A free feast in Tokyo? Imagine that! Let’s keep imagining. It’s a meal so big that it’ll fill you up for the rest of the week, you’ll earn the respect of your friends for your super human constitution, and you’ll have a photo from Japan to amaze your family back home. Such free meals DO exist, but there’s a catch: you have to eat it all in 60 minutes or less.
If you just want to see the video, skip to the bottom of this post!
On this day, Tokyo Cheapo writer Kai Okudara and I head to a little place at one of Tokyo’s big crossroads, Iidabashi. It’s called Kagurazaka Hanten (神楽坂飯店). It’s also a student hub buzzing with kids nursing their empty wallets. Those walking around the station may find a display window in front of a restaurant with a ridiculously massive dumpling — and a challenge.
The largest gyoza in Tokyo is sitting there with the promise of it being free if it can be eaten. There are also 3 other food challenges on display: the triple jumbo ramen (¥1890), the jumbo fried rice (¥5840) and the 100 gyoza platter (¥9,600). The jumbo gyoza also costs ¥9,600 and needs to be ordered and paid for 2 days in advance.
The others can be ordered on the day of the challenge. Again, they’re free if you complete the challenge! Kai and I came hungry. At 9600 yen, I was in deep and wanted this meal for free, but one look at this gyoza on the table and I knew I was up against a monster. Normally gyoza is eaten with chopsticks, but the only way to slay this thing was with a fork and knife. I was somewhat intimidated. Advantage: food
The restaurant owner placed a timer in front of us and pressed start. Game on! Kai sat down and was served 3 bowls of piping hot ramen. Famished, he started immediately!
Me and my gyoza were ready, too. The first bite was fantastic! I was feeling confident. Rather than a normal thin wrapping of a Japanese gyoza dumpling, this monster has a bread-like casing. The oils and fat had soaked in deep adding a lot of flavor. It also added a lot of oils and fats.
50 minutes left.
Kai was doing well on the other side of me. He’s downed that first ramen in less than 10 minutes! However, he’d made a classic mistake. Ramen comes out of the kitchen very hot. People slurp the noodles in Japan to cool it down. That, and the noodles need to be eaten fast before they get soggy. Forgetting that this wasn’t a sprint but a marathon, Kai went too fast and burned the roof of his mouth. He’s hit the first roadblock on his journey.
40 minutes remaining.
I was halfway finished. From the outside, it looked like I could actually pull this off. The half eaten jumbo gyoza sat in front of me and the timer was saying it was mathematically possible. What no one could see was my stomach. It was filled with oil and fat soaked bread. It tasted heavenly and at the same time, it was blowing a whole through my digestive tract and my free food plan. That oil and fat just sat there in my stomach, sloshing like the sea in a typhoon.
The manager smiled and politely continued to fill our little water glasses. I got the feeling he could smell defeat the moment we walked through the door.
The restaurant walls are filled with signed placards of Japanese celebrities who have come in to try the challenge. Many came, most failed. Those who succeeded earned a place on the wall of fame. A polaroid with the empty plate immortalized the hungriest and the cheapest among us – they ate and left without spending a thing.
This food challenge started 45 years ago as a PR stunt to get more students into the restaurant. It succeeded. Kids came in groups and what the challenger couldn’t eat was divided up amoung the rest. In the end, the group had a great time with the effort.
30 minutes in.
We’ve hit the wall. It’s the point where competitive eaters get full and have to use will power and an elastic stomach to get over the hump. There was no stopping. Burp and get on with it.
20 minutes to go.
I get a second wind. I tried to psych Kai up with my rendition of “Eye of the Tiger” but I don’t think he saw all 6 of the Rocky films like I did. His ramen scorched mouth was throbbing.
15 minutes remaining.
My second wind was more like a puff of smoke. Both of us just sat there watching the clock. The food got colder. 35% of that gyoza still remained and there wasn’t an empty corner left in my stomach.
In an effort to move things along inside my gut, I rocked back and forth, stood up and sat down, and even massaged my belly. Alas, it was all to no avail. It sat there like a rock in my belly. Kai hadn’t taken an extra bite in 20 minutes.
10 minutes left and we threw in the towel. Game over.
Monster Food 2. Humans 0.
We didn’t get our money back. We didn’t get our picture on the wall. We didn’t get to be lifted on to the shoulders of our friends among cheers and applause. We didn’t get a 1000 likes on our Facebook posts. We did, however, get a bill, a smile from the owner and a stomach full of food. And, of course, this story.
Food challenges offer the promise of a free meal and hero-like status, but only if you finish it. Consider how cheap you really are before you start.
Video compliments of WAO! 流〈RYU〉JAPAN – Japanese Subculture Broadcast Station