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Culture, No.2  Aug. 3, 2010


Michelin Guide 2008 Tokyo caused a great stir when it went on sale in 2007, but this was tempered in Japan by a haze of skepticism over the release of Michelin’s first guide to a city outside Europe or North America. The New York Times reported on such ambivalence in a story titled, “Michelin Gives Stars, but Tokyo Turns Up Nose” (February 24, 2008).

The book nonetheless sold well, with 90,000 copies snapped up on the first day of sale–a new record for the venerable guide. It made its biggest impact, though, in Europe, as it gave stars to 150 restaurants in Tokyo, more than double the 64 listed in the guide for Paris the same year. Tokyo also overwhelmed other cities in the total number of stars awarded.

Michelin maintains that its criteria for rating restaurants are consistent in all regions, so by far outperforming runner-up Paris, Tokyo–by Michelin standards–has become as the culinary capital of the world, a status that it is unlikely to relinquish anytime soon.

The 2010 edition of the Tokyo guide, moreover, listed 11 three-star restaurants, for the first time surpassing the figure for Paris, which claimed 10 such restaurants. Tokyo thus boasted the world’s highest figures for not only the number of starred restaurants and total stars but also for the number of coveted three-star establishments.

In an interview with the Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo, Jean-Luc Naret, the sixth director of the Michelin Guides, gave several reasons for Tokyo’s high marks. His comments, paraphrased here, are worthy of note, for they reveal a deep understanding of Japanese dining; they were directed toward Korean readers, so one can assume that flattery was not his motive:

The quality of Japanese food is also excellent. The level of chefs in Tokyo is higher than in any other city, and their unique skills were well transmitted. Tracking down how such skills and traditions have been handed down through the generations or centuries is not easy, but I gave particularly high marks to the degree of specialization. . . . Almost all the shops I visited were narrowly specialized into sushi, sashimi, yakitori, udon, and other shops. This made an extremely strong impression. This characteristic enabled a large number of Japanese restaurants to achieve a degree of specialization that other countries will simply not be able to overtake. (February 5, 2009)

Broad Dining Choices

That the Michelin Guide gave the highest number of stars to Tokyo is quite significant. Personally, though, I would say it was a matter of course that Tokyo should outshine Paris as a gourmet city. Tokyo did nothing to “beat” Paris to become the world’s culinary capital; it would be more accurate to say that Europeans have finally come to realize this fact.

Tokyo is an epicurean’s delight not just for the number of stars but also because of the sheer number of restaurants: it has 160,000, compared to just 13,000 in Paris and 25,000 in New York. Of the 197 restaurants receiving stars in Michelin Guide 2010 Tokyo, 132 serve Japanese food. This suggests that the crowning of Tokyo as the gastronomic capital is the result of Michelin’s high assessment of Japanese cuisine itself.

A high degree of specialization has been pursued in Japanese food, as Michelin’s Naret noted, resulting in shops serving very specialized dishes. French, Italian, and Chinese cuisines all boast a rich and variegated culinary culture, to be sure. But a restaurant serving French food is essentially a French restaurant; while some may have certain house specialties, there is no further segmentation. About the only specialized shop that comes to mind La Tour d’Argent, a one-star restaurant serving duck. There are few such specialty restaurants in France, and in fact there is no other culinary culture in the world that is as specialized and segmented as that of Japanese food. This may have something to do with the rich variety of ingredients, particularly fish, that are available in Japan. When ingredient choices are confined, the kind of dishes served also tend to become quite limited.

Highly Refined

There is great diversity in Japanese cuisine. There is also substantial refinement, as exemplified by the city of Kyoto, whose culinary culture evolved over the more than 1,200 years that it served as the nation’s capital. Kyoto cuisine is known as Kyō ryōri, and there are many other distinctive cooking styles in various parts of the country. Depending on how it is served, moreover, Japanese cuisine may be classified as kaiseki (会席; traditional Japanese banquets where each diner’s meal is served on an individual tray), kaiseki (懐石; served at tea ceremonies in delicate courses), kappō (exclusive, high-priced establishments to entertain important guests), shidashi (catered or delivered meals), or shippoku (portions served on large plates shared by diners seated around a round table).

Restaurants are also narrowly categorized by the kind of food they serve, there being almost no limit to the degree of specialization. Even with sushi alone, there are shops specializing in the Kyoto, Kansai, and Edomae (Tokyo) styles. The same goes for restaurants serving nabe ryōri (hot pot dishes cooked at the table), which usually feature one of an endless list of varieties: chowders; stews; those featuring noodles, soft-shell turtles, chicken, and tofu; and those usually eaten by sumo wrestlers. There are also specialty shops serving fugu (blowfish), beef tongue, bluefin tuna, yuba (skin forming on the top of boiled soybean milk), tofu, eel, and dojō (loaches). Even everyday dishes like tempura, oden, udon and soba noodles, okonomiyaki (both Hiroshima and Kansai styles), monja, sukiyaki, shabushabu , yakitori, kushiage, tonkatsu, and teppan’yaki are frequently served in specialized shops, so the range of restaurant types is staggering. There are even restaurants serving just one type of dish like saba (mackerel) sushi, kamameshi (rice boiled in a pot), bowls of beef or tuna, and onigiri (rice balls), as well as highly distinctive meals like shōjin ryōri (Buddhist vegetarian fare) and yūsoku ryōri (court cuisine of the Heian period [794-1185]).

