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

paris-lamen.jpg Parisiens lining up outside a ramen (lamen in French) restaurant 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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Re: Tokyo vs. Paris, Japan vs. France, from a food point of ...

Re language and being a tourist...

I went to Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto, and some other places) last year. I know about three words of Japanese, but I found it perfectly fine. People were so willing to help, and were really friendly - I was surprised by how many people spontaneously chatted with us.

I can't really compare with Paris, as I do speak a little bit of French. I haven't found that people in Paris are particularly snooty or stand-offish (which I think staff in shops do have a reputation for), but I don't think that they had the same happy willingness to help that so many Japanese did.

And food in Japan is really good, I do agree!

Awfulknittr | 2 May, 2014 - 20:27

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

Great article and a way to compare.I would absolutely vote on Tokyo and Japan in general.Food qulity is just the best in the world.Absolutely!!!

reta | 2 May, 2014 - 22:07

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

Hi Maki, I've had the opportunity to live in both Japan (as an adult) and France (as a child and many visits since) and while each has its quirks, hands down I preferred Tokyo over Paris. I'm of Lebanese origin (Maki thinks "holy merde, I know where this is going") and the racism I encountered in Paris for being an Arab was quite in your face. I remember walking into a fancy boutique in the Bastille and being yelled at "..get out of my store you filthy Arab!" (yes, really, the Bastille no less). The Paris of my youth from the 60's when France was still a relative Empire masquerading as a democracy is long gone and replaced by a lot of right wing Xenophobes. We were sitting having lunch at a brasserie near the Sorbonne and the next table was having this insane argument about how the Pied Noir's should have stayed away.

Interestingly, I didn't really run into that in the countryside but I'm also fluent in French and speak with the Provencal dialect as most of our teachers in Lebanon are from there.

The only interesting thing that happened in Tokyo was an occasional giggle and point - usually from an elderly woman at the Big Gaijin as I am indeed big nosed and quite hairy : )

This was a wonderful article and I was smiling the entire time I was reading it which worried the person sitting next to me as he thought I was up to something....

Melvis | 2 May, 2014 - 22:40

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

Hi Melvis. The racism I see in France vs. people of Middle Eastern or North African origin is really shameful...I don't talk about such things too much on this site, but it's quite blatant sometimes. Of course Japan has racists too, but their targets are different.

maki | 2 May, 2014 - 23:21

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

What a wonderful comment, Melvis. Ah, racism...it exists everywhere, in its different (dis)guises. You must be very strong to not let it deter you when it slaps you in the face.

As an American, I like to think we are not racist, but we are of course. It is some strange human disease. But I think it stings somewhat less here since Americans are truly all from some other place (Except for our beautiful native Americans) and most racism is 'just' an extreme form of jingoism.

I have been to Japan(Tokyo, Takayama, Kanazawa, Kyoto) twice and never thought of going to a French or Italian restaurant. I was thoroughly in love with noodles and rice and fish for breakfast. I could not get over the strange wonder and deliciousness of the food.

Someday I will go to Paris and I will eat lots of cheese. And wine.
Wonderful post, Maki.

EmerySand | 6 May, 2014 - 05:02

Tokyo vs. Paris: meat?

One thing I am curious about is meat and seafood. As a light meat eater, I try to restrict myself to ethically raised/sourced meat. What are the conversations and attitudes in these areas around these issues? Is there an effort to preserve heritage breeds, respect fish breeding stocks, etc? How does the average person view/react to these issues?

The area where I live (northern California), there is a lot of discussion around grass fed beef, pigs raised in social groups, what the definition of a free range chicken is, and what constitutes sustainable fishing practice. I feel like we are in something of a bubble, and would like to know how these other great food meccas view these issues.

Thanks!

Dorothy | 3 May, 2014 - 04:07

Re: Tokyo vs. Paris: meat?

In Japan, you're going to be looked at oddly. Many Japanese eat a mostly plant-based diet, but very few do it for "ethical" reasons. If you're a member of the "I can't consume a single molecule that is animal sourced" tribe, you're going to have a hard time in Japan. On the other hand, if you're avoiding meat for health reasons, but don't mind eating a little bit, Japanese is a paradise.

My advice: Combat global warming by staying where you are and not flying.

