“In regards to your request for Sushi Sawada, we sincerely apologize…” began the message from the concierge. I had requested a table at chef Koji Sawada’s two-Michelin-starred sushi restaurant more than four months in advance — plenty of time I thought, even for an elusive seat in the seven-stool space. But Sushi Sawada no longer takes reservations from concierges, even from Tokyo’s top hotels.
Strict members-only policies, limited seating, and favoritism for regular customers can make it near-impossible to get a table
In response to a reservation request for Sushi Saito, another Tokyo sushi institution, the concierge at the Peninsula Tokyo explained, “If you have not been there before, one cannot get a reservation unless you know them personally or are a guest of someone who has been to the restaurant before.”
Visitors to Japan could once reliably score tables at these restaurants by staying at the creme de la creme of five-star hotels like the Peninsula, a shortcut that was far from a secret — travel guides and pro travelers have offered the same advice for years — but it’s no longer working at restaurants that prefer locals to tourists. In 2017, nearly thirty million people visited Japan — a record number — with many drawn to the country’s capital to take part in its world-class restaurant scene. In response, some Tokyo restaurants are quietly banning foreign visitors from their reservations books, or surreptitiously finding ways to avoid them, in favor of regular customers.
According to Masashi Takahashi, CEO and founder of Voyagin, a marketplace for travelers to book tours and restaurant tables, the tightening reservation policies are a product of Japanese chefs’ exacting standards. “High-end restaurants and their chefs in Japan want to provide authentic, intimate, and meaningful food experiences for their guests, hence the need to call to reserve these restaurants and the limited seating at each of them,” he explains. In addition to making reservations on behalf of its users — useful for restaurants that may not have English-speaking staff — Voyagin explains the etiquette for each restaurant, such as rules against wearing perfume and when it’s appropriate to remove one’s shoes. (Through Voyagin, booking a table for two at Sushi Sawada can cost $125.)
For Yosuke Suga, chef at French-inspired fine-dining restaurant Sugalabo, communication with guests is key for maintaining a high level of personalized service, including an updated list of diners’ food restrictions and preferences. This is why he prefers to serve regulars at the restaurant in Tokyo’s Minato District and requires that first-time guests be accompanied by someone who has already dined in the 20-seat room. “We can’t answer all phone calls, and I don’t want to hire one more employee just as a telephone operator,” he says. “It is, of course, a way to keep our loyal guests and keep exclusivity, but also to make it easier to control the reservation system.”
Regulars-only or members-only policies are common among Tokyo’s new generation of chefs, especially those serving more traditional fare like sushi, yakitori, or yakiniku (“grilled meat”). “Generally, Japanese chefs are much more interested in accommodating their local customers who come over and over again to their restaurants. The relationship is important and builds over time,” says Andrea Fazzari, author of Tokyo New Wave: 31 Chefs Defining Japan’s Next Generation.
The more often a customer returns, the easier it is to get into a restaurant and the more intimate the experience. “Chefs can also rely on their regulars to behave in a certain way according to the norms of Japanese society (being punctual, always showing up when a reservation is made, being well mannered during service),” Fazzari explains. “Tourists are more unpredictable, and this makes some Japanese chefs uncomfortable.”
According to Fazzari, chefs who have lived abroad are particularly open to foreign diners, and some, like Hakkoku chef Hiroyuki Sato, have straightforward online reservations systems. “[Chef Sato] is a sushi chef but he is not a traditionalist in his attitude and he has many foreign guests and loves to travel. His restaurant is large, unlike many others in Japan, and he is interested in being on the World’s 50 Best List,” Fazzari explains. “But there are no rules as to how a restaurant should deal with reservations. A lot comes down to the mind of each chef and personal choices of what they feel their restaurant should be.”
Den, from chef Zaiyu Hasegawa, takes reservations from repeat customers as well as new ones. “We are not a regulars-only restaurant. Having said that, it may be easier for Japanese customers to make reservations since we only take them via telephone at limited hours,” explains Hasegawa. To accommodate diners and chefs from overseas, Den periodically opens lunch service especially for foreign guests, a practice that, at other restaurants, some have characterized as a form of segregation.
Koichi, who goes by one name, is the founder of Tofugu, a Japanese culture and language site that covers cool Tokyo destinations, including restaurants that follow the “membership-only” movement spreading throughout the city. He believes that thanks to the internet and social media (including his own blog), more people are trying to visit hidden, members-only places.
According to Koichi, some restaurant owners just want to hang out with friends or meet people that share similar interests (like at 84, a secret members-only bar frequented by famous artists and Nintendo players), while others aim to create a sense of exclusivity that makes people want to go to the restaurant even more. “Still others, I imagine, just do not want to deal with too many customers. Restaurants can be, and often are, really small in Japan,” he explains, and adds that the policy to restrict the entry to an exclusive group has nothing to do with banning foreigners. “[It’s] more just a general discrimination against non-members.”
But visitors who don’t know about these policies cry foul. An American from Naperville, Illinois, believed he “discovered a dark side of Japanese culture, perhaps unethical practice against foreigners” after attempting to make a reservation at a soba restaurant with a strict reservation policy. He complained about the reservation snafu on Trip Advisor and wondered: “Is it to protect their Japanese customers from ‘rude’ foreigners? Do they not want publicity as in questionable reviews/photos on websites? Or is it more sinister?”
To hear dining experts tell it, the reasons for Tokyo restaurants’ strict reservations policies are decidedly more mundane than “sinister.” Robbie Swinnerton, Eater contributor and restaurant critic for the Japan Times, reiterates that discrimination against foreigners isn’t the primary motive for the reservation policies that make it near-impossible to eat at some of Tokyo’s most sought-after restaurants. “The same ‘discrimination’ applies to Japanese people who try to book for the first time,” he says. “In the case of people who do not speak Japanese, there is also a valid concern that guests may not understand or accept the way things are done in Japanese restaurants.”
In a country inundated with tourists, and in a city with tight restaurant spaces and plenty of prospective diners, it’s no wonder that reservation policies have tightened in Tokyo. “After all, this is Japan, and things are done the way they choose to do them — and that is not necessarily for the benefit of visitors. That is part of the frustration, and charm, of visiting this country,” Swinnerton says. Or in his case, of living there — sometimes, the only assured way of getting that coveted table now that relying on the concierge at the Mandarin Oriental will leave aspiring diners out of luck.
Rafael Tonon is a Brazilian journalist and food writer based in São Paulo.