Toru Okuda was in trouble. He'd slaved away for years to realize his dream of opening a gourmet restaurant in Tokyo, and by 2003 he had finally pulled it off. He'd even managed to land an address for his place, dubbed Koju, in the high-rent district of Ginza—quite an achievement for a thirtysomething from provincial Shizuoka. But just a few months after opening, Okuda realized that one critical ingredient was still missing: customers. "On some days we only had two or three," he recalls. "My cooks and I had to eat all the food. I should have enjoyed it, but it was sticking in my throat." Bankruptcy threatened.
But Okuda persevered, serving impeccably prepared delicacies like charcoal-grilled blowfish and fresh snow crab topped with roe. And this past November he received his reward. Paris-based Michelin, publisher of the world's most authoritative restaurant guides, announced it was awarding him and seven other Tokyo restaurateurs its highest distinction, three stars, rocketing them into the stratosphere of international gastronomy. Okuda's business has since turned around. And he won't be lonely at the top. Michelin's first guide to the Japanese capital—its first devoted to anyplace in Asia, in fact—has made official what many foodies have long suspected: that the center of culinary gravity has shifted to the Land of the Rising Sun. Japan is a food-crazy nation like few others, and it's finally getting the attention it deserves. "We have the best food on the planet," says British restaurant critic and longtime resident Robbie Swinnerton, who has written about Japanese food for two decades. "We knew that for a long time. Now the rest of the world is catching [on]."
Still, the scale of Tokyo's dominance will stun most outsiders. Jean-Luc Naret, the director of the Michelin Guide, knew something extraordinary was up when he and his team of Tokyo inspectors sat down last year after doing their initial reviews and realized that, "for the first time in history," they had enough starred restaurants to fill an entire volume. (Normal Michelin Guides include a selection of notable unstarred restaurants as well as top-rated establishments.) The guide ultimately gave a total of 191 stars to Tokyo, leaving Paris a distant second with 97 and New York third with 54. In fact, Tokyo outshone entire nations with notable culinary pedigrees, including Spain and Portugal combined (133).
Not surprisingly, the publication of the guide has sparked a huge and entertaining controversy. After its appearance, many Japanese critics fretted that European inspectors hadn't comprehended the quirky specifics of Japan's food culture, leaving great restaurants off the list and ignoring masters in favor of their apprentices—a violation of Japan's veneration of seniority. WHAT DO THEY KNOW ABOUT JAPANESE CUISINE? asked the tabloid Nikkan Gendai in a headline in late November. Even some of the chefs who ultimately got good ratings complained (anonymously) that the foreigners hadn't managed to understand classical traditions of subtlety and simplicity; Michelin says that its team included several Japanese experts, but never mind. The Japanese were persnickety even when it came to foreign cuisine; some said Michelin went too easy on French restaurants in Tokyo, while others claimed it was too harsh. Others said Michelin was pandering to Japanese readers: one TV commentator even accused it of "star inflation."
In Paris, Le Figaro announced the news with the headline "Tokyo, New World Center of Gastronomy," and warned: "Paris, which is far behind, better watch out." For months, the article noted, the restaurant world had been anticipating the arrival of Michelin's Tokyo guide, "but no one imagined the explosion that the results of this publication would cause."
Then the damage control operation began. Commentators pointed out that Paris still ranks first in three-star restaurants, with 10 to Tokyo's eight (and New York's three), and that Paris has only about one third as many people as greater Tokyo, so if you count stars on a per capita basis, Paris still wins. Besides, as noted French chef Alain Senderens says, the whole obsession with Michelin stars is elitist and out of date—a fusty honor bestowed largely on overpriced restaurants that still do "starched tablecloths" and "giant napkins."
If the French seem less than willing to face defeat, their old rivals are ready to draw the starkest conclusions. British food critic Giles Coren (interview) called the Michelin rulings an accurate read on a French civilization in "terminal decline."
Naturally, all the fuss has only made the public more interested. The first 90,000 copies of the Japanese edition sold out within 24 hours of publication—roughly the same number of sales that the New York guide got in its first year. And even though the book was published in November, it still ended up as a best seller for 2007. "It was like the debut of the latest 'Harry Potter'," says Naret with a laugh.
And why not? It's no exaggeration to say that the Japanese are crazy about their food. About a third of all TV broadcasts in Japan are devoted to the subject—from simple cooking shows to taste-test guessing games featuring blindfolded celebrities. Tokyo has 160,000 restaurants, compared with 13,000 in Paris. Japanese foodies happily stand in line for hours to garner sample delicacies or coveted restaurant seats. Japan food bloggers are hugely prolific, cataloging their meals in painstaking detail (and, often, with cell-phone photos). One housewife whose blog documents her quest for the country's best bread proudly notes that she's visited 384 bakeries in the city of Kobe alone.
Japan's restaurants reflect this obsession. Consider Sukiyabashi Jiro, which was already one of Tokyo's most famous sushi spots before Michelin gave it three stars for reasons that have nothing to do with starched tablecloths. Its 82-year-old owner, Jiro Ono, has spent the past 50 years perfecting his technique. "I've only been there once but I was stunned," says restaurant critic Jun Yokokawa. "It's the ultimate sushi." Ono meticulously controls the temperature of each type of fish he uses, in order "to bring out the best in each," and is famous for wearing gloves whenever he leaves the restaurant, even in summertime, to make sure he never loses his magical feel for fish.
His restaurant is all about the food; if you need to use the amenities, you'll have to go next door. Just because Ono got three stars, notes Michelin's Naret, he's unlikely to add toilets any time soon. "He's not going to put carpet on the floor, he's not going to put money into chandeliers. He's still going to invest in the best product, cutting the fish in a way you'll never see anywhere else."
