‘My dream is to teach Swedes about Japanese food’

Meet Tomoko Hayashi, the chef and caterer who's trying to make the Swedes realize there's more to Japanese food than sushi.

'My dream is to teach Swedes about Japanese food'
Tomoko Hayashi at the Blue Light Yokohama. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

Swedes are quicker than most to jump on new food trends and explore international cuisine. But as many expats know, what counts as 'Chinese' in Stockholm is not always the same as in China, the Italian prosecco on sale at Systembolaget would make your northern Italian family back home wince, and Swedish tacos don't even come close to Mexican.

“And there's more to Japanese food than sushi,” exclaims Tomoko Hayashi when The Local meets her at Blue Light Yokohama, the restaurant where she works in Stockholm's trendy Södermalm hipster district.

The 43-year-old moved to Sweden five years ago and is a woman on a mission. She wants to make Swedes love Japanese food – the one she remembers eating back home in Tokyo – as much as she does, and teach the restaurant's diners to appreciate all its different flavours and intricacies.

“Our concept is 'eat like Japanese people'. That's why we don't have avocado sushi, but we do get customers coming in and asking 'why don't you have avocado sushi, all other sushi restaurants have that'?” she laughs, before quickly adding with a smile: “But we do still have other kinds of sushi!”

“But many Swedes are getting more interested in Japanese food, so maybe it's time to introduce other Japanese food too?”

Hayashi first started working at the Blue Light Yokohama as a chef and recently launched her own catering division of the restaurant, providing packed lunches in the style of Japanese bento boxes for busy Stockholmers.

“When I moved here and wanted to eat lunch out I could only find salads or sandwiches. But in Japanese supermarkets you get many different kinds of bento boxes. Look, we've got yakiniku – that's beef in a homemade sauce – chicken cutlets, salmon,” she says, rattling off the extensive menu while flicking through its pages.

The restaurant menu at the Blue Light Yokohama. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

Hayashi, who used to work as an actress back home in Tokyo, is driven by the urge to discover new things. When she first left the Japanese capital it was to escape the stress of the city and she travelled to Mexico to volunteer in the countryside, ending up in a small mountain village of some 70 residents.

“Only women lived there, because the men had gone to find work in the US. We didn't have electricity, gas, supermarket – if you wanted to eat chicken you had to kill it yourself,” she says.

“It got too quiet, so I moved to Mexico City and worked there as a travel operator for a while. But after two years I couldn't stand it, because that's obviously also a pretty big city,” she smiles.

It was at this point Hayashi began to seriously think about what she wanted to do in the future and realized she could turn her passion for food into a career path.

“I always used to invite my friends over and cook and we would have fun – and I thought it would be perfect for me if this party was a business. In my memories, I'm always very happy when I eat or drink with friends. And today, when I cook, if I can make the customers smile, I'm really happy.”

She first moved to Umeå in northern Sweden, where she had landed a job at a Japanese restaurant, but her plans hit a snag when it shut down after just three months. However, by then Hayashi had already fallen in love with Stockholm, so she packed her bags again and headed to the Swedish capital.

“Swedish life is pretty close to Japanese life in the sense that it is very organized. But life is slower here, it's not a big city, I love the view of Gamla Stan [The Old Town] and the water is tasty.”

She says that one of her first culture shocks was when her Japanese tradition of sharing clashed with Swedish individualism – shocking her Swedish friend when she tried to eat from her plate in a restaurant.

“I asked her 'we don't share?' and she was really surprised. Japanese people love hot-pots, one big pot where you all share. But I've learned now that Swedes don't share food, not even if they're in tapas bars,” laughs Hayashi.

In the kitchen. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

Hayashi is a fan of trying new international food and eats out as much as she can, constantly seeking more inspiration for her catering business. It is clear that food is something she takes very seriously.

“To make sushi rice, we'll put sake or honey in the rice. You don't just put it in the pot and boil it. It's like science, five minutes less or five minutes more makes a big difference,” she explains.

But as devoted as she is to her current job, she continues to always keep one eye on the horizon.

“Stockholm is very safe – not like Mexico City where my parents worried about me all the time – but actually I do need a bit more sunshine. Maybe in the future I want more adventure, maybe a country somewhere south of here, where I can live next to the ocean so it's easy to get fresh fish,” she says.

“Someday in the future, I would love to own my own restaurant. But first, I would love to make genuine Japanese food known to people in Stockholm. This is a dream for the present.”

