When Rene Redzepi first visited Japan in 2007, he slurped up the culture like a bowl of spicy ramen noodles. Since then, he’s made more than a dozen trips, including this past month, while temporarily relocating his heralded restaurant, Noma, and its entire kitchen staff to an upper floor of the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo in Nihonbashi. “Our plan was simple,” Redzepi explains. “To leave everything behind in Copenhagen and come tasting everywhere from north to south, east to west, trying to stitch together not empirical Japan but Japan through our eyes.” Although the pop-up has come to an end, it’s still possible to savor Japan with the famed Danish chef as your guide: Here, Redzepi shares highlights from his time in Tokyo and beyond.
“Tokyo is so easy to fall in love with, everything of the best is here,” he says. Redzepi stayed at the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo (2-1-1 Nihonbashi Muromachi, Chuo-ku)—his morning commute was a quick elevator ride to the 38th floor, where Noma's temporary headquarters had a stunning view of Mount Fuji.
But where did he eat on rare days off? For formal dining, Zaiyu Hasegawa’s restaurant Jimbocho Den (2-2-32 Jimbocho, Kanda, Chiyoda-ku) reinvents classic kaiseki ryori dishes (pictured below). “And I was dying to go to Mibu,” he says. “It’s very private, only a couple hundred members. But head chef Hiroshi Ishida opened on a Sunday for us.” Mibu is arguably one of the most exclusive ichigen-san okotowari, or invitation-only restaurants, in Tokyo (it's one of those reservation holy grails—you might be able to get in if you know, say, the prime minister, or the CEO of Sony).
For tempura, Redzepi chose Mikawa Zezankyo, in a quiet residential district east of the Sumida River. Tetsuya Saotome’s nine-seat restaurant specializes in edomae tempura—strictly adhering to seasonal ingredients available during Tokyo’s Shogunate era. Mikawa has two other branches, including one in Roppongi Hills, but Redzepi recommends going where the master presides over the copper fry kettle. “That guy is crazy! Even on his days off all he wants to do is make tempura.”
After hours, Redzepi and his crew craved comfort food. “Kikanbo (Chioda-ku, Kajicho 2-10-10, near Kanda Station) serves fantastic spicy ramen. It’s everything you want after a long day in the kitchen,” he explains. Devil masks line the walls at this karashibimisoramenya, where the signature miso bowl contains both Sichuan peppercorns and chilies; you can choose how much to add to the broth—but only order the oni (devil) spice level if you can take the heat.
Tokyo is in the middle of a coffee craze, and the Noma crew was happy to join in: At Switch Coffee (Meguro-ku, Tokyo, Meguro 1-17-23, pictured below) in Meguro, chief roaster Masahiro Onishi quickly won Redzepi’s admiration for impeccable espresso. “He offers a choice of six different beans a day,” says Redzepi, who also favored the new Kiyosumi location of American craft coffee roasting brand Blue Bottle (1-4-8, Hirano, Koto-ku).
Like the current vogue for kissaten (café) culture, craft bartending is also trending in Tokyo, where the best watering holes are hidden on back streets and upper floors. Redzepi loved the housemade Campari at Ben Fiddich (Nishi-Shinjuku 1-13-7, 9F; 81-3/6279-4223), presided over by mixologist Hiroyasu Kayama, Japan’s leading advocate for absinthe cocktails. Kayama even sources wormwood and other botanicals from his family’s farm in Saitama Prefecture, grinding them in a mortar and pestle to infuse complex concoctions. “At Gen Yamamoto (1-6-4 Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku),” suggests Redzepi, “order the Bloody Mary, just to watch the bartender peel a perfectly ripe Kochi tomato, then pulp it in a glass.” For an even cooler vibe, head to Shibuya for JBS Bar (1-17-10 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-Ku, 2F; 81-3/3461-7788), where the rough pine walls are lined with thousands of vintage records. Owner Kobayashi Kazuhiro mans both the bar and the dual turntables, playing his obsessive collection of jazz, blues, soul, and funk vinyl. (He always favors the B side.) On any given night, you can sit at the counter to sip sake and listen to rarities from Grover Washington Jr., Muddy Waters, or Bootsy Collins.
Redzepi traveled to Fukuoka in Kyushu Prefecture to source most of Noma’s vegetables and herbs. “If you go, Tenzushi (3-11-9, Kyomachi, Kita-ku, Kokura, Kitakyushu-shi, Fukuoka) is an absolute must. I really like chef Kyomachi’s use of Japanese citrus—such as kabuso and sudachi—instead of soy.” This sushiya in the fishing town of Kokura has only five seats; after Sukibayashi Jiro, it’s considered one of the best in Japan. “We visited a lady who provided us with pepper and rose petals on Ishikagi Island in Okinawa Prefecture. That place is a paradise! Another thing that impressed me was spending time with the matagi (foragers) in Aomori where we got the chance to see all the wildest food.”
"In Ishikawa, the Kanazawa College of Art is where kids are doing craft work that will blow your mind,” claims Redzepi, who stayed at the venerable Hoshi Ryokan in the hot spring town of Hokuriku while foraging there. Don’t miss bathing in the inn’s rotenburo hot spring bath.
After closing the pop-up, Redzepi hopped to Kyoto for a fund-raising event at the Hyatt Regency (644-2 Sanjusangendo-mawari, Higashiyama-ku; 81-75/541-1234) in support of Kyotographie, a major international art photography festival that coincides with cherry blossom season. “If you land in Kyoto during April, you may never go home,” he says. “The Imperial Palace Garden turns completely pink.” Sonya Park of Arts & Science (pictured above) consulted on the ceramics at Noma Tokyo. (Some of the actual bowls, dishes and utensils are currently available online: tokyostore.noma.dk.) Each of Park’s eight boutiques, including the latest to open in Kyoto, has a focused collection of clothing, jewelry and tableware by master craftsmen like Masanobu Ando and Jinpachi Ogawa.
The finale? “I’ve always wanted to see Naoshima (Gotanji, Naoshima, Kagawa 7613110)—the art island—so I’m going there next.”