Paris-Ginza in business class with Air France, a flight without sushis but with stars.
That is it, the boarding gate appears on the destinations screen. Along with a team of journalist and bloggers, I am about to take off to Tokyo to test the new menu that the chef François Adamski formed for Air France’s business class.
Comfortably seated in my “cocoon” chair, the lovely models of the safety recommendation video, for once ultra-glamorous and very French, make me dream already of the next broadcasting for the return-flight… Charming.
Isolated from the rest of the world, I quietly enjoy the view above the clouds without any neighbour slouching on the armrest or dropping the thick Air France magazine at my feet. My lovely aerial solitude is only interrupted by dinner. François Adamski, MOF 2007 and Bocuse d’Or 2001, and his sidekick Eric Augustine are bustling around the teams in charge of flight meals. It is in my difficult responsibility to choose between cod’s back and hazelnut crumble, roast duck fillet or chicken tajine. The chef, with his white overall and blue, white and red cord around the neck, is quickly strolling in the rows of the 777 Boeing, mixing jokes, last-minute seasoning and exchanges with the happy guests.
Unsurprisingly, the dish is very good, even if air-conditioning slightly fades the flavours. But we are not going to spoil our pleasure even more so given that the possibility to take a look at behind the scenes of the “Air France machine” is worth the ride. The naïve traveler imagines that the dished served in an airplane are microwaved but the truth is the task is titanic. The staff taking care of the cooking and service are working on less than two meters square, every second counts, and the gestures are precise: one must at the same time control the ovens, the trolley-filling, the opening of wine bottles, the preparation of desserts and the possible requests of a lost client. There is not one moment to rest, but the mood remains good. The challenge is even more impressive when you know that stewards and hostesses met only two hours before getting on the plane. Having had my fill, I sprawl in my cocoon, cradled by the purr of the turbojets.
First steps on the archipelagoThe arrival in Tokyo facing the Fuji Mountain already reveals the Japanese politeness. An Air France bus takes our cheerful group to a hotel chosen by the company. The change of scenery is immediate. Lights, colors, omnipresent Japanese characters. The real Japan as one pictures it: sprawling, effervescent, neon-light lit.
After a day of press conferences, wanderings in Ginza and gigantic malls with improbable architectures, we end up where all the night owls of Tokyo end up: the karaoke. The place is as enormous as the rest of the city. At each floor, Japanese give everything they have to shout some Shakira in front of a screen, while groups of teenagers squeal foolish J-Pop melodies. François Adamski turns into a rising-sun crooner and decides to make the night an unforgettable one. I find myself snapped by the devilish mix of sake, cheap bears and summer hits, hoping with all my heart that the famous saying “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” also works with Tokyo.
Fish with all kinds of saucesThe morning after, we dash to the fish market. If the city’s underground is a true maze, it is nothing compared to this market. Hundreds of crammed stalls are overflowing with cut tuna fish, gurgling cooking pots, skewers, packages covered with inscriptions in which little dried fish sticks are stored. The regulars are queuing in front of small shops concealed in corners hidden from the eye with strident honking horns coming from strange spherical tractors. The abundance of seafood and simmering dishes form a strangely coherent and appealing olfactory mix. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough time to stay in this maze of gastronomic stalls or in the shops selling knives of all sizes which the chefs rushed to.
The fish market’s milling scenery is then replaced by the extreme refinement of the Basara sushi restaurant in which we are invited for lunch. When we arrive in the place, I realize that the chef working there is Hiroshisa Koyama, the one I am supposed to interview two days later in his other establishment. Knowing that there are no less than 160 000 restaurants in Tokyo, the odds were pretty low. In any case, the cooking is delicious and I take the opportunity to learn the basics of Japanese gastronomic savoir-faire: holding up your bowl from under, putting down your chopsticks flat, tasting the stock before eating the food soaked in it. Despite a permanent apparent politeness, the chef looks at our group with the gaze of someone who knows their true value is not appreciated. The interview might be complicated…
The big saucepan questAfter celebrating the excellence of sushis, the troop leaves the table and scatter in the city. Rather than visiting the old Tokyo, I decide to go along with François Adamski and his sidekick for a cooking jaunt in Kappabashi. This neighborhood is entirely dedicated to crockery and it looks like a huge souk in which pots, knives, saucepans and all sorts of dishes are gathered. If I suddenly dreamt of a ceramic fondue caquelon decorated with cast-iron handles, there are so many things over there that I am sure I could find it hidden between two tea sets.
