Half-Baked in Tokyo
One man’s culinary paradise is another’s cultural wasteland
Oct 14, 2010 | Issue: 864 | 35 Comments | 12,272 views
Half-Baked in Tokyo
Clay Jarvis is an elementary school teacher and a member of several bands you’ve never heard of

In the jobless summer following my second year of university, I survived on nothing but creamed corn and bunless hotdogs. For seasoning, I used all I could afford—Dairy Queen pepper packets, the salt from my tears—but my diet, like the summer itself, was a lost cause. I told myself that even though I was eating stuff UNICEF would throw in the garbage, it was going to be the worst food I would ever have to eat. Then I moved to Tokyo.

I’m no foodie—obviously—but I know bad food, and I often find myself choking down flavorless crap when I go looking for restaurants that claim to serve my favorite ethnic dishes. Thai, Malay, Mexican, Indian—the world’s most wonderful cuisines are all available in Tokyo. But instead of being a rich and fulfilling cultural experience, the food served at the majority of these restaurants is either heartbreakingly bland, weirdly bastardized or completely ruined.

The common explanation for the overwhelming blandness of Tokyo’s foodscape is that Japanese people don’t like spicy food, or their palettes aren’t used to it, so restaurants, in an attempt to build a clientele, decrease the potency of their dishes. This is a load of bullsushi—enjoying spicy food is a matter of exposure, not race—and a rather gutless cop-out on the part of our city’s restaurateurs. If you want to court Japanese customers, start an izakaya. If you want to pique the interest of open-minded, curious people, not only in a menu but in a culture as well, you have to do it with authenticity. For the love of Gordon Ramsay, the staff at a Thai restaurant shouldn’t have to ask, “Do you want it spicy?”

Most Tokyo residents would say “No.” To them I say, “What do you want?”

Food is culture, and when you see a lack of interest in another culture’s food, you see a lack of interest in that culture. This is why good food is so hard to find in Tokyo. It’s not the tender tongues of the nihonjin that are being courted—it’s their lack of interest in things non-Japanese. If Thai food can be made to seem less different from Japanese food, restaurants serving it might increase business; it certainly works for Italian restaurants and their noodle-heavy menus. But if you blast away at some salaryman with both barrels of a scorching tom yum soup, you not only turn his rectum into an inverted volcano, you reinforce in his mind just how different Thailand and Japan are. In other cities, ethnic restaurants are prized for the authenticity of their food and the vitality they bring to neighborhoods, but in Tokyo, that’s no way to run a business.

A wariness of The Different permeates Tokyo and prevents it from being one of the world’s truly great cities. I expect this attitude from some donkey-rider in Saitama, but I’ll never understand how such narrow-mindedness and disinterest can exist in the mind of anyone who chooses to live in a city of this size.

Why would people move to and endure life in a large city if not for the opportunity to be inundated with and influenced by the people, the ideas, the sights and the flavors? That’s certainly why I came here. It’s also one of the main reasons I find Tokyo so disappointing. You can discover the odd oasis of foreign noise and flavor here, but often without any accompanying interest from the local population.

It’s easy to compare Japan to England—both countries are conservative, aloof, pale and full of starch and carbs—but you can’t compare London to Tokyo. One is a gloriously dirty hellhole brimming with culture both foreign and native; the other is just a larger version of every other place in Japan. One has Indian food that’s uncompromising and delicious; the other has Indian food so bad it’s practically a hate crime.

But London is not England, just as New York is not America and Vancouver is not Canada. These great cities are anomalies in countries renowned not just for their overall blandness and stupidity, but for their serious issues with race. Yet the residents of great cities choose to face the tensions and confusion that accompany exposure to new ideas. They’ve learned that progress comes from cooperation, cooperation from acceptance.

Illustration by Shane Busato

Tokyo, though, is Japan. The country’s regional differences might extend to dialect and hairstyles, but they don’t affect Japan’s overall attitude toward The New or The Foreign. From the Shinagawa banker to the rural Chiba snaggletooth, all are raised to respect, conform to and disregard the same things.

And so, conceding defeat, countless Tokyo chefs mute and mutilate their dishes, turning formerly foreign food into culinary katakana—barely recognizable, its meaning unclear, but something Japanese people will, finally, attempt to put their mouths around.



