If you turned on a TV in Japan, it wouldn’t take much channel flipping before you landed on something to do with food. Any given breakfast TV chat show will feature a man on the street checking out restaurants, variety shows are full of celebrities tasting and talking about food, and there are entire game shows based around cooking and eating. And now, for those of us outside of Japan, it’s easier than ever to get our eyes on the growing wealth of Japanese food-based TV shows. Netflix has Samurai Gourmet, Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, and Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman, and Amazon Prime has Sunshine Sento-Sake, but there’s more out there to be devoured.
These shows share a common thread of having very little in the way of ongoing plots or character development; first and foremost, they’re about the food. These shows are comfort food in themselves, a way to relax — preferably with a meal at hand, to stave off the hunger pangs inspired by the dishes consumed on screen. These shows straddle the line between fiction and reality TV; while the scenarios and characters are fictional, the restaurants visited are real. The predictability of a given episode is as soothing as a reliable bowl of plain rice, but they have something inspirational to them, too. If you could get off the couch and hop on a plane, you could be chowing down on the exact same salted salmon or sipping the same sake.
These four shows are half travel programs, half chill-out entertainment, and if they don’t make you itch to book a ticket to Japan, they’ll at least get you searching for menus to the nearest quality Japanese restaurant.
If you like dining alone...
The Solitary Gourmet (Kodoku no Gurume) is about a man who eats alone. That’s it. The show follows the life of Gorō Inogashira (played by Yutaka Matsushige), a middle-aged tableware salesman, who in each episode has some brief interaction with the world around him — a discussion about renting new office space, a meeting with an over-talkative woman who wants to buy teacups — but after no more than 10 minutes of this troublesome interaction with other people, his stomach starts growling, and the rest of the show is devoted to his thoughts as he eats alone.
The beauty of The Solitary Gourmet comes not just in the foods that Gorō eats, but in his face as he eats them. This is a man who always looks slightly stricken. When he speaks out loud, it tends to be hesitant and stilted. But as he eats, even if his expression is serious, in voiceover we hear his inner thoughts as he deeply enjoys the food he’s been served. This is a man whose one true joy is dining alone, but we get to share his meals with him.
The series is based on the manga of the same name by Masayuki Qusumi, who also created Samurai Gourmet and Sunshine Sento-Sake. The end of each episode shows Qusumi himself going to the real-world restaurant that Gorō visited and enjoying the same meal, be it spicy tantanmen or oden, served by the actual staff of the restaurant instead of actors. Unlike Gorō, Qusumi is all smiles and happy conversation as he eats. The invitation is there: Come dine with us, whether you’re alone or not.
The Solitary Gourmet is available on DVD, or online if, cough cough, wink wink, you just do a little Googling.
If you like drinking alone...
Wakakozake is the story of a 26-year-old office worker named Wakako (played by Rina Takeda) who, when she’s finished with work, just wants to go somewhere and have a bite to eat and some drinks by herself. Just like Gorō, there’s not much content to the storylines that aren’t focused on food. Wakako is just interested in the joy of selecting the right sake to go with the salted grilled salmon that she’s ordered, or learning how to toast stingray fins with a lighter, with her face full of bright excitement as we hear her inner monologue about what she eats.
A few episodes of Wakakozake break from the exact format of “character goes to real world restaurant, eats, enjoys, end of episode.” In one, Wakako enjoys a night at home where she’s cooking a stew for herself. While she waits for it to finish, she contents herself with drinking wine and eating snacks like “brapples,” brie cheese combined with sliced apples. Watching this episode, I had an expectation that eventually something would happen, that something would go wrong, like Wakako’s stew burning while she sipped whiskey on her balcony. But nothing happens. It’s just 20-some-odd minutes of a young woman getting drunk by herself at home and having a great time of it. It’s perfect television.
