The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Renowned English author J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Tolkien was talking about the simple goodness of Bilbo Baggins, but the same holds true for those of us living outside Middle-earth. In a world that so easily succumbs to greed and conflict, food can break down barriers and highlight what we have in common. Dining together is one of the great unifiers.

It’s a point not lost on culinary entrepreneurs in Japan who see cooking classes not only as a way to teach kitchen traditions, but as a vehicle for cross-cultural exchange. Tadaku Co. Ltd. and ABC Cooking Travel both offer classes that go beyond just learning recipes. Here, sharing stories and traditions is just as important as sharing the secret to perfect flavor.

As with a good recipe, there’s more than one way to mix the ingredients. Although these classes are held in Japan, not all focus on sharing Japanese culture with those from abroad.

Certainly, ABC Cooking Travel welcomes those visiting Japan and provides experiences that connect some of the most popular and well-known things Japan has to offer, such as sushi and the Tsukiji fish market. But the company also offers activities for non-Japanese residents. Tadaku, meanwhile, focuses primarily on in-country exchange between Japanese and non-Japanese who live here.

In the case of Tadaku, the exchange goes both ways. “Our founder, Tao Romera Martinez, used to do Spanish cooking lessons by himself. He really enjoyed sharing Spanish culture and food with Japanese guests, so he decided to organize Japanese cooking lessons for foreigners,” Community Manager Miwa Okada told The ACCJ Journal. “This was the first approach, but it didn’t work. So, he flipped it around and focused on lessons for Japanese taught by foreigners. That’s basically how Tadaku started.”

It may not have worked initially, but today Tadaku is a two-way street. While the chance for Japanese to learn about and enjoy foreign flavors still tops the menu, there are plenty of Japanese cooks eager to share their homes and kitchens with those visiting or living here. In fact, there’s a waiting list for those wanting to teach washoku, or Japanese cuisine.

While they wait, there’s plenty of world cuisine for them to explore as students. Tadaku’s founding focus on non-Japanese cooks means that a virtual jambalaya of classes awaits. More than 80 countries are represented by the company’s hosts, including some whose culinary tradition is less well known, such as South Africa, Botswana, Guinea, Kenya, and Syria.

Thai and Indian food are favorites with Tadaku guests, the latter taught by about 50 hosts. But the dishes that are the most loved are quite clear. “The top three are always Spanish, Italian, and French. The order may change, but these are the most popular,” said Okada.

photo: Tadaku

While the variety of dishes one can learn to prepare through Tadaku classes is astounding, the food is just part of the story. The real goal is not simply to create better cooks, but to foster understanding—and that comes down to getting to know one another better.

“In Japan, we have a culture of going out to eat, but we don’t really visit the homes of strangers, and we don’t invite strangers to our homes,” said Tadaku Director Hiroshi Susa. “What we hope is that people will enjoy visiting homes, enjoying another culture, and communicating easily. We hope that we can eventually change the culture by pairing foreign hosts and Japanese guests, and vice versa, so the practice of sharing food in this way will grow in Japanese culture.

“We think quite a lot of Japanese people have gotten to know foreign cultures through our cooking lessons. Now, we want foreigners to know Japanese culture better by sharing food. That’s why we started our inbound project. Because there are differences between regions, we want people from different regions to communicate and share their cultures with each other.”

That effort is getting a boost from the government’s goal of attracting 40 million overseas visitors annually by 2020. With more travelers visiting Japan, there will be more interest in learning about culture and experiencing authentic Japanese food and lifestyle. The timing is perfect for Tadaku to build up the side of its business that sees Japanese hosts welcoming those from abroad, whether they be tourists on local residents.

ABC has tie-ups with travel agencies, so the very foundation of their offering is built on tourism. Any rise has the potential to directly benefit them.

But it isn’t a given. As ABC spokesperson Toko Ochi told The ACCJ Journal: “In a way, the government’s promotion is boosting our business by bringing more potential guests to Tokyo. However, the number of competitors has increased quite a lot in proportion to the increase of foreign tourists, which makes the business environment more difficult.”

While the market may be getting more crowded, there are still high hopes for tourism tie-ins—and technology has made it easier to reach those overseas.

photo: ABC Cooking Travel

Food is best when shared, so it’s natural for social media to be a key part of promotion. SNS, as it is called in Japan—short for social networking services—has become an important part of the marketing mix for both ABC and Tadaku.

ABC makes extensive use of Facebook to share photos and videos of activities such as the popular Tsukiji Fish Market Tour & Sushi Making Class, giving guests the kind of exposure that is fun to share on their own Facebook walls. It’s also effective marketing, providing an authentic view of the experience that gets travelers excited about making ABC tours and classes part of their visit to Japan.

