TOKYO (WASHINGTON POST) - 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've done your end-of-year deep clean.
Usually, Japanese families gather to watch the Year-end Song Festival on NHK, the public broadcaster, 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 This Is no Task for Kids! variety show 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 programs. 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 swath of Japanese society. He is a middle-aged Japanese man, but he is free from the round-the-clock obligations of corporate life. He is a self-employed salesman of soft furnishings imported from Europe.
He doesn't drink. He's not obliged to socialise with colleagues. He's unencumbered by a family.
He just travels the country selling his wares. And when he gets hungry, he stops off 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's the food that's the star of the show. He's 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 programs.
Inogashira sits there, by himself, and just savours the food. He's not looking at his phone; he's not reading a book - he's just enjoying every mouthful. He never Instagrams his meals.
He's not self-conscious about being alone in rowdy bars or barbecue restaurants. He even has a sweet teeth and enjoys desserts - something associated with being a sissy for Japanese men."He's very particular about how he eats each dish. He always asks the restaurant staff how to eat the meal to maximise the flavor and loyally follows their instructions," Toyo Keizai, a popular weekly magazine for salarymen, noted in an article. "You hear Goro's inner monologue. That's all there is, but the time passes fast."
Sometimes, however, the show proves controversial. A minor furore broke out on Twitter when Inogashira put soy 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 soy sauce should be added.
On New Year's Eve, TV Tokyo will run a 90-minute special, from 10 to 11.30 p.m., 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 thinner, buckwheat noodle said to symbolise longevity - long life like a long noodle.
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.
Business executives who can eat alone feel liberated from the demands and stresses of work, and the audience enjoys that, the program's producer has said.
A senior government official who often has to endure long, stuffy dinners for work said he tried to follow the solitary gourmet's example as often as he could, patronising small eateries and enjoying not having to talk about government business.
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, the TV critic. "That's liberating and refreshing to watch." The fact that Inogashira is single resonates in a country where young people are spurning marriage, said Hiroyoshi Usui, professor 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, the actor who plays the solitary gourmet, 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."