I get lots of invites for food shows both commercial and public, most of which I turn down. But several weeks ago, a PR agency asked me if I’d be interested in going to a Food and Cultural show about Japan and I accepted. Currently, Hyper Japan takes place in London twice a year.
As a chef, I thought this would be a great opportunity to improve my limited knowledge about Japanese food and culture. It just so happens that my wife Sophie is a longtime fan of all things Japanese, so she was more than happy to help me write about the show.
First impressions are always important and unfortunately, our first impressions were not a good one! We were directed to the press office to pick up our passes and tickets, where we were told by a “dishevelled dude” ‘sorry but there were no passes for the Ramen Experience’. I patiently explained we had come 149 miles especially to try the Ramen and his response was a weak sorry. Not to be deterred, we went into the exhibition and tried to understand the layout. The map we found wasn’t quite as useful as we hoped because unlike exhibits at say the NEC, the maps didn’t have a “you are here” to help orientate us more quickly. So after a few minutes, we found signs for the organiser’ s office and went to seek help. Thankfully, after explaining that we had been promised tickets for the Ramen, our escort helped us gain entry and then told us a little about the origins of Ramen.
Ramen Experience: Disappointing
Being a chef I was really looking forward to the not only tasting the Ramen but being able to ask lots of questions about the ingredients and the cooking process, but I got very little of either because the people serving were there simply to serve the food. Below is the price of the Ramen tickets.
- £7.00 for off-peak times
- £8.50 for peak times
- £35 for entrance ticket + Sake + Ramen
- Tickets are available through advance bookings only.
Ramen is a kind of street food that gained popularity in the 1950’s in Japan. This ‘noodle soup’ first reached Japanese shores in 1910, when Chinese cooks combined the noodles with a salty broth. These curly noodles were of a bright yellow colour and more elastic than the Japanese noodles prepared at the time – the dough was kneaded with a sodium carbonate-infused mineral water called kansui.
There are three kinds of broth you can chose from: Paitan which is Shellfish based and includes fish gelatin, kelp and tuna extracts, Shoyu a soy sauce broth including a sauce with a ‘Bonito taste’ (which is also a type of tuna) and mirin, and Tonkotsu a pork Ramen from Fukuoka. All three broths contain fish extract which is typical of other South East Asian cuisines that use fish sauce to add flavour to many dishes.
We tried all three broths and found the soya based Shoyu our favourite. The ramen did not have a half boiled egg you would often find on your ramen served in Japan. All ramen is usually topped with cooked pork, so ramen is not a dish for vegetarians. In fact the Hyper Japan site points out there are no vegetarian, vegan or halal options.
Other foods at the show….
There’s a selection of Japanese food you can buy or try around the show. Part of the fun of any food show is the opportunity to talk to the producers and hear their passionate story; I do feel the food element of the show would benefit if they included some cooking demonstrations, this would help explain Japanese food to a larger audience and perhaps help push food sales at the show. One particular food stand I would like to mention is the Japanese bakery called Kitaya Wagashi. Founded in London in 1986, Wagashi is a sister company to a long-established Kitaya bakery, which has 20 sweet stores in Japan. Sophie and I sampled the daifukumochi (often shortened to mochi) which is a traditional Japanese sweet that dates back to the Edo-period (1603-1868). Mochi is made by boiling a short grain rice and then pounding it to make a sweet sticky texture. The rice mixture is then shaped and filled with different flavours, the most traditional of these is red bean paste, which I really liked. The bakery also uses western type filling to these delicious little gems. We tried some filled with custard and Sophie loved them. They also make scrumptious light pancakes (two griddle cooked pancakes) which are then stuffed with a variety of fillings.
The Sake Experience was most interesting, but was set out in too small a hall making it difficult for people to queue. We went on the last day of the show, so I image the queues were even longer on Saturday. Sake is a wine made from rice that has been polished and had the bran removed. Unlike wine made from fruits such as grapes, sake is produced by a brewing process more akin to that of beer, where starch is converted into sugars which ferments into alcohol. There are different methods for making sake and even more of how the sake in handled after fermentation. Some Sake is pasteurised and some not, thus the unpasteurised Sake is kept and served chilled. The whole process is time-consuming, so the very best bottles of unpasteurised Sake can cost around £131 a bottle and have a very different taste from the “cheap” pasteurised Sake (often served warm) I tasted as a young adult.
