I'm on the hunt for perfection, Japanese style.
Years ago that would have meant sipping macha at a tea ceremony, watching Noh in a storied old theater, and learning the delicate art of ikebana (flower arranging). But in today’s Japan, no matter what the tourist brochures might tell you, those pursuits are about as relevant to the younger generation as animal husbandry, archery, and taxidermy are to most Americans.
That doesn’t mean that the Japanese have forsaken the resolute devotion to quality that they brought to those traditional disciplines. In the last decade, though, that obsessive and utterly appealing approach has been applied to diverse, new, and often foreign endeavors.
In Japan, a country with comparatively few immigrants, the people with the know-how to make an Italian eel pie or sew a perfect pair of blue jeans are almost all Japanese citizens who have ventured abroad, gained new skills, and then returned home to sharpen their craft. They show their quintessential Japaneseness by bringing to their work a perfectionism that any master calligrapher would recognize.
Finding the best this country has to offer often means finding the best the world has to offer. It also means experiencing something distinctively Japanese in thoroughly unexpected ways. My quest, to seek out this modern spin on age-old Japanese perfectionism, will lead me to a room full of classic American sewing machines in Okayama prefecture, to a Tokyo restaurant that serves specialties from provincial Italy, and to a four-seat café where it takes 20 minutes of intensely focused work to prepare a single cup of coffee.
Most people have never heard of Kojima, a small town in obscure Okayama prefecture about 300 miles west of Tokyo, unless they’re seriously into blue jeans. Kojima is the world’s premium jeans mecca, supplying not just the top Japanese brands but also high-end American and European labels such as Ralph Lauren’s RRL. I’ve come here to meet Masahiro Suwaki, the man behind Momotaro, a brand that turns out some of the world’s best denim.
As Suwaki and I drive to his indigo workshop, he explains that after World War II Kojima was the center of school uniform production in Japan, but by the 1990s new technologies threatened to make the town’s vintage looms obsolete. Japanese denim designers came to Kojima’s rescue, realizing it was the only place in Japan that could crank out old-school jeans. They ripped apart their most prized vintage Levi’s and studied their rivets, seams, and threads in order to understand how the jeans might be reproduced and improved by Kojima’s craftspeople.
At the workshop, we walk past enormous vats of dye. “We use indigo imported from Germany,” Suwaki says, stirring a cauldron of the stuff. “It’s the darkest in the world.” He takes a white swatch of fabric and plunges it into the murky depths. When he extracts it and wrings it out, it turns brown. “It only gets blue after you wash it in water,” he says. Each lot of his denim is hand-dyed 30 times in these vats. As I feel some of the fabric—dense, heftier than what Americans are used to—Suwaki explains that he uses cotton from Zimbabwe, picked by hand so the strands are especially long, making for softer, stronger jeans.
“The inspiration for almost all Japanese jeans is Levi’s 501s from the 1940s to the ’60s,” Suwaki says. (Levi’s is well aware of its influence and, as a result, constantly slaps Japanese jeans makers with lawsuits.) In the ’80s the Japanese vintage industry began to boom, but there simply weren’t enough old jeans to go around. The solution was to build something like the vintage pieces, only better.
“We’re going back in time,” Suwaki says. “We’re studying the weaves, analyzing how the fabric was made. Kojima has looms from the ’50s. We have people who have been working here for decades and know how to make these machines sing.” Suwaki tells me that he sometimes gets young people who claim they want to learn how to operate the looms. “But they never last out here in Kojima,” he says. “I don’t know how we’ll keep making denim when the masters of these machines have retired.”
At a factory farther down Kojima’s “Jeans Street,” local women sew together Momotaro jeans on old U.S.-made sewing machines called Union Specials. “They’re what all the great vintage jeans were made on,” Suwaki explains. “They stitch easily through thick denim with a chain-stitch. We won’t use anything else.” Chain-stitching produces a slight pucker and pull that jeans lovers find highly desirable. Most manufacturers opt for a simpler and more durable, though less beautiful, lock stitch. Suwaki points out another fetishized detail of his jeans: You can tell that the rivets are real, not glued on, because of the tiny, ragged strip of denim that rings the center nub of the brown metal.
Getting every minute detail of something exactly right, and then trying to improve on it, is central to the Japanese notion of perfection. The German indigo, the Zimbabwean cotton, the rare vintage looms, and the American sewing machines are what make Japanese denim different—and better—than what’s made in the United States, where jeans were born.
