Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on February 2014
If you are looking to get more connected this year, ask yourself this: Who doesn’t love a good meal ?
While there is an almost endless diversity when it comes to cuisines, eating itself is a universal necessity and pleasure. A meal is a nexus for human connection, offering a window into someone’s culture, a ready topic of conversation, a shared experience, a reason for gratitude and nourishment of the literal and figurative kinds. With that in mind, we’ve checked out some ways Tokyoites are bringing people together through food.
Karma Kitchen is an experiment in generosity. Volunteers staff a restaurant, preparing and serving a completely free meal to guests. To complete the full circle of giving and sustain the program, guests can then make a donation of any amount to cover the cost for the next diner. They can also offer gifts or services in lieu of cash, such as doing a musical performance or teaching a lesson.
Most guests attend by themselves, and the staff will seat you with others until the table is full, making it easy to strike up a conversation with your tablemates. When we attended, some of the other guests brought small, hand-made gifts to hand out, as did the staff, providing us with lots to talk about in addition to the food.
The atmosphere was lively and people who were complete strangers 30 minutes prior were hugging and bursting into gales of laughter, so there is certainly something to be said for the ambiance created by so much generosity. The warm, fuzzy feeling stuck with us well into the week, too, allowing us to face even the Tokyo commute with a little more patience towards our fellow man.
The location and timing of the Tokyo events changes, so check their Facebook page for announcements regarding upcoming meetings.
EatWith, KitchHike & Nagomi Visit
Something about having a meal in someone’s home is so much more enlightening than just eating at a restaurant together. Particularly if you are new to or just visiting Japan and wondering how the typical person lives, it can be frustrating that so few Japanese entertain at home. Instead of waiting for an invitation, you can check out your options on online services like EatWith (www.eatwith.com), KitchHike (kitchhike.com) and Nagomi Visit (www.nagomivisit.com).
Kind of like couch surfing for foodies, these services match interested diners with hosts willing to invite a stranger into their house for a meal. The host sets the price per guest to cover costs and perhaps make a little money, while the diner gets a home-cooked meal, a peek at life in a different culture and maybe even some cooking lessons in the bargain.
Nagomi Visit differs slightly with a standard cost of ¥3,150 for adults (children under 5 are free) to cover the organization’s overhead costs and pay for ingredients. They also match diners with hosts to get the best results for all. Visitors are advised to book at least two weeks in advance to guarantee a seat at the table.
The websites allow users to review hosts and communicate with them ahead of time about the menu, particular interests or dietary restrictions. It also looks like most hosts allow you to BYOB, so it could end up being cheaper than a night out.
The Tokyo Vegan Meetup Group, for starters
Connecting with people who share your culinary passions is particularly important when you are a vegetarian or vegan. Whether you gave up meat for health or ethical reasons, dining out in Tokyo can be a drag when you are the only one grilling the server on where there might be dashi (fish soup stock) hidden in the menu or explaining how chicken is indeed meat.
No need to fret about that when the rest of your group is as meatless as you. From soy “meat” tasting competitions to a shojin ryori (Buddhist cuisine) experience to a monthly vegan buffet, this group offers events where you can forget about the menu and focus on getting to know your fellow diners.
On a side note, if vegan dining isn’t your thing, you will likely find a group that matches your particular palate on the Meetup site, from the broadly restaurant-loving Tokyo Eatup Meetup to specific regional cuisines or areas of Tokyo. Bon appetit!