Host of the Olympic Games, which starts this week, Tokyo is a gastronomic epicenter. Melinda Joe explores the culinary traditions that make the city what it is today
Home to 13 million people, the teeming megalopolis of Tokyo started out as a humble fishing village called Edo.
The town’s fortunes changed when the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu made it the capital of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603, drawing legions of migrant workers to the city and creating a new class of merchants. The ensuing construction boom led to the establishment of a thriving food scene.“The waves of workers who came to build the city were men who couldn’t cook. This gave rise to a street-food culture to serve this new population,” explains Takeshi Watanabe, PhD., who teaches a course examining Japanese culture through food at Wesleyan University.
The most popular versions of some of Japan’s most iconic dishes – sushi, tempura, and buckwheat soba noodles – evolved from quick meals consumed at Edo food stalls that began popping up in the 17th century. Typically, each vendor specialized in a particular dish – a custom that remains strong today, thanks in part to the artisan spirit that continues to motivate so many Japanese chefs.
Unlike restaurants commonly found in European or North American cities, where teriyaki chicken and dim sum may jostle with pork satay and Pad Thai on menus, many of Tokyo’s eateries strive to make one style of cuisine – or even one item – extremely well, be it painstakingly refined kaiseki (Japanese haute-cuisine) or humble bowls of ramen.
Another legacy of the days of Edo’s growth is the prevalence of counter seating, where chefs can be seen preparing food behind the bar. “Even during the Edo period, we saw a shift from food stalls to established restaurants, which eventually carried over to the counter setup we have today,” Watanabe says. “Both at higher- and lower-end places, this style of dining facilitates interaction between the chef and customers.”
Counters and open-kitchen layouts feature prominently at both Japanese and non- Japanese restaurants and are not limited to small spaces. Dining bars can even be found at restaurants with tables. A U-shaped stone counter with 16 seats anchors the main dining area of two-Michelin- starred French fine-dining restaurant Florilège, while a large, irregularly shaped wooden counter encircles the impressive open kitchen of 43-seat Sowado, an upscale izakaya (Japanese bar serving excellent food) in the Ebisu district. Often, the design is as much for theatrical effect as ease of communication.
According to government statistics, the Tokyo Metropolitan area boasts approximately 160,000 eateries, ranging in scale from tiny mom-and-pop venues to massive banquet halls. But throughout most of the city’s history, the restaurant industry has been dominated by small operators.
“When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, there were hardly any big restaurant chains,” recalls chef Junichi Onuki of Isana Sushi Bar, noting that Japan’s first McDonald’s didn’t open until 1971, in the capital’s Ginza district. “Most shops were family-owned, and in terms of variety, it was nothing close to what we see today.”
Restaurant culture changed dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s, as Japan’s rapid growth saw Tokyo confirmed as a center of finance and culture. Globalization brought foreign franchises to the country and domestic chains proliferated, chipping away at the market share of independent eateries.
As sociology professor James Farrar of Tokyo’s Sophia University writes in The Asia-Pacific Journal, the decline of independent establishments has been exacerbated by “the aging of owners who created small restaurants in the post-war, high-growth decades.”
Despite this, a government census report from 2016 estimates that roughly half of Tokyo’s restaurants are independently owned. Many of these businesses are tightly-staffed operations with limited seating – a formula that Steve Plotnicki, founder of the restaurant guide Opinionated About Dining, sees as an asset that has helped boost the standing of the city’s venues in awards schemes such as Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.
“Japan has a fundamental advantage that stems from the way the restaurants are set up. A place with eight seats will always be able to have better control over the quality of the food than a place with 60 or more seats,” he says.
Globalization and creativity
By 2000, diversity had become one of the hallmarks of the city’s culinary landscape. Offerings ran the gamut from traditional fare such as hand- cut soba noodles at Kanda Matsuya – founded in 1884 – to modern kaiseki prepared with cutting-edge techniques at Ryugin, where chef Seiji Yamamoto made waves for using a CT scan to study the bone structure of conger eels.
