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Chowish Japanese Variety Programs

I watch plenty of Japanese TV shows (mostly comedies, dramas, and variety shows), and I’ve noticed that food plays a large part in many of the shows I enjoy. I’ve already described several “gurume doramas” (food themed dramas http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/336956 ) that I’ve enjoyed, but I get so much more information from watching Japanese travel or food variety programs than I do watching anything on most American TV programming. I feel like I’ve been oversaturated with mostly elementary information that dominates the airwaves here. Otherwise, I’m completely turned off by the ego-driven competitive shows that dominates the other spectrum of the food programming. I suppose we have the Japanese programs like Iron Chef to thank for that, but it seems that Japan has moved on (Iron Chef seems so 90s) from these types of competitive programs, to something a little more educational and oriented to celebrate quality and regional cuisine, as the show Dotchi no Ryori did. While the fickle Japanese TV viewer tired of that format, it seems that the niche for quality food programs has a solid place to woo viewers. It is well-known that adding a food element to a show boosts the ratings of most shows.

Manten Aozora Resutoran (満天☆青空レストラン)
My current favorite food show is one called Manten Aozora Resutoran (roughly translated as Four-star Blue Sky Restaurant), which celebrates all the unique Japanese regional cuisines, focusing on specific ingredients from one of the 47 prefectures in Japan. Manten is analogous to a four-star restaurant; aozora means blue sky, referring to being outdoors, close-up with specific high-quality ingredients at its source. If any of you remember Dotchi no Ryori Show, there was a segment where a reporter went to the field to find the best version of an ingredient being used for that show’s recipe. This is the extended half-hour version of that segment, only with comedians and other celebrities reporting. The show begins with the host arriving in the featured prefecture, and getting in touch with the “meijin” (the artisanal producer, or expert fisherman or farmer) who is known to produce one of the featured ingredients. The meijin gives the crew a tour or lets them join in on the catch or harvest, and lets them in on any processing that follows the catch or harvest. It’s all very educational, and with the comedians/cast injecting humor along the way, it’s also very entertaining. Then, there’s the cooking portion of the featured ingredient, usually by the wife/parent/ or other relative or a colleague of the meijin, demonstrating how the locals use these ingredients at its freshest. I’m constantly amazed by the simplicity of the preparation, and impressed by the inventive use of these ingredients in ways that really seem to capture their essential flavors. Usually there are a few ingredients featured on a half-hour episode and their respective meijin, and there are several recipes showcased, and it culminates in a chef or one of the expert cooks making a big meal to toast with the locals (with Sapporo beer, the major sponsor).

Manten Aozora Resutoran is only in its second season, but it looks like it’s got some longevity. At least I hope so. I’ve learned so much from the show and been inspired to use many the cooking methods they introduced. The only show that has come close to being as much an inspiration for me is Jose Andres’ PBS production, Made in Spain. They’re oddly similar, actually.

Manten Aozora Resutoran videos
http://www.google.com/search?q=%E6%BA...

Manten website:
http://www.ntv.co.jp/aozora/

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Moshimo Tours (もしもツアーズ)
Manten Aozora Resutoran airs on Saturdays at 6:30pm, being a family oriented show, and also to directly compete against the travel/food program called Moshimo Tours. The tagline for Moshimo Tours reads, “the tour that makes your Sunday happy”. The original format of the show was to give viewers ideas for Sunday day trips within a close proximity of Tokyo or other Metropolises. Again, cast with a number of comedians and guest celebrities, the crew goes off to some location, meeting up with an expert on the locale who introduces a number of attractions and eating establishments. Usually the attraction includes an onsen (hot spring) or a spot with a beautiful view, and the food usually represents some regional specialty. But there’s a catch. In order to fully partake in the food or attraction, they spin a roulette wheel with the crew’s names to determine who can or can’t partake. It seems completely unnecessary for this kind of show, but it does add a bit of suspense and banter to add to the entertainment value. I’ve gotten plenty of ideas out of this show about where I would like to take trips out of the major metropolises. I don’t follow this show all that much, but they do some seasonal 2-hour specials, offering a lot more in-depth information on a region. I’ve offered suggestions and links to information that I’ve learned from this show in some threads in the past, and though it is a bit lightweight, there’s still a lot of information to glean from this show.

