"Sento" refers to public bath, while “onsen” refers to the use of natural water. For example, onsen will usually be within a hotel in a destination with naturally heated water, such as Hakone or Arima onsen.
What is the best sento in Tokyo? In my opinion, the best one is the one near your house. People in Tokyo spend enough time commuting to work, so I would recommend a visit at any local sento. However, if you are not sure where to go, I can recommend the following:
“Minami Aoyama Shimizu-yu” near Omotesando station is well-located and they have slightly larger than usual baths. They are closed on Friday. This is their website. It is a slightly nicer version of the typical sento.
If you would like to experience special and natural water in Tokyo, you can try “Take no yu” near Azabu-Juban station. Their water is naturally black and leaves a soft feeling! They are closed on Monday and Friday. This is their website.
If you have tattoos, most public baths will not allow you inside because in Japan, tattoos are linked to organized crime. I would suggest “Bunka Yokusen” one station away from Shibuya (Ikejiri-Ohashi station). They are open every day until 1 am, as well as Sunday morning for "asa furo" (morning bath). This is their website.
Although it may take some getting used to, I recommend spending one hour at the sento. I would take my time to clean myself thoroughly using a bath towel and soap, perhaps brush my teeth, and then alternate between the hot and cold bath (it is not very cold and actually more relaxing than the hot bath in my opinion). Using the sauna requires an extra fee that can be between 300 and 500円. You can rent a towel and buy shampoo and bath soap.
The first time I went to a sento, I remember feeling annoyed that I had to wash myself before taking a bath on a small chair that was not comfortable. However, this feeling goes away quickly and taking your time to wash yourself while comfortably sitting is an enjoyable part of life in Japan after a long day at work.
Airbnb seems like a friendly, modern company. It is fun to browse through listings, look at pictures, read reviews. It gives you a feeling that you can have a home all around the world, at any time, at the click of button.
Of course, most Airbnb stays go well. However, what happens if something bad happens? Will the company move mountains to help you?
Before you book an Airbnb, you should look through the bad experiences that you might encounter. For example, here is a short list of the problems you may encounter.
Host cancel stays last minute or does not allow you inside; host demands extra cash; host falsifies damages; listing arbitrage scam; unsafe house; extreme bug infestations; hostile or threatening host; hidden cameras in bedroom; listing not as described; fake listings; blackmailing; racial or other discrimination. For detailed examples, take a look at this website.
If something goes wrong, Airbnb will do nothing and you will be prevented from suing them through their choice of law clause, forum selection clause and mandatory arbitration clause.
If a host makes a false claim that you damaged their room, what can you do if Airbnb sides with the host? You cannot do anything because you agreed that you cannot sue them.
There are countless examples on this website of people being robbed of thousands of dollars by Airbnb and not being able to sue them in court. The fact that you cannot sue Airbnb should tell you that they feel empowered to do whatever they want, and they do.
Particularly in Japan, there is absolutely no reason to use Airbnb, especially now that most listings have been deleted since the change in the Minpaku law, effective June 15, 2018. Japan has a large number of options for housing at every price range.
If you are staying short term, Japan has cheap business hotels and high-end capsule hotels. There are also many websites that offer stays at someone’s house or guest houses. Local alternatives to Airbnb are "Stay Japan", as well as Rakuten's "Vacation Stay" (currently only in Japanese) and Tomarina. JR East also has packages with special experiences. International or general alternatives to Airbnb can be found here.
If you are staying long term, you can easily get a short-term monthly apartment. For example, this is one of many such websites.
Avoid Airbnb, because if anything goes wrong, you will have no legal recourse. If you do any research about them, you will see what they have shown time and time over a total disregard for their users. Airbnb knows that they cannot be sued, which is why they are allowed to do anything they want, and it does not involve them compensating you for anything.
I expected that Kimura would be different, since it specializes in aged sushi. I did not expect it would be so delicious, uncontrollably so.
Already with the otsumami, I started laughing because I could not control myself. Neither could the man next to me, we looked at each other and our look just said it all. The woman next to him was smiling warmly, in a way that seemed to indicate she knew something I didn’t. I asked her if it was her first time, and she made a round shape with her hands in front of her face. She was Kimura-san’s sister, and she comes often. Everyone started laughing, the chef also showing the round shape of his head with his hands.
