Home [ CULTURE ] Japan as Number One

Japan as Number One

E-mail Print

This was the title of a highly influential bestseller by American intellectual Ezra Vogel.  These days, Japan’s economy is no longer number one, if it ever was.  Next year it will drop back to number three, as it will be overtaken by China.

But today, the Michelin guide Tokyo 2010 to the best hotels and restaurants has declared this wonderful city to be number one!

Tokyo now has 11 restaurants with three stars, compared with a mere 10 three-starred restaurants in Paris.  New York, the global capital of everything until the financial crisis, has only four three-starred restaurants, being beaten hands-down by Kyoto with its six three-star restaurants. 

The three star-rating means exceptional cuisine, for which it is worth a special journey.  The same criteria are used for awarding stars all around the world: product quality, preparation and flavours, the chef’s personality as revealed through his cuisine, value for money, and consistency over time and across the entire menu.  Tokyo also has more total stars than Paris, with 261 stars shared by 197 restaurants (42 restaurants with two stars and 144 with one star).

We did not need Michelin guide director Jean-Luc Naret to inform us that Tokyo is the "world capital of gastronomy".  Until the publication of this Michelin guide, Tokyo was the world’s best secret.  Two-thirds of the Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo serve Japanese cuisine, while the others serve the following cuisines -- French, Chinese, Fusion, Italian, Spanish and Steak house.

How could Tokyo lead the world in gastronomy?  Tokyo has by far the largest number of restaurants of any city in the world – 160,000 compared with about 40,000 in Paris.  And the Japanese have a very strong culture of gastronomy which means that competition is fierce.  Also, the training of Japanese chefs is almost samurai-like.  A sushi cutter may have to undertake seven years of training before being allowed to touch a knife.  Japan’s long history of gastronomy also means that very high quality ingredients are available.  And as everywhere in Japan, there is an unbeatable sense of service.

What about Michelin’s “inspectors”?  After their controversial use of non-Japanese inspectors for the first two editions of this publication, Michelin used only Japanese inspectors this time.  Surely they were biased?

No, certainly not, claims Naret.  The recruitment process is ferocious in terms of testing the candidate’s eye for detail.  New recruits undergo a tough 6-month training period with master inspectors.  And inspectors must sign confidentiality agreements which rival the CIA.  Only the closest family are allowed to know the identity of a Michelin inspector.  To ensure impartiality, inspectors are rotated around different parts of a country.  High quality restaurants are inspected by several inspectors.  And the final allocation of Michelin stars is done by a rigorous committee process.

The next Michelin guide to Paris will be published in March 2010.  Will Paris now get 12 three-star restaurants?  We are all waiting with baited breath!