If you’re a fan of Japanese food like me, and looking for something light-hearted to watch on TV to forget what’s going on in real life outside your front door, I recommend a three-part series which was broadcast on Channel 4 from late April to early May. Paul Hollywood Eats Japan, presented by one of the judges from The Great British Bake Off, is a travelogue following Hollywood’s journey across Japan and, while sampling some of the most popular Japanese cuisines, he meets some local people and experiences some culture too.
If this sets alarm bells ringing, I don’t blame you. From the olden days of Clive James to the recent Japan with Sue Perkins on BBC, when British TV goes to Japan one thing tends to happen. They somehow manage to find something particularly odd about Japan and focus on it. A lot. A bit too much? A quick googling has shown me two interesting articles on this topic you might find interesting: The Guardian and a paper by Professor Perry Hinton.
While I do have issues with some of the stereotyping that occurs on British TV, especially about women, I do think there has been progress recently. To be fair to the programme makers, over-generalising is particularly difficult to avoid when you are covering a whole country in a few hours of television. And this isn’t unique to British television. The simple fact of the matter is that I like seeing my home country on TV (especially during the days of lockdown, when you simply can’t travel anywhere easily), so I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt and leave the analysis to the professionals.
So, back to Paul Hollywood Eats Japan. In the first episode, it’s revealed that this is his first time in Japan. He had never been to Japan because, according to him, ‘why would I? I’m a baker. It’s all about rice and noodles isn’t it?’ But because he has been told by many that Japan is the number one destination for food lovers he wants to see if the food there is as good as everyone tells him.
Now the premise is firmly established, he spends his first week in Tokyo, eating tempura he already knew he loved and Michelin-starred ramen, which he also loved. He even got the ramen chef to eat a Pot Noodle, which to some viewers might seem sacrilegious, but the chef found it ‘hard to explain what ramen is to a British person’ when asked, which stank of Japanese exceptionalism, so in my view he deserved the Pot Noodle treatment!
In episodes two and three, he leaves Tokyo and visits Kyoto. He hated tofu and kaiseki was also a challenge for him. In Hiroshima, he learned to make okonomiyaki with a charming hibakusha lady. Perhaps the funniest moment for me in the entire programme came in Okinawa when he joined in with old people exercising. With a smug expression he asked them if he was the first English guy to join them on the exercise. The ladies all waved their hands from side to side in front of their faces to say ‘no, what was his name…James? Jamie? Yes, Jamie Oliver was here’! He also dropped in on a couple of bakeries. Of course, he liked all the bread. He then spent £350 on a strawberry, took part in a village festival (which is mandatory in a travel programme), ate some KitKats with flavours only available in Japan and speed-ate some wanko soba with speed-eating YouTuber twins. Another highlight for me was his visit to the Musashigawa sumo stable. I grew up watching the Hawaiian wrestler Konishiki (Hollywood happened to be a fan of his – he was not a complete Japan novice after all) and Musashimaru, so I felt all nostalgic. And all the street food (takoyaki, kobe beef etc) in Osaka looked just amazing.
By the end of the series, Hollywood was completely sold on Japan. Japanese food is great. He had the best fish in Japan, and above all the best ham and cheese sandwich he’s ever had. He wants to go back to eat some more rice and noodles and bread. And so do I. There’s still time to catch the series on All 4.
Research and Finance Officer, Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures
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