As Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s vibrant and maximalist collaboration with Louis Vuitton is theatrically making its presence felt across global cities, the country’s food and drink rituals are also making their mark around the world. The New York Times recently explored the rise of Greenpoint in Brooklyn as the new Little Tokyo of New York, citing an explosion of Japanese businesses in recent years. These include Japanese café and shop Acre, tea salon Kettl, sake shop Bin Bin Sake and grocery store Mitsuki Japanese Market. This Japanese culinary expansion is also being seen across Europe and in other markets in Asia, in large part driven by the Japanese government’s mission to significantly increase the country’s food and drinks exports this decade. Building on 10 consecutive years of record growth, the government has ambitious plans to boost the value of Japan’s food exports by five times in the 11 years from 2019 to 2030, from ¥912.1 billion per year to ¥5 trillion.

Some of the establishments and brands involved are selling elements of Japanese food and culture that will already be familiar to international audiences, while others focus on bringing relatively untapped traditions to the West. For example, Dashi Okume in New York is an eatery that specializes in dashi, a Japanese soup made from dried fish, mushroom and seaweed, while a buckwheat soba shop is also set to open in Greenpoint in the coming months. Arguably the most interesting Japanese export story surrounds one of its best-known products: sake. In part due to the reduced alcohol consumption of Japan’s aging population and also driven by younger generations’ increased preference for Western-style drinks, Japanese sake sales have declined significantly in the last 50 years. Production of sake for the Japanese market has dropped by an estimated 75% since the early 1970s, according to the Brewers Association of Japan, who also revealed a 30% decline in domestic demand during the last decade alone.

Two men wearing all black lean over a steel barrel partially underground, holding long wooden pegs and stirring within the barrel. Several large steel barrels stand in the background.
IWA Sake photos are @ Nao TSUDA

This has created the necessity for a booming sake export industry and Japanese brewers have been reinventing the beverage in recent years for international markets, most notably China, the US and the EU. Domestically in Japan sake is perceived as a middle-aged man’s drink and its reputation is tarnished by low-quality options said to be full of additives and known for inducing hangovers. This has led sake brands to completely reimagine the product and its positioning to appeal to the lifestyle and taste of young, affluent Westerners. One of the ways this is being done is by aligning sake with foodie culture. The Western diet, which generally features richer, fattier and more dairy-based products than Japan, is said to be ideal for food pairing, so sake brands and eateries are leaning into this to position sake as a premium choice.

A black bottle of sake photographed with a lit up Japanese paper lantern and a cherry blossom branch in the background.

Lighter, fruitier sakes are also being created that appeal to the palates of international audiences. These often borrow from the language and design codes of fine wine, and indeed new products are emerging that introduce winemaking know-how into the sake making process. For example, IWA Sake was created by former chef de cave at Dom Pérignon Champagne, Richard Geoffroy, while Heavensake is a joint French-Japanese venture co-founded by ex-head winemaker at the Piper Heidsieck Champagne house, Regis Camus. Heavensake is additive, sugar and gluten free and is crafted in Japan using the tagline “Japanese excellence, French taste”. Regis Camus tells VML Intelligence that this hybrid approach could be the key to global success. He said: “HEAVENSAKE was the first to bring the art of Assemblage (blending) to sake with the intention to create smooth and fruity taste profiles which are adapted to Western palates. In regards to marketing our approach is to show all the different situations during which one can enjoy HEAVENSAKE, from business lunches to Burning Man.”

Whether sticking close to tradition, or blending Japanese culture with Western taste, the Japanese culinary boom promises to roar on for the remainder of the decade.

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