[From January Issue 2012]
On November 12 and 13, 2011 the annual B-1 Grand Prix was held at Himeji Castle in Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture. The B-1 Grand Prix is a festival of B-kyuu local cuisine. “B-kyuu” or “B-grade” denotes things that are reasonably priced and “gotouchi” means “uniquely local.” In short, this festival promotes localities by showcasing inexpensive and delicious dishes that are loved by the locals.
This was the sixth time the event had been held, but this time it had a unique twist: rather than featuring professional eateries, the exhibitors were local groups who wished to boost their local economy. Participants in the event were not only aiming to introduce popular local cuisine, but also to deepen knowledge of, and thereby excite interest in, their town at a nationwide level.
Winning the B-1 Grand Prix is said to be an effective way to boost the local economy; along with popularizing local cuisine, that region also comes to the attention of the nation. Winners of the Grand Prix are widely featured in the media, resulting in an increase in the number of tourists to their region and a rise in the sale of related ingredients. Tie up instant meal and snack products sold in convenience stores and the like are also attracting a lot of attention.
The first ever festival was held in Hachinohe and attracted ten exhibitors and 17,000 visitors. Exhibitors and visitors gradually increased with each event and the last Grand Prix was the most popular ever with 63 exhibitors and 515,000 visitors. The event was blessed with sunny weather and Himeji Station was bustling with people from the morning onwards. “It was the first time I saw so many people filling the main street in front of the station,” a surprised local exclaimed.
With so many people gathered together, visitors must wait in a long line to taste their desired dish. After only a few minutes staff holding “20 minute wait” and “30 minute wait” signs start to appear, despite this visitors continue to join the queue as if that kind of a wait was not such a bad thing.
The wait is not necessarily tedious. This is because food is not the only element of the “B-1 Grand Prix” competition. Exhibitors walk around the venue dressed as local mascots, play musical instruments, perform skits, and promote their own community as they entertain the visitors waiting in line.
When deciding a winner, voters must take into account the hospitality and overall performance of the exhibitors, as well as the quality of the food. Various ingenious services are provided, such as staff dressed up in maid costumes sprinkling furikake (seasoning for rice made from dried food), and people who can keep a place in the queue for visitors who need to go to the toilet.
Providing so much food along with a variety of other services to so many people makes it tough to manage finances. That is why this event uses a preordered ticket system for payment rather than cash. Unused tickets from the event can also be used in shops around the Himeji Castle area.
The voting process is unique. Disposable chopsticks used to eat at the festival are collected inside the ballot boxes and the weight of each box determines the winner. Each person is allowed to vote with only one pair of chopsticks. But since chopsticks come in pairs, voters can also choose to place a stick in different boxes. Voters cannot choose three or more winners.
Some lines are noticeably longer than others. These are seen at the booths of past Grand Prix winners, winners such as Fujinomiya Yakisoba (fried noodles) Society, Atsugi Shirokoro Horumone (grilled pork intestines) Explorers, Yokote Yakisoba (fried noodles) Merchant Association and Kofu Tori Motsu-ni de Minasama-no en-wo Torimotsu (stewed chicken intestines) Group. These champion groups enter the Hall of Fame and are exempted from the event ranking list. As expected, the waiting lines for these former champions are quite long, and a sign that read “240-minute wait” was seen during the event.
This year’s Gold Grand Prix (Champion) was awarded to Hiruzen Yakisoba Lovers. The thick miso-based salty-sweet sauce flavor of this Hiruzen Yakisoba (fried noodles) captured the hearts of visitors this year. The winner received a pair of golden chopsticks at the awards ceremony. ISHIGA Mikihiro, the chairman of the group said, “I am overjoyed that our fantastic team won at this fantastic venue. This is just the beginning of our work to boost our local economy.”
The runner up was Tsuyama Horumone Udon Study Group. They introduced their horumon udon which is a local favorite that goes perfectly with beer. Horumone (cow intestines) are abundant in vitamins and minerals. Third place was awarded to Hachinohe Senbei-jiru (rice cake soup) Research Institute. It is a unique soup with a type of rice cake called nanbu senbei added to it. It has won five awards in past competitions.
A dish called Namie, Yakisoba Taikoku which came in fourth, also attracted attention. This group was from Namie Town, Fukushima Prefecture, where many citizens have been forced to abandon their homes because of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake. YASHIMA Sadayuki who received the award said, “We lost our homes because of the earthquake and my friends are now scattered far and wide. We have come this far thanks you all of you. We will strive to recover our homes.” His words started up a chant of “Namie” from the crowd.
After the festivities, TAWARA Shinichi of the B-1 Grand Prix organizer, Ai-B League secretariat, said, “B-1 Grand Prix is not a place to compete; it is rather a place where towns from all over Japan come together to promote their own town. The ranking is simply one of its attractions. We are getting bigger every year, and this year was the largest event yet. I am happy that we were able to finish up successfully and safely without incident. Putting safety first, we’d like to continue to develop this exciting event.”
Even without a win, the promotional impact of simply participating in the event is enough. Another advantage is that participating in the event strengthens ties between regions. The next Grand Prix is scheduled on October 20~21, 2012 in Kitakyushu City, Fukuoka Prefecture. “Gotouchi B-kyu Gourmet” is no longer a fad, it has the potential to become an integral part of Japan’s diverse culture.
Text: IWABUCHI Manabi