Early one rainy evening, a group of yuppies were happily chatting while enjoying their dinner at a street hawker stall specializing in Japanese food in Cikini, Central Jakarta.
They are frequent customers to Sopo Ngiro, a street hawker stall that operates as a Warjep or Warung Jepang (Japanese food kiosk) as it offers food at very moderate prices.
The same situation can be found in Ubud, Bali, a sub-district in Gianyar, which is some 30 kilometers east of Denpasar and well- known as home not only to common people and influential royalty but also noted painters, sculptors and intellectuals of various backgrounds and nationalities, whose presence has shaped the area's image as a cultural haven.
On a sunny day last week, a group of Japanese tourists were having lunch at Caf* Angkasa, located on Ubud's bustling Jl. Monkey Forrest, which offers Western food with Japanese influences, such as hambagu (hamburger with ground beef and pork) and mentaiko spaghetti (marinated pollock roe).
Sopo Ngiro Warjep and Caf* Angkasa are simple examples showing that Japanese food has become very popular in Indonesia, and that more people are opening restaurants not only at star-rated hotels, malls and food courts at various shopping centers or stalls in residential areas.
Japanese food has indeed gone international, and is enjoyed by many people in different countries including in Indonesia, a nation with its own varied tasty, spicy food.
Aiming at common people with a certain degree of purchasing power, Sopo Ngiro, which opened in 1991, has branches in Kelapa Gading in North Jakarta and Panglima Polim in South Jakarta.
Sutiyono, a waiter at Sopo Ngiro Cikini, said at least 50 people a day ate at his stall, which opens from 6 p.m. to midnight. "There's been a constant demand and we have loyal customers," he said.
Indry Mariska, who regularly eats dinner with friends at Sopo Ngiro, said she enjoyed the dishes there.
"As an employee of an event organizer, I normally work until late, so I come to Sopo Ngiro, which is near my office, about three times a week for dinner. As a Japanese food and chicken lover, I find the chicken teriyaki here tastes similar enough to that served at bigger restaurants," she shared.
Japanese food has apparently become a favorite cuisine among many Indonesians, not only in big cities but also in small towns across the country.
In Ubud, in addition to Caf* Angkasa, there are also Warung Sovia and Kagemusha, which serve delicious Japanese food at reasonable prices. The three places are run by Japanese who are married to Indonesians.
Tetsuya Yamamoto, Caf* Angkasa's owner, said most of his customers are from Japan but live in Ubud.
"Some Indonesians also come regularly, and it's good to see all our customers socialize so well here," he said, adding that everyone was free to spend as much as time as they wanted at his caf* even if they only ordered coffee.
Ni Luh Pertiwi, otherwise known as Megumi Nakata, who runs Sovia said her place offered Japanese food cooked according to family recipes.
"More people are now looking for vegetarian and healthy food, so they come here," she said.
For Yumi Sato, who opened Kagemusha in July 1991, food quality and customer service are important in terms of attracting more customers and maintaining regulars.
"Natural taste is important to me. So I try to use only good ingredients in my food. In addition, for me, treating customers as family member is vital. So everyone will be happy eating here."
Sato, who has trained 10 Balinese cooks to work at her restaurant, always cooks special dishes for her guests and serves them herself.
Joseph Borde, a Canadian who lived in Japan for 15 years and now stays in Ubud, said he frequently visited Kagemusha for its good home-cooked food. "You can feel the heart of the person cooking the food," he said.
Japanese restaurants in Bali and Jakarta, including independent ones, franchises and those managed by international hotel chains, all try to lure locals and expatriates to their premises.
Sakura is an example of an independent Japanese restaurant in Jakarta.
A director of Sakura, Adhi I. Andono, said the restaurant was established in 1996 and now has three locations, namely Cilandak in South Jakarta, Kota Bukit Indah in Purwakarta, West Java, and at the Financial Club at Graha Niaga building on Jl. Sudirman, Jakarta.
"Sakura started as a hobby, as I liked to serve good food when my friends and I regularly got together. Then it became a business, but just like serving a close friend with good food, Sakura always focuses on quality," he said, adding that the restaurant specializes in sashimi.
He said the materials and ingredients used at Sakura were meticulously selected, and that customers would instantly understand the quality distinction of the food served at his restaurants.
"Japanese food has gained more popularity and some people who are interested in health and fitness put faith in the ingredients. For this reason, Sakura really cares about using selected ingredients. We are strict about the quality, which is reflected in the freshness of the food," he said.
Among the established Japanese restaurants located in hotels in Jakarta is Keyaki at the Sari Pan Pacific. The restaurant provides authentic Japanese cuisine and has become the first choice for people to enjoy Japanese dishes.
Since opening in 1976, the restaurant, previously called Furusato until it changed into Keyaki in 1987, offers a wide selection of Japanese cuisine, from teppanyaki, robatayaki, sukiyaki, yakiniku, sushi selections and many other Japanese dishes.
The assistant public relations manager of Sari Pan Pacific, Wanda Ismira Backsin, said one of the favorite dishes at Keyaki was robatayaki, grilled or barbecued. She said the robatayaki counter provided a wide selection of food like oysters, shellfish, prawns, salmon, beef, garlic, paprika and mushrooms.
"All are marinated with unique Japanese sauce, grilled and served with a special sauce made by the Japanese master chef, Tomoaki Ito," she said.
Japan Cultural Events
Dec. 2 - 17: Aiko "Maling Jemuran" exhibition at Galeri Mini, Japan Foundation.
Dec. 3 (8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.): International seminar "Quo Vadis Traditional Arts V" at UPI Bandung.
Dec. 6: National Japanese proficiency test across Indonesia.
Dec. 7 - 13: Indonesia-Japan Textile Expo (batik and kimono) at the Textile Museum, Tanah Abang, Central Jakarta. Programs include Japanese tea ceremony demonstration, ikebana workshop, origami, etc.
Dec. 8 (2 p.m. to 5 p.m.): JiFFest ICAF selection screening of animation created by Japanese university students, followed by a discussion with Prof Kifune and Wahyu Aditya (Hello Motion) at Serambi Salihara, Jl. Salihara 16, Pasar Minggu, South Jakarta.
Dec. 9 (3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.): JiFFest ICAF selection screening of animation created by Japanese university students, followed by a post-talk with Prof Kifune at Blitz Megaplex Grand Indonesia.
Dec. 11 (7 p.m.) and Dec. 12 (1 p.m.): JiFFest screening of Okuribito - Departures (Oscar prize winner for best foreign language film in 2009) at Blitz Megaplex Grand Indonesia.
Dec. 16 - 23: Indonesia-Japan children's art exhibition with the theme "My country" at Hall Japan Foundation.
Dec. 16, 2009 - Jan. 16, 2010: Tomoko Mukaiyama "WASTED" Exhibition at Cemeti Art House, Yogyakarta.
Source: Japan Foundation Jakarta