Mike | 18 November, 2014 - 09:14

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

What a wonderfully informative comparison!
I hope to visit Tokyo and other parts of Japan someday. I'm an American currently living in the Provence region of France and have to agree that while the French have some amazing food, they don't always pull off other cultures' cuisine very well.

The few exceptions I've found were run by expats bringing their home culture to the area. A wonderful example is http://www.daisukitrets.fr/ - a relatively new and totally scrumptious Japanese restaraunt in a little village near my home. It is run by a family: the father and head chef is Japanese, mother is French, and the son is a trained sushi chef. We enjoy their food at least once a week. It is always such a treat!

Zura | 3 May, 2014 - 10:38

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

Awesome - I'll have to try them! Thank you for the link! (I live north of you in the Vaucluse. ^_^)

maki | 4 May, 2014 - 06:13

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

french coffee is hamstrung not only because they use stale beans and burn them, but because the french african colonies do not grow arabica, usually robusta, which is bitter.

Randy Bush | 3 May, 2014 - 13:17

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

Hello Maki! I hope you are having a wonderful day. I love your articles and this one is no different- very informative and helpful, especially for those of us who cannot afford to travel. I don't know if I'll ever win the lottery, but if I do, Japan is definitely one of the places I must visit. We have a couple of Japanese Restaurants in my town but while they are very good, I long to investigate more of Japan's cuisine. In the meantime, thanks for the wonderful work- your words transport all of us to an aromatic, delicious sense of the world beyond!

azimuth5 | 3 May, 2014 - 15:16

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

I found this to be an interesting take on the Tokyo vs. Paris debate, which I was not really aware of. I have not been to Tokyo but have spent some time in Kyoto, and have visited Paris and some other places around France. I have to say that, in Paris, without a large budget, insider knowledge, or tons of effort to research and make reservations at particular places, really good food seemed inaccessible to me. I ate better in other French cities and in the countryside. In Kyoto, on the other hand, many of the simple restaurants we chose at random on the street (ramen, udon, etc.) were delicious... in nearby Osaka even more so. And the Nishiki Market was absolutely the most amazing food market I'd ever seen, even compared to Les Halles in Lyon. Not sure about international food in Kyoto. We did manage to get some authentic German bread but it was sold in tiny, expensive packages of 4 slices....

Leslie K | 5 May, 2014 - 11:55

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

Kyoto has some amazing French restaurants ^_^ Also some bakeries selling French style baguettes and the like too. Italian is not too bad either.

maki | 6 May, 2014 - 21:25

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

I have been to both Paris and Tokyo for the first time recently (Paris last summer, Tokyo April 2012). I know almost enough French to order dinner and my Japanese is non-existent. My wife has taken both but is extremely rusty. We did not have any language or other problems in either city. That's been my experience with most big cities internationally the last several years. In Hungary, for example, everybody under 35 in Budapest speaks English, but when you get out into the countryside a lot of people speak Magyar and maybe German and that's it.

As for the food, I found much the same in 4 days in each place as what you experienced living in both places. Paris has amazing French food and that's pretty much it (although we did find an excellent taco joint by our hotel). Tokyo has lots of amazing everything. I had the best Indian food I've had in my life in a second floor place in Tokyo that we went to solely because it was nearby when we were hungry.

John B. | 5 May, 2014 - 15:06

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

Thanks for a wonderful reading experience. It brought back fond memories of a couple of summers living in Marseille and Tokyo about 10 years ago.

In Marseille, we had a small kitchen so were able to cook. A few times a week, I would buy the french seafood that were the catch of the day. I remember being amazed at the size of the shrimps. Actually, as a new wife and an inexperience cook, I was a bit scare touching them, especially the long, flowing shrimp whiskers.

In Tokyo, we walked around trying to spot low-budget ramen place, and only splurged for sushi a couple of times.

This maybe tangentially related to the foodies side of the article, but having re-visited France (Paris) and Japan (Kyoto)in the last couple of years, I found Picard and the omnipresence of gyudon places, Moss burgers, 7-ups, Lawsons to be good low-budget alternatives.

