“Destination Restaurants 2023” selected by the Japan Times

Destination Restaurants express the land of Japan
Destination Restaurants was launched by The Japan Times in 2021 as a list of the best restaurants
in Japan, selected by Japanese experts with international diners in mind. As in previous years, Yoshiki Tsuji, Naoyuki Honda and Takeshi Hamada have kindly judged the third edition, Destination Restaurants 2023, and selected 10 top-quality restaurants from across the nation.

Restaurants of any genre are eligible, and in any location outside Tokyo’s 23 wards and Japan’s 20 major “ordinancedesignated cities.” The culinary prowess of Japan’s main cities is well known — Tokyo’s restaurants have the most “stars” in the world. But the Destination Restaurants list has three guiding principles that set it apart and place its focus squarely on regional Japan. First, the true expression of Japan’s land and climate is to be found in its regional areas. Second, it is important to unearth those unique talents that tend to get lost in regional areas. Third, a regional-focused list provides an alternative to the many other restaurant rankings.

“Even if you have just one restaurant that is good enough to attract international visitors, then you have the potential to enliven that local economy and spark regional revitalization,” Hamada said. “Hopefully this is a first step.” Tsuji commented: “Without the necessary tourist
resources, convenient transport and accommodation options, people often just don’t visit rural areas, so they have a range of issues that need attention. But when a local restaurant does receive attention, it is so valuable, because it means you can also promote local foods and ingredients and other things at the same time.” Honda highlighted the list’s influence on the next generation, explaining that ”when you get more good local restaurants appearing and attracting attention, more young chefs will be nurtured in regional areas.” Now that COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted and the number of tourists visiting Japan from overseas has recovered, the Destination Restaurants list looks set to become even more important than ever.


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Tabelog Silver
Onigoe-171-10 Uchigōmidaisakaimachi, Iwaki, Fukushima 973-8409, Japan

When it came to selecting a Destination Restaurant of the Year from the 10 winners for 2023, the three judges were unanimous: The honor went to the innovative restaurant Hagi in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture.

Two and a half hours from Tokyo by limited express train, Iwaki has over 320,000 residents, making it the Tohoku region’s most populous city after Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture. A center of coal and other mining in the Meiji Era and a thriving industrial city during the period of rapid economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s, Iwaki is also home to the fishing and industrial port of Onahama, which boasts Tohoku’s highest value of shipped manufactured goods. Iwaki is also known for Spa Resort Hawaiians, with its popular hula shows. Established as a source of employment for former coal miners and their families after the mining industry began to decline in the 1950s, the spa gained international recognition when its success story was told in the film “Hula Girls.”

More recently, however, the region became a major disaster area due to the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. During the disaster, 468 people died in Iwaki and 91,180 buildings were partially or completely destroyed, according to the city government. The city spans an area between 25 and 60 kilometers south of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which suffered a meltdown, and three days after the tsunami, radiation levels in the area temporarily spiked. Fortunately, winds changed two days later to blow the radiation out toward the ocean, avoiding large-scale pollution in Iwaki and lessening the impact of nuclear fallout on its water supply and farm products.

Nevertheless, sales of some food products were restricted immediately after the nuclear disaster. Trawling and other fishing operations were long suspended on the Fukushima coast, including at Onahama port, 15 minutes by car from Hagi. Today, the market abounds with farm products whose safety has been ensured (although restrictions remain on wild mushrooms and other edible mountain plants in some areas). Through a process of sampling and ongoing testing of radiation levels in seafood, authorities gradually expanded the locations where fishing was permitted and the species that could be harvested, until by February 2020 all types of seafood were back on the market.

Throughout these 12 hard years, the chef and owner of Hagi, Harutomo Hagi, has led the way in collaborating with local producers to show the world the excellence of Fukushima’s food. Before the disaster, Hagi operated a French restaurant that seated about 40 and offered a prix fixe dinner for ¥5,000 ($35). However, his approach to cooking and work shifted dramatically after the disaster. Making up his mind to pay producers a fair price for high-quality ingredients without bargaining, he raised prices at his restaurant with the aim of improving producers’ lives. He changed the name of the restaurant, eliminated lunch service and switched to a single omakase menu for ¥19,360 (tax and service fee included). Until very recently, he was able to serve only one party per day.

“Aside from the restrictions related to the nuclear disaster, some food producers evacuated,” he explained. “I experienced the loss of things that had been there until the day before. If I still wanted to cook with local food, the best I could do was gather enough for one party per day.”

