When it was announced some years ago that the Michelin Guide had awarded more stars to restaurants in Tokyo than any other city it covered, it made international headlines. But rating and ranking restaurants in Japan is nothing new. In Tokyo and in Japan in general, people have been writing about and hotly debating the relative merits of eating establishments and the food they serve for centuries.
The basics of Japanese cuisine (washoku) as we know it today started to take shape during the Muromachi Period (1392-1573). Public eateries, mostly stalls set up near popular shrines and temples catering to worshippers, are first mentioned during this time.
But it wasn’t until the Edo Period (1603-1867), when the nation became relatively peaceful and prosperous under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate, that the restaurant and hospitality business really took off. By the early 18th century the population of Edo had reached one million (as a comparison, the population of Paris at the time was about 550,000). It’s estimated that around 30 percent of the residents of Edo were single men; these included samurai who were sent to Edo from their home regions on temporary assignment, ronin and men from the merchant and artisan classes who came to Edo to look for work and seek their fortune.
Since these men often lacked the facilities or the skills to cook for themselves, numerous establishments sprang up around town to cater to their needs. Many were the forerunners of the fast-food restaurants of today, serving quick meals to busy people on tight budgets. Sake was served all day along with big bowls of white rice. Three of the major foods that represent Japanese cuisine to this day — sushi, tempura and soba noodles — became widely popular and all got their start as quick, cheap food served from stalls or casual no-frills eateries in Edo.
As time passed and the dining scene in Edo became ever more sophisticated, entertaining guests at elegant restaurants called ryotei became fashionable among well-to-do samurai and merchants. A mid-level samurai who was in the employ of the shogunate or a regional lord typically spent about 25 percent of his income treating guests, so knowing the right places to go and the right dishes to order was very important.
By the early 19th century, booksellers in Edo, who were also the publishing houses of the day, were issuing booklets or paper sheets with restaurant rankings every year. These were usually presented as banzuke, the way sumo wrestlers are ranked; restaurants or their signature dishes were listed as “grand champion,” “champion” and so on. Highly ranked establishments would be swamped with business soon after a new listing came out, and the validity of the rankings themselves were hotly debated.
The interest in ranking restaurants was not limited to Edo; similar lists were issued in Kyoto and Osaka too. Rankings were also put out for single food items such as confectionery or pickles as well as the best rice growing regions, sake, the tastiest fish dishes for each season and more. Naturally certain brands became more desirable due to their ranking.
A newly appointed government official found himself in hot water in the late 18th century, when it was discovered he had served a cheaper brand of yokan, a sweet, dense bean jelly, rather than the Grand Champion brand of the time, Suzuki Tango. He was forced to prostate himself in shame in front of outraged guests, who were also his colleagues and superiors, for this insult.
The Edo Period also saw a big increase in travel — at first just for official business, but later for pleasure as well.
While traveling was strictly controlled by the government, it wasn’t impossible by any means. In the early 19th century, making a pilgrimage to Ise Jingu Shrine in current day Mie Prefecture became very popular amongst the citizens of Edo as well as the other cities and towns along the Tokaido, the heavily trafficked road from Edo to Kyoto. Much like the pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela or Canterbury that were popular in Europe, the Ise Shrine pilgrimage was often just an excuse to get the proper travel documents, the equivalent of passports today.
It wasn’t long before travel guides were published that noted the various “can’t miss” regional specialities to be enjoyed by the knowledgeable traveler at the shukuba or rest stop towns along the Tokaido, as well as other busy roads such as the Nakasendo. Shukuba businesses enthusiastically marketed their local cuisine to entice people to stay in their town rather than one down the road. A few shukuba towns such as Narai-juku in Nagano Prefecture, a stop on the Nakasendo, have been carefully preserved and still look much as they did in the 18th or 19th centuries.
A 21st century trend in food tourism is a throwback of sorts to that time. Many regions around the country are using B-kyu Gotochi Gurume (B-class regional gourmet) — casual, inexpensive local cuisine — to attract tourists. One of the most successful B-class dishes is the yakisoba (stir-fried noodles with a Worcestershire sauce-like sauce) made in Fujinomiya in Shizuoka Prefecture. While the town has other attractions such as stellar views of Mt. Fuji, it’s the noodles that draw devoted fans to Fujinomiya in droves.
Ramen, another dish that established itself in the early 20th century in Japan via China, is typical of B-class regional gourmet food; inexpensive yet made with care, with numerous regional variations to try and compare.
Much of modern Japan looks nothing like it did in the 18th or 19th centuries, especially Tokyo. However a surprising number of businesses that were established in those bygone days still exist, many run by the same families, especially in food-related businesses.
The oldest traditional or wagashi confectioner in Japan, Shiose, was established in 1349 in Nara, and then operated in Kyoto for a few centuries before subsequently moving to its current location in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. One of their signature sweets was used as an offering to the gods by Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa Shogun, before an important battle in 1575. While businesses more than 650 years old are rare, there are numerous restaurants and other food-related businesses that were founded in the 18th through early 20th centuries in Tokyo and throughout Japan. Visiting these old establishments is a heady combination of history and delectable flavors.
The interest in reading, writing and talking about food continues to this day. It’s practically impossible to avoid shows about food and eating out on Japanese TV, and magazines and books about food and eating out are still very popular.
Nowadays the hottest restaurant rating action is on the internet, where thousands of restaurants are reviewed in detail on sites like Tabelog and Gurunavi, as well as on blogs and social networks.
While the technology has changed, the passionate interest in seeking out the best restaurant or dish as well as talking about it, is an important part of Japan’s cultural heritage. And it’s this passion that continues to spur on the producers of food to do their best, and makes dining out in Japan so rewarding.