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Nikkei Chronicles #1: ITADAKIMASU! A Taste of Nikkei Culture

Quick Thoughts on Japanese Fast Food

American-style fast food was only introduced in Japan during the past 30 years—when I lived there as a child, there were no McDonalds, Pizza Hut or KFC to be found in the alleys and skyscrapers of Tokyo. Those bastions of U.S. culture arrived in the late ‘60s and during the 1970s, and when they did, they often adapted to Japanese tastes, by featuring custom versions of the familiar Big Macs and Quarter Pounders we know and love. In Japan, for example, you can order a Teriyaki McBurger with fries.

This decidedly un-gourmet American cuisine has had some notable effects on Japanese culture. Over the past several decades, not only has Christmas become a very popular holiday in Japan, the “traditional” Christmas day meal of choice has become…a bucket of KFC chicken. According to a radio news report, no one quite knows how Colonel Saunders’ chicken won out over the typical U.S. feasts of turkey or ham, but the management of KFC must be crowing over their good fortune. Can you imagine a Norman Rockwell painting of an all-American family about to have their holiday meal, gathered around a red-and-white-striped paper bucket?

In an already rushed and increasingly faster-paced society, the idea of “fast food” makes sense. In the past, food on the run came from street vendors or noodle shops; but mostly, I don’t think of Japanese cuisine as being suited to quick cooking and serving.

At the same time that American junk food was invading Japan, some Japanese food has made its way into the U.S. dining menu. In the 1970s, a “Japanese fast food” chain called Yoshinoya’s Beef Bowl first opened outlets in the Denver area. The restaurants served donburi dishes—meat and vegetables with sauce over a bowl of rice—quickly and inexpensively, and did well for a few years. My younger brother Glenn even got a job as assistant manager at the downtown location, and our family is still friends with his boss from back then.

I have great memories of chowing down on beef bowls because they were so hearty and in their own way, pretty authentically Japanese with their thick-sliced marinated meat, onions and that sweet sauce, topped off with red pepper and slivers of red ginger.

I have to admit, though, that there’s one reason that American fast food such as burgers and fries is better suited to the car culture that created “fast food” in the first place: It’s easier to eat while driving! One night, I was so hungry on my way to visit a friend in Boulder that I stopped at a Beef Bowl location and ate the damn thing while driving on the highway using my knees to steer the car while I balanced the bowl on the steering wheel and shoveled the rice into my mouth with the chopsticks. A Quarter Pounder with cheese is just much easier to handle on the road…

For whatever reason, Yoshinoya’s didn’t last into the 1990s, at least in Colorado, though I hear they still thrive on the West coast. There are a couple of reminders of the chain here, though: The downtown location where my brother worked is still a Japanese restaurant serving up a variety of items including bowls. And the former Beef Bowl location on S. Colorado Blvd. was immediately converted by a former Yoshinoya’s employee who settled in the Denver area, Mareo Torito, as Kokoro, with the same type of men as the Beef Bowls.

Over the years, the hard-working Torito has expanded his restaurant’s menu to include other Nihon-shoku (Japanese food) such as tonkatsu, or fried pork cutlets, curry dishes, a small selection of basic sushi and even the somewhat exotic “korokke,” or fried potato dumpling. Torito has also expanded his business to include a second location in the northern suburb of Arvada, in a nice bright building that used to house a Boston Market franchise, and started advertising both restaurants with eye-catching billboards scattered throughout the metro area.

Kokoro’s newest menu item is tasty, hearty udon noodles, sold with the catchy name of “Splash” for non-Japanese whose curiosity might be sparked by the moniker. Despite its marketing spin, the dish is very traditional: fish cake, fried tofu, seaweed, shiitake mushroom, boiled egg and green onions swimming with thick udon noodles in a familiar broth flavored with soy sauce and a touch of sesame seed oil. It’s Japanese comfort food that’s perfect for cold weather!

I happened to stop by the Arvada Kokoro location for a quick lunch on Christmas eve, and I was pleased to see that even just before the holiday, the restaurant was busy with diners. Interestingly, the customers were evenly split between Asian and Caucasian faces—Torito’s recipe for success obviously has cross-cultural appeal. Across from me sat a “Leave It to Beaver” family with a young girl, a teenaged boy wearing his baseball cap backwards, and mom and dad looking like something out of a contemporary Norman Rockwell magazine cover, and they didn’t seem out of place at all, having a beef bowl for one of their holiday meals.

Such is the power of food to cross cultural borders—even ones that span vast distances. And, such is the appeal of fast food—even if it’s not a burger with fries.

While I was eating (I ordered the tonkatsu, a personal favorite, with a korokke dumpling), Torito came over and asked me about my cap. I was wearing a baseball cap with a Kanji character on the front, with the definition of “Heart, Spirit and Mind” on the back. Torito was excited by the cap because the Kanji was the character for the word “kokoro,” or “heart.”

I explained that the cap came from a store in a local mall, but that the manufacturer was based in Boulder, and called Kanji Kaps. I felt embarrassed to admit that I wore the cap because I thought it was a cool looking Kanji but that I didn’t know it was the character for “kokoro.” At times like this, I feel more American than Japanese.

Over the Christmas weekend, I thought some more about how I mix many traditions into my everyday experiences, including the celebrations of holidays. For instance, Christmas dinner with Glenn and his wife Michelle and their beautiful young daughters and the rest of my family featured traditional Italian food, but after dinner we had traditional Japanese snacks such as osembe (rice crackers) and yokan (sweet bean paste) alongside the fudge and other European desserts.
I didn’t have a single bite of KFC chicken all weekend though.

NOTE: The addresses for the Kokoro locations are 2390 S. Colorado Blvd. in Denver (303-692-8752) and 5535 Wadsworth Bypass in Arvada (303-432-0600).

* This article was originally published in Nikkei View on December 26, 1999.

© 1999 Gil Asakawa

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About this series

For many Nikkei around the world, food is often the strongest and most lasting connection they have with their culture. Across generations, language and traditions are often lost, but their connections to food remain.

Discover Nikkei collected stories from around the world related to the topic of Nikkei food culture and its impact on Nikkei identity and communities. This series introduces these stories. 

 Our Editorial Committee selected their favorite stories in each language. Here are their favorites:

To learn more about this writing project >>


Check out these other Nikkei Chronicles series:

#2: Nikkei+ ~ Stories of Mixed Language, Traditions, Generations & Race ~
#3: Nikkei Names: Taro, John, Juan, João?
#4: Nikkei Family: Memories, Traditions, and Values 
#5: Nikkei-go: The Language of Family, Community, and Culture 
#6: Itadakimasu 2!: Another Taste of Nikkei Culture