Food in Film: Celebrating Japanese Cuisine in 'Tampopo'

Tampopo | © Itami/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
James Gates

In 1985, a movie was released in Japan that prophesied an entirely different way to look at food. We take a closer look…

Loved by over 40s

As this movie saw it, food wasn’t just something we put in our bodies, it was a means by which we understood and celebrated life. Plates of food suddenly became works of art, worthy of being captured lovingly on camera. Not just a part of life, food was life, a gateway to observing and understanding other cultures. This film understood that the way in which a dish arrived on our dinner table was a journey of many steps, and each step was itself instructional. Meal preparation became a sort of life lesson; your approach to a recipe said something about who you were as a person.

It also predicted how much people would love to eat Japanese noodles in soup. That movie was Juzo Itami’s acclaimed “ramen western”, Tampopo.

Tampopo (the Japanese word for “dandelion” and also the name of the film’s heroine) is an ode to all that is great about a staple of Japanese cuisine that is as popular in its home country as a doner kebab is in the UK. The film is two movies for the price of one; in the primary narrative, a pair of gourmet truck drivers seek refuge one night in a ramen shop run by a kindly single mum. Her noodles are terrible, but Tampopo is a hard worker with a heart of gold.

Aided by her new friends, the epic quest begins to train her into becoming the best ramen chef in Tokyo. Each component of the humble dish, from the broth to the noodles and the barbecued pork, is portrayed as the end result of exhaustive research, empathy and trial-and-error. Itami shoots various foodstuffs using the kind of adoring close-ups that would normally be enjoyed by Jennifer Lawrence.

The main story in Tampopo, which mixes a plucky-underdog tale with comedy, drama and zen philosophy, is a hearty feast all by itself, but where it truly distinguishes itself is through a series of vignettes sprinkled across the film; a hot young couple use food for foreplay; a business meeting takes a comedic turn in a French restaurant; a vacuum cleaner is put to novel use when saving a choking victim. Through all these allegories, Tampopo recognises our modern obsession with food as a multi-faceted experience. We eat not just for sustenance but to help process a kaleidoscope of sensations – arousal, joy, contentment, laughter and even sadness.

Fast forward to the modern day, and food worship is both a full-time hobby and a global industry. Culinary blogs dominate the internet. Instagram feeds are clogged with images of cuisine. Smartphones now hover permanently over dinner tables, their users taking great pains to hold devices just-so in order to get the money shot. Celebrity chefs command a similar status to premier league footballers. Cooking shows on TV are multi-million cash cows for broadcasters. Anthony Bourdain is the new Iggy Pop.

It can all be a bit grating at times. Our frenzied obsession with social media and hashtags means that some people now declare themselves “foodies” purely by virtue of the fact that they enjoy eating different types of food (one could reasonably expect them to label themselves “breathies” because they successful inhale oxygen). It’s very difficult nowadays to find someone who doesn’t want to immortalise their dinner for posterity via their iPhone. The brilliant episode of South Park, “Creme Freche”, depicted foodies as bores and food culture itself as masturbatory.

One way or another, intentionally or otherwise, Tampopo saw all this coming, but where people in the West explore their love of food as a means to express their individuality, Itami’s film contrasts this with a dignified reverence and an earnest need to discover the true soul of Japanese cooking. Interestingly, the film itself doesn’t have it’s own equivalent term for a foodie. All the characters just like to eat. The focus is always on the food. Ego has little say in the matter (when Tampopo and her cohorts locate Tokyo’s greatest living ramen cook, he is happily living on the streets as an anonymous vagrant).


For the Japanese, Tampopo was a success at the box office but wasn’t anything especially revelatory at the time – Asia has had its own intricate, artisinal food culture for aeons (such is the attention to detail that even McDonalds in Japan tastes nicer). But in the West, especially in the mid 1980s, a cosmopolitan, analogous eating experience was something that was difficult to come by. Now it’s everywhere (type ‘food’ into the search bar on Netflix and 40 entries come back in the “Documentaries about Food” category). And ramen in particular has become big business; ultra-slick chain Ippudo, based in Japan, finally opened a branch in London last year after setting up outlets in Australia, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Taiwan and the USA.

Here in the UK, Japanese food as a prolific way of life seemed unthinkable not too long ago. These days, it’s ubiquitous. The Wasabi chain dominates the high street. Wagamama and Itsu-branded ingredients line the shelves at Sainsburys, do-it-yourself ramen kits are available in Waitrose and you can even pick up Udon noodles at Tesco Express for just over a quid.

Although there are a glut of documentaries and reality TV shows about food in the West, it’s a challenge trying to find a modern-day contemporary to Tampopo. John Favreau’s Chef (2014) comes close, but that film is just as much about the virtues of a simpler life as it is about the perfect Cuban sandwich. Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007) celebrates both cooking and eating, but it’s all-ages appeal means it lacks the edgier, adult tone that Tampopo has. An aforementioned love scene, plus a bit where a live turtle meets a grisly end on camera ensure that it’s definitely not family viewing.

Tampopo isn’t the easiest movie to find (though it’s 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes indicates a dedicated following) but is well worth tracking down, more so after Criterion released an exquisite restoration last year. It’s an experience that is every bit as comforting as a steaming hot bowl of noodles in soup. Just don’t watch it on an empty stomach.

culture trip left arrow
 culture trip brand logo

Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip

meet our Local Insider


women sitting on iceberg


2 years.


It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.


I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!

culture trip logo letter c
group posing for picture on iceberg
group posing for picture on iceberg

Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.

map of volcanic iceland trip destination points
culture trip brand logo
culture trip right arrow
landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.