The Japanese seem to have a perfectionist streak in everything they do. The penchant for detail and the determination to achieve mastery in their respective fields can be seen in the world of culinary arts as well. The more chefs strove for the ultimate, the more segmented Japanese cuisine became. It is little wonder that nonnatives would be startled to find 160,000 specialty shops packed into Tokyo.

Naret’s comment that other countries will not be able to overtake this degree of specialization is quite meaningful. Such specialization cannot be achieved overnight. In fact, the skills of Japan’s top chefs were acquired not over the course of just one lifetime but nurtured and honed over hundreds of years as they were handed down from generation to generation.

Daiichi in Kyoto specializing in suppon nabe (hot pot of soft-shell turtles) is one example. For over three centuries, it has served only this dish. The only other food item served is a suppon appetizer. The same pots have been used to serve customers for centuries, moreover, and it is said that simply boiling water in them is enough to make suppon soup. What restaurant–in the span of, say, just 20 or 30 years–can expect to make a suppon nabe surpassing that backed by such a long and illustrious tradition? Daiichi, no doubt, offers the world’s best-tasting suppon dishes. This is the kind of specialization that makes Japanese cuisine peerless. There are countless numbers of venerable eating establishments like Daiichi that have been in business for many hundreds of years, especially in Kyoto.

What Is Japanese Food?

A suitable definition of Japanese food is rather elusive, partly because cuisine is something that constantly evolves. In Japan, washoku is the term given to dishes of indigenous origin. Tempura–considered a typically Japanese menu item–though, is actually an adaptation of a Portuguese dish that first came to Japan in the seventeenth century. Tonkatsu, another popular dish, was invented in the Meiji era (1868-1912) based on the Austrian schnitzel. Given their origins, they were initially thought of as yōshoku, or Western food, but they have become such an integral part of the Japanese diet that they can be rightly called Japanese food today. Indeed, diners are unlikely to find dishes surpassing Japan’s tempura or tonkatsu in a Lisbon or Viennese restaurant. In the hands of Japanese chefs, these dishes have evolved into something completely different from their original Western incarnations.

The same applies to karē raisu (Japanese curry) and rāmen. Although rāmen is of Chinese origin, noodles do not serve as a meal in itself in China. Usually, a small bowl of noodles in a soup of broth is served to finish out a meal, but this bears little resemblance to the rāmen that is popular in Japan. Each locality in Japan has its own “rāmen culture,” a fact that surprises most Chinese.

Perhaps even the Korean-style yakiniku (grilled meat) barbecue also qualifies as Japanese food. Yakiniku served in South Korea is quite different from that in Japan in both format and quality. In Japan, there is a rich assortment of meats of varying grades that can be grilled, and you can choose between salt- or sauce-based seasoning. Such choices are unavailable in South Korea. Korea boasts a highly sophisticated culinary culture, but in terms of yakiniku, I must say that the meals I have had in Japan have been more delicious. Wagyū (beef from Japanese breeds of cattle) is of the very highest quality, so beef dishes in Japan naturally taste best. In these ways, after being imported from abroad, dishes of other countries have been adapted in uniquely Japanese ways and evolved into what are recognized domestically and internationally as bona fide features of Japanese cuisine.

Prehistoric Roots

Why has cooking in Japan become so refined? I believe there are several factors to this phenomenon. The first is that the prehistoric Jōmon people of Japan were the first humans to cook on Earth.

Opinion may be divided on what constitutes cooking, but such basic activities as boiling and steaming require some sort of earthenware. It is safe to conclude, then, that humankind’s first attempt to cook food began with the appearance of earthen vessels. The oldest such utensils ever unearthed were discovered in Aomori Prefecture, a fact that most Japanese are unfamiliar with. Radiocarbon dating of carbonized accretions on pieces of a clay vessel found in the Ōdai Yamamoto I excavation site revealed them to have been used approximately 17,000 calibrated years ago, making the pottery the world’s oldest. The carbonized matter on the clay pieces suggests that the vessel was used to boil foodstuffs. This is the oldest evidence of food preparation in human history. The history of cooking in Japan, therefore, predates that in France or China by several thousand years.

