Ponzu varieties in glass bottles

Diversivore in Japan

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I traveled to Japan in November of 2018 in order to appear on the TV show 'Who Wants to Come to Japan'!  I was invited by the producers and my travel and costs were covered, however I was NOT asked to share any posts about it with my readers.  Instead, I'm simply doing so because it was an amazing adventure, and I want to tell you all about it!

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Well hello there! This post is the culmination of a ten-month adventure, and I'm thrilled to be able to finally share it with you.  In fact, I've been itching to share news and stories about my trip with you since I returned a little under two months ago, but I had to wait because of broadcasting/scheduling concerns.  Yes, like a winning game show contestant (though without the lavish prizes and cash), I had to fight back my urge to share in order to keep TV secrets.  You see, I recently traveled to Japan in order to explore my passion for ponzu shoyu and yuzu on the TV Tokyo reality show 'Who Wants to Come to Japan' (世界ニッポン行きたい人応援団)!  The episode airs in Japan when this post went live (Jan. 7, 2019 for those of you visiting from the future), so I can finally tell you all about the experience!  There's a LOT to share, and it definitely warrants multiple posts here on Diversivore, so this first post is going to act as an introduction and launching page of sorts.  I'll be telling you about how things came to happen, a little about my time filming with the show, and some of the adventures I had on my own after we wrapped.  I'm also going to be posting new recipes and ingredient pages related to the trip, so stay tuned for those.

This is part 1 of my adventure, but you can check out all of the related posts and recipes here (I'll be updating that page whenever I post a new piece, so I hope you'll come back to visit a few times).  Be sure to subscribe for updates to make sure you don't miss out on anything new.

Now, let's get to how and why this all happened!

Various ingredients used to make ponzu shoyu

My Ponzu Shoyu ingredients. You can click the pic to see the recipe.

Ponzu Shoyu & Japanese Citrus

I've written about food from all over the world here on Diversivore, but I do have a special fondness for the recipes, ingredients, and food cultures of Japan.  I didn't grow up with much in the way of Japanese food, but I came to it in a big way as a young adult.  My wife (who is Taiwanese-Canadian) grew up eating a lot of Japanese food, and she introduced me to all kinds of dishes I hadn't known about.  I also took up kendo (Japanese sword-fighting) in my early university days, where I was introduced to many new friends who were themselves in love with Japan's varied cuisines.  It certainly doesn't hurt that the popularity of Japanese food and restaurants has only grown in North America over the past few decades, leading to many new opportunities to try a broad diversity of wonderful and new-to-me foods.  But I quickly learned that many of the so-called Japanese recipes that were available to me to work didn't really hit the mark for me.  It was too common to omit unfamiliar but important ingredients, and many of the less publicized Japanese foods were glossed over in favour of the cultural heavyweights like sushi, ramen, and (that perennial North American favourite) anything covered in teriyaki sauce.  Before I even started thinking about Diversivore, I'd started researching and experimenting more and more with the recipes and ingredients that are fundamental to Japanese home cooking - and I was thrilled with the results.

Speaking of ingredients - well I've covered some pretty broad territory there too, but citrus holds a very special place in my heart. I'm a huge fan of citrus flavours (in both sweet and savoury settings), but there's much more to it than that.  When I first started to build Diversivore, I needed content to work with and build the site around. Before I had built a single page of this site, before I'd learned even a tiny bit of code, I was researching and writing about citrus so I could share the information here as part of my first Ingredient Pages. Why citrus? Well the aforementioned fondness is certainly a big part of it, but the group is a great example of the biological complexity of our food - something I love to address on here.  A small handful of wild citrus trees have been cross-bred and selected for millennia to produce a staggering diversity of cultivars, most of which can only be propagated by growing clonal cuttings.  Citrus is also food group that is both universally popular and choc-a-bloc with underappreciated varieties.  There's hardly a grocery store on earth where you can't buy a lemon, and yet the citron (the fruit from which lemons were bred) is an obscure culinary rarity in much of the world.  Basically, it's the stuff that Diversivore was literally built to talk about!

Various types of ponzu shoyu in glass bottles

A selection of ponzu shoyu varieties from Japan.  You can't have enough.

