Michelin Tokyo takes Japan by storm

Guide sells out nationwide, but critics question rating system's validity


A new book released last month has created a sensation and is selling like hotcakes in Japan, with bookstores being picked clean of the initial stock of 120,000 copies in only three days.

Its publisher printed an additional 150,000 copies and put them on shelves on Dec. 12, but they also quickly disappeared from bookstores up and down the country.

The book in question is the Japanese version of Michelin Tokyo 2008, the first Asian edition of the prestigious gastronomic guidebook.

Kazumi Kawashima, an employee at Yaesu Book Center near Tokyo Station, said the only book she can remember selling like this was the “Harry Potter” series.

“We started selling the book at 8 a.m. (on Nov. 22) outside the store — two hours before the store itself opened. We ran out of our stock before noon the same day,” Kawashima said.

The additional copies delivered to Yaesu Book Center on Dec. 12 also sold out immediately because the store had received so many advance orders, she said.

The Michelin guide, with its famous three-star rating system, boasts a huge reputation and a number of legendary episodes — including one widely known case of a French restaurateur who committed suicide after his eatery lost a star.

But what has surprised people the most is perhaps not the book’s impressive sales, but the fact that all of the 150 restaurants listed in Michelin Tokyo carry at least one prestigious star.

Of all the 2007 Michelin guidebooks covering Europe and the United States, less than 10 percent of the 16,150 restaurants listed in the books are given any star rating at all.

That means Tokyo is now considered the world leader in terms of the sheer number of Michelin stars awarded. The No. 2 city is Paris, where only 64 of the 400 listed restaurants are given any star rating.

Michelin Guides Director Jean-Luc Naret confirmed that this means Michelin considers Tokyo the No. 1 gastronomic city in the world, although he quickly added that Tokyo is a bigger city and has a far larger number of restaurants than Paris.

Before launching the Tokyo project, Naret visited other Asian cities, including Hong Kong and Singapore. He said he was particularly impressed with Japanese people’s passion for food and the quality of restaurants in Japan.

At a reception party to celebrate the publication of the book last month, he kiddingly urged reporters to buy a copy immediately because, he joked, all the copies would soon be gone from bookstores.

Although it was only said in jest, his comment proved prescient, Naret said.

“Yes, it was great success,” he admitted.

Michelin’s rating of Tokyo restaurants has already drawn various reactions from Japanese food critics and quality restaurants, and weekly magazines have carried articles debating the ratings’ validity.

Most commentators expressed surprise that all listed restaurants were awarded the precious Michelin star. Some have questioned whether editors and food “inspectors” from Europe can correctly evaluate top-level traditional Japanese cuisine.

Some Japanese critics have lamented the loss in value of Michelin stars because of the publisher’s commercial ambitions to sell the book in a new market.

“Japanese people have a weakness for brands. I kind of expected the book’s sales to be this size,” said Yasuo Terui, editor of Tokyo ii mise umai mise (Tokyo Good Food Restaurants), a long-selling Japanese guidebook with a 40-year history.

Terui questioned Michelin’s survey method, pointing out that only five inspectors — three from Europe and two from Japan — were primarily engaged in visiting Tokyo restaurants.

Terui’s book hires 40 anonymous food experts — each specializing in a certain cuisine category, including French, Italian and Chinese, in addition to sushi, tempura and “unagi” (eel) — who repeatedly visit restaurants in Tokyo over a long period of time.

“The coverage of the Michelin book is unbalanced. For example, it has many restaurants from the Kagurazaka area but none from Asakusa. Many sushi restaurants are listed but only a few tempura restaurants are included,” he said.

“My impression is that (Michelin inspectors) know little (about Tokyo restaurants). Many restaurants that we decided not to list in our guide are included in the Michelin book,” he added.

Countering such criticism, Naret said that after the five inspectors finished a basic survey, an international team of 25 other experienced food experts were engaged in followup ratings to ensure that the value of a star given to Tokyo restaurants would be equal to that for restaurants in other countries covered by Michelin.

Whatever the reputation Michelin’s ratings might have, it may well be too expensive for Japanese on an ordinary income to sample the best of the Michelin-listed restaurants and make their own judgment. The price range for a dinner course at most of the listed restaurants is well above ¥10,000 per person. Many are in the ¥20,000-¥30,000 range, with the highest at ¥80,000.

Asked about the target reader for the Michelin guidebook, including their income level, Naret denied that the guide targets any group in particular.

People from various backgrounds, including those who cannot afford to dine at a star-rated restaurant, are happy to buy and read Michelin books “because they can dream about it,” he said.