One of my favourites was the Kisaki 28 Junmai Daiginjo made by Koshino Megumi of Toyama prefecture ‘This sake made its debut in summer of 2018. “Kisaki 28 Junmai Daiginjo” is made with rice polished to 28%, the highest grade in the sake brewing industry. It is crafted for a pure untainted flavour that will impress even the most knowledgeable master of sake-tasting.’
The Sake experience also included a selection of Japanese craft beers, fruit liqueurs and various cocktails giving visitors a good flavour of the alcoholic beverages available in Japan. In particular, Sophie and I were impressed with a plum brandy mixed with ginjo sake. Unlike, any other plum brandy I had ever tasted Plumity White made Arimoto Nouen tasted of fresh plums, a memory of late summer, an intoxicating taste that enticed you to take another sip.
The large sound stage had very good production values but should have been cordoned off and sound proofed so it didn’t make it difficult to chat to sellers at their stands. Lots of interesting performances, including Utaniwa Collabo, the talented all girl band Mutant Monster and a rousing end of show performance by the masked band Xmas Eileen.
Utaniwa Collabo: Classic Opera Meets …. Gardening?
We weren’t able to see this show which I’m told is well worth a view; classical opera sung by soprano Marina Okamoto, as master gardener Fuyuki Tabata creates and changes the surrounding garden scenery in real-time. We did however watch Marina Okamoto perform in another part of the exhibition hall.
This uniquely Japanese form of theatre is a dazzling display of dance, music and swordsmanship, taking the audience back to the time when beautiful ladies dressed in kimonos and stern samurai walked the streets of Edo (modern-day Tokyo).
Though the name might be a little unfortunate for some, Lolita clothing is a style of fantasy clothing started in Japan. It’s a bit like Victorian fashion meets cute sometimes with a Goth edge.
Genuine Japanese lolita fashion is not mass produced, sometimes even handmade and thus expensive, so it behoves the organisers and the PR company to make sure that “UK lollies” are aware when a top designer/label (such as Victorian Maiden ) comes all the way from Japan to attend the show. I read quite a lot of complaints afterwards on Facebook that they would have attended if only they had known!
UK Anime fans had the opportunity to watch the various screenings during the three days at Hyper Japan. Amonst the selection were films from the CG Anime Contest finals and includes the first film by Makoto Shinkai, the director of Your Name, She & Her Cat, Lonesome Hero by Manami Wakai and Happy Project’s Fruity Samurai.
Hyper Japan Market
There lots of interesting stalls to see and buy from at the show, covering a wide and diverse range of ancient to modern items of Japanese culture. From copies of Samurai swords, traditional wood block prints, and Japanese pottery.
I was very tempted by the screen printed t-shirts created by artist Lewis Campbell who’s an illustrater, storyboard artist and animator. Under the banner of his company Lost Monkey Lewis produces comics, paintings, prints, etchings as well as some amazing t-shirts.
If you love tea there were many loose teas to buy and try, ancient blends that just like fine wines are revered. And of course hundreds of unique Japanese stuffed toys (plushies), my favourite is of course is Angry Toast which reminds me of too many early mornings working in hotels around the world.
I think Hyper Japan could be a great show, but it is far short of that at the moment.
The organisers need to work much harder on making the diverse elements of the show come together better. This unique show needs to help the exhibitors more easily share the information about their Japanese products and foods. Buying a stall at an exhibition is a financial risk, an expensive gamble, hoping that you sell enough goods to at least break even and also make visitors more aware of your business. Often the prices of goods/food are high to offset the eye watering prices the exhibitors pay to have a stand at a show.
- Separate and sound proof the stage, so visitors can chat with sellers at their stands
- Get Olympia to provide more tables and chairs in all food areas so people don’t have to sit on the floor.
- Change the PR company to one talented enough to promote Hyper Japan across all social media channels about the show and its unique content.
The venue-Olympia, London
130-year-old exhibition centre Olympia was bought in 2017 by a consortium (German pension fund BVK and German insurance company VKB together with UK private equity company Yoo) for £296 million. At the time Yoo chairman John Hitchcox said: “We will work closely with Olympia management to ensure Olympia continues to represent the very best in world-class exhibition space for Central London and the UK.”
Well Mr Hitchcock, you need to work harder because your venue looks tired, not that clean and certainly not world class at the moment.