Exclusive Tokyo Dining
How to secure the capital’s top tables – because it’s not about money.
You can’t make a booking at Sushi Saito. You, reading this right now. You just can’t go to what is probably the world’s most famous sushi restaurant. You can turn up in Tokyo with all the money in the world, but they won’t let you in.
Same goes for Kakigaracho Sugita, another of Japan’s best sushi joints. It doesn’t take bookings. You can’t access Higashiazabu Amamoto either. Or Tempura Takiya. These are some of the finest restaurants in the world, and they’re closed to allcomers unless you know the right people.
Rachel Lang knows the right people. The Melbourne-based director of travel company Plan Japan has unique access to the closed world of ultra-high-end dining in Japan, with a contact book that reads like a Michelin guide.
Where most can’t snare a single reservation at Amamoto, Lang can book all eight seats. Most diners will never set foot inside Sugita. Lang calls chef Takaaki Sugita a personal friend.
“Japan is all about relationships,” the 44-year-old tells Robb Report ANZ. “No matter how much money you throw at them, you won’t get into the best places, because for them it’s about pride, about who you know, about ‘Zen’; who they have in their restaurant, if they know the person and trust them.”
There are no shortcuts to the heady world Lang inhabits. Her contacts, her business, her experiences are the result of 25 years of patient relationship-building — meeting people, becoming friends, becoming known.
Lang spent two years in Japan studying the language. She then spent six years working in Australia as an interpreter. On having children, she made the decision to raise them as native Japanese-speakers, keeping them in a Japanese ‘bubble’ even as they grew up in Melbourne – not a word of spoken English when they started primary school.
“I would take the kids over to Japan for three months every year. And while they were in kindergarten, or wherever, I would go out and eat by myself. And naturally, you just build up contacts.
“It was never going to be a business. But obviously I’m blonde, I’m Australian, we like to chat, so you would get to know people and you build up a reputation. Eventually I would ring up a place and ask for a reservation and they would say, ‘Oh no, we’re fully booked’. And I would say, ‘It’s Rachel from Australia’, and they would say, ‘Oh, Rachel from Australia. OK, when do you want to come?’ And that’s kind of how it started.”
That, now, is Plan Japan, a high-end business offering something no one else can: access. Lang’s clients may have money, but they don’t have relationships – and in Tokyo, where top chefs place so much value on the atmosphere within their tiny restaurants, no relationship means no reservation. Lang, however, can bring groups into the most sought-after eateries.
“These chefs want to have foreigners in their restaurant,” she explains, “but it’s a big risk. They don’t know how they’re going to behave, they don’t know if they’re going to break the Zen of the regulars. But when you get someone like me who knows the system, I can bring people, because the chefs know I’m quite strict with them.
“People say to me, ‘Is it a money thing?’ And it’s not. It’s never a money thing. I pay less than anybody there. It’s relationships.”
RACHEL LANG’S TOP FIVE TOKYO RESTAURANTS
Highly respected Japanese review website Tabelog has awarded chef Masamichi Amamoto its highest “gold” classification for five years running, and it’s easy to see why. The traditional, Edomae-style sushi here is incredible, reliant on sourcing the finest seafood and pairing it with Amamoto’s signature rice, which is sweetened slightly with brown sugar syrup. Though the nigiri here are highly seasonal and dependent upon availability, you can expect to be treated to Amamoto’s famed prawn nigiri at most seatings.
Lang: “The chef is a perfectionist, the most talented in Japan – this is without doubt one of the most difficult seats in the world to reserve.”
Sugita is a name whispered among sushi aficionados, a fabled den of ultra-high-end dining. Chef Takaaki Sugita is the platonic ideal of a sushi chef, someone whose knife skills and exceptional palate are matched by wry wit and the skill of bringing his diners together. Sugita-san’s food is perfection, of course: the chef is known for his use of traditional ingredients such as sardines, octopus and Spanish mackerel, and his ability to coax incredible flavours from them.
Lang: “The auro of Sugita-san, and the warmth he shows his regulars, is incredible.”
Picture the finest ingredients you can imagine: wagyu beef, truffles, abalone, foie gras, sea urchin. Now, picture those things coated in gossamer-thin tempura batter and fried to perfection. That’s what’s offered at Takiya, ranked by Tabelog as the number one tempura restaurant in Japan, where deep-frying is taken to a new level. Chef Tatsuaki Kasamoto sources the best ingredients and prepares them with consummate skill – and serves his dishes in an elegant eight-seat restaurant in Azabu Juban.
Lang: “You will never taste tempura like this in your life. It is just another world.”
Hideyuki “Vanne” Kuwahara is not just a rock star of the wagyu world – he’s an actual rock star. The renowned chef is also a DJ and producer, working with some of the biggest names in Japan. At his restaurant Yoroniku Ebisu, however, it’s all about the beef. Kuwahara pioneered the idea of “omakase yakiniku”, taking what is usually a do-it-yourself style of grilling meat at the table, and making it gourmet, with chefs preparing a medley of meticulously sliced meat in front of diners.
Lang: “When served by Vanne-san, it takes yakiniku to another level. I love how skilled he is.”
Much like Yoroniki, at Eiki a traditionally affordable, simple style of dining – in this case yakitori, skewers of grilled chicken – is taken to new heights by chef Kohei Oneida. The attention to detail here is astounding, as Oneida mixes yakitori standards such as charcoal-grilled chicken hearts, wings, and liver, with more imaginative skewers such as tofu and green peppers, and even fried chicken. Torishiki is known as the best yakitori restaurant in Japan, but Eiki is certainly up there in terms of produce and execution.
Lang: “He’s such an unpretentious chef. And his rule there is, he will keep serving until you say stop.”
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