What do we mean by the “best” sushi? Do we mean the most delicious, or the most authentic?
A quality experience that my friend at Conciergest recommended, two stations away from Tokyo station, is the oldest sushi shop in the city. It is possible to eat it on site at one of their three tables (rice bowls are also served), or for take-away. The sushi comes individually wrapped in a bamboo leaf and are packaged in a wooden box.
With all the talk of Shinkansen bento boxes, the ones sold after the JR gates are quite disappointing. Sasamaki will definitely be your best Shinkansen bento box, especially since this is what is seems to be made for. The sushi lasts a long time due to the vinegar and the bamboo leaf.
It is delicious. It does taste of rice vinegar, both in the shari and neta, but to me it is truly a delicious taste. I found the balance between the amount of rice and fish to be different from regular sushi shops. There seemed to be more rice and less fish than usual. The fish selection is also unusual, including dried ebi, shirauo and tai.
I was surprised that the store was not busier and that I had not heard about it before. It should be on everyone’s list to try the most authentic sushi shop in Tokyo and enjoy a truly delicious bento. I had it three times within a week. Quality sushi that is out of the ordinary. May the shop last forever.
Sasamaki Kenuki Sushi (笹巻けぬきすし)
Chef Tetsuya Saotome of Mikawa Zezankyo has been making tempura for 55 years. He is a well-known master and embodies the spirit of the shokunin. For some reason, I do not feel compelled to seek out whether Mikawa has the best tempura. I think that his restaurant and his food leave a honest feeling, one that still inspired me even a year after my first visit. Saotome-san has much in common with Jiro in their approach, and you can see them eating at each other's restaurant in this video. The tempura is in the traditional Edo style, but the restaurant truly has a feeling of warmth and simplicity. It is quite unique, decorated more like a house than a restaurant. The exterior has murals and flowers and the interior has a large cowboy hat-shaped fan above his tempura fryer.
When the reservation was made, the restaurant mentioned: “We are waiting for your visit from the bottom of our heart.” Although some people believe that the Japanese rely on empty politeness, I believe that Mikawa’s hospitality is particularly touching, even if he has a stern look while cooking. I read that he lives on the 4th floor of this house, something I did not know when I first went there, yet I had felt the feeling of entering his house. He is known as a master, but keeps his prices low. Even though he does not speak English, which I am certain must be uncomfortable for him, he allows customers to make a reservation through OpenTable, I assume as a sign that foreigners are truly welcome. While it is likely that they say this phrase to everyone that comes to their restaurant, in my opinion it does not diminish its purpose or impact. Oftentimes, you may notice that Japanese chefs wear the same tie every day, or they will serve the same dessert (yokan at Matsukawa, melon at Jiro). I think that this is a key difference between North Americans and Japanese people: the latter do not shy away from simply doing the same thing.
I find it so touching that someone who has made tempura for 55 years wants me to know that they are waiting for their visitors from the bottom of his heart. Of course, that is obvious to me as he already has other restaurants and does not need to keep working. The only logical explanation is that Saotome-san is happy to work and takes pleasure from making his customers happy. I have not been to Nanachome Kyoboshi but it is likely that it would be “better” than Mikawa, either with more expensive ingredients or a thinner batter. But it does not bother me at all. I feel extremely happy to think back to my time at Mikawa. Seeking the “best” is not where happiness comes from in life.
I wished to discuss the phrase “We are waiting for your visit from the bottom of our heart” that Mikawa asked my concierge to convey to me, or the “Please come back” that Ishikawa told me at my first visit. Whether or not they are said to all of their guests truly does not detract from their meaning. Instead, it reinforces it. This is the core spirit of the tea ceremony: the guest and the host are equals.
This equality is crucial to the dining experience. In North America, people often say that the customer is the most important, and it is from this mindset that we seek to understand the increased customer focus in Japan. However, it is the opposite. In Japan, the guest and the host are equals. What the host hopes to receive (in consideration for his anticipation of the guest’s needs) are the appreciation of what the host has planned and offered, as well as questions to better understand the meaning behind the experience, and perhaps a suggestion or criticism. Criticism is actually welcome, as long as it is subtle and polite. Because my Japanese is not good enough to ask many questions other than “kore wa nan desuka – what is this?”, I take it upon myself to create the equality by giving a box of macarons to each chef I visit, while saying “tsumaranai mono desu ga – this is nothing, but please accept it”. I would suggest you do the same, to show your appreciation not only of the chef’s effort, but also your understanding of the equality inherent in the experience inspired by the tea ceremony. Although you may think that this will add a significant cost or burden on you, and while you will not get any special treatment for doing so (every customer is already treated in a special way), I believe it will allow you to access a deeper understanding of Japanese hospitality and culture.
You can learn about the impact of the tea ceremony on kaiseki by reading this article: Yoshinobu Sato & Mark E. Parry, “The influence of the Japanese tea ceremony on Japanese restaurant hospitality”, Journal of Consumer Marketing (2015) volume 32 number 7, pp 520-529.
My favorite hotel is the Park Hotel Tokyo. Although some hotels are more luxurious, this hotel is reasonable in price, comfortable, centrally located, has top concierge services and unique rooms.
I appreciate that the hotel is offering a high quality and unique experience, notably with their floor of Artist rooms that are painted by different artists according to different themes, such as sakura, sumo, shodo, etc. which also include a free breakfast.
I wish to note that their sister hotel, the Shiba Park Hotel, also offers good concierge services and has a great workshop every day, where guests can either learn Japanese calligraphy or furoshiki (the Japanese art of wrapping gifts), as well as sake tasting. I loved learning furoshiki, as I am now able to impress people when giving gifts by wrapping their wine bottle with Japanese cloth. If you go at the right time and reserve in advance, a room at Shiba Park Annex could cost 12,000 JPY per night, and a room at the Park Hotel 15,000 JPY. However, the Shiba Park hotel does not want to schedule reservation on your check-in day, which is unfortunate and not justified, therefore I would only recommend them for a longer stay. For some reason, it seems that the Park Hotel has disappeared from the Michelin guide in 2018, but it is not like the Michelin guide is very logical.
There are at least 3,000 hotels in Tokyo and I have stayed at less than 1% of them. Thus, I cannot say that the Park Hotel Tokyo is the best hotel in the city. However, it has been perfect for me. I am extremely grateful for the attention of their concierge staff. I have attached an example of a sheet they have prepared for each restaurant reservation I had, which is something that some of the most expensive hotels in Tokyo do not do.
Many readers asked me the following question: Who is the best concierge in Tokyo? In my experience, the best concierges are not the ones that have the most connections. Introduction-only restaurants do not accept you, no matter who your concierge is. Rather, they are those who are the most dedicated to their guests. The best concierge will inquire beforehand about when the restaurant will take reservations, they will keep calling to see if they have cancellations, will prepare information about how to get there, and they will communicate with you throughout the process.
Park Hotel Tokyo
1-7-1 Higashishinbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo (near Shimbashi station)
Tadayoshi Matsukawa is working in silence and without any hubris, serving both a three-hour lunch and dinner. Few restaurants serve the same menu for lunch and dinner, perhaps because it requires so much time and effort.
