Grilled unagi -- or eel -- in Japan
Credit: Melissa Tse/Getty Images

Tokyo has more restaurants with Michelin stars than any other city in the world, but the best eating experiences are often farther afield. We asked some of Japan’s biggest cheerleaders stateside to share their go-to restaurants around the country. Here, four reliable favorites that highlight Japanese ingredients and the joys of a humble but perfectly cooked meal:

Yuyado Sakamoto - Noto Peninsula

Nancy Singleton Hachisu, author of Japan: The Cookbook

Book a room at this remote onsen ryokan for its minimalist interiors and peaceful grounds — and, most importantly, for its stellar food. “Yuyado Sakamoto could be the most wabi-sabi inn in Japan,” says Hachisu. “Shinichiro Sakamoto and his wife, Mihoko, make all of their food in house, as well as the pickles and preserves and smoked fish. Soba is hand rolled each day and treated with the respect it deserves.” The highlight: a multi-course Japanese breakfast, served to ryokan guests daily. “Each dish is deceptively understated, yet exquisitely flavored.” 15-47 Uedomachi-jisha, Suzu-shi, Ishikawa-ken; 81-768-82-0584; doubles from $160.

The Terrace - Naoshima Island

Ann Soh Woods, founder of Kikori Whiskey and Yuzuri yuzu liqueur

Naoshima made its way onto the Japan travel circuit thanks to Benesse House, a Tadao Ando-designed contemporary art museum and 10-room hotel with sweeping vistas of the Seto Inland Sea. After a day of art, says Soh Woods, “continue the sensory experience through the property’s exceptional restaurant. Their presentation of French cuisine with a Japanese bent is as awe-inspiring as the setting — the quality of the Japanese meat is truly outstanding, and the produce is local to the Setouchi region.” Get a window seat for sunset views of the water. Tasting menu $115.

Wappado - Ohara, Kyoto Prefecture

Yoshi Okai, head chef at Otoko in Austin, Texas, and Food & Wine Best New Chef 2017

Wappado is a small farmhouse restaurant near Kyoto, where I grew up,” says Okai. “It only serves lunch. I love it because every ingredient they use is sourced from around Kyoto.” Maintaining that small food footprint is not easy, especially in suburban Japan, and it’s made Wappado a dining and agritourism destination. Look for tempura of rotating seasonal vegetables and coal-roasted skewers of organic chicken and fish. Set menu from $22.

Obana - Arakawa, Tokyo Prefecture

Nobu Matsuhisa, chef-owner of Matsuhisa Restaurants and Nobu Restaurants and Hotels

Matsuhisa recommends this small restaurant, just outside Tokyo, which specializes in just one thing: unagi, or freshwater eel. “I love unagi,” he says, and “Obana is among the best unagi restaurants in Japan. They do only a few preparations of unagi — very simple, very Japanese.” Dedicate several hours to this Michelin-starred favorite (lines form before it even opens, and supplies are finite) and enjoy some sake and salty snacks while you wait. 5-33-1 Minamisenju;
81-3-3801-4670; entrées $53–71.