The chef’s story is genuinely inspiring, as told by Tableall:
“The idea for ageing fish came to him as he lamented discarding whole blocks of his beloved white fish that had gone bad while waiting for customers. Despite having carefully chosen these pricey pieces at the market, he had to toss them in the garbage. But he grew curious about their flavor. Digging into the center flesh, which still had beautiful color, one taste revealed a sweetness he had never experienced in white fish. It dawned on him that the flesh becomes deliciously sweet just before it spoils. The only problem was the smell. Experimentation began: a new fridge, variable temperature settings, and constant assessment of how the fish and innards evolve to find the ultimate in aged sushi, sometimes with not great results for Kimura’s own stomach. But with advice from the tempura master to push the boundaries and be left with no regrets, he persevered. The discoveries he made through tireless research are now the key to his success.”
Luxeat also has a great post on Kimura:
“Kimura-san believes one can never love a restaurant from the bottom of his/her heart unless it’s his/her own. For example, when he cleans the toilet he doesn’t mind using bare hands. He doesn’t think you can be this committed if the restaurant is not yours. He believes if he employed someone, he would have to do everything all over again himself. Also, working hours at his restaurant would be very long, maybe about 22 hours per day. It would be against the law, so he cannot employ anyone. (…) I asked how is it possible to do such work with only 3 hours of sleep and Kimura-san said that it is possible, but he thinks he would die young. He said he has no stress and loves working on his own. He is a happy man when he is holding his knife, but in order to do everything himself, he has to cut his sleeping hours. This is less stressful than employing someone. If he finds some other method that makes this aging process easier, maybe he could work for less hours.”
One of the most inspiring, special, pleasurable, unforgettable and delicious meal of my life, where every dish was better than the last one. Thank you, Koji Kimura-sama. This was the first time where I could feel how sushi comes from a chef’s heart.
Reservations: Some years ago, it would have been possible to get a reservation through a concierge, but now it is not possible. I believe that other than being invited by the chef or regular customers, the only way is to email Tableall and give them your availability, and if they get a cancellation from Kimura, they may offer it to you. Perhaps if you are available for 2 weeks you have a chance, but if you are only in Tokyo for a couple of days, it is extremely unlikely. I got my reservations by visiting Tableall every day and getting cancellations.
Spending time at this Zen temple in Kyoto changed my life, by allowing me to see and to feel that less is more. A futon. Simple bathrooms without heating. An old, rustic tokonoma with tulips, arranged in nageire style of naturalistic ikebana. A heated table with a jar of hot water, a small container of green tea, one cup, and a sweet. A small mirror. At first, you think that it is rustic and charming, and that the view on the garden is the luxury.
After living there for some time, after spending time in the cold, you see that this simple lifestyle is not charming: it is luxurious. Walking back to the temple at night through Myoshin-ji was beautiful and calming.
There is nothing, yet there is everything. Taking a warm bath feels like a luxury. The green tea and dried persimmon left a satisfying feeling. The quietness of the temple seemed otherworldly.
The breakfast, made by the temple and eaten with the other guests, is simple. I am not sure why it felt so luxurious to be waken up by the temple at 7:30 and told that the breakfast was ready. This breakfast was made with the guests in mind, the miso soup was delicious. Checking-in by simply saying your name and being shown to your room, as this family living here was waiting for you, no key, no passport, no deposit, no credit card. The ultimate simplicity and luxury.
The temple business is somewhat mysterious, with some criticism that they do not pay any taxes. Yet, Daishin-in was not about money at all. Even though I stayed 5 nights, they only asked me to pay for 4 nights. They do not speak English and they take reservations by phone, and then confirmed by postcards, which means that most guests are Japanese.
Most sub-temples are closed to the public and very few offer a shukubo (宿坊) temple stay experience. I felt extremely lucky to be welcomed there.
We all know that less is more. But we don’t see it, we don’t feel it, and we don’t believe it. Staying for five days at Daishin-in temple, I saw, I felt, and believed.
Reservations: I asked this website to make the reservation by phone and postcard for me. A night with breakfast costs around 5,000 yen. You must be within the temple at 9pm when the door closes. Lights out at 10pm. Please do not make any noise. I had access to wifi in my room. If you do not speak any Japanese, it may be uncomfortable for you and for the temple and you may want to stay instead at Shunko-in, where you can learn in English about meditation and the life of the temple.
