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Dhabas and Japanese food: Visit mini Japans in rural Haryana and Rajasthan

Reclusive Japanese community made automobile belt spread across Haryana, Rajasthan uniquely its own

Manavi Kapur  |  New Delhi 

Neemrana, Japanese, Japan
A signboard points to the Japanese zone at Neemrana, Photo: Dalip Kumar

The busy highway between Delhi and Jaipur is dotted with “pure vegetarian” dhabas. If you look hard, you will also find on the highway that offer Japanese cuisine with cold beer to boot.
 
The industrial belt that spreads over and is home to large automobile makers like and Honda and their vendors. In alone, 487 Japanese companies, as of 2016, operated out of the industrial belt that now includes a special zone in Jhajjar.


 
This has resulted in a large Japanese expatriate presence, both in these industrial towns as well as the more populated Gurugram. And a full-bodied eco-system has developed to take care of all their needs: food, groceries, translators, bathtubs, golf courses and magazines.
 
A short drive into the State Industrial Development and Investment Corporation’s (RIICO’s) Japanese Zone in Neemrana is Hotel Aju Palace, a branch of a chain of Japanese hotels in the area. A young woman occupies the front desk and a Japanese executive in a business suit is checking out of his room. Inside, a few Japanese men are hurriedly finishing a meal, possibly before rushing back to work. The serves only Japanese delicacies, a white board listing the day’s specials both in English and Japanese. Two young women serve beer to the guests along with freshly prepared fish.
 
“The Japanese love their beer. That, besides a bathtub in their hotel rooms, is a must for any hotel hosting Japanese guests,” explains Ajit Kumar, a 23-year-old front office assistant. Behind him is a refrigerator packed with bottles of Kingfisher beer. A boy with hair styled into spikes cleans the doors and windows. If one didn’t look at him closely, he could easily be mistaken for a Japanese teenager. The women serving the guests, too, have curiously “Asian” and their broken, partly accented English almost hides the fact they are from northeast India.
 
Outside the restaurant, the lobby area has a well-stocked bookshelf with Japanese pulp fiction and magazines. There isn’t much the hotel has missed in terms of detail.
 
Hata Isamu
Hata Isamu, the chef at Daikichi in the Ramada Neemrana, acts as a translator and cultural consultant for the hotel. Photo: Dalip Kumar


There are several such hotels in the area, appearing like an oasis in dusty towns like Bhiwadi, Bawal and Manesar. Some even have brochures in Japanese and play typically oriental music to appear Japanese-friendly.
 
Kumar is the only member of the staff who knows how to speak Japanese — at least beyond the basic pleasantries — having learnt it in New Delhi’s Connaught Place. “I learnt the language because I eventually want to be an interpreter for a Japanese company here in Neemrana.” Though it took him three years to be fairly proficient, he hopes one day he can write and speak the language as a native Japanese would. “Who knows, I may even get to visit Japan one day,” he says with a coy smile.
 
Anticipating a similar career opportunity for their students, several schools in towns such as Rohtak, Rewari, Jhajjar and Bhiwadi offer Japanese as a second language.
 
While about 100 Japanese live in Neemrana in a residential township, most employees prefer to stay at hotels or serviced apartments in the neighbourhood. For longer contracts, at least for those travelling with families, living in Gurugram is a safer and culturally more exciting option. The vast tracts of under-construction sites in places like Neemrana can get overwhelming and lonely, explains Hata Isamu, the 48-year-old chef at Daikichi in Ramada Neemrana hotel. When not cooking and looking for “non-artificial chicken”, Isamu acts as a translator and cultural consultant for the hotel to avoid any snafu while hosting Japanese guests.
 
It appears his suggestions, as well as the volume of Japanese guests, has the hotel sit up and take notice — enough for it to be playing Japanese reality television right in the main foyer.
 
Despite the fervent industrial activity in these townships, loneliness, says Isamu, can at times be overwhelming. “You can’t make friends if you live here. What will you do other than probably eat out or go for a beer?” This can be particularly difficult for the “salarymen” Japanese — the wage earners who are mostly men — who travel alone, leaving families behind in Japan.
 
