One city with the most Michelin stars in the world, another in the top five, technological advancements that are second to none and a safety record that’s the paradigm to the rest of the western world, yet Japan wasn’t on our immediate radar. What does it take? Discounted airfare? Additions to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites? Construct the second largest building in the world? No, just watch a documentary about sushi. We walked into the theater to watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi as innocent bystanders and walked out hungry and ready to fly.
There are several good times to visit Japan, during one of the large sumo tournaments, when the gates to Mount Fuji are open, but we opted for the beginning of cherry blossom season typically in April.
As we began to research, it became clear that some of these reservations, including Jiro’s restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten, would be very difficult to book. And the Japanese language become a hurdle in booking some restaurants. So, we used some of our Hilton Points and booked the Conrad Hilton hoping their concierge service could bridge the gap at some of the tougher reservations. And boy do we need them, Tokyo is easily the hardest city to get restaurant reservations. With a population 10 times as dense as the U.S. and 99% of its people are Japanese, it present two problems. We called a few places and to our surprise a lot of restaurants didn’t want foreigners dining at their establishments. Partially because we have a tendency to cancel or because they may have strong nationalistic background. Either way, I was turned off. Sushi Saito, a three star was booked two months out. Aronia de Takazawa, an eight set modern French restaurant ranked #28 in the world by Restaurant magazine, booked two months out, Kyo-aji, a traditional Japanese restaurant, regarded by some as the best in Japan, completely booked and I got the impression, we weren’t wanted anyway. Casual one star Michelin yakitori Torishiki, booked for a few months and no waitlist. Mizai, a revered kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto, booked six months out. The good news we got a lot of other intriguing restaurants from sushi to tempura, from street food to Michelin three stars, and we even got Jiro. In the end, we used the concierge for 13 reservations and ask their input on the remaining 13 restaurants on our trip.
If you spend enough time with the Japanese, you’ll start to realize their cuisine can broken down into three distinct categories: chicken bowls, Cup Noodles and California rolls. And we were eager to try all three. Then we began our research and found that’s there even more to their cuisine. There’s the obvious to an American palette like sushi, tempura and ramen. But once you dig a little deeper, there’s dozens of cuisine and specialties to choose from and even regional distinctions within each cuisine. There’s soba, udon, oden, shabu-shabu, sukiyaki, gyozas, kaiseki, tofu, takoyaki, tonkatsu, okonomiyaki, donburi, tea, sake, beer, shochu, bento boxes and the list goes on. We wanted to try a range of cuisine, but like many tourists, we gravitated towards sushi. We settled on four sushi meals, five noodle places, two kaiseki meals and about ten other cuisines throughout our trip (see Post Trip Restaurant Rank below). We left content that we tried a full range of Japanese cuisine, but we would have also been happy with four more sushi meals. I’ve always had an issue how simple Japanese cuisine comes off, but after this trip I have a new found respect for the quality of the raw ingredients and the restraint used in its presentation. They are dedicated to cultivating the best ingredients possible and they’ve embraced a culture willing to wait and pay for it. Some of the ingredients that really left an impression on us were obviously the fish and the beef, but also the chicken, eggs, rice, fruit, tofu and the noodles.
Cities visited: Tokyo, Kamakura, Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima
Miles: 11,000 flight; 0 car; 1,229 train; 0 biked; 0 jogged
Length: 9 days
Biggest surprise: Ningyocho Imanhan (Sukiyaki) and Toriki
Toughest reservation: Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten, (Could not get Mizai, Kyoaji, Nakazawa, Sushi Saito)
Total attractions: 37
Cost per attraction: $12
Favorite experience: Tsukiji Fish Market, Hiroshima and the all the great sushi experiences
Most overrated experience(s): Tokyo National Museum, Ueno Park outside of cherry blossom season, Akihabara and Nezu Shrine
Top attractions: Tsukiji Fish Market, Genbaku Dome, Golden Pavillion, Fushimi Inari-taisha, World Trade Center for the views and to take in the size of the city, Kamakura Favorite stores: Isetan food hall, food carts & street food, Sembikiya
City rankings: 1. Tokyo, 2. Kyoto, 3. Hiroshima, 4. Kamakura, 5. Nara
Stuff we missed: Cities – Nikko and Osaka;Attractions – The National Arts Center, Hemiji Castle,Ryozen Kannon,Toji Temple, Hiroshima Memorial Museum,Miho Museum; Food –
Kyoaji, Nakazawa, Sushi Saito, Mount Fuji, Sumo Wrestling, Baseball Game,Torishiki, Warito, Mizai
Japan 2013 (PDF)