Needless to say, when it comes to the intersection of citrus and Japanese food, I tend to get especially excited.  Because of that, one of the first posts I wrote about after launching this site was the Japanese dipping sauce known as ponzu shoyu.  Also known as ponzu sauce, this is a sharp, salty, slightly sweet sauce based around dashi, shoyu (soy sauce), vinegar, sake, and citrus.  I'd had ponzu with sashimi a number of times and I knew that a) it was a flavour I could see myself doing a lot with, and b) that I had to figure out how to make it myself.  I ended up doing a lot of research in order to come to the recipe I ended up with, and I was pretty happy with it.  But I was also a little frustrated.  You see, Japanese ponzu shoyu is generally made with an incredible, aromatic, and wonderfully unique lemon-like citrus variety called yuzu.  Unfortunately, while you can buy yuzu juice (for an extortionate sum) around here, yuzu fruit is virtually unheard of.  Most yuzu is grown in Japan, and the complexities and market demands related to shipping citrus mean that very little of it is sent abroad as-is.  I was proud of my ponzu shoyu recipe, but I was resigned to leaving it at my 'best-I-can-do' Canadian version, made with bottled yuzu juice and lemon rind.  I published the post for the world to see and moved on to new recipes, but I was always hoping that I'd have the opportunity to work with fresh yuzu, and to take my recipe a step further.  As it turns out, I'd get that very chance nearly three years later - though I never would have guessed it would happen.

Cherry blossoms blooming on a tree against a blue sky

The Ponzu: An Unexpected Opportunity

I'm fairly used to getting unusual and/or unsolicited emails.  It's part of the food blogging territory.  You get a lot of 'offers' from people - generally in the form of requests to host their content on your site (no thanks), or to provide you with approximately $7 worth of product in exchange for hours of labour and a recipe post or three (SUPER no thanks).  You also get some straight-up weird stuff and plenty of unsolicited 'advice' from strangers - but that's a story for another day.  In any case, you still have to sift through this stuff, because you never know when something legit might pop up.  So it was that I found myself one morning, coffee in hand, clicking idly through my emails.  I opened one up.  It started out like so many others - a little introduction, an offer... but this was a little different.  The email was inquiring about whether or not I'd like a chance to appear on a Japanese TV show.  I re-read the email and found no bizarre requests (e.g. please make 10 posts first, please give us the rights to all your recipes, etc.).  So I got in touch with a good friend who happens to be from Japan and asked her if she'd ever heard of the show.  She had.  And the network, she kindly informed me, was one of Japan's major broadcasters.

Huh. How about that.

Now let me tell you a bit about Who Wants to Come to Japan - because at this point you probably have as many questions as I did.  The program basically offers subject-specific 'dream-come-true' trips to Japan for foreigners with an expertise in or passion for a specific aspect of Japanese culture.  The subjects vary a great deal, and the participants come from all over the world, but they're all united by the two key points: first, that they've delved deep into an aspect of Japanese culture, and second, that they haven't had an opportunity to travel to Japan before (at least not for any substantial period of time; layovers are forgiven).  The show accepts applications from around the world and tracks down potential participants (like me) before inviting them to make their case about why they should be chosen.

Needless to say, I was game to find out more, so I responded to the email.  They were interested in learning more about me and my love for yuzu, ponzu, and Japanese cooking in general.  They invited me to come down to Vancouver's Van Dusen Gardens during the annual Sakura Festival, where the show would be filming potential applicants.

I'll spare you some of the behind-the-scenes stuff, but things went well and arrangements were made.  They liked me, and they liked my story.  I was told that a crew was going to come in from Japan, and could they please come to my house to film me cooking.  And to eat my food.  No pressure - just cooking a bunch of Japanese food for a Japanese film crew (as well as my family and four friends) in order to impress them enough to invite me on the trip of a lifetime.

Japanese buta no kakuni (pork belly) with dai dai (bitter orange) kosho

Buta no kakuni with my homemade daidai (bitter orange) kosho.

I did what I always do in these situations: I dove in head first.

