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Sunday, April 29, 2001


Armchair travel to Italy and beyond

Tatsuo Umemiya used to be one of the hardest-working yakuza actors in Japan. Nowadays, he is mainly known as the father of model/talent Anna Umemiya and as "the cooking king" of Japanese show business. He even owns a popular chain of stores that sell all sorts of Japanese foods. The stores are easy to find since each features a figure of the actor standing at the entrance like Colonel Sanders.

Umemiya's reputation as a food expert is founded on his stint as the original host of Fuji TV's long-running but now defunct "Kuishinbo Banzai," a daily five-minute travelogue in which the actor would go all over Japan sampling local delicacies. In more recent years he has moved to the other side of the counter, so to speak, by showing off his own culinary abilities, usually in the realm of donburi and always in a competitive setting. In the past, he has gone to Hawaii, Thailand and Mexico, where he created donburi using only local ingredients and then tried to sell at least 100 of the rice-bowl meals to local people. In all three cases, he succeeded.

Monday afternoon at 4 p.m. on Nihon TV, he will bring his ongoing project to Italy in conjunction with the "Year of Italy in Japan" event that is currently taking place nationwide. He will be joined by comedian Junji Takada, who will act as his "producer," talent Mariya Yamada, who will be his assistant, and Tetsuro Degawa, a comedian known for his lack of common sense, who will procure the necessary ingredients.

The quartet of budding donburi entrepreneurs first tries to set up shop in the famous Piazza de Spagna in Rome, but the police soon chase them away. They then decide to rent a storefront, but this turns out to be more difficult than they imagined. Eventually, they find an abandoned restaurant deep in the countryside in a village near a lake.

Umemiya and company discover somewhat disingenuously that rice, "the food of Japan," is very prominent in Italian cooking, as well. He and a local chef each concoct their own rice-based dishes, which are then evaluated by a team of cooking experts, but the main challenge is trying to convince the people in the village to come and sample real Japanese food. Umemiya must sell at least 100 donburi and receive "approval" for the dish from 70 percent of the customers. If he fails, both he and Takada must shave their heads in penance.

Fuji TV, which is a co-sponsor of the "Tutta Italia" festival taking place at Tokyo Big Sight this week, is also presenting a travel and food special about Italy today (4-5:25 p.m.).

Ikue Sagakibara and Misa Imori, who host a popular cooking series, "Ikue & Imori's Deli & Delikitchen," make their way from the set of their TV show in Japan to Northern Italy in the company of two chefs, one Italian and the other Japanese, as they sample the culture and cuisine of Turin, Milan, Parma, Verona and Venice. As with the Umemiya special, it isn't enough that the two young women simply go, look and eat. Their travels have to be linked to some kind of competition. In each place they visit, Sagakibara and Imori have to answer a question posed to them by a fortuneteller who always seems to be lurking nearby. When they answer the question correctly, they can proceed to the next town.

The combination of quiz and cookery makes for "a funny travel adventure" in the style of the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope road movies of the '40s. In addition to food, our hosts learn about opera, fashion, and other cultural pursuits that Northern Italy is famous for.

NHK goes much further than Italy in its new science documentary series that premieres tonight on NHK-G at 9 p.m. In past years, the network's Sunday night specials have featured monthly series dealing with earth science, evolution, exploration and other general topics that are meant to put human existence in its proper perspective in the universe. "Uchu: Michi e Daikiko (Space: a Journey to the Unknown)" may be the ultimate expression of this series since it deals mainly with the latest theories about how life itself came to be.

The nine monthly documentaries will begin with the latest hypothesis on how the Earth was formed and how carbon-based life arose on its surface. Using state-of-the-art computer graphics, the program re-creates a solar system choked with meteors and dust that likely contained organic compounds.

Tonight's installment also explains the theory that says 36 million years ago an asteroid 5 km in diameter struck the Earth on what is now the east coast of the United States, creating a crater as big as Tokyo and sending clouds of ash into the atmosphere. Despite this incredible destruction, scientists now believe that such catastrophes actually lead to a greater variety and abundance of life forms in the long run, thus adding fuel to the debate about whether or not we are descended from "alien" life forms.

The quality of NHK's science shows is based on three aspects: difficult topics made easy to understand; incredibly detailed visuals; and evocative music, which in this case was composed by Hideki Togi.

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