I was told by my friend at Conciergest that chef Tadayoshi Matsukawa trained for 17 years at Shofukuro, becoming the head chef of the Tokyo branch, before working at Shimon, Seisoka and Kimoto. I have been to both Seisoka and Kimoto it seems clear to me that Matsukawa has taken the best lessons and dishes from both and brought them to an entirely new level, from a kaiseki restaurant to a spiritual experience.
Matsukawa had an unusually long apprenticeship, whereas most chefs seem to open their own restaurants after 10 years. I was later told that Matsukawa is not the sole owner of this restaurant. After all this hard work and proven success, how can he not have the luxury to work for himself? How incredible, I thought. Truly the devotion and humility of a monk.
The physical setting of Matsukawa is overwhelmingly powerful in its simplicity. What struck me first was the darker color of the walls, in contrast to a lighter tones that usually gives a clean and modern look to restaurants. It reminds me of the pictures I saw of a small teahouse called Taian, where the walls are even darker. The color of the walls seemed so perfect in its humility, like the wall at Ryoanji. Even the name (松川) Matsu (pine tree) and Kawa (river) signals harmony with and within nature.
The tokonoma alcove had an ikebana flower arrangement and a round metallic piece of Buddhist art, fitting as Matsukawa really is a temple. I have seen pictures of other ikebana and objects in the alcove and I find Matsukawa’s taste unparalleled. The Buddhist artwork, like enso, has an attractive shine that brings you deep into its mystery.
On the right of the hinoki counter, a small white teapot called suiteki (a water dispenser for Japanese shodo calligraphy) was placed over a dark knot in the wood. It was the first time I saw such a dark spot on a counter. I understand that chef Matsukawa had not initially noticed, but as they polished it over time, it appeared. How perfect that fate would make Matsukawa so wabi sabi, even by accident.
The first dish was presented in a small glass bowl, the first soup was cloudy and the sea cucumber ovary seemed to float over a piece of ice, after which came the taste of Spring through seasonal ingredients, culminating in the large bamboo shoot, before one final look at the Winter we have conquered. Using ingredients from a season that just ended is known as nagori, as opposed to shun (currently in season) and hashiri (soon to be in season). Then came the awabi and wakame shabu shabu, the rice dish and the yokan.
It is paradoxical that it is all about the food, and it is also not about the food at all. Simplicity, good taste in its choices and presentation, I felt like Matsukawa makes things work that may not work elsewhere. The soba was served on a carved ice block, something I have seen in pictures at Tempura Matsu in Kyoto. When I first saw this picture, which always impresses people, I did not like what I thought was a gimmick. Yet, at Matsukawa in early Spring, I found it was an impression of having overcome Winter and being able to enjoy it. It was a reflection on the season that ended that left a happy feeling. There was a feeling of quiet abundance, with large quantities of hanasancho (花山椒) and a large charcoaled bamboo shoot shared among the guests.
It always brings me happiness to look at my picture with chef Matsukawa. It takes a long time to be an overnight success.
Reservations: Sadly, it is next to impossible to eat at Matsukawa. You need to be invited by a current and regular guest. Even if you have been to Matsukawa before, it will not be possible for you to reserve through the phone. You must reserve your next visit while you are at the restaurant. If you do not, getting back into the system is almost impossible if you have only been once. I believe that they have a cancellation list, but only for valued regular customers. Finally, they do not accept reservations for only 1 person. In other words, going to Matsukawa would be years in the making. If you do not live in Tokyo and do not have close friends who are regular customers and who have a reservation for you almost one year in advance, this will be mission impossible. Please consider going to another kaiseki restaurant that I have discussed.
Powerful in its simplicity, refined in its aesthetic, Ryoanji (龍安寺) is a rock garden and temple in Kyoto. I spent three hours there over two days, and I wish I could go back several times every season. I had just visited Ginkakuji and Kinkakuji, which were very crowded, and I was on my way to the bus when I stumbled upon Ryoanji. At the entrance, a single and beautiful cherry tree, hunched over in a humble manner, a prolepsis of what is to come.
As I walked in, I knew that this would change my life. Not only the garden, but the entire temple is absolute perfection, a wabi-sabi aesthetic of such taste. How could something so apparently simple be so perfect, so powerful, so complex? A sight of true beauty, with a single cherry tree in full blossom, a wall marked by time.
How perfect the color of this wall, a color that Matsukawa reminded me of later that week. The earthen wall abura-dobei is unique to Ryoanji, as it is made of clay into which rapeseed oil is mixed. The subtle asymmetry in the height of the wall inclined slightly downward to the southeast corner (the left corner at the back of the garden when viewed from the hojo). The color and texture of the wooden gallery, the simplicity of it all was overwhelming. I always thought that few sights truly needed to be experienced in person now that we have Youtube, and that food, in contrast, was something one could only experience in person. However, nothing would do justice to the experience of spending time at Ryoanji.
At this quiet garden, the drama of life unfolds on the gallery. Successive groups of school children are asked by their teachers to count how many rocks are in the garden. Inevitably, they count 14 whereas. There are 15 rocks but they cannot all be seen at the same time. It is said that in Buddhism, the number 15 denotes "completeness" or "enlightenment". Of course, I did also do this at first. But after the excitement of finding one area where one can partially see all 15, I understood how magical this garden is.
The excitement and curiosity about the number of rocks inevitably amuses all visitors, but it also dissipates quickly. There is also no lasting pleasure in finding the way to see all 15 rocks, it is only a false success. The playfulness, the cleverness, the curiosity is inevitable in life, but it also inevitably quickly disappears.
What is left is a garden of rocks. I started to be mesmerized by the visual effect of the gravel, blending into each other with an incredible texture which makes it easy to lose your focus. The patterns in the sand are straight lines (chokusen-mon) and a stream pattern. The power of empty space is difficult to explain. Then, I looked at the big rocks, their shape. There are various explanations, such as islands coming out of the water. The garden has also been called “tiger cubs crossing the river” I wondered how the garden is maintained, how often and by who. I thought it is meant to look like something, but like many abstract art, it really is abstract.
Inside the hojo, empty space and fusuma painted walls. I walked to the back of the temple, where a tsukubai water receptacle meant to purify oneself reads: “I learn only to be content” (Ware tada taru koto wo shiru). This sentence struck me, as it seemed unclear from the English translation whether it means “I learn to only and always be content”, or whether it means “the only thing I learn is to be contented”. To me, they are different. The former seems to emphasize that you can become completely contented, whereas the latter emphasizes that it is something you can learn, in fact the only true learning one can do. Furthermore, if this is the only thing that we learn, what about all of the other "knowledge" and "experience" that we learn, through life and at work? I found the ambiguity so fit for this garden. I wonder if the original clarifies the meaning or if it is equally ambiguous. How profound, only with four characters.
This inscription puzzled me and I had water in my eyes reflecting upon it. Some of the people I admire always push themselves to become better, and tell themselves never to be contented. It seems very Japanese for farmers or artisans to say that they can always do better. Oftentimes, on Trails to Tsukiji or similar programs, a master artisan recognized as the best will say that they hope one day to do a really good one, or that they have never made a perfect one, when everyone else thinks it is perfect. How to balance the quest of improvement with the learning of only being contented? I struggle to see the balance.