Babygrand8 | 5 May, 2014 - 19:48

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

In my opinion, Tokyo is leaps better than Paris. For me it really came down to how I was treated as a human being. In Tokyo, everyone was polite and helpful. They wanted to share the culture and didn't mind a conversation. As for Paris, many stared, and even sneered at me!! Don't even try asking for directions...unless the guy wants to get into your pants. I was also told to leave a store in Paris, I'm not sure if it was racism or just general nastiness. Paris may have the history in tact, but Tokyo has the spirit. I am as intent on visiting Japan again, as I am on not ever setting foot in France again.

tiger | 8 July, 2014 - 20:39

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

I went to Higuma on my last visit in 2013, and I was not impressed. I think that the japanese shops in LA/NY area are much better. I really liked what I got from Toraya (what a gem).

For me, I would pick Japan. I cannot live without Asian food, From my experience, Asian food in Paris is OK.

Sharky | 9 July, 2014 - 22:19

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

Hello,

Very interesting article and very interesting comments.

As a Frenchman who's been to Tokyo (and , I think I can put my 2 cents.

First I really feel bad after reading Melvis comment; I really hope he met the bad people...

Well, more to the point: I'm not sure how difficult it is for somebody who doesn't speak French to go to Paris but what I know is that, at least, the alphabet is understandable for your average western tourist.
In Japan, it's not exactly the case... and that includes the prices in some restaurants. Since I knew a little Chinese, I knew how much I was expected to pay, though I had no clue about what I ordered (which is ok since I believe it's a great way to discover great food).
Oh and yes, I met some really helpful people in Japan, much more helpful than you'll meet in France (I think).

And about coffee... well I'm not a coffee drinker either but I have a lot of French friends who keep telling me that French coffee is good (well, better than Chinese or American coffee) so maybe it's just the way French like their coffee, maybe it's a cultural thing.

(and there is a point that doesn't make sense to me: as a tourist, why would I want to eat other foods than the local food?)

manu | 10 July, 2014 - 04:38

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

Very very interesting article!

I'm russian living in Paris, have lived in several places in France, have travelled by car in Japan, have lived in "normal" neighborhood in Tokyo for couple of months, in normal japanese house, buying normal food in market street. Guess my opinion is neutral, as i'm not french nor japanese (and i love both cultures). So.
Hard to compare, but Paris is harder to approach without preparation. Tokyo is almost failproof. And that's why - low price and middle priced food is better and more accesible in Japan, like in Italy. France has a real problem with this . Low budget places, that are brilliant exist, but there's not a lot of them.
Actually the real question should be - how bad can be the worst food experience in Tokyo compared to Paris. I'd say, Paris wins in this one.
So, as an average tourist there's much more chances to be disappointed in Paris than in Tokyo.
In high-ranged places there's very interesting things to try in both towns.
Tokyo might be more contemporary and spectacular, but Paris keeps something obscenely vital in its plates.
Now, there's difference in price. Paris restaurant prices are sooo soft compared to Tokyo!
As for raw product quality, - i'm sure France wins. French street markets are still great. (I just compare to tokyo market street that was quite good, do not know much of how does it work elsewhere. Been in lots of decent supermarkets in various regions, but it's not the same )
Sorry i might be spoiled, after 10yrs in Lyon...
As for accesibility of foregn products , hmm Japan started to import french products earlier than France started to bring japanese products to Paris. Paris is quite well provided now. Some basic japanese products can be found almost in every town in France now, thanks to asian community.

Ania | 12 November, 2014 - 01:05

Japanese Honey

Regarding honey? If you've only looked in supermarkets, you're seeing honey from China, Argentina, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (mostly for first two). Japanese honey is quite tasty, well, except for the soba honey, which is a bit too strong for me. Where I live, in Saitama, there are honey stores in Kawagoe and Tokorozawa, for instance, and it's also sold by the producers at festivals. Mikan is my favorite, acacia number two. There are all kinds from differnt regions. It's seasonal, so only a couple types might be available at one time.

I use honey in place of sugar for cooking, such as in Teriyaki sauce, and in that case I just use the Chinese stuff, because it's cheaper, and I'm just using it for the sweetness.

bigima | 18 November, 2014 - 08:56

Re: Japanese Honey

I am definitely not just looking at supermarkets. I just think that Japanese honey is probably too over strained or whatever they do to make it more liquid, removing a lot of character in the process. (Since I usually only have good things to say about Japanese food products, you can be assured this is an honest opinion...and that's just what it is, an opinion! ^^)

maki | 26 November, 2014 - 03:00

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