My friend Tomo knows I have a hard time finding clothes that fit. So, she took me to Isetan.
Isetan is a high-end department store in Tokyo’s hyper-commercialized Shinjuku ward (the department store is located next to Shinjuku Station, the busiest train station in the world). The leather and laces lining the walls of its shoe section, alone, overwhelm, not to mention the collection of couture on the rest of the seven floors, which occupy an entire city block. And that’s just the men’s department. The women’s department is in a separate building. Boasting an amazing roster of labels, Isetan is a sartorial wonderland that offers a glimpse into the Japanese obsession over quality, exclusivity, and variety.
While the upper floors at Isetan are devoted to treads and threads, the basement caters to your bec fin.
The food halls beneath Japanese department stores are legendary. And not surprisingly, the one at Isetan is particularly impressive. Not unlike the fine collection of stitches assembled on the floors above, on the lowest level are gathered the highest quality food products from around the world: jamon from Spain, seafood from Hokkaido, caviar from Russia, and, because the Japanese have a love affair with the French, a cellar of premier and grand cru wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy (on tap, up to ¥5,000 for a taste), confections from the top names in Paris (you’ll find both Hediard and Pierre Hermé, for example), and more.
You will find counters specializing in rice (you can buy rice with varying degrees of polish), cheese, miso, pickles, kasuzuke (fish marinated in sake lees), bread, sake, shrimp crackers – the inventory is both incredible and endless. And of course, because the Japanese also love anything that’s cute and pretty, there’s an indulgent sprawl of square footage devoted to sweets, both Asian and European (besides macarons and French pastries, buttery baumkuchen, for example, is wildly popular among the Japanese).
The place is immaculate. Everything is packaged beautifully and arranged with mechanical order. Aided by the fact that much of the food on display is represented by odorless plastic models, there are no errant smells. And the clerks are efficient and incredibly polite.
Every aspect of the Isetan experience is thoughtfully designed with the customer in mind. The only thing missing is a place for customers to sit and enjoy the food they buy. But then, I suppose, no one would ever leave.
There’s a scene from the documentary “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s” in which Ally Hilfiger – the daughter of designer Tommy Hilfiger – presents her clothing line (branded as NAHM) to Linda Fargo, the gatekeeper at the celebrated department store Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue in New York City (I believe Fargo’s actual title at Bergdorf Goodman is Director of Fashion). As countless designers – from Blahnik to Louboutin, from Wang to von Furstenberg – attest in the documentary, getting your clothes onto the racks at Bergdorf Goodman can make or break your career. Isaac Mizrahi says in an interview about the store, “If your clothes are not at that place, then they have no future. There’s no future for those clothes. Sorry.” (In the documentary, Fargo declined the NAHM label. Hilfiger and her design partner subsequently closed their clothing line.)
When Ally Hilfiger pulls out one of her pieces for Fargo, the first thing Fargo does is reach out to touch the fabric, to inspect the seams. She’s looking for quality. But this is couture, I thought to myself. Couture is out of fashion as soon as it hits the racks. Why would anyone care about the quality? You don’t need these clothes to last more than one season. In some cases, you don’t need them to last more than one outing.
Because, I reminded myself, couture transcends practicality and utility. Couture is luxury. And with luxury, quality is all that matters. Quality is timeless.
The reason Fargo has become such an influential gatekeeper, and the reason why having your clothes on the racks at Bergdorf Goodman has become a standard by which the fashion industry measures success is because Fargo and Bergdorf Goodman have established themselves as trusted arbiters of quality and style.
That scene of Fargo inspecting Hilfiger’s dress replayed in my mind repeatedly during my recent, two-week trip to Japan, where so much of what I encountered – food, service, drink – everything – was the product of an incredible amount of thought and care. Japan is a society devoted to luxury. The low bar here is set incredibly high. High-quality, of both craftsmanship and service, is such a normal and expected part of life in Japan that all the Japanese have left to pursue is presentation.* That is why everything there is so beautiful. And that is also why I, and I suspect why so many, have fallen in love with Japan.
2014 is already a third over and I’ve barely written about it.
This year, I’ve already been to San Francisco thrice: once to present at this year’s Wine Writers Symposium, once to photograph the second annual Rediscovering Coastal Cuisine dinner at l’Auberge Carmel, and once for a wedding.
In early March, I stopped in Paris for a couple of days to nosh and nibble with friends before heading up to the Belgian countryside for a whirlwind tour of three terrific restaurants. And then it was off to Norway for a week – first to sleepy Bergen on the west coast, and then to bustling Oslo on the east coast, with a breathtaking train ride through the Norwegian mountains in between.
