From noodle stands to Michelin-starred restaurants, Japan has some of the most amazing food in the world. Food writer Robbie Swinnerton has been covering Tokyo’s culinary scene for decades, so for this week’s episode we asked him to pick out a few standout meals from last year.

Hosted by Jason Jenkins and produced by Dave Cortez.

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Note: Deep Dive is made to be listened to, and we recommend this transcript be used as an accompaniment to the episode. This transcript has been generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription, and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the episode.

Jason Jenkins: 00:09

Hello there, and welcome to Deep Dive from the Japan Times. This is Jason Jenkins. 

Japan is known for its incomparable dining scene, and with both the country and its restaurants beginning to open up in earnest, we've asked JT's food writer Robbie Swinnerton to share some of his favorite culinary experiences from the last 12 months.

Robbie’s been covering food for the Japan Times since the '90s and has an intimate knowledge of dining in Tokyo and beyond — from the latest Michelin-starred bistro to neighborhood bakeries, noodle shops and family-run izakaya, Japan's answer to the local pub.

In this episode, Robbie and I discuss a few of his discoveries in 2022: both from his Tokyo Food File series, which focuses on restaurants in the capital, as well as from his destination restaurant series, which highlights fine dining far from Japan's main urban centers.

Hey Robbie. Welcome back to Deep Dive. So good to see you again.

Robbie Swinnerton  01:11  

Yeah, likewise.

Jason Jenkins  01:12  

Let's just get right into it and start off with some of your output from last year. What stood out from the Tokyo Food File?

Robbie Swinnerton  01:18  

There’s a restaurant called Maz. Virgilio Martinez is one of the top chefs from Peru. He's a magician of food from his neighborhood. His main restaurant is in Lima — it's called Central — and he also has a smaller restaurant right in the top of the Andes and an indigenous village where he basically uses indigenous products and indigenous know-how to make a totally unique kind of cuisine. He's brought that to Tokyo, and basically the menu there takes you from deep in the ocean, well for offshore to Lima, to the Central Plains to the lowlands, and then up to the top of the Andes, over the top, down the other side to the Amazon basin. That's where you get the coffee and cacao and tropical fruits from. So he mixes this as a kind of journey. And, amazingly he’s brought it to Tokyo and it totally works. Mainly it works because it tastes so good. I mean, it's all really well done, but it's things you have not seen before or tasted before, but you will love them. So anyway, that's my first one: Tokyo goes Peruvian. And another of my favorites — not major, but really, really sweet — is AC house. Chef Atsuki Kuroda. He used to be at a restaurant called Caveman. And then he's got away to open his own place in a maybe 40- or 50-year-old house, a residential house that got reworked. So you walk in from a nondescript entrance, and all of a sudden you have this beautiful white designer interior, with the kitchen right in front of you and a big white counter where we all sit together and you're all served together…

Jason Jenkins  02:52  

Ah, this is the one where everyone has to arrive at the same time…

Robbie Swinnerton  02:56  

Yeah. Which is seven o'clock. But if you look, if you're in this beautiful designer space, and you train your head up, you look and you're in 1970s, ’60s Tokyo. It’s just like, unchanged at all upstairs. That in itself makes it worth at least one trip. But what you want to get back for is the fact that he's a really nice chef, he’s a very cool guy. The music is fantastic. He cooks in a very appetizing way. It always looks beautiful on the plate. You're there basically nibble and drink wine for two and a half hours. And at the end you go “That was a great evening!” And there's actually three low-end places that I should mention. One is Kakan — mapo tofu. Very simple. It's in Tomigaya, which is a really happening little neighborhood on the western side of town. And it fits in there perfectly because it's a little bit hip but the food is excellent. They also do takeout which was great during the pandemic. And somehow they have … it's not a Chinese mapodofu. It's a Japanese-Chinese mapodofu. And it has its kind of delicacy has lots of the spices but without so much of the fire. And it works for me works. Because I've been in Japan so long and China was so long, but for me, it's like it's great. So another of my favorites last year was Azuki to Kouri, the name literally means red bean and ice. And it's a little restaurant, maybe about seven seats, one counter overlooking the kitchen. And it's served one thing — actually two things — but the main thing is kakigori which is shaved ice. But not just ice, lots of flavors, seasonal fruits, you got cacao from the Amazon, you've got different spices on top. And I knew it's gonna be good even before it started because this is an offshoot of the restaurant Florilege, which is one of our better or best French restaurants — two Michelin stars, always does well in the rankings, super great chef, chef Kawate — and it opened in February, I believe…

Jason Jenkins 04:53 

In February!

