There is a food appreciation rush that’s been sweeping western countries. Blame food TV programs, celebrity chefs or Masterchef, there is no denial that we are hungry for food experiences. Funnily, when I lived in Japan 11 years ago, I used to think that the Japanese were strange people to be so obsessed with food.
Food worship seems to have always been a large part of Asian cultures. Now, it has reached Western shores, which is probably a side effect of globalisation rather than food TV – one of the nicer side effects, I must say.
A few years back words “Michelin star” might not have meant much to people outside France. Now, every man and his dog aspire to eat out at Michelin-star venues. That could probably be the reason why Michelin Guide, a 100 year old food and travel publishing establishment, have taken it upon themselves to catalogue the best of Tokyo eating scene.
In 2007, Michelin Guide creators bestowed a staggering 191 stars to 150 restaurants in Tokyo – more stars than any city in the world. For comparison, Paris had 65.
That does not seem excessive as there are close to 200,000 restaurants in Tokyo. The density of restaurant scene is dizzying. There were times when I and Scott, my husband, felt completely lost as our gazes scaled the heights of a typical Ginza high rise, the entire 20-level building completely covered in signs of various restaurants – how to choose? Where to go? How could one ever eat their way through Tokyo?
You simply can’t. For all the criticism of Michelin Guide Tokyo – i.e. included restaurants too expensive, too pretentious, too touristy – it was an utter lifesaver on our second trip. You have to plan. Print out restaurant maps, call ahead, budget, ask the hotel concierge to confirm the reservation upon arrival, build your sightseeing schedule around restaurant visits. Sounds overcomplicated, but at least we now have an excellent guide with colour photos, prices, maps and contact details of restaurants, all in English.
So, the first step of conquering the Tokyo food scene is buying the little red book.
As for the expensiveness of the restaurants included in the book, I have to say it is partially justified. Note “partially”. Japan is the land of cheap lunches. Very often, a budget-breaking restaurant will offer a great value meal 12-2pm.
One such great find was Nakajima, a one star establishment that was offering…wait for it…an $8 lunch. We made our way there on our first day in Tokyo. After a hair-raising landing in the midst of a typhoon, we arrived too early to check in but almost in time for lunch. We had no booking but the place seem to be casual enough during lunch time. We dropped our bags at the hotel and made our way through the maze of Shinjuku, clutching the guide and stopping a dozen different people to direct us to the next landmark on the way to the obscure restaurant.
We did find it – on foot – and partook in our first ever Michelin-starred meal. The food Gods must have been smiling on us, as the food (EIGHT DOLLARS) was incredible. We asked for counter seating and squeezed between the gourmand salary men. Without reservations, we could only choose between a number of set menus all featuring sardines. Sardines were served sashimi-style, crumbed and deep-fried, and in egg on top of rice (don). To this day my husband reminds me that I was intolerably cruel to tell him that ordering a second lunch was improper, thus robbing him of the chance to eat sashimi sardine. I agree. I was a fool. That simple food was delicious. The best miso soup I had eve had in Japan!
Do yourself a favour and find that little restaurant. A hint – look for the Marui department store on Shinjuku dori, the restaurant is off the little street behind it.