It has become one of Tokyo’s gastronomic rites of autumn. Just as sure as the leaves on the city’s many ginkgo trees turn gold and scatter across pavements, the latest Michelin Guide Tokyo hits the stores each year.
The 2017 edition was announced on Nov. 29 to the usual ripple of commentary in the media, both mainstream and social. As always, the reactions have mostly focused on the numbers and names: How many restaurants have stars this time, which places have gained or lost them, which newcomers have made it on to the list and who has fallen into oblivion.
In terms of statistics, the Japanese capital continues to far outstrip any other city on the planet. By whatever measure you choose — the number of restaurants anointed with stars (227 in all), the total of stars they hold between them (305) or the number of prestigious three-star designations (12) — Tokyo remains unrivaled.
But the real story is actually how little change there has been this year, and how much Michelin has become embedded in the fabric of Japan’s food-centric lifestyle. This is the 10th edition of the so-called Red Guide, and the vast majority of the names included are the same, give or take a star or two. It’s no longer a major news event: the annual unveiling is now business as usual.
It has not always been this way. A decade ago, when word first surfaced that Michelin was about to launch a Tokyo Guide — its very first foray into Asia — there was excitement within the restaurant industry but yawns of disinterest among the general public. Many observers assumed it would only focus on the growing number of excellent French restaurants in the city.
One TV channel aired an interview with Jiro Ono, the doyen of sushi chefs and master of the revered, old-school Sukiyabashi Jiro. He voiced his disdain: How could this European tire company have the temerity to hand down judgments on Japanese cuisine? Could it even start to understand the centuries-old culture of sushi?
Suspicions turned to smiles after that initial guide finally came out in late November 2007. Not only was Tokyo recognized as a global center of gastronomy, with twice as many stars as Paris, more than half of the restaurants in the guide were Japanese. And Jiro was one of just eight select establishments to be awarded three stars — a status he has retained in succeeding editions.
Inevitably, this was headline news around the world. But the longer-term reaction was that the guide was way too limited. How, in a city with well over 100,000 restaurants, could only 150 be worthy of inclusion? The Michelin inspectors clearly took those concerns to heart. During the next few years they more than doubled the number of stars they handed out, inviting a different kind of criticism: Were they being too free and easy with the amount of stardust they were sprinkling?
Ten editions in, the hype surrounding Michelin’s annual pronouncements appears to have settled. But the guide has had a lasting impact on Tokyo’s dining scene. Published in English online and instantly relayed around the world, it has helped to trigger the current boom in Tokyo gastrotourism.
Finding seats at high-end restaurants has never been harder. The most in-demand — notably Saito (sushi) and Quintessence (French), both with three stars — are now booked up six months ahead. And many chefs only accept reservations made through a hotel concierge and with credit card guarantees, after having too many customers fail to show up.
But it is not Michelin alone that fuels this phenomenon. These days, user-generated reviews and rankings on such sites as TripAdvisor, Yelp and the hugely popular Tabelog (now with an English-language version) wield even greater influence, as they are more flexible and up-to-the-minute. The online reviewing genie has been unleashed and will not be going back in its bottle any time soon.
Michelin, Tokyo 2017: winners, losers, upsets
“The major news from the new Michelin Guide Tokyo is that the formerly three-star Esaki, a Japanese restaurant in Aoyama, no longer features on the list, as it’s moving. Of the four new places awarded two stars, two are offshoots of prominent Michelin-ranked restaurants: Miyasaka (Ginza; Japanese), whose chef trained at the revered Mizai in Kyoto, and Amamoto (Higashi-Azabu; sushi), formerly of Umi in Aoyama. They are joined by tempura specialist Ginya (Shirokanedai) and Masuda (Aoyama; sushi).
At the one-star level, there was more action, with notable new entrants Amber Palace (Marunouchi; Chinese), Sugita (Nihonbashi; sushi) and Tacubo (Ebisu; Italian), plus a clutch of modern French restaurants including Craftale (Nakameguro), Sublime (Shinbashi) and L’orgueil (Aoyama).
Probably the biggest surprise has been the addition of another ramen counter to the list. The hearty shio (salt) or tantanmen (spicy broth) ramen at Nakiryu have won it many fans. They are likely to be less than happy now that the lines will inevitably swell.
Correction: This story was corrected on Dec. 12 to reflect the fact that Esaki in Aoyama is no longer featured on the Michelin Guide Tokyo list. It has not dropped from three stars to two, as originally stated.