SPECIAL CONTRIBUTION: Hospitality, Entertainment, and Art in Food
Our editorial team at “delicious Japan” sees these three elements driving Japan's food scene in future, so we'll be commenting on past, present, and future food scenes with reference to developments around the world.
Hospitality and Entertainment
Hospitality is basic and central to hotels, restaurants, and food service businesses. Benihana was probably the first to add the aspect of entertainment to the mix. The late Rocky Aoki of Benihana opened his first hibachi steak style teppanyaki restaurant in Manhattan in 1964. The method of cooking food right before diners' eyes, giving them a performance as they eat, came to be known as the "Benihana dance", and the chain spread across the USA as entertainment restaurants. Aoki's philosophy of "Atmosphere sells the food" established an era of themed restaurants which showcase entertainment, and many imitators followed.
Japan's Hospitainment: Hospitality x Entertainment = Hospitainment
Food entertainment isn't unique to America. It's in Japan too. When a customer orders the type of sushi they want, the sushi chef makes deft moves while swaying his whole body rhythmically. He scoops sushi rice into his hand, squeezes it, adds wasabi, places the ordered fish on top, and serves with a cry of "hai, itcho!" That performance is also called "sushi no mai" (the dance of sushi), and it really is an earnest 1-on-1 entertainment across the counter. That's why sushi is known to be "kakko ii" (cool) around the world. That approach isn't limited to sushi. Tempura is fried in the same way.
The highest expression of hospitality in robatayaki barbecue grills is to serve the grilled items straight to the diners on a big shamoji spatula. Vegetables, seafood, meat, and other ingredients are arrayed around the barbecue, and diners line up in counter seats. When they order what they want, it's prepared and grilled right in front of them. When ready, it's placed on a giant shamoji and served with a cry of "hai, dozo!" That fosters a feeling of unity between the cook and the diners.
Nagashi somen is a pleasure of the summer, enjoyed with all the senses
Japan has a culture of enjoying food in ways that engage all five senses. One example, nagashi somen, is a mouth-cooling fixture of Japan's summer. The thin somen noodles run in cool water along a gutter made of bamboo, and the diners grab the flowing noodles with their chopsticks, and dip them in mentsuyu dipping sauce to eat. If you miss the noodles with your sticks, they slip past before your eyes in a moment. There are various stories of the origin of nagashi somen, but one goes back to Ryukyu (now Okinawa) in the Edo era. There was a place on Naha Bay where water from a pure spring ran down a cliff, and the greatest pleasure of the summer was to run somen down the stream and pick them out to eat. Nagashi somen has been part of Japan's summer for centuries.
Wanko Soba's ultimate omotenashi noodles: Aim for 100 bowls!
The waiter stands next to you and slides fresh-boiled soba noodles into your bowl, in bite-sized servings, any time you ask. That method is said to date back to the "soba furumai" (soba feast) that comes from the Nanbu region.
The Fusion of Food and Art
Moving forward to now, what's the trend in food entertainment today? The leading example now is the use of technologies like AR and projection mapping in performances that expand the space and make the diners a part of it.
For example, "TREE by NAKED yoyogi park", a restaurant which blends food with art, uses VR technology, projection mapping, lighting, music, and art fixtures in a performance which reaches throughout the space, and runs through the "Scenes of Life" story around the motif of a single tree. The space projected onto with projection mapping really feels like a different world.
At Moon Flower Sagaya Ginza, which presents spatial performances that fuse food with art, diners enjoy seasonal ingredients together with an interactive digital art installation featuring trees and flowers that change with the shifting seasons as they extend across the dinnerware. It's run with the art collective teamLab, which is busy around the world these days.
More performances using digital art are expected to emerge as the technology evolves. Japanese restaurants have a culture of providing more than just the flavors, as they give diners the pleasure of seeing the preparation processes, as well as sights to see in their interiors besides the food. That's a uniquely Japanese style. Japan is looking forward to a long-awaited resumption of inbound tourism in with-Covid and post-Covid times. Japan's worth a look during your trip, and be sure to enjoy its “hospitainment” to the full!