During various conversations, one hears murmurings of how the young, Mongoloid-featured women are hired for more than just their waitressing skills. But Isamu dismisses these with a wave. “The only thing that I miss here is a good, reasonable place to have a drink. You see, drinking and eating is almost our national pastime,” he chuckles.
 
Nelia Kanakubo concurs with this. When she moved to India three years ago with her husband, it wasn’t a transition without hurdles. Poor air quality was a concern, as was finding a safe neighbourhood with proper amenities. “We would mostly laugh off the hurdles and attribute it to the Indian experience,” she says. But soon, with the assistance of an expat community group called Gurgaon Connection, Kanakubo was able to find her way through Gurugram. She now acts as a Japanese expert for the community, even though she recently moved to Bengaluru. “The Japanese adults tend to spend their weekends playing golf and the kids love Bollywood dance,” she explains.

The restaurant at Aju Palace serves only Japanese delicacies, Photo: Dalip Kumar
The at Aju Palace serves only Japanese delicacies, Photo: Dalip Kumar

 
The love for golf is only second to beer for the Japanese. For this reason, most hotels offer golf on simulated courses, or mini-golf kits. Over the weekends, Japanese executives tee off at the sprawling golf clubs in Gurugram and Delhi.
 
Mostly after golf comes a brunch on weekends and hotels such as the Westin in Gurugram see nearly all of their tables occupied by the Japanese on such days. In fact, a section on the breakfast buffet is dedicated to Japanese specialties.
 
But living in the city is far from a fairytale. “My mother runs a Japanese in Gurugram and she is invariably harassed by excise officers asking for bribes. It’s a constant challenge,” says one Japanese expat who recently moved to Australia. While senior bureaucrats suggest that law enforcement agencies have been instructed to be more sensitive to Japanese concerns, low-level corruption continues to hound expats. People like Kanakubo try and help newcomer Japanese navigate the law of the land, especially those who do not know English.
 
For some of the more basic problems such as groceries, especially for those living with family in Gurugram, there is a ready fix available. Specialty stores like Yamato-ya and Wakaba that stock specific ingredients and products are now not rare. “While they are certainly pricier, the assurance of quality is important for us,” says Kanakubo.
 
In the Sector 56 HUDA market in Gurugram, patently Indian establishments such as Patanjali and State Bank of India inhabit the same space as Yamato-ya, a grocery and daily needs store that caters specifically to the Japanese. Inside, young, stern looking women operate the cash counter, not willing to share much detail about the store or its owner. Neatly organised aisles sell Japanese rice, meats with Japanese inscription as well as soda, among other things. In the basement, an entire section is dedicated to bleaches — to satisfy the Japanese fascination with crisp, white shirts. Colourful bottles bear the Japanese script, alongside packets of Haldiram’s and Organic India green tea. The store also has an outlet in Safdarjung Enclave, where one of the store managers explains how business has been difficult over the last couple of years. “The new Food Safety and Standards Authority of India regulations need all labels to be translated in English, clearly stating ingredients. This has made importing Japanese products quite difficult.” As a result, the store has more high-end Indian brands than Japanese ones.
 
On the second floor of the building of Yamato-ya’s Safdarjung outlet is Tokumi Hair Salon. A discreet and small space, it caters to mostly Japanese men and women looking for special hair treatments from back home. A young woman explains that Isao Tokumi, the salon’s namesake and mainstay, is out for business. A Japanese woman waits for the colour treatment in her hair to dry as she flips through Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Elle, all in Japanese. Two of the women staff speak in whispers inside. When I ask for details, one of them appears to not understand English too well. Her apparently Asian lead me to ask her where she’s from. “Manipur,” she says with a smile.
 
The cultural appropriation is uniform across places meant to cater specifically to the Japanese, even with true-blue Japanese establishments. The little trickery seems to be working, though, and appears to make the expats feel right at home. “A lot of Indians have asked me in the past if I like India. I always say, ‘Oh, I don’t like India,’ pause for a bit and exclaim, ‘I love, love India!’ That usually breaks the ice and then we talk about food,” laughs Kanakubo.

