Tokyo vs. Paris, Japan vs. France, from a food point of view

IMG: Lining up for ramen (lamen) in Paris.

There's an article in Food and Wine called 7 Reasons Why Tokyo Is the New Paris, and a post that follows up on that on the Wall Street Journal's Japan RealTime blog titled Paris vs. Tokyo: Which Has Better Food and Drink?. As a Tokyo native who currently lives in France (although not in Paris), I thought I have some qualifications for adding my 2 cents on the subject. While the focus of both articles is on which city is "better" for an American tourist who is interested in food to visit, I'll like to expand on that a bit.

Tokyo vs. Paris as food-centric destinations

I have to agree with the points raised by both articles to be honest. In Paris, you can get first rate French food, on all levels. If that's what you are there for you will be in heaven. From 3-starred expensives temples to haute cuisine down to the humble baguette or croissant (although not all baguettes and croissants in Paris are automatically great; you still have to choose where you get them from) Paris does most French food really really well. I know, too obvious.

However...when it comes to most other cuisines, Paris, and France in general, doesn't fare so well in my opinion, with the exception perhaps of food from North Africa, e.g. Moroccan. (Maybe also Vietnamese...although I haven't have any Vietnamese food in Paris in more than a decade, so I'm not too sure about the current situation.) You can get quite decent versions of all kinds of cuisine, including Japanese (see A frugal eats (mostly Japanese) blitz through Paris). But is it first rate? Not really. If you limit things to European cities, you can get better Chinese food in London, better Indian food in London (or Zürich or Geneva for that matter), better Japanese food in London or Düsseldorf...and so on. (More about East Asian food in France later.)

So, if you want really great French food and only that, Paris is a great food city. If you want variety though...Tokyo beats it hands down. Yes, you can get very good french food in Japan, and not just from the expensive starred restaurants either. There are little, unassuming bistros and such scattered around the city (in Kagurazaka for instance, where there's a small French expat community and a lycée) You can also fine top class French pastry, and top class French or European style bread too. In general, international cuisine is much better in Tokyo than it is in Paris. And of course, you can get great Japanese food - the best in the world - in all price ranges in Tokyo. What I'm saying really is that French food in Tokyo is a lot better than Japanese food in Paris.

While there aren't any picturesque open-air food markets in Tokyo, what makes up for them and then some are the wondrous food halls in most of the major department stores, where you can gawk at everything from pristine produce displays to pastries from the top patisseries in the world -- including some major French ones like Pierre Hermé. And no one is going to scold you for merely pointing at a sexy mango or fondling a melon...

Paris vs. Tokyo as tourist destinations

If you are only going to the cities and not exploring the rest of the country at all (which is...silly), then I have to say Paris wins hands down. Paris is dripping with history and elegance and Culture. It survived two world wars and various smaller skirmishes fairly intact, so the Paris of Baron Haussmann as he designed it in the 18th century is still there. Another thing is that international tourism is supremely important for Paris, and France in general, and there are all sorts of ways in which the tourist is accommodated. Plus, Paris is one of the best museum cities in the world.

Old Tokyo (Edo), which must have been a really nice place to walk around judging from the hundreds of woodblock prints and so on that exist, was destroyed by a major earthquake and heavy wartime bombing in the first half of the 20th century. So most of the Tokyo you see is modern. Many people love the 'Blade Runner'-esque parts of Tokyo, but many do not. The more traditional parts of the city were rebuilt in recent decades. So its history does not hit you in the face. Furthermore, tourism is not that important for Tokyo's economy (and Japan as a whole has been sluggish about promoting itself to international tourists until fairly recently). So to experience the Japan of the past, most tourists include Kyoto, and some other well-preserved places like Nikko and Kamakura and so on, in their itineraries.

Tokyo in many ways is a city that looks more towards the future than the past, at least on the surface...although it has a fascinating, rich history too. It's just not as in-your-face as it in Paris.

As far as how you will fare as a tourist who does not speak the language of either country with the natives...I don't really have first-hand knowledge of that since I speak Japanese (^_^;) and French (at least enough for everyday life; plus The Guy is totally fluent). Maybe you can tell me about your experiences?