I walked back to the rock garden, where more people were counting the rocks with curiosity and amusement. This garden seems simple to understand, it is easy to describe. But what is there to understand? Is it not the mystery of life that the more you understand about its origins, where love comes from or what you are doing here, the less satisfied this understanding leaves you? Making discoveries about atoms takes away none of their mystery.
Perhaps, we are like rocks, at one with rocks, the material and the immaterial blending into one. There is no meaning, yet we find so much meaning.
After walking back and forth several times between the rock garden and the tsukubai, I finally left and stumbled upon my first Kyoto yodofu restaurant on-site, another wonderful experience in its simplicity.
This garden always changes through the seasons, in the snow, in the rain, and it also has not changed in hundreds of years, eternally immobile. I later discovered that there are two cherry trees next to each other at Ryoanji, but they must bloom at slightly different times as there was only one when I was there. I wanted to take a good picture, because we want things to last, but no picture can do justice to this experience. How surprising that the most material and static garden of all is the one that is so fleeting. Material things do not last forever. Does it mean that they do not matter, or that we should cherish them?
I will forever remember and be grateful for seeing Ryoanji. How overwhelmingly powerful was this expression of ultimate simplicity, at the intersection of what we see and what we do not see with our eyes.
Kwonsooksoo is the restaurant that most appealed to me from the Michelin guide in Seoul. Guests eat from a “dok-sang”, a small “single table” on top of the conventional table or counter, a tradition from the Korean high-class dining culture. A small card on your table reads: “Kwonsooksoo presents modern Korean cuisine with valuable ingredients from all around the country and house-made Jang (Korean paste), Kimchi, Jeot-gal and Jang-a-chi (Korean Pickle)”.
I want to eat at restaurants that have integrity, offer quality food presented in an understated manner, and are not relying on gimmicks such as dry ice. This two-star restaurant fit my criteria. Michelin says: “The name of the restaurant is derived from an archaic Korean word 'sooksoo' which means "professional cook." Chef Kwon Woo Joong interprets traditional Korean cuisine with a decidedly modern flair, using both rare and readily-available seasonal ingredients to create unconventional flavors.”
Since I knew very little about Korean food, every new ingredient felt like a challenge, something unknown, and you cannot avoid feeling out of your depth, faced with a new world of flavors and ingredients. Many of the restaurants featured on Chef’s Table aim to represent the ingredients of their country and give a sense of discovery for the diners, among others D.O.M. (Brazil) and Central (Lima).
I am generally suspicious of blindly seeking the discovery of new flavours and ingredients. The range of fruits, vegetables and animals in this world is endless. In fact, many remain undiscovered by mankind. Seeking novelty for its own sake is misguided. Jiro said something that I did not understand at first, since it seems so simple: Innovation is good, but only if it improves the taste.
At Kwonsooksoo, I had the chance to encounter a new sensibility, a different palate and sense of culinary pleasure. The 4 Korean liquors that came with the meal were much stronger than nihonshu, tasting clearly of alcohol and having a stronger aroma, with one exception.
In the end, I felt that the experience of discovering a new palate – the modern Korean palate – was interesting, but did not compare to the shock I experienced having my first kaiseki meal. Perhaps that is too high a standard. The presentation was understated and the dishes were delicious, interesting and of high quality. I hope that young Koreans will discover that their food culture can be more wide-ranging than Korean BBQ and the otherwise strong flavors that are typical of Korean food. The dishes were subtle and sophisticated, with reminders of the ruggedness of Korea.
There are many quality things to do in Seoul and I know that there must be a lot that is hidden. I enjoyed walking in Gyeongbokgung Palace. In particular, Leeum Samsung Museum was of the highest quality, with one half devoted to traditional Korean arts (Celadon, Buncheong wares and white porcelain, painting, metal) and one half for international and Korean modern art. The Olafur Eliasson installation “Gravity Stairs” about our solar system was great: the ceiling is made of mirrors and the illusion is perfectly done. The planets and the sun appear differently when moving around. What was most striking for me was the illusion of the mirrors, which raises the question of whether what we see in life and the universe is actually reality, or an illusion, or both. If what we see is an illusion, is there a reality that we do not see? Do we enjoy seeing the illusion and do we want to avoid thinking about the fact that it is simply a mirror? The sun seems perfectly spherical. The planets, on the other hand, never fully reveal themselves, as part of their light is always hidden no matter where you stand. Famous for his “Weather Project”, Olafur Eliasson’s installation about our solar system was speaks highly of this quality museum.
Looking back months after my visit, there is much that I did not know about Korean food, such as siwonhan-mat (시원한 맛), which refers to a feeling of deliciousness felt by the body that emanates from fermented foods and broth-based soups. I believe it also has something to do with curing hangovers. I hope to go back, experience siwonhan-mat and discover what is hidden within and outside Seoul, behind the superficial.
Kwon Sook Soo: 2F, 27 Eonju-ro 170-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Leeum Samsung Museum of Art: 60-16, Itaewon-ro, 55-gil, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, South Korea
*Although I do not like to post pictures, because there is a lack of posts about this restaurant, I thought that pictures would add value in this case.
The first time I discovered authentic Chinese food was when a local Sichuan friend took me for my first mapo tofu. I fell in love with that dish and later had more Sichuan dishes, including frog, which is juicier than chicken but – Westerners beware – also has a lot of bones. I was hoping that one day I would discover another Chinese dish that I could fall in love with.
One day, a local in Hong Kong brought me to a very small restaurant in Central, near Lan Kwai Fong, called Yau Yuen Siu Tsui. The person was native from Xi’an and wanted me to experience Shaanxi cuisine, Xi’an being the capital of Shaanxi province in China. You may know it for the Terra-cotta warriors. (I note that Shaanxi is West of Shanxi, and that they are different provinces).
We were sat on a communal table, crammed in a corner next to a family with a baby and a couple. There are 26 seats crammed into a very small space and the restaurant could not be less pretentious. It had only one review on OpenRice. It felt very small, no-name, yet the menu was well translated and had nice pictures. I had a good feeling so we ordered as many dishes a possible, but I did not know that this is the second location of a restaurant with a Bib Gourmand in the Michelin guide.
The taste of Xi’an biang biang noodles and those spices gave me the same feeling as when I had mapo tofu for the first time. I thought: “What an incredible flavor, and the texture too!” The spices (油泼辣子 / yóu pō là zi) are quite addictive and different from what I had previously experienced. The other dishes you should try are the glutinous rice wine dumpling dessert, the pork pita bread, the buckwheat noodles (different than Japanese soba), and for appetizers perhaps the gluten, the cucumbers or the shaanxi thick rice noodles. Ice Peak is the usual orange soda drink in Xi'an (very sweet for my taste), but you should still order it as it sets the tone for an unpretentious cuisine.