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  • crashblossoms

    congratulations — you’ve apparently managed to find what must be the worst restaurants in one of the greatest food cities (if not the best) in the world. how sad for you. also, if you plan to continue your food writing career, you may want to learn the difference between “palette” and “palate.”

  • kakipii

    Wow. I’m glad I haven’t had the displeasure of dining out with you, what with the impossibly bad choices you make in where to eat. Personally, I just have to pop round the corner to get (very hot and authentic) Thai food; thin rustic Italian pizzas; good Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish and even Romanian meals; as well as dozens of different regional Japanese dishes. There’s so much choice that if I’m not impressed, I never have to go back.

    I also think it’s unfair to say that Toyo isn’t a world city with a huge permanent immigrant population (and therefore a demand for more authentic cuisine) and then bemoan the fact that Tokyoites don’t eat like they’re immigrants in such a city. Foreign food always changes to suit the tastes of the local population, which is why you can get sushi-tasting sushi in London with a large concentration of Japanese, whereas in Basingstoke it tastes nothing like it. It’s also a fact that when the majority of (“conservative, aloof, pale”) Brits go for a curry (Londoner or not), they don’t look for an authentic Keralite restaurant but rather have a very British chicken tikka masala.

  • outlawhorse

    Out of all the crappy, cliched, poorly written Last Word columns Metropolis has printed from whingeing immigrants, this has to be the worst.

    There’s a reason Tokyo restaurants have more Michelin stars than any other city in the world, and the reason is that Japanese chefs do an amazing job with both foreign and domestic food.

    “A wariness of The Different permeates Tokyo and prevents it from being one of the world’s truly great cities.” Are you serious? As other commenters have said, Tokyo has a huge permanent immigrant population, many of whom establish restaurants, many of whom cook delicious, traditional food. You just aren’t trying hard enough. You mustn’t be trying at all, really, because it’s not difficult to find (as others have mentioned).

    “[London] is a gloriously dirty hellhole brimming with culture both foreign and native…” Have you actually BEEN to London? English food “culture” is eggs on toast with wet mushrooms for 22 pounds. The imported food is bastardized beyond all recognition, to a far worse extent than I’ve ever noticed in Tokyo.

    If you like London better, go and live there. At least it will save the readers of this magazine from another ill-informed, poorly written column bemoaning your choice of food in one of the culinary capitals of the world.

  • automidnight

    All three of you have missed the point of the article. It’s not just about food, it’s about how some ethnic foods are altered to please a local population that would otherwise show very little interest in it, and how I think that relates to Tokyo’s stature as a city. The comments posted so far refer to only the first half of the article, which leads me to think that you had your minds made up before you got to the heart of the piece.

    I don’t feel like writing a second article to defend the first one, especially when what I meant to say is pretty obvious, but I will say one thing there wasn’t enough space for: originally, there was a line saying something like “Is the food in Tokyo universally terrible? Of course not, but it’s not what it could be.” I’ve had scores of great Italian, French, Turkish and Japanese meals here, but as a fan of spicy food, I’ve been disappointed far more times than I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Sure, there are a lot of Michelin stars to be found in Tokyo, but how many of them belong to Thai or Indian restaurants?

    Regarding the “love it or leave it” mentality, that’s just stupid. How can you honestly admit to loving something without also admitting that it’s imperfect? Have you never been in a relationship before? Tokyo’s great, but if you think there’s nothing to criticize and nothing to discuss you’re living in a different Tokyo than I am.

    Still, thanks for reading.

  • crashblossoms

    i didn’t miss the offensively over-generalized, flimsily-premised “point” of the article, i just thought it was too inane to even address. but since you mention it, let’s examine: the local population of tokyo is too uninterested in foreign cultures (or at least the ones you champion due to the kickass spiciness of some of their food) to explore their cuisines. yet in order to make that assertion, you had to try the pitiful tokyo versions of said cuisines in a number of foreign-cuisine restaurants, meaning that, unless you’re basing your opinion on a handful of crappy restaurants to which you keep returning, there are plenty of such restaurants in the city, which would seem to indicate significant interest in such cuisines. as for the “foreign noise and flavor…without any accompanying interest from the local population,” have you ever heard of, say, fuji rock? the asakusa samba parade? the weekly international festivals at yoyogi park? you should try them — they serve spicy food, promote foreign cultures, and are packed with local japanese — some of them even snaggletoothed.

    you seem to be hedging a bit in your comment, granting that you have on occasion been “pleasantly surprised” by tokyo’s humble culinary offerings. but rather than address “what (you) meant to say” and other insights that, sadly, lack of space didn’t allow, let’s look at exactly what you did write: “good food is so hard to find in Tokyo.” and yet, you say you’ve had “scores of great…meals here.” so which is it?

    in conclusion, thank you for promising not to write a second article. i don’t think i could stomach it.