Although today the restaurant has returned to normal operations, it still seats only eight guests at a time. It survives at a fifth of its former capacity thanks to the many foodies who travel from Fukushima and well beyond to dine there.

The menu consists of about 15 courses, from an amuse-bouche to dessert. Over 90% of ingredients come from within a one-hour radius by car from the restaurant. For example, one amuse-bouche paired char eggs that fishermen were struggling to sell locally with new onions dug not half an hour before roasting them over a wood fire for an hour until meltingly soft. Mehikari (greeneyes), the official fish of the city of Fukushima, is seared over a wood fire and combined with sake lees from a brewery and wild edible plants such as the young leaves of the koshiabura tree. No matter the dish, each ingredient explodes with flavor in the way only hyperlocal food can.

Thanks to the determination of chefs and producers in Fukushima who have stayed on the land and moved forward with hope despite the disaster, diners are able to enjoy this food today.
Cooking starts in the soil, not in the kitchen
In August 2011, a French restaurant in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, reopened under the name Hagi, serving innovative cuisine and upping the price of its prix fixe dinner almost fourfold from ¥5,000 ($35) to just under ¥20,000. Chef and owner Harutomo Hagi said that at the time, everyone asked him what he was thinking. No wonder. Following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster just five months earlier, customers had stopped coming to restaurants in Iwaki, and supplies of locally grown food had dried up. Hagi said he was able to make such a daring decision despite this situation because he had met a group of local producers, including Nagatoshi Shiraishi, a grower using natural farming methods at Shiraishi Farm in Iwaki.

“Just before summer started, I’d gotten some tomatoes from Shiraishi-san that were incredibly delicious,” he recalled. “When I asked him how he grew them, he said, ‘In the weeds, the natural way.’ That startled me. I realized I didn’t know anything about the ingredients I was using.”

Hagi started helping in Shiraishi’s fields every day and learned what vegetables tasted like from the moment they sprouted until they rotted away. He realized that cooking begins not in the kitchen but with the nurturing of good soil, and that vegetables are flavored in the field.

“Farmers have built the soil and selected good varieties over hundreds of years. They do the same thing as chefs,” he said. “Also, when you eat vegetables every day in the field, there are moments when they taste incredibly delicious. But the very next day, they’re no good. Farmers know that. I want people to taste that delicious moment. How do we control the moment when food is at peak energy? When I think about that, I feel like the only option is to prepare food simply. There’s power in simplicity. Shiraishi-san once said to me: ‘Fertilizer is like seasoning for the soil. You can eat with seasoning or without it.’ If you have good ingredients, they taste good as they are. I started to think I didn’t need to do all that much to my ingredients. I was already creating seasonal cuisine simply by combining ingredients, but I decided to engage with the ingredients more seriously, without limiting myself to the genre of French cuisine.”

Other farmers told Hagi they disliked when chefs requested low-quality vegetables despite the great care the farmers devoted to growing produce. Through Shiraishi, Hagi came to know many producers.

“Consumers were avoiding food grown in Fukushima because of the nuclear disaster, and producers were wondering if anyone would want their vegetables, or if they could even continue growing here at all,” he said. “But that was exactly why I decided to buy ingredients for a fair price without haggling and return the profits to the producers, and to cook simple food that highlighted the ingredients and wasn’t limited to French cuisine.”

From then on, Hagi began partnering with Shiraishi and other producers to speak out about local food, and the media started paying attention. In 2013, Hagi became the first Japanese chef to cook in the kitchen of the Elysee Palace, the residence of the French president, and received high praise for his cooking from the president of the Netherlands. The ingredients he cooks with in Iwaki are just as good as the luxurious ingredients he used in Paris. They feature front and center in all 15 courses he serves.

“When diners tell me something is delicious, I pass that on to the producer. It encourages them and they learn what people like, which guides what they produce.”

This, in turn, improves the quality of ingredients and of Hagi’s cooking. As his restaurant’s reputation rises, more guests come from other prefectures and overseas, spreading the word about the quality of food produced in Fukushima. People are no longer buying vegetables, meat and fish from Fukushima to support disaster survivors; they are buying it because it is good food. Who could have imagined this future immediately after the triple disaster of 2011? Thanks to these changes, more vegetable, meat and dairy farmers are stepping into the public eye. The menu at Hagi bursts with this positive power of revival.

