After 23 years in Japan, having tried everything since yatai (street food) puffer fish fried in a kaiseki (traditional), I have come to the conclusion that Japanese cuisine is overrated. It’s rarely less than perfectly presented, and it can look great – but it can also be bland and seamless.
Part of the problem is that much of what Japanese people love about their food has nothing to do with how it actually tastes. If British food, at least on the bad days, was simply fuel, Japanese food has always been, to some extent, art. A high-end Japanese meal equals a Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerkalong with the colors, the choice of bowls, utensils, tablecloth, chamber, and tingling water from a nearby stream, if available, are part of the overall sensory experience.
A foodie friend embarked on a tour of Japan’s most famous regional ramen restaurants. He recalls one establishment where he sat down, started chatting with his companion, and was choked angrily by the owner, who showed him a sign on the wall. It was a “no-chatter” restaurant.
It’s also medicine, with an inordinate attention paid to the nutritional value, the legendary balance and harmony of the ingredients, their provenance and their seasonality. There are strict rules about eating until you are 80% full and not wasting a beat. All these considerations are admirable in their own way; but it sometimes makes you yearn for the joy of eating for the sheer pleasure of it.
The mystical air that surrounds a visit to a traditional Japanese restaurant is both alluring and intimidating. It lulls us into the belief that we are participating in an ancient ritual, while silencing any doubt of having to sit in an excruciating to input style for hours by eating small amounts of often rather tasteless food. Declare your favorite food to be French or Italian or Indian or Thai and you will make little impression and earn no status points. But Japanese? Well, you instantly proclaim your sophistication.
This is powerful marketing. Koyn, a new restaurant in Grosvenor Square, offers cuisine “inspired by the roots and natural duality of Mount Fuji.” ‘Koyn’s Cosmos’, whatever that means, promises an ‘appreciation of the balance between modernity and tradition’. The “duality” is represented by the restaurant being divided into “midori” (green, nature) and magma (fire), which is not even a Japanese word. Only the Japanese, or those of Japanese inspiration, could get away with it.
And the whole thing may even be a bit fictional. As Michael Booth suggests in Sushi and beyonda large part of the kaiseki
Charivari may be a mid-twentieth-century invention spurred on by clever marketing — much like the ploughman’s lunch. I have some sympathy for Donald Trump, who, unlike most visiting dignitaries, passed it all on and instead went for a burger and fries with Shinzo Abe when he was in town.
It’s not just on the gourmet side that respect for tradition may seem excessive. On New Year’s holidays, everyone is forced to eat osechi ryori, canned foods, which even many Japanese will admit are bland. The custom originated as a way to give housewives a break from cooking during the holiday season. The refrigerator made this logic obsolete half a century ago. Yet it persists.
Japan, which reopened to international tourists this week, has been called a country without a cohesive national religion, but some have speculated that its true religion is itself, the worship of its own customs, history and culture. its assumed uniqueness. Traditional Japanese cuisine fits this paradigm well, with the preparation, serving, and eating of foods close to the sacred sacraments.
Which isn’t to say the hype is never warranted. I had unforgettable culinary experiences in Japan. Exceptional Japanese food is truly exceptional. But couldn’t that be said of almost any kitchen?