Beef tongue (gyuu-tan), Edamame bean paste (zuma-funda) and fish cakes shaped like bamboo leaves (sasakamaboko). Just three of the delicious local delicacies on offer this weekend when I visted Sendai, the biggest city in the Tohoku region North of Tokyo.
When it comes to food, the Japanese are pretty wild about regional specialities. And given that they’re also crazy about buying souvenirs, this translates into pretty big business.
In Sendai, after gorging at one of the many restaurants catering in local delights – we filled up on more than our fair share of beef tongue – travelers can then stock up on gifts for family and friends at the huge bazaar of shops inside the station before boarding the homeward shinkansen.
The array of shops is bewildering. We counted ten offering sasakamboko alone, each selling beautifully packaged tid-bits to take home. And in amongst the individual stores and stalls selling ‘authentic’ products, there were also a few more recognisable brands getting in on the act.
Kit Kat were the most noticeable – with regional Tohoku flavours representing both Sendai – Zunda-Fumi flavour – and the nearby city of Yamagata – famous for it’s cherries. Not to be out-done, the iconic Japanese sweet brand Hi-chu were also on show with a Tohoku Apple variant. (Usually) savoury local snack product umaibo also put in an appearance with their gyuu-tan flavour variant.
Another tradition local to Sendai are kokeshi dolls, cute little carved wooden figurines, but the shop specializing in these also had a big sideline in mobile straps. Again, there was loads of localisaion going on, with straps featuring everyone from Felix the Cat to One Piece characters to Hello Kitty (of course) alongside local food and sights. So if you ever fancy a (Lilo &) Stitch Gyuutan edition strap for your mobile, you know where to come…
So that particular product may not be quite up my street, but this kind of localisation by brands is a great way to tie a product into something more real. By tapping into local flavours, an otherwise pretty boring box of Kit Kats suddenly becomes a gift to share with classmates (oh yes I did!). And the mobile strap becomes not just another character, but a memento of that special trip (Oh no I didn’t).
The latest edition of Trendwatching touches on this theme in their latest briefing under the heading of Urban Pride. As usual they’re pretty spot-on with their analysis – as more and more people around the world become city-dwellers, there will be opportunities to appeal to them with products and ideas that tap into their new sense of place.
With every trend though comes a counter-trend and it could be that alongside urban pride we see a growing nostalgia for more rural or historic traditions, like some of those on show in Sendai. Brands that can work this nostalgia into products that make more sense to urban tastes and lifestyles could be onto something. If nothing else, they should have the perfect souvenir for day-trippers.