For members


Swedophiles: The foreigners who move to Sweden for a musical obsession

A lot of foreigners who move to Sweden did it because they fell in love with a Swede or got a job here. But not everyone. In the first of our Swedophile series, we look at those who came because they got hooked on the music.

Swedophiles: The foreigners who move to Sweden for a musical obsession

Whether it’s a childhood fixation with ABBA or a teenage fascination with Swedish melodic thrash metal, thousands of foreigners living in Sweden arrived after developing an obsession with the country through music. 

The ABBA obsessives  

Glen Bryan’s ABBA fixation started when the 60-year-old watched the group win Eurovision as a 12-year-old boy back in 1974. It was an experience, he says, that “sparked a life-long love affair with both Eurovision and ABBA”.

For Australian Grace McCallum, the ABBA craze started when she won a walkman, aged three. For the next six years she had just one cassette: ABBA Gold. She ended up learning the songs so well that when she was eight, she won first prize in a talent contest with a rendition of the ABBA favourite, Mamma Mia. “This was the beginning of a life-long love affair with Sweden,” she says. 

Glen Bryan works as a clinical psychologist, working a lot with other foreigners suffering the stress of relocation. Photo: Private
Glen Bryan when working for the Eurovision Song Contest in Stockholm back in 2016. Photo: Private

In his teens, Bryan’s ABBA obsession grew and grew. He taught himself Swedish so he could understand the early solo work of Agneta Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, the group’s two female singers. When he had his first foreign holiday, it was to go to Sweden, where he stalked the members for autographs. At school, he did a project on Sweden’s “No-Smoking Generation” initiative. He called himself Glen Michael, because, he says, “I thought it sounded Swedish”. He even tried to change his appearance. “When I went to uni, I dyed my hair blond thinking with my blue eyes I could pass for Swedish.”

McCallum’s obsession perhaps didn’t extend to these extremes. But in 2013, she was scrolling through Facebook and saw that ABBA The Museum was running a contest to choose the international member for a new ABBA choir that would perform at the 40th anniversary of ABBA winning Eurovision. She auditioned, won, and was flown to Sweden. 

READ ALSO: Aussie choir member wows Abba in Sweden

She then started a new life in Stockholm working in the creative industries as a freelance journalist for ABC, BBC, The Local, and TimeOut, as well as as a presenter, event organiser, and entrepreneur. 

Grace McCallum at a meeting in Stockholm. Photo: Private
Since returning to Australia during the pandemic, however, she has been denied a work permit to return to Sweden. She’s now back on a 90-day tourist visa for the first time in two years, continuing her promotion of Sweden’s creative industries through her company STHLM Music City/Nordic Music Tech. 

For Bryan, things have worked out better.

He’s been a regular visitor to Gothenburg throughout his adult life, visiting every year for the city’s carnival, and to stay with his Swedish friends Anders and Tomas.

But it wasn’t until he turned 50 in 2012 that he decided to take the plunge. “It seemed the perfect time to make the big leap and move here. I had somehow missed the joke that ‘Everyone is called Glen in Gothenburg’, but I’ve certainly heard it since I’ve moved here!” 

Muayyad Mohammed (centre) with two friends in the university metal scene in Jordan. Photo: private

For the love of metal

Swedish metal bands such as Bathory, Opeth, Meshuggah, At The Gates, Entombed, and Watain might be obscure to most people, but they may have brought almost as many new citizens to the country as Sweden’s own fab four. 

Muayyad Muhammed, an IT consultant based in Västerås, estimates that 80 percent of the reason he decided to move to Sweden was his love for Bathory, a Swedish folk metal and black metal band. 

Muhammed is originally from Syria, but grew up in Yemen, and then studied IT at the private Al-Zaytoonah University in Jordan.

He got the metal bug in his final year of high school, when he was introduced to the US rock bands Linkin Park & Slipknot. That led him back to British 1980s metal, and at university, he progressed onto the Swedish metal scene. 

“We were the only metalhead group in uni, and from there I got into Death and Black Metal, where most of the Swedish bands I listened to are,” he remembers. 

He listened to Swedish bands such as Opeth, Amon Amarth, and Arch Enemy.

But the one that finally pushed him to move to Sweden was Bathory. “That got me down into the nature, history, and folklore of Sweden and made me fall in love with the country.” 

