Asia - Issue 8 - Magazine | Monocle

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Stars in their eyes


Although shrouded in secrecy, this much is known about Michelin’s first-ever Tokyo guide, due to hit Japanese bookstores on 22 November: it will say that in terms of three-star restaurants, Tokyo is second only to Paris.

When they first came to Japan, the inspectors of the famous “Little Red Guide” were quite sceptical about what they would find. Was Japanese food, they wondered, more about presentation than quality? Tokyo chefs were similarly unimpressed by the arrival of inspectors arrogant enough to dictate to the refined palates of Japanese diners. The best tables in Tokyo still operate old style: no reservations possible, no credit card taken (the bill is usually sent to the customer’s home after the meal), no new customer allowed unless properly introduced.

“We alerted Michelin to the quality of the food here,” said the late François Busson, the former head of Michelin’s Japanese tyre subsidiary and fin gourmet himself. Michelin’s inspectors quickly realised that they had found somewhere exceptional and in May 2006 started tasting in earnest. “We have a team of five very thorough people: three European, two Japanese,” says an adviser of Michelin in Japan. “They will be extremely positive.”

The impact will be huge: Michelin’s evaluations are like fatwahs, deciding life or death for an establishment. In Japan, the guide will put the spotlight on the most exclusive places that have struggled since many of their high-spending clients left them after the economic bubble burst in the late 1990s.

“The second-rate restaurants are making money; the first-rate are struggling,” says Ernest Singer, president of import wine company Millesimes. Japanese have a tendency to regard foreigners’ judgment higher than their own where their culture is concerned. Seen through the eyes of the Michelin guide, Japan will take a new look at its food and appreciate its global appeal.

My morning media menu

Kashiwa Sato

Award-winning art director; founded Samurai studio. Branding projects run from major galleries to boy band SMAP
-Tokyo, Japan

Which newspapers do you read?
I read the business daily, the Nikkei. It covers so many industries; it’s a good way of seeing who’s doing what. Plus, I can follow up on projects I’ve worked on. For hard news I read The Asahi Shimbun.

Do you watch television news?
I watch Mino Monta’s programme on TBS, Asazuba. I have it on in the background between 06.00 and 08.00. He covers everything from breaking news to politics. He’s a powerful figure on TV. The best-known TV journalist is Tetsuya Chikushi [veteran news anchor] – there’s nobody else like him.

It is rocket science


While the US and Japan keep an eye on China’s long-range, anti-ship cruise missile developments, China is monitoring Taiwan’s surface-to-surface missile programme. With Chinese weapons trained on Taiwan, Taipei wants to level the playing field with offensive capabilities against the PRC.

Route canal work


Even its biggest fans would struggle to argue that Seoul is one of the world’s most attractive capitals. But following the success of former mayor Lee Myung-bak’s project to uncover and redevelop a 6km stretch of water, the Cheonggyecheon stream, in the centre of the city, there are plans to further beautify Seoul. (A huge hit: 10 million people visited the waterway within three months of its opening.)

“Seoul lacks the image that can best represent the city,” said Mayor Oh Se-hoon in March. “To brand the city we can develop [the Han River] and its surrounding areas.” With its utilitarian bridges and faceless concrete apartments, the river is hardly the Seine. The Han River Renaissance master-plan (aka Aquapolis) envisages amphibious water shuttles, waterfalls and a 23,000 sq m floating garden within three years. New riverside buildings will have to pass a design audit. By 2030, Se-hoon’s blueprint calls for rejuvenated riverside areas and in September, Samsung announced a bid of 20 trillion won (€15.4bn) to redevelop Yongsan, the first such district.

Se-hoon’s centrepiece is a 20km canal linking the Han with Incheon on the Yellow Sea – enabling international cruise ships to dock in Seoul. Its approval hinges on the winner of December’s presidential election. The front-runner is Lee Myung-bak, whose campaign pledge includes carving a giant canal from Seoul to Busan on the south coast. His victory could make a Seoul-Incheon canal a serious proposition.

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