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Gizem Sakamaki: 'I’m finding a lot of joy in sharing Japan and its hidden gems with a global audience'

By Louise George Kittaka
The Japan Times
March 10, 2021

A German national with Turkish roots, 34-year-old Gizem Sakamaki is the founder of Foodie Adventure Japan and a sustainable tourism influencer. The multipassionate entrepreneur and innovator lives, breathes and, of course, consumes food. From elegant kaiseki-ryōri (traditional multicourse cuisine) to the latest convenience store sweets, she documents her adventures across multiple media platforms with gusto.

Small steps: Gizem Sakamaki says every new vegetarian and vegan option is a step toward greater food sustainability in Japan.

1. What first brought you to Japan and what’s kept you here? A healthy diet of 1990s after-school anime, cheap cup ramen and a burning wish to immerse myself in a new culture.

2. Have you always been passionate about food? Yes, it’s fair to say that I was born a foodie!

3. What is Foodie Adventure Japan? It’s a tour business with a focus and commitment to sustainable tourism and inclusivity, (including vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and halal). The goal is to embrace all foodies and help every traveler enjoy one of the world’s most lauded cuisines like a local.

4. How did you come up with the concept? It pained me to hear that travelers with food restrictions could not fully enjoy the beauty and uniqueness of Japanese food. Being the owner of two guesthouses in Tokyo allowed me to gain an understanding of their actual needs and wishes.

5. How did you develop your tours? Guided tours are superficial, boring mass events! In 2015, I had a hunch that pairing Japan’s hidden food gems and local stories — both on and off the beaten track — would be a chance to deliver a whole new experience.

6. What have been your business’ biggest achievements to date? Serving over 500 travelers from every corner of the world and being an active part of the green movement in Japan. But the biggest is having been able to build an international community of food-lovers in Japan!

7. Have you had any challenges? I have been turned down by smaller businesses for being a foreigner or for bringing foreign travelers to their restaurants. It seems counterintuitive for a business to do this, but I think respecting the locals’ limits is part of “sustainable tourism.”

8. What kind of shops do you work with? Even though collaborating with chain restaurants would be the easiest — due to space, availability, negotiation possibilities and so on, I always opt for small family-run businesses whenever possible.

9. Is there a particular tour that you’ll never forget? One of my first tour guests on the Instalicious Tour (Instagram-worthy foods) was a Belgian author who was very excited to join my tour to take “the perfect pictures” for her book about quirky Japanese foods. She took pictures, but ended up discarding all the food on the tour. I was horrified, as that did not fit with my efforts at reducing food waste.

10. Did you ever find out why? Well, it turned out much later that her book was actually about how “unhealthy” Japanese eating habits are! I almost scrapped the whole tour concept after that incident.

11. What changes have you made due to COVID-19? Unfortunately, COVID-19’s impact on tourism has left my foodie tours on ice for the time being. But I have taken this chance to finally dig into a few of my “back-burner ideas,” including using my experience to develop my work as a consultant for Japanese businesses.

12. What’s your latest venture? Clothing! Foodie Wear Japan launched in December. I hope to grow it into a viable business and create many more fun designs this year.

13. Japan’s food scene is always evolving. What trends have you seen emerging lately? I hoped you would ask this! Trends I have seen lately are cheese (as in tea!) and pistachio-flavored products. There has also been a remarkable boom in craft beer in the past four years and I have a feeling that the often “over-the-top” Japanese flavors might seep into the craft beer market next. I have already spotted a soon-to-be released Sapporo beer with a chocolate-mint flavor. I will be trying it on my weekly “Konbini Treasures” livestream.

14. What changes will be key for Japan to make once it opens up again to international tourism? Despite all the heartbreak COVID-19 has brought, I see it as a chance for Japan to implement a more sustainable and inclusive way of tourism. The vivid example of overtourism in cities such as Kyoto provides a lesson to be learned: Pushing tourism no matter what can hurt and break the very fragile balance that is the fabric of Japanese society.

15. What are your personal top three Japanese foods? Always a difficult question to answer, but I’ll go for my all-time staples: ramen, kaiseki-ryōri and yuzu-infused anything!

16. A growing number of food companies in Japan are trying to provide vegan and vegetarian options. How successful are they? Although Japan is still very much behind many other developed countries, every new product release and increase in vegan and vegetarian food options in the past few years are big steps toward a more sustainable future for Japan. That makes me very happy!

17. When you’re not out exploring new eateries, what are you cooking at home? You were probably looking for something on a higher culinary plane here, but 100% true to my German roots, I have been perfecting my bread-baking skills.

18. What is one surprising thing about you that not many people know? I am confident that only my mother knows this: As a child, I wanted to become a professional belly dancer, then a veterinarian.

19. As a speaker of German, Turkish, Japanese and English, what is your all-time favorite phrase? It’s a Turkish rhyme, handed down from my late grandmother: Sakla samani, gelir zamani (hide the hay, its time will come eventually). This has proven true for many things.

20. What’s ahead for you in 2021? I am excited that I fulfilled my dream of creating a fun and sustainable clothing brand, and I’ve taken up livestreaming my food and travel adventures on Twitch. It was originally to beat my fear of public speaking, but now I’m finding a lot of joy in sharing Japan and its hidden gems with a global audience.

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