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Dhabas and Japanese food: Visit mini Japans in rural Haryana and Rajasthan

Reclusive Japanese community made automobile belt spread across Haryana, Rajasthan uniquely its own

Reclusive Japanese community made automobile belt spread across Haryana, Rajasthan uniquely its own The busy highway between Delhi and Jaipur is dotted with “pure vegetarian” dhabas. If you look hard, you will also find on the highway that offer Japanese cuisine with cold beer to boot.
 
The industrial belt that spreads over and is home to large automobile makers like and Honda and their vendors. In alone, 487 Japanese companies, as of 2016, operated out of the industrial belt that now includes a special zone in Jhajjar.
 
This has resulted in a large Japanese expatriate presence, both in these industrial towns as well as the more populated Gurugram. And a full-bodied eco-system has developed to take care of all their needs: food, groceries, translators, bathtubs, golf courses and magazines.
 
A short drive into the State Industrial Development and Investment Corporation’s (RIICO’s) Japanese Zone in Neemrana is Hotel Aju Palace, a branch of a chain of Japanese hotels in the area. A young woman occupies the front desk and a Japanese executive in a business suit is checking out of his room. Inside, a few Japanese men are hurriedly finishing a meal, possibly before rushing back to work. The serves only Japanese delicacies, a white board listing the day’s specials both in English and Japanese. Two young women serve beer to the guests along with freshly prepared fish.
 
“The Japanese love their beer. That, besides a bathtub in their hotel rooms, is a must for any hotel hosting Japanese guests,” explains Ajit Kumar, a 23-year-old front office assistant. Behind him is a refrigerator packed with bottles of Kingfisher beer. A boy with hair styled into spikes cleans the doors and windows. If one didn’t look at him closely, he could easily be mistaken for a Japanese teenager. The women serving the guests, too, have curiously “Asian” and their broken, partly accented English almost hides the fact they are from northeast India.
 
Outside the restaurant, the lobby area has a well-stocked bookshelf with Japanese pulp fiction and magazines. There isn’t much the hotel has missed in terms of detail.
 
Hata Isamu
Hata Isamu, the chef at Daikichi in the Ramada Neemrana, acts as a translator and cultural consultant for the hotel. Photo: Dalip Kumar


There are several such hotels in the area, appearing like an oasis in dusty towns like Bhiwadi, Bawal and Manesar. Some even have brochures in Japanese and play typically oriental music to appear Japanese-friendly.
 
Kumar is the only member of the staff who knows how to speak Japanese — at least beyond the basic pleasantries — having learnt it in New Delhi’s Connaught Place. “I learnt the language because I eventually want to be an interpreter for a Japanese company here in Neemrana.” Though it took him three years to be fairly proficient, he hopes one day he can write and speak the language as a native Japanese would. “Who knows, I may even get to visit Japan one day,” he says with a coy smile.
 
Anticipating a similar career opportunity for their students, several schools in towns such as Rohtak, Rewari, Jhajjar and Bhiwadi offer Japanese as a second language.
 
While about 100 Japanese live in Neemrana in a residential township, most employees prefer to stay at hotels or serviced apartments in the neighbourhood. For longer contracts, at least for those travelling with families, living in Gurugram is a safer and culturally more exciting option. The vast tracts of under-construction sites in places like Neemrana can get overwhelming and lonely, explains Hata Isamu, the 48-year-old chef at Daikichi in Ramada Neemrana hotel. When not cooking and looking for “non-artificial chicken”, Isamu acts as a translator and cultural consultant for the hotel to avoid any snafu while hosting Japanese guests.
 
It appears his suggestions, as well as the volume of Japanese guests, has the hotel sit up and take notice — enough for it to be playing Japanese reality television right in the main foyer.
 
Despite the fervent industrial activity in these townships, loneliness, says Isamu, can at times be overwhelming. “You can’t make friends if you live here. What will you do other than probably eat out or go for a beer?” This can be particularly difficult for the “salarymen” Japanese — the wage earners who are mostly men — who travel alone, leaving families behind in Japan.
 
