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Japanese Show What It Takes To Dazzle the Culinary Judges

Ichiro Ozaki spices fish at his 16-seat restaurant, which in November was awarded one star in the celebrated Michelin Guide's first-ever Tokyo edition.
Ichiro Ozaki spices fish at his 16-seat restaurant, which in November was awarded one star in the celebrated Michelin Guide's first-ever Tokyo edition. (By Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)
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Sensoji Temple and Asakusa-Jinja are testaments to the peaceful coexistence of Buddhism and Shintoism in Japan.
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 15, 2008

TOKYO -- The Michelin Guide has decreed that Tokyo is the premier city in the world for food. A 19-hour day in the life of chef Ichiro Ozaki helps explain why.

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Ozaki woke up one recent Thursday at 5:30 a.m. and began working the phones, searching for live turtles and fresh crab. He had not gone home the night before to his wife and 1-year-old daughter. He had cooked past midnight and fallen dead asleep in a tiny apartment near the Japanese-cuisine restaurant that bears his name.

It won a star in November in the first-ever Tokyo edition of the Michelin Guide, whose judges astounded the French -- and won over the Japanese -- by finding more than twice as many star-worthy restaurants in Tokyo as in Paris.

The Paris-based restaurant guide, often described as the most influential in the world, confirmed what well-traveled diners have long known: Extraordinary things to eat are served in a great many Tokyo restaurants.

"The Michelin judges were overwhelmed by our quality," said Masuhiro Yamamoto, a Japanese food critic and writer.

So, apparently, are foreign tourists in Japan. Seven out of 10 say food is the primary reason for their visit, according to a recent government survey.

It's not just the quality but also the sheer quantity of Tokyo's restaurants that tests the imagination. Michelin counted 160,000 of them, compared with about 20,000 in Paris and 23,000 in New York.

Fish Culture

Having reserved turtles and crabs on the phone, Ozaki pulled on blue jeans, rubber shoes and a down jacket. At 7:30 a.m., he grabbed a wicker basket and jumped on the subway to head to Tsukiji, the world's largest fish market.

The market is a principal reason for the 191 Michelin stars now shining down on Tokyo, according to Yamamoto, the food critic who has spent years studying the fish-handling arts that have been perfected at Tsukiji. (Paris got just 98 stars total, New York 54.)

"Fish culture is at the core of food quality," he said.

Fishermen preserve freshness by draining blood from fish the moment they are taken from the sea. Shippers pack the creatures in water that replicates the temperature and salinity of the seas where they were caught. Then, like racehorses trucked to the track, fish are hauled to Tsukiji in their live position -- as if swimming -- to prevent bruising.

Dodging motorized fish carts like an open-field runner, Ozaki moved quickly through the noisy chaos of the market. He is a daily buyer. Fishmongers smile when they see his impish face. They say they save their best stuff for him.

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