Robbie Swinnerton  04:54

Do you eat shaved ice in February? 

Jason Jenkins 04:56

Not often, no. 

Robbie Swinnerton 04:57

We do, we do if it's that good. Marvelous little place. And then the third place I'd just like to add there is Maguro to Shari which means maguro tuna and shari which means rice, so tuna and rice. And as you can imagine it's a sushi restaurant, but it basically serves tuna only. Bowls of rice topped with as much tuna as you choose to order. Again, a really small place and counter and you sit down and they bring this beautiful, beautifully arranged bowl of sushi rice, vinegared rice, topped with fish, and it's so clean and modern and really well designed that I'm amazed it's not more popular than it is.

Jason Jenkins  05:35  

Alright, so we're gonna get to the destination restaurants. But before we do, I want to stop for a second and do a quick lesson in Japan's culinary geography. For those who are unfamiliar with Japan's regional cuisine, break it down for us a little bit. How would you summarize the culinary styles of various parts of Japan?

Robbie Swinnerton  05:55  

Well, it's such a huge country, isn't it? It runs from the tip of Hokkaido in the north down to Okinawa in the south. So you're going from basically near tropical, subtropical, and all the way up to sort of almost Siberian-type climate, a lot of snow and winter, very cold. But Hokkaido also happens to be widest, open, wide open spaces. So it's a big agricultural area for Japan. Up there you get great seafood. It's also the home of Sapporo ramen, miso ramen, maybe with corn on it corn and butter. All the good stuff. So and then northeast Japan tends to be more salty, dark cuisine. It's actually also cold up in northeast Japan. And so people have lots of hearty food just to get themselves through the winters. Around the Tokyo area. That kind of includes Tokyo area, but Tokyo is so international it stands out as a separate entity. Heading west, it's really the heartland of Japanese cuisine. You have Kyoto, which was a de facto national cuisine, of course, because it was an imperial capital for so long. And Osaka when the the huge ports and cultural center of Japan long before Tokyo, long before Edo was the previous name for Tokyo was even founded. So that's a really, really important part. Plus lots of great food growing around the Inland Sea on Shikoku Island too so there's that sort of food, then you get down to Kyushu. And again, you're closer to Asia there and quite a lot of the foods a little bit more influenced by Korea and China. There are foods there that you might even recognize from Thailand, you know, from Southeast Asia, such as satsuma age, which is very much like the deep fried fish you get in the islands, when you're backpacking through Thailand … revisiting my glory years. So and then you go down to Okinawa, and basically, it's the same country but a different country, with a different ecosystem, different geography, different history, and the culture is different. And the food is definitely different. And they never, they never had a vegetarian phase. They kept on eating pork and goats and again, tropical fish that tropical fish from tropical waters. And their noodles are much more like Chinese noodles than, say, ramen. So in a large nutshell, that's it. Japan is a country of great extremes, with lots of different variations of culinary tradition.

Jason Jenkins  08:22  

Thanks, Swinerton sensei. Now that we've had our lesson, let's get to the destination restaurant series. I know a lot of these places may not reflect the local cuisine, they kind of do their own thing. But it's really an exceptional list. And I'd love to hear a couple standouts from 2022.

Robbie Swinnerton  08:43  

Yeah, as you say that that's not necessarily reasonable cuisine, but it's people using regional  products to create their own cuisine. What the series is intended to do is to draw people's attention to the fact that there are great restaurants outside of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Fukuoka. The big cities. And expressly, we do not cover any restaurants in those Metropolis areas. So I should also point out that, unlike Tokyo Food File, the destination restaurant series aren't my own choices. They're made by a panel of three people who are gastronomes. And they know the country much, much better than I do. So I would certainly defer to their expertise. I mean, the Japanese they travel, they know what's good. I base my work around Tokyo all the time, I hardly get out of the area. And in fact, when I do, it's just so great. So this has been a perfect excuse for me to just travel and renew my love affair with the rest of Japan. 

Jason Jenkins 09:41

Oh, yeah, I'm jealous. 

Robbie Swinnerton 09:43

The first 10 restaurants were announced in 2021 — I wrote one a month into last year — and then we started again from the middle of last year. And I would say that the highlight of the 2022 series so far, was my visit up to Niigata, which is a mountainous country right in the highlands. There's a wonderful lodge called Satoyama Jujo and whatever the season is a good time to be there. But I actually think I went to the best season which was in the early autumn, because you get the wild foods coming and you get the new harvest of the rice. The chef is very keen on foraging. So we got a lot of wild foods up there.

