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Chomp your way through spring

by Steve Trautlein

It’s no surprise that the Japanese get serious about eating and drinking come late spring, as yatai food carts roll out, a bevy of fresh vegetables appear on restaurant menus and the annual festival season begins to heat up. This year is no different, with offerings that include a fried-chicken collaboration, a sweet cherry promotion and a celluloid tribute to a pop-culture food phenomenon.

Screen sensation

The breakout success of Tanita Corporation’s in-house dining program — which began when dieticians at the Tokyo-based scale manufacturer ignited a nationwide craze by devising a cafeteria menu devoted to healthy eating — has many elements of a Hollywood success story. Now the tale has been given the big-screen treatment in the form of “Taishibokei Tanita no Shain Shokudo (Recipes of Diet Diaries),” a feature film opening nationwide today. Popular model-actress Yuka stars as a crusading nutritionist who encourages her pudgy colleagues to hop on the low-calorie bandwagon, while plus-size musician Kenta Hamano plays the skeptical vice president who “earned” his job by being the son of the company’s president.

Here’s the catch

There’s no reason to wait until summer to hit the Shimoda coast this year thanks to the Kinme Matsuri (shimoda-city.info/eve29.html), a festival that runs for the entire month of June. The event celebrates the late-spring haul of red snapper, a versatile fish that’s caught in abundance in local waters. More than three dozen shops and restaurants will get into the spirit with special offers and menu items, ranging from the ordinary (sushi, sashimi platters, rice bowls) to the outré (red-snapper burgers and pizza, anyone?). Related promotions include an extremely fishy giveaway — customers spending more than ¥1,000 at participating shops receive a raffle ticket with a chance to win one of 50 whole snappers.

In the red

Of all the fruits and vegetables that debut on Japanese menus in late spring, I’m most excited this year by the humble sakuranbo, aka the American cherry. That’s especially true having learned what Kanako Sakakura, a pâtissier at the Hilton Tokyo ([03] 3344-5111; www.hilton.co.jp/tokyo), has in store for the diminutive fruit. Taking place through July 13 at the lobby-level Marble Lounge, the American Cherry With Movie Sweets Fair features an array of 30 desserts, including favorites such as cherry pie, sponge cake and the British oat bar known as the flapjack. A fun twist: Sakakura has re-created a quartet of classic sweets featured in Hollywood films, and sandwiches and other snacks are also available at the buffet-style spread.

Best of cluck

Popular convenience-store chain Daily Yamazaki welcomes the warm-weather season with a collaboration featuring a distinctive recipe from Japan’s deep south (www.daily-yamazaki.co.jp/ca/130514) Nakatsu, a small city in northern Oita Prefecture, is renowned for its take on the deep-fried chicken dish known as kara-age, which is said to have originated from an age-old method of preserving meat by curing it with salt and soy sauce. The folks at Daily Yamazaki hooked up with local restaurants Genkiya and Torishin to offer the nuggets à la carte (four for ¥230) or as part of a bentō box (¥460). If you’re up for the challenge, an extra-large serving is available wrapped in chāhan fried rice. The onigiri, known as the BIG Kara-age (pictured inset), sells for ¥248.

Delicious debuts

As befits a season of change and renewal, spring 2013 has seen the debut of three Tokyo-area restaurants that are already at the top of my must-visit list. First up is Haraguroya (r.gnavi.co.jp/g600175), a 45-seat eatery that brings Kyushu cuisine to the West Exit of Yokohama Station — think savory fare such as chicken nanban (deep-fried and slathered with tartar sauce). Over in Kawasaki is Umamon (www.cafs.jp), another new spot serving the food of Japan’s southern islands. On offer is a variety of Okinawan food, but the specialty of the house is Kyushu-style horse cuisine, served in just about every preparation imaginable: sashimi, nigiri-zushi, sukiyaki, smoked, grilled and boiled. In central Tokyo’s Shimbashi neighborhood, 556 Kokoro (r.gnavi.co.jp/e295809) is a stylish-looking bar-restaurant with a deep list of sake and shōchū, complemented by an East-meets-West food menu featuring the likes of grilled sausages, zuwai-gani crab omelets and fresh tuna rolled in tender yuba tofu pouches.

Bottoms up

Japan’s infatuation with bespoke brews finds full expression at the events hosted by the Hyogo-based Craft Beer Association, whose 2013 calendar kicks off in earnest at Tokyo’s Great Japan Beer Festival (BeerFes) on the weekend of June 1-2. The parties are billed as the largest of their kind in Japan — last year’s event in Yokohama drew 9,500 punters to Osanbashi Pier — and the organizers promise to serve up to 240 varieties of beer at next month’s edition at Ebisu Garden Place. All the brews can be sampled in 50 cc tasting portions, and the first 800 people through the door receive specially designed drinking glasses. The Tokyo bash will be followed in good order by festivals in Osaka (July 13-15), Nagoya (August 3-4) and Yokohama (September 14-16). See www.beertaster.org for all the info.

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