After I return to Tokyo, I head to Harajuku, where a pair of starched jeans some six feet tall stands in front of the Momotaro store. As I browse, the manager, Okimoto-san, shows me a book of before-and-after photos—a mandatory accessory at serious Japanese jeans shops—that shows what each type of jeans will look like after a year of hard wear. I choose a deep-blue model with Momotaro’s signature pink inseam stitching, which sells for several hundred dollars. Then I watch as Okimoto hems them (on a Union Special sewing machine, of course).
Later, I stroll around Tokyo in my new purchase. I feel how the cotton easily flexes as I move. I watch the stitches as they swell and contract. Wearing this tender but tough, perfectly engineered pair of jeans, I realize that although I’m blessed to know what it feels like to wear the best denim in the world, I’m also cursed: Ordinary jeans will no longer do, and this is going to cost me big for the rest of my jeans-wearing life.
Late one friday night I sit down at the counter of Incanto, an Italian restaurant in Tokyo’s tony expat enclave of Hiroo. I’m here to try some of the city’s best regional Italian fare. Nowhere in the world outside Italy is Italian food taken as seriously, prepared as meticulously, and treated as obsessively as it is in Tokyo. The waiter brings over a wooden tray covered with 12 different types of fresh, obscure pasta, each labeled with its Italian or dialect name. There are long ribbons of busiati twisted together like yarn, cjalzons that look like Chinese dumplings ready to be pan-fried, and malloreddus, a Sardinian specialty made of semolina flour, with deep grooves to catch the sauce.
Incanto’s chef, Noriyuki Koike, is a pensive 38-year-old who grew up in the Tokyo suburbs of Saitama and started to cook in middle school, when his Mom got sick and he had to fend for himself. Koike spent 10 years cooking professionally in Japan, mostly at Italian restaurants run by Japanese chefs. By age 30, he felt he had the foundational skills necessary to take advantage of a long stint in Italy. “Pretty much every Michelin-starred restaurant in Italy now has at least one Japanese cook in the kitchen,” he tells me as I wait for my meal. “People say there are about 5,000 Japanese chefs working in Tuscany alone. These chefs are no longer content to learn from cookbooks or from their countrymen; they want to learn firsthand from Italian masters.”
Koike didn’t want to follow his peers to those Michelin-starred altars, so he based himself at a friend’s house in provincial Puglia, where he helped pick olives in the garden and worked at local restaurants. The residents had never seen a Japanese person before, let alone a chef who wanted to cook their food exactly the way they did. After traveling to a few other lesser-known regions of Italy, Koike formulated his mission: to visit every one of Italy’s 20 states in search of regional specialties that most Japanese had never tasted before.
Koike didn’t have a lot of money to spend eating at the fanciest places. But that was OK. He wanted rustic and real, not rarefied and refined. By the time he left Europe, he had traveled to each Italian state at least three times and worked at restaurants as well as butcher shops and delis.
At Incanto, he doesn’t simply reproduce the food he experienced in Italy. He improves things where he can, while staying true to the spirit of the recipes and the dictates of the Italian palate.
I start my dinner with an eel pie. I cut open a small, flaky dome to reveal anago (saltwater eel) and mushrooms in a deep brown wine reduction. “In Italy they make the crust for this pie with just olive oil and flour, so it doesn’t become crisp,” Koike says. “I changed the dough because I think a crisper crust better complements the soft eel inside.”
Next comes my pasta dish, the malloreddus (above). Proof to me that Koike takes his pasta seriously is that he doesn’t commit the two cardinal sins I observe most often in pasta dishes prepared outside Italy: oversaucing and overcooking. (No surprise there, since udon and soba, the seminal noodles of Japan, are all about textural perfection.) Tiny-ridged pasta, halved cherry tomatoes, hand-ripped mint, and shiny, fatty chunks of tuna decorate the plate. “In Italy they cook the tuna with a lot of its blood,” Koike explains. “I find the fish flavor too strong that way, so I wash off the blood before I cook it. I also do something very Japanese: I grill the tuna collar before putting it in the sauce. That gives it a different, subtler flavor and reduces oiliness.” The tuna collar is fiery, fleshy, and rich—think dark-meat tuna— but it’s cut by the acidity of the tomatoes and the sharpness of the capers. It’s one of the best pasta dishes I’ve eaten in years, in Italy or anywhere else.