Jason Jenkins  10:24  

Are we talking sansai? Like mountain vegetables, or…

Robbie Swinnerton  10:27  

Absolutely. In spring we get lots of the wild plants which are called sansai. But even through the summer and the autumn, there are lots of plants coming up which are used on the table. There are wild nuts and there are wild fruits for myself visiting there. I had visited there before but going back up to have a chance to see it in greater detail. and the different time of year really impressed me that it was a really good place to visit and lived up to its billing as a destination restaurant.

Jason Jenkins  11:03  

All right so we've talked a little about high-end dining, but I know that's not all that you do. Let's cover a few sort of budget and mid range recommendations. If someone doesn't have a lot of cash to eat out, what should they spend their money on?

Robbie Swinnerton  11:18  

Ramen, so much good ramen. From all over the country. Lots of different styles. Ramen isn't just one thing. It's probably about as many different things as there are ramen chefs. My personal favorite with ramen is the lighter ones, maybe not quite so rich and porky as the tonkotsu ramen that you have down in Fukuoka especially. But also with your need, get a good experience of Japanese food just in one place to get a choice of foods rather than just going for one kind of food at once. An izakaya will always do well. There are cheap and cheerful izakaya where you pay very, very little. I mean, often you're underneath the railway tracks built in there and you hear the trains thundering overhead and you have some good cheap sake and have fun. But they're also sort of mid-level izakaya where you eat with a bit more finesse, quality sake and excellent food usually. And because a good rule of thumb is that wherever there's good sake, there's also good food, they tend to go together. Soba restaurants, also, some soba restaurants are just you go in, get a bowl, you slurp, you leave. But other soba restaurants tend to specialize in things like tempura or they've got little side dishes. And so over the years, especially in the evenings, these sorts of places tend to be more like izakaya: you go in, you drink a bit, nibble a bit of this and that and the other. And then at the end, you have your soba. And there are some excellent places around so they will never be too expensive. So those would be my three sort of areas I would look at. So do you have any recommendations? Actually too many. You'll find your own way.

Jason Jenkins  12:53  

I know there are some people who look for non-Japanese options as well. Some of them may be travelers who are a little squeamish. Often there's people with seafood or fish allergies. But the good news is that Japan really does so many international cuisines and so well, often with a little Japanese spin. Do you have any favorites out of these?

Robbie Swinnerton  13:15  

Absolutely, yes. Oh, yeah. From the high end down to the bottom, like Japanese Italian food, which is very, very different from anything you'd find in Italy, but really good. There are top chefs such as Luca Fantin at Bvlgari restaurant. Just the name you know it's going to be expensive, but it's really good. Chinese food. There are good Chinese restaurants that are not so different from what you'd find on the mainland. But there are also restaurants which have been again finished with Japanese touch, refracted through that prism of delicacy and selection of ingredients. And of course using local ingredients. Sazenka, a wonderful restaurant, now has three Michelin stars. There are Indian restaurants, my favorites, tend to be in south south Indian foods, you have Nirvanam, you have Dhaba India. A great chain of Indian places that does good takeouts, which is called Erick South. They're so good. I'm sure they're going to spread through the country. If you're looking for a good steak at that high end, you may have heard of Wagyumafia. These guys are doing crazy with meat. And if you're David Beckham are one of the you know, celebrities does, you're gonna afford to go there who fly and especially to go there. That can be your thing. But there's also like, Ikinari Steak where you can eat an American imported steak. It's not wagyu but it's good and you may find yourself standing up to eat it. And a few years back there was a chain that came to prominence called Ore no Italian, my Italian it's always kind of a men's word. So it's like where men would feel comfortable to go in. And again, most of these were places where you stood up to eat but you're eating quite good quality foods. So they could turn customers through at a good rate, getting them spending quite a lot on wine but because they're standing up, they don't hang around for the second and third bottle. They just eat and drink and leave. So there's something for everyone in Tokyo I'd say.

Jason Jenkins  15:06  

So we've talked a little about specific dishes and restaurants. I'm curious about if there are particular areas, neighborhoods, or even just a particular street or city block that you would recommend. You know, some sort of high-density dining area. I mean, I've told you about some of my favorites. There are several here in Osaka: Shinsekai for kushikatsu, or Tsuruhashi for yakiniku, or all the izakayas under the Yamanote line around Yurakucho and Shimbashi. But I'm sure you have much better intel. If someone's asking for just a place, not a specific place to go, but an area to seek out food, was there a particular place you might recommend?