Moshimo Tours
Website: http://www.fujitv.co.jp/moshimo/index...
Videos:
http://www.google.com/search?q=%E3%82...

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Gurunai (ぐるない)
Gurunai is a weekly variety show by a comedy team called Guru-Guru Ninety-Nine (shortened to Gurunai). There are a variety of segments on this show, but the one that catches my attention is the regular bi-weekly segment called Gochi (short for Gochi ni Narimasu, roughly translated as “thanks for the food”). They are in the 11th year of this segment, and seems to have quite a following. The premise is this. The crew of 5 regulars, plus one or two celebrity guests, get together at a high-end restaurant, and for each episode, there is a price target between 10,000 yen to as much as 35,000 yen (roughly $150-350 per person), and they have to order from a menu (without prices, of course) to try to get closest to the target price. The one who is the farthest from that target has to pay for the entire meal. It’s like the high-end restaurant version of The Price Is Right. Further, there is a 1,000,000 yen prize for anyone who hits the exact target price (has happened maybe twice in the last three years), and a prize for those who are within 500 yen from the target. In the hour-long Gochi segment, besides ordering from the menu, the chef, who they meet at the beginning of the show, creates a limited number of two special dishes, and the crew plays some silly game to determine who gets to eat the special items. It’s really great when they show some scenes on how the food is cooked, but there’s too little of it as far as I’m concerned. They spend a lot more time on the suspense of determining the loser (which I wish they would cut down). The final minutes are spent with the two remaining contestants agonizing with their heads down, as the chef hovers over them with the check, and patting the loser on the back. In addition to having to pay for the entire check, there’s a also a year-long tally among the regular cast, as the one with the highest total gets kicked off the show at the end of the year. It’s actually plenty entertaining, especially when they bring in some good guests, but I do wish they would provide more footage of the food, but I get it that they are a comedy/variety show, so it’s probably not going to happen, since it hasn’t in the last 11 years.

A newer segment on Gurunai is one called Koibito Erabi (roughly translated as “choosing a boyfriend”). In this segment, the Gurunai duo, along with a crew of 3 or 4 other celebrities (usually comedians) go to some chowish destination, like a depachika in Shibuya, or Kyoto’s Kiyomizu doori, or Tsukiji’s outer market, or Sapporo’s central market (among many others), and the crew sample many delicacies along the route and buy as many items as they are confident to buy. After their first round of purchases, they hide away in a nearby popular tourist or commercial district, and they have the show’s announcer ask a random woman (usually a young, good-looking, well-dressed woman, chosen by one of the group) to rank the members of the group by who she would choose to be her boyfriend. The one who ranks last pays for the tab. Those who are confident of not being chosen last try to buy as much as possible in the eating/buying stage. From there, they go off to another destination (usually more of an attraction than food oriented for the second round) and then follow up with another round of asking a random woman who she would choose as her boyfriend among the crew. The third round is usually at some high-end restaurant, usually a ryotei featuring some regional cuisine. Then the final round of finding the random woman and asking her ranking of who she would choose as a boyfriend.

Watching Gurunai gives me a good idea of some great places to find good food at the high-end, as well as some regional street food specialties, and regional food gifts. While the comedy in this program can be a bit juvenile, I do find it quite informative on the chow-front.

Gurunai Gochi
http://www.ntv.co.jp/gurunai/gochi/
Videos: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&am...

Gurunai Koibito Erabi
http://www.ntv.co.jp/gurunai/corner/k...

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J-Pop boy bands and the Chowhound connection…

VVV6
Beside these shows, I occasionally catch shows like VVV6, one of the variety programs by the many boy bands. V6 is a J-pop boy band (for lack of a better description) and are well known to be a chowhoundish group, and they seem to spend a awful lot of time searching for good eating. VVV6 is almost completely dedicated to food, where they travel through Japan, create a mini-set at the restaurant(s) they visit, interviewing guest celebrities as they taste the food. They offered their own ranking of Tokyo restaurants calling it Tokyo V-chelin, among other segments through their 8 or so years on air.
http://www.fujitv.co.jp/vvv6/index.html

