Tokyo, A Michelin Star-studded Capital : Behind Tokyo's Abundance of Michelin Stars
How has Michelin rated Tokyo?
Published by the tire company of the same name, the Michelin Guide began in 1900 as a guidebook for motorists. Having since expanded in variety, it is now a popular guidebook for gourmets worldwide. Anonymous surveys are conducted in each country and city, giving ratings from one to three stars. Quite aside from ingredient quality, the evaluation criteria are wide ranging—from cooking techniques, through the level of perfection, to the originality of the dishes. Admired and held in high regard, these ratings are well respected by chefs and diners alike.
One star indicates, "A very good restaurant in its category"; two stars, "Excellent cooking, worth a detour"; and three stars, "Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey." Since Michelin continually updates its ratings, restaurants strive to maintain and improve their quality. That is precisely why Michelin is so trusted by culinary connoisseurs around the world.
In November 2007, the Michelin Guide took its first steps into Asia with the publication of the Tokyo edition. The Michelin Guide Tokyo 2022 awarded stars to over 200 restaurants, more than any other city in the world.
The Michelin Guide Tokyo features many types of cuisine besides Japanese, including French, Italian, Chinese, etc. This might well reflect Tokyo's diversity as a gourmet city and, by extension, the preferences of its gourmet. The variety of cuisine and number of stars make Tokyo a gourmet treasure trove—full of delights for the gourmand's palate.
The Japanese affinity for Umami flavors
Just why has Tokyo been awarded so many stars? One possible answer is the phenomenon of "umami." Umami is not deliciousness itself. Beside the long-identified four basic tastes: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, and bitterness; umami is now considered the fifth, and is thought to hold the key to what we define as "delicious."
The main components of umami, which include glutamic acid, inosinic acid, and guanylic acid, are used in dishes around the world, yet they were first identified in Japan around 110 years ago. Since ancient times, the Japanese have prepared dishes making skillful use of dashi stock from konbu seaweed, dried bonito, etc., which are abundant in umami.
In 2013, washoku Japanese cuisine was registered under the UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage as a traditional food culture of Japan. It was then that Japan drew attention to the "umami" flavor present in dashi stock as a special feature of Japanese cuisine. Umami gave rise to a culture of dashi stock, and a food culture of savoring the raw ingredients themselves, rather than an over-reliance on seasonings, evolved. These are the origins of the delicate and uniquely Japanese sense of taste. Such refinement is essential to culinary pleasures.
A factor behind Tokyo's development as a gourmet city is its influx of diverse cultures as a cosmopolitan city, as well as the nation's affinity to cuisine. Umami, a Japanese term, is now recognized worldwide, and is expected to develop as one of the quintessential elements of food culture in Japan.
Constant Evolution of Japanese Cuisine
Tokyo is home to a never-ending gourmet battle. Restaurants, both old and new, are in constant competition with one another, creating a virtuous cycle in which the craft of each is honed and, in turn, the quality of the whole is improved.
Whilst a Michelin star is a highly sought-after seal of approval, Tokyo has much to offer by way of gourmet fare. For example, the Bib Gourmands featured in the Michelin Guide. Differing from Michelin stars, the Bib Gourmands rating criteria is based on price and taste, featuring restaurants that excel in "cost performance." Developments in different price ranges provide insight into and indicate the future of gourmet cities.
How is Japanese and Tokyo cuisine likely to change in the future? One possibility is the re-importation of Japanese cuisine.
Japanese food has gained popularity in many parts of the world, developing in new ways as it comes into contact, and mixes with, the food cultures of other countries. Ramen noodles, matcha green tea, confectionary—Japanese food has occupied the limelight as it takes on various forms, beyond traditional dishes such as sushi. With the use of international ingredients, cooking methods, and seasonings—that are not yet familiar in Japan—there is plenty of room for change. This will surely be received as fresh and novel by many. Conversely, there is also interest in the impact of Japanese food culture overseas.
It is not difficult to envisage Tokyo as a prime location to welcome back Japanese food that has evolved in this way, as it flourishes in its diversity as a gourmet city.
With a population of approximately 14 million, the Tokyo Metropolitan Area is home to some 190,000 restaurants. It would be impossible to sample them all, even in one's lifetime. Michelin Guide in hand, perhaps you could visit a well-known restaurant. Or simply trust your sense of smell, follow your nose, and dive into Tokyo's superb gourmet cuisine.Regardless, you can find your own way to best enjoy Tokyo, the gourmet city.