Japan's Worst Kept Breakfast Secret
Breakfast is not lost in translation
When you travel halfway across the world, you wake up at strange times with strange afflictions. You wake up at 2:00 a.m. with a headache, suddenly hungry for gummy bears, or you wake up at 4:00 a.m. with a dry throat and an acute craving for daylight. Sometimes you wake up with no idea what you want, other than the reassurance of a familiar morning routine. Craving a warm breakfast after one of my first few sleepless nights in Tokyo, I left my Airbnb in the dark for the Park Hyatt, one of the city’s most famous hotels. Even though they don’t serve breakfast until 6:30, I arrived restless and hungry and a little bit disheveled at 6:00 and took the elevator up to the 41st floor. Outside, the air had been damp and cold, and the sky putty-gray. Suddenly, stepping off the elevator, high-ceilinged windows looked out onto a swell of pink light beginning to pour over miles and miles of foggy cityscape.
The view from the Park Hyatt, made famous by Lost in Translation, is one of the best in Tokyo. It costs upwards of $700 to spend a night at the hotel, but one of Tokyo’s worst kept secrets is that you can spend about $40 to watch the sun rise while eating one of the most beautiful breakfasts you may ever have, at the hotel’s Girandole restaurant.
This was my first Japanese breakfast—a tradition that has begun to gain popularity in New York and has been embraced by American magazines for everything from its health benefits to its Instagramability. While the most noteworthy American breakfasts hinge on magnitude (think heaping piles of potatoes and eggs from diners and bloody marys adorned with entire burgers), the greatest Japanese breakfasts hinge on variety. They take common ingredients like seaweed, cucumber, or radish, and find ways to make each unpredictable.
Going out for Japanese breakfast is like receiving a dozen handmade, beautifully wrapped gifts, each one something you didn’t know you needed until the moment you receive it. Each dish offers its own set of revelations as it is unveiled. Layers of lacquerware pull apart to reveal more layers of lacquerware, each containing a bite or two of something new and vivid. You may eat six bites of daikon over the course of your breakfast, but each one will taste and feel and look different. You may spend an hour and a half eating, without ever getting bored or full.
The backbones of the breakfast were a bowl of hot steamed rice, a pot of simple tofu, steamed in dashi, and a modest triangle of broiled deep orange salmon with a blistered, crispy skin. If you ate nothing but these, you would feel full, content, and warm from the inside out. The most exciting part of the meal, though, is ceremoniously dipping into each of the many peripheral dishes that rotate around these mainstays.
Scallions and tiny mushrooms bobbed in a cup of mellow, silky miso soup that was gone in four slow sips. Delicate shreds of seasoned radish sat at the ready next to two precisely cut pieces of yellow tamago, briny vegetables, and a pale pink salted plum. A surprisingly soft wedge of daikon rested on delicate steamed greens in a mild broth.
One of the most pleasing parts of the spread was a tiny red tower of condiments in the center of the place setting. I found myself opening each tier again and again like a cat playing with a new toy—just to look at the carefully arranged treasures tucked inside and to hear the tiny, resolute clack of the lacquered wood. In the bottom compartment, in a little well the size of a half-dollar, was soy sauce. Stacked neatly on top of the soy sauce was a compartment for ground radish, impossibly thin slices of scallion, and a sprinkling of togarashi (a Japanese seven-spice blend). At the very top tier were ribbons of dry seaweed and a tuft of bonito flakes.
As the meal began to wane, the sun had finally risen completely, and the sky had turned from pink to blue. The city was finally ready for me and all of my manic, jet-lagged energy. I ordered another cup of tea and drank it slowly, eating my last few bites of steamed rice peppered with seaweed and bonito, and spiked with the sharply sour salted plum.
Over the course of the next two weeks, I would wake up to eat plastic-wrapped rice balls from 7-Elevens, rushed early-morning bowls of ramen in train station basements, and fish-shaped waffles from tiny stalls in outdoor markets. I would discover the hot cans of coffee that you can buy from vending machines on city corners. Japan might be the world’s most convenient place to eat breakfast. But back home in New York, the breakfast I would think about the most was the slowest one, eaten on the 41st floor of the Park Hyatt while waiting for Tokyo to wake up.