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2 Casa del cibo (カーサ・デル・チーボ)

Tabelog Bronze
1-chōme-19-6 Minatotakadai, Hachinohe, Aomori 031-0823, Japan

Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture, where this restaurant is located, is home to one of Japan’s top fishing ports and during the Edo Period was the castle town of the domain of Hachinohe. Chef-owner Ryouhei Ikemi uses both French and Italian techniques to make brilliant use not only of local seafood but also of many other Aomori products, such as farm-raised boar, a rarity in Japan.

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3 Restaurant Pas Mal (レストラン パ・マル)

2-chōme-3-16 Nanukamachi, Yamagata, 990-0042, Japan

This is the sole authentic French restaurant in the city of Yamagata, which sits to the west of the Ou Mountains. Chef-owner Yusuke Murayama, who is from the city, charms guests with his diverse repertoire of dishes, from French classics built around sauces to ambitious creations like a French version of taro root stew, a local specialty.

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4 Otowa restaurant (オトワ レストラン)

Tabelog Bronze
OAD 257
3554-7 Nishiharachō, Utsunomiya, Tochigi 320-0826, Japan

This French restaurant in Utsunomiya, a Tochigi Prefecture city famous for its gyoza, is a family affair run by chef-owner Kazunori Otowa and his sons Hajime and Sou. They serve elegant, contemporary French cuisine using products from Tochigi such as Datedori, a chicken brand that Kazunori helped develop.

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5 Terroir aito ibukuro (Terroir愛と胃袋)

Tabelog Bronze
414 Takanechō Nagasawa, Hokuto, Yamanashi 408-0001, Japan

This restaurant gets its name—which means “Love and the Stomach”—from the saying that “love comes through the stomach.” Located in the old post town of Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture, which is surrounded by five famous mountains, the restaurant occupies a remodeled traditional house. Chef-owner Shinsaku Suzuki holds a hunting license and creates menus with a playful spirit. Children are welcome.

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6 Restaurant Naz (レストラン ナズ)

Tabelog Silver
OAD 227
134-3 Oiwake, Karuizawa, Kitasaku District, Nagano 389-0115, Japan

This restaurant opened in 2020 at a resort in the summer vacation destination of Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, just an hour from Tokyo by shinkansen. Ever since, it has been hard to get a reservation. Chef Natsuki Suzuki trained in Italy before working at Noma and Kadeau in Denmark. He puts the fermentation skills he learned there to use in bringing new flavors to local ingredients.

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7 Sushi Tokiwa (鮨 登喜和)

Tabelog Bronze
3-chōme-7-8 Chūōchō, Shibata, Niigata 957-0053, Japan

Perched on the Niigata Plain, where winters are snowy and the rice is renowned, the city of Shibata abounds in tourist attractions such as Shibata Castle and local hot springs. As the third generation in his family to lead Tokiwazushi, which opened in 1954, Kousuke Kobayashi cooks local rice in spring water before seasoning it and pairing with seasonal seafood, taking sushi in new directions.

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8 Oryouri Fuji I (御料理ふじ居)

Tabelog Silver
OAD 74
Japan, 〒931-8353 富山県富山市東岩瀬町93

The historic streets of Iwasebunkamachi recall days of old, when the Kitamaebune shipping route brought thriving trade to the area. Oryouri Fujii opened in 2011 as part of a town revitalization project led by local sake brewery Masudashuzo. Chef-owner Hironori Fujii brings out the best in ingredients from Toyama, drawing diners from across Japan and beyond.

Open hours View
9 Tsukumo (白)

RR #827
Tabelog Bronze
Japan, 〒630-8244 Nara, Sanjōchō, 三条町606-2 南側1F

This Japanese restaurant is located in Nara, the eighth-century capital of Japan and home to many historic shrines and temples. Owner Masato Nishihara trained at Kyoto Kitcho Arashiyama and worked at Japanese restaurants in New York and London before opening Tsukumo in 2015. His interpretations of the food culture of Nara and Japan more broadly are attracting attention.

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10 6 (6)

499-1 Kouri, Nakijin, Kunigami District, Okinawa 905-0406, Japan

Hiroyuki Kosugi is chef-owner at Six, a restaurant on the small island of Kouri, 2 kilometers by bridge from Okinawa’s main island. Guests enjoy views of the blue ocean as they dine on about 25 courses. Kosugi riffs creatively on French cooking, often incorporating local specialties such as shimadofu, Okinawa’s “island tofu.”

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