Experiencing Lao food in Japan – Part 1

Experiencing Lao food in Japan – Part 1

I had the chance to go on a short trip to Japan for the annual “Laos Festival in Japan.” It took place from May 25 to 26, 2018 in Tokyo (Shibuya), Japan at the Yoyogi Park (however, I was only able to attend on Saturday the 25th).

Because the Lao population is small in numbers and Lao culture is not well-known, seeing any references to Laos in Japan was totally an eye-opening experience for me. This blog post will include certain highlights around the theme of “My ‘Laos’ Experience in Japan.” 

Side note: Prior to the festival, I did spent a few days exploring different districts of Tokyo (Harajuku, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Akihabara, Asakusa, and others), Yokohama, and Kyoto. Those experiences (Japanese food/dining, shopping, site seeings, etc) are worthy of a blog post on its own.

I know people can travel to Japan without knowing a word of Japanese. Some have even lived there for months or years without bothering to learn the language. However, I wanted to better understand the culture and phrases spoken to me. I did dabble in Japanese years ago, but never got the incentive to continue until revisiting it for my trip.

To prepare for my trip to Japan (from March to May), I’ve engaged in the following

  • Spent 2.5 months passively listening to Japanese audio lessons while commuting to work everyday.
  • Read & practice with the Japanese From Zero To Hero book during evenings and/or weekends I had free time.  
  • Listened to a Japanese language learning podcast during my lunch break at work.
  • Chatted with native Japanese speakers through a language-exchange app (HelloTalk) — some people were even surprised to meet a Lao person on there!
  • Read  online blogs  and watched Youtube videos related to basic Japanese lessons every night before bed (my favorite is the Learn Japanese From Zero!  channel).
  • Received simple Japanese lessons (speaking Lao) online with a Lao friend who’s living in Vientiane. She’s fluent in Lao and Japanese where she was a cultural exchange student in Japan years ago.
  • Listened to some Perfume MV – at least trying to keep my “musical” learning experience entertaining.

Was learning Japanese worth the trip?

I know enough to patch together basic sentences (tense forms, days, locations, who/what/when/why), useful particles (は “wa”, が  “ga”, で “de, に “ni”), survival phrases, greetings, the number system, and a few useful words. Had I learned more kana (Hiragana/Katakana), I would’ve been able to read more while in Japan. Additionally, learning Japanese helped me appreciate Lao as well since both languages have different levels of formalities.

Ironically, I spoke more Lao than Japanese while I was in Japan (see restaurant section)

All the shopping staff, station workers, and cashiers spoke to me in Japanese — and I was able to at least extract one or two words that I knew from their speech.

Ironically, I spoke more Lao than Japanese while I was in Japan.

Country note: In English we know the country of Japan as ‘Japan.’ Japan is referred to as “Nihon” or “Nippon.” The latter is how Lao people say Japan , where it is written as ຍີ່ປຸ່ນ “Nypun/Nippon” or Japanese people ຄົນຍີ່ປຸ່ນ “Kon Nypun/Nippon.”

Upon my first day of arrival in Japan (late evening), I checked into my Airbnb. It was in a nice quiet area west of the Shibuya district. As I settled in and flipped through the TV channels, I somehow stumbled upon a show about a Japanese guy going to Laos (Vientiane to Paksong)! This was aired on Tuesday 5/22/18 at 10pm – not sure which channel or what the show was called.

Lao Restaurants in Japan

Going to Lao restaurants in Japan is not something that would’ve crossed my mind about 2-3 years ago. Not often do you see Japan-themed travel/food blogs mention Lao restaurants.

While I know there are many Thai restaurants in Japan, I wanted to find restaurants that have a more Laotian theme to them (Lao writing, Lao culture, Lao style papaya salad, etc). Not just a Thai restaurant with Lao side dishes on the menu.

Upon finding out there are indeed Lao restaurants in Japan (and that there’s going to be a Laos Festival in Tokyo), I decided, why not go to Japan and experience Sake along with BeerLao in Japan first-hand?

Sticky rice (すし) vs Sticky rice (ເຂົ້າຫນຽວລາວ)?

As it turns out, there are indeed real Lao restaurants in Japan where Lao culture is starting to have more of a presence. Lao cuisines (and BeerLao) are slowly gaining brand recognition in Japan. Likewise, in America, the Lao food movement is gaining traction. I’m glad I went there to support them and to try out different Lao restaurants while enjoying my trip.

Dining Laos in Japan

So far, I’ve went to 3 different Lao restaurants in Japan. One in Tokyo and two in Kyoto. The first one was Yulala which opened in 2015.  The location of this place is just a 5-minute walk east of the Nishiki Market (where I enjoyed lunch and snacks — but decided it was Lao food for dinner).

There are many things to do in Kyoto that prior to going this restaurant, I spent most of my day going to different places. These include going to the Kiyomizu-dera temple, Funshimi-inari Shrine, Teramachi shopping street, and Nishiki market, which is just a 5-minute walk to Yulala. There are many attractions and sightseeing in Kyoto that deserves at least a 2-day trip.

1) Yulala (Kyoto)

I entered Yulala by greeting こんにちは “Konnichiwa.” Inside the restaurant were two young friendly Japanese couple who were the owner/chef of the place. I was the first and only customer there as it just opened for dinner 15 minutes ago (at 5pm).

