TOKYO - Even after all these years, it is impossible not to mention actor Bae Yong-jun, the 37-year-old hero of "Winter Sonata," when talking about the Korean pop culture boom in Japan.
In 2004 he rose to stardom there when the KBS drama, which began broadcasting here in 2002, became a mega hit in Japan. In the years since "Winter Sonata," none of Bae's other works have been as successful as his first. Nonetheless, he was greeted by 45,000 fans at Tokyo Dome last fall, when he hosted a promotional event for his latest book on Korean culture and tourism, "A Journey in Search of Korean Beauty."
Fifty-thousand copies of the first edition were sold on the day it was released. Among the fans who showed up at the promotional event was Miyuki Hatoyama, wife of Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. Known as an enthusiastic fan of Bae and Korean dramas, the Japanese first lady chatted with him for 10 minutes prior to the event.
In recent years, Bae has played a singular role in broadening the Korean pop culture boom into tourism and cuisine.
He has opened two Korean restaurants, plus a grocery store in Japan, all under the name of Gosireh. "Gosireh" is a combination of "Gosi," the name of the agricultural god who appears in Korea's founding myth, and the Chinese letter "reh," which means "politeness." The name is meant to emphasize the restaurant's determination to always put its customers first, explained Kim Mi-hea, a culinary researcher and public relations representative for all three stores.
In addition to Gosireh, Bae launched a traditional Korean barbeque restaurant called "Goshire Hwa" in Nagoya last year. Most recently, he opened "Goshire Gun" in the basement of Seibu Department Store in Tokyo last month.
Located at the heart of the large commercial and entertainment district called Ikebukuro, Seibu Department Store is a top retail giant owned by the Seibu Group, a company responsible for multiple railway lines in Tokyo.
The store specializes in Korean-style dishes, or "banchan," plus various different types of salads, "ssambab" (lettuce wraps) and "juk" (porridge).
Despite the fact Bae is something of a magnet attracting flocks of Japanese to Korean restaurants, Kim said Bae has never thought of using his popularity to promote his restaurants. Kim said Bae believes this would never help Korean cuisine gain mainstream popularity and that taste should be the only thing that matters in the restaurant business.
Before Gosireh, Bae also had a successful restaurant business in Korea. Gorilla in the Kitchen, a hip western restaurant located near Dosan Park in southern Seoul, is popular among young people for its herbal salads and sandwiches.
"The food cultures in the two countries have much in common, as both depend much on soy sauce (ganjang) and soy paste (doenjang)," Kim said. "What I think is missing from Korean cuisine is something to entertain eyes of customers while preparing food. We are working on it so you will be seeing it soon."