My favorite lunch in Tokyo is a 1,200円 oyakodon (chicken and egg over rice) at Manwu. This price includes a miso soup and dessert, usually warabi mochi. They also serve 1,400円 gyudon (beef).
I want to discuss Manwu because I believe I am guilty of misrepresenting Japanese food on my blog. Yes, expensive Japanese restaurants are some of the best in the world and they embody Japanese culture. However, most Japanese people have never been. The average amount of money that a Japanese man has to spend per month (okozukai) is 400$, including his cellphone bill. Having Manwu’s oyakodon for lunch is itself a luxury. These expensive and exclusive restaurants are only a small part of Japanese culinary culture. You would be missing most of Japanese food by not venturing beyond the award-winning dining establishments. Do you know some famous home cooking food like oyakodon, nimono, buri daikon, takenoko gohan, and saba no misoni?
Oyakodon is a seemingly simple dish, but simple is often the most difficult. I brought Japanese friends to this restaurant and they all agreed that it was the best oyakodon they ever had. It is just delicious and leaves a good feeling in your body. Only in Tokyo can you enjoy a masterpiece oyakodon in an expensive office tower, with kimono-clad staff, made by a chef that trained for decades, for a fraction of the price it is worth. The amount of effort, for no financial gain other than to give please customers and hope that some of them will come back to eat oden for dinner, is inspiring.
I asked the chef if his secret was the high-quality dashi. He said it also requires constant attention not to overcook it. The way it is cooked is beautiful: the bottom is cooked, ensuring that the rice does not become soggy, but the top remains soft and raw. I asked him why he does not use chicken with skin (as some other restaurants do), he said that he prefers not to have the fatty aftertaste. He also said that skin would overpower the taste of the dashi.
I think it can be difficult to remain motivated, especially if you are not one of the most recognized restaurant. The chef told me about his 2-hour commute every day, being open 7 days a week, and the high cost of ingredients. Chef Toshihiro Yoshida puts extraordinary effort into his food and he speaks fluent English, Japanese, and even some French.
The luxury of eating sushi at Saito is obvious, but in my opinion, it is a Western idea of luxury. Japanese people are sensitive to the real luxury of life. They may think, for example, about enjoying time outside under the cherry trees. Having Manwu’s oyakodon and meeting the chef is without a doubt a true luxury I am grateful for, just like sleeping at Dashin-in.
Actually, Manwu is not an oyakodon restaurant. At night, they serve “oden”.
Chef Yoshida spent 20 years at the main branch of this restaurant in Osaka learning how to make oden, and he is most proud of his whale oden (in particular the tongue). You can read an interview with the chef from his time in Osaka (link).
If you are interested in oden, this restaurant would provide a great experience because the chef speaks fluent English. Incredible effort goes into each piece, from custom-made tofu to special dashi. This is the real Japan: hard work with little recognition, little financial gain, and the only joy being the happy customers. You should consider going to try a couple of pieces à la carte, including the konnyaku, whale tongue and another piece with one glass of sake, it should not cost too much. They also offer an omakase menu.
Reservations: Not necessary at lunch, they accept cash only at lunch (11am-1:15pm). For dinner, try calling yourself as the chef speaks English. The restaurant is on the third floor of Tokyo Garden Terrace Kioicho. Link to Tabelog.
For most of our history, we Japanese have not found beauty in jewelry. What is it that stimulated us and that still moves us to this day? It is the "passing of time".
Japanese people were touched when they saw beautiful moments that could not be kept. They attempted to share such a moment with their lover, which is why so many masterpieces of Japanese poetry mention the passing of time and the changing seasons.
Today, after a thousand years, we still appreciate the passing of time as the most luxurious thing to express the beauty of seasons. People have put their hearts to feeling and expressing the changing seasons. High-end restaurants in Japan serve seasonal special ingredients that can only be eaten in a particular season, or even in a short period of time within a season. Geisha women wear different kimono with different fibers and the patterns depend on seasons. Geisha and maiko dance in a traditional way to fully express seasonal scenes and emotions. For example, in winter, they show how much they miss her lover with the image of piling snow. Another example is that the traditional wooden house machiya has developed to get maximum comfort to live in Japanese climate which contains cold winter and hot summer with highly humid.
