Tokyo has more Michelin stars than London and Paris combined. Ben Anderson tours Japan, eating treats 'so good I found it hard to believe I was ingesting food'
Rows of tuna stretched out endlessly, some as long and wide as surfboards. Men working for the finest restaurants in the world shone torches inside the carcasses, scraped off tiny pieces with hooks and walked off thinking, rolling the fish in their hands until it softened. Even when they tasted it they showed no emotion. With the best fish often fetching £40,000, this was poker – at 6am.
An hour later, after I’d seen more marine species than I knew existed, I was sitting in a small wooden hut being served the freshest sushi imaginable. I was at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market – a quarter of a square kilometre of old warehouses that sees 2,000 tonnes of fish pass through it every day – and I’d been looking forward to this moment for years. I pushed the first slab of tuna sashimi into my mouth and closed my eyes as it fell apart, filling my cheeks with flavour.
This was just the start of my gastronomic group tour of Japan. I’d been to the country once before and eaten meals so good I’d found it hard to believe I was only ingesting food. Even basic peasant dishes were spectacular. On top of that, Michelin recently released its first guide to Tokyo and awarded the city more stars than Paris and London combined – a whopping 191 to Paris’s modest 97. I was drooling to go back.
Within minutes of landing I was waiting for a bus that would drop me outside my hotel. An electronic sign told me the bus would arrive at 10.15am. It then adjusted to 10.16am. During the trip I noticed most buses arrived exactly on time; some were a minute late, and I saw a couple arrive two minutes late. If a bus arrived three minutes late it would make the headlines. At 10.16am my bus pulled in and two immaculate luggage handlers put my bags in the hold and bowed in perfect unison as we pulled away.
We weren’t just eating on this trip, but cooking too. Our first lesson: how to make perfect soba noodles. Using only buckwheat flour and water, our teacher Hashimoto showed us the intricate process, which has barely changed in over 1,000 years. Every stage required a specific skill, a subtle hand movement and an exact measurement.
All we had was a bowl, a chopping board and a long straight cutter but – with Hashimoto’s guidance – most of us managed to produce a cone of dough, which we then flattened into a square before folding it and cutting 1.5mm soba noodles. It was a suitable introduction to Japan’s perfectionist approach to food. I’m convinced you could lock a Japanese chef in a kitchen with nothing but baked beans and some bread, and they’d manage to produce a gourmet meal.
After the soba school we were taken to Harajuku, where Japanese kids dress up as Goths and sad dolls. Next to them, middle-aged men wear biker jackets, sport foot-high quiffs and dance like rockabillies. “Here you can see... weird people,” said our guide, dumbfounded.
I walked away down Omote-sando, where designer shops try to outdo each other through outstanding architecture. I didn’t look at a single pair of shoes or jeans, but could have spent the rest of the day among the glass and metal wonders – more like trees, jellyfish or giant diamonds than functioning buildings. Turning off the main road I found less chichi crowds, great coffee shops and cheaper restaurants, none of which ever disappointed. Even the budget sushi joints with conveyor belts beat anything I’ve eaten back home.
The next day a bullet train whizzed us past high mountains covered with trees – some still heavy with cherry blossom – to the hot spring city of Gero. Below us the Kiso and Hida rivers glistened in the sun and the only buildings dotting the countryside were traditional houses with immaculately clipped hedgerows. It’s easy to forget that more than three-quarters of Japan looks like this.
The train ride was a joy. I’m struggling not to use the word perfect too much, but everything in Japan is. Even catching a train becomes an adventure
Why can’t we have trains like this? Surely all we need to do is sack the incompetents who turn us into smelly psychopaths each morning and ask the Japanese to show us how to do it
Delivered swiftly and on time, we slept that night on futon mattresses rolled out over tatami mats that covered the entire floor of two huge rooms. Dinner was served in another room by a group of women who giggled constantly while laying out traditional Japanese food on a low table, long enough for the entire group. I counted 11 separate dishes in front of each person, each of which had its own servings of sauce or vegetables. Some even had their own small cookers or charcoal grills, so that things bubbled and steamed away while we started on the miso soup.