  • jeffrey

    Not to pile on, but about every three weeks or so, Metropolis chooses to post a column like this – so far off base as to make one assume the writer just stepped off the proverbial boat.

    Even ten years ago Tokyo was a haven for great foreign food, particularly Thai and Indian prepared by two of the better represented ex-pat communities.

    As others have pointed out, there are simply too many howlers in this piece to spend much time critiquing it other than saying you simply have no idea what you are talking about.

  • outlawhorse

    It’s incredibly frustrating that this column focuses so much on what foreigners find distasteful about Tokyo. For the record, I read your whole piece, and the second half was worse than the first. You claim that countries that have foreign cuisines are somehow fighting against racism, that England, America and Canada are renowned for their “blandness and stupidity” and that Tokyo is no different to the rest of Japan beyond superficialities.

    My problem with your article – and this column space, and you, and many that have come before you – is that Metropolis seems to have done some market research somewhere along the line that suggests readers of a magazine directed at foreigners want to be whined at, to be complained at, to be told “Shit, Japan does this bad!”

    At best, it’s mildly informative in a curmudgeonly way. At worst – as with this article – it relies on stereotypes, broad generalisation, hackneyed assumptions and an incredibly flimsy argument. You’ve taken your own experience of having what is – in your opinion – bad spicy food in Tokyo and extrapolated that out to say a) the Japanese can’t do foreign food, b) the Japanese don’t care about foreign culture, c) Americans, Englishmen and Canadians are stupid and d) “Did I mention all Japanese people like to be the same?”

    What I object to is ridiculous simplification and sweeping statements. It annoys me that this magazine devoted column inches to a contention that I – and the other commenters – have found patently untrue. Most of all, I’m just sick of being complained at. Yes, Tokyo and Japan have their bad points, but if you’re not going to tell me in an intelligent or considered way – and if you’re not going to do any research beyond your own limited experience – then I don’t really care for what you have to say.

  • sunnydaze

    Top Marks for one of the worst pieces of writing I have ever read. Do you actually live in Tokyo? Maybe you should broaden you dining choices to include more than just chain restaurants. I only hope you have more talent in music (and for the sake of your students) teaching english.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/mistertroy2010/ superflycharismaguy2010

    Is Metropolis paying these people to write articles? If not, I suggest you start because the quality is f’ing garbage. Cut the volunteers. If you are paying, then you REALLY need to start advertising for writers.
    For the cliche foreigner-bashing foreigner who wrote this article, just about every curry and Chinese food place I’ve been to is run by foreigners. if you want spicy, ask for spicy. Just because they offer a choice doesn’t mean they’re ignorant or that they’re dumbing down for their customers. I get hiccups everytime I eat spicy food, so does that mean I have to suffer with terrible food or that I’m some ignorant, spoiled American because I asked for it to be less spicy?

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/mistertroy2010/ superflycharismaguy2010

    This article is just another epic fail for Metropolis. You’d save money and annoy less people by just cutting this page (except for the Negi stuff) out of the mag.

  • bluesushi

    Well. to compare Tokyo with England shows real stupidity and frustrates even us English guys here, whom know how bad England is for dining! Save that nonsense for the pub please!.For the record 90% of foreign restaurants in Tokyo do it wrong by producing tasteless and rubbish foreign food..yet is this not much the same as in London or NYC or Paris?

    But who cares about the “general average of 90%” unless you are stupid..ne?

    Tokyo is the best if you focus on finding quality..there are many easy diamonds to be found in the rough here!