My two companions are like kids by a Christmas tree that would spread on several hectares. Together, they rummage through each shop, looking for some dish. Their frenzied consumption takes however a tragic turn when they have to pay and realize that the accumulated amount of their purchases cannot be paid with their cash. The credit card payment is of course impossible in this small corner of Middle-Age where an old stunted matron makes her additions with an abacus. The relief will come from her son who will take the money thanks to some magic trick on his cellphone.
The supreme refinement of fatThe evening meal is served at the Kakiyasu restaurant where we have the privilege to taste one of the most peculiar meat on the planet: Matsusaka beef. You may be familiar with the Wagyu beef, a beef race with a fat and tasty meat obtained thanks to a selective breeding and a carefully controlled feeding. The Matsusaka beef is even fatter, a colossal sumo with overflowing tires.
To get such a result, breeders use drastic methods. The animals are quietly penned in big loose-boxes, fed with a mix of selected hyper-nutritive cereals and rocked by sweet music all-day-long. Even better: they are exclusively hydrated and massaged with bear hands. Try to get the vision of obese and alcoholic bovines lovingly caressed by a load of farmers with a violin concerto as background noise. This show is a necessary ritual to serve a delicious steak capable of melting in my plate like a banana-split on a scorching day by the beach. Interrupting my face-to-face time with the meat, the householder respectfully offers me a bunch of thin leeks packed in a skillfully tied-up paper with calligraphy. The green-vegetable Rolls accompany my slice of alcoholic beef. This is all prodigiously delicious.
Then, the rest of the group flies by to old Europe, leaving me lost in translation. Tour of the Sensoji Temple, the oldest in Tokyo, built in 628 ad and recognizable by its Kaminarimon gate on which a huge lantern is hanging, then the Meiji Jingu temple in Shibuya-Ku, surrounded by a park with over 100,000 trees. It is a sanctuary dedicated to the divine souls of the Emperor Meiji and his wife the Empress Shōken, the biggest Shintoist place of worship in the country, where many weddings and ceremonies are celebrated.
Heading to Omotesandoe and Shibuya: I race down the streets of all the trendy neighborhoods of Tokyo. I drop by the famous Harajuku, where businessmen behind hygienic masks walk next to loads of young people dressed-up in costumes inspired by visual kei or manga. I go around the famous gaming rooms scattered in the capital, entertainment supermarkets where kids dressed as schoolgirls jump on dance mats while dozens of others shoot down monsters on arcade cabinets or play Pachinko. I am fully aware that I am in the middle of a cliché but it is still worth the ride. It is time for me to head for the last step of my journey: the interview of the chef Hiroshisa Koyama, hidden in the Roppongi neighborhood.
You do not mess with table mannersIn his restaurant Aoyagi, the chef reigns supreme and his severe gaze if is observing me while I am taking my shoes off to see the kitchen. Here, like everywhere else, politeness is central, but I feel a glacial distance between the householder and me, lost traveler in a world I am far from understanding yet. Fortunately, I religiously remembered the advice I was given by the public relations officer the day before. Hand under the bowl, cutlery laid down flat and the stock first: my efforts are noticed and the wall is progressively falling down and Mr. Koyama turns from dragon to the most welcoming host on the archipelago. I am offered red beans, only served to high-class guests, and a great-vintage sake made with the distillation of grains of rice polished until only 23% are left. The “heart” of the rice being the part giving the finest sake, the level of polishing is one of the criteria for quality. And with 77% of the mass out, the beverage I am served is actually one of the most polished sake on the planet. No less!
I leave Aoyagi with a happy stomach and the feeling of accomplished duty after an absolutely sumptuous meal and a well-put interview. Last stop in the Golden Gay neighborhood, where four or five of us cram into microscopic theme bars, only for the initiated. There is a French theme bar, good luck finding it.
Tomorrow, it will already be time for me to go back to my cozy Air France cocoon with its televised nymphs, to go back to Parisian normality after this fleeting glimpse of a city that is as fascinating as it is incomprehensible.
Crédits photo : Pluris Henri d'Anterroches, Gunter Von Kloster Kampen
106-0041 Tokyo - Japon
106-0041 Tokyo - Japon
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7-9-15 Ginza, Chuo
104-0061 Tokyo - Japon
104-0061 Tokyo - Japon