The ‘Hiro’ of Fukuoka

Kyushu, which literally means Nine Provinces, is one of the four major islands of Japan, and is known for its agricultural products—tobacco, soy, rice, sweet potatoes and tea. The production of silk and porcelain are also two of the island’s main industries. These industries match the laid-back culture prevalent in the island.

Being in the southernmost area of the country, Kyushu has a subtropical climate, meaning, it can be very hot and humid during summer, but winters are not as severe, and snow rarely falls.  This climate sets it apart from the weather extremes that affect metropolitan cities of Japan, like Tokyo.  

In other words, Kyushu’s relaxed, easy-going ambience and mild winters are believed to have created a positive influence on the lives of its residents, giving them attractive traits that may not be found in those residing in a large, chaotic urban environment.

The imposing façade of the Fukuoka Castle in Fukuoka’s Maizuru Park
As for the island’s tourism value, Kyushu has many active volcanoes and natural hot springs, to lure adventurous tourists, but for those who prefer the sun, sea and sand diversion, it has many beautiful beaches to offer.  Another interesting attraction on the island is the city of Nagasaki, the second Japanese city hit by the atomic bomb in 1945.  What draws tourists to this city are the very interesting Atomic Bomb Museum and the Nagasaki Peace Park.  

Fukuoka is the biggest city on the island of Kyushu.  It is home to fascinating museums, large shopping malls, and the destination that is very popular among Japan’s religious, the Kushida-Jinja, an 8th-century Shinto shrine. The city is also heavily industrialized, as this is where the headquarters of the island’s Power Company is located, together with many other small enterprises that support the high-tech manufacturing, IT and logistics sectors.

Popular among tourists is the Maizuru Park, which showcases ruins of the 17th-century Fukuoka Castle, with its towers and turrets now considered as important historical pieces by the Japanese government.  Remnants of a korokan, an ancient guest house for foreign diplomats, were discovered under the castle grounds, adding to the tourism significance of the park.

Chef Mizumoto Masahiro, better known as Chef Hiro, preparing one of his signature dishes
In the early 70s, a Tokyo-born young boy left the city for Kumamoto, near Fukuoka, for his elementary school education.  He lived there, imbibing all the positive traits of the small-town culture and grew up to be a well-mannered, sensible teenager.  He went back to Tokyo at the age of 18, but realized he preferred the calm, less stressful environment of a smaller city, so he took up residence in Fukuoka where he finished his high school education.  Although he went back to Tokyo after graduation, to help run his father’s Sushi and Sashimi restaurant, something in him made him clamor for bigger and better things.

He then went back to Fukuoka and worked in the kitchen of several restaurants, to gain more skills and techniques.  Fukuoka was his training ground, the place he considers the biggest influence in his career, where he spent more than one-half of his professional life.  It is also where he met his wife whom he considers his no.1 fan and source of moral support.

Fast forward to the present, the young man is Mizumoto Masahiro, and he is now here in the Philippines, the proud owner and chef of the metro’s newest Japanese culinary destination, Kitsho (which means happiness) Restaurant and Sake Bar.  It is also the most talked about, for several reasons:  The ingredients used, including the meat, are all imported from Japan, like the scallops that the Chef brings in directly from Hokkaido.  Every day, he himself goes to the market to buy the vegetables and seafood fresh from the suppliers.  

The Kushida-Jinja, a very popular 8th century Shinto Shrine in Fukuoka
Chef Hiro, as he is fondly called, creates his own version of traditional dishes, like braised pork belly, which he cooks slowly for two days to take out the fat, after which placed in the chiller overnight, then slow-boiled for three hours, making it as tender as it can ever be.

But Chef Hiro’s claim-to-fame is his being the only chef in the Philippines who can cook the dreaded puffer fish.  While other chefs cook this extraordinary dish on a trial-and-error method, Chef Hiro can guarantee a delicious puffer-fish meal all the time.  He had to study for five years the technique used in cooking such dangerous food, after which he had to secure a license. 

Naturally, puffer fish is one of Kitsho’s culinary attractions, another one being the king crab, a typical Fukuoka specialty.  Incidentally, the restaurant celebrates its first anniversary in October, and guests will be given a 15 percent discount on all a la carte food and beverage orders.  Kitsho is at the ground floor of Hotel Jen and may be reached through 795-8888 local 2312. 

But what adds to the charm of Chef Hiro is his ability to speak Tagalog fluently.  He speaks the language like a local, definitely much better than I can.  He arrived in the Philippines 10 years ago, but exerted a lot of effort to learn the language as fast as he could, an admirable trait of a foreigner who enjoys being a part of our local society.  It paid off.  Listening to him speak Tagalog betrays his Fukuoka origins. 

Chef Hiro has a legion of followers, not only because they enjoy his culinary masterpieces, his amiable and kind persona is like a magnet to well-meaning friends.  In a few years, he plans to apply for a retirement visa, so he could settle down here in the Philippines.  Among his commendable goals is his future project of using his own financial resources to put up a hospital for the poor, to be run by his daughter who is now finishing her medical studies in Fukuoka.  He has other praiseworthy projects in mind that will certainly alleviate poverty in the country. 

Where else can you find a foreigner who loves our country as much as Chef Hiro does?  If you talk to any of his friends, you’ll be convinced this “Japanese-turned-Filipino” is definitely an asset to local society.  The pleasant environment he enjoyed during his growing up years in Fukuoka certainly etched on Chef Hiro his philanthropic compassion.  With his heart obviously in the right place, and beating for the downtrodden Filipinos, it is easy to look up to him, not only as a culinary wizard, but as the poor Filipinos’ knight in shining armour, or simply, The HIRO of Fukuoka!

For feedback, I’m at [email protected]

Topics: Mizumoto Masahiro , Chef Hiro , Kyushu , Japan , Fukuoka

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