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The Japan syndrome
YOU'VE heard of Chinatown. Little Korea. Most cities usually limit themselves to one ethnic enclave each. Except for Singapore, where the obsession with Japanese culture and cuisine has grown to the point that little pockets of Japan can be found everywhere from Cuppage Plaza to Tampines 1. At the rate F&B operators are opening Japanese dining clusters, the day may come that there will be more ramen bars in Singapore than in Tokyo.
On July 16, the latest cluster opened at Wisma Atria - a 20,000 square foot space with 16 different concepts, called Japan Food Town. It joins existing players such as Emporium Shokuhin at Marina Square - eight dining concepts and a gourmet grocer with live seafood and dry-aged beef, Eat at Seven at Suntec City - seven Japanese restaurants, and Kuriya Japanese Market Yokocho at Tampines 1 - four food kiosks and a retail market with shared seating. By the fourth quarter of 2016, another cluster called Itadakimasu by Parco will open with about five to 10 concepts on the third floor of 100AM in Tanjong Pagar.
Japan Food Town's managing director, Makoto Yoshikawa, explains that opening multiple concepts in one space instead of standalone restaurants helps keep costs down when importing fresh ingredients from Japan. He spent four years researching the Singapore market before launching this project, and observed a few reasons behind Singaporeans' affinity with Japanese food.
One is the clean clear flavours associated with most Japanese food appeals to our health-conscious public. Another is that while locals prefer spicy food, the two cultures are close enough for the cuisines to be similar - both rice and noodle-based. Finally, well-travelled Singaporeans who are able to appreciate the long history of Japanese culture and traditions.
Deputy director Lim Shyang Zheng of the 28-year-old food service company RE&S adds another reason to that list - the wide variety and depth available in Japanese cuisine from sushi, to ramen, teppanyaki, udon, etc. His company runs over 20 different concepts including Kuriya Japanese Market Yokocho, and they started their first "cluster" of individual specialised Japanese restaurants in Jurong Point in 2007, followed by another at Nex in 2009.
He says: "Ten years ago, we saw a lot of specialty restaurants springing up in Japan. People started going to those restaurants instead of the ones that offer everything. But at that time, if we had set up this type of specialty restaurant in Singapore, it would've been very difficult for us to make it. Consumers wanted variety. So we set up specialty restaurants in clusters - to give people both."
While it's true that having clusters means more options for consumers, there are some like Andrew Tan of the Japanese design and lifestyle brand Atomi who are starting to tire of seeing the same thing everywhere. He says: "I think there are just too many opening recently. It might have worked before but it's getting cookie-cutter and boring, like a Taiwanese show with hundreds of episodes - you just want it to end already."
Mr Tan reasons that it might be a result of Singapore being a risk-averse society, so people tend to stick with what's most certain to work. "If a Japanese cluster does well, many more people rush to do the same. We're not an inventive kind of country, we're kind of copycats or followers. People seem to just want to achieve returns, and not rock the boat."
Agreeing with him is Hideki Akiyoshi of marketing consultancy Wonder Asia, which does PR for the Ramen Keisuke chain. He feels that the very idea of having clusters of Japanese restaurants is rather absurd, especially in the current market. "In order to satisfy consumers who are well-travelled and diverse in their dining preferences, malls are often forced to offer a variety of food choices. I've never come across shopping malls or food courts with only one cuisine to offer, whether in New York, Paris, London, Tokyo or any of big cities. Because no one eats Japanese food every day, not even the Japanese."
In spite of this, the clusters here seem to be doing well. Eat At Seven's founder Andrew Tan says they get "healthy crowds" and intend to add another concept by end August, while eight-month-old Emporium Shokuhin broke even on its investment for its 34,000 square foot space just six months after opening.
Emporium Shokuhin's chief executive officer Lim Li-Wei adds that they've seen month-on-month growth in sales since January, and shipment frequencies have increased from once to twice or thrice a week to keep up with demand.
"It's been better than I expected especially in this economy," says Mr Lim, who chalks up this success to the fact that consumers can recognise their good value - a result of having economies of scale. He adds that he also has the advantage of having all the outlets under one company, so "there's no competition between our restaurants, and there's more synergy".
