Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Great Japanese Rooftop Barbeque

With the hot summer nights there is nothing better to an Aussie than a good old-fashioned barbeque. There is something quite primeval about sitting around an open flame with a drink in hand, enjoying a balmy evening while cooking fresh raw meat! At this point I must apologise to my vegetarian friends who will be cringing with contempt as they look forward to their carrot stick lunch. However, whether they like it or not, the barbeque remains one of the most satisfying of culinary experiences that is happily enjoyed by us carnivores. To our surprise, here in Japan the home-style barbeque is generally a pretty rare experience. Not because the Japanese dislike cooked meat, quite the contrary, but simply because most live in apartments that understandably prevent any kind of open air cooking. However, not to be deterred they have invented numerous ways in which the humble barbeque can be enjoyed, one of which is what Jules and I simply refer to as the ‘rooftop barbie’!

In Osaka this event is referred to as a ‘beer garden’ and is so popular that you need to book weeks, if not months, in advance to reserve a spot on top of one of the city’s many high-rise buildings. Once making it to the rooftop, the elevator doors open to what can only be described as an over-scaled ‘simulated backyard’ complete with rows of tables each with mini ‘hibachi style’ barbeques. There is fake grass and the usual temporary seats that you might find at your local backyard function, such as the classic ‘white plastic stackable’ and the ‘strappy fold-out’ variety. Like many of Japans large group eating establishments, it is an all you can eat and drink affair. You are given a set time limit, so patrons are encouraged to get there early in their best barbeque attire to fire up their cooker and enjoy the endless amount of food and drink on offer. With plates in hand, you head around to various ‘stations’ to collect the freshly cut seafood and raw meat. This tends to be quite thinly cut, as is the Japanese preference, so it takes only a couple of minutes before it is cooked. Of course there are many accompaniments available too, including the odd bit of salad if that is your choice, but it is the ritual of cooking meat and seafood in the open air that the locals primarily come to experience, not to mention the many large jugs of beer that inevitably wash it all down.

The atmosphere high above the city rooftops is quite unique, with thousands of fairy lights draped all around, accompanying the more impressive lights of the big city beyond. High on a wall is a projector, beaming out drive-in sized images of the latest local sporting events, however nobody really seems to be watching it as they are more intent upon keeping an eye on their sizzling meat. Once all the barbeques are in full swing, there is a steady cloud of smoke drifting high into the night sky, while there is a ground swell of boisterous conversation that continues to increase with the arrival of yet more jugs of the amber fluid.

Several hours later and at the designated time, the tune ‘Old Lang Syne’ is played from overhead speakers, which is the not so subtle hint that the crowd should eat their last morsel, drink up and leave. Inevitably by this stage of the night the rooftop party is well and truly in full swing and despite being the only ‘gaijins’ (foreigners) at this mammoth communal barbeque, our group has by now struck up a conversation with one of the Japanese groups on the next table who are curious about our origins and have now drunk enough beer to ask. It is all very friendly and indicative of the happy atmosphere of the evening that continues to bring people of all ages back during the summer months. While such venues are temporary and only last for about four months each year, they have in recent years become a roaring success, enabling the locals to experience something that we in Australia tend to take for granted. While it may be a relatively new phenomenon over here, we found the whole experience to be actually very close to the traditional Aussie ‘beer garden’. Indeed through such annual events, barbeque cooking in Japan certainly remains alive and well, adding to Osaka’s reputation for their love of all forms of cooking and of course, good times!

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