And two days ago, I returned from Austin, Texas, where I stopped for a short, three-day trip to photograph the first Music To Your Mouth event outside of the Inn at Palmetto Bluff. The dinner was held at the Inn at Palmetto Bluff’s sister property – Rough Hollow – with chefs Brandon Carter and Ashley Cope (of the Inn at Palmetto Bluff), Jeffrey Hundelt (of Rough Hollow), and John Currence (of City Grocery and Big Bad Breakfast in Oxford, Mississippi) cooking.
I intend to write about all of those trips soon.
But first, Japan.
Tomo was my reservationist, my guide, my translator, and all around host. She added context, depth, and direction to what would otherwise have been a messy attempt to navigate and understand the Japanese culture on my own. I can’t thank her enough.
Months before my trip, she asked me what I wanted to see and eat. I gave her a short list and asked her to fill in the rest. Unsurprisingly, she prepared an itinerary that exceeded my wildest expectations. In two weeks, we ate at over two-dozen restaurants in three cities – Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka – that, collectively, represented nearly as many Michelin stars. We hopped from pastry shop to coffee shop to pastry shop to cocktail bar, and grazed through many markets and food halls.
The Japanese love to specialize and specify. So, you will find restaurants dedicated to cooking anything and everything. On the way to dinner one night, Tomo took me down an alleyway of eateries, each one specializing in the animal named on the lantern hung outside: horse, cow, pig, chicken, and blowfish just to name a few.
While my eating tour of Japan was hardly comprehensive, I covered a fair amount of ground. We had yakitori, ramen, sushi, shabu shabu, and multiple kaiseki dinners. We went to restaurants specializing in soba, kasuzuke, Japanese curry, tofu, tonkatsu, tempura, and yuba. Tomo even introduced me to the Japanese “breakfast set,” a shockingly inexpensive way to start the day. At Kohikan, a diner of sorts, with the purchase of coffee or tea (which costs around $3.00), for an additional $1.50, you can add a breakfast plate that includes a thick slab of buttery toast, your choice of breakfast meat, eggs your way, and a tiny salad. And all of it was very, very good. The coffee (estate, of course) was dark and strong, and the eggs, both of the scrambled and sunny-side variety, were textbook.
We did much more than just eat. In between meals and snacks, Tomo introduced me to multiple facets of Japanese culture.
One day, Tomo called upon a family friend, a tour guide in Kyoto, who drove us to some of the major temples in that ancient capital city. Another day, she took me to Akihabara, also known as “Electric Town,” a district of Tokyo spread over six or seven city blocks devoted to everything electronics, digital, and anime (for someone who is outside of that subculture, it’s an eye-opener).
One afternoon, we walked through a bamboo forest and enjoyed the sun on the banks of a lazy river. Later that day, we partook in a Japanese tea ceremony, and learned about that religious rite.
And almost daily, we shopped. The shopping opportunities in Japan are incredible.
I peeled off on my own for a few hours one day to see the “15 Minutes of Fame” Andy Warhol exhibit on the 53rd floor of the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills (yes, this modern art museum is on the top two floors of a tower). Unfortunately, the exhibit closes this week (May 6), but if you’re in Tokyo, I highly recommend it. It’s the largest collection of Warhol’s art ever to be assembled in Japan. It’ll take you a good hour to get through the exhibit at a clip, twice or thrice as long if you want to be more thorough.
For the first time in history, certain parts of the Imperial grounds, heretofore private, were opened to the public for cherry blossom viewing. So, early one morning, I braved the masses – mostly comprised of Mainland Chinese tourists – for a visit to the Imperial Palace. The crowds were unbearable, so I headed to Échiré, Maison du Beurre, a pastry shop featuring baked goods made from that famous French butter. I stood on line for the better part of an hour for their golden-brown croissants and the free smells. You’ve never smelled butter like this.
One of the first things that I learned about the Japanese is that they are obsessive. They obsess over quality, they obsess over variety, they obsess over whatever foreign trend is ascending at the moment**, and they obsess over whatever is in season. Tomo told me that I had better be prepared to eat a lot of clams, because it was clam season. And boy was she right. I was up to my eyeballs in clams: surf clams, giant clams, geoduck clams, this clam, that clam. There were itty bitty clams that were served in a brown broth, supposedly good for your liver. There were meaty, peachy-pink clams that secreted a blood-like liquid. I had raw clams, cooked clams, clams in soup, clams with rice, tempura-fried clams. Clams here. Clams there. Clams, clams, clams, and more clams. I had lots of clams.
Bamboo shoot was also in season, so I had a lot of that as well. I had it in soup, in rice, and tempura-fried.
Once a year, the bioluminescent firefly squid surface from the deep in Toyama Bay to mate. Fishermen await their arrival, as do the Japanese who love to eat them. I had the tiny, quarter-sized squid prepared in quite a few ways at number of the restaurants I visited. At Sushisho Masa, they grilled the squid and served them with a spoonful of the creamy noggin that had oozed out of the cap, slightly caramelized.
