Trivia 057: Raiding a restaurant

The Mongol hordes, ferocious warriors and conquerors of most of Asia and parts of Europe were stymied when they attempted to attack Japan. Although the island nation was greatly outnumbered, they managed to hold off two assaults thanks in part to the kamikaze, or “divine wind”. During both invasions, the Mongolian attacks were ruined when a typhoon destroyed their fleet. However, although they were able to save their lands from the Mongols, it turns out they were not as successful at keeping out the Vikings. In a way. We’ll get to that.

But first, a bit of historical context. On July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry sailed a squadron of gunboats into Tokyo Harbor to force the Japanese to end their policy of isolation and come to the negotiation table. (The full story is more nuanced than that, but we’ll leave it here for now.) At this point, Japan realized that they were incredibly outclassed compared to the rest of the world. Their technology and governmental organization simply could not stand up to the might of the other great powers. Furthermore, when they considered the state of the world, they say many other mighty nations forced to become little more than vassals in all but name to their new colonial overlords. Realizing it was just a matter of time before this happened to them, they put forth great effort modernizing their nation. This period is known as the Meiji Restoration.

As a part of this program, the Japanese government sponsored people to travel. They sent them all across the world, to learn whatever they could about the techniques these other nations used – how they organized their militaries, how their governments worked, and, of course, to gain their technology. These citizens, sent out as students, returned to Japan, where their knowledge was analyzed and synthesized, allowing Japan to pick and choose the best options that other countries had pioneered. This tradition of “stealing techniques” dates back to when most businesses ran apprenticeships, and the trainees were expected to pick up their knowledge by watching the masters work and figuring things out as they helped.

This is a tradition which many in Japan are quite proud of, and perhaps nowhere is this more notable than in the world of high cuisine. Although France is often held as the birthplace of high cuisine, you could say that Japan has perfected it. Although France has the most Michelin-starred restaurants, Japan comes in second. And Tokyo has been the city with the most Michelin stars for several years.

So what does this have to do with the Vikings? Well, after World War 2, Japan faced serious food shortages (more about that some other time). However, when Japan’s economy began to grow in the 1950’s, people began to experiment more with cooking and restaurants. In 1957, the manager of the famed Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) was on a trip to Denmark. There, he discovered the Swedish concept of the smorgasbord. Fascinated with the idea of a buffet, he instructed his chef, Noburo Murakami, who was training at the Ritz in Paris, to investigate. And in 1958, the Imperial Hotel opened the first modern all-you-can-eat buffet in Japan. However, there was a problem. “Smorgasbord” was a very convoluted word to say in Japanese. So, they decided to come up with a new name for it. Earlier that year, the movie Viking had started playing in theaters in Japan. Inspired by the imagery of the Vikings feasting in that movie, they decided to call their new dining experience a “Viking”.

To this day, going to a buffet in Japan is still referred to as going to a “Viking”. And the Imperial Hotel still offers their famous Viking (though dinner on a weekend will cost ~$150). So although the Mongols never conquered Japan, the Vikings did.

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