It’s not that mapo tofu or biang biang noodles are the best dishes ever or deserve awards. Xi’an cuisine is seemingly simple and unpretentious. Locals would eat these dishes on the street. All I can say is that from my limited experience, Xi’an food is really enjoyable. I had dim sum at the usual suspects in Hong Kong, such as Lin Hueng Lau, but I was very disappointed. Sichuan and Shanghainese cuisine are good, but I became quite addicted to Xi’an cuisine after this meal. I think that you would like it too. The character for biang (which may refer to the noise the noodles make when hit on the table as they are stretched) is one of the most complex in Chinese, fitting for something simple yet special.
There is much for me to learn about Chinese food. I wish to have the opportunity to enjoy such a quality and authentic experience for each of the cuisines below (from Chinese food and foodways in Southeast Asia and beyond, NUS Press, 2011 at 2)
English writers usually classify Chinese regional cuisines into “northern” (Beijing, Shandong, Henan, Hebei, Shanxi and Shaanxi), “eastern” (Jiangsu, Anhui, Jiangxi, Zhejiang and Fujian), “western” (Sichuan, Yunnan, Hunan, Hubei and Guizhou) and “southern” (Guangdong and Guangxi).
Another way to classify Chinese cuisines is the following. Chinese cookbook writers often classify Chinese regional food into 8 main types (ba da caixi), namely, Lucai (Shandong cuisine), Sucai (Suzhou cuisine), Chuancai (Sichuan cuisine), Yuecai (Guangdong cuisine), Zhecai (Zhejiang cuisine), Mincai (Fujian cuisine), Xiangcai (Hunan cuisine) and Huicai/Wancai (Anhui cuisine).
In addition, there are 8 well-known cuisines, namely Jingcai (Beijing cuisine), Hucai (Shanghai cuisine), Qincai (Shaanxi cuisine), Ecai (Hubei cuisine), Yucai (Henan cuisine), Jincai (Tianjing cuisine), Dongbeicai (Northeast cuisine) and Diancai (Yunnan cuisine). Of these Beijing, Shanghai, and increasingly Yunnan cuisines are known to most Chinese.
Xi’an means “western peace” and I have the feeling that it may become for Westerners one of the most beloved and popular regional Chinese cuisine.
Kowloon: G/F, 36 Man Yuen Street, Jordan, Hong Kong +852 5300 2683 (cash only)
Central: Shop B, G/F, 14-15 Wo On Lane, Central, Hong Kong +852 5296 6630 (cash only)
I had never tried fugu and for my first time, I decided on Tomoe, a restaurant in Kyoto whose name means “filled with taste”. Michelin says that the owner-chef wants to capture as much of the taste of its wild tora fugu as possible, which is aged for three days. Tomoe ages it one day longer than Yamadaya as they prefer larger fish. I asked the chef and one of his 4.5kg fish serves 8 people. Since blowfish is often described as tasteless, I thought that eating at a restaurant famous for a stronger flavor would be a great place to start my education.
About a handful of people die every year from fugu, most of them by attempting to make it at home. Although there is no antidote, doctors will put patients on life support until the toxin disappears from their body. In contrast, between 4,000 and 5,000 people die in car accidents every year in Japan. Texting causes 6,000 deaths in the United States. It seems to me more likely to die in the taxi on the way there than while eating it. I wasn’t worried at all.
Because I had big fugu dreams, I was disappointed by the setting of this one star restaurant, to the point where I was not sure if I had walked into the right restaurant. The restaurant looked simple, a little bit old and the disposable chopsticks (wari-bashi) were the cheapest I have seen in a Michelin restaurant.
This put me on the path of understanding this restaurant. I thought that the chopsticks were so cheap, it had to be a clue as to how they see the experience they want to provide. Then I had fugu sashimi and things started to grow on me. The more you chew, the more the flavor will come out, the daughter said. They serve their sashimi with salt, in contrast to other restaurants. Tomoe is a family affair: a husband, a wife and a daughter. Michelin should have written this in their guide. It is fugu for your family, by another family, comfortable and familiar, to celebrate something with great food or have fun with friends. I had shirako served in a cheap aluminium paper and hire-sake, which tasted stronger than anticipated. All fins of the blowfish, except the tail, can be used for hiresake. I enjoyed my first fugu at Tomoe. As I would later understand, the secret of fugu is not discovered by seeking a stronger taste.
The color of the sashimi is fascinating and its taste is mysterious. The fish magically changes from a slightly bouncy texture, soft yet chewy sashimi, to very soft in a hot pot and juicy when fried. I liked the culture of fugu, the dedication of mastering the art of serving a single fish, the fact that it is best eaten only three months a year. It represents Japanese culture in several ways. It does make yourself realize that it is nice to survive for another day. People eat endangered species such as tuna without even thinking about it. In this sense, Fugu inspires gratitude more than any other food.
One week later, I had fugu again in Tokyo at Yamadaya. This time, fugu was not only enjoyable, it lived up to the legend. The entire experience was perfect. The sashimi was delicious, the deep-fried dish was juicy and tender, the hot pot showed the unique qualities of this fish, and the rice porridge was simply the best porridge I ever ate. Yamadaya satisfied not only my quest to understand fugu, but also put the bar high for any meal. I could not believe how good the porridge was, every bite was better than the last. Even the fried dish seemed to be cut in a way that made it easier to eat. The way the fish changes from raw to fried to boiled is fascinating. I cannot imagine that someone would not fall in love with fugu at this three-star restaurant.
Fugu makes winter seem too short. I wish there was a dish in my country that could celebrate winter so well and make you wish it lasted longer. Like tai, there is a lot to discover about fugu. Fugu and tai left a very similar impression on me. Some ingredients are magical and it is wise that the Japanese have chosen to celebrate them.
Finally, let me debunk the myth that the magic of fugu would be in the feeling from some poison that the chef would leave in the fish. This is not absolutely not true - the chefs at highly-ranked restaurants do not leave any poison and it would be illegal to do so. This is not at all where the magic of fugu lies.
Tomoe: Kitaoji-dori Senbon Higashi iru Kitagawa, Kita-ku, Kyoto (Dinner only)
Yamadaya: B1F, Fleg Nishi Azabu Vierge, 4-11-14 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo (Dinner only, closed Sunday)
Sukiyabashi Jiro, the misunderstood.
After watching the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, reading the book Jiro Gastronomy and doing all the research I could do about sushi (or so I thought), I went to Jiro in the summer of 2016 for lunch. I could not have been more ready. I wore a jacket, I had the money to pay in cash, I was there right on time, I visited the Tsukiji tuna auction early that morning and barely ate all day so that I would be hungry enough to eat sushi served at a very fast pace. I even had a box of Ladurée macarons for him as a gift.
And then, 12 minutes later, my 20 pieces of sushi were gone. I was the only guest at that particular moment, which further increased the speed. I did not think it would be this fast. Even though the sushi was impeccable, I felt disappointed. To this day, I can only remember a few of the pieces. The mantis shrimp, the chutoro, the kohada (so flavorful), the uni (so sweet), the tamago, and the melon (so juicy). Everything else is a blur.
I felt like my money had disappeared too fast. Not only was Jiro-san absent, I could not take a picture with Jiro’s son as he was now making sushi for other guests. I did not admit it to those who asked about my experience, but I felt disappointed. I thought eating the sushi would make me cry.