Bistro SMAP
In the J-pop world, it doesn’t get bigger than SMAP, one of the most successful bands since the 1990s. They’ve matured in their years as celebrities, and most of them have gone on to star in dramas and movies, but they’ve also continued to host a variety program called SMAPxSMAP. Although I find many of them talented (more as actors and personalities than as musicians), I don’t care so much for them. There is an occasional segment on their variety show called Bistro SMAP, where they bring on a guest (many international celebrities, including many you’ve heard of here in the US), and they have a mini Iron Chef-style cook-off in real time, while the guest is being interviewed, and then having the guest judge which team’s food was better. All the members of the band seem to be accomplished cooks and chowhounds (if you’ve watched Dotchi no Ryori show, you’ll remember Kusanagi as the only regular on that show) and it shows in their cooking skills. While there might be some entertainment value to this show, it’s certainly not very informative. Mostly I find it a bit embarrassing when they try their best to interview American guests with some really silly misinterpreted questions.
http://wwwz.fujitv.co.jp/smapsmap/bis...

Arashi
Arashi is the next big contemporary J-pop boy band since SMAP. Not only are they selling hits through Asia, they are all likeable, and they bolster their popularity with a number of variety shows they host. I kind of liked the show called Arashi no Shukudai-kun (roughly translated as “Arashi’s homework”), where they brought on a guest to do some silly games and especially because they had a food segment where the cast were quizzed about some foods (including all kinds of international cuisines). Like SMAP, pretty much all 5 of Arashi’s members have gone on to careers as actors as well, most notably Kazunari Ninomiya and Jun Matsumoto, who have starred in a few of the “gurume doramas” I’ve mentioned in the other thread. You might also remember Ninomiya as the protagonist in Clint Eastwood’s _Letters from Iwo Jima_. The food segments were pretty informative, and made fun with those silly games. Again, while they are still young adults, and don’t have the grooming of the SMAP dudes, they do demonstrate a fine palate for food in their food segments (well, maybe except for one of them). While this particular show was cancelled earlier this year (mostly due to their performance schedule), they still have other variety shows, but I don’t think there’s the food segments like they had on Arashi no Shukudai-kun.
http://www.ntv.co.jp/arashi/
Some videos: http://www.google.com/search?q=arashi...

These are just a few of the Japanese variety shows that I’ve caught in the last year or so that have given me some good food info. And I think I’m just scratching the surface, as there are many others marketed more for housewives, or the late-night crowd, or the older travelers. I find Japanese TV quite the goldmine for food information when I travel there, and I get what I can from my perch in NYC. I hope you can get a glimpse into that world too. I think you’ll be enriched by it and learn about the variety of elements that make up Japanese cuisine.

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  1. Wow! Great stuff - thanks for taking the time to write it all up. I keep telling my sons and their friends how much more to Japan there is than anime - but I guess maybe there's a generation gap or something - they're just not interested. Their loss.

    1. Fantastic writeup! Will have to check these out further.

      The only thing that was a bit of a turnoff for the J-food related dramas within the last 20 years were the occasional horrid acting, or trying to be funny but wasn't that funny. Then again I wasn't watching to be entertained that way.

      There are cable TV channels in Taiwan that import Japanese TV shows, subtitle them in Chinese, and air them at random. The interesting ones are about fishing, or how a Japanese family would do on a weekend, which would entail going somewhere literally in the middle of nowhere with breathtaking scenery and tranquil settings, but the best parts are when they show footage of local food, whether it be fresh catch of the day salt grilled over a fire, or a simple fish shabu shabu set meal, like a seaonal winter kanburi hotpot with soymilk broth and ponzu.

      One other interesting observation, and this is not quite related by the way, is that a lot of Hong Kong food related programs from local various cable stations, are now doing the "travel eats" shows in Japan, usually accompanied by a famous local chef who actually goes out of his way to the various sources to buy ultra fresh prime ingredients abroad for their restaurants in Hong Kong. Some are visitor destinations, and some are just for hardcore buying, whether it be Australian lobsters and abalone. For Japan, it could be getting beef from Sendai, apples or squid from Aomori prefecture. It's digusting (in a teasing yet good way) to see the hosts being able to buy a shellfish tower worth of ultra fresh seafood from a local market (like Auga) costing only $35 on top of that, and then in the next segment, they are paying 200 yen in the adjacent food court area to charcoal grill their catches.

      1. Thanks for sharing these. I have just started with the Manten Aozora Resutoran mushroom episode. The natto and mushroom dish and the mushroom nabe have me completely ravenous. I look forward to checking out the others.

