In 1986, when Shinsuke Nikaido first started selling Nintendo video games in Seattle, customers were so unfamiliar with the company, he said, they pronounced it “Nine-tendo.” The product caught on, to say the least, becoming a household name, and Nikaido eventually opened a retail store in just about every mall in the Seattle area.
That was how Seattle — actually Bellevue — became Nikaido’s adopted home. The Tokyo native eventually divested his stake in the stores but stayed in the area because “this was a good place to do business.”
He got into commercial real estate for a while, setting up the leases for the Daiso chain of dry goods stores. His work dried up when Daiso started contracting and closing stores, so he decided to retire.
Retirement made him restless and drove him to yet another idea, which is why, today at age 62, he spends most of his waking hours in a downtown Seattle parking lot at the northeast corner of 2nd Avenue and Pike Street, where he cooks Japanese-style hot dogs on a propane grill under a white plastic tarp. He is there every day, wearing a red cap and apron. He opens the stand at 10 a.m. and closes it at 10 p.m. On Saturday nights, he stays open until midnight. (He takes a break in the afternoon, letting one of his two employees take over for a few hours.)
“This is hard work, but working keeps me healthy,” he said, bundled in a muffler and jacket against a cold wind. “If I stay at home, it’s just boring.”
Nikaido’s hot dog stand, called Gourmet Dog Japon, opened late last summer and sells a curious invention of misleading provenance. Unique to these parts, the Japan-ified hot dog starts out as frank and a bun but is built with toppings like pickled ginger, dried fish flakes, dried seaweed, katsu sauce, wasabi, Japanese sweet mayonnaise, sautéed cabbage, and sukiyaki-style beef. (Gourmet Dog Japon also offers toppings like cheese, grilled onions, bacon, and chili.)
Dog Japon’s hot dogs, which all cost about $5, Nikaido said, are not really Japanese at all. When the Japanese eat hot dogs, they will either slice the frank like they do fish cake and eat it plain as part of a bento box, or they will eat it American style. (Incidentally, one of the most famous eaters of American hot dogs is Japanese: Takeru Kobayashi, winner of six straight Nathan’s Coney Island hot-dog-eating contests.)
“Japanese people think of hot dogs as American food,” he said. “To them, this is not Japanese food.”
Not that the Japanese haven’t adopted and tweaked Western dishes and made them Japanese standards. There’s even a name for this type of Japanese food: yoshoku — dishes like breaded hamburger, ketchup fried rice topped with an omelet, croquettes, spaghetti stir-fry, or curry stew over rice — reportedly the meal Mariners slugger Ichiro Suzuki eats for lunch before each game. But hot dogs topped with Japanese condiments are not yoshoku.
It turns out they are actually a Northwest thing, sprung from the mind of an expat living in British Columbia before Nikaido brought them to Seattle. Unlike a lot of fusion food trends involving Asian food, this one did not start in California or New York and, as near as I can tell, has not yet spread beyond the Northwest.
The closest exception might be New York City’s Asiadog hot-dog stand. Based in a popular weekend flea market in Brooklyn, Asiadog sells hot dogs with various Asian-style toppings like kimchee, fish sauce, peanuts, cilantro, Chinese barbecue pork, and pickled daikon — more pan-Asian than Japanese.
The Japanese hot dog is a little like the California roll and the many blinged-out rolls that followed its path: the crunchy rolls, spider rolls, dragon rolls, volcano rolls. Japanese do not eat fancy rolls in Japan (sushi bars do not sell them), but will eat them when visiting the U.S. as a special treat — an opportunity, and a somewhat ironic one, to taste American food.
Nikaido credits the invention of the gourmet Japanese hot dog to his friend Noriki Tamura, the founder of Japa Dog, the Vancouver, B.C., hot-dog cart that took the city by storm about five years ago. Tamura’s Japa Dog, which set up in the business and shopping district of Vancouver, was something of a precursor to the Korean taco truck.
Both are examples of grab-and-go fusion, born on the street. The Korean taco also benefited from the explosion of social media, particularly Twitter; although Japa Dog took off before Twitter became all the rage, its popularity was aided by the Internet — that and a few celebrity sightings and enthusiastic word of mouth. One cart expanded to several, and the Japanese hot dog, which is a mystery to most Japanese, became a local sensation. Word spread further during the Winter Olympic Games, as people lined up at Japa Dog carts.
Naturally it ought to do well in Seattle, Nikaido thought. He took what Tamura started and ran with it, adding his own embellishments like the sukiyaki beef.
He opened his first stand in the Pike Place Market (it’s still there) and two days later opened up his second stand on Second Ave., holding his own against the very popular Maximus/Minimus pork sandwich truck which parks on the same block. His customers tend to be young office workers and tourists. Most are not of Asian heritage, but Nikaido hopes to mine this untapped demographic, starting with the Japanese-American community. He plans to sell hot dogs at next year’s Seattle Cherry Blossom & Japanese Cultural Festival.
It is difficult to eat at, or write about, Dog Japon and not consider at least briefly the tsunami that destroyed so much of Nikaido’s country. He keeps two wide plastic jars at his hot-dog stand, soliciting donations to the Japanese Red Cross. So far they have been relatively small but steady, he said. His wife’s family comes from a town near Sendai and has distant relatives and friends who lost homes and more. No one close to him was injured, he said, but he is certain some of the people he has met in his life did not survive, like the parents of a long-ago friend who lived within view of the sea.
Nikaido and his wife still own a home in the Tokyo area and, until he opened Dog Japon, traveled to Japan at least once a year. The hot-dog stand, for now, is his consuming passion, and it has no place in Japan.
“When I hear someone say, ‘This is the best hot dog in Seattle,’ that makes me very happy,” Nikaido said.
But Dog Japon probably wouldn’t fly in Japan. The flavor combination aside, “Japanese aren’t interested in eating on the street,” Nikaido said. “They don’t even want to drink coffee outside. It’s just … a different culture.”
If you go: Gourmet Dog Japon, Pike Place Market, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. daily. Gourmet Dog Japon, 2nd Avenue and Pike Street, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m. – midnight Saturday; 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Sunday.
This article first appeared in Crosscut.com and is re-printed with permission.