Tadaku also uses Facebook to highlight hosts and dishes, and the platform has been a good source of talent. Explaining how the company finds cooks, Okada explained: “A lot of people come from Facebook. We run ads there, and many people see these and sign up as hosts.”

This has given way to word-of-mouth marketing, too. “Some people tell us that they heard about Tadaku from a friend,” added Okada. “We see this also among those who come to study as Tadaku becomes better known by Japanese people.”

Facebook is powerful, but in Japan, Line rules the roost, and Tadaku makes use of the ubiquitous messaging app to share recommendations and information about classes, photos of dishes, and more.

ABC also cites TripAdvisor as an important part of connecting with guests. Although not SNS, the popular travel site puts ABC’s offering right in front of those planning a visit to Japan. The company has more than 120 reviews, most of which rate the experience as “excellent.”

Awareness of Tadaku among the Japanese public got a push in 2016 when it won the Tokyo Metro Accelerator contest. Powered by creww, Japan’s largest open innovation platform, the contest was designed to help startups accelerate their growth by connecting them with resources that help establish a foothold quickly while reducing cost and risk. As the winner, Tadaku was given the opportunity to place advertisements on all subway lines operated by Tokyo Metro Co., Ltd.—a huge boost in a city where transit advertising puts your brand and message in front of millions of eyes every day.

“Since we placed the ads, we’ve been contacted by a lot of Japanese hosts who want to give cooking lessons to foreigners. But we don’t have enough guests, so we hope that by 2019 we will have enough visitors from abroad to meet this demand,” said Susa, citing the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games and 2019 Rugby World Cup as promising opportunities.

photo: ABC Cooking Travel

Of course, the centerpiece is the class itself. What can one expect? Both Tadaku and ABC make culture a key part of the experience, but the approaches differ in some respects.

The parent company of ABC Cooking Travel is ABC Cooking Studio, which runs more than 125 casual and friendly studios across the country where Japanese learn to cook various dishes, bread, cakes, and more. ABC Cooking Travel draws upon this foundation for its own courses.

“With this history, one can learn through our lessons the very basic but essential techniques for making a homemade Japanese meal,” explained Ochi. “For instance, when making miso soup, our guests will learn how to extract soup stock called dashi from kelp and bonito flakes. This stock is a fundamental part of Japanese dishes. Even guests joining the sushi course learn about dashi and how to cook an authentic Japanese omelet.

“At the end of the lesson, we provide the recipe with detailed instructions, color photos, and a booklet that introduces basic Japanese seasonings and cookware. This helps them understand what they will need to cook Japanese cuisine after returning home.”

An example of how ABC imparts cultural knowledge is the sharing of insight into the changing seasons, a very important part of Japanese tradition. “While touring Tsukiji fish market, we provide information about ingredients that change with the seasons and introduce the Japanese culture behind dishes made of those ingredients,” said Ochi.

“For example, around December and January, there are many kinds of ingredients for osechi, the traditional food eaten as part of New Year’s gatherings and celebrations with family. We introduce the Japanese customs related to these special dishes.”

Another thing students learn is the Japanese spirit of mottainai, a sort of philosophical view of wastefulness. Instructors explain how to reuse kelp and bonito flakes as furikake—a kind of seasoning sprinkled on rice and other foods—after using them to make dashi.

Tadaku combines the teaching, cooking, dining, and cleanup into an experience that can span four hours. During that time, hosts and guests spend one or two hours cooking and another hour and a half to two hours eating together. Over the meal, they talk about their countries and cultures.

“In normal cooking lessons, hosts talk a lot about technique—how to boil something, for example. But in ours, they talk a lot about the story behind the dish,” said Okada. “For example, I was told by a Chinese host that—especially in the north of China—they make dumplings on New Year’s Eve with family. Or, in certain parts of India, they paint the floor of the entrance to welcome guests. Hosts talk a lot about these kinds of things.”
And in the end, everyone washes dishes together.

ABC and Tadaku are both working to bring a cultural compo­nent to Japan’s inbound mission, and to increase inter­national understanding along the way.

As Tokyo gets set for three consecutive years on the global sporting stage—with the World Masters Game coming to the Kansai region in 2021—many aspects of the city are being transformed. But, it’s important not to let infra­structure overshadow culture.

“Although preparedness to receive foreigners through such upgrades as multilingual displays at public transportation systems has improved, the entertainment system in Japan still needs a lot of refinement. There should be a greater variety of entertainment in Tokyo,” Ochi said. “We want to make our lessons not just about learning how to make Japanese dishes, but an entertainment experience that guests cannot forget so they will come back again even after international events.”

Christopher Bryan Jones is Editor-in-Chief of The ACCJ Journal. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he has lived in Japan since 1997.
In a way, the government’s promotion is boosting our business by bringing more potential guests to Tokyo.