6 months later, I had the uncontrollable urge to go back. In the winter of 2017, I was back at Jiro, this time for dinner. By then, I had more Tokyo sushi experience behind my belt. Also, I had been to Jiro now. I knew what it was about. I did not have to go back if I did not want to. I could have chosen other restaurants, which is what most people do. Most food bloggers never go back to Jiro. They say that even though the sushi is great, the whole experience is not fun, turned off by the speed.
Sukiyabashi Jiro offers something truly unique. They claim that they replicate the old way of eating sushi, which was sold on the street and eaten quickly, on the go. Nevertheless, I believe that the speed has more to do with the true nature of what Jiro offers: a sushi orgasm. A constant, non-stop, short experience unlike anything else. This time, I had to accept that it would disappear instantly, that you can only be in the moment, and that once it is over, all you will remember… is that you remember it was incredible. And that you will want more.
I find it puzzling that the most famous sushi shop on earth is also the most misunderstood, both by tourists, locals and food bloggers alike. Tourists go there in the hope of having the world's best sushi, but of course, this is a matter of taste with no right answer. Therefore, they are mistaken about that. Furthermore, it is not a good idea for a first time tourist to go there, because they will inevitably leave disappointed, hoping "it would have lasted longer". Jiro seems more fit for a small group of regular aficionados, yet the locals and food bloggers are suspicious of the Michelin publicity, documentary and tourists, thinking that it probably overrated. In any case, I cannot emphasize enough that the best sushi is a question of taste. All of the high-end sushi shops have the best fish and integrity, what differentiates them is the vision that they offer, not quality in an absolute sense.
My second time at Jiro was everything I wanted it to be the first time. I am so glad I went back. I had the chance to be there for dinner and Jiro Ono was present. Perhaps it is because I looked for too long at his book Jiro Gastronomy, but I find Jiro’s sushi to be the most beautiful of all. Everything about his sushi, their size, the shape of the fish, their shine, the way they are cut, the look of their rice, is for me the gold standard against which to assess others in terms of aesthetics. Say what you want about the taste, I do not think any other sushi is more visually perfect.
I wish it was an introduction-only restaurant. It is meant for those who want a truly unique experience: sushi at the fastest pace. In fact, at my second visit, at times I was almost hoping it would be faster. I think that for some people who perhaps are a little more intense, this way of eating sushi is the only way. I had a sushi lunch in the same week and it felt so slow, so anti-climatic, it felt so strange to eat sushi in such a slow pace. The fast pace is not for everyone, but if it is for you, there is no other way to eat sushi.
In my opinion, first-time tourists would have a better time at one of the restaurants in the Sushi Sho family (the original, Sushi Sho Masa, Sushi Sho Saito or Takumi Shingo), so that you can enjoy a longer experience and have a good point of reference, and only then go to Jiro. I am nevertheless glad to see that Sukiyabashi Jiro is currently ranked 4th best sushi in Tokyo on Tabelog by the locals. Not only my favorite sushi, the only way to eat it.
I also wish to rectify a misconception that Jiro serves his sushi in a rapid pace to be able to sit more customers and make more money. This is absolutely not true. When I first went to lunch, I was by myself at the counter for all of my meal. I believe the restaurant's alumni and the man himself when they say that Jiro is not trying to make money. Asked about what he learned from training at Jiro, chef Masuda said:
"It is a professionalism, whether on work or a way of life. Honestly, I think that anyone can cook sushi if trained as long as a year or so. However, Jiro always thinks about how to make customers eat his sushi better and how his sushi can become more delicious. Even now when he turned 92 (as of November 2017), I think his attitude is really amazing. It leads to the current reputation of Sukiyabashi Jiro. There are various kinds of chefs in the world, and I think some people are doing for money, but Jiro has no intention of making money. He just likes to work. He just wants to see the customers’ happy face. In short he is an old-fashioned “artisan”. I really wish to become an artisan like Jiro."
I also wish to rectify another misconception, which is that Jiro's hospitality is poor. In my experience, this is not the case at all. Although some seem to think that his serious and stern look, or the lack of greetings and the somewhat rushed pace is a sign that he is either trying to serve more customers or that he is not a hospitable person, I do not believe so. He has an endearing laugh and after your meal is over, he is friendly. He serves his closest friends with the same stern look that he serves you, as you can see him serve the chef of Mikawa in this video. Although it is somewhat still of a mystery to me why he has a serious look on his face when serving food, I will continue to reflect on it and I am certain that I will find the answer.
I think that Jiro-san knows that those who were meant to go in the first place will come back. The whole experience is initially a shock, but months later, I understood, and I was ready to go again. Perhaps, like the experience I claim it replicates, the first time is not meant to be the best.
Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten: B1F, Tsukamoto Sozan Bldg, 4-2-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo (Exit C6 from Ginza Station)
Reservations: There is no need to stay at a 5-star hotel to get good concierge services. Perhaps the cheapest way to go is with a 3-star hotel that has been successful in making reservations there, such as the Shiba Park Hotel. There is a significant amount of chance and the more days in Tokyo you have, the luckier you may be. I would say that actually Jiro is not a particularly difficult reservation to make, compared to restaurants such as Sugita (never mind the introduction-only restaurants). It is welcoming of foreigners in my experience, compared to other restaurants that do not accept reservations from hotel concierges (where guests must speak Japanese themselves and reserve themselves). Finally, it is likely that you will be given a lunch booking on your first visit, and it is likely that Jiro Ono will not be present at lunch.
Café de l’Ambre is offering something that I had never imagined: aged coffee. Why did I take for granted the conventional thinking to the effect that freshness is important? There are aged teas (pu-erh, aged oolongs), aged wines, aged cheese. Why did I not think that green coffee beans could also be aged?
Café de l’Ambre is not the world’s best drip coffee. It is not the juiciest, the most complex, nor does it have the deepest or purest flavor. However, it is very good, significantly different and worth a special trip. I had 5 different coffees over 2 days and they vary widely between them. Drift magazine reports that “every cup is poured through a Nel drip – a flannel, sock-like filter that slows down the brewing process. The grinds for a Nel drip brew are coarser, and the temperature is cooler. The resulting coffee exhibits a remarkable velvety texture and is believed to showcase a wider range of flavors than pour-over-style coffees. Refining, perfecting, and maintaining these subtle details in coffee has been Ichiro’s primary pursuit for the last six decades”. The owner is believed, says Drift, to hate tea ceremony as it emphasizes form over flavor.
It is successful in making you confront your unjustified reliance on accepted wisdom, and inspire you to think for yourself, experiment for yourself, and offer a product or service to the world that represents who you are, that is an extension of you.
No matter how much you know about coffee, there is more to learn. But more important than learning new things is the willingness to put into question the received wisdom. You must always think for yourself, when you know nothing and when you know everything.
Why do we assume fresher beans are tastier?
Address: 8-10-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo (12-10pm)
Although I appreciate austere atmospheres and minimalist cuisine, sometimes it is good to have a truly opulent meal. Sushi Sho Masa provided what I would call a sushi feast.