Coffee and cafés

I have to admit, I'm not a big coffee person. I prefer tea, and only have coffee once every couple of weeks or so. But I see that both articles make a big deal about the poor quality of coffee in Paris. I think they kind of protest too much, but it is true that the coffee you get served at the most famous cafés is quite uniformly mediocre. You might as well order a Cola Light or something really, if the taste of your beverage is so important to you. But surely you do not go to Les Deux Magots or Café de Flore or something for the coffee, do you? No, you go there to soak up the atmosphere and bask in the knowledge that Hemingway or Colette or Picasso used to hang around there too.

There are really no such world famous cafés in Tokyo. But, you can indeed get great coffee, and enjoy cafés with great atmosphere and idiosyncratic decor and so on. Plus, for your basic caffeine-infusion needs you can find a myriad of large-cup coffee chains like Starbucks and its competitors, just like back home. You can't really find that easily all around Paris or France.

One thing to keep in mind about "cafés" in Japan (as well as kissaten, which are kind of old-fashioned cafés) is that many serve delicious light meals, that the owners put a lot of effort into. A "café style" dish means it's elegantly presented but not too fancy. Cafés are food-fashion leaders in Japan. In France, cafés are social centers more than they are about the coffee or the food.

Ingredients in France vs. Japan

In my experience, both have top notch basic ingredients. We can get sashimi grade fish here from our village fish shop, and the locally produced fruit and vegetables are terrific. There's a difference in what kinds of vegetables you can get of course, but you can live with that.

There are some basic ingredients that one country does better than the other however. Most are pretty obvious, but others may be surprising...?

  • Cheese: It's a bit puzzling to me how mediocre and expensive cheese is in Japan, given that people have embraced other European cuisines so enthusiastically. This is slowly changing for sure, but all in all, in the cheese department France is the clear winner.
  • Dairy in general: This is surprisingly close. Japan has a pretty big dairy industry, especially in Hokkaido, and people have been drinking milk and eating other dairy products for a few generations now. But you can't really beat the quality of good quality French dairy products, such as the cultured butter, the cream, and so on. (Again, you have to look for it...there's plenty of mediocre crap at the supermarchés.)
  • Wine: The appreciation of wine in Japan is growing by leaps and bounds, but people definitely don't have the intimate, everyday, part-of-life relationship with wine they have in France. (Especially where I live, which is a major wine producing region.)
  • Tofu, and any kind of East Asian ingredients.: While there are a few Japanese groceries in France (most in Paris), overall it's difficult to get really good ingredients here, even by mailorder, unless you pay way too much. (Disclosure: I order most of my Japanese ingredients from Japan Centre in London, because it's cheaper even with the extra shipping.) There is a supermarket called Paristore which carries East Asian (mostly Chinese) and some South Asian ingredients, and they dominate the Asian ingredient-supply chain. Unfortunately, their quality is mediocre to truly horrible. I absolutely hate their frozen dumplings...which are served at every sad Asian buffet a volonté (all-you-can-eat buffet) place around here, ugh. Tofu is available at health food stores and such...but it's just bad. Obviously, Japanese and general Asian ingredients are way better in Japan.
  • Western herbs: There's still rather limited knowledge of how to use western herbs in Japan I think. Dried herbs sold at the supermarket and things tend to be quite expensive and flavorless. Recipes often just call for "herbs" (ハーブ), without specifying which herb - unthinkable! This is changing though; more people grow their own herb plants and so on.
  • Honey: Honey in France is generally rich and full of flavor. You can really taste the difference between lavender honey or acacia honey or chestnut flower honey and so on. Honey in Japan is like sugar syrup - thin, colorless, and tasteless. And very expensive.

So which is a better country to live in for the food?

If you are only talking about the food, I would say Japan.

However, there are plenty of other reasons why someone lives where they live. I've toyed with the idea of moving back to Japan permanently, but for now I'm happy where I am, in this peaceful corner of France (tourists notwithstanding). I am just very lucky that I get to "live" in both places. ^_^

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