“Around that time, we started seeing organic food and regional Japanese cuisine widely represented for the first time, as well as non- Japanese food,” Onuki says.
Indeed, Tokyo has gained a reputation for world-class international cuisine. Ever since the early 1990s, legions of Japanese chefs have traveled abroad to train in prestigious kitchens with the goal of opening their own restaurants in the Japanese capital. In 2003, Yoshihiro Narisawa, who had worked extensively in Europe, rose to fame after launching his namesake Japanese-inflected French restaurant in Tokyo’s Aoyama district. An early advocate of sustainability in Japan, Narisawa championed Japanese ingredients in avant- garde preparations such as deep-fried baby sweetfish, which appear to swim across a glass plate dotted with sour plum sauce, and “Bread of the Forest” made with chestnut tree powder that is proofed and baked at the table.
A few years later in 2006, Shuzo Kishida returned to Tokyo from Paris – where he’d served as Pascal Barbot’s sous chef at L’Astrance – to open contemporary restaurant Quintessence. Within a year, the restaurant was awarded three stars in the first Michelin Guide dedicated to Tokyo.
With the release of the 2008 Tokyo Michelin Guide, the city became the darling of the food world, stealing the spotlight from Paris with a staggering 150 starred establishments (today, there are 212). Chefs such as Joel Robuchon and Ferran Adrià sang the praises of Japanese food culture – sentiments that were later echoed by René Redzepi and David Chang. Soon, hordes of hungry “gastronauts” began flocking to Tokyo to slurp noodles at places like Ivan Ramen, compare Neapolitan-style pizzas at Seirinkan and Savoy, or snag one of the 10 coveted seats at Sukiyabashi Jiro.
Emboldened by the cachet of international recognition, younger Japanese chefs began innovating, experimenting with new ideas and blurring the boundaries between different styles of cuisine.
“For many of us who trained abroad, veering from tradition was unthinkable. As a result, Japanese chefs were replicating French cuisine from the 1970s, without changing a thing. But once the world started paying attention to us around 10 years ago, we realized we could be more creative and express our own identity,” says chef Susumu Shimizu, who specializes in succulent meat dishes that defy neat categorization at his restaurant, Anis.
Known for his playful takes on Japanese kaiseki, Zaiyu Hasegawa, of two- Michelin-starred Den, says the cultural exchange facilitated by the boom in travel between 2010 and 2020 has helped accelerate the trend. “The food world has become so global. So many visitors have come to Tokyo, and I’ve gone overseas to do a lot of events. Through my contact with other cultures, I’ve learned to incorporate non-Japanese ingredients, flavors and techniques into my dishes,” he says. “I feel like I’m breaking the mold of traditional Japanese cuisine in a good way.”
Last September, Hasegawa teamed up with long-time friend and Florilège chef Hiroyasu Kawate to open Den Kushi Flori, a casual fine-dining restaurant serving inventive, cross-cultural mashups such as miso- marinated pigeon seared on a skewer with amaebi spot prawn, served with a dab of pigeon-liver mousse and scallion sauce.
After Covid: starting from scratch
While the effect of the pandemic has been less severe in Japan than in other parts of the world, last year the country’s restaurant industry saw the highest number of bankruptcies on record, according to Tokyo Shoko Research. However, chef Hiroyasu Kawate believes there are important lessons to be learned from the experience. “This past year has been a hard reset. What we’d assumed was correct is not necessarily so. Consumer habits have changed, and for restaurants, it’s going to be like starting from scratch,” he says. “I’m grateful for all the guests in Japan that have supported us, and I think a lot of restaurants will value those relationships more.”
Despite the challenges, Junichi Onuki of Isana Sushi Bar remains optimistic, saying: “Eating out will continue to be important. The number of customers will be fewer than in the past, but consumers will keep coming back to places they trust and people they like. That’s what makes the restaurant industry special.”