For my most recent trip to this country that I adore, I wanted to discover the very best of Japanese gastronomy. After having tried sushi in more accessible restaurants, I thought I should discover a gourmet Japanese lunch, as created by the city’s most celebrated chefs. That said, it’s not easy to navigate Japan’s Michelin-starred establishments; staff may only speak limited English, and the culture is quite different. To help, I’ve developed a practical guide for your future travels.
1) Discover your rare gem
Tokyo is the city with the most starred restaurants in the world. The 2018 edition of the Michelin Guide lists 512 establishments in the Japanese capital, including 12 restaurants with three stars, 56 two-star restaurants, and 165 with one star. It just goes to show that you have an abundance of choice!
The easiest approach is to first decide in which neighborhood you’d like to eat (as Tokyo is such a vast city, you may as well choose a conveniently-located restaurant) and how many Michelin stars the restaurant should have. For me, I was looking for a Michelin one-star restaurant in the Ginza district, close to my hotel. You can enter these criteria in the online Michelin Guide and then simply make your selection.
2) Reserve a table
If you’re staying in a hotel, it’s simplest to go to the concierge’s desk with the name and address of your restaurant so that she/he can reserve over the phone for you. The restaurant that I had chosen had a website, but only in Japanese. Moreover, it wasn’t possible to reserve online, but only via telephone, which I was able to do with the help of my hotel’s staff.
3) Head to the restaurant
Finding your way through Tokyo is no mean feat! If you’re taking public transport, consider using Google Maps, which will help you to arrive safe and sound. If you’re taking a taxi, make sure you know how to indicate your address in Japanese to the driver.
Your restaurant may be on a lower ground floor or perhaps even on the second floor—this is quite normal in Japan. Make sure you know how your establishment’s name is written in Japanese so that you’ll recognize its sign.
4) Explore the restaurant
Once you’ve entered the restaurant, you’ll be greeted according to Japanese standards (that is, very professionally). Providing excellent service is a veritable art in Japan, and the higher you move up the ladder, the better it is.
The restaurant generally offers limited place settings, including a bar and a few private rooms. A seat at the sushi bar is ideal for watching the chef in action, so I’d recommend that you reserve your spot there.
5) Look over the menu
Seated at the sushi bar, you can check out the menu. This is generally where things get complicated; there’s rarely an English-language menu on offer, and the personnel’s English may be limited, so choosing your meal can be tricky. When I went to the restaurant Sushiya Ichiyanagi, the chef spoke only a few words in English, but I had made sure to inform myself via the internet (Tripadvisor, blogposts…) so that I would know what to order (or at least have an idea of which options were served for lunch).
As for the prices in high-end restaurants, they start at around 5000 yen (or about 38 €) for lunch, and 10,000 yen (about 76 €) for dinner. If you opt for an “omakase,” in which the chef chooses a series of small courses for you, the prices can add up quickly. However, this “tasting” menu is often the best way to fully appreciate the chef’s creations.
6) Learn how to appraise the work of a sushi master
If you want to soak up the local culture, it’s important to first know a few things about master sushi chefs. In Japan, chefs participate in an apprenticeship that may last longer than 10 years to learn all of the aspects of their profession. They begin with the most basic tasks before being promoted to more difficult missions, such as cooking the rice.
7) Recognize a starred sushi
There are several important features to Michelin-starred sushi, the first of which is the quality and freshness of the fish. Next is the effect of the contrasting temperatures of the rice and the fish. At Sushiya Ichiyanagi, the sushi master is well-known for serving his dishes with warm rice, which varies in temperature according to the accompanying fish (in most restaurants it’s served at room temperature). Finally, texture plays a role: you might go from an extremely tender tuna sushi to a much firmer squid sushi, making the experience even more interesting.
8) Savor every moment
One of the reasons that I love this country so deeply is that I often get the impression that I’ve been transported to another universe. Here, you enter into an environment that’s sheltered from globalization, preserving its traditional specificities. Of course, this world is often confusing, even complicated, but that’s all part of Japan’s charm. Eating sushi here is an experience you should try at least once in your life, but after that, it will become more difficult to enjoy sushi in your home country (as is the case for me). You know what you have to do: plan your next trip in the Land of the Rising Sun!