There is no doubt that Japan is now one of the great food nations: Tokyo's Michelin stars can only add to the previous conviction held by many that Japan is indeed the best place on earth to eat. Going far beyond the familiar favourites of sushi and tempura, Japanese food focuses intently on fresh, seasonal ingredients, and the emphasis on presentation means that Japanese cuisine is a pleasure for both the eyes and the palate.
Eating and drinking are integral to Japanese culture, and each area of Japan fosters regional specialties which range from the ridiculous (horse sashimi, bee larvae) to the sublime (grilled eel, fresh snow crab, succulent sashimi, perfectly marbled beef). Tokyo alone is home to more than a quarter of a million restaurants, from the pinnacles of luxury to tiny street stalls. Eating in Japan at any part of the spectrum can be a culinary adventure, but the overwhelming variety of eateries means that there is something to please everyone.
Japanese fare emphasises fresh seasonal produce and delicate preparation. Locally sourced food is much prized, and old traditions of picking wild vegetables are very much alive. There are now also many imported culinary traditions, from excellent French restaurants to cheap American chains, but the traditional recipes remain a staple of the daily diet.
For quick, casual Japanese dining, udon, soba or ramen noodles are a treat. The hustle and bustle of the busy shop, the welcoming call of "Irasshai!" coming out of the billowing steam, the blend of wonderful aromas of the food and the percussion of slurping salary-men all create a unique atmosphere.
At the other end of the spectrum, ryokan, or Japanese guest houses, with traditional restaurants creating delicate kaiseki meals, serve up sophisticated menus comprised of prescribed courses. A meal must at the very least include a fried dish, a simmered dish, and a steamed dish, though all kaiseki restaurants will go far beyond this, sometimes serving as many as twenty courses. Kaiseki was originally served at the tea ceremony, and is a wonderful way to sample small dishes of meat, fish, vegetables, pickles, rice, and soup - with so much variety there is something to everyone's taste.