New Year's Eve special on Japan TV: Man eating alone

Goro Inogashira, played by Yutaka Matsushige, travels on his own to the western coastal area of Setouchi and eats by himself in the New Year's Eve special of The Solitary Gourmet.
Goro Inogashira, played by Yutaka Matsushige, travels on his own to the western coastal area of Setouchi and eats by himself in the New Year's Eve special of The Solitary Gourmet.PHOTO: THE SOLITARY GOURMET/FACEBOOK

TOKYO • Forget big and almost always disappointing parties, and that struggle to get home after midnight. In Japan, New Year's Eve is all about watching TV at home with your family, a reward after you have done your end-of-year deep clean.

Usually, Japanese families gather to watch the Year-end Song Festival on public broadcaster NHK, where popular singers are divided into teams - red for women, white for men - and battle it out, with the winner announced shortly before midnight. (More often than not, it's the men.)

Some families switch channels to watch the variety show This Is No Task For Kids!, in which comedians do stupid things and get punished for screwing up.

But this year a show that is for many Japanese "salarymen" pure escapism will take on the entertainment programmes. The Solitary Gourmet will broadcast its first New Year's Eve special, in which the star, a character named Goro Inogashira, will travel by himself to the western coastal area of Setouchi and eat. All by himself.

"I think TV Tokyo has given up trying to win audience for this slot," Yutaka Matsushige, the actor who plays Inogashira, joked about the channel's decision to broadcast a New Year's special on a night that, for almost 70 years, has been defined by the red-and-white singing contest on NHK.

The Solitary Gourmet, now in its sixth season, is a uniquely Japanese kind of hit.

This is a country where men are supposed to get jobs in big companies and remain there for life, spending long days in the office and then long nights eating, drinking and sometimes singing karaoke with their superiors. If your boss asks his team to have dinner together, there is no saying "no". These salarymen barely see their wives and children during the week.

That is why Inogashira has emerged as a kind of role model for a big swathe of Japanese society. He is a middle-aged Japanese man, but free from the round-the-clock obligations of corporate life. He is a self-employed salesman of soft furnishings imported from Europe.

He does not drink. He is not obliged to socialise with colleagues. He is unencumbered by a family.

He just travels the country selling his wares. And when he gets hungry, he stops at small, no-frills, family-run restaurants and relishes the local specialities. Over six seasons, he has eaten chicken hot pot in Fukuoka and grilled beef tongue in Sendai.

"Salarymen are corporate slaves who work tirelessly for their companies and their families," said Ushio Yoshida, a TV critic for the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper. "But Inogashira has escaped this slavery. That's why he's a hero to many people."

In food-mad Japan, the show has also helped take some of the stigma out of eating alone.

Inogashira is a fictional character, and the show is scripted - he thinks about what to eat, describes what he is eating and comments on what others are eating - but the restaurants he visits are real.

Before season six began this spring, Matsushige told local reporters that he didn't understand why people were interested in watching a middle-aged man just eating - and eating slowly. Still, he said that it is the food that is the star of the show. He is just a supporting actor.

The show is made up of lots of long, lingering footage of the menus and the meals - sizzling meat, trays of sashimi, steaming bowls of noodles. These are the kind of shots typically seen on cooking shows rather than drama programmes.

Inogashira sits there, by himself, and just savours the food. He is not looking at his phone; he is not reading a book - he is just enjoying every mouthful. He never Instagrams his meals.

He even has a sweet tooth and enjoys desserts - something associated with being a sissy for Japanese men.

Sometimes, however, the show proves controversial. A minor furore broke out on Twitter when Inogashira put soya sauce in his natto, a sticky fermented-bean dish, and then mixed it in. Aficionados say the natto should be whipped up first and then the soya sauce should be added.

On New Year's Eve, TV Tokyo will run a 90-minute special, from 10 to 11.30pm, in which Inogashira takes his last business trip of the year to the Setouchi area, between Hiroshima and Osaka.

The area is famous for its seafood but also for udon, a thick wheat flour noodle. On New Year's Eve, Japanese people usually eat soba, a long buckwheat noodle said to symbolise long life.

But TV Tokyo is keeping the menu for New Year's Eve under wraps for now.

The show is based on a comic book series that was popular in the 1990s and was translated into languages including Spanish and French. The writer, Masayuki Kusumi, will appear live on television before the show is broadcast.

At the beginning, the show was popular among men in their 30s to 40s, who started writing online about their own experiences visiting the same restaurants, Kusumi said.

But now, the show has become popular among women and younger men too, with viewers eager to see where Inogashira goes next.

"The main character behaves honestly, following his appetite and his instincts like a wild animal. He's just an ordinary middle-aged man, but he lives very freely," said Yoshida. "That's liberating and refreshing to watch."

The fact that Inogashira is single resonates in a country where young people are spurning marriage, said professor Hiroyoshi Usui of media culture at Sophia University in Tokyo. His choice of simple, ordinary, inexpensive restaurants shows that one can find small bursts of happiness without trying too hard, Usui wrote on his blog.

Yoshida said that when she watches the show, she often gets a craving for whatever Inogashira has been eating. "If Inogashira was eating curry, I might eat curry the following day," she said. "It's quite influential."

But Matsushige has a warning for viewers: "If you watch the show at this late hour on New Year's Eve and get hungry, there won't be any restaurants open, so don't get mad at us."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2017, with the headline 'New Year's Eve special on Japan TV: Man eating alone'. Print Edition | Subscribe