Flipping TV channels in Japan offers a sensory overload unmatched by anything in the world. Click. A girl group with 75 members in matching costumes, singing lyrics about the boyfriend they’re contractually prohibited from having in real life. Click. A comedian getting punched in the nuts on a variety show. Click. A 50-year-old businessman eating lunch. Alone. Slowly.
Believe it or not, that last show, Kodoku No Gurume (The Lonely Gourmet), has been one of the most popular things on Japanese TV since its debut in 2012. Based on a bestselling comic and recently finishing its fifth season, The Lonely Gourmet has spawned hour-long specials, an iPhone app, and a series of collectible toys, all featuring its unlikely hero, European furnishings importer Gorō Inogashira.
By Western standards, it’s confounding television. Essentially—and without hyperbole—it is pornography, with food in place of sex. It’s a drama held together with the loosest of narratives, one where our protagonist is grudgingly placed in some vaguely plotlike situation, and before the first act is even over… bow chicka bow—it’s tempura time.
Here is a typical episode of Kodoku, specifically season five, episode six: Gorō arrives in the O-okayama neighborhood of Tokyo and walks from the train station to a business meeting. He’s tall, slim, and wearing a conservative navy suit. “If I’m able to land the deal today, it’ll likely be a big one,” he says in voice-over. He sits at a conference table with the boss, who has hired Gorō to refurnish the company’s office. Gorō presses him about the details: What kind of office environment are you looking for?
“We just need to spend the rest of our fiscal year budget,” says the boss, typing on his laptop. “In the end, how much money you make is all that matters, right?”
“I must decline,” says Gorō. He runs out of the office into the street, where he immediately gets hungry. This is Gorō’s hungry face:
It’s important to note that we are now only four minutes into a 30-minute show. Here we’ve come to the narrative pivot, as nonsensical as a hunky plumber appearing at the door. Gorō’s eyes lock. The loins stir with anticipation. The camera reveals a neighborhood fish restaurant. This shall be Gorō’s conquest. He steps in, takes a seat at the counter. He orders a set meal with sashimi and stewed fish, with side dishes of omelet, simmered tofu, mustard greens, and white rice. It is sultry in every way.
Tenderly, graphically, Gorō inserts food into his mouth. Gorō eats, slurps, and moans, all the while maintaining a stoic exterior. But his inside voice speaks in utter satisfaction: “Delicious sashimi, soy sauce, and white rice. I’m glad I’m Japanese.” At one point the camera pans slowly over fish tartare while a song that sounds a lot like Yello’s “Oh Yeah” plays.
And that’s how it plays out for the remainder of the episode. The soundtrack gets manic. Gorō, as if he can hear the music, eats faster. Groaning, he finishes off the meal without spilling anything on his tie. Finally, he thanks the staff and walks out, stuffed, muttering something about how a good lunch has washed away the gloominess of walking away from that big job. Roll credits.
Here’s the even weirder thing: As a title card at the end of every episode reminds us, Kodoku is a fictional drama. Everyone who appears on the show—Gorō, the chef, the hostess, the old guy who sits next to Gorō at the restaurant and puts some of his sashimi into a Tupperware for later—is an actor. But the restaurants featured on the show are real, as is the food.
Kodoku isn’t unique in featuring real restaurants on a fictional drama. Another recent hit show, Ramen Daisuki Koizumi-San, follows an eccentric, ramen-obsessed high school student as she visits actual ramen shops around Tokyo. But Gorō hits bars and diners, noodle shops and tempura places, which makes it a great introduction to the awesome diversity of everyday Japanese food.
So what do people love about these shows, anyway? In part, Japanese viewers have an insatiable appetite for insatiable appetites, especially when the eater is improbably slim. A few years ago, the country fell in love with a competitive eater named Gal Sone, an adorable sub-100-pound woman who could put away 10 pounds of curry in a few minutes. Japan also has its own version of Korean Mukbang videos, the cultural sensation where a YouTuber calmly devours a massive meal while addressing their fans. (Mukbang stars, many of whom are women, can be paid as much as $10,000 a month to eat on camera.)
Still, Kodoku No Gurume isn’t a celebration of gluttony. When Gorō orders four times as much food as an ordinary customer, it’s so we can see more of the restaurant’s menu come to life—not so we can get off on watching him pack more into his own slim frame. Unlike many of the more blasé Mukbang personalities, Yutaka Matsushige, the actor who plays Gorō, is so much fun to watch. If there were a show where he played an electronics repairman who mused about life over extreme close-ups of circuit boards and red-hot soldering irons, I’d probably watch that, too.
There’s something so inexplicably, universally appealing about Kodoku, in fact, my daughter, Iris, and I have watched them all together; it’s one of the only shows we can agree on. (Now, when I chide Iris for pouring soy sauce over her rice before eating, she’ll say, “Dad, Gorō does that all the time.” I can’t argue.) So when my family decided to spend two weeks in Tokyo this past July, we realized, “Hey, we could actually go somewhere Gorō ate. How about season five, episode six?”
The fish restaurant from that episode is named Kue. It has a cute blue roof and sits on a quiet corner near O-okayama Station. My wife and daughter and I squeezed into a communal table along with a couple of old women and a lone businessman (younger than Gorō) who seemed to be on his lunch break. We ordered what Gorō ordered: the Kue set lunch, which is about $12 for an improbable amount of food.
The restaurant holds about two dozen people, and as far as we could tell, all of them ordered the Kue lunch set. For half an hour, nobody got any food, and then the set meals started coming out from the kitchen one after another, and you could witness the faces brightening across the restaurant in a wave. I peered at my fellow diners’ trays and saw that the sashimi and simmered fish assortment was laid out according to the chef’s whim.
The whole experience felt like some bizarre combination of Space Mountain, the Travel Channel, and sitting at the When Harry Met Sally orgasm table at Katz’s Delicatessen. It was crossing the fourth wall into a make-believe world. It felt impossible, like Pleasantville with miso soup. It took me a long time to figure out why. What’s the difference between following Guy Fieri and following Gorō Inogashira?
The makers of Kodoku understand that one of the best ways to get at the truth is to apply a thin veneer of fiction. Bring a camera crew into a restaurant and the place changes. What’s more uncomfortable than a person waving a camera in your face and saying, “Just do what you normally do”? Paradoxically, you can recreate the experience of eating at a neighborhood restaurant more faithfully by giving the staff (and customers) the day off and bringing in actors who are used to working on camera and giving us multiple takes until they nail the banter with the hostess.
Want proof? Just keep watching Kodoku No Gurume after the credits roll, when Masayuki Qusumi (who also wrote the Kodoku comic) visits the same restaurant. It’s everything you expect from a mediocre food show: bad audio, weirdly enthusiastic voice-over, a stilted conversation with the chef. “Make this go away,” you want to yell at the screen. “Give me the real restaurant back! I mean… the fake one.“
If the thrill of watching fake people eat real food has awakened anything in you, you can stream every episode of Kodoku for free, albeit illegally, with excellent unofficial English subtitles written by a group of fans.