eater, “the predominant narrative for the genealogy of contemporary international fine dining is that its paternity is exclusively French.” Modern French cuisine evolved in Vienne, a small town 30km south of Lyon, when, in 1923, chef Fernand Point opened restaurant La Pyramide with a progressive menu constructed around seasonal produce. Point’s approach influenced a new generation of French chefs such as Paul Bocuse who a developed a nouvelle cuisine noted for its minimal method using delicate sauces and incorporating artistic presentation — philosophies that sat beautifully with the Japanese way. Just as European haute cuisine was born of the aristocracy, so kaiseki — a form of small-plated, seasonal fine-dining in the East — was influenced by Japanese nobility and tea ceremonies of Zen Buddhists. Beginning the 1960s, a slew of Japanese chefs chose to train France, and vice-versa.
“Even though they may not admit it, those arbiters of haute cuisine, the great French chefs, have come to Japan and see with their own eyes what we do here,” notes Shizuo Tsuji in his seminal 1980 cooking tome, Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, “and I think I can detect something of what they have seen emerging in their nouvelle cuisine.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces
Historic Gastronomic Jewels & Drinks in the Land of the Rising Sun
Food: Astonishingly, a number eateries in Japan have been in existence for centuries. Nagasaki’s oldest restaurant, Kagetsu, opened as a geisha house in 1642, and now offers a beguiling menu of traditional Japanese fare with a Chinese and Portuguese slant — a fusion resulting from the 16th century when European sailors first arrived in Japan. In Kyoto, Okutan Higashiyama has been concocting tofu treats since 1635. Their vegetarian dishes are all prepared from scratch in-house, served overlooking restful Eastern gardens — tofu-making classes are also offered. Don’t leave without sampling the boiled tofu bud soup with wild yam, sesame tempura and crunchy pickled vegetables. Thought to be Japan’s oldest known eatery, Honke Owariya first opened its doors in 1465 selling sweets in the shadows of historic temples and palaces. It’s still famed for its confectionary and desserts, but now lauded for crafting soba — or buckwheat noodle — dishes that customers enjoy on traditional floor seating surrounded by aged, creaking wood and gardens. The world’s oldest chain restaurant can also be found in Japan. Yoshinoya was founded in Tokyo in 1899 and now has more than 1,400 outlets in nine countries.
Sake: Sudo Honke is not just Japan’s oldest brewery, but one of the oldest business on Earth. Since at least 1141 the family firm has been passing its sake crafting secrets from one generation to the next (they’re now into their 55th generation) in the town of Obara. west of Osaka, in the Hyogo prefecture, Kenbishi have been crafting their iconic rice wine for more than 500 years. Back in the day, it was the sake of choice for many a samurai warrior, and on the eve of major battles, soldiers would open a ceremonial barrel.
Beer: Japan’s oldest beer brewery, Sapporo, was founded in Tokyo in 1876 by Seibei Nakagawa who learnt the craft in Germany having left Japan aged 17. It’s now the best-selling Asian beer in the US. Round these parts, Asahi is arguably Japan’s most famous beer — and the company was also founded by a German-trained Japanese brewer, this time in Osaka (under the name Osaka Beer Brewing Company), by Komakichi Torii.
Whisky: While most might readily more associate Japan with Asahi, sushi, fine dining, and sake, you may be surprised to hear that the nation has also established itself as one of the world’s leading whisky makers. Since the turn of the 21st century it has scooped a heap of coveted prizes, often at the expense of well-established scotches — fittingly, the man who was to become known as the father of Japanese whisky, Masataka Taketsuru, learnt his craft in Scotland.