I like a challenge. Actually, that's a bit of an understatement.  I love a challenge - the crazier the better. I tend to thrive under pressure, and I'm drawn to the chaos and complexity of a difficult task. Yes, it's exhausting and stressful, but a high-pressure situation affords me a kind of focus and clarity that tends to produce some of my best work.  It's gotten to the point that I think I might even come across a little non-chalant about it all.  I think I tend to say 'no problem' a little too freely.  But hey, it makes for good stories.

Before I started Diversivore I worked as a teacher.  It was a job I loved, and I only left so that I could stay home with my kids. I love teaching, and I often miss the work - in fact I originally started Diversivore so that I could combine my love for science, education, and food in a creative setting (spoiler alert: I'm here to stay). But when I was working as a teacher I somehow kept ending up in situations that half-seriously refer to as 'disaster relief.'  My first job in secondary education something of a trial by fire. You see, I'd become interested in teaching while working as a T.A. during my MSc. studies, and I wanted to get a little experience - to get my feet wet, as it were. I'd scheduled an interview with a principal of an inner-city school in Montreal to ask if I could spend some time shadowing in a classroom. We got to chatting and I told him about my background, experience, and interests, at which point he excused himself for about 10 minutes. I sat there, stewing for a while, wondering what exactly was happening. He returned and apologized for the delay, then sat down, looked me in the eye and said, "So... how would you like to teach?"  It turns out that he had been he'd lost a science teacher to early maternity leave some six weeks earlier, and there were no credentialed teachers available to fill the job.  He had left our meeting to fax my resume to the school board in order to get special permission to hire me without a teaching license.  It was Thursday, and I would be starting on Monday.  This was not getting my feet wet.  This was cannon-balling into the deep end.  Of course I said yes.

I loved that job.  The students were weeks behind and we played pretty major catch-up, but it was fantastic.  I was hooked on teaching in no time.  I had a luxurious week's notice for my next teaching job, though it required that I teach math - something I'd never done before (and was admittedly rather afraid to try).  Sure, why not?  At the same time I started working kids who were home- or hospital-bound and in need of a teacher.  This required me to work one almost any subject, and to work with kids as young as six.  It was amazing.  My wife and I finished our time in Montreal and we moved out west and where I got a teaching license, only to find the job market considerably slower.  I sent out countless resumes, only to find my next job one week before the birth of my first son.  It turned out that a small international high school had a teacher who hadn't worked out, leaving a group of mostly ESL students high-and-dry, and could I please start immediately?  Absolutely, let's do this.  That year I taught seven different courses.  Later on, after I'd left full-time teaching to stay home with my kids, the principal from my last job asked if I could take over teaching a course for him.  It seems the teacher had quit over the weekend. Via text message.  If you can believe it, I had just enough time in my schedule to make it work.  Sounds like fun, see you Monday.

Am I crazy? Maybe. Alright, probably.  But it's my own kind of crazy, and I'm having fun with it.  I'm definitely living on a more flexible schedule now (hooray for being your own boss), but I still tend to seek out challenges whenever they present themselves.  So when faced with the prospect of cooking a multi-course Japanese feast for seven adults and four kids (ages 2-6), what could I say but yes?

It was a blast.  A crazy, exhausting, delicious blast.  I made ponzu (of course!), my homemade citrus furikake, buta-no-kakuni (see above), daidai kosho (also above, as a garnish), kake soba, yuzu halibut, and a Japanese-style dekopon cheesecake (recipes for at least a few of these will be coming later!).  We ate, we filmed, we chatted, and I learned an awful lot about the behind-the-scenes complexity of making a TV show.  We talked a lot about ponzu, and yuzu, and about how much I longed to research, explore, and experience these foods in ways that I could only dream of in Canada.  A month later, I was asked if we could do a quick pickup shot for the producers in Japan.  When I opened my front door to invite the crew in, I was instead surprised to see them holding up a sign and inviting me to come to Japan.

What could I say but yes?

My invitation to visit Japan

Who wants to come to Japan? This guy.

