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Japan says ‘aloha’ to Hawaiian food

by Steve Trautlein

I should have realized that my first trip to Cinnamon’s would end in tears. Or, at least, in an uncomfortably long wait. This newly opened transplant from Kailua, Hawaii, is on the bucket list of every OL (office lady) in the Kanto area, and its location near Yokohama’s waterfront guarantees heavy walk-in traffic. I also made the mistake of visiting during Golden Week, when Japan’s second city is thronged with tens of thousands of tourists — most of whom seemed to be queuing outside the restaurant when I arrived.

In the end, hunger got the best of me and I gave up my spot in line, walking past the front windows to see young women and families tucking into sandwiches, guava pancakes and eggs Benedict.

I myself had come for a different dish: the Hawaiian plate, Cinnamon’s version of the down-home,one-tray combos that are a mainstay of takeout shacks in Oahu and beyond. This meal-in-a-box traditionally includes a scoop or two of white rice; macaroni or potato salad; and a main item, which might be anything from fresh fish to chicken cutlets. When I finally tried one at the restaurant’s Tokyo branch last week, I was bemused to see that my fellow diners had all chosen breakfast food instead.

And that’s the odd thing about Japan’s Hawaiian-restaurant boom: While many big-name island eateries have debuted to great acclaim during the past few years, the dishes that command the most attention among locals — omelets, burgers and, especially, pancakes — are not essentially Hawaiian. No one in Japan, it seems, is lining up for the likes of lomi lomi salmon, poke, garlic shrimp or Kalua pig.

Hawaiian is hardly the only cuisine that the Japanese treat this way, as anyone who’s eaten at an “Italian” restaurant like Capricciosa can attest, but given the affinity between Hawaiian and Japanese cooking, I’m surprised local food enthusiasts are passing up bowls of marinated ahi tuna in favor of French toast larded with unseasonal fruits.

In reality, the Japanese have been enjoying an ersatz island experience for nearly half a century. In 1966, when intercontinental jet travel was still a pipe dream for most people, aloha-seeking tourists began flocking to Spa Resort Hawaiians in the former coal mining town of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. This stuffed-to-the-gills complex includes hotels, water parks, spas and golf courses, and the restaurants are nothing if not approachable. While buffet eatery Nesia features a lovely array of Pacific rim cooking, many of the other spots serve hometown favorites like ramen, sukiyaki and yakitori.

Hawaii-born sumo star Konishiki took the same kind of inclusive approach in his brief career as restaurateur. Debuting on New Year’s Eve in 2003 at the Tokyo Dome complex, the celebrated wrestler’s Unbalance featured separate dining rooms for sushi, chanko nabe stew and classic Hawaiian cooking. The concept failed to catch on, though, and the restaurant shut its doors just six years later.

Elsewhere in the Tokyo area, populist Hawaiian cuisine seems to be gaining a stronger foothold. The Shibuya branch of the Honolulu-based L&L drive-in chain (“Hawaii’s Favorite Plate Lunch”) is going strong four years after its debut; in 2012, another plate lunch specialist, Blue Water Shrimp & Seafood, set up shop at Yokohama’s World Porters complex. Perhaps the most highly regarded spot is Ogo Ono-loa Hawaii in Akasaka, whose poke lineup — five different varieties — has won awards at food festivals back in the homeland.

The local passion for all things Hawaiian will be on full display this weekend at the Aloha Summer Festival in Osaka, one of several island-themed fests that have sprung around the country during the past 10 years. The highlight of my calendar, though, is an annual promotion run by the Imperial Hotel Tokyo. As part of a tie-up with Honolulu’s chic Halekulani hotel, the Imperial’s Parkside Diner features special menu items and a visit from the Hawaiian property’s executive chef. Among the dishes in this year’s event, which lasts until the end of June, are loco moco with kinoko-mushroom-flavored rice, corn bisque with shrimp and a sandwich of fresh crab, avocado and bacon.

While no one will mistake this food for the everyday fare eaten by Hawaiians, it’s the kind of inspired inauthenticity that other island-style Japanese restaurants would do well to emulate.

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

A thunderous reception

Panic buying, price gouging, online scams — it’s been an amazing few months for a tiny chocolate bar from an obscure Japanese candy maker.

Released back in 1994 by Tokyo-based Yuraku Confectionery Corp, Black Thunder is a 22-gram snack made of milk chocolate, plain biscuit and cocoa cookie. It led an unheralded existence until 2008, when gymnast Kohei Uchimura, who won silver at the Beijing Olympics, declared himself a fan. During the next four years, sales tripled.

Officials at Yuraku looked to expand their success to overseas markets, and Black Thunder debuted in Taiwan in 2011. What happened next is hard to fathom. Boosted by word of mouth and social media, the chocolate has become an island-wide obsession. From September 2013 to March this year, local 7-Eleven stores sold 3 million units; over a two-day stretch in late February, the figure was 200,000.

Yuraku is now exporting 60 percent of its goods to Taiwan, and officials have been forced to suspend sales of a similar chocolate, Big Thunder, because factories can’t keep up with demand. Some Taiwanese have reportedly made trips to Japan just to buy the snack, and the situation has given rise to a lucrative, ahem, black market. According to a report from Taiwan’s Central News Agency, bogus websites offering Black Thunder have netted at least ¥230,000 in “sales.”