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Magazines hold their own against TV’s ‘iron chefs’

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

Prior to Japan’s switch-over to full digital TV broadcasting in 2011, a number of industry insiders were already voicing concerns about how the new technology would affect their bottom line. With expanded bandwidth and additional channels, what — aside from reruns of old programs — could the networks produce to fill their round-the-clock schedule? And considering that the internet and other new media were already chipping away at their ad revenues, where would the budgets come from for quality programming?

One prediction made at the time was spot-on: That more TV programming would be devoted to eating, because such shows are relatively cheap to produce. Nor do they require the personalities who appear therein to demonstrate much subtlety or talent. First they smack their lips, take a bite and then as the camera zooms in on their faces, they raise their eyebrows, make a pleasantly surprised expression, elicit a grunt of pleasure and finally gush “Aaaaah umai!” (“Oh, yummy!”) Or, perhaps if the show is shot in a Southeast Asian country and the seasoning is overly spicy for them, they ham it up (sorry) by jumping up from the table and making a mad dash for the nearest water faucet.

One would think, then, that the weekly magazines can’t possibly compete with a veritable tsunami of TV programs flaunting the hedonistic pleasures of oral gratification. Nevertheless, the magazines appear to be holding their own when it comes to reporting on food and, with one exception, pretend as if the TV coverage didn’t exist.

Dean of the weekly magazine food reviewers is Sadao Shoji, a veteran Mainichi Shimbun cartoonist and essayist who turns 80 this month. He’s been running his Aremo Tabetai, Koremo Tabetai (I Want to Eat That, and This Too) columns in Shukan Asahi for three decades, all the more remarkable in that he is a cancer survivor. Shoji also illustrates his columns with his own cartoons.

To his credit, Shoji is sensibly cost-conscious. For him, good value for money is almost as important as taste and service. In his column of Oct. 13, he complained about a restaurant charging him an additional ¥100 for otoshi (a small appetizer, usually served for free, especially when alcoholic beverages are ordered).

“When your entire dining budget is only ¥2,000, ¥100 is a lot of money,” he wrote.

The Shukan Asahi of Oct. 27 ran Shoji’s 1,469th column, on the subject of matsutake mushrooms, the savory, phallic-shaped seasonal delicacy formerly so scarce they used to sell for as much as ¥30,000 each. But Shoji notes that through the successful development of man-made cultivation by a team of three foreign biologists, mushroom prices have plunged.

“It may come to the point that they are served every day in school lunches, and students grow so sick of them that they complain of the smell and throw them away by the bucketful,” he writes.

A key word in weekly magazine coverage is “sarameshi,” a neologism coined from “sarariman no hirumeshi” (“salaryman’s lunch”) and popularized by the eponymous NHK variety show that began broadcasting from May 2011. In a series now up to 438 installments, each issue of Shukan Taishu features two pages of ramen or other types of noodles reviewed by Hantsu Endo, a food writer who’s visited some 9,000 restaurants and published 27 books on the eating habits of Japan’s hoi polloi.

The Asahi Geino’s regular feature is to introduce ippai sakaba (after-work drinking places that serve food), which in its issue of Oct. 12 is Sumiyoshi, a hole-in-the-wall located between JR Kamata and Keihin Kyuko Kamata stations in Tokyo’s gritty Ota Ward.

Appealing to the increasing practice of ordering food items online, the last page in each issue of Friday magazine has a section called Geiki-uma Otoriyose Gurume (Ultra-tasty Gourmet Food You Can Order for Delivery).

On its inside back page, Shukan Gendai features a long-running column titled Hito ni Oshietakunaru Mise (Shops I Want to Tell People About). Earlier this month it profiled veteran actor Hiroshi Fuse, who introduced one of his three favorites: a restaurant in the suburban city of Akishima named Framboise (French for raspberry) that serves a juicy pork cutlet for ¥1,200.

Facing an aging reader base, two weeklies, Shukan Bunshun and Shukan Shincho, have been devoting more space to encouraging retired men to take up cooking as a hobby. In the latest issue of the former, Korean-Japanese chef Koh Kentetsu provides his recipe for a bento of nikujaga (beef and potatoes) with rice. The latter introduced a cookbook from online shopping site Rakuten titled “recipes for enjoying drinking at home for ¥100.”

One magazine, Jitsuwa Bunka Tabuu, takes delight in being perverse. A third-tier monthly that prides itself on not pulling its punches, it regularly runs articles rating the worst foods in various genres. In its November 2017 issue, Tabuu asks, “which restaurant chains serve the worst curry?” Out of 20 food service companies, it rated the San Marco restaurant chain as tops, noting that in general the curry dishes at family restaurant chains were superior to other varieties, even curry specialty shops. (Noodle chains finished at rock bottom.)

To sum up, it would be fair to say that the magazines’ and tabloids’ position toward coverage of food and dining is essentially to disregard what’s shown on TV. The one notable exception would be a feature appearing on Tuesdays in Yukan Fuji titled Terebi de Mita Jisshoku Ano Mise (Actually Eating at That Shop I Saw on TV). In the Oct 18 installment, the reporter visits a restaurant in Tokyo’s Minato Ward he watched on — surprise, surprise — Fuji TV. As the tabloid and TV network are both members of the Fuji-Sankei media group, some might say that’s a bit incestuous.