I was also in Japan during the first of two annual runs for the bonito fish. So, I saw a considerable amount of bonito too.
It was cherry blossom season. So cherry blossoms (“sakura” in Japanese) were everywhere and in everything. I had sakura tea, sakura bread, sakura in my rice, sakura-glazed waffles, sakura éclairs, sakura chiffon cake, sakura macarons. McDonald’s was offering a special “sakura burger” (with a daikon bun). Even Häagen-Dazs was selling sakura ice cream during the short-lived but intensely celebrated cherry blossom season.
The streets of Tokyo and Kyoto were lined with cherry blossoms. And everywhere the cherry blossoms were, there the people gathered in large numbers to see, to marvel, and to obsess. Companies would send their junior members to camp out for hours (overnight even, according to Tomo) to secure prime real estate in parks for their executives to picnic under a canopy of blossoms.
One day, Tomo and I mounted our own picnic in Chidorigafuchi Park (in which resides the famous Budokan arena), indisputably one of the best places in Tokyo to see cherry blossoms. We ate karaage (fried chicken that we bought from a walk-up) and onigiri (that we got from 7-11) on a lawn with families, big and small, and a congress of tailored suits on a tarp. Afterwards, we shuffled our way around the park among a slow-moving river of people, showered by a confetti of petals, to obsess along with them.
But this obsession of the Japanese, intense, and at times infectious, worries me.
While I admire the Japanese drive to achieve and attain the best, I also fear their insatiable appetite for it. What is enough? When is enough?
I have to hope that the Japanese are wise enough to leave sufficient numbers of firefly squid in Toyama Bay for them to continue their kind. I have to trust that the mounds of bluefin tuna caracasses I saw at Tsukiji Market aren’t wantonly got. And the rows of gleaming, crisp packages of whatnot that stretch as far as the eye can see at the food markets and food halls in department stores high and low – who’s buying all of that beautiful product? Hopefully, it’s more than just a boastful display of quantity, quality, and presentation.*
The Japanese are consumers. And I’m hoping they’re consuming responsibly – I simply don’t have the data to say that they are or they aren’t. Otherwise, they steer a dangerous course towards excess, waste, and ruin.
Admirable in so many ways, the Japanese culture, in my opinion, has become over-romanticized by Westerners, especially chefs. Some of the same chefs who beat the sustainability gong loudly in their home countries seem not to question the Japanese, whom they idolize and praise, on the same issue. I, on the other hand, found myself compartmentalizing my love and fear of the Japanese pursuit of perfection.
There is so much that I want to tell you about my trip to Japan that I am forced to break my tale into parts. I’ll devote an entire post to Tokyo, if not two. And I’ll also be writing a separate post for each Kyoto and Osaka.
In the meantime, I give a list of the restaurants I visited in Japan:
Souhonke Yudofu Okutan Kiyomizu (総本家ゆどうふ奥丹清水)
Butagumi (豚組) (Nishi-Azabu)
Den (表参道) (Jimbocho)
Fukamachi (深町) (Ginza)
Hiroo No Curry (広尾のカレー) (Hiroo)
Ishibashi (石ばし) (Bunkyo-ku)
Ishikawa (わか石) (Kagurazaka)
Kyoraku-tei (蕎楽亭) (Kagurazaka)
l’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (Roppongi)
Matsukawa (松川) (Tokyo)
Mojo (Kagurazaka) (once, twice, thrice)
Nihonryori Ryugin (龍吟) (Roppongi)
Shabu Gen (Nishi-Abazu)
Sushi Mizutani (水谷) (Ginza)
Sushisho Masa (Nishi-Abazu)
Toritama (酉玉) (Kagurazaka)
Uokyu (魚久) (Ginza)
* I have heard it said that the poor focus on quantity, the middle-class focuses on quality, and the rich, who have access to both quantity and quality, have the luxury of focusing on presentation. How true that is.
** While I was there, pancakes were all the rage. I witnessed quite a few pancake houses with lines promising a two to three-hour wait. The lines of excited diners stretched for blocks. The American entrepreneurial spirit stirred in me: it’s time to introduce the Japanese to Aunt Jamima!
PHOTOS: Salted cherry blossom tea at Matsukawa in Tokyo; a gentlemen surveys the dress shoes at the Men’s Isetan in Shinjuku, Tokyo; couples row the lake at Chidorigafuchi park, aglow with cherry blossoms, Tokyo; Tomo in silhouette, Souhonke Yudofu Okutan Kiyomizu in Kyoto; a thousand vermillion torii at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto; street eateries in Tokyo; a bicyclist rides down a sakura-lined boulevard in Kyoto; a cart stacked with bluefin tuna heads at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo.