In Japan, Food as the Ultimate Show

Hosts Hiroshi Sekiguchi and Yuji Miyake of the popular Japanese television food program
Hosts Hiroshi Sekiguchi and Yuji Miyake of the popular Japanese television food program "Which Dish?" try one segment's special ingredient. (Photo Courtesy Of Yomiuri Tv)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 27, 2006

TOKYO -- On a quest for the "ultimate ingredients," a team of food explorers from a hit television show here scaled mountains seeking the perfect mushroom and braved stormy seas off Alaska to catch extra-plump salmon. On a rival network, celebrities on "Love's Apron" amuse audiences by bungling complicated recipes. In another local smash, the members of a boy band prepare tasty treats for a constellation of guest stars whose ranks include Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

That's just for starters on Japanese TV, where food shows are what's cooking. In the nation that brought the world "Iron Chef," the programs have become the cash cows of prime time.

Food has long been a major staple of Japanese broadcasting. But with most popular cooking and gourmet shows far cheaper to produce than star-powered dramas, TV producers and researchers say food shows now account for an estimated 35 to 40 percent of all domestic programming.

In this island nation famous for healthy and long-lived citizens rather than bulging waistlines, the shows' popularity underscores a less well-known Japanese obsession: eating.

Indeed, there are few societies where food appears more exalted -- or expensive. Japan is the home of the $15 apple, the $5 piece of chocolate, beef from Kobe and kaiseki ryori -- seasonal delicacies served in numerous small courses and gorgeously presented on decorative bowls and plates. Emphasis is on quality, not quantity, and one pays accordingly. Price tags for such meals can top $400 per person.

Almost every town of any significant size in Japan boasts well-stocked "food souvenir" shops at airports and train stations where visitors snap up regional specialties. Thousands of food pilgrims regularly flock to the countryside in search of seasonal dishes. Japanese travel agencies call food one of the main engines of international travel. Kinki Nippon Tourist, a leading travel agency, peddles scores of popular food-themed escapes, including sweets tours of Taiwan and afternoon-tea trips to Hong Kong.

Chefs, particularly those with their own TV shows, enjoy cult status. At Tokyo's uber-popular La Bettola da Ochiai restaurant, owned by celebrity chef Tsutomu Ochiai, demand for dinner reservations is so high that requests must be made months in advance -- and even then only on the third Sunday of odd-numbered months. Lunch hopefuls form lines hours before opening time.

"The Japanese tend not to mind lining up and waiting if it means you are getting good food," said Kumi Hino, a stylish 43-year-old housewife who arrived at 9:30 a.m. on a recent day to wait in La Bettola's lunch line. For cooking at home, Hino said she buys meat, fish and vegetables at separate outlets, often searching for top-grade ingredients in the vast food basements of Tokyo's grand department stores. "We are highly obsessed about food, we are curious about it, and we are patient," she said.

Japanese also like to look at it.

Particularly in vogue are shows featuring celebrity "food tasters" who travel to towns across the country to sample local delicacies. In what has become a defining moment of domestic TV culture, the camera moves in for a close-up of a glistening mouthful of food dangling scrumptiously off a pair of chopsticks. The morsel then slips into the mouth of a taster, whose eyes go wide before the inevitable exclamation, " Oishii !" -- the Japanese word for delicious.

Presentation and visual appeal are as important as taste. For that reason, food shows must often shoot many takes to capture a morsel's full appeal.

"If the steam isn't blowing off the food in just the right way, people will not be as fascinated and will not see the food as delicious," said Motonobu Nakamura, the director of the "ultimate ingredients" show, "Which Dish?"

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