    If you want real quality Italian..the best in the world is here at Appia or Ivo’s..the best steaks are here at oak door followed by best Chinese at several great venues in Ginza..Now Thai food..well you cannot find good Thai food anywhere outside of Thailand as it is directly related to supply of many fresh daily herbs..and to finalise the service here in even the worst place beats the UK every time!

    Your article..its poorly researched and frankly does not deserve to be here because of how you have not researched or done proper bench marking! Focus on decent research next time and you will not end up with “egg ” on your face!

    Good Luck!

  • semiautodidact

    Mr Jarvis says Thai cooking must be spicy to be authentic. Is there any indication that he knows *anything* else about Thai food?

  • lukecage1972

    Before finishing this article, I already knew what the critical comments were going to be–and I was right. It seems an overwhelming majority of foreign long-term residents of Japan have a predictable allergic reaction to any criticism of Japan or the Japanese. Either most things in Japan are clearly superior, or you’re just angry and should go home. Or you have to hedge by finding a similar but equal fault in your home country. But by no means can you continue to live here (happily) and express genuine biting criticism of something the Japanese do, say or reportedly think.

    The article is worth discussion on its content–but the venomous attacks on the writer and on the very fact that the article was published seems to come from a different place. I, for one am glad articles like this find their way to publication in the gaijin press. You know, the whole voices of dissent thing.

  • hikosaemon

    In the man’s defense, I once thought that all food in Japan was crap too.

    …And then I tried going outside of Roppongi…

  • hikosaemon

    I have had crap southeast Asian food by the way – stuff that is too localized. But geez, you have to just open your eyes. If you desperately want good authentic Indian food, there are good Indian run chains everywhere, but go to Nishi Kasai and you will get a South Indian home cooked meal, with cricket on the satellite tvs and bollywood music on the casette player. If you want good Vietnamese, go to Miss Saigon in Shibuya – there are other good Vietnamese around, but that place is full on with herbs, and they barely speak Japanese, if you want reassurance.

    If you can’t find good Thai food in Tokyo, you really need to get your head checked. I follow a simple rule – if the restaurant does not have a picture of the King prominently displayed, turn around and walk out. Quickly. Real Thais who make real Thai food put up a picture of the King, and it will not miss, be it in the basement of Lumine in Shinjuku, or under the Yamanote Line tracks between Tokyo and Yurakucho stations. You will get all the flavor, spice and everything else you can handle.

    The comment about spice also, incidentally, is just silly. If by spice you mean aromatic – yes, Japanese have an awful habit of reducing garlic and other herbs in a lot of foods. But if you mean chilli, you have to be kidding. Besides the preponderance of Korean food everywhere, even most Italian restaurants will put chilli oil and chilli sprinkles on the table because girls will douse their food in the stuff because there is a belief among Japanese that making food spicy will stop you getting fat. I have no idea if it is true or not, but the result is that dried chilli flakes or chilli oil is everywhere – in Japan. On the contrary, I find it is Anglo Saxons that tend to suffer not being able to access a lot of exotic food because of the spice barrier.

    Point is, the statement that such food doesn’t exist in Tokyo isn’t controversial – it is factually wrong. Either the author doesn’t now how to look for it, or is too geographically limited in scope to really try. The pain with Tokyo is that NOTHING is necessarily easy to find or do, but the great thing about the place is that if you can figure out your way around, you can find anything you look for, food, cultural, or otherwise.

  • jonholmes

    Coming from London recently, I thought his comments about London were quite good; it is a “hell hole” in terms of expense and infrastructure, but if you go into the ethnic neighbourhoods e.g. Brick Lane you can find the real thing at reasonable cost.

    Other parts of his article rang true, though not about food- “foreign noise and flavor but without any accompanying interest” although I d say there is an interest, but only to confirm the whole Nihonjinron thing for many locals; others who have travelled abroad might be more genuinely interested.

    Why is that? And why is it that the “attitude from some donkey-rider in Saitama” as Jarvis so eloquently put it, is the same as people in Tokyo? well, thats easy to answer: 70% or more of Tokyo’s population are from said “Inaka/Saitama” and beyond, and they are here for work, or for their dreams to become and idol (hostess) and not, in many people’s cases, out of the curiousity of things foreign.

    They are here for money. Not for foreign culinary delights.

