A few last thoughts, before I depart--
Taxis in Japan. They’re expensive. The first drop of the flag is more than $7. I took twenty-minute rides that cost over $20. But there’s a big difference. The taxis are clean. The seats are covered in white linen and the headrests have lace on them. The drivers are polite, nicely dressed and they don’t smell bad. They all have sophisticated GPS equipment. They can automatically open and close the curbside door and they don’t expect a tip.
Counter service. Many of the restaurants in Japan have counters. Some have nothing but a counter; some have a counter and a few tables. In the west, counter dining is generally reserved for coffee shops. In Japan you can sit at a counter and spend $400 for a meal. There is something very nice about having the chef or server or both stand before you. It makes you understand that their skill and attention is focused on your enjoyment. The best restaurants are small and provide counter service making the dining experience all the more intimate and sensorialy satisfying.
I ate brilliantly and expensively in Japan. Yes, it’s possible to eat for $6, but to really appreciate Japanese cuisine, which is based on the use of rare and exotic ingredients, you have to pay. The ultimate sushi experience was at SUSHI SAITO a bright and tiny counter that can seat seven at full capacity. The restaurant, which is impossible to find since it’s located inside the garage entrance to an office building, is the domain of Takashi Saito and has a star in the Michelin guide. Saito, unlike most shokunen, is only 36 years old and tends to laugh a lot. He wields his $5,000 knife with balletic grace. He keeps your interest by alternating raw and cooked items. A starter of Hokkaido uni (sea urchin) was followed by tender, tiny grilled fish. He offered fresh abalone, squid, several grilled fish, natto (fermented soy beans), many kinds of raw fish including three different grades of tuna, Yes, there was melt-in-your-mouth ultra fatty belly tuna. When the omakase (chef’s choice) was done, I was full but $230 lighter.
Another thing that’s interesting and different about Japanese restaurants is that they often specialize in one specific type of food. Of course , the sushi bar is a prime example of this, but there are many other sub-divisions of this great cuisine. There are tempura bars, teppanyaki steak places, and robatas. There are places that specialize in noodles, places that just do eel, and kushikatsu restaurants that just do batter fried items served on skewers. There are tofu restaurants and places that just do the long formal, many course meal called kaiseki.