Food & Drink

Why is Tokyo starting to taste like Portland?

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

Walking into PDX Taproom, a bar in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, is like wandering into a condensed, alternate version of Portland, Oregon. Everything from the folk-pop hits playing in the background to the craft beers on tap hail from the Pacific Northwest metropolis.

The bar even uses Oregon blueberries in its salads, owner Miyuki Hiramatsu tells The Japan Times before listing off other Portland-sourced foodstuffs on the menu. The connection doesn’t stop there, she also points out the rectangular piece of carpet framed on the wall — it’s a slice of the much-loved floor covering that used to carpet Portland International Airport.

Hiramatsu has gone to great lengths to make her Portland-themed bar as authentic as possible, reflecting her time spent studying there in high school and frequent trips back since.

She’s not alone. While the number of tourists visiting Japan continues to rise, people here have been looking outward, with their gaze often falling on cities in the United States. This is especially true when it comes to food.

Over the past two years, magazines and TV shows have zoomed in on culinary trends from Brooklyn and Portland. A handful of larger restaurants and stores originating from those and other U.S. municipalities have also opened in Tokyo to much fanfare — and long lines. Part of the boom has included places, such as PDX Taproom, that attempt to capture a more authentic representation of a city’s culture.

Trends come and go — the designer pancake of today is bound to become the crepe of yesteryear — but the current appeal of American cities to Japanese diners highlights a shift in what type of “U.S. cool” gets the most attention in here.

When it comes to American food in Japan, particularly vernacular cuisine, there are a few cases of 1950s-style diners opening in the postwar period. But what really ushered popular American food into Japan, was the arrival of McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in the early ’70s.

Surprisingly, the arrival of those fast-food titans mirrors the current interest in more artisanal U.S. fare. Both chains found success in big cities: In 1971, McDonald’s opened to much excitement in Ginza’s Mitsukoshi department store and KFC, though it initially struggled with branches in suburban locations, found success when it opened a Kobe store in 1972. Since then other large U.S. chains such as Krispy Kreme and Starbucks have achieved similar success.

But now these chains have become so embedded in Japan’s culinary landscape and faced enough scandals that they have begun to lose their luster with consumers — McDonald’s recent sales woes being a prime example.

The new wave of U.S. fast-food joints that have opened in Tokyo over the past year — such as Dominique Ansel Bakery, Shake Shack and Luke’s Lobster — look very different. These eateries rose to popularity in New York before spreading globally and landing in Tokyo.

Although New York has long had cultural pull in Japan — especially Tokyo — other U.S. locales are now entering the limelight. In the States, these areas rose in popularity in the mid-2000s by attracting younger residents seeking cheaper rents and unique arts and food spaces, “hipster” enclaves that have been viewed both negatively and positively.

Portland and Brooklyn have survived much derision, and continue to be associated with anything handcrafted or artisanal. These are the elements singled out in Japanese reports on the “Portland Boom” or “Brooklyn Boom” in publications and websites such as Fashion Snap, Popeye magazine or Nikkei Trendy.

“I think Japanese people see Portland as, first, beer heaven,” Hiramatsu says. “Then maybe as bicycle-friendly, and having very unique shops and restaurants” — descriptions that could just as easily apply to the local view of Brooklyn. (The Shake Shack branch in Tokyo’s Aoyama neighborhood even has a few green bikes sitting out front as decoration.)

These new Tokyo eateries are selling themselves through their connection to hip American cities and neighborhoods. They offer a chance for young consumers in Japan to experience places that appear in TV shows and films, without traveling abroad. Diners can relax in Shinjuku’s Brooklyn Parlor, surrounded by art books with instrumental hip-hop playing in the background while sipping on a Brooklyn Lager, or head down to Hatagaya’s Lug cafe to enjoy freshly roasted coffee in an environment Nippon News Network highlighted as “Portland-like,” with ample wood decor and bicycles present.

These imported American restaurants are not really introducing any new types of food to Japan in the way McDonald’s and KFC did, they’re piggybacking on existing trends instead. Doughnuts, burgers, “third-wave coffee” and craft beer have been in Japan for years, made by local chefs, baristas and brewers.

Some of those locals — such as Hiramatsu — experienced these buzzed-about cities firsthand, while others (and plenty of magazine publishers) were drawn to those places as models of style. A 2014 article in Portland Monthly speculated why Japanese seemed drawn to the city, with some city officials and local advertisers believing the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake spurred younger Japanese to seek the kind of “balanced” lifestyle Portland offered.

And, once younger consumers were drawn to what the city represented, companies capitalized on the nascent trend, giving familiar goods a new life.

Other efforts to replicate U.S. cool, though, have been clunky. Japan’s Mister Donut ran a series of Brooklyn-inspired promotions in 2015, featuring hybrid sweets that didn’t actually exist in New York and offering customers a “Brooklyn Jar,” playing off the borough’s trend of serving drinks in mason jars. And earlier this year, when Californian fast-food chain Carl’s Jr. opened a shop in Akihabara, the local press trumpeted the quality of its burgers. But as anyone from Southern California knows, Carl’s Jr. is where you go when you can’t find a superior fast-food joint, like In-N-Out Burger.

The Japanese interest in artisanal foods, though, seems set to continue, with new U.S. cities being used to lend a different flavor to existing trends. Bay Area exports such as Blue Bottle Coffee and Dandelion Chocolate have been hits in Tokyo, while Shibuya’s Buy Me Stand offers the kind of grilled sandwiches you might find at a regional U.S. diner. Hiramatsu, meanwhile, thinks the Portland boom has some momentum left.

“I’d like to open a few different places,” she says, “not a beer bar, but like an Oregon wine bar, or a Portland-inspired restaurant.”