It was only thousands of years later that clay pottery began being made in other parts of the world, culminating in the emergence of the four great civilizations of ancient history. Thus a civilization had emerged in Japan much earlier than in the better known cradles of civilization. I cannot but perceive a link between the highly refined cuisine nurtured over the years in Japan and the fact that our forebears were the first humans to cook food.

The shift to an agrarian society through wet-paddy rice cultivation took place on the Asian continent prior to Japan. Rice cultivation techniques and various tools, including ironware, reached Japan through the Korean Peninsula, and the Yayoi culture that sprung up from the influx of such advances was thus heavily characterized by Chinese and Korean influences. The Yayoi people and their descendants in Japan, however, developed an even stronger attachment to rice cultivation than their continental neighbors.

By the time of the Joseon dynasty in Korea (1392-1897), more than 2,000 years following the transition to an agrarian lifestyle, the land area of rice fields and the level of rice-growing techniques in Japan had far surpassed that on the Korean Peninsula. And today, Japan produces the world’s highest-quality rice. The ability to evolve a distinctively Japanese food culture by incorporating the dishes of other countries appears to be a manifestation of an age-old national trait that was in evidence when transplanting rice cultivation techniques as well. The veneration of rice is one aspect of the ceaseless efforts by the Japanese to attain culinary refinement.

A Sign of Decline?

Japan’s food self-sufficiency ratio is abnormally low, a level unbecoming of an independent state. Modern Japanese, moreover, do not eat as much rice as their ancestors. My prescription for such woes is simply this: “If you’re Japanese, then eat rice.”

If Americans began eating Japanese rice instead of bread made from domestically grown wheat every morning, then US farm policy and the country’s food security would collapse. This, though, is essentially what is happening in Japan, as people steer away from home-grown rice to breakfast on bread and rolls made with foreign wheat. Japan is said to be self-sufficient in rice, but this is because rice consumption has declined. If people began eating as much rice as in the past, demand would far outstrip supply. It would seem only natural for the Japanese to make a locally grown grain their staple food; eating grains that are not grown domestically is inefficient and saps the nation of its strength. Washoku, centered on rice, is a well-balanced and healthy diet; by spurning rice, the Japanese people are damaging their own health.

An even more serious problem with declining rice consumption is that it could invite a deterioration of Japan’s food culture. Rice is at the heart of that culture, so turning away from it will be sure to throw aspects of Japanese society off balance. Even as the Michelin Guide sings praises of Japanese cuisine, its spiritual foundations are crumbling day by day.

The solution is for the Japanese to eat more rice and to rediscover the value of their indigenous cuisine. Only then will the foundations of Japan’s food culture be placed once again on solid ground, a process that will lead to a “Japanese renaissance.”


Achieving such a renaissance will require that the Japanese themselves gain a fuller appreciation of their own culture. Often, praise from a nonnative can awaken such an appreciation, but I suspect that non-Japanese do not yet have a full grasp of the true value of Japan’s food culture.

I say this because, for me, the real culinary capital of the world is not Tokyo but Kyoto. It is in Kyoto where Japanese culture is most refined, owing to its 1,200 years as the nation’s capital. If one wants a taste of other countries, though, then Tokyo is the place to go.

I was invited by a friend the other day to dine at Le Mange-Tout, a two-star French restaurant in Ichigaya. It is a true standout among the many establishments in Tokyo serving French food. I am invariably disappointed with the poor quality of Japanese food served abroad. So I think that for a French restaurant in Japan to win accolades from French critics is a stunning feat. And indeed, the dishes prepared by owner chef Tani Noboru had a certain dynamism capable of winning over the gourmets of Paris, as if to say, “This is what French food tastes like when prepared by a Japanese chef.”

I would not be surprised if Japanese chefs came to dominate French cuisine in countries around the world, and in fact this may already be happening. As I enjoyed the meal prepared by chef Tani, I was reminded of a comment made by Yoshimura Takao, owner of the Georgian Club (one star in the 2008 edition), when I invited him to a sushi restaurant in a residential neighborhood of Meguro. “As far as I know,” the French restaurant owner said, “there’s not a single chef in France or Italy who can match the degree of perfection exhibited by this restaurant’s master chef.”

It surprised me to hear such words from a man who had sampled all the French food there was to taste in France, and who himself ran a shop that a French organization had commended with a star. The sushi restaurant in Meguro is an exclusive establishment that will turn down first-time customers without an introduction, so there is no possibility of it becoming listed in a Michelin Guide. There are actually countless numbers of such outstanding, unlisted shops in Japan that remain hidden from public view. Such is the profundity of the world of Japanese cuisine. A Japanese renaissance will occur if the Japanese people come to share more deeply in the spiritual foundations of their native food culture.

Translated from “‘Mishuran Gaido’ ga Tokyo o zessan suru riyū” Voice, July 2010, pp.136-45; shortened to about half. (Courtesy of PHP Institute) [August 2010]