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Business trends

Cooking classes give visitors to Japan an experience to savor

Overseas tourists seek out novelty and personal interactions off the beaten path

Yayoi Kiyonari, right, shows Stephane Bavantro and his wife how to prepare okonomiyaki at her home in Tokyo. (Photo by Sadayasu Senju )

TOKYO -- Ask visitors to Japan to name a few local dishes and they might list sushi, tempura or sukiyaki. But these days, more overseas tourists are learning about Japanese home cooking, which is very different from what one typically sees in in-flight magazines.

Cooking classes are a part of a growing trend toward "experience" tourism. For many travelers, a memorable trip to Japan involves more than taking photos of Mount Fuji or Tokyo Tower.

Stephane Bavantro, 33, and his wife came to Japan from Switzerland for their honeymoon. During their trip, they took a cooking class. They began by snapping photos of each other wearing Japanese kappogi aprons. "I look just like a sushi chef," Bavantro said.

When it comes to Japanese cuisine, Bavantro said things like sushi or yakitori come to mind. Bavantro said he saw an advertisement for the cooking class on a train and signed up, thinking it would be a nice way to wrap up their monthlong trip.

A three-hour lesson booked through the Tadaku website costs 8,000 to 10,000 yen ($73 to $91) per person. Bavantro and his wife learned how to make okonomiyaki, a savory pancakelike dish containing vegetables, meat and seafood. At various points in the preparation -- chopping vegetables, mixing yam and flour to make the batter, frying the pancakes on the griddle -- the couple made notes and took photos.

The lesson was on Osaka-style okonomiyaki. The newlyweds had tried okonomiyaki at a restaurant in Hiroshima, but the Osaka version "is really different," Bavantro said. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki have noodles as a main ingredient.

The couple's instructor for the day was Yayoi Kiyonari, a 45-year-old housewife. Kiyonari uses Tadaku, but mainly relies on social media sites to attract students.

Kiyonari gives lessons at her house, and this year, she began focusing on foreign students. Because her English skills are limited, Kiyonari asks a friend to act as interpreter. Her friend also translates the recipes. To accommodate practicing Muslims, Kiyonari has created a prayer space and a separate refrigerator for halal food.

Given the difficulty of finding regular students, Kiyonari has cut back on the number of classes she teaches and has nearly doubled the lesson fee for foreign students to cover the cost of interpretation. The service is not so profitable, she said, but rewarding nonetheless.

"The reactions from students are completely different from Japanese, and that makes me happy," said Kiyonari.

Bavantro seemed content with his class, saying it allowed him to have an authentic Japanese experience. In addition to a taste of local cuisine, part of what makes cooking lessons popular with overseas tourists is the opportunity to talk with ordinary people. That is something many travelers miss out on.

"Tourists like us cannot easily communicate with Japanese people because we don't speak Japanese," said Bavantro. The couple used a home-sharing service for their accommodations, hoping for a deeper cultural experience, but found the language barrier a problem.

According to a June survey by U.S. travel site TripAdvisor, the most popular activities among overseas visitors to Japan were MariCar, a tour in which participants dress up in costumes and drive around Tokyo on go-karts. That was followed by visiting the Akiba Fukurou owl cafe and YUCa's Japanese Cooking, cooking lessons aimed at foreign tourists.

Hiroshi Susa, president of Tadaku, said cooking classes are popular because they "allow users to see the real Japanese culture." If a lesson takes place at a Japanese instructor's home, visitors can "get a glimpse of the culture through [the home's] interior and other elements," Susa said.

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