Tokyo

Big, burly Lee Hefter barrels through the streets of the Ginza district on a cool spring night in hot pursuit of a pastry cook. With very few words of Japanese, Hefter has persuaded the man to dash out of his shop and lead the way to Shotai-en, an obscure restaurant specializing in Japanese beef.

Here it is, motions the cook, indicating the doorway of an office building. This is the place.

Arigato gozaimasu, thank you very much. And the cook runs off again.

An elevator up to the ninth floor, a quick exchange with the host, and before we know it, Hefter, the executive chef at Spago Beverly Hills, is ordering beef sashimi, beef tartare, two kinds of salad, vegetables for grilling, shrimp on skewers, three kinds of Wagyu beef, Korean-style marinated beef and one — no, two — orders of tripe. The waiter's still scribbling as he walks away.

"We should have tried the liver too!" Hefter says. We think he's kidding. It's the last time we'll make that mistake.

For the last eight years, Hefter, 39, has been traveling to Japan for inspiration, bringing culinary ideas to his restaurants back home. He tries to make his annual trip during the sakura zensen, cherry blossom season. Late March is a joyous time in Japan; it represents the beginning of spring, a time not just for walking in parks and through lanes to view the blossoms, but also for savoring the candied pink flowers and the tender green leaves, along with sweet cherry salmon and young spears of bamboo and the fragrant purple buds of the shiso plant.

Six days in Japan with Hefter and his wife, Sharon — and his insatiable appetite and curiosity — is also a crash course in sushi, tempura, yakiniku and kaiseki, culinary styles that define Japanese dining but are rarely seen in their pure form, even in Los Angeles.

First course: yakiniku

Most travelers to Japan are content to visit the Ginza and the temples and the Harajuku district. They might ride the bullet train or climb Mt. Fuji. But to explore Japan through its food is to experience something very deep about the culture.

Whether it's Tokyo or Kyoto or points in between, food is an obsession here. Everywhere you look, there are sushi bars, soba stands, yakitori bars, French pastry shops, tofu specialists, shabu-shabu joints. There are tonkatsu-ya, the restaurants specializing in deep-fried pork cutlets; tamago shops, where they sell nothing but sweetened omelets; even unagi-ya, freshwater eel restaurants. Rows of vending machines line alleyways, offering 10 kinds of tea, both hot and cold.

Some places are for eating on the run — like the noisy ramen stands where you stand and slurp. Others are incredibly formal — perfectly quiet and almost spiritual, like the kaiseki restaurants where the country's best chefs practice their art.

Soak it all in for a few days, and it's easy to understand why this is the place Hefter returns to year after year for rejuvenation and inspiration. "It stimulates the creative process," he says. "I let it digest for a month and then go back to my notes and get inspired again."

Hefter plots out his trips with extreme precision. He gets tips from other chefs, often Nobu Matsuhisa and Masa Takayama. He talks with chefs in Japan and with hotel concierges. He checks Zagat, and a Japanese food website, www.bento.com, and cross-references it all. "It's a lot of work," he says. "And then you can't always get into the restaurant."

It will come as no surprise to anyone who's dined at Cut, Hefter's white-hot steakhouse in Beverly Hills, that on this trip, he starts with beef.

We've all heard about Kobe beef, but Kobe is just one of hundreds of types of artisanal beef in Japan. There are 41 prefectures that raise Wagyu cattle and produce their own amazingly tender, incredibly marbled, meticulously graded beef that winds up in restaurants such as Aragawa, where one steak can set you back $1,400. It was there, on an earlier trip, that Hefter found the inspiration for the innovative combination of ultra-high temperature and wood smoke he uses to cook the steaks at Cut.

Tonight, Hefter, dressed in jeans, wants to go casual and check out a spot for yakiniku — the Japanese version of Korean barbecue. The restaurant, Shotai-en, is relatively inexpensive. Tonight's tab will come to about $30 a person. And Hefter has ordered a lot.

Almost instantly, the beef starts coming to the table. Hefter takes charge, dabbing slivers of sashimi with chile paste and slivered onion, and passing them around. It looks good, but it's hard not to hesitate. How often do you pop a slice of raw beef into your mouth?

"You only live once!" says Hefter. It will be one of his mantras during this trip. And so ... it's astonishing — cool and subtle, just one velvety bite. Perfect.