The spirit of the Japanese artists and creators is always to try to think about how they can express the seasons in a new way, instead of explaining with words. They want to express how beauty is the season in which we are together. For example, if someone falls in love, they might write about how beautiful is it in this spring in Kyoto. “The air is getting humid, there is more sunlight, cherry blossoms are just blooming in front of my atelier. And I really want to share this beauty with you.” I think this is an orthodox way to express love and sympathy for Japanese people.
What about the relationship between creators and guests? In most settings, they do not talk face-to-face. For example, in large restaurants, chefs and guests have no chance to see each other. When I arrange flowers in a restaurant, there is no chance for me to see the guests of the restaurant. How can those creators show their sympathy and hospitality to their guests? They add seasonal sense to their creations instead of telling their customers with words. Even when creator and guest can talk, the Japanese way is that creators should not explain by talking, as it would be bringing the mood down for creators to express their creativity in words.
Sen-no-Rikyū was a tea artist in medieval Japan. He is important in Japanese history as a man who established the foundation of the Japanese tea ceremony. He never belonged to any ikebana schools, but his philosophy has affected ikebana and all facets of Japanese culture. Let me tell you a bit about him with an anecdote.
"The story says that Hideyoshi (the most powerful general during that period), hearing of the beauty of blooming morning glories in the garden of Rikyū’s house, demands a visit. He arrives early in the morning, but no flowers are to be seen. Puzzled, he enters the tearoom and understands. Rikyū has arranged one flower for display, destroying the rest."
(Source: Handa Rumiko, "Sen no Rikyū and the Japanese Way of Tea: Ethics and Aesthetics of the Everyday" (2013)
There are many interpretations of this story. My understanding as an ikebana artist is the following.
About this story, the important thing is the background, not his creation – the arrangement of one morning glory. Everybody can arrange one morning flower. But not everyone would cut all the flowers in his garden just to welcome only one guest. This is why a picture of a painting of one morning flower cannot express this story. One flower can be beautiful, but there is an invisible message behind just one flower. Rikyū cut all flowers in his garden to emphasize just one flower. The flower was morning glory which lasts only a few hours. He arranged all of those for only one guest.
I say Japanese culture is a beautiful envelope with a shapeless letter. The message is love and sympathy and welcome. It goes beyond what you can see. Creators don't tell the message directly to their guests, they hide this message under their beautiful creations with seasonal sense. If the guest doesn't realize the message, the creation itself is still beautiful. For example, kaiseki food is beautiful, even if guests don't understand the history and don’t know any of its rules. But in each of the dishes, there is something to give guests small surprises to show the chef’s welcomeness.
Ikebana is one of those Japanese cultures. But there is an overwhelming difference between ikebana and others. All of Japanese cultures are an “expression of seasons”. Changing seasons is just a changing of day length and temperature from the Earth’s rotation. How do people feel those geographical changes? It is from flowers. Flowers bloom when we reach a specific day length and temperature, and out of blooms when it gets specific day length and temperature. It gives us a guidance that the season is moving, time is passing. Flower is the symbol of seasons which most strongly stimulate the hearts of Japanese people. That is why people arrange flowers at every important place, and why flower culture – ikebana – has been highly developed in this country.
If you have an interest in Japanese culture, I hope you will have the opportunity to try ikebana. You can try ikebana simply by choosing one flower and putting it inside a vase in the naturalistic style of nageire. Anyone can learn about ikebana and it may open a new understanding of the quaint way of thinking of the Japanese people.
This text was written by Ms Ryoko Nishimura, an ikebana flower artist in Kyoto. She has an atelier near Gion that you can visit. Her dream, one day, is to create a space, like a museum, where people can experience ikebana and its history. This is her website.
A once in a lifetime encounter with magic.
Mizai embodies the original spirit of kaiseki and exists in an alternate universe, in an another era. You are walking about 30 minutes from Gion through parks and temples to arrive at this restaurant, where the staff is waiting outside for you. Although dinner starts at 6pm, guests can arrive up to 30 minutes in advance.
I arrived 20 minutes in advance and I was sat immediately in the middle of the counter. Candles were lit along the black wood counter in this slightly dark restaurant. Outside, a luscious garden with water vapour constantly falling from above, somewhere. A magical place like no other.