This was one of the best meal I had in Tokyo and the sushi restaurant I would most recommend for a first time in Tokyo. The chef has a perfect balance between a quiet pursuit of perfection and an ultra approachable and helpful attitude. With only a small counter (half the size of the original Sushi Sho), the service could not be better or more attentive. I would say this was the best service I have had at a sushi-ya. The quality of the fish was excellent. They were happy to tell me how they marinated each fish, for how long, and show me a picture of the fish in a book. For each of the 55+ dishes, they alternate between sushi and sashimi. They are extremely dedicated, transparent and friendly. I am grateful that they are not in the Michelin guide. You may also look for the original Sushi Sho and Sushi Sho Saito.
Sushi Sho Masa inspired me to learn more about all the different fish and the ways to prepare them. I have reproduced here a list of different fish, according to their season, from the wonderful book Sushi (2012, ISBN 4756241344).
Herring (nishin), icefish (shira-uo), spotted halibut (hoshigarei), Japanese whiting (shirokisu), golden cuttlefish (sumi-ika), spear squid (yari-ika), bonito (katsuo), red sea bream (madai), mantis shrimp (shako), sea urchin (uni), common Orient clam (hamaguri), Chinese mactra clam (aoyagi), clam muscle (kobashira), scallop (hotategai), Japanese cockle (torigai), seam bream fry (kasugo).
Gizzard shad fry (shinko), striped jack (shima-aji), yellowtail amberjack (hiramasa), flying fish (tobi-uo), sardine (ma-iwashi), marbled sole (makogarei), abalone (awabi), octopus (tako), flathead (magochi), bigfin reef squid (aori-ika), Japanese jack mackerel (ma-aji), sea bass (suzuki), fat greenling (ainame), conger (anago), chicken grunt (isaki).
Mackerel (saba), young cuttlefish (shin ika), thread-sail filefish (kawahagi), Pacific saury (sanma), greater amberjack (kanpachi), salmon roe (ikura), geoduck (mirugai), pink shrimp (ama-ebi).
Japanese amberjack (buri), Pacific cod (madara), saw-edged perch (ara), striped marlin (makajiki), Japanese halfbeak (sayori), gnomefish (kuromutsu), red gurnard (hobo), Pacific Bluefin tuna (maguro), olive flounder (hirame), gizzard shad (kohada), Ezo abalone (ezo-awabi), blackfin sea bass (hirasuzuki), Japanese tiger prawn (kuruma-ebi), pen shell (tairagai), blood cockle (akagai).
Each fish is described in detail in the book, which makes it a fascinating read. For example, this is what the book says about uni:
“Uni from the Sea of Japan are best in summer, while those harvested of the east coast of Hokkaido peak from late autumn to the end of spring. Identifying the tastiest specimens is especially tricky with sea urchin. Freshness, form, color and appearance offer no clue; flavor is all. The short-spined sea urchin is yellowish-brown, fine-grained, and comes apart easily, but is rich and sweet with a slight salty tang. The northern sea urchin meanwhile is yellowish-brown and coarser, firmer fleshed than the red sea urchin, and more attractive, but not as sweet. Uni, seaweed and soy sauce make an outstanding combo, further improved by a generous garnish of wasabi”.
Do you know the difference between sumi-ika (golden cuttlefish), yari-ika (spear squid), aori-ika (bigfin reef squid) and shin ika (young cuttlefish)?
What about different types of tuna? "We have four species of tuna. There is yellow fin tuna, followed by the bigeye tuna, which is lean tuna, but which has a good, bright red colour and is found all around the world. Then there’s the south bluefin tuna, which lives in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean. And lastly, there is bluefin tuna, which is the best tuna. Bluefin tuna can grow up to 2 metres in length, or sometimes 3m."
Address: 4-1-15 Nishiazabu, Minato, Tokyo
Do note that it is located at least 10 minutes walking from the metro station.
Reservations can be made through pocket-concierge.jp
Japanese cuisine is about subtraction, whereas Western cuisine is about addition. I believe it is easy to add things. Anyone can hide more ingredients in the broth, add side vegetables or add small dots of different sauces on the plate. In contrast, it takes extraordinary courage, hard work, and a unique sensibility to let ingredients speak for themselves, focus on enhancing their natural flavors, and present them in a striking yet understated manner.
Chef Hideki Ishikawa is a favorite of Michelin. If their taste is oftentimes debatable, in this case they are spot on. Ishikawa is a true three-star meal, from beginning to end. (I believe that only non-Japanese speakers are given a menu. The first time I went, I did not get one, the second time I did.)
Furthermore, Ishikawa’s road to success may not have been as straightforward as one may think. You can learn more about his journey in Lutz Hachmeister's 2010 documentary called "Three Stars". Towards the very end of the movie, the chef says: “My life used to be worthless and boring. I was never happy. That’s why I’m glad cooking has become the basis of my existence, especially because it allows me to make other people happy. I’m always thinking about work, day and night.” His demeanor is not as serious as you may think and, at times, jokes with or about his staff. I could tell that he is a good chef to work for.
The 2010 documentary states that Hideki-san had never been to neither Europe or North America. I asked him and he told me that he has been once to New York and plans to go again in 2017. In a way, I feel extremely guilty to have been able to travel to his restaurant, while he has not had similar opportunities. It is common for Western chefs to feel as though they need to travel the world to find inspiration, but, I ask, did that really help them? Perhaps it is wise to spend all of your time and energy on what is around you.
He offers you his rice with an open heart (rice in Japanese is gohan, which also means "meal"). His rice is from Niigata, his hometown. I was overcome by the feeling that Ishikawa truly offers his heart, story, work and passion to each guest that he receives. Your kaiseki dreams will come true at Ishikawa.
My first kaiseki meal was at a two-star lovely restaurant. The food at Ishikawa exceeded any and all expectations. The dashi was beyond anything I had imagined. The ultimate umami flavor, so strong, long-lasting, deep and sophisticated. The sashimi was pristine, the uni was complex (different from the softer and sweeter uni at Jiro), the vegetables were extremely flavorful. The ochazuke was perfect, and the tableware is truly exquisite. Even the décor, lighting and the other guests were chosen with care and had either been invited by regular guests, or were regulars. I was surprised at the quality of the guests, in fact, since their three Michelin stars would, I presume, attract foreigners. The tea was a mix of gyokuro and matcha blended together, something that can be typical of high-end sushi and kaiseki restaurants, although not always.
More importantly than what was the exact taste of the grilled and steamed dishes, is the long-lasting impression Ishikawa has had on me. After the meal, chef Ishikawa escorted me outside, asked me how I felt and said “Please come back”. For the first time in Tokyo and in my life, I had tears in my eyes as I turned the corner away from this restaurant. I felt extremely touched by him, his work, his food, his sensitivity, taste, generosity and warmth. As I walked down the entire street, chef Ishikawa bowed and waived to me, with a sincerity I could feel even without looking. I will be back.
Address: 5-37 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Reservation: Ishikawa can be booked through Tableall (and of course your hotel concierge).
Note: The other restaurants in the Ishikawa family are Ren and Kohaku.