We woke early to the same giggling women preparing a breakfast that, incredibly, involved as many dishes as dinner the night before. Then there was just enough time to go up to the roof to soak in one of Gero’s many onsen (volcanic hotsprings) before catching a train to Takayama.
The city’s Spring Festival was in full flow when we arrived, with locals parading beautifully ornate floats through the streets. Takayama became famous for its carpentry in the days when tax was paid in rice, which the locals were unable to grow. They had to offer something else, and so became incredible carpenters. Because of the town’s isolated location, many of these skills and traditions have been preserved and its narrow streets of two-storey wooden buildings have barely changed in 300 years.
I was more interested in another of the region’s famous commodities, though – Hida beef, which comes from cows fed on beer. The choicest cuts are laced with white veins of fat. For just over 4,000 yen (about £20) I got 12 thinly sliced chunks, presented raw and marinated in soy sauce.
I was given a small charcoal grill and told to briefly cook the beef strips before dipping them in another dish of soy sauce, to which I’d already added freshly crushed ginger and garlic. Tender as smoked salmon, as juicy as an orange and as light as a flake of cod, it was simply delicious.
From the best beef to the blandest supper so far – we headed from Takayama, via five different trains, a cablecar and a bus, to the sacred town of Koya-san. We arrived at a monastery late that night and were served a meal of deliberately plain vegetarian food – among the many things the monks here abstain from is anything that ‘falsely livens up the spirit’. Onions, garlic – even leeks – are banned (though some of the younger monks gave me a knowing smile when I came back from a late search for coffee and found them all smoking outside).
When we woke at six the following morning we saw our surroundings for the first time. Koya-san sits among eight mountain peaks, thickly carpeted with cedar trees. There are no skyscrapers, no shining glass-and-steel; instead, almost 100 temples dot this region. This was no longer the modern, chaotic Japan of Lost in Translation; instead it was the wild romance of Akira Kurosawa’s films – except in glorious colour.
Koya-san is also home to the Oku-no-in temple, the resting place of Kobo Daishi, who founded the town in 816 after studying Buddhism in China. Pilgrims pray and sing to him, and he is still offered two meals a day. His mausoleum is surrounded by half a million graves, the largest graveyard in Japan.
After the simple monastery food, I spent my last night back in Tokyo, determined to eat in one its best restaurants. Accompanied by my friend Toby – who’s been living in Tokyo for two years – I headed for Ginza Sushiko Honten, one of the city’s 117 restaurants awarded one Michelin star. We had a map that had no street names or numbers (there are often neither in Tokyo) but we did have a picture of the front door. Eventually we found it and sat down at a tiny counter, big enough for about seven customers.
There was no menu – the chef just asked us how far we wanted to go and if there was anything we didn’t like. Beyond that we were in his hands.
There was no food out on display; every ingredient came straight out of the fridge. He applied the wasabi, brushed each dish with just the right amount of soy sauce and placed it in front of us to pick up with our fingers. He watched our faces as we started to chew, and smiled proudly as – mouths full – we nodded, grinned and made hand signals of fawning approval. Even Toby, who speaks fluent Japanese, was rendered speechless.
Once the chef had seen our reaction, he went straight back to preparing the next tiny dish: a piece of tuna of such perfect dimensions that it covered the rice like a plaster; a slice of giant scallop grilled for seconds and wrapped in fresh seafood paper; a single mushroom, like nothing I’d ever tasted before. He kept asking if we’d had enough and we kept saying no. It could have gone on all night. Finally, with a slice of egg sponge for pudding, we conceded defeat.
The restaurant opened in 1885 and is now owned by the fourth generation of the founding family. Watching the chef at work, it seemed that everything learned and honed over all those years was now in his fingers. And like so much in Japan – from the timely trains to the immaculate hedgerows – it was just perfect.