Koike tells me what he passes on to the other chefs who work with him: “Our mission in preparing Italian food is much like the job of a classic car aficionado: Sometimes you change out the parts, make adjustments to the motor, polish the vehicle to make it look new. But it’s still a classic car.”
Japanese chefs cooking Italian food a decade ago often added mentaiko (codfish roe) or other Japanese products to pasta to make the dish their own. But the new wave of chefs, like Koike, are confident they can make these recipes distinctive with more delicate changes. If my tuna collar pasta tonight is any indication, they’re right.
I just want to drink a coffee at Irukaya-ten, a four-seat, reservations-only café near Inaokashira Park in western Tokyo. But that single cup is proving very difficult to come by. “All four seats are full, all day today,” the owner, Hiroshi Kiyota, tells me and my Japanese friend, Chie, over the phone. After 20 minutes of begging, there’s a small chance he might be able to fit us in. Half an hour later, he rings back: Two seats are now available. The offer, however, comes with an admonishment. “Have you read the rules on the café’s website?”
“We have,” Chie replies.
“Well then, you should have known never to ask me to bend the rules to accommodate you.” Stunned silence. Then Chie makes a risky gambit: “Well, if you can’t fit us in, I guess we won’t be coming.”
Another stunned silence. “You must know that I throw a lot of people out,” he says. “I might throw you out before you even drink a coffee.”
“We’ll just have to take that chance,” says Chie. We’ve been lurking down the block for the last hour, and now we finally head to the café.
We take our seats along the wooden counter, and Kiyota places two champagne flutes filled with a mouthful of sweetened cold coffee with a milky white top in front of us, a sort of coffee amuse-bouche. Just as I’m about to drink it down, he motions to stop. “This is how you must drink it,” he commands. “Tilt your head back. Keep your lips pursed. Only when both streams—white and black—are touching your lips do you open them and swallow.” I follow the instructions and I’m hit by a cool burst of coffee with a rich cream finish. This quick sip is just a teaser for what’s to come.
Filter-brewed coffee has long been popular in Japan, and it continues to be much more common than espresso. But Irukaya-ten takes the trend to a whole new level. At the front of the menu, there are different hot and cold coffee drinks, explained in laborious detail. In back, there are beverages that combine Okinawan rum or Scotch whiskey with hot or cold coffee. I choose a hot coffee with a florid description.
The method Kiyota uses to brew coffee is called “nel drip,” after the flannel material that the filter is made from. Similar to a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, each move in Kiyota’s process is perfectly choreographed. First he carefully measures out an assortment of deep black, oily South American single-origin beans, weighing each scoop down to the milligram. After grinding this custom blend, he extracts a wet flannel cloth from the refrigerator, slaps it hard between two hand towels, and snakes it around a wire rim to form a filter that looks like a limp, open sock.
Kiyota transfers heated water from the kettle on the stove to a smaller copper kettle and plunges a thermometer into it. He stirs the water until it reaches the perfect temperature; he then positions the flannel filter filled with coffee grounds over a small glass beaker. He slowly pours water onto the grounds. A few drops hit the beaker below. He removes these first drops and switches to a clean beaker. Now he pours more rapidly and a steady stream of coffee begins to flow out. After he’s made just enough, he pours it all into a pot on the stove and heats the brewed coffee, again carefully monitoring the temperature. At last, he divvies it up into two porcelain cups. The first, containing just a mouthful, he tastes himself, to test, before serving me the second, full cup. All told, it’s a 20-minute process.
“Don’t drink it too fast,” he says. “Sip it like a fine whiskey. See how its flavor changes as it cools down.” I take a first, very small sip. It’s rich, powerful, but also smooth—the closest thing to espresso I’ve ever tasted out of a filter.
As I watch Kiyota work, I think about the elaborate attention to detail I’ve seen at each stop on my search for perfection in Japan—the chain-stitched jeans, Koike’s grilled tuna col- lar. At the café, all of the intricate steps are visible. Kiyota has turned coffee brewing into a kind of performance, each move flawlessly orchestrated, every stir and every drop precisely timed and executed. He’s made coffee-making something obsessive, perfect, and entirely Japanese.