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Our Japanese Obsession

Jaime Ee examines the Singaporean fascination with Japan, which continues to grow at Shinkansen speed.
Oct 22, 2016 5:50 AM

"Hello. My name is Torrance. I am a Nipponholic. It's not a real word. Just that 'Japanophile' doesn't begin to describe my addiction to this curious, fascinating country of rotating bullet-train seats and "eki-bento"!

I've tried to kick the habit. I joined the Singapore chapter of Nipponholics Anonymous. Our members meet for regular healing sessions where we confess the extent of our mutual obsession: ending every sentence with "desu"; throwing wild ramen-and-sake parties followed by binge-watching of Kurosawa movies; building a shrine of socks to tidy-up queen Marie Kondo; nightmares that end with one screaming "Don't touch my doriyaki!" before awakening in a cold sweat. We hug. We promise to watch more Korean dramas as therapy… then we adjourn to Liang Court for a grilled pork rice bowl at Butahage. Oops."

Our apologies for taking such liberties with Torrance Goh's name. The Singaporean architect is nothing of the sort. Even so, consider this: he cooks Japanese meals for himself almost every day. He has a regular Japanese hairdresser. He watches NHK World all the time. He joins his Japanese friends on their Golden Week and Obon festival breaks. He lived in Nagoya for a few years and even now makes annual trips back to the country to "stock up on food, shopping and life". To say that he simply loves Japan is a bit of an understatement.

There are more like him. You find them on Instagram. They could be your family, friends or colleagues. It could be you. The Japanese obsession has taken hold in Singapore and it is no longer a question of whether one is in love with the country, but how much. The Japan National Tourism Organisation clocked 190,900 travellers from Singapore to Japan between January and August this year alone - a 20 per cent jump. A total of 308,783 Singaporeans had their ramen fix in Japan in 2015, up 35.5 per cent from the year before. Chan Brothers Travel reports a 20 per cent increase so far this year, with Japan consistently in its top five destinations. The Japan Embassy's latest numbers say that Singapore had 1,105 Japanese restaurants in June 2015. The naked eye says the number has exploded since then.

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Everyone has a personal story to tell about Japan's hold on them. Apart from Mr Goh, Lin Weiwen's 11-year 'addiction' led him to quit his job in July just to spend two months in Japan and work on a book on Japanese wines. "For some time, I'd been thinking of how to combine my love for Japan with my profession," says the former editor of Wine & Dine magazine. "I knew I wouldn't have time to do this and stay in my full-time job. So I decided to leave."

He became fascinated with Japan - besides watching Ultraman cartoons on TV as a kid in the early 80s - when he started learning the language in 2005. Once you do that, "you're already embracing its culture", he believes. Plus he always enjoyed Japanese food and movies - "especially the works of Akira Kurosawa and Takeshi Kitano" - and had Japanese friends at university in Adelaide, who shared stories of home with him. His first trip to Osaka in 2008 was an experience everyone can identify with. "Things were orderly, streets were safe and clean, people were helpful and service was top notch. Here was a country that in many ways resembled Singapore and yet was different in just as many ways. It was familiar and foreign at the same time - that was its allure."

That allure takes different forms for different people. "The music was what hooked me," says Dawn Yip, group operations director of the Jean Yip group. "Almost all the Cantonese and Mandarin songs were translated from Japanese in the 80s and 90s. The melodies were so beautiful it made me want to go there to study music and singing."

She was a teenager at the time, and was "very impressed with the way they do things - they're very organised and take a lot of pride in everything". Now she visits every year for work, food, the changing seasons and to practise the Japanese she learned in school.

For Amanda Tan and Cheryl Lee, the childhood clinchers were everything from Sailor Moon manga to kimonos. "I watched Sailor Moon as a kid; I was into J-Pop, and outings to Takashimaya and Daimaru really got me into the culture," says Ms Tan, owner of online Japanese grocery Zairyo. "It's the aesthetics, the way they carry themselves, the way they behave." For Ms Lee - the head of restaurant group One Rochester - one of her earliest memories is of visiting Japan at the age of four and feeding deer on temple grounds, visiting kimono museums with her mother and buying toy robots like Gundam. "I had a teenage obsession with manga and collectible toys," she says. "But now my obsession is food, sake and lately, whiskey investment. I've been buying rare Japanese whiskey from various sources and like-minded aficionados."

OF COURSE IT'S THE FOOD Patrick Tan never fails to be amazed by Singaporeans' insatiable appetite for Japanese cuisine. "Although everyone says 'got radiation' or whatever, people are still going to Japan," says the chef-owner of Tamashii Robataya and Boruto restaurants. "Last year, I went to Niseko. I was shocked that at least 70 per cent of the people there were Singaporeans. I saw a lot of my clients there as well. If you go to Italy for two weeks you won't want to eat Italian food when you come back. But anyone who goes to Japan for two weeks comes back and can still eat the same food. I don't understand it."

Chalk it up to the freshness, sheer variety, effort and skill that goes into everything from a simple ramen to the most elaborate Michelin-starred kaiseki meal. "Even in the smallest, simple shop, there is so much pride in using local ingredients," says Mr Lin, marvelling at "the diligence in whatever they do."

Ms Lee once went on a food tour with her sister, where "we were taken around the older parts of Japan in a bus, to different small towns specialising in different ingredients like eel". They would literally "stop for an eel omakase, hop back on the bus and go to the next town - it was an amazing trip".

