“Destination Restaurants 2024” selected by the Japan Times

Destination Restaurants express the land of Japan
Presented by The Japan Times since 2021, Destination Restaurants is a list of “the best restaurants in Japan, selected by Japanese experts with international diners in mind.” For this year’s list we welcomed back the judges who have guided this project since its inception: Yoshiki Tsuji, Naoyuki Honda and Takefumi Hamada. Together they have selected 10 establishments from across the nation. Restaurants of any genre and in any location outside major cities are eligible. We are often told that Tokyo has the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world; this list’s focus is on Japan’s regional areas. Selections are based on three principles: that the true expression of Japan’s land and climate is to be found in its regional areas; that it is important to unearth unique talents that might otherwise get lost in regional areas; and that Destination Restaurants is different from the many other popular restaurant rankings that exist.

In 2023, spending by visitors to Japan hit a record high of ¥5.3 trillion ($35 billion). The number of visitors was 25.06 million, or 80% of the pre-COVID level in 2019. Digging further into the data, we can see that foreign tourists are shifting their spending toward unique experiences, including accommodations, rather than goods. And what better experience is there than fine dining in regional Japan? The culinary experience on offer at our Destination Restaurant of the Year 2024, Elezo Esprit in Hokkaido, is sure to delight even the most traveled epicures. With the chef overseeing a fully integrated system spanning meat production to processing and cooking, the restaurant proves the saying that “to eat is to receive life.” Through experiences such as these, Destination Restaurants helps visitors engage fully with Japan’s climate, traditions, culture and spirit.

SELECTION COMMITTEE

Yoshiki Tsuji
Headmaster of Tsuji Culinary Institute and president of Tsujicho Group

Yoshiki Tsuji heads schools in Osaka, Tokyo and France that groom would-be food professionals, sending over 140,000 graduates into the food service industry in Japan as well as abroad. At the G20 Osaka summit in 2019, he served as executive producer of a dinner for heads of state. He has contributed to the development of food culture, serving on a committee screening nominees for the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ Ryori Masters (Masters of Cooking) award program. He has also lectured in various places in Japan and overseas. Tsuji was awarded France’s National Order of Merit in 2018.

Naoyuki Honda
President CEO, Leverage Consulting Inc.

Based in Hawaii and Tokyo, Naoyuki Honda leads a life under the motto of mixing business with pleasure, traveling around regions across Japan and Europe, as well as other parts of the world. He has written over 75 books, which sold over 3 million copies. Notable titles include “Naze Nihonjin Shefu wa Sekai de Shobu Dekita noka” (“Why These Japanese Chefs Have Been Globally Successful”). He daily pursues food, whether it is from street stalls, local cuisine or dinner at three-star restaurants. Honda has produced events such as Dream Dusk, featuring multiple leading chefs, and Inspire by Relux, an event in which participants stay at a luxurious ryokan Japanese-style hotel.

Takefumi Hamada
CEO, Access All Areas Inc.

Takefumi Hamada is the No.1 ranked restaurant reviewer for three consecutive years as determined by the OAD (Opinionated About Dining) Top Restaurants, having dined at the best restaurants in 120 countries and regions around the world. He is an advisor to businesses in entertainment, food and hospitality, as well as an investor in food technology startups. Takefumi has a background in finance, starting his career as an investment banker before moving on to private equity. He holds a B.A. magna cum laude, with distinction in Political Science, from Yale University.

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1 エレゾ エスプリ

127番地 Ōtsu, Toyokoro, Nakagawa District, Hokkaido 089-5465, Japan

A meat-based culinary community carries on Tokachi’s pioneer spirit

From among the 10 Destination Restaurants 2024 honorees, Elezo Esprit, which has created a new culture of meat-based cuisine, was chosen as the Destination Restaurant of the Year 2024.

About an hour’s drive from Tokachi-Obihiro Airport, Elezo Esprit is located in Toyokorocho in Hokkaido’s Nakagawa district. The area lies at the mouth of the Tokachi River, which supplies water to the region’s vast plains. The small hill on which the restaurant is situated faces the Pacific Ocean.

