The cuisine of Japan is steeped in culinary tradition, reflecting centuries of political, economic, and social change. Through the evolution, an emphasis on seasonality, seafood, reverence and respect, and artistic presentation has persevered. Though Japan has imported foreign culinary cuisines for over a century, the last few decades have resulted in a bloom of Japanese food-making across the globe. This global introduction of Japanese devotion to food has piqued the interest of the international food community, and earned the acclaim of hosting the most Michelin-starred restaurants on the planet.
What Is the Michelin Guide?
The Michelin Guide was created in 1889 by the Micheline tire company to encourage vehicle sales by increasing the experience of the traveler. It was revamped in 1926 by awarding a star to notable establishments, which began its original notoriety. By 1936, teams of anonymous inspectors and diners established the criteria of the star ranking system that is internationally acknowledged and revered today.
Stars are awarded on 5 specific criteria:
- Quality of products.
- Mastery of flavors and cooking techniques.
- The personality of the chef represented in the dining experience.
- Value for money.
- Consistency between inspectors’ visits.
The Michelin star restaurant rating system designates three categories, one per star.
- A One-star award is a high-quality restaurant in its category and is worth a stop.
- Two-stars denote excellence, a restaurant worthy of a detour to dine at.
- Three-stars claim exceptional cuisine, valuable enough to recognize a special journey for the dining experience.
Japanese Culinary Tradition
Japanese cuisine, or Washoku, which means “food of Japan,” is known for individual specialty. Chefs may take up a honed focus on a singular culinary tradition, striving to master only a single dish in their expertise. This approach has resulted in a number of highly focused restaurants in Japan, that have been accredited with Michelin stars. Sushi, for example, is a globally popular and iconic Japanese food, the preparation of which may take decades to master, from making and shaping rice, to perfecting the flavor of fish through aging, massaging, temperature control, and precision of cut.
Other specialty cuisines known to Japan include:
- Shojin ryori: Traditional Buddhist dining style, typically centered around soybean-based foods and seasonal vegetables. Made without meat, fish, or animal products.
- Honzen ryori: One of the three basic styles of Japanese cuisine. Maintains a highly ritualized presentation by which food is carefully arranged in dishes on legged trays.
- Kaiseki ryori: Traditional multi-course meal or banquet dinner that is typically reserved for special occasions.
- Sashimi: Thinly sliced raw food, typically fish, served on a platter with a garnish.
- Suimono: Translated as “things to sip,” suimono is a traditional Japanese soup. The ingredients may vary, but the soup itself must be clear to call it suimono.
- Yakimono: Traditional foods, typically including beef, chicken, fish, and vegetables that are grilled on the fire.
- Mushimono: Steamed dishes that usually contain chicken, fish, or vegetables.
- Nimono: A dish that is simmered in a shiru stock until the liquid is absorbed into the base ingredient, or evaporated.
- Aemono: Typically refers to an uncooked sauce, but can also be used to describe the item in entirety, such as a salad.
- Tsukemono: An essential and historic dish of pickled and preserved vegetables. This dish lends color, texture and balance to a meal, lending harmony and “konomono” or “fragrant things”.
- Ramen: An adaptation of Chinese wheat noodles served in a meat or fish-based broth flavored with soy sauce or miso. Topping may include pork, seaweed, scallions, as well as regional variations.
- Tempura: With Portuguese origins, tempura is a fried dish that typically consists of fried fish or fried vegetables.
- Yakitori: Seasoned chicken cooked on a skewer over a charcoal fire.
- Soba: The term itself is the Japanese word for buckwheat, but is commonly used to refer to thin noodles made from buckwheat, served with dipping sauce or hot broth.
Michelin Restaurants in Tokyo
As the holder of the most Michelin stars in the world, Tokyo is praised as a culinary capital. Consider this list of 3-star restaurants selected from the Tokyo Michelin Guide:
- Kagurazaka Ishikawa: Chef Hideki Ishikawa’s menu examines seasonal foods and strives to sharpen, explore, and polish the subtle and pure tastes of the ingredients.
Typical cost = ¥28,000
- Usukifugu Yamadaya: A chance to dare into one of the most dangerous ingredients, fugu (also known as pufferfish), is served in this restaurant that has passed down the teachings of fugu cuisine since 1905.
Typical cost = ¥20,000 – 40,000
- Kanda: Chef Hiroyuki Kanda specializes in creating original dishes for customers, tailoring flavor and portion size to each individual. There is no actual written menu, and each meal is catered to the individual and the experience.
