Harumi Kurihara is an unlikely celebrity, a down-to-earth housewife at heart who has hit the big time with her cookbooks, TV shows and chain of cafés and restaurants. Meet Japan’s unassuming answer to Martha Stewart.
In almost all respects, Harumi Kurihara is the model of the Japanese shufu or housewife. She keeps a lovely house, her kitchen is the heart of her home and she goes to the supermarket with a keen eye for the freshest ingredients. One small difference though: this unassuming – and unbelievably youthful – 65-year-old has sold 23 million cookbooks, has 54 shops selling her range of utensils and homeware and runs 12 cafés and restaurants. She is a regular on television and publishes a quarterly magazine that sells 800,000 copies a year.
Harumi Kurihara is by far Japan’s most successful cookery writer and yet she has achieved household status almost haphazardly and with none of the steeliness of a Martha Stewart (with whom she is often compared). “Sometimes I can’t believe it myself,” she says laughing. Self-taught, Kurihara has no pretences to being a top chef. What she excels at is simple home cooking. She has demystified the Japanese kitchen and made it possible for even the most inept cook to produce a decent ginger pork and miso soup.
Kurihara was born in the small beachside town of Shimoda in 1947. She grew up in a tight-knit community where doors were left unlocked. “Everyone is very friendly there,” she says. “Much more so than city people.” Her mother, now 91, encouraged her to help with the cooking. “I bought tofu and natto each day and set the table with bowls and chopsticks.” Kurihara learnt to cook by watching her mother. “She never taught me as such. I picked it up almost without thinking.”
She went to university for a couple of years but had no thought of finding a job. “In those days one didn’t think about a career,” she says. Through her brother she met Reiji Kurihara – then a famous news anchor – when she was 21 and married him several years later.
Kurihara was a tireless hostess, cooking for her brother and his friends at weekends in Shimoda. “It was like Hawaii, full of interesting people who had second homes there: designers, writers, photographers.” Unusually, Kurihara’s husband-to-be was a good cook, and so were others in their Shimoda circle. “Many of them had studied abroad,” she says. “so, while I was preparing horse mackerel, they were cooking roast chicken. I learnt about western-style cooking from them.” Over the years, word spread of Kurihara’s phenomenal home cooking.
For anyone who wonders if they’ve left their career too late, it might be heartening to know that Kurihara didn’t have a paid job until she was 36 and a television-director friend suggested she help behind the scenes on a variety cooking show. “I was very nervous,” she recalls. She started writing recipes for a magazine and things quickly snowballed. Television, magazine and book offers flooded in as editors realised that her combination of cooking skills, sunny disposition and personal style could be gold dust.
Women across Japan instantly liked her down-to-earth approach to cooking and, crucially, they liked her. Aside from a cheery warmth that comes across in print and on screen, the key to Kurihara’s success is that she understands the way the average Japanese housewife thinks. She knows they don’t have time to hunt out obscure ingredients or spend hours preparing complicated dishes. “I always think that someone might be cooking a recipe for the first time,” she says. “There’s no point in saying, ‘Boil until it’s hard,’ because people then ask you, ‘How long?’ I try to be precise. I’ve done all the hard work – I might try a recipe 20 times before it’s right. So if people follow the recipes exactly they won’t go wrong.”
Kurihara’s fans loved her recipes but they also liked her presentation – the crockery, the fresh flowers and seasonal touches. Soon they didn’t just want the books, they wanted to buy her utensils and even her clothes. She started her homeware and restaurant business Yutori No Kukan (which translates roughly as “relaxing space”) in 1995. As with everything else she does, Kurihara roots her business decisions in common sense. “I only come up with things I would use myself,” she says of her homeware brand. Her output is prolific: there have been 700 apron designs alone over the years.
Kurihara is ambivalent about what has been a very successful television career. She recalls being sick with nerves for months when she first recorded Your Japanese Kitchen, her long-running series in English for nhk Global. “All I could say was, ‘Hello, I’m Harumi Kurihara. Let’s enjoy Japanese cooking together!’ and nothing else.” Her family begged her to give it up but she persisted. She still has English lessons every other day (by phone – she’s too busy to see a teacher).
Her books are now published in 12 countries and eight languages. She has travelled around the world doing demonstrations and meeting readers. She doesn’t expect her foreign audience to spend a fortune stocking up on ingredients they’ve never heard of. “I say to people they just need soy sauce because if I start saying you need mirin and rice vinegar and this and that, then it’s too difficult. If they have soy sauce, they can make teriyaki chicken using sugar instead of mirin. We all have to learn bit by bit.”
Kurihara’s is a punishing schedule. She has already published 4,000 original recipes and barely a day passes when she isn’t working on another. “I’m thinking about it all the time,” she says. She is still surprised by her celebrity, forgetting how familiar she is to her fans. “In the supermarket people look in my basket,” she says. “If I’m in the wine section they’ll ask for my recommendations.” In her mind, she says, she is still a housewife.
Between the television recordings, magazine, books, restaurants and shops there’s barely a free moment. And yet you’d be hard pushed to find a more hospitable person. Kurihara’s house is filled with friends and relatives all chatting and eating her delicious food. Her son lives across the road with his wife and their baby. Her daughter, also a cookery writer, pops in and out. And there is Kurihara, at the centre of it all, laughing and cooking in the kitchen. You get the sense that if the business collapsed tomorrow Kurihara would be just as happy at home.
“I never meant to be famous,” she says. And you know that she means it.
1947 Born in Shizuoka, Japan
1973 Marries news anchor Reiji Kurihara
1983 Starts her first job behind the scenes on a TV cooking show
1989 Publishes her first cookbook, about sauces
1992 Publishes Gochisosama ga Kikitakute (I Want to Hear you Say: That was Delicious); has gone on to sell over a million copies
1995 Begins her Yutori no Kukan (Relaxing Space) business, managing shops and restaurants
2007 Starts Your Japanese Kitchen TV series on NHK World TV, broadcast in 80 countries
2011 Starts her app Shiki no Kurashi, introducing recipes using seasonal ingredients