We sat down with Gurunavi, Inc. to explore the diversity of Japanese Gastronomy and dive further into a world of culinary experiences and tastes. As Japan's leading restaurant search site, Gurunavi not only provides a wealth of information localized in Japanese, English, and other languages on what and where to eat and drink, but as a big data company, it also keeps track of trends surrounding the Japanese food and beverage industry.
Is the kitchen the best Ambassador for Japan?
Yes. According to Japan's Tourism Agency, one of the things visitors most look forward to is eating Japanese food.
There is a strong desire for visitors to enjoy Japanese food and drink, and it is important for Japan to respond to this. Japanese gastronomy is the very identity of the Japanese. And it is one of the best countries for gastronomic tourism - where people can enjoy food and ingredients bred by the climate, customs, traditions and history - and really touch the food culture of the land.
Do you think the success of Japanese cuisine in restaurants around the world can be an obstacle to travelers who do not feel the need to go to Japan “since they have tried everything”?
Overseas Japanese restaurants do not necessarily serve authentic Japanese cuisine.
Though there are many restaurants around the world which offer Japanese cuisine, what is actually offered are not the kinds of dishes that would be found in Japan.
'Japanese food' it is likely something not normally eaten by Japanese people. This is a common phenomenon, not exclusive to Japanese food but also to that of other countries during the process of their cuisine spreading to other countries and cultures. For this reason, I hope that visitors to Japan can taste the original, authentic Japanese cuisines.
It is always said that when gastronomy leaves its country of origin it adapts to the tastes of the place and authenticity is lost. Does that happen with Japanese cuisine? How do restaurant menus differ in Japan as opposed to those found outside of Japan?
A key difference is whether the shop is specialized or not. Overseas, there are many cases where a variety of dishes are offered at a single Japanese restaurant. In Japan, for instance, a ramen shop is not likely to offer takoyaki or a completely different food. A sushi shop likely will not serve yakiniku. Ramen is something that Japanese would typically eat at a shop specializing in ramen - and, likewise, yakiniku and other foods would be served at restaurants specializing in the respective dish. In addition, the trained professionals in Japan who serve Japanese cuisine will prepare dishes using seasonal ingredients, as seasons are connected deeply to Japanese cuisine. Looking abroad, there are often substitutions made and dishes may even include ingredients not found in recipes of Japan. Additionally, as analyzed by a famous Japanese chef, whereas one of the characteristics of Western food culture is that of addition, Japan's food culture is that of subtraction. When Japanese menus go abroad, there is a tendency for flavors to become more localized, and in many cases these deviate greatly from the original.
Considering that Japanese cuisines is extremely well-known, what do you think could give visitors to Japan a new and authentic gastronomy experience?
There are many ingredients and seasonings that are not exported outside Japan. Japan is a relatively small country; before it opened to trade around 150 years ago, it had been divided into some 300 mini-countries within its borders and travel between each was restricted. Accordingly, unique dishes and flavors have been born in each region and remain that way even today. There are many regional dishes that Japanese themselves are unaware of, and people from overseas are likely to know even less. For instance, there is 'zoni' - a dish prepared in celebration of the New Year - which contains a variety of vegetables and other ingredients, but the specific seasonings and ingredients differ drastically from region to region. Even in one dish, there is a new discovery - and this can be enjoyed by visitors foreign and domestic alike.
Is Sake becoming fashionable all over the world?
Yes. Domestic consumption is decreasing, but exports are expanding.
It seems that we have just discovered the Japanese whiskey, how does it differ from Scottish Whiskey?
Japanese whisky was born through Scotch after Masataka Taketsuru, founder of Nikka and past manager of Yamazaki, went to Scotland, learned about whisky, and brought that knowledge to build Japan's first distilleries - essentially transplants of their Scottish counterparts. As at the time the Japanese public didn't initially enjoy the stronger character of Scotch, flavors had to be adjusted to accommodate the domestic palate. Since then, Japanese whisky is associated with more delicate, softer flavors and produced with great attention to detail. Tastes evolve and Japanese whiskies are not afraid to change - experimenting with blends and even local woods, whereas Scotch tends to maintain status quo.
How much time do first time travelers to Japan need to experience Japanese Gastronomy?
A week may suffice to sample the highlights, but it may take a lifetime to fully experience the Japanese gastronomy. If you're new to Japanese food, sit down at an izakaya pub! Contrary to a 'specialty' shop, Izakayas tend to serve a variety of dishes and drinks and are a great spot from which to sample a number of foods. From what you liked, make a list and then start looking for a shop (or even a region) that specializes in that particular food or cuisine. You won't be able to taste all of what Japan has to offer in Tokyo alone - so venturing outside the cities is especially recommended. This doesn't apply only to foods, but to drinks like sake, plus Japanese sweets and more. Japanese food culture is rich with variation.
Is there something you could share that is relatively unknown about Japanese food?
A key difference between Japanese restaurants in Japan and abroad is 'Seasonality.' Many around the world may have not yet noticed this point. There are 72 seasons in Japan – micro-seasons that divide the year. Depending on the climate and soil that changes with the season, the ingredients that can be gathered and the manner of eating them changes. As you can imagine, there are a large number of recipes.
For instance, even when you look at a sushi menu, the toppings - 'neta' - will change depending on the season. If it is now May, it would be perfect for horse mackerel and bonito. Bonito has two seasons due to migration - in the beginning of May and then again in the autumn, when they return; each has a different flavor. While restaurants offering Japanese cuisine are opening around the world, only a small part of Japan's rich menu is being offered. In order to come to know the distinction between the four seasons, you have to visit Japan!