Tochigi Cowboy

Behind Mount Rushmore, the cowboys were having a party. They’d roasted a 300-pound side of beef, legs and all, for the occasion. It hung on massive skewers for all to admire, salted and peppered and glistening with crispy fat. Whole cloves of garlic had been poked into its massive flank to cook along with it.

While a band from Nashville sang to the crowd, a cook in a cowboy hat went to work. He dug the fingers of one greasy hand into the animal’ side and tore loose a chunk of flesh. Working a knife beneath it with his other hand, he quickly peeled off a strip of beef as long and thick as a man’ arm. He passed this to his assistants, who sliced it up for the eagerly waiting crowd.

“Dozo,” the assistants politely said.
“Domo,” the guests replied.

That doesn’t sound like cowboy talk to you? That’ because this bull roast is in Japan. It’ in Imaichi, to be exact — a little town in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture, about 90 miles north of Tokyo. The town is home to a theme park called Western
Village, which is meant to resemble an old-fashioned cowboy town, right down to its imported musicians and giant replica of Mount Rushmore. In what is to become an annual event, 20 whole American beef carcasses — 40 sides of beef — were served to the public there over the course of 40 days this summer. According to Susumu Harada of the sponsoring U.S. Meat Export Federation, this was the “largest event featuring the roasting of U.S. beef in Japan.”

The idea is to show the park’ guests a good time while
also encouraging them to eat more US-produced food.

The park

Western Village is the brainchild of Kenichi Ominami, a gray-haired entrepreneur with thick black eyebrows and a loud, hair-trigger laugh. He is a gregarious Americaphile who strides around his park in a cowboy hat, two-tone shirt, and a gigantic silver belt buckle with Mt. Rushmore carved on it. He and his brother Masayuki founded Western Village 25 years ago as a small guest ranch with three horses and a fishing pond.

Like the American West itself, his park has been expanding ever since. Over the years Ominami has added a Wild West show,a concert stage, a 3-D theater, an exhibit of antique American cars,several restaurants, and a railroad featuring two vintage steam locomotives. The centerpiece is a street full of old Western buildings staffed by robot models of American movie stars from Charles Bronson to Marilyn Monroe.

There’ even a “Mexico Land” on the other side of a river that cuts across his property. Naturally, Ominami refers to this river as “The Rio Grande.” There’ a rifle range where guests can fire lasers at targets across the river.

Ominami rarely uses the word “Big” when describing his projects. Everything is “bigger” or “biggest.” His boasting usually seems justified. For example, his miniature golf course is crowded with Norman Rockwell-era buildings that are nearly life-sized.

Mount Rushmore

His crowning achievement, so far, is his massive fiberglass-and-concrete Mount Rushmore. The faces alone are six yards high, compared with 18 yards on the US original. The entire sculpture is so big that there is a three-story museum and gift shop inside of it.

Replicating a huge American monument in the Japanese countryside may strike some as bizarre, but there is method to this madness. Ominami wanted his park to be associated with an American cultural icon that hadn’t already been overexposed in his country. The Statue of Liberty in particular, he complained, had been degraded by its inclusion in the external decor of countless “love hotels” around Japan. As the term implies, love hotels rent by the hour.

The opening of Mt. Rushmore back in 1995 marked the start of Ominami’ latest project. He plans to showcase a different US state or region every year, and began with South Dakota. “I think America is [the] United States of America.” he explained. “But Japanese people [think that the] West Coast or East Coast is America. But America is a very big country.” Each of the 50 states is “another face” of America, he said.

After South Dakota, Ominami featured the Mississippi River states, and then Minnesota. This year’s “face” of America is Wisconsin, and Iowa is up next.

Wisconsin State Fair

According to Ominami, the three most famous cities on earth for beer are Sapporo, Munich, and Milwaukee. Beer was a natural theme for his “Wisconsin State Fair.” So was cheese. He threw in the bull roast for wider appeal.

In Japan, organizing an event of this kind is more easily said than done. Ominami’ original plan was to serve dozens of American beers and cheeses, but Japanese customs regulations got
in his way.

Businesses must pay a fee of 20,000 yen ($150.00) for each brand commercially imported, regardless of quantity. This made it impractical to import a few bottles of each of a wide variety of beers, so Ominami imported many bottles of a few beers instead.

Naturally, big names like Budweiser and Coors are represented in his selection, but he also managed to include a few American beers that are little-known in Japan, such as Rolling Rock, Samuel Adams, and Henry Weinhard. More obscure US brews, such as Nude Beer, Chili Beer, and Apollo “Space-Crafted” Beer, were present in single bottles for display only. He couldn’t legally sell them.

He faced worse obstacle with the cheese. Of 20 cheeses that he had hoped to showcase, he could obtain only a meager selection eight. The others contained “chemicals” forbidden by the Japanese government. Ominami said that even the US embassy, one of the sponsors of the event, couldn’t help him get them into Japan. “This is Japanese law!” he exclaimed in amused exasperation.

Then there was the beef. Normally, importers buy only finished meat products such as steaks or ground beef because they are more economical to ship. But for dramatic effect, Ominami wanted the whole animal.

Susumu Harada arranged to ship 40 sides of beef from a California slaughterhouse to the Tochigi theme park. It took four months just to find a meat supplier who would construct the special wooden frame containers needed to send the frozen carcasses to Japan by ship. “If you improperly handle [them] in the course of transportation, the bones might be broken or the shape of the carcass might be drastically altered,” Harada explained. “There are a lot of technicalities.”

Harada’ efforts paid off, for the meal at Western Village was quite tasty and a big hit with the crowd. Most of the Japanese visitors remarked on the meat’ tenderness. It was a quality that some of them were surprised to find in American beef.

And Next….

The beer and cheese fair runs until June 30, 1999, and Ominami is determined to make the bull roast an annual summer event.

It was a challenge to organize the bull roast this year,Ominami declared, but next year it will be easier. With his next featured state being Iowa, he expects corn to play a starring role along with the beef.

South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa. State by state,the American West is being settled all over again. This time,though, it is happening clear across the Pacific, even further west than anyone imagined before.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.

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