I was given some warm amazake with cooked rice in it, which I had never had together and created anticipation, created the feeling that I did not know what to expect. Eventually, after some time, the chef appeared through the kitchen door and bowed before he entered.
The entire meal unfolds over three hours. The meal starts with a very small bowl of rice and a small dish from the sea and land, in the cha-kaiseki tradition. The rice was very wet, yet had an incredible satisfying, chewy and al dente texture.
The 15 guests are served at the same time, the plates handed to each person, one after the other. The tableware was the most exquisite I have ever seen. Not only high quality, but also tasteful, original, and also playful at times. For one dish, we were given a plate in the shape of an ema with a different painting on each of them, and the mukozuke (sashimi course) somehow mirrored for each guest the shape of the painting. The level of tasteful creativity and attention to detail was second to none.
Eating a Mizai is an event, something you are grateful for and that you anticipate for more than a year. Although Mizai is also slow and contemplative, there is a lot of excitement. The chef will explain for several minutes each dish, say where every ingredient is from. From your chair, you can see the chefs working, but you cannot see what they are preparing, exacerbating the feeling of anticipation. In my opinion, this anticipation and contemplative atmosphere is in the spirit of the tea ceremony.
The meal itself is absorbing all of your attention, you can get lost in the beautiful dishes and the taste of each ingredient. The dishes are original. For example, the rice dish was white and red rice, with a kind of salty water that was shared among the guests. The food is creative and flawless, but the experience goes beyond that.
After many, many dishes, the chef prepares matcha one by one. The staff gives each guest one by one their bowl, and bows. Two or three desserts follow, comprising a total of 49 fruits. One by one, guests go to a small counter that reminds me very much of the counter where you would buy a ticket to visit a Zen temple.
Then, one group of guests at a time, you are escorted out. I was the last guest to exit, and I believe they very rarely have foreigners, given how difficult it is to be invited. The chef shook my hand and we took a picture together inside his restaurant. He thanked me for the macarons I brought him, and he gave me incense and a type of candy called rakugan. I suspect it was only for me, because it was not in a bag branded with the restaurant's name.
When you exit, the staff escorts you down towards the entrance of the park, holding a lantern on a wood stick, to shed a soft light just in front of where you are walking. I can never forget the beautiful movement of the lantern at night.
From the smallest detail to the chef’s entire philosophy, Mizai embodies kaiseki in a way that could not be copied, never mind how Hitoshi Ishihara has been able to imagine and create this experience. After working for 31 years and becoming the general head chef of Kitcho Honten, he created in 2003 Mizai (未在), meaning "no limits" or "not there yet."
Not there yet – the destination itself.
Reservations: Although they say that they take reservations on the first of the month, one year in advance, this is one of those white lies typical of Japanese culture. In reality, Mizai is introduction-only. Even among those, it is one of the most impossible, taking into account that Kyoto is a closed-knit community where building trust takes generations. When I was at the restaurant, at the end of the meal, they offered their regulars reservations 1 year and 4 months in advance. It would take years and years for you to arrange a regular customer to bring you to their reservation. Pictures are not allowed, and no one asked.
You may consider going to Miyasaka in Tokyo, whose chef Nobuhisa Miyasaka has trained for 10 years at Mizai. They accept reservations one month in advance.
Chef Yasuo Suetomi is a true master, a genius technician of Japanese food.
Suetomi offered technically perfect meals, a masterpiece of dedication. Coupled with the perfect execution, only the absolute best and popular (delicious) ingredients were served. For example, my meal was in the winter and Suetomi not only served Taiza crab, but the best crab I ever ate. To the point, honestly, where I could not believe it. How was it that this crab was better than Matsukawa’s and all other crabs? I was blown away. The nodoguro was grilled to a perfection I could never forget. The desserts were handmade by the chef. Tableall explains:
“Because the quality of the ingredients determines everything, a major part of Suetomi’s work is nurturing relationships with suppliers, constantly trying new ingredients, tasting and assessing. He may try one hundred purveyors before he finds one that meets his high standards. One supplier is a friend of Suetomi’s. Rather fortuitously, he is one of a small number of fisherman at Taiza port in Kyoto, famed for rich and rare Taiza-gani crabs. This relationship guarantees delicious product for Suetomi to work with, and a full crab course is highly recommended by the chef.”
