We’ve been in Tokyo now for a few days, for this, our first visit since the triple tragedy of 3/11. The country faces some major challenges after that devastating event, and while the earthquake’s aftershocks have subsided, the financial aftershocks are still rippling through the economy. Setsuden (energy conservation) is officially over, but the bright lights of Shinjuku and Gion aren’t at their pre-3/11 glory, and we’ve arrived to find that some of city’s small and unique niche galleries, shops and restaurants have closed. The financial strain caused by the public’s pulling back from spending proved to be just too much. And foreign tourists are much less prevalent than normal, during this — the start of one of Japan’s peak travel seasons. The typhoons are over, and the weather is perfect, with highs in the 70’s and cool, humidity-free nights.
The high value of the yen might also be keeping the foreign tourists away, but the economic slump has spurred a price war for Tokyo’s low-end dining. Bargains are many, and the city’s commuter restaurants have been competing with each other, slashing their prices to levels unseen since perhaps the 80s. It’s easy to find lunch sets in the 800 yen range, as well as 1,000 yen all-you-can-eat buffets (called”viking” here).
At the high end, it’s easy to make reservations at the city’s top restaurants — even on the same day — for weekday dining. Many of the 2011 Tokyo, Kamakura and Yokohama Michelin Guide’s restaurants are small, with only 6-12 seats. And yet, we were able to get into every one we called. Apparently, while things have improved as time has passed, the old days of lines around the corner are gone, at least for the time being.
Are the high-end restaurants slashing their prices? Not from what we can see, and you wouldn’t expect it, as the quality of the ingredients, high rents and labor-intensive preparation can’t bear it. Besides, it just isn’t in keeping with the spirit of excellence. And we, as diners, are glad. Just yesterday, we had perhaps the single most succulent piece of sushi we’ve ever tasted at Sushi Kanesaka, and it wasn’t the rarity of the fish — saba (mackeral) — but the chef’s skill that made it transcendent: the neta (sushi topping) melted in our mouths. It was so good that we considered ordering another, but as there was more sushi coming (sets of 10 and 15 pieces) we didn’t dare. But of course, right after we finished our lunch we longed to go back.
It’s good to be back in Japan.