During various conversations, one hears murmurings of how the young, Mongoloid-featured women are hired for more than just their waitressing skills. But Isamu dismisses these with a wave. “The only thing that I miss here is a good, reasonable place to have a drink. You see, drinking and eating is almost our national pastime,” he chuckles.
 
Nelia Kanakubo concurs with this. When she moved to India three years ago with her husband, it wasn’t a transition without hurdles. Poor air quality was a concern, as was finding a safe neighbourhood with proper amenities. “We would mostly laugh off the hurdles and attribute it to the Indian experience,” she says. But soon, with the assistance of an expat community group called Gurgaon Connection, Kanakubo was able to find her way through Gurugram. She now acts as a Japanese expert for the community, even though she recently moved to Bengaluru. “The Japanese adults tend to spend their weekends playing golf and the kids love Bollywood dance,” she explains.

The restaurant at Aju Palace serves only Japanese delicacies, Photo: Dalip Kumar
The at Aju Palace serves only Japanese delicacies, Photo: Dalip Kumar

 
The love for golf is only second to beer for the Japanese. For this reason, most hotels offer golf on simulated courses, or mini-golf kits. Over the weekends, Japanese executives tee off at the sprawling golf clubs in Gurugram and Delhi.
 
Mostly after golf comes a brunch on weekends and hotels such as the Westin in Gurugram see nearly all of their tables occupied by the Japanese on such days. In fact, a section on the breakfast buffet is dedicated to Japanese specialties.
 
But living in the city is far from a fairytale. “My mother runs a Japanese in Gurugram and she is invariably harassed by excise officers asking for bribes. It’s a constant challenge,” says one Japanese expat who recently moved to Australia. While senior bureaucrats suggest that law enforcement agencies have been instructed to be more sensitive to Japanese concerns, low-level corruption continues to hound expats. People like Kanakubo try and help newcomer Japanese navigate the law of the land, especially those who do not know English.
 
For some of the more basic problems such as groceries, especially for those living with family in Gurugram, there is a ready fix available. Specialty stores like Yamato-ya and Wakaba that stock specific ingredients and products are now not rare. “While they are certainly pricier, the assurance of quality is important for us,” says Kanakubo.
 
In the Sector 56 HUDA market in Gurugram, patently Indian establishments such as Patanjali and State Bank of India inhabit the same space as Yamato-ya, a grocery and daily needs store that caters specifically to the Japanese. Inside, young, stern looking women operate the cash counter, not willing to share much detail about the store or its owner. Neatly organised aisles sell Japanese rice, meats with Japanese inscription as well as soda, among other things. In the basement, an entire section is dedicated to bleaches — to satisfy the Japanese fascination with crisp, white shirts. Colourful bottles bear the Japanese script, alongside packets of Haldiram’s and Organic India green tea. The store also has an outlet in Safdarjung Enclave, where one of the store managers explains how business has been difficult over the last couple of years. “The new Food Safety and Standards Authority of India regulations need all labels to be translated in English, clearly stating ingredients. This has made importing Japanese products quite difficult.” As a result, the store has more high-end Indian brands than Japanese ones.
 
On the second floor of the building of Yamato-ya’s Safdarjung outlet is Tokumi Hair Salon. A discreet and small space, it caters to mostly Japanese men and women looking for special hair treatments from back home. A young woman explains that Isao Tokumi, the salon’s namesake and mainstay, is out for business. A Japanese woman waits for the colour treatment in her hair to dry as she flips through Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Elle, all in Japanese. Two of the women staff speak in whispers inside. When I ask for details, one of them appears to not understand English too well. Her apparently Asian lead me to ask her where she’s from. “Manipur,” she says with a smile.
 