Most chefs say that they care about relationships, but this was the first time I could feel the power of relationships. A lesson I can never forget. I felt a connection with him, because I believe we may have a similar personality. I really enjoyed eating there and I commend the chef for welcoming foreigners despite the language barrier.
When I went to Kasumicho Suetomi, the chef had told Tableall: “As for his vision for the future, he says he tosses around with different ideas. Chef Suetomi has this unpredictable element which makes you think that anything is possible.” I cannot wait to hear about what is next for him. Sadly, today on March 1st, the restaurant closed permanently. The chef said he was not sure what he will do next.
If I had to guess, I think that chef Suetomi will find a more beautiful space with a garden like Matsukawa, Ogata and Mizai, and I think this will propel him to the pinnacle of kaiseki in Japan.
Reservations: Kasumicho Suetomi closed permanently on March 1, 2018. It opened in 2006 in a space formerly owned by chef Hiromitsu Nozaki of Waketokuyama, where he trained for ten years. Suetomi had just received the Gold award.
A new restaurant has opened in the same space by the previous sous-chef. The new restaurant is called Kasumicho Yamagami (霞町山上), reservations on Tableall.
Yoramu is a sake bar in Kyoto whose mission is to show how varied and different nihonshu can be. The owner, Yoram, is fluent both in English and Japanese. He has a strong passion for quality, original, complex sake and for sharing his knowledge.
For example, the owner will start a tasting with unfiltered, rich and complex nihonshu. Then, he might served one with high acidity and high sugar, to explain how the acidity cancels the sugar. He might serve one that is slightly sparkling, because it was bottled directly out of the press. Each of his nihonshu has something unique. He ages sake himself and will serve different sake at different temperatures.
I have been twice and people invariably ask the same questions, and he provides the same answers every night. Yet, he maintains his passion and enthusiasm for explaining and sharing his experience. People will ask: “Where is this sake from?” and he will reply “It doesn’t matter where it is from, what matters is who made it.”
I asked him what are the biggest misconceptions about sake. He said:
1) “Nihonshu made from more polished rice is better.” Would you want to drink a wine that hardly contains any grapes?
2) Trying to explain nihonshu the way you explain wine (i.e. focused on the grape) is very simplistic, bordering on idiotic. It’s not just the rice, not just the water, not just the yeast, not just the koji, not just the “moto” (the starter mash) and not just the fermentation process. It’s all of these things and much more.
I also asked him what his favorite sake breweries are. He shared with me the following list:
Akishika Shuzo, Kidoizumi Shuzo, Kirei Shuzo, Moriki Shuzo, Mukai Shuzo, Mutemuka, Mioya Shuzo, Sugii Shuzo, Uehara Shuzo.
One time when I was there, he explained for 20 minutes non-stop the entire process of sake making. Yoramu sake bar was a memorable experience and it is worth going more than once, as he has too many sake for you to try all at once, and behind every single bottle, there is a unique sake and a unique story. Yoramu is not expensive, I believe each sake would cost on average less than 400円 each. I had 14 different ones at my latest visit.
I asked him if there is a brewery that we can visit, and he said: “The making of nihonshu is very, very interesting when you see it happen, but once the brewing is finished there is absolutely nothing to see. However, during the season where they make it, most places making quality sake are using all of their resources for making the brew, and as they are very short on manpower, an unscheduled visit is not possible. The little time they can afford for scheduled visits is reserved for professionals. Therefore, the problem is where you can visit you don’t want to and where you want to visit you can’t.” Like everything worth seeking, there are no easy answers. I recommend the movie "The Birth of Sake" if you would like to learn more.
Reservations: You can walk in, but he speaks perfect English so calling ahead is recommended because the small bar may be full. Link to his website.
I had the opportunity to have a seat at the side counter of Saito, run by chef Shunji Hashiba. The chef has been working at Saito for less than three years. Like you, I was very curious to see how good it is, given the incredible hype: Saito is ranked the best restaurant in Asia by the review-aggregator OAD.
I was happy to be at the side counter instead of the main counter. This is because I agree that the design of the main counter is not consistent with Japanese taste. I am also skeptical of the over-concentration of the chef, which reinforces the stereotype that sushi happens when it is pressed, whereas 90% of the work is done behind the scenes: "There are actually almost ten staff in the back kitchen (from interview)."