It's a different model from Japan Food Town, where most of the eateries are SMEs from Japan making their first venture overseas. Mr Yoshikawa says: "We provide a platform and handle the logistics, so they have an easier time venturing out. Because otherwise it's difficult for them as costs are high, rental is high, and it's tough to bring in ingredients."
His hope is that after these small companies have established themselves at Japan Food Town, they will be able to open branches around Singapore on their own. As for the overall concept, Singapore would act as a launchpad for them to venture to other countries. For now, there are tentative plans to open in Kuala Lumpur, he says, but "we really want to try places like Europe or North America". "Although they have more restrictions for importing Japanese produce than Singapore, it'll be more challenging, but I want to try and bring these concepts to the world."
Japan Food Town
435 Orchard Road, #04-39/54
Wisma Atria Shopping Centre
Open 11am to 11pm daily
By the end of August, all of the 16 Japanese food outlets will have opened in Japan Food Town, which covers a space of over 20,000 square feet. Currently 13 are in operation, with another two expected by the end of July. All the outlets come from existing brands in Japan, and all but one are new to the Singapore market.
These outlets cover a wide range of Japanese food, including handmade udon at Inaniwa Yosuke, handmade soba at Yomoda Soba, teppanyaki at Osaka Kitchen, and ramen at Machida-Shoten. Of course there will also be restaurants offering other popular Japanese fare like sushi, wagyu, shabu shabu, tempura, fried chicken, mackerel, and onigiri (rice balls).
Itadakimasu by Parco
100 Tras Street, Level 3
Opening by end-2016
Opening in the last quarter of 2016, Itadakimasu by Parco will take up 14,000 square feet on level three of shopping mall 100AM in Tanjong Pagar. The restaurants that will make up the cluster are yet to be decided, but Parco estimates there will be five to 10 in total.
This concept will succeed the now-defunct one in Marina Bay which was open from 2010 to 2014 and featured restaurants like Saboten, Ma Maison and Tomi Sushi.
6 Raffles Boulevard, #01-18
Opening hours vary
If you want to bring home what you eat, then Emporium Shokuhin offers you that option. This 34,000 sq ft space on the first floor of Marina Square's new wing consists of eight dining concepts as well as a Japanese gourmet grocer.
After a meal at one of their original restaurants - Gyuu for yakiniku, Senmi Sushi for sushi and sashimi, Tsukeru for shabu shabu, or Burosu Honten for ramen, walk it off by checking out their live seafood tanks, or beef dry-ageing facility where they also sell some of their ingredients. Other eateries include a Ready-To-Eat section with takeaway items like onigiri (rice balls), a seafood wine bar named Umi+Vino, Kohi-Koji cafe and bakery, and Takujo fine dining restaurant.
Kuriya Japanese Market Yokocho
10 Tampines Central 1, #B1-07
It's not just the central business district that gets to see clusters of Japanese restaurants - even the heartlands do too. Just last year, the Tampines 1 shopping mall saw the opening of Kuriya Japanese Market Yokocho - a 3,500 sq ft space housing five different concepts with a shared seating space.
These five concepts include four self-serving food kiosks - Wadori Yakitori, Ichiban Bento, Men-ichi Ramen Express and Idaten Udon, as well as a retail section carrying Japanese produce, sake, and other food items.
Kuriya Japanese Market Yokocho belongs to Singapore food service company RE&S, which also runs clusters of Japanese restaurants under the brand Shokutsu Ten in both Jurong Point and Nex.
Eat at Seven
3 Temasek Boulevard, #03-313
Suntec City Mall
Open 11am to 10.30pm daily
Eat at Seven comprises - you guessed it - seven Japanese eateries all housed in the same enclave. In Singapore for the first time, the concepts include Enbu which serves Japanese craft beer and claims to be the first in Singapore to use the warayaki cooking method from the Kochi prefecture; Nigiro café which specialises in casual Japanese-Italian dining; NikuNoHi which does hot plate yakiniku and sashimi; and Maguro-Donya Miura-Misaki-Kou Sushi and Dining.
This cluster opened at Suntec City in end-2015 and is part of a collaboration with Japanese airline ANA.