The cultural appropriation is uniform across places meant to cater specifically to the Japanese, even with true-blue Japanese establishments. The little trickery seems to be working, though, and appears to make the expats feel right at home. “A lot of Indians have asked me in the past if I like India. I always say, ‘Oh, I don’t like India,’ pause for a bit and exclaim, ‘I love, love India!’ That usually breaks the ice and then we talk about food,” laughs Kanakubo.
image
Business Standard
177 22

Dhabas and Japanese food: Visit mini Japans in rural Haryana and Rajasthan

Reclusive Japanese community made automobile belt spread across Haryana, Rajasthan uniquely its own

The busy highway between Delhi and Jaipur is dotted with “pure vegetarian” dhabas. If you look hard, you will also find on the highway that offer Japanese cuisine with cold beer to boot.
 
The industrial belt that spreads over and is home to large automobile makers like and Honda and their vendors. In alone, 487 Japanese companies, as of 2016, operated out of the industrial belt that now includes a special zone in Jhajjar.
 
This has resulted in a large Japanese expatriate presence, both in these industrial towns as well as the more populated Gurugram. And a full-bodied eco-system has developed to take care of all their needs: food, groceries, translators, bathtubs, golf courses and magazines.
 
A short drive into the State Industrial Development and Investment Corporation’s (RIICO’s) Japanese Zone in Neemrana is Hotel Aju Palace, a branch of a chain of Japanese hotels in the area. A young woman occupies the front desk and a Japanese executive in a business suit is checking out of his room. Inside, a few Japanese men are hurriedly finishing a meal, possibly before rushing back to work. The serves only Japanese delicacies, a white board listing the day’s specials both in English and Japanese. Two young women serve beer to the guests along with freshly prepared fish.
 
“The Japanese love their beer. That, besides a bathtub in their hotel rooms, is a must for any hotel hosting Japanese guests,” explains Ajit Kumar, a 23-year-old front office assistant. Behind him is a refrigerator packed with bottles of Kingfisher beer. A boy with hair styled into spikes cleans the doors and windows. If one didn’t look at him closely, he could easily be mistaken for a Japanese teenager. The women serving the guests, too, have curiously “Asian” and their broken, partly accented English almost hides the fact they are from northeast India.
 
Outside the restaurant, the lobby area has a well-stocked bookshelf with Japanese pulp fiction and magazines. There isn’t much the hotel has missed in terms of detail.
 

Hata Isamu
Hata Isamu, the chef at Daikichi in the Ramada Neemrana, acts as a translator and cultural consultant for the hotel. Photo: Dalip Kumar


There are several such hotels in the area, appearing like an oasis in dusty towns like Bhiwadi, Bawal and Manesar. Some even have brochures in Japanese and play typically oriental music to appear Japanese-friendly.
 
Kumar is the only member of the staff who knows how to speak Japanese — at least beyond the basic pleasantries — having learnt it in New Delhi’s Connaught Place. “I learnt the language because I eventually want to be an interpreter for a Japanese company here in Neemrana.” Though it took him three years to be fairly proficient, he hopes one day he can write and speak the language as a native Japanese would. “Who knows, I may even get to visit Japan one day,” he says with a coy smile.
 
Anticipating a similar career opportunity for their students, several schools in towns such as Rohtak, Rewari, Jhajjar and Bhiwadi offer Japanese as a second language.
 
While about 100 Japanese live in Neemrana in a residential township, most employees prefer to stay at hotels or serviced apartments in the neighbourhood. For longer contracts, at least for those travelling with families, living in Gurugram is a safer and culturally more exciting option. The vast tracts of under-construction sites in places like Neemrana can get overwhelming and lonely, explains Hata Isamu, the 48-year-old chef at Daikichi in Ramada Neemrana hotel. When not cooking and looking for “non-artificial chicken”, Isamu acts as a translator and cultural consultant for the hotel to avoid any snafu while hosting Japanese guests.
 
It appears his suggestions, as well as the volume of Japanese guests, has the hotel sit up and take notice — enough for it to be playing Japanese reality television right in the main foyer.
 
Despite the fervent industrial activity in these townships, loneliness, says Isamu, can at times be overwhelming. “You can’t make friends if you live here. What will you do other than probably eat out or go for a beer?” This can be particularly difficult for the “salarymen” Japanese — the wage earners who are mostly men — who travel alone, leaving families behind in Japan.
 