He says that the Bathory album, Hammerheart turned him on to Nordic Mythology, the album Blood on Ice and Fire sparked an interest in Nordic nature, and the albums Nordland 1 & 2 taught him about Swedish nature, history, and culture. 

The move has largely worked out well, although he is not so sure about the weather. “The reality is that nature is very beautiful here. It’s even stunning in summer. But winters can get quite harsh sometimes, which came as an unpleasant surprise.” 

Strangely enough, he says, he hardly even listens to metal anymore. 

It’s a similar story for Jessa Blavatsky, from Brooklyn in New York.

Here she is at the grave of Thomas Börje Forsberg, or Quorthon, Bathory’s singer and songwriter, who died aged 38 from a congenital heart defect.

Photo: Private

Blavatsky got into the metal scene when she was eleven, growing up in Brooklyn, and by age 15, she was helping organise gigs for metal bands, which got her eventually into the Scandinavian scene. 

“We didn’t have things like YouTube and Spotify and all that stuff,” she remembers. “The European music scene was something you really had to look for. You really had to know people that liked good stuff.”

She soon discovered that Scandinavian bands were more interesting than any of those playing in the US, and developed a fascination with Swedish legends such as Katatonia, Edge of Sanity, Diabolical Masquerade, Therion, Tiamat, and Meshuggah.

She also names the bands At the Gates, Dismember, Soilwork, Dissection, General Surgery, The Project Hate MCMXCIX, Runemagick, Nasum, Opeth, Vintersorg, and Amaran. 

“It just seemed, from the American perspective, that the European culture overall had a much better music scene for heavy metal compared to ours. So I think for a lot of us, in the heavy metal culture, it’s always been like some kind of dream or fantasy to go to festivals here.”

Through the gigs she helped organise, she met members of some of the Scandinavian black metal bands as they came over on tour, and meeting these musicians, she says, “definitely” influenced her later decision to move to Sweden.

“I thought they were really nice and shy and very introverted, and that’s how I was back then and maybe still am a bit now. That was kind of appealing to me.” 

The dark, black music and her image of Sweden also started to come together in her mind. 

“A lot of the music is pretty dark and heavy, and it kind of reminds you of the dark and heavy kind of winters that they have here. And I love the cold. I love the darkness that comes with the cold, and the emotions. And I know, I might sound crazy for that. But that’s okay.” 

Jessa Blavatsky by the cross in Skogskyrkogården in Stockholm, which is known among metalheads as “the Entombed Cross” because it featured on an album by the band Entombed. Photo: Private

Her love of Sweden only turned into an intention to move, however, after she got divorced aged 23 and was left alone with her baby daughter Angelina. 

“When I was growing up in New York, there were all kinds of fights happening, people bringing guns and knives to school. My friends were involved in a murder. And I got death threats, so I stopped going to school,” she remembers. 

“When I had my daughter, my biggest fear was having her go through any of that, so I thought that if I could move her to a more peaceful place, she’d have a much better upbringing.” 

So she began planning her move to Sweden, trained as a pastry chef, and eventually got hired by the man who had been head chef at the Swedish Embassy in Washington DC to come to Sweden and make American-style pastry. He arranged the work permit and in 2016 she and her daughter arrived in Stockholm. 

The move came surprisingly easily, perhaps because of her contacts from the international metal scene. 

“I always had a large network here, so moving here didn’t feel strange. I already had friends here. I already had people to hang out with,” she says.  “So I didn’t have to wait to find out even more about Swedish culture because I mean, you can only find out so much before you actually move there.” 

“Sometimes,” she says. “I can’t even believe that I did it by myself, learned a new language and I brought my kids to learn a new language. It’s pretty insane.” 

For her, Stockholm is the perfect compromise between the “tree house in the woods” of her fantasy, and the convenience of city life. And, for her daughter’s sake, at least, it seems to have worked. “It was probably a good choice. Because women have rights and I’ve gotten great jobs.” 

Swedish rock and indie 

The story of how the post-punk rock of The Hives brought Alma Paz, a Mexican student, to Sweden has been made into a documentary. After getting into the band, she began to study Swedish at the Centro de Enseñanza de Lenguas Extranjeras in Mexico City.

She then travelled to Fagersta, the small town where the Hives come from, and ended up getting a scholarship to study in Sweden for a year, during which time she met a Swedish boyfriend and decided to stay.