Saito's recipe for success and hype is, in my opinion, the most traditional of all: keep prices reasonable, yet never compromise on quality. With several lunch and dinner seatings, the chefs are working very hard. I like that Takashi Saito said: "When I serve sushi to my customer, I don't want them to just think that it is good, because making good food is the minimum we can expect from a restaurant. For example, I want them to tell me things like: I had a hard day today, but eating your sushi gave me power to be motivated to keep working until the next reservation. Hearing that my sushi makes people feel good is much better than hearing that it is just tasty."
The best sushi restaurant is a question of taste, but in my opinion Saito is one of the most sophisticated. The otsumami (small dishes) were impressive and the way the flavors work together was extraordinary. Each otsumami had something remarkable or out of the ordinary, a warmer taste for the crab, a sweeter squid with eggs, a perfectly balanced grilled tachiuo. The sushi was equally remarkable. However, unless you have significant experience at top sushi restaurants, you would not be able to see what these small changes are. All expensive sushi restaurants have the best fish, this is not what Saito is about. It is not the perfect sushi restaurant (because of the significant problems regarding design, the Roppongi location, and the gimmicks of over-concentration), nor is it the best (because that is a question of taste), but it is excellent and the sushi is very sophisticated.
The host of Arry was able to translate questions for me. For example, the plate in the corner was a gift from a customer, and the rice is not a blend of several varieties, but it does change over time. I truly enjoyed the attitude and hospitality of Hashiba-san, despite the language barrier. I am looking forward to, hopefully, being able to see him evolve over time and follow him in his journey.
Reservations: I got my reservation through Arry. Otherwise, the only way to go to Saito is to be invited by a regular who made a reservation at their last meal. Reserving on the phone or through a concierge is not possible. Some regular customers have their own time slot every month, making it impossible to get a reservation. However, even with Arry, it will not be easy to get a ticket, but over a couple of months you should be able to get one. They usually sell out within 30 seconds. I would visit Arry every day to see if someone cancelled and is reselling their ticket if you are keen.
Tagetsu has, in my opinion, the best value for kaiseki in Tokyo and it is easy to book online. A lunch can cost as little as 9,000円, including reservation fee. I have recommended this restaurant to many of my friends for their first kaiseki and they said it was the best meal of their life.
Reservations: Can be made easily through Pocket Concierge up to 4 months in advance.
Tsukiya is a charming traditional Kyoto home (machiya) with walls made of mud and straw, with four rooms and a shared ceramic bath. A breakfast is delivered to your room, and I wish I could make such a delicious breakfast. I stayed in the 7,000円 per night “sakura” room, which is the smallest room in the attic of the house with a low ceiling. The “Gen” room (larger and with a garden) is also recommended for more than one person.
Every room, hallway, counter and entrance has a tasteful small flower arrangement (I believe in the naturalistic nageire style of ikebana). The centrally located house is charming and rustic.
I am not an expert in housing in Japan, I can only share my limited experience. They have been really helpful for me to make reservations and inquiries on my behalf. They provide responsive assistance by email, they even sent postcards for me to make reservations at temples and gardens. The breakfast, ikebana, simple and quiet house, and their help in making reservations and the charming ryokan are memorable.
Reservations: They accept reservations 4 months in advance by email. Because the price is the same every day, this ryokan is especially good value during high season compared to hotels. Link to their website.
Matsu has been open since 1973. It was a tempura-only restaurant for only three years and it is now a kaiseki restaurant.
The book by Matt Goulding says that the reason why the price is so low is that the chef is known to drive a hard bargain with his vendors. I think this is quite unusual for a top-level restaurant, where chefs usually will pay a high price, if necessary, to sustain a relationship with their suppliers. The result? A 20,000円 meal with generous amounts of male and female crab, fugu shirako, ise lobster, otoro, and konoko sea cucumber ovaries. The same ingredients would cost more than double at some other restaurants.
The restaurant is family-run and the serving staff, mother okasan and daughter Mariko, were welcoming and happy to speak English. The kitchen looks old, but in a good way. Matsu is very charming, but do not be fooled. The food is extremely good. Toshio Matsuno trained at Alain Ducasse and Kitcho, as well as under his father Shunichi.