The moment I tasted the syrupy “angel stain” Bear Pond espresso, my life forever changed. I started laughing, in total disbelief, in total shock. An espresso that tastes like pure chocolate. How can this be so silky, so syrupy? An espresso like no other. May I dare say, the best espresso ever.
Of course, the journey starts the day before. I took the train for what must have been at least one hour, inclusively of the time it took getting lost in Shimo-Kitazawa. I had read that the owner does not make espresso after 1pm, so I arrived around 12:30pm. The person in front of me orders the 10th espresso of the day, and a small sign saying “angel stain is sold out for today” is placed in front of me. I could not believe it. I came all the way from North America and you only make 10 espressos a day, for apparently absolutely no reason? But you make lattes, which are of course made of espresso. Are you serious? But I took the train for an hour and a flight for 18 hours… This must be some hipster café who roasts very dark and does not understand that coffee is all about the Tim Wendelboe, Nordic-style light roast. No wonder this shop has some bad reviews.
Determined of course to arrive the next day when the shop opens at 11:15 am, I opted in the meantime for a “poke” (cloth filter) and a “dirty” (similar to a latte). The poke was an Ethiopian (washed). I think it gets it right: it keeps the sublte and interesting flavors of Ethiopian coffees, but it also has a sweetness that most North-American roasters do not have, making the coffee very pleasant. I could tell that tomorrow would be special. Both coffees were phenomenal. There is no way I was going to miss the angel stain tomorrow.
The next day, I ordered my angel stain, and then another one. I will forever remember the feeling of disbelief I had. A taste I had never imagined. An espresso to end all espresso. An espresso so short it is only one sip, one "shot". An owner with his own rules, that have the effect of reducing his profit and making some customers angry. An owner who refused to take a picture with me outside the shop because he “did not wear the right t-shirt that day”. I was told the shop opens at 11:15am, my friend was told it opens at 11:00, another blog reports that it opens at 10:45 and that only 5 espressos maximum are served, while another claims it is 15. What was it about Bear Pond that I did not compute, that I did not understand?
Bear Pond is what Tokyo and Life are all about. Bear Pond is life. Life can be frustrating and, in the end, it is about those special moment that took your breath away.
Katsu Tanaka’s own words, from an interview in Drift magazine: “Bears don’t care about people. They don’t care about society’s rules. They are hungry, and then they eat. They laugh when they should be laughing. When they want to play, they play. They are very honest. They communicate with nature. Humans think too much. We calculate too much. In society, it’s rules, rules, rules. I believe everyone has a talent, and everyone was born for something. But the important thing is to find your talent. Most people just adjust to the rules of society and never find it.”
Everyone knows that coffee is a drug. Yet, only Bear Pond treats coffee like a drug. It is called "BPE", like other drugs with a three-letter designation. Bear Pond is the drug dealer. What are drug dealers like? Unreliable, frustrating, and they have their own set of irrational rules and their rules change without notice, for no reason. This is the experience that Bear Pond offers and this is why Bear Pond represents the best of Tokyo. A meta-experience, an experience that plays on all levels, that reflects upon itself. It is not that Streamer Espresso will never be able to make an espresso as good as BPE. It is that Bear Pond offers something unique in the world, by treating coffee like a drug. It is an experience.
In a sea of independent roasters and cafés who all do the same thing, Bear Pond stands alone, against all trends. In the most unlikely place, the most unlikely person who makes the world’s best espresso. Why conform, why try to please everybody, why make yourself accessible on the first encounter?
I will always remember Bear Pond, because it showed me that things can be different if you are willing to break away from conventional thinking, if you have the courage to be yourself, pursue something of value, something that is an extension of yourself, something truly unique.
One day, BPE may disappear from the streets. If and when it does, there may never be another shot like it.
Address: 2-36-12 Kitazawa Setagaya-ku Tokyo
New York has 30,000 restaurants, Tokyo has 160,000. If you happen to be in Tokyo last minute or without dining reservations, you can find a great, if not incredible meal, simply by getting lost. In fact, some of the Michelin or top Tabelog restaurants do not take reservations (Tsuta, Nakiryu, Obana, Hirokawa unagi in Kyoto, Manger tonkatsu in Osaka). That being said, dining at the most sought after restaurants requires advance planning, patience, resilience and luck. I have identified three categories of restaurant reservations.
1 - Most Michelin-star restaurants
As a foreigner who does not speak Japanese, it is extremely difficult to book high end restaurants by yourself. There are three options.
First, you may rely on a booking service like Pocket Concierge (reservation fee is hidden in the price) and Tableall (4,000 JPY reservation fee). These are great resources, especially for last minute reservations and for some high quality restaurants that you can book while staying at a very low cost hotel. It is also very convenient, and although their selection of restaurant is growing, sadly most restaurants are not available through those services. For example, Sushi Sho Masa, Ichita and Tagetsu are on Pocket Concierge; Kohaku, Ogata, Ishikawa and many others are on Tableall. I like when fees are transparent, and the information about the restaurants is more interesting on Tableall, but there are some interesting restaurants on PC. There is also Voyagin, but sometimes they advertise restaurants that they know they cannot book (for example Saito) and then they will book another restaurant instead, which is a practice I do not appreciate. Voyagin's reservation fee is often also more than 7,000 JPY per person, which is too high. You can get a hotel room with a concierge at Gracery Tamachi Hotel for 7,500 JPY on certain days for two people. Overall, Tableall is wonderful and if you are able to get your bookings through them, that is the best and easiest way.
Second, you can book a hotel that has concierge services, and that hotel will book your restaurant reservations for you. This is what I have done for almost all of my reservations and if you are in Japan as a tourist for a short period, I believe that this is the most flexible option.
Third, I have to admit that Visa Infinite Concierge has been able to book approximately 10 restaurants on my behalf, including Furuta. However, what they can do is more limited than hotel concierges, because some restaurants (for example Jiro or Sawada) only want to deal with hotels.
Four things to know about hotel concierges. First, they will not book a meal for a day other than on the days you stay there. Of course, if you cancel your hotel reservation, they will cancel your restaurant reservation. Second, concierges will often require your credit card information to make the hotel reservation and will charge you a cancellation fee should you cancel last minute. Third, do your research when picking your hotel. Of course, you can go for the ultra high-end hotels. However, if you are like me and you want to keep more money for the restaurants and less for the hotels, you can find one of the rare 3 or 4-star hotels with top concierge services equivalent to 5 star hotels. Finally, getting the most expensive hotel will not help you. I could not find any evidence that restaurants prefer a more expensive hotel. The only exception that I know of is Sawada, for which I was told reservations are only accepted from luxury hotels.
One of the most important thing is to find a concierge who will be dedicated to helping you, because making reservations for several restaurants will require time and resilience. It is not easy to know in advance, thus if you find one that you like, thank them properly and go back to their hotel next time. I would search for “concierge” and “restaurant reservation” on reviews websites to see which hotel actually have concierge services that are useful. If someone writes that their 3-star hotel got them a reservation at Jiro, this is a great start.
For most restaurants, reserving in this manner either 1 month or 2 months in advance will be enough. This is the case for getting a reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten, who takes reservations on the first day of the month prior. I got a reservation at Jiro for lunch on my first try with a 4-star hotel. I got my second reservation with a 3-star hotel. However, lucks plays a large role and some of my friends were not successful despite staying several nights at expensive hotels. Be patient and resilient.
