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You would absolutely miss Tsurutokame if you weren’t explicitly looking for the subterranean restaurant in Tokyo. The rest of the glittering Ginza neighborhood distracts you from the minute restaurant signage that hides in plain sight like a clue in a scavenger hunt. With some luck, you’ll make it downstairs to the basement dining room where a unique dining experience awaits. Unlike most Japanese kaiseki (a multi-course traditional Japanese dinner) restaurants, Tsurutokame is operated entirely by women.
When you enter the dining room, you’re greeted by an all-female staff in crisp chef’s whites bowing behind the 14-seat counter. The room glows with soft yellow lighting while the quiet buzz of kitchen activity looms in the background. It’s calm down here, a place frequented by politicians and celebrities. Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe has been a guest at Tsurutokame.
Thirty years ago, restaurateur Osamu Mikuni had a dream of opening an entirely women-run restaurant in Tokyo. Bothered by the glaring gender disparity in Japan’s culinary industry, he was constantly watching male chefs earn credit while female ones remained overlooked. In December of 2015, his dream was realized with the opening of Tsurutokame. Not only did Mikuni hire women to take over the business, he rounded out the opportunity by providing additional ongoing job training and employee housing.
That job training and the restaurant’s apprenticeships are key to making a deeper impact. “For Japanese cuisine, it's all male dominated,” says Tsurutokame head chef Yubako Kanbara. “It's really rare to find female chefs to start with.”
Kanbara’s day started with a 6 a.m. wake up to get to the world-famous Tsukiji fish market. She spent two hours visiting her go-to vendors, picking up ingredients for the restaurant. Tsurutokame’s menu changes seasonally, reflecting the bounty of Japan’s fresh ingredients. After shopping, Kanbara returned to the restaurant to begin preparing for tonight’s service. She won’t leave Tsurutokame until 11 p.m. or later.
Grueling days are expected in the industry. “For Japanese cuisine the trainings are really, really hard,” Kanbara says. “So when people hear I'm the chef for a Japanese cuisine restaurant, they'll think, 'oh my god, you got through those trainings and you're amazing.'”
Kanbara got her start in the food world when she was nineteen years old. She studied nutrition and was a chef for public schools. Now she works and lives with the six other women building Tsurutokame’s reputation, not only as a socially-positive restaurant, but a delicious one as well.
A small round tank hums with air bubbles on the chef’s counter. Small smelt fish squirm around the tank until one of the cooks reaches in to retrieve the one you’ll be eating. The fish is spliced, salt-grilled, and served to you on a woven wooden basket.
You’ll want to pair the fish—and the rest of your meal—with sake. The restaurant is stocked with rare, interesting bottles you’d struggle to find elsewhere, plus it pairs well with the food. Thanks to the owner’s deep connections in the hospitality industry, he can source extremely limited bottles that’ll make your night. The sake isn’t the only thing carefully selected. The plate ware is also vintage.
The smelt is just one of many dishes you’ll experience throughout your kaiseki experience. Your senses are entertained with courses like junsai suspended in jelly, served in an ornate crystal bowl, a vibrant green pea soup with tiny needlefish, roe, sashimi, sushi, and matcha with a sweet wagashi dessert to finish. You will not leave Tsurutokame hungry.
Down the counter, a group of three women are finishing their meal. It’s the eldest’s birthday. To commemorate the occasion, the Tsurutokame line up to sing together in harmony—singing is part of their job training. So is learning managerial skills, calligraphy, writing poetry, attending operas and ballets, and performing tea ceremonies. The training can improve a Tsurutokame employee’s future job prospects, but it also makes the dining experience much more unique. The arts play an important roll in Japanese cuisine, where aesthetics are valued as much as flavor. “We eat with our eyes,” a Japanese diner at Tsurutokame explained.
To book a table at Tsurutokame, call +80-3-5537-7045. Tasting menus start at ¥10,000 (about $90 USD) per person.