Finding Poetry On Your Plate

One winter night in the 13th century, a Japanese Zen priest named Myoe stepped out of a snowbound meditation hall, caught a glimpse of moonlight on the landscape around him, and had one of those blissful mental explosions for which Japanese Zen is famous, quickly scribbling the following lines:

The poem may look chilly and obscure, another bit of Japanese cultural granite, but it aims to capture the inspiration that can be found in the simplest of things. "Though I compose poetry," another priest named Saigyo observed a century earlier, "I do not think of it as composed poetry." For these writers, poems were designed as a sort of spiritual remote control, able to release emotion long after they were written.

About 300 meters north of the chaotic Shibuya subway station in downtown Tokyo stands a small shop where, to this day, coffee is brewed in a spirit Saigyo would have appreciated: while they may make coffee here, they do not think of it as made coffee. Preparing a cup takes about 20 minutes. Coffee beans are hand-ground; spring water is emptied into a hammered brass pot, boiled, then passed, a few drops at a time, through a filter. There are other joys on the menu: café au lait made by heating the milk to just short of a boil and then speed-mixing it with coffee; hot chocolate melted in front of you; milk tea brewed with a thick, bitter cream. In dozens of small shops like this one around the country, a morning caffeine fix takes on the elegance of a tea ceremony. Sure, a cup of liquid poetry costs $10, but every sip delivers heat that has nothing to do with temperature. The jolt comes not from the caffeine, but from something very like what Myoe saw in the moonlit snow.

You'd like the address of this café? I'm keeping it to myself. After all, one of the great pleasures of Tokyo today is the act of discovering, by accident or intention, hidden corners where some of the most extraordinary food on earth is being made. No one can begrudge the folks at Michelin their impressive new Tokyo guidebook. But with the publication of their map to Tokyo's best eateries, they've risked draining away some of the pleasant mystery of finding dinner in this city. My advice to prospective buyers of the guide, therefore, is probably this: don't. Just absorb the stunning fact (long apparent to those fortunate to eat regularly in both Tokyo and Paris) that Japan now has more three-star restaurants than the City of Lights. With a bit of careful planning and luck, you can still find these spots on your own, without a guidebook.

Spend a night out in Tokyo and you'll be treated to a celebration of Japan's obsession with, well, obsession. That cultural fission that makes the Japanese wrap presents with particular grace, play jazz with uncanny precision, practice Zen with an austere purity: this is the soul on sale at the country's best restaurants. Some of Japan's most dazzling food at the moment is Italian, French, Chinese and Spanish. These days it's not uncommon for Japanese chefs to move to Italy and France in their early 20s and spend a decade polishing their skills. Everything they cook and taste abroad, however, is taken in through eyes cast quietly homeward. "I always wondered," one friend of mine who cooks in a Tokyo restaurant told me, "what Piedmontese risotto would taste like with mushrooms from Niigata." The dish surprises, not only with the sharp taste of fresh coastal mushrooms, but with a near-honeyed sweetness teased from the first-harvest rice. To find that sweetness cut by a glass of iced and bitter sake only reinforces the reminder that rice, after all, came to Italy from Asia. Every bite shows how Japan's instinctive feel for perfection works itself out in taste, in dishes that are not improvements or localizations of the original, but somehow different and amazing.

Enter a restaurant like Aronia de Takazawa, where the young chef has likely personally caught your fish or picked your zucchini blossoms, and you slip past the cool veneer of modern Japan—a veneer offputting to many Westerners—and into the real warmth of the culture. Japan is known to be inaccessible to foreigners, but during the countless nights I've spent there, I've never found it less than warm and welcoming. And I think that this may be because I've always approached Japan through its food.

There is something much more profound going on than mere eating in Japan. Bite by bite, I have approached that part of Japanese culture that is supposedly most remote and removed, the part where real passion expresses itself. What those Michelin inspectors recently discovered, what they found so much more abundant in Tokyo than in Paris, was what I have found as well: food that is very like Myoe's moonlight on that snowy night, the best possible spiritual companion. The old Zen priest, you begin to think after a few Tokyo dinners, would have been right at home in front of a steaming plate of Niigata mushroom risotto. The only difference between him and me is that he'd probably have given you the address.