As you'd probably expect, there was a lot of planning to do before I could travel.  I had to make arrangements around here, and the producers had to figure out the best time of year filming to occur.  I was also given the opportunity to delay my return flight in order to stay on my own in Tokyo for a few days, so I started making tons of preparations there.  But a lot of friends and family have been surprised to learn that I didn't actually have to arrange anything during the filming time itself.  In fact, I couldn't have planned much if I wanted to! The show takes the delightful approach of making everything a surprise; they meet you at the airport and you go where they take you.  So I set off for Tokyo on November 1st with yuzu season in full swing, and the adventure began.

As I mentioned above, many aspects of the trip were incredibly complex and really warrant individual posts of their own.  After all, when a TV show arranges for you to have a customized, tailor-made experience in a country you've wanted to visit for ages, you come home with an awful lot of stuff to talk about.  The key aspects of the trip will be padded out in separate articles at a later date, but for a basic overview, some recipes that are up now on Diversivore, and some pictures from the trip to tide you over, click the link below to go to the next page.

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  1. WOW what a story. Did they pay for the entire trip? Did your family go too? I would still be pinching myself thinking I was dreaming. How fun and exciting for you. Congratulations. You gotta sift through all the emails to find the gems for sure.

    1. Author

      Thanks Gloria! They did pay for the entire thing, yes. I covered my own costs in Tokyo at the end of the trip, but that was because I wanted to extend my adventure a little on my own time. Beyond that, everything was covered. It was pretty amazing! My family didn’t go, and while I definitely hope to get back to Japan with all of them some time in the not-too-distant future, this trip wouldn’t have been much fun for them. We were extremely busy and travelling a lot, and they would have been on their own pretty much the whole time. But I’m sure we’ll all make it back together some day!

  2. Oh my gosh, what a great opportunity. As a blogger, this must have been so difficult for you to keep this under wraps. I will definitely keep checking back for updates. I am looking forward to hearing all about it. Southeast Asia is such a foreign concept for me so any light you can shine on your adventures will be super helpful. My friends that have travelled to that area have all said that I should go. Can’t wait to hear more:)

    1. Author

      Hah, yeah, it wasn’t easy! Fortunately the end of 2018 was really busy for me (mostly out in the ‘real world’), so it was something of a blessing in disguise to have to wait until now to share the details. Still, you can bet that there were times that I was aching to tell the story! And as for traveling to Japan, I can’t say enough good things. It’s a fantastic place to visit, and I can’t wait to tell you more!

  3. Fascinating. All of it. Thanks for the ponzu explanation. I too am a big fan…and now I know why I have been only marginally successful in creating a version from scratch that I love. I’m inspired to go to Japan now!

    1. Author

      Thanks Debra! I’m glad it helped – and I hope you checked out the ponzu recipe itself. I will be updating it in a lot more detail soon, and probably posting some ponzu-related recipes to go along with it. I hope you go to Japan some day. It’s an incredible place to visit!

  4. This sounds amazing. I’ll have to send it over to my partner. We’ve been compiling a spreadsheet (yes… we are spreadsheet people lol) for our potential trip to Japan. I wouldn’t be able to say no too if a crew showed up and said JAPAN! haha. I can’t wait to see some of your footage 🙂

    1. Author

      Spreadsheets FTW. Even though I only had three days on my own at the end of shooting, I organized ideas and activities relentlessly. I mean, you might as well make the most out of traveling to the other side of the world, right? Hopefully some of my subsequent posts will give you some ideas for when (yes, when – you have to go) to Japan. Cheers!

  5. What an amazing story!! I bet you were pinching yourself to make sure you weren’t dreaming. And luckily you didn’t just go down your email and junk everything that wasn’t recognizeable as important. To think that’s what I do — half the time if I don’t know the person or company — out it goes. And to think you cooked for them. I can’t wait to hear more about the trip and see some photos!! Congratulations — but I think the honor is well-deserved.

    1. Author

      Thank you Marisa! There were definitely a few days where it seemed too good to be true. Of course it was a lot of work as well – both before and during the shoot – so I like to think that I earned my keep. Haha. Honestly I’m glad I was paying attention to my email that morning and that I didn’t pass it over, or I would have missed out on the experience of a lifetime. Cheers!

