TOKYO GARLIC FESTIVAL (2016)
Originally published in Metropolis Japan on August 13, 2016 (Link)
Garlic has been used throughout history as a way to ward off undesirable visitors. From Korean tigers to Balkan vampires, a long list of foes are said to go well out of their way to avoid this small but mighty member of the onion family. But for five days in July, Shinjuku’s Okubo Park Theatre Park hosts a festival that wants to flip the script on the veggie infamously known as “the stinking rose.”
The Tokyo Garlic Festival has a solitary focus and an admirable mandate. According to their website, festival organizers were frustrated with the high cost of food and drink at similar events and sought to establish one low price for each of the garlicky goods they’ve made available. After all, what’s the point of a pop-up market if patrons can only try one or two things? As a result, everything at the Tokyo Garlic Festival goes for a single ¥500 coin.
It’s a clever move. But it’s also the festival’s weak point, because while everything’s the same price it doesn’t hold the same value. A tasty cocktail for ¥500? Not bad! A bag of popcorn or single chicken leg? Not good! Prix-fixe pricing is a great idea that should be carried forward in future installments, but the festival should ensure they can deliver on their initial dream of good-deal grub.
Some stalls are right on target, though. “European-style” curry has a nice hint of garlic and is served up with papadum-style tortillas, and a pair of garlic shrimp tacos might be the best bargain on site.
Each vendor’s garlic quotient is also rated on a scale of one to three, which comes in handy if you like the stuff but don’t want to go wild. Or if you’re angling for a little romance later. Because, let’s face it: even if you love garlic, nobody loves garlic breath.
To see how you're faring in that department, swing by the festival's “breathalyzer test” tent. Patrons huff into a plastic tube that assigns their stinky fumes a score and awards them accordingly. Prizes include packs of mints from event sponsor Lotte or, for especially vile offenders, face masks.
It’s too bad that more clever ideas like these don’t make their way to the menu. Food festivals have a tradition of getting freaky with their fare, and these little experiments are a treasured part of the fun. Spicy meets sweet, savory meets sour, and foods voted “least likely to get along” in their high school yearbooks find themselves inexplicably mixed up in the same unforgettable sandwich.
But at the end of the day, what’s available at the Tokyo Garlic Festival is surprisingly conservative. A lot of the dishes would normally contain garlic anyway and so don’t seem much different from their original incarnations. With a focus as deliciously pungent as garlic, it feels like a missed opportunity.
The surprise hit of the event could have been a promising bar menu of garlic beer and highballs (and a thoughtful non-alcoholic variation for those who don’t want to get boozy). Sadly, the featured ingredient was barely detectable in the highball, which was refreshing but nowhere near what you’d expect from such an odd concoction.
Due to popular demand, the event is already scheduled to return in 2017. With a few tweaks, the Tokyo Garlic Festival could easily correct its missteps in value and variety and become a can’t-miss event. Who knows, get the recipe right and even a few vampires might risk a visit.