Robbie Swinnerton  15:46  

You just mentioned one of my favorite areas, which is Shimbashi. It’s where people have gone for cheap entertainment and cheap food. But over the years, some really high-end restaurants have opened up there, too. But you have a warren of streets where you can either cruise down the little alleyways and just say, “Oh, like look at that place,” or you can start in the first place and actually do a pub crawl from one place to the next. And you wouldn't be the only one doing that. At the end of the night — especially Friday night — there are a lot of people in very fine form there. Asakusa … that also is quite an interesting place to walk around. Not quite the same food traditions, but lots of little alleyways where you will always find something that will sort of grab your eye. And this kind of dovetails into one of the trends that's been happening in Tokyo last few years, which is the yokocho trend, in fact, it's the neo-yokocho trend. Yokocho is like an area where lots of bars and restaurants, little restaurants are just set up side by side cheek by jowl, which would happen usually around train stations. And it developed after sort of World War II people pile out of the trains and just need a drink before they head home. Now we have a new spin on that was called the neo yokocho, where they've been purpose built maybe inside high rise buildings or in the basement of the buildings are upstairs, bringing people together offering a big choice of different restaurants. Rather than going for large scale restaurants, lots of deal restaurants side by side and you can choose what you're going to get. What do you want, we'll just take a look just pop into one. And that's been a big favorite in the last few years. But the best timing for this to happen is because with COVID happening, you didn't want to have too many people side by side getting in a yokocho, but it's a great place to just find a lot of good food under one roof.

Jason Jenkins  17:40  

Let's talk trends in dining and dining culture. Before we talk about future trends, let's talk about what came before. I'm sure you've been a witness to countless food trends over the years. Have there ever been any that surprised you?

Robbie Swinnerton  17:56  

I think I first became aware back in the day of the fact that there were these trends when all of a sudden there was a huge boom for tiramisu. This was probably back in 1990 or so you know. All of a sudden, it wasn't just like people liked tiramisu, it was like everywhere had to serve tiramisu at once, right? To the point where … its basic ingredient is mascarpone, and so much mascarpone was bought from Italy that there was a shortage in Italy. It screwed up their supply chains. 

Jason Jenkins 18:31

Yeah, these things really take off, don’t they?

Robbie Swinnerton 18:31

Japan is quite something with that. Yes, I mean, it's kind of cute, but it's also scary because it could wipe out a whole species or two. What comes next? Yes, I know. I've had people suggest that maybe gourmet sausages are on the horizon, you know like sausages made with different ingredients — kimchi embedded in the sausage, or natto mixed in with the pork, you know, something like that. I'm not a bit dubious about them. But I would say that fermented foods are going to be increasingly big over the next few years. Of course, this is in the country that has an amazing number of fermented foods from soy sauce to miso to sake and all kinds of things. But I think people are going to be going back to basics a bit more, and probably maybe even making their own fermented foods. You have more important ones coming, more exotic ones, like kombucha and things like this are starting to catch on more and more. Another thing that's kind of dovetails with that is that there really is this strong spread of vegan foods, you know, in Japan. It's not so overt, where there's so many specialists, vegan restaurants, I mean, they exist. We even have a superiority burger down in Shimokitazawa, which is a plant based burger, but you get restaurants making sure they have at least one vegan or vegetarian thing on the menu which never used to exist. To the frustration of many, many visitors. And now it's got so much so much easier. So I think that's the thing that's bubbling under. Won't become a trend, but it will be something that will be more and more important in Japan. And then there's one thing specific to restaurants and more high-end dining: woodfired cooking, not charcoal but woodfired like woodfired pizza ovens but expanded to for cooking all kinds of food. 

Jason Jenkins 20:27

Like what? 

Robbie Swinnerton 20:28

So it might be meats, it might be vegetables. One of the top restaurants in the world is the Basque restaurant, Asador Etxebarri. Wonderful place. Amazing food, remarkable chef. And he has been doing this for like 15 years, 20 years now, from humble beginnings up in the mountains, sort of his place of pilgrimage now, but he was quietly getting on with it for many, many years cooking everything over various different greats full of embers at different temperatures, raising and lowering the food. So they cook at specific times. And a number of his disciples have taken that around the world as Burnt Ends in Singapore, they've been there. And few others have taken that on. And it's connected with my destination restaurant series. One of the places that exists on that list, which I wrote up last year in 2022 Is Don Bravo, it's a pizza restaurant. It started as a pizza restaurant, but it's much more than just pizza. It's out in Chofu, which is actually part of big Tokyo, greater Tokyo, but it's far enough out of town that it was decided legitimate enough to be included on the list. And he cooks the whole meal just about in his pizza oven. And the flavor. He points out that the flavor of charcoal is very, very different from the flavor of wood as it burns. And you can get some really subtle things by using different kinds of words and different flavors in there. Again, it's not going to be a massive trend, but it's going to be in fine dining, I think more and more prevalent.