Typical cost = ¥24,000 – 36,000
- Quintessence: For a truly unique experience, enjoy the perfection of French cooking, from Chef Shuzo, in Tokyo. The menus are “carte blanche”, or Chef selected, and based on seasonal products from the market.
Typical cost = ¥13,000 – 27,000
- Kohaku: Explore the boundaries of tradition and modernity with a blend of western and Japanese ingredients that combine to showcases the “human development” by reconstructing it on the plate.
Typical cost = ¥28,000
- Sushi Saito: Developed from the traditional study of sushi making, Takashi Saito strives to create the perfect balance in his work by flavor, temperature, and atmosphere. The simplistic design of the interior of the restaurant, a single board counter, creates intimacy, invites conversation, and allows one to view the chef while he creates.
Typical lunch cost = ¥5,500 – 17,000
Typical dinner cost = ¥27,000
- Sukyabashi Jiro Honten: The bounty of a craftsman is built from refined skills. Jiro Ono and his eldest son take pride in the unparalleled purity and simplicity of nigari made from ingredients purchased at the riverside from coastal waters.
Typical cost = ¥38,000
- Makimura: Chef Akio Makimura combines simplicity, elegance, and classical taste in kaiseki (multi-dish) dinners that boast Japan’s culinary delicacies, in a small family restaurant with a pleasant atmosphere.
Typical cost = ¥24,000
- Azabu Yukimua: Ancient Japanese charcoal cooking techniques slowly roast seasonal flavors that Chef Jun Yukimura uses to create originality and attractiveness on the plate.
Typical cost = ¥33,000 – 42,000
- Sushi Yoshitake: Blending nigiri with flavorful tsunami small plates create the digestive experience of the ocean, with a warm, inviting, and close atmosphere. Enjoy the premium ingredients that have been hand-selected each morning and prepared with extensive care.
Typical cost = ¥35,000
Other Michelin Restaurants in Japan
The excellence of Japanese cuisine is not specific to Tokyo, but is spread across the entirety of the country. Regional flavors, local ingredients, and long-standing traditions curate a diversity of encounters as the island country is explored, making Japan a complete adventure for those who appreciate flavor. Urban travelers who are temporary visitors and tourists are eligible for a Japan Rail Pass, which grants access to the whole of Japan, including its diversity of dining experiences. Explore in comfort through the use of the Japan Michelin Guide. The following list includes cities that are accessible using the Japan rail pass.
Kyoto Michelin Selections:
Sumibi Kappo Ifuki: With two Michelin stars, and a charcoal grill set in the center of the kitchen, this restaurant is sure to stand out. Enjoy the specialties of seafood, homemade soba, or delicately boiled and grilled meats.
Typical cost = ¥19,000 – 29,000
Iwasaki: Blending the orthodox with creativity, Chef Iwasaki’s menu includes meat dishes such as duck and lamb, as well as small pots that vary by season. The comfort of this family-run one-star Michelin restaurant is enhanced by the hospitality of the chef’s wife.
Typical lunch cost = ¥6,000 – 12,000
Typical dinner cost = ¥12,000 – 23,000
Hiroshima Michelin Selections:
Ajiyoshi: For a laissez-faire experience centered around the idea of omakase, which means “I’ll leave it up to you,” one can enjoy the freedom from a menu and exposure to the local variety of seasonal foods at this small, family-owned, one-star Michelin restaurant.
Typical cost = ¥15,000 – 20,000
Chiso Sottaku Ito: A true taste of Japan may be found here, where flavors from all over the country are used to create exquisite dishes, and are enhanced by aging techniques. The shop boasts a freshness of spring water and kelp that are used to make soup stock unique to this location.
Typical cost = ¥10,800 – 16,200
Osaka Michelin Selections:
Ajikitcho Horienten: Explore history and tradition through Naniwa vegetables (distinct vegetables revived to savor Osaka’s cultural and food history), and fresh fish bought from the hands of the fishermen. Relax at this two-star Michelin sanctuary of tradition, with sukiya architecture and natural gardens, nestled in the city.
Typical lunch cost = ¥18,000 – 42,000
Typical dinner cost = ¥24,000 – 42,000
Ichiju Nisai Ueno Minoten: Dine amidst the scenic beauty and elegance of Mt. Mino while savoring authentic Japanese cuisine in multi-course kaiseki means, artfully presented, and paired with sake. This restaurant boasts two Michelin stars, and a vibrant and picturesque backdrop that changes with the seasons.
Typical lunch cost = ¥11,000 – 18,000
Typical dinner cost = ¥15,000-34,000