Japanese cuisine is ancient, considered and inspirational yet only recently has it politely shuffled its way into the global spotlight. International chefs and foodies are now madly clambering over each other en route to this culinary mecca to discover the secrets of Washoku (Traditional Japanese cuisine). If you, like the Japanese, are as enamoured with the idea of the finest food encounters possible then you may well soon be joining the throng.
Visitors to Japan are commonly awestruck – not only by the amazing array and quality of the foods and restaurants available but also by what the Japanese refer to as Omotenashi – a distinctive form of hospitality which seemingly engages the host’s sixth sense when it comes to the needs of their guest. Whilst hints of Omotenashi are evident in humble, family run joints, it is in the top-end of town where service is at an absolute optimum. Here desires are pre-empted and attended to as if each diner were sporting neon instructions for their ultimate dining pleasure.
From the moment you slip through the door of any Japanese fine-dining establishment you’ll sense a palpable atmospheric shift that can only be appreciated in situ. In traditional restaurants the gracefully precise movements of impeccably coiffured, Kimono-clad servers imply presentation of the meal will be efficient but not hurried. The room will feel as comfortable as silk on skin and within moments a washcloth will be placed in your hands for wiping away the cares of the day – a symbolic, yet practical purification and commitment to your gastronomic journey.
The number of diners will be kept to a minimum as the chef, always a perfectionist, insists on focussing on just a few customers at a time. Conversations will be almost inaudible in appreciation of the simple beauty of the surroundings and in anticipation of the meal, which will be set down like precious jewels before royalty. You will be mesmerised and curious about every sculpted morsel; as connected to their serving vessel as a lotus blossoming in a bodhisattva’s palm. You will utter involuntary gasps and soft moans throughout the event before floating away, perfectly satiated – convinced that dining in your own country will be forever spoiled as you turn to note your hosts bowing deeply in your wake until you’ve stepped from their line of sight.
When it comes to fine-dining in Japan there are three main options available to the discerning customer – traditional Kaiseki, contemporary Japanese and sushi.
Kaiseki, with humble roots in Japanese Tea ceremony, is unique to Japan. The multi-course meal features premium produce, exquisitely presented on antique ceramics and lacquer-ware bearing seasonal motifs or colours; each dish whispering a story of cultural or historical significance. You will savour smooth local sake and, perhaps for the first time, note the hints of flowers, spice, honey or salt. Serene Kyoto boasts the monopoly on Kaiseki.
The contemporary alternative often marries Japanese flavours and cookery techniques with those of other cuisines, predominantly French and Italian, resulting in superb, creative fare. Typically such eateries promise sophistication, style and alchemistic tendencies. Epicurean Disneyland – Tokyo – is densely populated with fine diners and brandishes more Michelin stars than any other city on the planet.
While many of us may consider sushi a casual bite it is very serious business in Japan. Sushi restaurants seating just a handful of fortunate guests not only offer the most pristine seafood but hypnotic demonstrations of definitive skill, technique and pride. Tokyo is where you’ll find the most incredible and exclusive sushi counters in the country – with prices to match. Kanazawa on the mid-western coastline also boasts its own sublime version for slightly fewer yen. If only once, a formal piece-by-piece sushi procession is a must-do for gourmands.
While you’ll find the core of Japan’s top eateries in Tokyo and Kyoto, there’s an emerging high-end scene from southernmost Fukuoka to Sapporo on the far northern island of Hokkaido – and if you dare venture into Osaka’s community of established eaters you’d better be prepared to stick around if the local goal of ‘Kuidaore’ (to eat oneself bankrupt) is in your sights!
Dining at Narisawa