I won't call Shizuo Tsuji's masterpiece a cookbook. Instead, I call it a "book on cooking". The distinction is esoteric perhaps, but important. If you think of cookbooks as paint-by-numbers manuals that merely show you the mechanics of recipe preparation with little in the way of actual food education, then by all standards, "Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art" is not a cookbook. It is a book on cooking, specifically, Japanese cooking. And not just any book on Japanese cooking. It is THE book on Japanese cooking, widely recognized and lauded as one of the best of its kind. It is a rare gem.
As a testament to the instantly recognizable caliber of this text, I offer this anecdote: I discovered it several years ago while I was living in Japan. It belonged to an American ex-pat, a foodie who spent part of his time there apprenticing in a soba shop in Akita, so he really knew his stuff. With just a casual flip through the pages (being a foodie myself), I immediately saw the value of the book and made a mental note to buy it when I came back to the US. I had forgotten about it until now, but now that I have it, I am very happy with the purchase.
True to Tsuji's pedagogical background as a culinary school founder, this book doesn't just teach recipe mechanics. It seeks to train you in the art and techniques of Japanese food preparation, with a healthy dose of etiquette, culture, philosophy, and history thrown into the mix. It is certainly ambitious in scope and perhaps not for the uninitiated.
I would say a moderate/advanced beginner level of familiarity with Japanese cuisine (or general Asian ingredients, at least) and comfort level around the kitchen is a prerequisite. Failing that, a willingness to learn and make a lot of failures. Most Americans will never have heard of many of these ingredients, and some are indeed hard to find, or impossible outside of major metropolitan areas or communities with a large Asian population. But here's an important tip: You'll find many of the most important base ingredients in Korean or Chinese supermarkets, should you live near any. Stuff like miso paste, udon, wakame, mirin, short grained rice, and seasonings are commonly sold there. Many of the vegetables used in Japanese cooking are also found there, dry or fresh. Here in NYC, I can find 95% or more of the ingredients in Chinese stores. You can buy shiso seeds on Amazon to grow yourself should you be so adventurous!
If you want a book with lots of step by step photos and glossy color blowups of finished recipes (aka, "food porn"), this is not for you. Aside from 17 pages of photos and fish illustrations at the front, the entire presentation is devoid of photography, deferring instead to line drawings. This is a good choice, as the drawings are crisp and exhibit line economy and clarity, something that is often difficult to achieve with photography. They also add a touch of class to the book.
Similarly, if you are looking for quick-fix recipes that sacrifice authenticity for ease of preparation in the American home, dishes requiring little effort and no prior cooking experience, or foods limited to ingredient available in the average American supermarket, this book is also not for you. There are plenty of other books that will fit the bill. "Good enough to pass" isn't good enough here, and Tusji makes no compromises. Some of the dishes detailed are quite laborious or difficult for beginners. For example, he teaches you how to cut whole fish for sashimi.
For true lovers of Japanese food (not just people who go to a sushi restaurant, order the "sushi deluxe" and call themselves aficionados), you owe it to yourself to order this book. What you'll get is an exhaustive overview of the diversity of Japanese food, the majority of stuff which you'll never see in Japanese restaurants in the US, however authentic they claim to be. Don't expect instant results, but instead, be patient and enjoy the journey into food education (a Zen-like approach that is not out of line with the spirit of the book). Japanese sushi chefs supposedly spend years learning how to form the rice ball before they are even allowed near the fish.
Enjoying the freshness of food and appreciating nature's seasons and its broad spectrum of flavors is the essence of Japanese gastronomy and culinary art. Enjoy the book and happy cooking!