After the end of the Edo Period, when the Meiji government was moving ahead with Hokkaido’s development, this area was the starting point for the opening up of the Tokachi wilderness, so it is known as the “birthplace of the Tokachi region.” The area has cool summers and relatively light snowfall, and many residents work in dairy farming, agriculture and fishing.

Toyokorocho is known for its symbolic Harunire Tree (two Japanese elms that are fused together and look like a single tree), and lucky visitors may encounter the crystal-clear Tokachi River ice known as “jewelry ice” that is seen along the seashore from mid-January to mid-February. Encompassing one city (Obihiro, the airport’s location), 16 towns and two villages, the Tokachi region comprises 13% of Hokkaido’s land area and has a population of about 330,000. With a calorie-based food self-sufficiency ratio of over 1,100%, it is also an area rich in nature’s bounties.

Elezo Esprit’s owner-chef, Shota Sasaki, gained experience in French cuisine at a Hoshino Resort restaurant in Karuizawa and Bistro de la Cite in Tokyo. In 2004 he returned to Obihiro, where he helped out at his family’s cafe-restaurant. One day Sasaki had an opportunity to butcher, cook and eat the meat of a deer that had been shot by a hunter who frequented the restaurant. The experience made a deep impression on him. As a result, he came to the realization that “eating is the act of receiving life,” and resolved to engage with meat-based food culture in an essential way.

In 2005, Sasaki established the business Elezo for meat processing and distribution in Obihiro, his hometown. At first Elezo focused entirely on processing wild game obtained from hunters and selling the meat wholesale to Tokyo restaurants. Sasaki established strict rules for the handling of game animals, including specific hunting methods and the time needed to transport animals to the processing center after hunting. The meat produced by Elezo gained a following and the company’s achievements increased.

Looking toward his next goal, in 2009 Sasaki moved his activity base to Otsu in Toyokorocho, a depopulated area with fewer than 200 residents. There he built a comprehensive meat-processing laboratory on a 14-hectare site that includes mountains. He also started raising game fowl and ducks and pasturing pigs on the grounds of the facility. Through unique methods seen nowhere else in the world, such as hiring hunters as regular employees, Sasaki is creating a new meat-based culinary culture.

In 2022, Sasaki opened Elezo Esprit, an inn-style hotel made up of three accommodation buildings. The main dining room has six counter seats. The restaurant, which offers a course menu for ¥28,000 ($185), is open to hotel guests and nonguests alike, but overnight guests currently make up 90% of its customers. (One night’s stay with two meals starts at ¥55,000.) Dinner begins with Ezo venison consomme, which Sasaki calls “the soup of life.” Meats made on the premises, including assorted charcuterie and roasted pastured pork and venison fillets, are presented in simple and refined ways. Meat dishes of equivalent quality can be enjoyed at an Elezo Group restaurant located in Toranomon, Tokyo. But the cuisine experienced here, where pigs and fowl that live on the premises can be transformed into the dishes’ ingredients without a moment’s delay, is another matter completely. This is truly the taste of life itself. “We mustn’t waste a single drop of blood,” Sasaki said. The dishes at Elezo Esprit should be savored with these words in mind.

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2 VENTI NOVE (ヴェンティノーヴェ)

2593-1 Yachi, Kawaba, Tone District, Gunma 378-0101, Japan

Kawaba village in Gunma’s Tone district is home to one of Japan’s “sacred mountains” and the birthplace of Ventinove’s chef-owner, Yusuke Takeuchi. After closing his popular Tokyo restaurant, he opened Ventinove in Kawaba in 2022. It is known for meat dishes showing the skills, from butchering to cooking, that he acquired at a famous restaurant in the Tuscan countryside.

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3 ca enne (カエンネ)

Tabelog Bronze
Japan, 〒391-0213 Nagano, Chino, Toyohira, 東嶽10222-25

This Italian restaurant is located in the Tateshina Highlands, in the foothills of Mount Yatsugatake. Chef-owner Noriyuki Usui trained in Italy, not only at a restaurant but also in a prosciutto workshop. Ca’enne’s specialty is its prosciutto, made in a workshop that was established nearby. Guests are also served firewood-cooked cuisine enhanced with the aromas of freshly picked herbs, as well as handmade pasta.

