Girls Run the Kaiseki World at Tokyo’s Tsurutokame

Amber Gibson

A single lantern embellished with Japanese calligraphy on the ground outside serves as your first welcome to Tsurutokame. It’s easily missed if you don’t know what to look for on the busy streets of Ginza. The lantern’s simplicity and elegance reflect the ethos of the small but mighty kaiseki restaurant in the basement. Here, seven young women are trying to change the male-dominated restaurant culture in Japan through a centuries-old tradition.

Yubako Kamohara wears zori sandals with thick white socks—the chef’s clogs of Japan, chosen for comfort during the 12-hour days spent on her feet. “Grand Chef” is neatly embroidered in cursive on her chef’s jacket, and at 35 years old, she’s the eldest of the seven women running the kitchen at Tsurutokame. It’s a role she assumed when the restaurant opened in 2015, but unlike the angry, violent French chef trope, she leads the younger women as a big sister might, with patience, love, and understanding.

Owners Osamu and Harumi Mikuni are a husband-and-wife team with 10 other restaurants in Tokyo, but Tsurutokame is the only one with a woman in charge. Although the couple desperately wanted to promote a woman to head chef, they realized that in a patriarchal and sexist Japanese culture, men would not fully respect a woman as their superior in the kitchen. Building a team of women was the perfect way around that.

They’ve created a tight-knit sisterhood, providing a level of culinary training women cannot find elsewhere in Japan. The women live together, apprentice-style, in a dorm environment, learning teamwork, time management, and organizational skills, as well as inspiring one another creatively and spiritually. “We’re like a family,” Kamohara explains, “All growing together in the same house.” Their education extends far beyond mere culinary skills. There are classes in French and English in the house along with cultural traditions like calligraphy, meditation, and singing. On the evening I dine, the ladies serenade birthday guests with a Japanese folk song before launching into the familiar “Happy Birthday” tune in English.

Even though they spend nearly every waking moment together, Kamohara assures me there is no fighting or resentment—they are a sisterhood. Unlike the brash and bickering Kardashians, the women of Tsurutokame emanate steely serenity.

Traditional kaiseki, stretching back for centuries, is a Japanese staple with several small courses designed around the seasons. From the ingredients chosen to the plating, kaiseki is as much a humbling sensory experience as a tasteful one. Courses here flow in the traditional kaiseki fashion, and the flavors throughout are bright and pure. The first collection of sakihassun (appetizer) bites are presented in bowls carved out of kabosu citrus. Brilliant scarlet maple leaves shield the treasures below—abalone, pickled mushrooms, snow crab, and chestnuts. Just one or two bites of each to wake the palate. One of my favorite courses follows, a zensai seasonal appetizer of creamy handmade yuba with salted sea urchin wrapped in crisp nori. This is unlike the California rolls and spicy mayo dip many Americans associate with Japanese food. My experience tonight is a more intricate and subtle progression, with brand-new flavors like fragile daikon-mochi and whole-grilled sanma or mackerel pike strewn with sunny chrysanthemum petals. After nearly a dozen courses, I feel satiated, but not uncomfortably full.

The plateware is as beautiful as the food, with both new and antique pieces collected by the Mikunis and Kamohara adding to every course. There’s rustic earthenware embossed with flower motifs, delicately gilded china for sushi, and a vintage wooden cup made of willow for miso soup. For the matcha ceremony finale—a tea master from Kyoto gives the women tea ceremony lessons every month—the chefs present freshly whisked matcha tableside in ceramic bowls they’ve hand painted with motifs ranging from maple leaves to Mount Fuji. Their demeanor is always humble, dressed simply in a white frock and short toque, yet they carry themselves with a quiet confidence and hint of pride. And they have a lot to be proud of.

“In the past three years, we have grown a lot,” Kamohara says. “Men will sit at the counter and I can see in their faces they think we are little girls, but then they start eating and their faces change. They are shocked in a good way. They say–’Wow, even women can do this much!’ And this is an accomplishment.”

The owners are hesitant to advertise Tsurutokame to Japanese media, afraid they will fetishize the women as cute little girls cooking, in the same way the media does to pop stars. This sort of attention would downplay their mission of presenting the hard-working and talented women of Tsurutokame on their own merit and allowing their cooking to speak for itself.

But even without a viral buzz, there’s certainly no trouble filling seats. Upward of 80 percent of guests are local regulars, and Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has dined here. They may not have any Michelin stars, but discerning locals are happy to keep Tsurutokame a hidden secret. On the evening I dined, I was the only foreign face at the 14-seat sushi counter.

Kaiseki is in many ways a waning tradition in Japan, despite its revered status as the most noble of meals, prepared for the imperial court in Kyoto for thousands of years. Japan has a dearth of young people and the country’s fertility crisis has been well-documented. Fewer young workers are migrating from the countryside to big cities like Tokyo, and even among those interested in cooking, many are pursuing trendy European cuisine rather than the long and laborious process of becoming a skilled kaiseki chef.

“Kaiseki is the most difficult cuisine to learn,” Kamohara tells me. “Much harder than sushi, so not so many young chefs are wanting to learn now. We make a tour to the countryside to recruit, to make a presentation to girls in culinary school and high schools.” She herself is from Fukuoka Prefecture, on the southern island of Kyushu, and worked as a nutritionist before becoming a chef. “My mother owns a small cafe back home,” she says. “She is a powerful, proactive woman who has always supported me in my dreams.”

Photo by Amber Gibson

It can take up to 10 years before a kaiseki apprentice might be allowed to handle fresh fish, considered the most delicate and precious of ingredients. New trainees begin by washing dishes and running errands, then progress to assembling the cold seasonal appetizers, followed by yaki (grilling), age (deep-frying), nikato (broiling), and finally working with sashimi. They don’t use any frozen fish, only fresh fish, flying many items in daily from Hokkaido.

When I ask if she thinks she’ll be working here for a long time to come, I receive an immediate and confident “hai”— Japanese for “yes.”

“That’s a very strong yes,” she says, in case I had any doubt. “I’m here for the long run to lead this team. We will not refuse anyone, we are willing to train all. Kaiseki is a teamwork style of food, it cannot just be one chef.”

Kamohara and the Mikunis hope that Tsurutokame will one day be their legacy, serving as inspiration to aspiring female chefs in Japan and helping to narrow the gender gap in the industry. It will be an uphill battle, but they are changing minds with each sublime bite.