    Also surprised none of the unconditional gaijin Japan fans have expressed outrage at the hilariously insulting conclusion “from Shinagawa banker to rural Chiba snaggletooth”. Snaggletooth? That is nasty, though I admit I laughed out loud. However, surely research would show that there is an even distribution of snaggletooths geographically, so why single out Chiba? Is there a shortage of dental care there? Figures please!

  • kakipii

    I’d like to reply to automidnight’s comment “(the article’s) not just about food, it’s about how some ethnic foods are altered to please a local population that would otherwise show very little interest in it, and how I think that relates to Tokyo’s stature as a city”.

    That was also my point. It happens everywhere in the world. If there were millions of Indian customers in this city, a large percentage of restaurants would obviously be selling really authentic Indian food. But there aren’t, so they don’t. It’s hardly surprising or anything to get worked up about. The (non Japanese) cooks of those establishments want to make some money, after all. However, as I and many others have pointed out, you CAN find truly ‘foreign’ food if you look for it.

    I’m no “unconditional gaijin Japan fan”, but I also found the “The Japanese are so very narrow-minded and all think the same so can’t step outside of their comfort zone” gist of the article very lazy. In drunken moments I can be accused of saying the same thing many times, but such stereotypes never really work when we look at our Japanese friends, lovers and colleagues, do they? Similarly, when talking about “salarymen” (variously accused of being violent xenophobic intolerant perverts in columns such as this) we’re not talking about the many pleasant multi-lingual businessmen we socialise with. We’re talking about a stressed-out grumpy old racist we’ve once encountered on the Yamanote line. I wonder how many stressed-out grumpy old racists in London or New York have a taste for Thai street food…

    So, people don’t agree with this article because there are so many things that are either untrue of Tokyo or true of all cities, and the conclusions drawn don’t fit our experiences of the Tokyo we’re living in or the places we’ve come from. It’s lovely for Metropolis to get a few more hits on its website though – this is looking like it’ll be one of the most viewed columns in a while. Meanwhile, we can all click on the ‘Dining and Drinking’ link at the top and choose somewhere nice to eat.

  • outlawhorse

    Yeah, it’s kinda of annoying how because I dislike this article I’m being painted as loving Japan too much. I don’t. I see the faults as much as anybody else who’s lived here for a while, but like the previous few commenters I thought the article was crap because it was:

    a) factually untrue according to my (and my friends’) experience
    b) lazily stereotypical
    c) the same as every other “Last Word” piece

    As I said before, I’m all for people pointing out faults in the place we live as long as they do their research and write well. I’m glad so many others seem to be sick of the same old thing every week. I don’t want this column to be sunshine, lollypops and happiness. I want it to be good, and by the sounds of it most others do too.

  • philippatrick

    I want to stand up for this guy, who by the way had the honesty to describe himself as an English teacher and not indulge in a fantasy of being a `freelance writer` as most lastworders do. I’m sick and tired of hearing how wonderful the restaurants are in Japan. Sure you can get fabulous food if you pay, as you can almost anywhere but the general standard is well below the stellar repuation.
    Tokyo apparently has more restaurants than any other city per head of population and most of them are very similar and very mediocre. I’ve had some truly disgusting Indian and Thai meals here. Good Indian and Thai food can be had but you really have to know where to look. The chance of walking in off the street into a random `Indian` and having a memorable (for the right reasons) meal are very slim indeed. And I should know. I’ve been trying for about 10 years.

  • mariojac2859

    At first, I was going to go w/ crashblossoms, but siding w/ hikosaemon seems more reasonable. I don’t live in Tokyo anymore, but remember the day when there was only one (yes one) Italian restaurant in post-occupied Tokyo and knew the owner- “Hey Nicky, this isn’t pizza! “Yeah Mario, I know, but this is made for the Japanese taste.” How I would criticize the restaurants and writers just like all of you as just about nothing went by me w/out me scrutinizing it, both restaurants and writers. I think this column is attract people like you and me. Yeah, I pity the “writer,” I mean come on, I never had to purloin (now there’s a word for you crashblossoms) pepper packets from DQ. I never even went near a gaijin house for fear of catching something from its transients.Living outside Japan now after all these years I could see from the “outside looking in” and see that it hasn’t changed one iota. I remember when the Metropolis was a rag (and still is except it’s gone online-Hello Chris D.) Y’all should lighten up! “Eat, Drink and be Merry, for tomorrow may never come!”

