The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

With the rise of blogs, video platforms, and social networking services, more people than ever can connect and share common interests.

But they are not just meeting and sharing online. Increasingly, Internet-based communities have found an outlet in the physical world—via dedicated spaces where enthusiasts can gather and share interests.

Crowdsourced cuisine platform Cookpad is among the leading providers of such online and offline services in Japan and, increasingly, internationally. Through its mobile apps, website, and a growing network of cooking schools, the company is connecting food lovers who share their recipes and culinary insights.

Speaking to The Journal, Takako Kotake, division manager of branding and PR at Cookpad, highlighted the company’s services and shared her thoughts on its current plans.

COOKING CREATOR
The Journal also sat down with online cuisine enthusiasts from around the world, including Japan-based YouTube creator Ami Nishimura—better known by her online persona, Ochikeron.

For Nishimura, websites such as Cookpad and video-sharing platform YouTube have become indispensable as conduits for sharing her passion for food. She started posting menus to Cookpad about 13 years ago, and in 2011 began publishing cooking tutorials to YouTube. Her YouTube channel now has more than 800,000 subscribers.

Nishimura loves home-cooked Japanese fare, but is also fond of American dishes, having lived in the United States.

“I love my mom’s food. Of course, I love to dine out to save housework, but it is always comfortable to eat at home and to know what you used for cooking,” she explained. “Speaking of American food, I found there are many good vegan, vegetarian, and organic dishes online.”

Has she noticed any trends in Japanese food content on the platforms?

“There still aren’t many Japanese food bloggers who share their recipes in English, but I think this should change because Japanese home-cooked meals are pretty easy and fun.”

Nishimura notes that while many more people than before are interested in cooking in general, few are acting on that interest by taking it up.

“I’ve noticed that many people just like to watch food channels for fun, but few actually try to cook something themselves. My wish is that as many take up cooking as do makeup tutorials, for example.”

Meatballs (Japanese recipe)—Staff Takako

CROWDSOURCED CUISINE
Long-term Japan resident Greg Lane is among a growing number of people who use online platforms to quench their thirst for new menu ideas. Lane is the founder of Tokyo Cheapo, an online guide to budget accommodation, travel, and dining in the metropolis.

Due to an increase in demand from inbound visitors, the platform has recently started YouTube video guides for food hotspots in the city. While welcoming the growth of crowdsourced platforms, Lane warns that users should always look out for quality.

“If I want ramen, I just search for it online,” he told The Journal, “and if there is a Cookpad recipe, I click on it; because I know they are a reliable source.”

However, Lane warns that some crowdsourced websites can be prone to poor-quality information, especially if the information is coming from users who are not familiar with the local customs or the domestic language.

“What you sometimes get with English-language food and drink content targeted at tourists or non-Japanese is misunderstandings over the nuances of local cuisine, the terminology used, and even the location of the restaurant.”

Descriptions of—or comments about—sushi are a classic example where mistakes occur, he notes, because there are so many kinds and novices may not be able to tell them apart. Lane echoes the sentiments of Kotake and Nishimura, who all point to Japan’s mature food culture as a characteristic that generally ensures quality for crowdsourced advice about preparing meals.

NO FOOD, NO LIFE
The goal of Cookpad, Tokyo Cheapo, and entrepreneurs such as Nishimura is to connect ordinary folk with a love of food. For Japanese globetrotter Rie Mori, who is currently based in India but has lived in the United States, Cookpad has been her go-to website for home cooking.

“I am a huge Cookpad user. Their library of menus is amazing,” she said. “Especially in a country like India, where there is little access to Japanese food, we long for home cooking daily.”

Like Mori, former Scotland resident and Italian national Nicla Marino is also a fan of online cooking platforms. In her case, she follows Ochikeron and websites such as Tasty, which is managed by US media company BuzzFeed, Inc.

“I usually look for desserts—especially the ones that look cute—and international foods. I don’t upload or blog anything, but I do belong to some Facebook cooking groups. My friends and I also share recipes with each other.”

