A week in Tokyo

Saturday, April 21st , 2012

japan2012 240-crop-v3.JPG

I always get a thrill arriving in the Ginza at night, with its dazzling array of neon lights and bustling streets.  As a visitor to Tokyo the most convenient areas to stay in terms of tourist attractions and restaurants are Ginza and Roppongi, the latter being the nightlife centre of Tokyo, the former its shopping hub.  We stayed in Roppongi once again, mainly because I love the Grand Hyatt hotel, which is the smoothest running hotel I have encountered anywhere.  It is in the modern Roppongi Hills complex, within which is a subway station just four stops from Ginza.  It was peak cherry blossom time in Tokyo (pictured), which is an impressive sight in Japan since the cherry tree is particularly highly regarded, so there are a great many such trees.  The locals have picnics under the trees for the few days of the year when the blossom falls, and “hanami”, or cherry blossom viewing, is an important Japanese ritual.  The fascination of the Japanese with cherry blossom is associated with its fleeting beauty, symbolising the transient nature of life, and the cherry blossom appears extensively in Japanese art.

On the food front, Tokyo is the beating heart of restaurant Japan, with a staggering range and variety of restaurants.  Officially there are 67,000 restaurants in Tokyo, with unofficial estimates much higher than this, so there is vast choice.  Many Japanese restaurants specialise in one particular style of cooking, such as sushi, noodles or tempura, while some go as far as specialising in a particular ingredient, such as eel.  I visited three sushi establishments this week, two of them with three stars in the Michelin guide, and one that is not in Michelin but in 2011 was rated higher than any of those for value for money in the main local kanji food web site (tabelog): Daisan Harumi.  This was certainly a very good sushi restaurant, though was less consistent than I had hoped for. Of the three star places, both Sushi Yoshitake and Araki were exceptionally good, right up there with the best I have tried (my favourite by a whisker is still Sushi Saito).  I also had another go at eating fugu, this time at three star Usukifugu Yamadaya, and frankly I remain unconvinced by the merits of fugu as a foodstuff. It is wasn’t for the fact that it can kill you if not properly prepared, would anyone really care much about a bland, bony white fish?

I had some pleasant udon noodles at casual noodle bar Azabu Kyutoku, and sampled two star Korean food at Moranbong, which was pleasant but should not have two stars.  I also enjoyed a meal at a very good Chinese restaurant, Chugoku Hanten Fureika.   I have found the Michelin Tokyo to be wildly generous with its stars, particularly for non-Japanese food, but in this case I can see why Fureika received at least one of its two stars.  On the tempura front I tried the two star Kondo, and three star Nanachome Kyoboshi.  Kondo was excellent, and given the vertiginous prices charged by Nanochome Kyoboshi I was very sceptical as to whether I would be able to tell the difference, but in fact Nanochome was stunningly good, mainly due to its truly dazzling ingredient quality.  It was a very expensive restaurant, but I could see why this was so.  I also returned to my favourite Ryugin, which delivered another magnificent meal, perhaps the most enjoyable of the whole trip.

We also had a day out to the coast to Fujisawa in the Shonan resort region, a little under an hour from Tokyo by train; Fujisawa is not far from the elegant town of Kamakura, which it has to be said is a much prettier place to visit.   Fujisawa on other hand has Koan, a three Michelin star kaiseki restaurant.  We encountered delightful service there, although in truth the food was not really in the same league as top kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto.  I visited restaurants with a total of 23 Michelin stars this week, following the 28 last week.

All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable fortnight in Japan, a country blessed with some of the best ingredients in the world, fascinating culture and a warm and welcoming people.  The blog next week will catch up on my London dining since my return from Japan.

At the end of my visit I had reviewed every three star restaurant in Japan, all 32 of them (almost a third of the world total). However just as I returned to London Michelin announced a brand new guide, to Hokkaido in northern Japan, with four new three star restaurants, a dozen two stars, and 50 one star places. The complete list of 3 star places can be found here.