March 24, 2023 New!
Italian restaurant blossoms in lush, rugged setting
Destination Restaurants is a list of Japan’s best restaurants published by The Japan Times. Started in 2021, the list is selected by Japanese experts with an international audience in mind. Our three judges from last year, Yoshiki Tsuji, Naoyuki Honda and Takefumi Hamada, are back again and have selected 10 restaurants from all over the country.
The selection criteria dictate that restaurants can be of any genre and located anywhere — except in “the 23 wards of Tokyo and any ‘ordinance-designated city’ (designated cities with populations of 500,000 or more).” Tokyo is renowned for having more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world, and the designated cities also boast fantastic dining options. But for Destination Restaurants those locations have been excluded because “the real expression of Japan’s land and climate is to be found in its regional areas, and not its cities.” The judges are also unanimous in believing in the value of “unearthing those unique talents that tend to get lost in regional areas” and that a regional-focused list provides an “alternative to the usual popular selections.”
“We’re hoping to attract inbound customers to regional restaurants and create an opportunity for the local economies to get a boost,” commented judge Hamada. Fellow judge Honda agreed: “Food prepared by regional chefs is based on the traditional cuisine of the local area, so it is brimming with lived experience and wisdom. I want people not just from overseas but from Japan too to experience that for themselves.” Tsuji explained his interest this way: “I’m keen to convey Japanese food culture from a different angle to other guides by seeing gastronomy not as pleasure, but as an intellectual pursuit.”
And so this year’s 10 restaurants are bound to give you a taste of not just Japan but also the unique, tradition-rich locales that created them.
The Destination Restaurant of the year 2022
Villa Aida, winner of the Destination Restaurant of the Year 2022 award, is located in Wakayama Prefecture, half an hour by car from Kansai International Airport or a train ride with several transfers from Osaka. It isn’t surrounded by great scenic beauty or near any famous sites. Instead, it is tucked among clothing shops and restaurants on the main drag of a residential neighborhood that few travelers would likely go out of their way to visit unless they were headed for this restaurant. Since there are no luxury hotels nearby, most diners finish their meal and head straight back to the airport or train station. But if they arrive an hour or so early, they can tour the gardens where chef and owner Kanji Kobayashi lovingly grows the vegetables for the restaurant. The place where the zucchini and corn ripen. The greenhouse crowded with colorful edible flowers and herbs like thyme and rosemary. They may find chef Kobayashi harvesting something, scissors in hand. What dish will it become? This, you see, is where the meal begins.
“My restaurant lacks the ‘sacredness’ demonstrated by other regional chefs winning awards in the Destination Restaurants 2022 competition, those who collaborate with local producers or use cuisine to preserve the regional history they’ve inherited,” said chef Masakazu Taira, owner of the Tokyo restaurant Don Bravo. “But I am always thinking about what I can do within that context.”...
Kamakura Kitajima occupies a renovated old house in a neighborhood dotted with historic temples. The sukiya teahouse-style interior features a counter facing earthen walls decorated with flowers grown in the front garden by owner Yasunori Kitajima...
With the local food movement as popular as ever these days, forgotten regional ingredients are in the spotlight, and chefs are usually the ones responsible for pulling them onto the gastronomical stage. Chefs have been nurturing producers in this way since the end of the 20th century. Gradually, however, producers have...
The Osawa district of Minami-uonuma in Niigata Prefecture has long been known for its outstanding rice. The area is to rice farming what the Burgundy estate Domaine de la Romanee-Conti is to wine. The hot spring resort Satoyama Jujo overlooks Osawa’s rice paddies. Occupying a 150-year-old dwelling made entirely of lacquered...
Hiroshima Prefecture’s Itsuku-shima Shrine is a well-known World Heritage site. Ferries headed for the sacred island where it is located leave from Miyajimaguchi, a touristy neighborhood in the city of Hatsukaichi. Residential areas nestle closer to the foothills. The restaurant Akai occupies an 80-year-old house on a hill...
L'Atelier de Noto
Facing the Sea of Japan on the Noto Peninsula in northern Ishikawa Prefecture, Wajima is a city known for its lacquerware and morning market. The culture and geography are quite different from those of elegant Kanazawa, although both are in Ishikawa. Wajima is a rustic city surrounded by the sea and mountains. It is here...
Yoichi, home to this issue’s featured restaurant, is a small town of 18,000 in northwestern Hokkaido, past Otaru from Sapporo. The drive from New Chitose Airport takes an hour and a half, or two hours with snow on the ground. The town’s name has roots in the language of Hokkaido’s Indigenous Ainu people, and according...
The town of Nishikawa, home to the Dewaya restaurant and inn, is about 40 minutes by car from Yamagata Station. Nestled in the foothills of the famous Mount Gassan, the town receives a lot of snow even for Japan’s snowy northern region, sometimes piling up to more than 5 meters by February. The population is just under...
Villa del Nido
Mount Unzen is an active volcanic complex in the center of the Shimabara Peninsula in Nagasaki Prefecture long known for both beauty and danger. In 1934, Unzen National Park became one of Japan’s first three national parks, alongside Setonaikai National Park and Kirishima National Park. The eruption from 1990...
The restaurant scene in Japan has entered a new era, with diners seeking unique experiences and cuisine that cannot be found elsewhere.
At the forefront of this trend are restaurateurs linked closely to the sources of their ingredients, turning the natural blessings of their surroundings into innovative, delectable fare.
Each year, the members of our expert panel recommend 10 establishments, with the aim of introducing readers to authentic cuisine prepared with great care and imagination.
The Japan Times Destination Restaurant of the Year 2021 is Cuisine régionale L’évo.
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