Richard Jones, who has lived in France, Italy, and Japan, is of a similar view. A trained chef, he said: “My main use of the Internet is searching for specific recipes rather than following a particular writer. Given my background, I tend just to use recipes for proportions rather than methods.”

In the end, cooking is a way of connecting family and friends. Jones and Mori both said they mainly cook for those they are close to. “I like a good old-fashioned dinner party,” Jones said, “but I’m pretty much the only one of my friends to throw them.”

Mori added: “A full stomach is a great means of communication and happiness. So, I find recipes an indispensable part of my life.”

Thanks to Cookpad, Tasty, Tokyo Cheapo, YouTube, and others, a world of cuisine is at everyone’s fingertips.

Cookpad’s Takako Kotake
1. Grated Carrot Salad (Japanese recipe)—Staff Takako
2. Simmered Glossy Teriyaki Chicken—Munkun
3. Spinach & Nectarine Salad—Yuuki Rinrin and Yuko Kishida

COOKPAD

What are Cookpad’s origins?
Akimitsu Sano founded Cookpad in 1997 as a means of making everyday cooking fun. This was around the same time as companies such as Rakuten and Yahoo Japan were starting out. Sano, at that time, was a student at Keio University, but he wanted to create a service that could contribute, via cooking, to overall happiness around the world. The service began in March 1998, and the initial intent was to allow regular people cooking at home to share their own recipes and to relate to each other through food.

The site has 2.6 million recipes and more than 60 million monthly users. Why is it so popular?
Rather than connecting people because they share the same circle of friends or hobbies, or because they are cohorts or are the same gender, Cookpad connects its users via similarities in their tastes in cooking. The platform reflects the great diversity that there is in each community, and brings them together via their love of food or kinds of food.

Tell us about the early usage and adopters.
From the start, people could see the number of views on each recipe, which encouraged users to create recipes that were helpful. And there were many different types of recipes at the beginning. At that time, about 10 percent of our users were based abroad, which led to culturally diverse content.

What can you tell us about demographics?
Recently, about 90 percent of our users during the week are women—many of whom are homemakers. Interestingly, there is a shift on the weekend, when we see more visits from male users—perhaps because they are busy during the week but have time to cook on the weekend. Unlike many other websites, which see their traffic increase at night, we see a lot of usage around noon—maybe because people are thinking about what they want to have for lunch. We also see an increase after 4:00 p.m., just before people return home from work. This may be because those at home are thinking about what to make for dinner.

What drives people to share recipe ideas?
Whenever people make delicious food, they want others to see it. Actually, this is true across users from different countries and cultures; and the majority of uploads are from ordinary people showing off their own recipes, or those that they think are tasty.

Is the content posted on Cookpad similar across cultures?
In Asia, there are places where foreign cuisine has not penetrated very far, and in those areas the content has a focus on local foods. In Japan, which has a mature food culture, there are a lot of fusion dishes—pasta, for example—and our homemade cuisine is not based on traditional Japanese recipes only. Sweets, breads, and foods from around the world have been incorporated into Japanese home cooking. The United States is similar to Japan—Americans, too, embrace lots of different cuisines from around the world.

Have you noticed any trends in what is uploaded?
Our users are very well informed and sensitive to what is trending on television and in other media—so the trends keep changing. However, we are able to gain real-time insight by analyzing what people are searching for. We can also identify trends on more stratified levels, analyzing past data according to geography, age, and gender. We’ve seen, for instance, that tastes in seasoning vary across regions—even within Japan.

Cookpad is opening physical spaces. Can you say something about that?
Although our current focus is on recipes, we have turned our attention to moments that occur before and after cooking, too—that would include the sharing and connections that people have after they cook or enjoy a meal together. One way we are connecting users offline is by operating a network of cooking schools—beginning in Japan and Indonesia.

So, there is more to Cookpad than just the recipes.
While recipes, cooking, and eating are fundamental to the site, we hope our users can use it as an opportunity to meet and reflect. What is cooking? What is food? What does it mean to be together with family? These are questions that we can ask as we cook and eat, and enjoy our lives.

John Amari is a writer and editor from the UK who specializes in articles on startups, entrepreneurs, science, tech, and business.