Food & Drink

In Seoul, authentic Japanese food inspires everyday happiness

by Min Jung Kim

Contributing Writer

If the South Korean wave has hit the Japanese entertainment industry, the Japanese wave has hit the South Korean dining scene.

From neon hiragana signs and cozy ramen restaurants to backstreet izakaya taverns, Seoul’s street scene signals South Koreans’ increasing familiarity with Japanese cuisine.

According to Statistics Korea (KOSTAT), part of South Korea’s Ministry of Strategy and Finance, the number of Japanese restaurants in South Korea increased from 7,466 in 2013 to 11,714 in 2017, the largest growth among international restaurants in the nation during this period. Changing trends in travel, consumption and even business are driving up the popularity of Japanese cuisine.

A park-like space in the center of Seoul: The Japanese aesthetics of EERT Cafe. | KIM SUE HAN
A park-like space in the center of Seoul: The Japanese aesthetics of EERT Cafe. | KIM SUE HAN

Kang Dong-woo founded EERT Cafe, which is tucked away near Seoul Forest, a large park in central Seoul, “to create a park-like space where people can stop and take a break in a bustling city, like in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden or Yoyogi Park in Tokyo.”

From its beautifully crafted tatami mats and delicately carved wooden boxes to its Japanese sand garden, EERT Cafe is South Korea’s latest Instagram sensation, even breaking into mainstream news — daily newspaper JoongAng Ilbo calls it a fashionable “Japanese-style cafe.”

Kang designed every detail to represent his travel memories of Japan and offer a small, refreshing getaway-like experience. EERT has successfully satisfied young South Koreans on their hunt for Instagrammable sohwakhaeng moments.

A portmanteau of the Japanese characters for “small,” “sure” and “fortune,” sohwakhaeng (as it’s pronounced in Korean) was first coined by noted Japanese author Haruki Murakami in his 1986 essay, “Afternoon in the Islets of Langerhans,” and later adopted into the Korean language. In the essay, Murakami refers to sohwakhaeng as the small pieces of happiness in daily life, and lists simple moments like breaking fresh crusty bread with your hands or putting on a new cotton shirt and smelling its cleanliness as examples of the sentiment. Explicitly seeking out this feeling is a current consumer trend in South Korea.

Travel memories of Japan: A collection of ceramics at EERT Cafe. | KIM SUE HAN
Travel memories of Japan: A collection of ceramics at EERT Cafe. | KIM SUE HAN

“The sohwakhaeng trend refers to people’s tendency to consume small, yet satisfying, moments of happiness that they can enjoy immediately, instead of working toward a higher happiness in the future,” explains Choi Ji-hye, a researcher from the Consumer Trends Analysis Center at Seoul National University.

According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, in 2017 the number of South Korean tourists visiting Japan surpassed 7 million a dramatic increase from 2½ million in 2013. Meanwhile, travel-fare aggregator Skyscanner says Osaka has been the most-searched overseas destination by South Koreans since 2015.

As more South Koreans travel to Japan, they are becoming more familiar with the wide variety of Japanese cuisine and its authentic taste. According to Kang Tae-bong, the CEO of food management consulting firm RGM Consulting, this translates to a rising demand for Japanese cuisine in South Korea.

“It’s a way for returned (South) Korean travelers to reminisce about their travel memories in Japan, and it’s also a cost-effective way to indirectly experience Japanese culture in Korea,” he says.

As South Korean consumers increasingly perceive authentic flavors and environment as essential to a true sohwakhaeng experience, he says Japanese restaurants’ focus has shifted from localization to authenticity.

But authenticity for the Instagramming young South Korean means more than a fine dish: The whole experience counts, including atmosphere and design.

Japanese restaurants’ omakase (chef’s choice), counter-focused dining culture meets this demand well, according to French chef-turned-yakitori-master Kim Byoung-mook, who combines the Japanese yakitori experience with his knowledge of wine pairing at Yakitori Mook in Hongdae, Seoul’s trendy food district.

“Showing how the food is cooked is very important today, it’s a part of the dining experience,” Kim says about his counter-style restaurant design.

Putting on a show: Chef Kim Byong-mook manning the grill. | KIM SUE HAN
Putting on a show: Chef Kim Byong-mook manning the grill. | KIM SUE HAN

Using fresh ingredients, charcoal-grilling and personalized explanations of his yakitori, Kim offers an immersive dining experience. “Customers can watch, film and share the dining experience with others,” he adds.

As instances of solo dining increase in South Korean culture, personal communication with customers becomes even more important.

According to KOSTAT, in 2015, one-person households became the most common type of living arrangement in South Korea. New words — such as “honbap,” which combines the words for “alone” and “rice/meal” — have since entered public lexicon.

“Omakase-style helps the individual-based communication process. For example, I can watch their eating speed while grilling and serve yakitori at the best time,” Kim explains.

“Japanese cuisine also fits Koreans’ tastes well,” Kim adds, explaining that similarities between the two cuisines’ ingredients and cooking methods help popularize Japanese dishes among South Korean sohwakhaeng hunters.

According to Jeong Yoo-na, the CEO of Seoul-based Tatsuone Japanese Cooking School, as Japanese restaurants have become attractive businesses, more students are looking to take Japanese cooking classes.

According to Jeong, the number of students, who come from all over the country for classes, has increased by nearly 40 percent between 2017 and 2018. Most students already own restaurants, either in South Korea or abroad, and either want to change to a Japanese restaurant or include Japanese cuisine on the menu.

However, for some culinary students, such as Kim Min Kyoung, Japanese cuisine has become their own personal joy. “I learned that Japanese cooking values little details, and it helped me become appreciative of the small things in life,” she explains.

Hoping to visit Japan for a food tour sometime soon, Kim says, “My dream is to share my appreciation of Japanese cuisine, my sohwakhaeng, with others.”