No other country assaults my senses quite in the way Japan does. Not a day goes by when my mind doesn’t wander to a past experience, a certain place or time, which led me to one of those magical “only in Japan” moments that happen to you, and only you, when you go.
These moments are unique, and often so unusual, that they truly stand out, as they just wouldn’t happen anywhere else in the world.
I began returning to Japan regularly around eight years ago. It was a pivotal time of discovery for me. The travel bug had hit hard, but it was Japan that accelerated it all. More magic happens there than anywhere else I ever go. My rediscovery of the remarkable food has played a big part, not just the flavours, but the presentation, the attention to the seasons in designing meals, the rigorous devotion to the quality and the masterful ways of preparation using both traditional and modern methods. These are amongst the most enlightening experiences.
When I first set foot back in Tokyo, I was determined to have a top-echelon Sushi adventure, in one of the finest temples of tradition. Of course, I’d seen the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and that certainly whet my appetite. But I usually go against the norm and avoid the places that become prominent in the international spotlight. So, my first high-end Tokyo sushi experience was not Sukiyabashi Jiro, but another, always considered one of the best, which flew a little under the radar to foreigners at the time. After much research, I chose Sawada.
To say the experience was life-changing would be, for me, close to the truth. This was the ultimate three-hour theatrical experience for the gourmand I was becoming. Apart from the freshest seafood I’d ever tasted, I was astounded by the reverence to every grain of rice, the economy of movement to create each meticulous nigiri, the deftness of chef Sawada’s hands, and the arrival order of each delicacy, which increased the taste experience slowly, but dramatically. I’d never seen anything like it. Here, my first ever taste of this level of tuna and premium sea urchin. My first taste of seasonal fishes, cockles and crustacea from Japan, in their naked, sublime purity. There was no going back.
It was a little intimidating, as I speak little Japanese. But it didn’t take long for me to settle into this way of dining. Six seats, only chef Sawada and his wife as the team, no assistants. No electricity used in the preparation of the food. No photography, no loud behavior. It’s a serious place with serious food for connoisseurs. Talk about starting at the very top!
I was instantly addicted, and from that first experience at Sawada I sought to try as many top-end sushiya that I could. The ones that I have attended in subsequent years have been less rigid, but with no less attention to detail.
I can usually manage 2 - 3 trips to Tokyo each year. Dining at the best restaurants have been true highlights. Often, I am the only non-Japanese patron, but I find it easy to dine solo at those beautiful hinoki cypress counters, with only a handful of others, all in reverence to the sushi master. It is a highly individual, respectful and studied experience, the payoff being each incredible morsel surprising you in myriad ways and bringing wild sensations to your taste buds.
Over the years, I’ve had outstanding meals at Sushi Masuda, Sushi Tokami, Sushi Iwa, Sushi-ya, and most recently, Hakkoku, where chef Hiroyuki Sato presents a superlative lesson in traditional Edomae style sushi with an array of over thirty nigiri.
I could go on and on, and review these establishments and the differences between them, but there’s a whole other article in that. This one is about the increasing difficulty of securing a spot at Tokyo’s very best sushiya.
The fore-mentioned documentary may have been the beginning of it. Certainly, the massive influx of tourism another. Everyone was knowledgeable about these hallowed sushi temples, with so few seats, and a notorious reservation system opening a month prior with phones almost always ringing off the hook.
My methods of securing a booking have always been through a very trusty Japanese concierge at American Express in Australia, her contact being either directly with the restaurant or, most often, through the hotel concierge where I am staying, who then provides the formal booking process to the establishment.
The rigidity of securing a booking includes filling out a reservation form from your hotel, supplying credit card details (and copies of the front and back of your card) to placing a deposit or the entire amount well in advance of your visit. The penalty of cancellation is loss of the cost of the meal, often in excess of Y30,000 per person. This I do understand, due to the small number of covers and necessity to purchase prime ingredients fresh that morning from market.
There are many reports that “no-shows” are the main reason for such tight rules. I am flabbergasted at the concept of people not turning up for such difficult to book, iconic dining experiences. Other reports cite poor, loud, drunken behaviour from select Westerners, and a lack of respect of the fine tradition expected to be upheld during a visit.
In recent years, it has become a lot worse. The very top sushiya, considered the world’s best, now make it next to impossible to score a place. Sushi Saito, considered the very best in the world, Sugita, now in the top tier of hotter-than-hot pinnacle sushi dining, and new Michelin entry Amamoto – all have such strict regulations on how to get a reservation that you are likely to have to reconsider your options.
Tokyo’s very best hotel concierges are now unlikely to be able to book you a place at these, and many others. Even if you do manage to get in once, you’re not immediately considered a regular (for obvious reasons). You are required to have to dine with one of the “regular regulars” for several months up to a year until you’re allowed to make bookings independently.
At Sugita and other similar calibre high-end sushiya, all seats for the following month are booked by visiting customers during their meal. This means the only way to score a reservation is by introduction from a regular Japanese diner. Many no longer allow third-party bookings, which eliminates any possible concierge intervention.
I still have not been to Sushi Saito. It has always been a dream of mine, one I know will likely never be realised. More upsetting for me was my recent attempt to dine again, for a third time, at Sawada. It seems even a “regular regular” can get pushed aside. My Amex concierges called every day to try and get me in. I was eventually told that due to the vast number of regulars wanting a spot, there was a system in place by the restaurant to ensure a fair allocation for return visits.
It does seem as if many of the best sushiya are discouraging foreign visitors. I accept that loyal Japanese clientele would take preference but there does seem some bias in the way some shops operate their policies. It puts us non-Japanese in a bit of a bad light. I am sure that the overwhelming majority who try so hard through all avenues to score a spot are well-behaved, cashed up fine-dining lovers with the utmost respect for what they will experience.
It appears to be getting even worse still – In September 2018, two Michelin starred Hatsunezushi had a message on their website saying they’ll begin accepting reservations for 2020. They can seat a maximum of 3,000 people each year. For seatings in 2019, every single place was snapped up within a week.
Luckily last year, again through my wonderful Amex concierge, her friends in Tokyo recommended a more local, under the radar sushiya and I took the punt and went. At Sushi Takamitsu, I had a wonderful, relaxed, fun, delicious, technically perfect sushi meal. Chef Takamitsu Yasuda knows how to let his customers have a ball, all the while not straying from delivering a sublime sushi parade. On custom built Louis Vuitton trunks built into the counter, he proudly displays enormous fine Bluefin Tuna and boxes and boxes of glistening orange-hued Uni from the best areas of Hokkaido.
Now I converse with chef directly (via Google translate) and I have become one of those “regular regulars”. Finally – victory! Sushi Takamitsu has since gained a Michelin star, so my timing was, luckily, perfect. Now, I happily continue to enjoy transcendental meals at my new favourite Japanese restaurant.
Advice to those embarking on this at times almost impossible quest – give it your all but don’t fret if you do not succeed. There is always a wonderful sushiya to experience without the exalted reputation and awards. You don’t have to spend a mint to enjoy this most unique of cuisines. The quality is always there, no matter where you choose, as the striving of perfection is paramount in Japan. Many of the neighbourhood sushiya that fly under the radar to international travellers, in many ways, can be an even more personal experience than some of the very top stars. Seek them out – it’s all part of the Tokyo adventure.