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How cheap cuisine can save your town

by Steve Trautlein

Shigeru Tamura looks remarkably trim for someone whose hobby is eating fried noodles. Over a lunch at a yakisoba restaurant on the backstreets of Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, the 49-year-old author and law professor admits he dines out as often as twice a day. Then he pushes aside his plate of noodles and pulls a digital pedometer from his trouser pocket.

“I try to keep slim by walking a lot,” he says, and frowns on seeing that today’s tally is stuck at around 4,000 steps. “I usually get in around 10,000 each day.”

Tamura’s travels haven’t always been on foot. While working for the then-Ministry of Home Affairs in the 1990s as a liaison officer for local governments, he visited every one of Japan’s 47 prefectures — at least four times. That experience has served him well in his current position as a professor of political science at Niigata University Law School, and, combined with his passion for local cuisine, he’s emerged as one of Japan’s most sought-after commentators on the phenomenon of B-kyū gurume (B-grade gourmet).

Tamura is enjoying his accidental second career. Although he’s written or cowritten nearly 20 books on local governance, he seems most enthusiastic about his 2008 work, “B-kyū Gurume ga Chiho wo Suku (“B-grade Gourmet Can Save Local Regions”).” It’s intended as both a guide to regional cooking and a blueprint for reviving rural communities.

“During the economic bubble period and just after, local governments built a lot of cultural centers and themed attractions to promote travel in their regions,” he says in accented but confident English. “A lot of them have shut down — no one really wants to visit a place like that more than once. But eating local foods is something people can return for again and again.”

Tamura points to success stories such as Fujinomiya City in Shizuoka Prefecture, which has experienced a tourism boom thanks to a local specialty called Fujinomiya yakisoba. The dish — a version of the standard Japanese take on chow mein — has twice won top honors at the B-1 Grand Prix, a prestigious annual festival of regional cooking. Officials say attention from the awards has generated ¥44 billion of economic activity during the past nine years.

Tamura’s efforts to promote regional cooking have won him a small measure of fame: He’s been profiled in major newspapers, appears regularly on Niigata TV, and often dispenses (free) advice to local governments who come to him for help. He’s even been asked to serve as a judge on the B-1 Grand Prix committee.

“Last year, a dish called Hiruzen yakisoba from a small city in the Chugoku Mountains of Okayama Prefecture won the top prize,” he says. “I’ve heard that noodle restaurants there are now packed with tourists on weekends.”

Tamura’s key insight, gleaned from years of visiting government offices around the country, is that municipalities can promote their culinary heritage as an embodiment of local history and culture. He points to his own home prefecture of Hokkaido, where iron foundries helped fuel Japan’s industrial rise.

“The workers needed stamina, so restaurants started serving them pork instead of chicken,” he says. “That’s led to the creation of a dish known as Muroran yakitori — it’s a pork skewer with a lot of spicy mustard. Fujinomiya yakisoba has a similar story: Shizuoka used to have many wool factories, and the women who worked in them needed something to eat between meals; something substantial, but not too heavy.”

With that, Tamura finishes his noodles and is back up and walking. He’s got an appointment in Nishi-Azabu — about a mile and a half away — and 10,000 steps to get through by the end of the day.

Shigeru Tamura blogs at tamura-shigeru.cocolog-nifty.com/blog. “B-kyu Gurume ga Chiho wo Suku” is available at Amazon.co.jp. Steve Trautlein is a freelance journalist eating his way through Japan.


Shigeru Tamura’s local favorites

Gyōza dumplings from Utsunomiya in Tochigi Prefecture are particularly popular at Masashi (www.ucatv.ne.jp/ishop/masashi) and Minmin (www.minmin.co.jp).

There are about 200 shops in Fujinomiya City that serve Fujinomiya yakisoba. Maezima ([0544] 27-6500) and Kokoro (www.yakisobakokoro.jp; Tokyo branch pictured with main story) are famous.

Kofu tori motsuni (stewed chicken offal) is a standard menu item at soba shops in Kofu City, Yamanashi Prefecture such as Okufuji Honten (www.okutou.com).

Another favorite is the local horumon (innards) dishes from Atsugi City, Kanagawa. Chiyono (www.chiyono4656.jp) is representative of the style.

Muroran yakitori are skewers of pork — not chicken — from Muroran City in Hokkaido. Ippei (www.e-ippei.com) is a well-regarded chain.

A true Japanese original — curry ramen — is a local specialty from Sanjyo City in Niigata Prefecture. Try Daikokutei ([0256] 32-0809) and Masahiro (www.week.co.jp/ramen/curry/curry.htm)