Instagram rules and food trends flourish in Shin-Okubo, Tokyo’s Koreatown

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

A line of high school-aged girls wait excitedly for a “rainbow hot dog.” Stands dotting the main streets and back alleys around Shin-Okubo Station offer similar variants on this food — more corn dog than hot dog — stuffed with gooey mozzarella and boasting a crispy fried potato exterior.

But on this Saturday afternoon, the biggest queues form for this relatively new culinary innovation, which transforms the mundane white cheese into an Instagram-ready ooze of red, yellow, green and blue. After their orders arrive, two uniformed teens walk off behind a vending machine to snap some photos.

The rainbow hot dog is a nascent online food trend in Tokyo, the latest to emerge from the Shin-Okubo neighborhood in recent years, and almost certainly not the last. Often described as the capital’s Koreatown, it has become ground zero for culinary cool in the greater metropolitan market. Over the past two years, Korean dishes such as cheese dak-galbi — a spicy mix of chicken and vegetables — have become hits on social media, with the recent arrival of Korean hot dogs and desserts gaining traction in 2018.

Like most trends, it is high school students and young adults driving it forward. The crowds of teens biting corn dogs coated in chili sauce around the area impresses: Shin-Okubo now rivals Harajuku in terms of the availability of Instagram-ready food people flock to, and unlike the Technicolor confections thought up in Tokyo’s fashion district, the Korean dishes have started crossing over to convenience stores and supermarket aisles.

It’s the latest change for an area that has gone through many over the past few decades. What started as an enclave for immigrants coming to Japan in the wake of South Korea’s decision to lift all restrictions on international travel in the 1980s blossomed into a vibrant international community in the 1990s, complete with restaurants and groceries catering to Korean tastes. Japanese visitors became common in the 2000s thanks to the Korean boom — often called hallyu — spurred on by K-dramas and K-pop.

Yet tense diplomatic relations between Japan and the Korean Peninsula in the early 2010s turned many Tokyoites off from Shin-Okubo — save for the steady stream of hate speech marchers corralled by xenophobic groups through the neighborhood. Just look at The Japan Times’ coverage of the area north of Shinjuku from the past few years and marvel at the bleak tone throughout.

Enter what magazine Josei Seven dubs the third wave of the Korean boom.

Whereas the first two incarnations of Korean cool coming to Japan played the role of outsider that had to navigate a murky relationship between the two countries, an expert who talked to Seven says those who visit Shin-Okubo regularly are more naturalized to the culture. Maybe their parents involved them in their own interest in Korean culture; maybe they don’t pay much attention to territorial disputes; or, maybe, being digital natives, they just want to get close to Koreans on Instagram.

All of the recent Korean breakthroughs into the Japanese market have been spurred by the internet — from the success of pop group Twice to cosmetics — and the same goes for food. Cheese dak-galbi’s rise to popularity evolved primarily on social media, where excited kids shared photos of the dish on Instagram and videos on YouTube. It’s a food that looks great in visual form (and, more often than not, tastes good — chicken and veggies smothered in melted cheese, what could go wrong?)

Walk down a busy street in Shin-Okubo and every restaurant you’ll pass advertises it, from stalls cooking up takeout versions to restaurants devoted to specialized varieties, such as the Chuncheon City-style Shijan Dak Galbi located just a few steps away from Shin-Okubo Station.

Now, even more dishes are having their moment in the social media spotlight. Over the past year, lines for Korean-style shaved ice (bingsu) have increased, lead by the arrival of Korea-founded “dessert cafe” Snowy Village, while the site of teens eating hotteok (filled Korean-style pancakes) on Shin-Okubo’s streets has become ubiquitous.

But the Korean-style corn dog is the Shin-Okubo food of the moment. Leading the way is Arirang Hot Dog, not far from Shin-Okubo Station. They sell corn dogs that range from simple varieties made with rice flour and filled with extra ingredients (cheese, squid ink) to what is known as kogo in Korean, a corn dog with an exterior of fried potato. All are familiar street foods in South Korea — the aforementioned rainbow experiment being one of the first to play directly to the “unicorn food” trend that’s far more visible on the streets of Harajuku.

The real sign of Shin-Okubo’s success can be seen in places far from the Tokyo neighborhood. Earlier this year, 7-Eleven introduced a cheese dak-galbi man, a dak-galbi bento and a frozen version. Family Mart has gotten in on it too, while even fast-food chain Matsuya offered its interpretation of the dish earlier this year. It can even be found in the frozen section of supermarkets. Nothing says “winner” like being embraced by mainstream companies — if Lawson has a fried potato corn dog by the end of the year, don’t be surprised.

Shin-Okubo is currently the place for all things Korean in Tokyo, but it’s not exclusively that. As a recent article in the Nikkei Asian Review points out, the area has become far more multicultural, with an influx of residents from across Asia bringing their cuisine with them to the neighborhood.

While those cuisines are not at the same like-fetching status as Korean food yet, that could all change. Already, on the outskirts of Shin-Okubo, adolescents line up to try out Taiwanese tea from a new store. Their cameras are out, ready to snap shots of whatever they order.