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Foodie Media 101: Eat all about it

by Steve Trautlein

Every Monday night at 7, Japanese TV viewers are treated to the sight of comedians being locked inside a fast-food restaurant. Formica tables take the place of iron bars, and instead of three square meals a day the cast is fed a steady diet of the shop’s specialties — tonkatsu breaded pork cutlets, donburi rice bowls, pizza. The prisoners can only win their freedom by identifying — and eating — the 10 most popular items on the menu. Several hours and tens of thousands of calories later, they emerge from their confinement, cursing the gray light of dawn and vowing never to touch food again.

Until the next episode.

Such is the sadistic pleasure of “Otameshi Ka!,” a hit program on Asahi TV that presents Japan’s mania for food in an offbeat and entertaining format. The contrived setup offers plenty of opportunities for wisecracking by the hosts, comedy duo Taka and Toshi, while the weekly guests, ranging from sumo grand champion Hakuho to J-pop duo Every Little Thing, are shown in an informal, unscripted light. The show has featured such ubiquitous restaurant chains as Gyu-Kaku (Korean barbecue) and Tenya (tempura), offering viewers a glimpse of the current state of mass-appeal Japanese dining (and, no doubt, ensuring lucrative cross-promotions for the producers).

A more low-key approach is taken on the weekend morning show “Nijiiro Jean,” a Kansai TV production that features a segment with well-known comedian Gussan visiting celebrity guests in their own neighborhoods. The bulk of the segments are shot in one of the star’s local hangouts, typically a genial restaurant or bar. Recent episodes have shown actress-model Maho Toyota lounging in a casual coffee shop-cum-pasta eatery in Tokyo’s ritzy Shirokane district, and stage and TV actor Yuichi Haba visiting a European-style “dining bar” in the Tama Plaza area of Yokohama. For foreigners interested in the kinds of restaurants that appeal to ordinary folks, the show offers a winning way to ease into the weekend.

The same can be said of trend-watching program “Motto Ima Doki,” which airs as a segment on Fuji TV’s morning show “Mezamashi Terebi.” The brief reports, presented by an ever-rotating cast of leggy female models, include everything from youth fashion to household goods to beauty products. The food segments are uniformly entertaining. Among the fads the show has covered — or helped ignite — are tachigui standing restaurants, product tie-ups between convenience stores and food manufacturers, and the craze for soy-milk cuisine. If you’re curious about what new coffee drinks the big chains will be offering this spring or where to buy the season’s most sought-after kitchen gadgets, then “Motto Ima Doki” is the one to watch.

The craze for authentic local cooking known as B-kyū gurume (B-level gourmet) has spawned its own media juggernaut. Leading the charge is cable TV show “B-kyu Gurume Tengoku,” starring the husky “gourmet reporter” Hikomaro. Many of the 30-minute episodes focus on the cuisine of a particular region — who the heck knew that Shimane Prefecture had such amazing food?! — while others showcase an individual dish. These latter can include B-kyū fare both standard (fried rice, udon noodles) and offbeat (oden broth-simmered fish cakes).

Unsurprisingly for a contemporary movement with nationwide appeal, B-kyū gurume enjoys a vibrant online presence. Marshaling this community spirit is Jalan, a ryokan and hotel booking website that’s running a clever contest for video-minded food lovers. Participants upload short videos extolling the virtues of their local cuisine to the website Watch Me TV, a Japanese YouTube clone. The most popular, as determined by votes from the community, will be turned into a commercial promoting the B-1 Grand Prix, the nation’s premier food festival. The top vote-getter is currently a 4-and-half-minute tribute to the Nagasaki noodle dish known as champon.

Combining as it does elements of food, travel and regional culture, B-kyū gurume is a natural fit for the glossy pages of guidebooks, particularly the Japanese book-magazine hybrid known as a “mook.” The best on the market are those from atlas company Mapple, whose “Gotochi & B-kyu Gurume” is an ongoing series about local cuisine from Hokkaido to Okinawa. With eye-popping photographs, detailed maps and thousands of listings, the guides are the perfect companions for a food-fueled journey of discovery — even for those of us just turning the pages at home.

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

Tuning in, reading up

Otameshi Ka!” (www.tv-asahi.co.jp/otameshi) airs Mondays at 7 p.m. on TV Asahi. The next episode, on Feb. 25, will be a 2-hour special. “Nijiiro Jean” (www.ktv.co.jp/niji) is shown each Saturday at 8:30-9:55 a.m. on Kansai TV (Fuji TV in the Tokyo area). “Motto Ima Doki” (tinyurl.com/624gfhu) appears during the “Mezamashi Terebi” program, which airs weekdays at 5:25- 8 a.m. on Fuji TV. “B-kyu Gurume Tengoku” (tinyurl.com/bxn2nma) can be seen weekdays at 10:30-11:00 a.m. and 5:30-6:00 p.m. on the Foodies TV cable network (check your provider for details). The Jalan B-kyū gurume promotion happens online at www.watchme.tv/e/bgp. Mapple’s “Gotochi & B-kyu Gurume” guidebook series is available at most bookstores for ¥880.