During various conversations, one hears murmurings of how the young, Mongoloid-featured women are hired for more than just their waitressing skills. But Isamu dismisses these with a wave. “The only thing that I miss here is a good, reasonable place to have a drink. You see, drinking and eating is almost our national pastime,” he chuckles.
 
Nelia Kanakubo concurs with this. When she moved to India three years ago with her husband, it wasn’t a transition without hurdles. Poor air quality was a concern, as was finding a safe neighbourhood with proper amenities. “We would mostly laugh off the hurdles and attribute it to the Indian experience,” she says. But soon, with the assistance of an expat community group called Gurgaon Connection, Kanakubo was able to find her way through Gurugram. She now acts as a Japanese expert for the community, even though she recently moved to Bengaluru. “The Japanese adults tend to spend their weekends playing golf and the kids love Bollywood dance,” she explains.

The restaurant at Aju Palace serves only Japanese delicacies, Photo: Dalip Kumar
The at Aju Palace serves only Japanese delicacies, Photo: Dalip Kumar

 
The love for golf is only second to beer for the Japanese. For this reason, most hotels offer golf on simulated courses, or mini-golf kits. Over the weekends, Japanese executives tee off at the sprawling golf clubs in Gurugram and Delhi.
 
Mostly after golf comes a brunch on weekends and hotels such as the Westin in Gurugram see nearly all of their tables occupied by the Japanese on such days. In fact, a section on the breakfast buffet is dedicated to Japanese specialties.
 
But living in the city is far from a fairytale. “My mother runs a Japanese in Gurugram and she is invariably harassed by excise officers asking for bribes. It’s a constant challenge,” says one Japanese expat who recently moved to Australia. While senior bureaucrats suggest that law enforcement agencies have been instructed to be more sensitive to Japanese concerns, low-level corruption continues to hound expats. People like Kanakubo try and help newcomer Japanese navigate the law of the land, especially those who do not know English.
 
For some of the more basic problems such as groceries, especially for those living with family in Gurugram, there is a ready fix available. Specialty stores like Yamato-ya and Wakaba that stock specific ingredients and products are now not rare. “While they are certainly pricier, the assurance of quality is important for us,” says Kanakubo.
 
In the Sector 56 HUDA market in Gurugram, patently Indian establishments such as Patanjali and State Bank of India inhabit the same space as Yamato-ya, a grocery and daily needs store that caters specifically to the Japanese. Inside, young, stern looking women operate the cash counter, not willing to share much detail about the store or its owner. Neatly organised aisles sell Japanese rice, meats with Japanese inscription as well as soda, among other things. In the basement, an entire section is dedicated to bleaches — to satisfy the Japanese fascination with crisp, white shirts. Colourful bottles bear the Japanese script, alongside packets of Haldiram’s and Organic India green tea. The store also has an outlet in Safdarjung Enclave, where one of the store managers explains how business has been difficult over the last couple of years. “The new Food Safety and Standards Authority of India regulations need all labels to be translated in English, clearly stating ingredients. This has made importing Japanese products quite difficult.” As a result, the store has more high-end Indian brands than Japanese ones.
 
On the second floor of the building of Yamato-ya’s Safdarjung outlet is Tokumi Hair Salon. A discreet and small space, it caters to mostly Japanese men and women looking for special hair treatments from back home. A young woman explains that Isao Tokumi, the salon’s namesake and mainstay, is out for business. A Japanese woman waits for the colour treatment in her hair to dry as she flips through Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Elle, all in Japanese. Two of the women staff speak in whispers inside. When I ask for details, one of them appears to not understand English too well. Her apparently Asian lead me to ask her where she’s from. “Manipur,” she says with a smile.
 
The cultural appropriation is uniform across places meant to cater specifically to the Japanese, even with true-blue Japanese establishments. The little trickery seems to be working, though, and appears to make the expats feel right at home. “A lot of Indians have asked me in the past if I like India. I always say, ‘Oh, I don’t like India,’ pause for a bit and exclaim, ‘I love, love India!’ That usually breaks the ice and then we talk about food,” laughs Kanakubo.

image
Business Standard
177 22