”I like liquor not because it makes me forget, but because it makes me notice,” Wakako thinks to herself in one episode, and that’s the pleasure of Wakakozake. It’s about taking the time to really savor and appreciate the little pleasures in life, so much so that you can’t help letting out a sigh of contentment afterwards, just like Wakako.
If you love ramen...
Ms. Koizumi Loves Ramen Noodles (Ramen Daisuki Koizumi-san) is, not surprisingly, a show about a young woman who loves ramen. Koizumi (played by Akari Hayami) is a mysterious transfer student in school who catches the attention of her classmate Yū, a girl who becomes infatuated with Koizumi’s cool, aloof beauty. Yū wants desperately to be Koizumi’s friend (or more, depending on how you like to read your Japanese schoolgirl affections), but Koizumi consistently brushes her off in favor of her only true passion: ramen.
Koizumi approaches her ramen with a methodical seriousness, cracking her wrists and tying back her hair before she tucks into a bowl. She has an encyclopedic knowledge about all things ramen, from different regional styles to unusual ways to enhance instant ramen to the best restaurants to find exciting new variations. Koizumi is even a master of ramen-eating technique, impressing a group of men with her tactics in eating a bowl overflowing with meat and vegetables, or dazzling Yū by strategically allowing her noodles to get a little soggy. Koizumi’s icy exterior only drops when she eats ramen, showing an expression of pure bliss, a bright smile that makes Yū swoon.
There’s some high school drama scattered here and there in Ms. Koizumi Loves Ramen Noodles, but it always comes back to ramen in the end. What better way to heal from the heartbreak of being dumped by an idiot high school boy than with ramen so spicy it allows you to shed a tear? Ms. Koizumi is also the most educational of the shows here, with frequent asides to talk about different styles and methods of preparation of ramen and the real places where you could slurp up a bowl.
It’s also the show that made me the most desperately hungry. I ate two bowls of my own gussied-up instant ramen while marathon-watching Ms. Koizumi, and I definitely regretted it. Come into Ms. Koizumi prepared with a good local ramen restaurant in mind.
If you’re just plain lazy...
Every episode of Hana’s Sloppy Meals (Hana no Zubora Meshi) begins with a brief animated short of some scene from Japanese legend, such as the discovery of the hero boy Momotarō inside a giant peach, but altered so that the characters from the myth are so lazy that the epic story never even begins. Hana’s Sloppy Meals is about the kind of food that gets made when you’re at home and too damn lazy to do anything else.
Hana’s Sloppy Meals is based on another manga by The Solitary Gourmet’s Masayuki Qusumi, following the life of a bored housewife named Hana (played by Kana Kurashina). Hana’s husband works in another city and they have no children, so Hana is left to lounge around the house in piles of clutter, looking for any sort of inspiration for what to do with her day. Partway through each episode, a pair of commentators appear to give play-by-play on Hana’s lethargic life, narrating as she searches through the messy apartment for a favorite CD, naps, and finally decides that she needs a snack.
The zubora in Hana no Zubora Meshi can certainly be translated as sloppy, but the meals that Hana makes are not specifically messy. They’re just slapdash, improvised things thrown together from whatever she has in the fridge or pantry. Hana may be craving a fancy salmon dish, but she tosses together jarred salmon on a thick piece of bread and toasts it up in the toaster oven. Hana’s meals come partly in packages and boxes and jars, and for her, that’s just as good as the beautiful meals that Gorō or Wakako or Koizumi enjoy. It’s almost the fictionalized, Japanese version of Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee. The end of each episode features one of the commentators showing you exactly how to cook what Hana cooked, so you can make lazy, sloppy meals of your own.
Hana’s Sloppy Meals is available on DVD.
Be forewarned: When you take a dive into this genre of Japanese television, you will get hungry. Watching The Solitary Gourmet is relaxing, but going in on an empty stomach will leave your stomach growling as loudly as Gorō’s. Keep your delivery menus and cookbooks handy and have something nice to sip on like Wakako as you kick back and explore Japanese food from the comfort of your home.