  • rednedwine

    Without critiquing the style of Jarvis’ writing as many contributors to this thread seem to have done, I thought the crux of the article to be accurate and rather than senselessly negative, constructive in its gist. One can live in Japan and remain constructively critical of aspects of society here. Indeed, an underlying disrespect and at times, outright contempt for south-east Asian cultures and subsequently their cuisines, is an unfortunate aspect of living in Japan. This is especially so if one enjoys bonafide cooking from these cultures. I agree that the oft-used excuse about the need to adapt spicy foods to a Japanese palate more accustomed to subtleties and the sweet/salt dominant flavour-profiles of Japanese cooking, is a superficial facade for a deeper malaise. While there are great Italian and French restaurants here (respected by the Japanese as reflective of ‘higher brow’ western cultures) with some exceptions, there are few fine interpretations of Asian cuisines, aside from-to state the obvious-Japanese and in many cases, Korean. Most Asian cuisines are shoveled into the vast drawer of ‘eshnikku’. After all, many Japanese flinch at the notion they be ‘Asian’. The Thai festival and other annual parades celebrating Tokyo’s diversity may be fun yet they fail to transcend the level of tokenism. This is simply because they are representative of minorities within certain neighbourhoods rather than any real diversity throughout the city per se. While there are many wonderful things about Tokyo, the article focused on the interpretations of SE Asian cuisines here and responses should do likewise.

  • aureliano

    Want to eat Thai? Go to Thailand.
    Want to eat Indian? Go to India.
    Want to eat Mexican? Go to Mexico
    Want to eat Japanese? Stay in your country and write “articles” about your local sushi masters authenticity.

  • automidnight

    I’m not sure why people bother posting comments here if they’re not interested in having an actual discussion. If you disagree with the tone or the main idea, or if you think it’s off base in what it’s trying to say, that’s totally acceptable and might lead toward some kind of understanding. But there are an awful lot of conclusions being jumped to here that strike me as way more idiotic than anything I put in the article. Rather than get into some cliched and pathetic flame war, here are some questions:

    Why would any of you think I keep going back to the same terrible restaurants or that I only go to chain restaurants? Where is that stated anywhere in the article?

    Do you honestly think there is absolutely no truth in the two arguments made in the article? That spicy food in Tokyo is, on average, not very good, or the good spicy food not very common; or that new, non-Japanese experiences are not a big priority for a lot of Japanese people living here? That’s delusional.

    Where did I ever trumpet the superiority of English food over Japanese food? English food is bland slop, but a lot of the foreign food (like the Indian food I had in London and Manchester) in England is world class. I had as much trouble finding bad Indian food in England as I have finding good Indian food here — because the Indian food in England, chicken tikka masala notwithstanding, is made to taste like Indian food. Why? Because that’s what people want.

    Regarding this Last Word being poorly written, I haven’t seen anyone back that claim up with anything constructive, with the exception of the one person who pointed out a spelling mistake. The intro and ending paragraphs are pretty pretentious; it’s purposely offensive a couple times in an attempt to get a laugh, which is fairly juvenile; but it holds up. It’s my third time writing one of these things, but only the first time I said something people have disagreed with — and wouldn’t you know it, all of a sudden I’ve forgotten how to write. Interesting. I encourage all of you to write something yourself and put your name — not a username — on it.

    It’s depressing when people can’t have a decent, adult conversation about something they disagree about. I hope it’s just an internet thing, where people have gotten used to unloading on someone anonymously and therefore don’t have to make any sense. I’d hate to think that any of you would be so weirdly angry, stubborn or unreasonable in person, because then you’d be the gaijin the rest of us are sick of hearing from.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/chrisyoung/ chrisyoung

    There’s no accounting for taste.

  • karoshi

    Great! Egos are engaged. This debate can run and run.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/iambob2912/ iambob2912

    Genius! Very funny – didn’t agree with point 1 but I see where you are coming from with point 2 – a ripping yarn regardless of content reality. I don’t come to The Last Word to receive and education – I visit to be entertained and you were bang on. Nice one, Clay.

  • senseiman

    I’d like to throw my ego into the ring.