Affordable price, tasteful presentation, extremely delicious food, luxurious ingredients, and sincere hospitality, a meal to remember. And the tempura? Some of the best I have had anywhere, made by Hirofumi Oyagi, a chef with more than 40 years of tempura experience.
I think Matsu is a great example that Tabelog reviews cannot always be trusted. All it takes is a couple of people that thought the meal was too long and they missed their Shinkansen giving you bad reviews, and you lose your “silver” Tabelog award. I hope you will make up your own mind. What Matsu offers is genuine and exciting. I have extreme respect for this restaurant. It is not an easy task to keep prices down and deliver a feast of this quality.
Reservations: Ask your concierge to find out how long in advance they will take the reservations. Mine was taken 2 months in advance. Cash payment only.
You can read about my first two visits and how to make a reservation here.
It is honestly difficult to understand and appreciate this restaurant. In my most recent visit, I got the feeling that Jiro is Zen buddhism for today’s world.
At 5:30pm for dinner, two thirds of the seats were filled. I was happy that this time, for the first time, Jiro Ono would be serving me. But again, because I was the first sitting down and because some of the seats were empty, the speed was relentless. Approximately 15 minutes later, all of the sushi was gone, including an extra order of abalone and octopus, with a price of 40,000円. That is insane.
Even the third time, the fact that they rush you by giving you the sushi while you are not done eating the previous one, no matter how fast you eat, is stressful. But I can confirm that there are no other guests after you. They are not trying to fill the seats with more people. This is really the experience they want you to have.
In my opinion, the sushi has a Jiro flavor, they all somehow have the same aura and taste. I am 100% certain I could tell his sushi with my eyes closed. The rice has an incredible and satisfying texture, I would say it is unique. All of the fish is flawless, truly flawless, but not in a way to impress you like Sushi Kimura would. The octopus is not as soft as many other places, instead has a satisfying chew and a kick of salt.
I can understand why some people do not like it. Honestly, it remains a strange, somewhat uncomfortable and puzzling experience for me.
My own theory is that Jiro is an experience that teaches a lesson, it is a Zen temple for today's world. No one would put together this type of insane experience without such a philosophy behind it. Jiro is like a kōan (公案). You have to struggle and keep trying. It really is a struggle at times.
It made me reflect on the role of expectations, and why we are uncomfortable with things that don’t last. By delivering the “best” food in this uncomfortable experience, Jiro may be giving you a priceless warning: seeking the best is not where happiness comes from.
If you are in Japan for a short period, a hotel concierge might be the most flexible option, especially if you want to dine at a particular restaurant, for example maybe you heard about Tempura Matsu or you really want to go to Sukiyabashi Jiro. Since you are traveling to Japan, you also need a place to stay, which is why a hotel like the Park Hotel Tokyo is probably the best option for a short stay.
A year ago, a hotel concierge was the way to go. However, in my opinion, Tableall has truly become the best option in most cases. There is another online concierge service called Pocket Concierge, but I think they pale in comparison.
Tableall has built a database of quality restaurants, whose description, I was surprised to find out, are accurate and informative. Even if you went to a restaurant, you would not find English information about the chef's biography and youth, where he finds his ingredients, what his vision for the future is, or why he chose this particular tableware. I read the Tableall descriptions for fun in my free time, that is how good they are.
How this website, started by a former GS trader, has convinced top restaurants where you could otherwise not go to, such as Sushi Kimura or Ogata and many others, to participate and welcome foreigners is incredible.
They are very responsive by email and more transparent than the other reservation services. On one day where it snowed, they sent me an email with suggestions on how to reserve a taxi in advance. On a day where the restaurant became available earlier as my reservation was late in the evening, they asked me in the afternoon if I want to come earlier in the evening. All of this service for a flat fee of 4,000円 (especially when a 5% credit card fee on an expensive meal can take half of this money away from them). Their service is worth more than what they charge in my opinion.
Make sure to reserve months in advance for the most sought-after restaurants and keep visiting their website often to see if new reservations are available from cancellations. I am extremely grateful to have come to Japan in the era of Tableall.
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
Kyoaji, Hakone, shodo, home cooking.
Making Restaurant Reservations in Tokyo
Cafe de l'Ambre
Sushi Sho Masa
Bear Pond Espresso
Park Hotel Tokyo
New Year in Kyoto
Kwon Sook Soo
Yau Yuen Siu Tsui