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Food festivals: all yesterday’s parties

by Steve Trautlein

The best of 2012

The inaugural Tama Geta Shoku no Saiten in Hachioji offered locavores a chance to sample the creative cuisine of western Tokyo. Thirty vendors showed off dishes such as motsu yaki-udon, a bowl of beef tripe and noodles from the town of Mizuho in Nishitama, and the “Tokyo-X” hot dog, a mammoth German-style wiener made with smoked pork from Fussa City. It seems likely that the event, held in May on the grounds of the Tokyo Summerland water park, will become a fixture of the Japanese food-fest scene — more than 35,000 people attended the first edition.

How much do the folks in Kansai enjoy local cooking? Consider that nearly 150,000 enthusiasts braved the withering heat to attend the second annual Shiga B-kyu Gurume Battle. Held in the prefectural capital of Otsu on Aug. 4-5, the event was part of a festival that also included music, fireworks and dragon-boat races on nearby Lake Biwa. Dishes ranged from the mundane (a pita sandwich stuffed with Omi beef) to the creative (eel onigiri) to the outre (soba parfait, anyone?). Grand Prix honors, unsurprisingly, went to a shaved-ice dish featuring Asamiya green tea.

A celebration of classic cuisine from Japan’s former capital, the Toku B-kyu Gotochi Gurume Festival in Arashiyama showcased the home-style Kyoto cooking known as o-banzai. The event, held in early August at a scenic riverside location in Naka no Shima Park, was part of the city’s annual Tanabata festival. Visitors could choose among 40 vendors serving the likes of tori soboro meshi (minced chicken on rice), fried noodles with pickled Kyoto vegetables, and a full line-up of traditional sweets.

The 2012 version of the Kitakami B-kyu Gotochi Gurume Festa, held in Iwate Prefecture in late September, showed just how serious the residents of northeastern Japan are about their food festivals. In addition to serving local specialties alongside classic country cooking from around the nation — think Hanamaki rice burgers and Ichinoseki harami-yaki (grilled chicken innards) — the organizers hosted a symposium that explored strategies for reviving earthquake-hit cities in the region.

Two years after bursting onto the national scene as the host of the 2010 B-1 Grand Prix, the city of Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture continues to attract lovers of regional cooking. The fifth annual Kanagawa Food Battle, held in early October, featured 36 well-known local dishes, including miso-marinated tofu skewers, deep-fried ayu (sweetfish) and taiyaki (fish-shaped cakes) prepared in a savory okonomiyaki (pancake) style. A total of 130,000 people attended the two-day fest, which also featured a gathering of 20 mascots from municipalities in Kanagawa.

Airing the beef

B-kyu gurume takes to the skies with a collaboration between Japan Airlines and gyu-don (beef bowl) restaurant chain Yoshinoya. To commemorate the first-ever nonstop service between Asia and San Diego, JAL has introduced the Air Yoshinoya beef bowl in economy class for passengers traveling to Narita from Southern California. (S.T.)

Best bets for 2013

Fans of regional Japanese cuisine can look forward to a gluttonous new year at the Furusato Matsuri Tokyo, an annual celebration of small-town food and culture. Costumed dancers and musicians provide a colorful backdrop to an array of culinary specialties; the theme this time is the humble donburi rice bowl. Featured dishes include the saba-zuke don (pickled mackerel on rice) from Aomori, oyako-don (chicken and egg on rice) made with Nagoya Cochin chicken, and — we’ll be waiting in line for this one — a bowl of salmon, tuna and bonito from Kochi, cooked over burning hay in the traditional wara-yaki style. Bonus: five award-winning rice bowls from last year’s event will be available, and an entire festival zone will be devoted to seasonal seafood and meat from Hokkaido. The event takes place at Tokyo Dome from Jan. 12-20; www.tokyo-dome.co.jp/furusato.

The granddaddy of Japanese food festivals makes its next stop in the sleepy city of Toyokawa in the southeast of Aichi Prefecture. The locals had better get ready: Recent editions of the B-1 Grand Prix have drawn more than 500,000 people to out-of-the-way locations in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture and Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture. The organizers of last year’s event placed a new emphasis on promoting regional culture — crafts, music and the like — but cheap eats are sure to remain the focus of Japan’s best-loved cooking event. Expect award-winning dishes from recent Grand Prix, such as Hachinohe senbei (rice cracker) soup and Misaki tuna ramen, to be in particularly high demand. The festival takes place Nov. 9-10; b-1grandprix.com.

As befits the global complexion of Japan’s second city, the annual World Festa Yokohama puts a premium on international cuisine. Each year, dozens of local restaurants—particularly those specializing in Southeast Asian cooking—set up booths in scenic Yamashita Park to serve all manner of curries, shish-kebabs and roasted meats. Just around the corner, the Yokohama Chinatown Food Festival sees leading Chinese restaurants prepare special menus for a three-week culinary blowout. Both events take place in autumn; 2013 dates TBD.

Steve Trautlein is a freelance journalist eating his way through Japan.