        1. I used to like the ridiculous one (don't know the name) where ladies with horrible cooking skills were given a dish they were supposed to recreate and the judges would score them throughout the season using a bullseye target. Some of the ladies were apparently so bad that their dishes would end up across the street from the target. It was so trashy that I couldn't help but love it.

          1 Reply
          1. re: queencru

            If you like shows in that style, you might like a segment of a show called Lincoln ( リンカーン; why Lincoln? It's a misplaced comedy concept of their early tagline: "comedy for the people, of the people, by the people"). They are probably best known for their "batsu games" where they play these elaborate games where losing a point means you get slapped in the face or swatted with a stick or something slightly painful. The segment specifically is called Ristorante Lincoln (リストランテ リンカーン), where they get three teams of less chowhoundly comedians and put them in a kitchen with really high-end ingredients to create a dish of their choosing to present to the panel of regular cast and celebrity guest(s). Most of these comedian/contestants are clueless in the kitchen, and it can be painful to see what they might do to a lobe of foie gras or a slab of otoro. Anyway, the panel deliberates on their favorite and worst dishes and the loser is made to suffer the consequence and down a shot of a bitter drink. All in good fun.

            Lincoln website: http://www.tbs.co.jp/lincoln05/

            Some videos: http://www.google.com/search?q=%E3%83...

          2. Piggybacking your recs, I have a couple as well that I try to catch when I’m back in Japan. I like learning about food in general, but I also like shows that introduce new and interesting restaurants, izakaya, etc. Shuppatsu! Adomachikku Tengoku (出没!アド街ック天国), which is often just called “Ado Machi” for short is a long running program on TV12 Tokyo. It’s probably not on outside of the Kanto area and may not be available online anywhere, but anyway…this program focuses on a particular area. “Machi” means “town” or in context, “neighborhood” and Tokyo and the surrounding megalopolis is basically and aggregation of “machi”, usually centered around the local train station. So the program spends an hour highlighting a particular “machi” with a top 30 of best sites to check out. While not completely focused on food (for example they may highlight interesting stores or other attractions) many are restaurants or specialty food purveyors. Here is the main page http://www.tv-tokyo.co.jp/adomachi/ and here is the past issue page-- http://www.tv-tokyo.co.jp/adomachi/ba... . For example in Hamamatsucho, which is a popular business and hotel area near Shinagawa in Tokyo, the program highlighted “Akitaya”as a good motsuyaki izakaya http://www.tv-tokyo.co.jp/adomachi/09... . I don’t really plan to visit most of the neighborhoods they feature, but it’s always interesting to see what’s available on the local scene. I mean, not everyone in Japan eats at Ginza sushi places or Michelin starred French restaurants…

            Another program I enjoy is called “Sakaba Hourouki” (吉田類の酒場放浪記) hosted by a guy named Rui Yoshida. The program name basically means “drinking spot journey”, so the focus is on convivial, usually old school, izakaya or nomiya. Yoshida is quite a character. Usually shiny, red-faced, and asking his neighbor if he can try their food, he’s kind of like the annoying guy at your office party that no one wants to sit next to, but you count on him to do the food ordering. His program is on TBS and it covers spots nationwide- though most places are in Tokyo. Here’s the site http://sakaba.box.co.jp/index.html . Each episode is an hour long and usually covers 2 spots- one newer, one older. I think this show does an excellent job of highlighting the intertwined drinking and eating culture in Japan.

            I think you’re spot on with the overall sentiment regarding food programming in Japan. I always stress to friends in the U.S. that Japanese television is a perfect example of the overall food obsession there. They want to draw parallels with the U.S. using the popularity of Iron Chef as an example. But people are usually shocked when I tell them that when the original program ran in Japan, it was not on one of the myriad of cable or satellite channels, buried in the dial, but on terrestrial broadcast television, Sunday nights, at prime time!

            1 Reply
            1. re: Silverjay

              Yeah, I don't think people outside of Japan realize that shows like Iron Chef or Dotchi no Ryori were on an analogous time slot and network as shows like American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, or The Bachelorette. I don't see a food show reaching primetime network programming just yet over here in the US. I should point out that several of the shows that I mentioned in the original post is on one of the major networks during the primetime hours.