In a world filled with barriers and misconceptions, some individuals embark on journeys that bridge cultures and promote inclusivity in their own unique ways. Meet Ikuto Hongu, a 24-year-old non-Muslim content creator hailing from Kobe, Japan, who is taking the road less travelled. With a heartwarming and determined spirit, he's making it his mission to make Japan more Muslim-friendly, one Instagram post at a time.
Ikuto's Journey into Halal Food
Ikuto's journey into the world of halal food and Muslim-friendly options in Japan began during his year-long student exchange program at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur in 2022. Surrounded by a diverse group of friends, he discovered that finding halal food in Japan was often a daunting task for Muslim travellers. At the time, Ikuto had limited knowledge about Islam, halal, and the dietary restrictions that Muslims observe.
"My friends loved travelling to Japan but they find it hard to look for halal food. They told me that when they go to Japan they’d just eat kebab every day. They’d also bring instant noodles and eat in the hotel. I was quite surprised! I love Japanese food, so I want to share it with my Muslim friends," said Ikuto during an interview with HHWT recently.
A simple conversation with his newfound friends piqued his interest, prompting him to dive headfirst into learning about halal cuisine, Islamic practices, and culture.
Armed with this newfound knowledge and a desire to introduce his Muslim friends to the rich tapestry of Japanese cuisine, Ikuto embarked on a mission. In March 2023, he launched his Instagram account, determined to share valuable insights into halal options, prayer spaces, and his personal experiences as a non-Muslim exploring Muslim-friendly Japan.
Challenges and Triumphs
"One of the challenges I faced was that because I'm a non-Muslim, I wasn't allowed to enter the mosques," he said.
He wanted to find more information about the importance of delving deeper into the Quran and understanding Islamic practices, so he turned to friends and imams for guidance.
At the beginning of his Instagram venture, building trust among his followers proved to be challenging. Scepticism prevailed. However, with determination, dedication, and genuine intentions, Ikuto gradually won the hearts of his audience, earning their trust and respect.
Ensuring Accuracy for Muslim Travelers
To meet the specific needs of Muslim travellers, Ikuto relies on both his followers and the restaurants themselves. Oftentimes, his followers recommend halal restaurants, and these establishments reach out to him for promotions. While halal-certified restaurants in Japan remain scarce, the increasing demand from Muslim tourists has encouraged many restaurants to cater to their dietary preferences.
"This means that more restaurants are learning about separating pork and alcohol-free dishes from their regular menu and providing more accessible options for Muslim travellers," he said.
Building Bridges Through Mosque Visits
One of the most enlightening aspects of Ikuto's journey has been his visits to mosques. It's not just about physical exploration but engaging in heartfelt conversations with imams and Muslim communities. These encounters have broadened his understanding of Islam and created a space for open dialogue.
"I do not have immediate plans to convert yet, but I thoroughly enjoy the learning process, both through personal experiences and deeper conversations," he said.
The Heartwarming Aspects of Islam
What Ikuto admires most about Islam is the way Muslims prioritise doing good in their daily lives, with the ultimate goal of reaching heaven in the afterlife. Their dedication to living a righteous life resonates with him. As he delves into the Quran, he discovers invaluable lessons about how to lead a fulfilling life.
Unique Experiences in the Halal World
Ikuto's journey into promoting halal options has been a culinary adventure. He relishes every experience, from tasting halal Japanese food to indulging in Kobe beef for the first time.
"I was born and raised in Kobe, but I've never had Kobe beef because it was too expensive! But I'm glad that through my work, I've been able to try it," he said.
He also shared three halal Kobe beef restaurants that you can try if you're there:
Impact on Japan and Local Businesses
Ikuto's work has had a profound impact on Japan and its local businesses. He's not only inspired greater inclusivity but has also boosted local restaurant businesses.
"Many halal or Muslim-friendly restaurants would reach out to me to help promote their business. So when I shared on my channel, it'd help Muslim travellers to know about these restaurants. This way, it helped to grow the halal restaurants in Japan," said Ikuto.
Tourists frequently consult his Instagram account, providing them with valuable information and aiding local establishments' growth.
Future Plans and Initiatives
With a bright future ahead, Ikuto has big plans. He aims to extend his work to other non-Muslim countries, promoting halal food and friendly locales. Additionally, his Halal Navi app is set to become an indispensable tool for Muslim travellers in Japan, helping them locate halal and Muslim-friendly restaurants and prayer rooms, all while reading reviews from fellow users.
Ikuto Hongu's story is an inspiring testament to the difference one individual can make. By embracing inclusivity and dedicating himself to a mission of cultural exchange, he's bringing smiles to faces and flavours to palates while making Japan a more welcoming destination for Muslim visitors. Through his efforts, he proves that small actions can have a big impact on building a more connected and harmonious world.
Check out Ikuto's Instagram here.