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Diversifying Japan’s biggest food festival

by Steve Trautlein

From its origins as a regional festival in the backwaters of Aomori Prefecture, the B-1 Grand Prix has attained a status of Fuji Rock-like proportions. The seven-year-old event, which attracts enthusiasts of local cooking from around Japan, almost single-handedly kick-started the country’s obsession with B-kyu gurume (B-grade gourmet). The last two editions, in Kanagawa and Hyogo prefectures, drew nearly half a million people each.

Yet when this year’s B-1 Grand Prix opens in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, on Oct. 20, the emphasis will shift from regional cuisine to regional culture. Visitors will be able to enjoy, alongside the noodle dishes and rice bowls that have made the event famous, locally produced crafts and live stage performances.

“We’re taking a more holistic approach this time around,” says Shinichi Tawara, executive director of the Ai B League, which organizes the event. “People know it as Japan’s biggest food festival, but we say it’s just a great get-together.”

It’s easy to see why the organizers have decided to broaden their approach. The popular perception of B-1 Grand Prix as a strictly culinary event has, from the start, been a kind of lucky accident. The dozens of food stalls at each year’s festival — from towns as diverse as Kitami in Hokkaido and Tsushima in Nagasaki — are chosen not by popular vote or petitions from individual restaurants, but by local business associations and municipal promotion boards. Their goal is to generate interest in their regions as tourist destinations and cultural brands, which may or may not be in line with the spirit of B-kyu gurume.

“The B-1 Grand Prix and B-kyu gurume are two entirely different things,” Tawara says, pointing out that B-kyu gurume aficionados tend to value saving money as much as savoring authenticity. “We’re happy that local foods are associated with the movement, but not every restaurant wants to have that label. Also, the people in charge of promoting local regions sometimes get confused about how to use B-kyu gurume as a marketing tool.”

Still, the organizers will face a challenge rebranding an event that’s become so widely known — and so closely associated with food. A survey taken in advance of the 2009 festival found that about half of all Japanese had heard of the B-1 Grand Prix; three years later, that figure has climbed to 80 percent. At last year’s B-1 Grand Prix in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, the lines at individual stalls stretched as long as two hours; it’s difficult to see that level of interest being inspired by Bizen pottery or taiko drumming.

And then there’s the competition portion of the event, in which 10 recipes receive special mention and one is crowned champion. Selected by a panel of judges and by a vote of festivalgoers, the awards are a highly anticipated feature of the B-1 Grand Prix — and their influence is felt far beyond the confines of the event. The winning dish in 2006 and 2007, a fried-noodle concoction from Fujinomiya in Shizuoka Prefecture, is believed to have generated ¥44 billion of economic activity for the local economy. Last year’s winner, another chow mein from Okayama Prefecture, almost literally put the town of Hiruzen (population 5,000) on the map.

Tawara acknowledges the impact the B-1 Grand Prix has had on the Japanese culinary scene. “It used to be that dishes like Wagyu beef were considered ‘local’ foods,” he says. “Thanks to our event, yaki-soba and similar dishes have become celebrated in their own right.”

Recent events have also impelled the B-1 League to champion regional cuisine outside the auspices of its annual event.

“We weren’t very active about promoting local food before the March 11 (2011) disaster,” Tawara says. “The emphasis was on promoting travel to the regions themselves, but with the economy suffering, we’re endorsing products.” He gestures to a shelf full of packaged goods in the group’s Tokyo office, including beer, instant noodles, sauces and snacks. Each item carries the B-1 Grand Prix logo — a mark that has, like it or not, become inextricably linked with the best of Japanese regional cooking.

The 2012 B-1 Grand Prix takes place Oct. 20-21 in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture. Visit www.b1-kitakyushu.jp for details. Steve Trautlein is a freelance journalist eating his way through Japan.

Mark the date

Can’t make it to Kitakyushu for October’s B-1 Grand Prix? Don’t despair. You can get your noodle fix at the Tokyo Ramen Show 2012 (www.ramenshow.com), taking place Oct. 26-Nov. 4 at Komazawa Olympic Park. The event gathers together 40 noodle dishes from all over the country, available for ¥800 a bowl; ¥40 from each purchase will be donated to 3/11 disaster relief.

Over in Niigata Prefecture, the central city of Minami-Uonuma will host the Kokusai Gotochi Gurume Grand Prix (www.kokusai-gotouchi.com) on Oct. 6-7. The event serves down-home cooking from Japan and beyond — think sea-bream rice bowls infused with green tea alongside Croatian kabobs and traditional Indian curry with naan. Attendees can also enjoy a selection of bespoke sweets and dishes featuring Niigata’s famed local rice.