While waiting for my food to be prepared, one of the owner (Japanese male) said to me, “Have you ever been to Laos?” in English. So, I replied in Lao, ” ໂອ  ຂອ້ຍເປັນຄົນລາວ” (Oh, I am Lao)  to which he astonishingly replied in Lao, “ໂອຍ!! ເປັນຄົນລາວ!!” (Oh!, you are Lao!) in a funny expression. And yes, I visited Laos (Pakse, Laung Prabang, Vientiane) back in 2017.

I then continued chatting about my trip to Laos with him (speaking in Lao).  Even though I spoke a mixture of both Lao and English, the guy understood what I said.

It turns out that the owners lived in Laos for about 10 years (2005 to 2015) while opening  a restaurant business there in Vientiane, Laos. Then they returned back to Kyoto, Japan to introduce Lao cuisines to Japanese people. This makes the restaurant fairly new being just 2-3 years old as of 2018. From what they told me, most of the customers there were actually local Japanese people and occasionally Lao students studying in Japan. 

The food there tasted very authentic Lao. Usually ethnic dish/restaurant in other countries tend to suit Western or local taste-buds. However, their Lao cooking had a fresh homemade “mommy-made-it” feel to it, especially the ໝົກປາ  (Mok Bpa – Steamed Catfish).

I left the restaurant saying, ありがとう ございます “Arigatou Gozaimasu”  (thank you very much), and the female Japanese owner replied in Lao, ຂອບໃຈຫຼາຍໆເດີ “Khob Jai Lai Lai Derr” (Thank you very much) back to me. And that was a unique cultural exchange moment for me!

This is perhaps the only Lao restaurant in Japan that brands itself as serving Lao food only. I would definitely go to this restaurant again if I ever visit Kyoto, Japan. Note: It closes on Tuesday.

I left the restaurant saying, ありがとう ございます” Arigatou Gozaimasu” and the female Japanese owner replied in Lao, ຂອບໃຈຫຼາຍໆເດີ “Khob Jai Lai Lai Derr” back to me.

2) Khanty (Kyoto)

If not for the kimono on the left, I would've never guess this is in Japan!

I went to this restaurant a little late at night, which is also in Kyoto — it is near the Grand Imperial Palace. The photos below are pics that I took on my camera, but the above picture (day time image) is courtesy of TripAdvisor.

The owner, Jono, also served as my waiter/cook since he was the only person working. We had a brief conversation about my trip to Japan and our backgrounds growing up with Lao heritage. He was part Lao and communicated with me in English. We discussed about my family coming to the States during the 80’s and such, and he was familiar with the refugee and diaspora experience.

The atmosphere had a ambient feel to it like a hip dining bar. Next to me were two groups of Japanese folks drinking BeerLao.  My meal came out great and the camera lighting on my photos does not do it justice. From the menu, I ordered the Khao Ji, Laotian sausage, and BeerLao.

Not only was Jono a great chef, but he’s also very helpful outside of the restaurant, literally. As I was about to head back to Tokyo, I was a bit lost on how to head back to catch my bullet train. I wanted to go to the Kyoto station, so he even walked out of the restaurant a bit just to point out what direction I should take.

Just as I left, I said to the owner/chef — “Hey man, the food was delicious!” which he then replied “Thanks man, it means a lot coming from you.”

This restaurant might be hard to find at night, but if you’re visiting the Grand Imperial Palace early evening, then Khanty is worth a visit if you want to taste Lao food cooked differently.

3) Lansang (Tokyo)

 Lansang is located in the Kichijoji neighborhood, which is part of Musashino city in the eastern area of Tokyo. The resturant is easy to locate since it’s just a 5-minute walk from the Kichijoji Station, and right next to a 7-11.

The atmosphere of this restaurant environment is very nice. It is actually the biggest restaurant of the 3, so maybe great for taking your family (as the group next to me was a large family). Inside, I saw many Japanese locals at the table drinking BeerLao.

Their menu selection has a lot of choices. With just a few 1000 Yen in my pocket, I ordered ເຂົ້າຫນຽວ “Sticky Rice”, ຕຳໝາກຫຸ່ງລາວ “Lao Papaya Salad”, and  ປີ້ງໄກ່ “Grilled chicken.” There were two choices of Papaya Salad — the Thai and the Lao version. So, I went with the Lao one of course.  Be warn that it was spicy hot. In a good Lao way!  When the owner (Lao man) knew I ordered the Lao papaya salad, he started speaking to me in Lao (and even briefly asked me if I attended the Laos Festival).

A staff worker (presumably to be Japanese) also said to me something in Japanese, which I couldn’t understand at first. Assuming I may be a Lao person (from eating Lao papaya salad), she then said to me, ເຜັດບໍ່ “Pbet baw?” (Is it hot?) in Lao.

Unfortunately, I did not order BeerLao there but did drink several cups of water due to the spicyness of papaya salad.

I have to admit that I would not have know about Kichijoji had I not been in search of Lao restaurants in Tokyo. Walking outside, it seems like a fun area to explore if I had more time there. Next time if I go, I will be sure to visit the Inokashira park and other shops there.

I have to admit that I would not have know about Kichijoji had I not been in search of Lao restaurants in Tokyo.

Be sure to read the next part (laos festival)

 

Next: Experiencing Lao Food in Japan – Part 2

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