    In response to Automidnight’s comment in which he bemoans the lack of people interested in having a discussion, I can assure you that I am 100% here to have a discussion about this article of yours.

    Lets look at how you approach the subject matter of your article, which I assume is what you want to discuss.

    You start with the point that there isn’t much spicy food in Tokyo and that the quality of foreign food in general is quite low in that city. OK. That might be true and I can sympathize with someone who enjoys spicy food and wishes there were more of it. I would love to have read an insightful article that dealt with that issue.

    Instead, I experience the reader’s equivalent of being yelled at by a very obnoxious individual so dripping with condescension that his point gets swallowed up by it all.

    Instead of sticking to the food issue and maybe, I don’t know, actually asking people running restaurants why they serve the food you dislike in such a way, the article makes a rather abrupt turn around halfway through. From that point on it is not so much an article about Tokyo food as it is an article about how the “Nihonjin” have a “lack of interest in things non-Japanese.”

    OK. As an earlier poster noted, this is sort of contradicted by the mere existence of so many foreign restaurants in Tokyo that you note in your article, but whatever. The fact that those restaurants don’t get the foreign food right can be explained by the “lack of interest in things non-Japanese”? This is what you wrote, is it not? Has nothing to do with legitimate differences in taste that people raised in a country whose native food tends to avoid spice, could it? No, of course not. Has to be the “narrow-mindedness” of those people. Again, your words.

    My goodness, why would anyone have a problem with that way of framing the issue? Oh wait….

    Lets turn now to this beauty:

    “From the Shinagawa banker to the rural Chiba snaggletooth, all are raised to respect, conform to and disregard the same things.”

    Hmmm. Well it’s worth noting for a start that you do have a knack for using extremely condescending language to portray stereotypes, don’t you? This is also evident in the “Donkey-rider from Saitama” line. Absolutely beautiful.

    Anway, if I understand correctly the purpose of the above line was to explain the “narrow-mindedness” of the Japanese, which in turn explains the lack of spicy food in foreign restaurants in Tokyo. Interesting. We’ve gone from being a disgruntled diner to being an expert on comparative sociology in the space of a few short paragraphs.

    Um….to be honest the barrel of worms you open up by going that way is too big and, frankly, too stupid to be worth devoting much time to refuting. I’ll just end by more or less agreeing with “outlawhorse” wrote above. And maybe adding a bit of advice to tone down the brutal, brutal obnoxiousness in future articles.

  • bobbyserious


    At the heart of your article is a non-sequiter:

    “Food is culture, and when you see a lack of interest in another culture’s food, you see a lack of interest in that culture.”

    That move is logically invalid.


    “Jazz is music, and when you see a lack of interest in jazz, you see a lack of interest in music.”

    The fact that the whole of your second half of your article flows from this flawed reasoning makes it an exceptionally bad piece of writing. In short – it’s a rant.

    And shame on Metropolis for insulting their readers’ intelligence by publishing it.

  • marcusj

    well done, clay. had to be said/glad someone said it.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/granitecrown/ charles

    Here in Tokio, when you get Italian restaurants owned and run by Italians, French owned and run by French, Thai by Thai, etc, etc, there’s some good eatin’ out there. I do got to admit though that when the chef is Japanese and he/she is confronted by a western menu, results range from disappointing to utterly weird to banal. Also, the great Japanese chefs specialize, which is why when you want a great tonkatsu, go to a tonkatsuya san, great sush; a sushiya san, etc., noodles go to a ramenya san or sobaya san. Authentic and dee-lish. BTW there are some great izakayas, specially the one in Jiyugaoka that’s owned, run and staffed by the most gracious women. Just don’t let these Japanese wannabes anywhere near my pizza (semi-raw egg on a bed of canned tuna and canned corn), spaghetti bolognese (dried supermarket pasta in a ketchup-based tomato sauce) or my gorgeous Bordeaux that comes refrigerated (what a waste!). As for Chinese, since I go to Shanghai every so often, I’m spoiled and believe (and rightly so) that no good Chinese food exists outside of China. OK ‘Angry from Chippenham’…your turn

  • abhisri


    When you post your opinion for the world to see, you should either accept that there will be all kind of criticism, or you can of course, not post it.

