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Businesses promote Japanese cuisine amid growing influx of foreign visitors

Foreigners make sushi rice during a cooking lesson, part of a program targeting inbound tourists, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on Nov. 28, 2018. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)

TOKYO -- Companies operating cooking classes, restaurants, and other foodie businesses are promoting specialized services targeting the growing numbers of inbound foreign tourists -- perhaps bolstering the worldwide spread of Japanese cuisine.

Two groups of foreigners were learning how to make Japanese meals from professional instructors at a cooking studio in the capital's Marunouchi district in late November. Before the cooking lesson, they had gone on an hour-and-a-half tour of the Tsukiji Outer Market.

One group of five tourists from the United States used a special frying pan and a pair of long cooking chopsticks to pour egg mixture into the pan, rolling it before it completely hardens, then repeating it all over again. Participants cheered as they successfully made a fluffy Japanese rolled omelet. Members of both groups also tried making miso soup with kelp and dried bonito broth. They used paper fans to cool down rice shimmering with vinegar, later used in making rolled sushi and ball-shaped sushi.

According to a 27-year-old Irish participant, the experience was better than just buying something, and made him want to make the dishes himself upon returning home. The employee of a Los Angeles-based IT firm came to Japan with three of his friends for an 11-day trip. He joined the tour to taste Japanese food, which has a good international reputation. Fatty tuna and fried dumplings seemed to suit his tastes perfectly.

The foreigners were participating in an "ABC Cooking Travel" program combining a tour of the Tsukiji market area and a cooking lesson. The program is organized by Tokyo-based ABC Capital Co., an affiliate of nationwide cooking lesson company ABC Cooking Studio Co. The one-hour lessons are popular among foreign visitors as they simplify the cooking process, enabling participants to make the same dishes back home. Instructors also provide background knowledge of Japanese food culture and the ingredients.

ABC Capital began providing such services targeting inbound tourists in 2016, taking advantage of the more than 120 cooking studios it operates across Japan. It offers more than 10 programs, including a tour of Kyoto Prefecture's Nishiki market followed by the preparation of inarizushi, or vinegared rice wrapped in deep-fried bean curd pouches. The programs attract at least 1,200 tourists yearly and have even appeared on the TripAdvisor travel review site.

"I hope to create programs that can be enjoyed by more people as we head toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games," said Mami Shinkawa, leader of ABC Capital's tourism division.

While businesses are making efforts, more and more foreign tourists are arriving on Japan's shores. Visitor numbers spiked by 19.3 percent from 2016, and reached a record high of approximately 28.7 million people in 2017, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.

Based on the 2017 Consumption Trend Survey for Foreigners Visiting Japan conducted by the Japan Tourism Agency, 68.3 percent of people said they had looked forward to "eating Japanese food" prior to coming to Japan. This topped the results for the multiple-choice question, beating out "shopping," which came in second at 53.4 percent. Furthermore, 91.2 percent of foreign tourists were happy with Japanese dishes they had on their visit.

As for the food or drink foreign tourists were most satisfied with on their trip, the majority of those from South Korea and Hong Kong chose meat dishes, Taiwanese chose ramen, Chinese Mainlanders chose fish dishes, and Americans chose sushi. Some reasons for their preferences included good taste, quality, amount, and price.

In addition to well-known high-budget Japanese foods like sushi, sashimi, tempura and sukiyaki, casual dishes like udon, soba and ramen noodles as well as okonomiyaki pancakes are attracting the attention of foreign diners.

Ramen shop Soranoiro, based in the capital's Chiyoda Ward, is popular mainly among foreigners for its vegan and vegetarian menus. "Ramen is a noodle dish that originated in Japan and has developed a lot," explained owner Chihiro Miyazaki. He added, "Ramen allows a wide range of expression, which lets me offer diners a taste of Japan." Next February, Miyazaki plans to change the rendering of the shop's name, which is currently written in Japanese katakana, to its romanized spelling to attract more inbound foreign customers.

The number of restaurants abroad that are serving Japanese cuisine is also on the rise. As of 2017, the number had increased fivefold in just 10 years, totaling some 118,000 establishments, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. This surge reflects the increasing number of foreigners who come to Japan and eat Japanese cuisine, and recognize how tasty it is.

Chikaranomoto Holdings Co., based in the southwestern Japan prefecture of Fukuoka, opened its first overseas branch of its pork-bone broth ramen specialty restaurant Ippudo in New York in 2008. Currently, there are Ippudo stores in 13 countries and regions, including in Asia and Europe. The total number of stores worldwide reached 100 in November. "Ramen is loved by people in communities in various countries around the world as a symbol of Japanese cuisine because it appeals to the common people," explained Chikaranomoto Chairman Shigemi Kawahara.

The future looks bright for Japanese cuisine -- created in Japan's rich natural environment with originality and ingenuity -- as the number of inbound foreign visitors playing a key role in spreading Japanese flavors across the globe continues to rise.

(Japanese original by Hidenori Yazawa, Lifestyle News Department)

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