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4 Chisou Nishikenichi (馳走西健一)

Tabelog Silver
OAD 249
Japan, 〒425-0036 Shizuoka, Yaizu, Nishikogawa, 4-chōme−8−9

Chef-owner Kenichi Nishi was deeply impressed by the quality of the fish at Sasue Maeda Fish Shop in Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, and relocated from Hiroshima to Yaizu in 2022 in order to create French dishes making full use of the extraordinary freshness of this fish. Nishi continues to develop and refine his cuisine, including the “fresh fish pie” that has been his signature dish since before his move to Yaizu.

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5 Kappou Shintaku (割烹 新多久)

Tabelog Bronze
3-38 Komachi, Murakami, Niigata 958-0841, Japan

Shintaku was established in 1867. After honing their culinary skills in Kyoto, brothers Shinsuke and Ryota Yamagai took over the family business in 2008, with Shinsuke becoming the restaurant’s fifth-generation head chef. Most of the ingredients they use are produced in Murakami — not just the salmon for which the city is famous, but also meat and seafood, vegetables, rice and sake.

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6 海老亭別館 Ebitei

2-chōme-4-10 Yasunoyachō, Toyama, 930-0087, Japan

Kentaro Mura is the fourth-generation owner-chef of this Japanese restaurant, which opened in 1911. After closing the business in 2018 to refine his skills further at Japanese restaurant in Tokyo, Mura reopened the Toyama restaurant in a new location in October 2022. Ebitei-Bekkan offers exquisite dishes featuring ingredients from Toyama and elsewhere in the Hokuriku region, paired with well-matched wines.

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7 Ipponsugikawashima (一本杉 川嶋)

Tabelog Silver
32-1 Ipponsugimachi, Nanao, Ishikawa 926-0806, Japan

Ipponsugi Kawashima is currently closed, as the 93-year-old building it occupies — a former fountain pen shop designated a Tangible Cultural Property — was damaged in the Noto earthquake on Jan. 1 and is not in usable condition. Owner-chef Toru Kawashima distributed meals to earthquake victims after the disaster, and is currently engaged in a crowdfunding effort with a view to the restaurant’s reopening.

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8 Shibousai Kitagawa (私房菜 きた川)

Tabelog Bronze
1020 Isederachō, Matsusaka, Mie 515-0845, Japan

Occupying a traditional house on the outskirts of Matsusaka, Shibousai Kitagawa offers “Chinese cuisine that is gentle on the stomach,” serving just one group of diners per day. Using local products such as Ise-ebi lobster and Matsusaka beef, owner-chef Yoshihiro Kitagawa single-handedly carries out the entire process from stocking ingredients to putting the final touches on dishes. This restaurant is now booked up one years in advance.

9 ENOWA YUFUIN

544 Yufuinchō Kawakami, Yufu, Oita 879-5102, Japan

Enowa is a multipurpose complex combining a restaurant with a hot spring, sauna and lodging accommodations. Executive chef Tashi Gyamtso, who gained experience at the restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns near New York City, moved to the area three years before Enowa’s opening to grow vegetables and make other preparations. The cuisine created in Yufuin by this native of Tibet has gained considerable attention.

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10 Zakimi

Zakimi, Yomitan, Nakagami District, Okinawa 904-0301, Japan

Mauvaise herbe

Secret location therefore there is no official Google entry.
The address is: 263 Zakimi, Yomitan, Nakagami District, Okinawa 904-0301, Japan.

Owner-chef Keiji Ojima, who had long garnered many fans with his catering business, opened this restaurant on the main island of Okinawa in 2021. Except for some seasonings, all the ingredients used in the omakase (chef’s selection) menu are produced in Okinawa. Communicating directly with producers, Kojima brings out the full potential of Okinawan ingredients in his cuisine.

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