Photo/IllutrationThe Asahi Shimbun

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Six customers were determined to get their money’s worth at an all-you-can-eat barbecue restaurant in Nagoya’s Naka Ward.

With offal, known as “horumon” in Japan, on the menu, they briskly plopped the animal entrails on the table grill, wolfed down the sizzling pieces, and repeated the grease-splattering process. With the time limit approaching, they covered the grill with the fatty horumon pieces.

A pillar of fire then shot up inside an exhaust duct above the diners’ table. The flames spread and completely burned down the restaurant.

Although no one was injured in the November incident, it highlights the dangers of dining in such “yakiniku” restaurants.

The fire was likely caught by soot that had built up in the duct.

A fire also broke out at a yakiniku restaurant in Tokyo’s Shibuya district in early December. Flames from a charcoal stove there rose up through a greasy duct.

Officials of the All Japan Yakiniku Association, a Tokyo-based group of restaurant owners, said a growing number of yakiniku outlets have been serving meat with high residual fat levels over the past decade or so. Such servings include horumon, popular for its hearty fat content.

However, small and large intestines of animals are prone to go up in flames when cooked, particularly if large portions are grilled at the same time.

Tokyo Fire Department officials are urging restaurant operators to ensure that fire sources are located at a safe distance from flammable objects and to be well-prepared to douse fires in the early stages.

Even more essential for fire prevention are inspections and cleaning of exhaust ducts.

The government’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency (FDMA) statistics show that 985 fires broke out in buildings of “general restaurants,” where bars and other entertainment outlets are not included, across Japan in 2016.

Exhaust ducts were accountable for eight of those fires.

These ducts are largely split into two categories: the updraft type that sucks up smoke above the table, and the downdraft type that does so beneath the grill, said Yoneo Chinda, chief executive of Nodahappy Co., a manufacturer-cum-distributor of yakiniku tables based in Chiba Prefecture.

Prefectural government ordinances require restaurants to clean and properly maintain appliances and equipment that automatically close valves inside ducts when heat is detected. The closure blocks the supply of oxygen that could fuel the spread of a fire.

If a duct is left uncleaned, its heat-detecting components can become covered in soot, hampering their operability.

“Given the recent horumon craze, it is conceivable that grime and soot are growing greasier, and therefore, more prone to catch fire,” Chinda, 70, said.

Nodahappy makes sure that the components it manufactures are easy to clean, but everyday care is still essential, Chinda added.

“We used to clean grease-absorbent filters every day, and remove grease from ducts about once a year, but the duct still caught fire,” said an official with the operator of the Shibuya restaurant that went up in flames.

Aichi prefectural police said ducts at the site of the Nagoya fire had not been cleaned on a regular basis for about five years.

“Our industry is under excessive competition,” Chinda said. “That sometimes takes a toll on the staffing of cleaners and on maintenance costs. The FDMA should take the lead in helping to develop safe appliances and cleaning guidelines.”

Customers are also urged to exercise caution when grilling meat.

“Entrails are not the only meat parts that are fatty,” said Hiroki Matsuura, who operates two grilled restaurants in Tokyo under the name of Kameido Horumon. “In any case, the flavor is lost when the meat catches on fire.”

Matsuura, 36, said he places ice blocks on tables of his outlets to quickly extinguish flames in an emergency.

“Fallindebu Hasshi,” a popular blogger who says he tries out more than 1,000 restaurants a year, recommends first grilling the skin side of meat, which is less fatty, before turning it over. He said charcoal often catches fire after it is soaked in an ample amount of fat.

“Fire may break out after fat has dripped continually on the same block of charcoal,” Fallindebu, 35, said.

“You should put meat temporarily aside on your grill if you see flames rising. Shuttle your pieces of meat between the center and the side many times until about half of their fat is gone. That will make the meat just great, with flavor and sweetness neatly condensed,” he said.

(This article was written by Jun Miura, Haruka Suzuki and Satoshi Kobayashi.)