Vikings! Scandinavian buccaneers, who captured ships and ravaged foreign shores in their dragon boats in early medieval times. Alas, in Japan "Viking" (バイキング baikingu) refers to "all-you-can-eat" buffets, and this appellation has been in use for over fifty years. Why on earth, you may ask, are all-you-can-eat style restaurants called "Viking" in Japan?

The Beginning of Viking

The story begins in 1957, when Mr Tetsuzo Inumaru, manager at the Imperial Hotel back then, encountered a smorgasbord* restaurant on a trip to Copenhagen, Denmark. Scarcely had he seen this fare, when he knew with rock-solid certainty that this would become a smash in Japan, too. He soon instructed Mr Nobuo Murakami to study what sorts of dishes could be served. At that time, Mr Murakami was still under training at the Ritz in Paris and would later become chef de cuisine in the Imperial Hotel.

However, there was one slight problem. To the Japanese, the word and the concept of "smorgasbord" posed a significant lingual and cultural challenge. Therefore, Mr Inumaru asked his team to suggest names better suited for this novelty restaurant. Since Vikings carried a very strong image with the Japanese, coupled with the breathtaking scenes of gluttony from the movie "Viking" (1958) screened in the nearby Hibiya Movie Theatre, Mr Inumaru chose "Viking" for the new restaurant's name. Hence, the "Viking" at the Imperial Hotel was born. It was August 1958.

Predictably enough, this smorgasbord restaurant was extremely well-received by the Japanese, and its name became a synonym for "all-you-can-eat" (buffet) style restaurants.

Viking now and then

In the beginning, the typical menu of "Viking" eateries consisted of fourteen different dishes, such as smoked salmon, liver paste, roast beef, etc. Setting you back 1,200 yen for lunch and 1,500 yen for dinner, prices were considered to be quite extravagant, as they accounted for up to ten per cent of the starting salary of a company employee fresh out of university. However, this didn't affect its popularity at all, as the restaurant boasted long queues of foodies keen on all-you-can-eat western food every day.

Viking in Restaurant Rusutsu

Viking in Restaurant Rusutsu

Later on, the all-you-can-eat concept was adopted by other hotels and restaurants as "Viking"; Chinese and Japanese dishes, as well as desserts, were added to make the menus more lavish. In recent years, not only "cook-ahead" food, but also chefs cooking right in front of their enthralled customers is gaining popularity.

The Imperial Hotel still maintains the original Viking style, and now serves about forty different kinds of dishes for 5,250 yen for lunch, and 7,875 yen for dinner. According to the PR personnel of the hotel, some customers start from hors-d'oeuvres, then move on to soup, fish, meat, and dessert, enjoying Viking as if they were having a full-course meal.

* Smorgasbord, from the Swedish "Smörgåsbord": smörgås is an open sandwich, while bord means "table" or "plate".

From Kyodo News: Obituary – Friday, Aug. 5, 2005
Famed Imperial Hotel chef Murakami dies of heart failure
Nobuo Murakami (村上信夫), the former chief chef at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, died of heart failure Tuesday morning at his home in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, his family, said Thursday. He was 84.

Murakami, an expert on French cuisine, was born in Kanda in downtown Tokyo and joined the hotel in 1940 at the age of 18. He went to Europe in 1955 to train at the Hotel Ritz in Paris before returning to Japan in 1958. He became the chief chef at the Imperial Hotel in 1969.

As a pioneer of French and other Western cuisines in Japan, he oversaw dinners for athletes at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and banquets for many state guests, including Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, who made an official visit to Japan in 1975. Murakami became the senior managing director in charge of cooking at the hotel in 1994 and served as an adviser after retiring in 1996. He was decorated by the government with the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Rosette, in 1994.

A few selected Viking eateries: