In the run up to the Elite 100 Restaurants 2015, Andy Hayler looks at why Japan performs so well in the world’s leading food guides and what makes it such a superb fine dining destination.
The city with the most Michelin stars in the world is not Paris but Tokyo, and in 2011 Japan overtook France with regards to the number of restaurants granted the ultimate 3 star Michelin accolade. For those who have spent some time eating in Japan this is no mystery: the standard of food in restaurants at all levels, from neighborhood izakaya bars to the finest kaiseki dining, is remarkably high.
There are several reasons for this. Japan is blessed with ingredients of an exceptional standard, which can be seen at a glance at bustling Tsukiji market in Tokyo, which sells 700 different species of fish and employs 14,000 people. The adjacent vegetable market is less well-known but equally impressive, and the quality of the fruit in Japan is simply dazzling. The highly marbled wagyu (literally “Japanese beef”), such as that from Kobe, has spawned imitators all over the world.
Ingredient quality in Japan is not just a climatic accident. There is a deeply rooted food culture that can be seen in behavior of food shoppers. A great many people take an interest in food, insist on high quality and enough of them are prepared to pay for the very best produce. The prices at top restaurants in Kyoto and Tokyo are very high indeed, reflecting demand for the ultimate in food. Many top chefs have understood this for years. “Chef of the 20th century” Joel Robuchon modeled his highly successful Atelier Robuchon restaurants on the bar counter seating layout favored in Japan, with his top restaurant in Tokyo itself having three Michelin stars.
To sample the very best of restaurant dining in Japan, travel to Kyoto to eat the elaborate kaiseki menu at Mizai or Kitcho, or in Tokyo the modern kaiseki of Ryugin and the dazzling tempura at 7chome Kyoboshi, all of which are featured on the Elite Traveler 100 Restaurant list 2014. Try the stunning sushi at Sushi Saito in Tokyo or venture north to Sushizen in Sapporo. At Michel Bras in Toya, perched on the rim of a volcanic crater, you can eat French food that in every way matches that of its iconic sister restaurant in Laguiole in France. For more casual fare sample the okonomiyaki savoury pancakes of Hiroshima and Osaka or the ramen noodle bars dotted across the country, from Fukuoka to Fujisawa. Japan is a rewarding place to visit in many ways, and its food scene is arguably the finest on the planet.