    But the real problem lies not with the Japanese but with your expectations and inability to adapt.

    I am sorry but you shouldn’t have taken Indian food as your example. Not the best choice. See, the real authentic Indian food is something you cannot be legally served in any developed country that has a semblance of food quality control. The Indian food can quite frequently be too oily. Way too spicy as well. More than your untrained stomach can handle. Unhealthily so. But that is the way most Indians like it. Any “healthy” version of a oily, saturated fat filled and green chilly filled samosa is just a fake non-authentic bastardized shadow of the real thing. Same goes for your aloo matar, chikan tikka masala etc.

    What you have been eating is a bland British-ized version of the real thing. It can never taste like the real thing because the real thing is not something that will either be allowed by food control authorities or even possibly be stomached by you. Heck, even the upscale hotels and restaurants in India itself do not serve authentic Indian food for the same reason. Glad to hear you like it nevertheless, but that was not the point was it? You think it is authentic, but it is NOT. Authentic Indian food is what the majority of Indians define it to be.

    So if it is okay for london denizens to adapt Indian food to their quality and taste requirements, why can’t the Tokyo folks be allowed to do the same? They simply cannot handle the spice and therefore they like the food bland. And yes, I can say this since I HAVE got japanese folks to really spicy food. They tried it, but it was more of something for an adventure for them rather than something they actually were comfortable with. They just cannot handle the spice usually. Since when does appreciating a culture require torturing your tongue and stomach?

    For an Indian guy who would travel outside India, there is almost nowhere the food will be authentic unless the food was being prepared by Indians for Indian customers. And that should help you understand your problem as well. Your entire complaint is that the so-called “authentic” food you are finding is not as per your tastes. But it is not! It is the Tokyo version. It is part of Tokyo culture. And as such, isn’t it you who is apparently having problem adapting to their food? You seem to have fixed expectations how food should taste like, and therefore refuse to accept any variations or deviations from what you are used to.

    In other words, it is you who lacks any interest whatsoever in any other culture, if we go by your own definition. Right?

    This is what is offensive in your article. You denounce an entire country just because they don’t like spicy food. Here is a clue. When you travel to foreign countries, the food you will get will be usually as per local tastes. Which may differ from yours.

  • outlawhorse

    @abhisri, well said

    This comments thread is still fun to read, btw

  • trot

    you are simply NOT going to tell me that the average Thai food you get in the UK is in any way superior to what we get here! and as for bastardisation of original dishes, I think we Brits do a pretty good line in that too.i love Indian food back home but it is by all accounts an anglicised version of the real thing. same happens all over the world, chefs in Tokyo are not doing anything different from what most restaurants back home do.

  • johnnyrabbit

    Clay, I love how, despite all the criticism, you are so utterly sure that you are right and the rest of the world is wrong! Gotta love that stubborn perch you’ve parked your horse on, but I don’t think you’ll be writing many more articles like this, right?

    There are, of course, a great number of spicy food restaurants in Tokyo and elsewhere and there is, of course, a great interest in foreign foods on the part of the locals. To assume anything else is ,well, delusional.

    The very crux, the very heart of the matter seems to be, simply, that you just don’t know your way around!

  • tokyodan

    “Thai, Malay, Mexican, Indian—the world’s most wonderful cuisines are all available in Tokyo. But instead of being a rich and fulfilling cultural experience, the food served at the majority of these restaurants is either heartbreakingly bland, weirdly bastardized or completely ruined.”

    Yes, yes, and yes. While Tokyo has exquisite Japanese food, it’s ethnic restaurants pale even compared to a second-tier US city. I’ve eaten at many of the top-rated ethnic restaurants according to Tabelog, and I’ve found my previous home had better Vietnamese, Cambodian, Sichuan, Mexican, Indonesian, and Northern Indian cuisine. I’ve visited many of these countries, and I’d further argue the the foods I had in my previous home were more authentic as well.

    Even in the mainstream grocery stores here in Tokyo, the ethnic sections often consist of American junk food and some Japanese labels of Chinese ingredients. It’s remarkably difficult to get the ingredients to make even a commonplace Indian, Chinese, or Korean dish without going to a specialty store. I find this very curious since Korea and China are Japan’s neighbors. The average Whole Foods in the US, for example, is a very different experience.