There are many explanations for Japan's astounding fascination with food. Though the fact is often obscured by Japan's present prosperity, it's only been a generation or two since many people here still went hungry. Now that they have the means, modern Japanese indulge by building on deeply rooted traditions of obsessive craftsmanship and nature worship. Ingredients, and the seasons, are everything. At two-star Kikunoi, the water to make fragrant dashi broth is trucked in several times a week from a well owned by the restaurant's parent establishment in Kyoto. The bonito flakes that flavor the soup come from fish caught off the southern island of Kyushu and are carefully sliced to a thickness of one third of a millimeter. Another ingredient, top-quality kombu kelp from Hokkaido in the north, is dried in temperature-controlled storage, then in the open air, for more than a year before it makes it to Tokyo. "We try to use ingredients that are the best, superior to anything else available," says owner and head chef Yoshihiro Murata.
This is the ethic instructors strive to inculcate at Tokyo's elite Tsuji Culinary Institute—whether the cuisine at hand is elegant classical kaiseki or contemporary European. Students start off by learning how to stand properly in the kitchen while using a knife. There's no moving on to more-refined topics until they've mastered the proper way to cut vegetables, and some critics have compared the rote movements to martial-arts training. "You have to be so accurate when you slice ingredients," says Yuka Kakuta, 25. "I couldn't do it at first." Aspiring chefs also have to memorize everything from countless brands of rice and miso (soybean paste) to the myriad types of plates and bowls that go with different sorts of food. "There are plates that cannot be used during certain seasons," says Tsuji professor Kiyoshi Mitsuzono. "I tell my students to study [Japanese cuisine] just as you would study painting or music." The challenge seems all the more daunting considering that the Japanese notion of prime season, or shun, can be as fleeting as a week; bamboo shoots, for example, have a shun of just 10 days.
That sort of intensity surprises foreigners but has placed Japan at the cutting edge of world cuisine. "In Japan they take huge steps in choosing ingredients at the peak of flavor," says Alain Verzeroli, the head chef at Joël Robuchon, one of three French restaurants in Tokyo that got three stars. Verzeroli, who treats customers to Breton lobster and melt-in-your-mouth canard de Challans, heads an all-Japanese staff that includes several graduates of Tsuji's French campus, located just outside Lyon. Verzeroli pays particular credit to the connoisseurship of Japan's wine lovers—another surprise for outsiders—who have a knack for finding the world's best and importing it at reasonable prices. And he's found Tokyoites to be so interested in his restaurant that he's started offering a series of cooking demonstrations, where customers are invited to the kitchen to watch him prepare simple dishes that they can then sample in the restaurant.
Remarkable attention to detail is typical of Japanese gastronomy at all price levels. Even a $7 bowl of buckwheat noodles (at the century-old Kanda Matsuya soba restaurant) is made by hand, and served in broth freshly prepared each day from a base that's rested for 10 days. At the Tokyo tempura restaurant Miyagawa, where the chef's lunch menu costs just over $20, the head chef usually begins his day by working contacts at Tokyo's legendary Tsukiji fish market. A few weeks ago, he came up with special winter clams, which are fried in batter specially seasoned to bring out their taste. The clams weren't on display anywhere in the market, of course; "you have to know what you're looking for," he says.
Such restaurants make great Japanese food wonderfully accessible. Critic Yokokawa notes that the endless attention to cuisine in the media has helped create an atmosphere in which even ordinary restaurants compete for attention. "One great thing about Japan is that even everyday food has become sophisticated," he notes. He's struck, he says, by the number of Japanese who, when asked about their favorite hobbies, respond with the word tabearuki, meaning "eating and walking"—in other words, roaming around in search of new places to dine. "It's as if the entire population were foodies."
Tokyo restaurant owners aren't looking for only Japanese-style perfection. Tokyo has a certified National Austrian Cooking Master, Shingo Kanda, who is head chef at the marvelous K. und K. It also has a chevalier of the elite French fraternity of cheese experts, the Confrérie du Taste-Fromage—Katsuki Mori, the genius behind a wonderful Italian-Japanese fusion place called Esperia. The one-star Morimoto XEX teppanyaki restaurant offers tofu cheesecake and an appetizer of buffalo mozzarella, octopus carpaccio and Parma ham. Meanwhile, in the august Tokyo neighborhood of Kappabashi, stores sell kitchen equipment from all over the world, and can conjure up plastic replicas of any dish, from tacos to curry with nan.
The cross-pollination works both ways. Japan helped inspire the worldwide haute cuisine trend, which puts a premium on lightness and freshness, with tasting menus featuring many small but perfect creations. Now what some Tokyo food experts call "the Michelin effect" looks likely to extend this influence. In a 2007 Japanese government survey, 71 percent of foreign tourists in Japan cited food as a primary reason for their visit. One wonders why Michelin took so long to make the trip.
Ironically, world recognition comes close on the heels of domestic scandal. Last year brought revelations that a number of reputable Japanese companies had mislabeled food products from sweets to steak—in some cases by falsifying their due dates. Calls followed for a new consumer agency to tighten a lax regime of food inspections. A newspaper poll found that Japanese regarded the food scandal as the second most important story of 2007—behind only the surprise resignation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Despite the mess, however, Japanese food enthusiasts will find a way to soldier on. For one thing, they know that while Tokyo may now be considered the food capital of the world, it's definitely not the food capital of Japan. Michelin has yet to issue a guide for Kyoto, but that city is the real lodestar of Japanese culinary tradition. "If you apply the same standards there, I would not at all be surprised if Kyoto ended up with 10 to 20 three-star restaurants," says Yokokawa, who rates Tokyo "one rank lower than Kyoto." That, of course, would place it two ranks ahead of Paris.