Jason Jenkins  21:57  

Are there any restaurants or dining establishments that are planning to open this year that you're looking forward to?

Robbie Swinnerton  22:03  

Yeah, there's quite a few on the horizon. You know, Tokyo never stops. But I think the big event we're all looking forward to is Noma coming to Kyoto, which will be in March through April, May 3 through May, actually, yes. Taking over the restaurant in the Ace Hotel and Kyoto for massive residency — the biggest and longest they've done so far. So the eyes of the world — of the dining world, at least — will be on Kyoto at that time. Specific projects in Tokyo. One of the areas that I had my eye on since such the last couple of years, but it's starting to reach critical mass I think now is Kabutocho, which is the old Stock Market District in Tokyo. And a number of restaurants have opened there. They're regenerating it because it was getting very sort of downhill as well. The stock trading is done online now. So there weren’t a lot of people working there, right? And there's some nice bars and restaurants opening there. And a new project just opened actually in December of last year. But it's only just getting going. It's called the bank project. It includes a bistro called yen, I know they're getting all these financial names. And there's a bakery, there's a bar too. And that whole area, they're either building new architecture, or converting old heritage architecture from the 1930s, which is a really nice thing to see that they're keeping the old architecture and also bring another neighborhood of Tokyo up and revitalizing it.

Jason Jenkins  23:33  

Yeah, when you're talking about fermentation are you talking about traditional Japanese fermentation with koji, the mold that makes so many things in Japan or something else?

Robbie Swinnerton  23:42  

Definitely, that's included. That's such a primeval part of the fermentation process in Japan, right, but people are also looking abroad more to sauerkraut and to sourdough breads, and kombucha and making their own yogurt even. Just like on every level. We're not allowed to brew our own beer officially or make our own sake here, officially. It's done a little bit, I think, out of sight.

Jason Jenkins  24:08  

I think you know more than you're saying, Robbie.

Robbie Swinnerton  24:12  

I've heard tell. But also people in Japan are rediscovering their own traditions by making their own miso, making their own natto by, you know, just pickling things overnight. There's a wonderful store opened, actually, a couple of years back now in the Shimokita area. They opened an area where a railway track used to run and they put the railroad tracks underground, and so it freed up a large tract of land, and they called the area Bonus Track. And one of the shops brought in there is called Hakko Depato, which means fermentation department store, and it's just a large grocery with a small restaurant attached. But it has so many fermented foods from all around the country. And you'd never realized it was such a variety of different foods.

Jason Jenkins  24:56  

Awesome. Awesome. Robbie. It's so good to see you again. Thanks for coming back. I can't wait till we can share a meal and raise a glass together soon.

Robbie Swinnerton  25:03  

My pleasure. Thank you. 

Jason Jenkins  25:07

Once again a special thanks to Robbie Swinnerton for serving up some piping hot dining tips this week. And we have one update since recording this episode: On Jan. 10, it was reported that Noma will be closing its doors at the end of 2024. Robbie knows Noma well, having dined there several times — both in Copenhagen and at their 2015 residency at Tokyo's Mandarin Oriental Hotel. I called him up to get his thoughts.

Hey Robbie, just wanted to hear what you think about Noma’s closing.

Robbie Swinnerton  25:36

Yeah, that news took me by surprise too. I've been going to Noma for the last 10 years every so often. I know Rene Redzepi a little bit, I’ve interviewed him and I know some people on the team and that was a big surprise. As for Noma in Kyoto, it’s not going to make any difference — apart from the fact that for the team, and for all those dining there, those lucky enough to get tables, it’s gonna be even more memorable given that Noma in Copenhagen won’t be continuing very much longer after this. 

Jason Jenkins  26:09

If you love food and would like to read more of Robbie's work — and I encourage you to — you'll find links in the show notes. 

Also in The Japan Times this week from our staff writers:

Eric Johnston writes about what to expect from Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in the next parliamentary session. Mara Budgen describes how Japan's ancient art of fermentation, essential to so much Japanese cuisine, is also making a significant environmental impact.

And James Hadfield marks the passing of Yukihiro Takahashi, drummer for Yellow Magic Orchestra, one of Japan’s most pioneering and influential bands. Their early use of electronic instruments like the Roland 808 drum machine went on to influence countless hip-hop and electronic artists after them.   

For these stories and thousands more, please consider a subscription to The Japan Times. This episode was edited by Dave Cortez. Our theme song is by LLLL. And our outro song is by Oscar Boyd. See you next week! And podtsukaresama!