But not everybody can fly off to Japan on a whim, which explains the proliferation of eateries in Singapore from celebrity chef sushi places to "multi-concept food halls like Japan Food Town in Wisma Atria," says restaurateur Jessica Lim, who runs Coco Ichibanya Curry House and tapas bar Le Binchotan. "It takes the local food-court platform and creates an authentic experience with all 16 restaurants under one roof."

She reckons the kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi phenomenon in the 90s helped to spark local interest after a decade of high-end sushi and teppanyaki places in hotels in the 80s. By 2000, "ramen and other Japanese fast-food outlets flooded the market," says Lim Li-Wei, CEO of the Japanese supermarket and dining cluster Emporium Shokuhin.

Now, he says, "we're seeing more creative fusion dining - Japanese-Italian, Japanese-French. There's also a return to traditional styles of Japanese dining but with a big difference - affordability and value-for-money."

THE FASCINATION WITH A WAY OF LIFE When he was in Nagoya, Mr Goh made it a point to "live in a very normal, simple Japanese family neighbourhood". The director of design company Farm says, "In the villages, the air smells different and I love the simplicity of life there. The Japanese believe in eating well and in doing your work well, whether you're a bus driver, waiter or business owner. It's about treating the environment and people with respect - this attitude is why I love Japan."

Take a bowl of ramen, says Mr Lin. "It's simple, comfort food but presented with care. The char siu slices, spring onions, egg, squirt of garlic oil. They have their own position in the bowl like planets in the universe - they don't overlap. It may be a 500 yen product but the person doing it is giving a 1000 yen effort, making sure everything is in its rightful place. A bak chor mee hawker is not going to say, 'I'll put the minced meat here, fish balls there'. It's a $3 dish and a $3 effort. It's not a bad thing. It's our culture. We were not raised to pay attention to detail, or to take pride in trivial or simple tasks. The Japanese are. It's something we can learn from them."

WHERE TO GO "I love Shikoku," says Mr Goh. "It's a big island. Lots of nature and beautiful, understated villages. I once stayed on a hillside that's not even on Google maps. Try Matsuyama for the onsen and Takamatsu for Sanuki udon. My greatest experience was in Gero, a small onsen town. Stay at Yunoshimakan. I also love Kurokawa onsen in Kyushu and Kinosaki in Kyoto. Go art-hunting in Naoshima and the surrounding islands."

Go winery-hopping in Yamanashi, says Mr Lin, who has visited 35 wineries during his two month Japanese sojourn."Tsumago is a beautiful post town in Nagano prefecture. Miyajima, an island off Hiroshima, is known for its deer and delicious oysters."

If Tokyo is your thing, Ms Tan recommends sushi at Sushi-ya and Hatanaka; Higashiya and Sakurai for tea and wagashi; and Bar Gen Yamamoto for cocktails. "Get the fried chicken fillet in Family Mart. It's the best. Trust me."

BREAKING DOWN THE WALL Much as we love the Japanese and their way of life, getting to know them "requires a lot of patience, understanding and courtesy," says Andrew Tan of Atomi, a Japanese furniture and lifestyle store. "To make inroads into the Japanese circle, one must take a long term perspective. A mere visit on a monthly or quarterly basis is not going to make one an expert. The Japanese are very polite. No matter how unhappy they are, they will not show it."

"It's hard to understand or go into a deeper friendship with the Japanese because they're so repressed," says Ms Yip. "They can be quite hierarchical, which makes it difficult to connect with them."

Much of it is due to the language barrier, says Stuart Ayre, a British expat who has lived in Japan for more than a decade and speaks the language fluently. "Tourists often experience Japan through the lens of English, which naturally blurs Japan."

WHAT'S NEXT? According to Mr Tan, the next phase of our obsession will be in buying properties and investing in Japan. Which is exactly what skiing enthusiasts Carolyn Teo and Dexter Say have done, buying houses in their favourite holiday destination of Niseko - a popular winter getaway.

Ms Teo and her husband bought their $800,000 three-bedroom, double-storey house in Hirafu as a sanctuary for their daughters. "It's called Shima, which means 'sisters' in Japanese," says the co-founder of an advertising firm. "We went on a skiing holiday in 2012 and loved it so much, we bought this place in 2013. We used to go to Niseko only in the winter but now that we have our own place, we come in the summer too. We stay five to 14 days but we want to do a month when we can."

Her property development, The Orchards Niseko, takes care of the house and leases it out when they're not there. In turn, Mr Say bought his place in The Country Resorts in 2008 and his family visits three times a year.

Neither seem perturbed by the thought of earthquakes. "When your time is up, it's up," shrugs Ms Teo. "I'm not afraid of what I can't prevent." As for Mr Say, "I have earthquake insurance. But this area isn't so prone to it."

WHAT DO THE JAPANESE THINK? "I do think Singaporeans are obsessed with Japan but we welcome that," says Atsuko Nishino, owner of the Nishino pharmacies in Singapore. "Singaporeans have very good manners compared with mainland Chinese people. They know what to do when they come to Japan so there's no problem."

"I'm happy to hear Singaporeans say they like Japan - it feels the same as a guest who says he likes the Imperial Tokyo," says Shohei Sekido, sales and marketing director of the Imperial Hotel Singapore office. "If it helps each side understand each other's culture better, it's good for both."

NO END IN SIGHT Not a single person we spoke to can imagine the local obsession with Japan abating any time soon. Come hell or high water (and occasional typhoon or earthquake), we'll be there. So, see you desu neh?

Reporting by Rachel Loi, Avanti Nim and Tay Suan Chiang.

Tell you what you think at btweekend@sph.com.sg

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