National | Deep Dive

Dining out in Tokyo in the age of gastro-tourism

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

Tokyo: It’s the world’s greatest dining city. Twenty years ago this assertion — one I delighted in dropping into conversations whenever possible — would have been met with bemusement if not ridicule, especially among the gourmets of Paris or New York. These days, few seriously dispute it. In terms of both quantity and quality — the sheer number of restaurants and the depth of Japanese food culture — nowhere else comes close.

So what happened to change perceptions on a global scale? First, thanks to the sushi boom of the ’80s, Japanese cuisine is no longer considered exotic. Even seaweed has gone mainstream.

Second, there were the stars. The word was already out among chefs and adventurous gourmets in the know, but it was the first Michelin guide to Tokyo, published in 2007, that eventually triggered the wave of gastro-tourism to Japan.

The effect was immediate. Traditional restaurants that had been discreetly plying their trade for years were suddenly thrust into the global spotlight. Fame came fast to some chefs — sushi master Jiro Ono, now in his 90s, has now become a household name — and for the foodie fraternity it became a badge of honor to secure a prized seat at sushi or kaiseki restaurants formerly known only to insiders.

But the biggest impact on dining in Japan, as on all aspects of tourism, has come from the internet. Blogs led the way, but they’ve been eclipsed by Instagram and other social media networks. Now, smartphone cameras shine a spotlight on even the most obscure neighborhood eateries. Nowhere is immune or sacrosanct.

As a longtime resident — I’ve lived in Japan close to 40 years — it’s easy to grumble. The influx of visitors from abroad has certainly made it harder to make reservations at some of my favorite restaurants. When a disproportionate number of diners in a small restaurant are from abroad, that inevitably affects the dynamic of the overall experience. And it is always jarring to hear English, Chinese or other languages rising sharply above the usual “treeline” of Japanese conversation levels.

Many chefs have told me that the biggest negative has been the growing number of no-shows — customers not honoring their reservations. Sometimes this may just be unfortunate. Jet lag can kick in at any time, and an afternoon nap can easily turn into deep slumber. But as often as not, the motives are purely selfish: The customer doesn’t even feel the need to call and cancel.

Then there are the visiting gourmands who book themselves in for two dinners in the same evening — say, an early slot at a sushi counter and then a heavier wagyu dinner later — as a way to tick off more restaurants from their bucket lists during their visit. Even with the best of intentions, this is clearly unhealthy. When you start hearing stories of purging and bulimia, that is Instagram eating taken to excessive lengths.

But the impact is not only in the minus column. On the most practical level, there are few owner-chefs who will bemoan the increased clientele and having reservations assured for months ahead. And it’s not just the high-end restaurants that are enjoying this surge: kaiten (conveyor-belt) sushi and ramen are equally in demand, while convenience store egg sandwiches now enjoy cult status in certain quarters.

I would also argue that the growing overseas interest in Japan has boosted the number and the quality of restaurants, especially in Tokyo. It encourages chefs to step up their game, to source better ingredients, to work with farmers and other food producers to improve their products.

Many of the current generation of chefs in Japan have lived and worked abroad, or increasingly travel outside the country for demonstrations and collaborations. The cross-fertilization is a two-way process and we are all the beneficiaries.

Best of all, there is generally a much greater receptiveness toward visitors from abroad. A generation ago, few restaurants wanted the hassle, the uncertainty, the fear of “misunderstanding” that might arise when dealing with non-Japanese speakers.

Today, many more chefs are just happy they can share their culture and cuisine with all-comers. This is a golden age for dining out in Japan, whether you are a first-time visitor or a seasoned veteran.