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Indie food mags develop a taste for Japan

by Robbie Swinnerton

First sushi, then noodles; next sake and wagyū beef: The world’s fascination with Japanese cuisine shows no sign of abating. More and more people are writing about it, too, from travel buffs and visiting cooking experts to untold legions of foodie bloggers.

Rarely, though, do the books, articles and blog posts go further than the standard tropes: “This is what I put in my mouth”; “Look how quaint/weird Japan is”; or “I found the real hidden Japan.” It’s hard to find much in-depth writing that sheds new light on Japan’s food culture, either traditional or contemporary.

There are plenty of recipe books and endless restaurant reviews. But where are the articles about, say, the last surviving tofu artisans, pickle makers in Kyoto, shōjin ryōri (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) or the colonial origins of ramen?

The mainstream food magazines seem to only be able to digest Japanese cuisine in sushi-sized morsels. But a handful of new specialist publications are putting out much more substantial fare for readers to chew on.

The latest (third) issue of the outstanding Fool magazine (www.fool.se) includes a substantial feature-length article on Miyamasou, a legendary restaurant and ryokan far in the mountains above Kyoto. More than just a standard description of staying and eating at Miyamasou, it profiles the cooking and philosophy of fourth-generation owner Hisato Nakahigashi.

The writer, Junya Yamasaki, is himself a chef, at the innovative Koya udon-noodle restaurant in London. As with almost all the articles in Fool, it is accompanied by atmospheric, near-monochrome images by photographer Per-Anders Jorgensen, who cofounded the magazine and co-edits it with his wife, Lotta.

Meanwhile, the newly launched Asia Eater (www.asia-eater.com) also looks promising. Though based in Bangkok and casting its net over the entire continent, its initial issue includes a piece on Kyoto wagashi confections by JT columnist Makiko Itoh.

A rather different publication that has also shone its spotlight on Japanese food in recent months is Kinfolk (www.kinfolk.com). This U.S.-based lifestyle magazine is aimed at the young demographic that embraces the principles of sustainable living and slow-food eating.

The latest issue is entirely devoted to Japan. It includes an interview with chef Yuri Nomura, the creator of Eatrip, a rootsy restaurant in the heart of Tokyo’s Harajuku district. Other articles include profiles of green-tea farmers, wasabi cultivators and wakame seaweed harvesters.

The connection with this country now runs even deeper. In June, a Japanese-language edition of Kinfolk was launched. At the same time a small group in the Tokyo area has begun holding Kinfolk-associated events, featuring workshops and dinners.

In late June, a score of participants gathered in Hayama, on the coast of Kanagawa Prefecture. A veteran local fisherman talked to them about the seafood found in this particularly bountiful stretch of ocean. This was followed by a leisurely communal meal cooked from scratch, using fish landed locally and produce from nearby farms.

For niche magazines like this, circulation may be miniscule compared to the popular titles from major publishing houses, but they are finding a receptive readership. Both in Japan and abroad, there is clearly a hungry market for the inside story on Japan’s deep farming and food traditions.

  • Shirokuma

    Lucky Peach, a food quarterly published by David Chang–the brash wunderkind of New York’s Momofuku and other restaurants–has also covered Japan fairly extensively, including a first issue devoted almost exclusively to ramen.

  • Gerard Kambeck

    There are some books worth reading on the subject. Zenbu Zen by Jane Lawson is one which takes the reader on an intimate journey, a story which reveals that the harmony found in Japanese food culture can emulate the balance one seeks in their own life. The philosophy and path one must follow in order to understand the ingredients and their seasonal connection is particularly well presented. Beautiful photography too :)