My best advice is to find out very early what is the reservation policy for the restaurants you are interested in. For example: Yukimura, Sushi Sho, Jiro, Miyasaka, Sato Burian take reservations on the first day of the previous month. Kohaku, Torishiki, Uchitsu take reservations on the first day two months in advance. Hashiguchi accepts the reservation exactly one month before the reservation day and only for two people or more, Jimbocho Den and Makimura accepts them exactly two months ahead.
Find this information in advance through your credit card concierge. As for hotel concierges, ask them specifically to tell you when reservations are accepted first, instead of telling them to book a restaurant without knowing what the policy is. Some concierges are more helpful than others and will be more or less willing to help, which has nothing to do with the price of their hotel. Another example is that some concierges will prepare sheets with pictures of the entrance and a map for each reservation, others will not. This can be important as some restaurants are difficult to find, even for Japanese taxi drivers.
The former 3 Michelin star tempura restaurant 7 Chome Kyoboshi does not take reservations for one person more than one day in advance. Many restaurants do not have counters or do not accept reservations only for one person. Side note: the bill at some restaurants could be a bad surprise. For example, a meal at Kimoto costs 60,000 JPY. You should ask your concierge the price of the meal in advance if you are not sure what the price will be. (Even if the food is truly extraordinary, if you did not expect such a bill, it may ruin the whole experience)
Please be skeptical of both Tabelog and Michelin rankings. The Michelin stars in particular really do not make sense, but Tabelog is also not reliable. Some restaurants on Tabelog have very few reviews and are thus subject to be very easily influenced. The Tablelog awards do not make sense: Jiro is given a Bronze award and Sushi Arai is given a Gold one despite Jiro having a much higher rating. Many 3 star restaurants do not have outstanding reviews on Tabelog rankings, such as Yoshitake or Kanda. The best or most loved restaurants in Tokyo most often do not have any stars: Matsukawa, Kyoaji, Furuta, the list goes on and on. Chasing the stars would be misguided. Make up your own mind and decide for yourself.
You can learn about the phone reservation system through this interview with the sushi restaurant Sugita:
"As for the counter seats, basically at the beginning of a month, next month’s reservations are acceptable. However, since customers who have visited once might reserve for the next time when they come to the restaurant, thus some seats might be already filled at this stage. At the beginning of each month, telephone reservation service is available from 9 o’clock to 15 o’clock, but usually all the seats would be filled in the first hour."
2 - Restaurants that are booked way in advance
Some restaurants will be fully booked out 6+ months in advance (Kabuto, Amamoto, Mitani, Hatsunesushi, among others) or even 1 year in Kyoto (Mizai takes reservations one year in advance on the first of the month). Getting a reservation at Mizai, even one year in advance, has been impossible for me so far. Furthermore, some restaurants (Kabuto, Momonoki, Tokuwo) do not have any English-speaking staff and will only take reservations from guests who speak Japanese themselves.
Kyoto in particular seems to take reservations more than 3 months in advance. Plan early in Kyoto.
3 - Introduction only restaurants
Some restaurants like Mibu, Matsukawa, Kyoaji, Kawamura, Shinohara, Hoshino, Tomura, Iyuki, Morikawa, Kawaguchi, Ajiman, and many others, are “introduction-only” (ichigen-san okotowari), meaning that you will have to be invited by a current regular guest that has been going for years. (It is interesting to note that many of these chefs have trained at Kyoaji)
Yes, introduction-only restaurants are a big problem. No, there is no way around it. The most expensive hotels cannot do anything for you. I had a western outlook at first. Why are they introduction only? Isn’t that unfair? How is that good for business if they are passing out on people willing to pay a lot more to eat there?
Put yourself in the shoes of a chef. You apprenticed for at least 10 years to learn sushi or kaiseki. This is the only skill you have. You decide to open a restaurant, perhaps with your wife (Sawada, Nakashima, Eigetsu, Hatsunezushi, Ginya, Imamura, Takazawa, and many others). This restaurant is literally the only source of income you have and could have for all of your life. Your life depends on this restaurant. This is how serious things are for a chef.
You may become popular because 10 food bloggers write fantastic reviews about you and because the Olympics are coming to town. But 5 years later, perhaps bloggers will turn against you, or perhaps there will be a global recession and tourists will stop going to Tokyo. I believe this is why these chefs build their business around people who (1) completely understand and appreciate what they offer and (2) keep coming back irrespective of fads and the economy. Many restaurants on Tabelog have 30 reviews (for example Kurogi and Iyuki). These things can easily turn against you. Tomoe in Kyoto only has 3 reviews on Tabelog despite being in the Michelin guide since 2010.
Nevertheless, this will frustrate you. The real question is: why do you need to go there? First of all, why follow the taste of the masses. For example, it seems like Saito is praised for incredible consistency and overall perfect execution and balance. Does this mean that it is the most memorable or the best experience? If something pleases everyone, isn’t that suspicious? Second, even if a particular restaurant actually is the best, you may not have the experience necessary to appreciate it. Why not wait two, three or four years to get more experience? Third, trying to “collect” famous restaurants will only lead you to be unhappy. There will always be more exclusive, more expensive, newer, better restaurants, a better menu, a better season to go to Matsukawa. Happiness comes from within.
Should you nevertheless wish to eat there, what choice do you have but to ask hundreds of random people and use everyone in your network until you find someone who will introduce you to someone who will introduce you? No shortcuts in the food, no shortcuts in getting there. There is no other way. Just when you think you have found out about the best restaurants, you will realize that there are even hidden restaurants, with unlisted phone numbers and no online reviews.
Going to these introduction-only restaurants would be years in the making. If it is your first time in Tokyo, do not waste your time, you will only get frustrated by trying the impossible. Instead, go to the following: Tagetsu or Ishikawa for kaiseki, Jiro or Sushi Sho family for sushi. Otherwise, you will waste your efforts and alienate your concierge and those trying to help you, and you will only be disappointed.
Sadly, I note that even if you have been to a introduction-only restaurant such as Matsukawa, you actually may not be able to go again unless you book your next visit while you are at the restaurant.
It is never possible to get exactly what you want. Things will happen and plans will fall apart. Maybe you will feel that it is unfair, but it will be fine no matter what. Sometimes, things are not meant to be.
Other things to reserve in advance
There are some things other than restaurants that can be difficult to book. I note in particular the Moss Temple in Kyoto (must be reserved by postcards sent within Japan), Tai-an tea house, the Katsura Imperial villa in Kyoto, lodging whilst climbing Mount Fuji, and a temple stay at Daishin-in, among others. I did not know about these the first time I went to Kyoto, but the more research I did, the more I discovered about these incredible gardens and temples. Ask your concierge to send the postcards for you.
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
Den, Kichisen, Kurogi, Dozono, Manger, Tagetsu, Goryukubo, Saiho-ji, Ogata, Ren, Kohaku, Ajiro, Saito, Tai-an, Kasumicho Suetomi, Suetomo, Sasada, Ichita.