  6. Oh my gosh this is AWESOME! Japanese cuisine is one that I don’t have any experience with, and I would definitely want to learn more about. So inspiring and I can’t wait to hear more about your amazing trip! Now… I’m off to go try out some ponzu shoyu. 🙂

    1. Author

      Thank you Trish! I think a lot of cooks – even very talented ones – don’t venture into Japanese cooking because the fundamentals of it seem so different in many ways. That can make it hard to tackle in a way that feels authentic or satisfying – and that’s fair. But it’s a cuisine that’s absolutely wonderful to explore, and one that’s surprisingly simple to get into once you learn a few basics. Can’t wait to tell you more – and enjoy the ponzu!!

  7. What an amazing opportunity and an excellent reason to open all your mail! 🙂 It’s such an fun journey where our interests can lead us if we give them a chance. Though usually they don’t come with all expenses paid trips to other countries! I look forward to the next installments.

    1. Author

      It was incredible! And yes, I’ll definitely be paying close attention to my email in the future. Cheers!

  8. What an incredible trip!! And what a great run down of ponzu! I didn’t realize all that I didn’t know! Such a great story and can’t wait for more!

    1. Author

      Thank you Tracy! I’ve got a lot more to say about ponzu soon, so I can’t wait to share that too.

  9. Wow!! Talk about a once in a lifetime opportunity! I would be sue or skeptical to get that email too and how amazing is it that you were able to confirm through your friend that the show was legit! And talk about pressure having to cook for everyone to “interview”!! Just amazing! Excited to hear more!

    1. Author

      I’m definitely glad that I dug a little deeper and didn’t just ignore the email. It was definitely a high-pressure ‘interview,’ but honestly it was tons of fun. And hey, it clearly went well!

  10. I mean really. If anyone I know deserves to trek to Japan to boast his love for their culture and cuisine, it’s you. Your Japanese content has always seemed effortlessly genuine and knowledgeable. Your posts are less research-inspired and more passionate. You can tell you’ve soaked up all of your knowledge in Japanese cuisine like an enthusiastic sponge. It shows in your posts and, most of all, your dishes!

    It was really fun to watch the episode and see your lovely fam together!

    1. Author

      Aww, thanks Dana! This might sound a little silly to say, but I’m passionate ABOUT research! I can lose myself in research, digging deeper and deeper into a subject for hours on end. I end up absorbing a lot of material before I’ll even try something out, and while that doesn’t guarantee I’ll be a pro or anything, it seems to have paid off for me plenty of times to date. Glad you liked the episode, and I look forward to sharing more with you soon!

  11. I’ve wanted to visit Japan for way too many years! You’re both lucky and resourceful for making this happen…and it’s very exciting! I have a handful of Japanese ingredients in my pantry, but need to add ponzu shoyu to my collection. I’ll think of you when I do. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    1. Author

      You HAVE to go. Honestly, Japan is just incredible to visit. I think I could go every year for the rest of my life and never even come close to feeling like I was out of things to see or do. I hope you’ll give ponzu shoyu a shot – hopefully from my new-and-improved recipe, coming soon!

  12. Sean, what a fantastic interesting post. The show was lucky to find you. I’m looking forward to reading more about yuzu, including local sources.

    1. Author

      Thank you Dorothy! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. You’re very sweet to say that. I hope I can help you learn more about yuzu and Japanese citrus soon. And as for local sources – well, we’ll keep our fingers crossed on that one!

  13. Hi Sean! We just finished watching your adventure on Japanese TV! What an amazing opportunity that was. Have you been back to Japan since?
    Your story was really interesting and inspiring. After watching I want to try my hand at making some ponzu. My family and I use gallons of ponzu (only a slight exaggeration). I look forward to reading more of your blog.

    1. Author

      Hi Brendan! I’m so glad you saw my show! I haven’t been back to Japan yet – my son (the Ponzu Baby, haha) was born in 2019, so of course that kept us very busy. Then of course 2020 happened. It’s tough for us to travel such a long way all together at the moment, but I really hope we can all go there some day soon.

      I really do hope you’ll try your hand at ponzu! It’s a wonderful thing to make – especially if you’re using that much of it! Shoukiya’s ponzu is incredible, but there’s a lot of rather average ponzu on the market. I think you’ll be pleased with how good your own version can be!

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