Wearing a red bandanna over her coal-black hair, Emiko Yasumoto smiles across the counter of the sushi van she's been taking to markets around Byron Bay for more than three decades.
"I came to Australia to see Ayers Rock in 1974," she says, handing me a freshly made sushi roll. Her travels led her to northern NSW, where she started making sushi, which wasn't exactly well received in the late '70s.
"People saw yaki-nori on the menu [toasted seaweed used in sushi rolls] and thought, 'Yuk!'" she remembers, adding that there were no other Japanese people in the area and no Japanese restaurants. "Now everyone is eating sushi!"
Chef Pete Crossman, who owns Freewave in Lennox Head with his partner Mayumi Miyata, has also seen Japanese food take off – even since Freewave opened in 2012.
It might look like a typical north coast surf cafe with its surfing magazines on the tables and perfect waves painted on the walls, but instead of pies and milkshakes Freewave's blackboard menu offers Japanese-Australian fare such as teriyaki bacon and egg breakfast rolls, walnut vegie burgers and karaage (Japanese fried chicken) wraps as well as sushi.
On the other side of the counter, Byron Bay chef, nutritionist and author Samantha Gowing has run a cooking school for 15 years and has noticed her clients increasingly asking for Japanese-inspired recipes. "I just hosted a private masterclass for a guy from Manhattan who is too busy to cook, but wanted to know a few staple, Japanese-inspired recipes he could master at home," she says.
From quiet beginnings – O-Sushi was Byron Bay's only Japanese restaurant for years after it opened in 2004 – there are now more than a dozen Japanese restaurants in the region, according to the Australian Good Food Guide.
Byron itself has the most, but innovative new restaurants run by Japanese chefs are increasingly luring patrons away from the beach.
Best known is Town, in Bangalow, which opened four years ago and is a regular in The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. Run by husband and wife team Karl (who has worked with Tetsuya Wakuda) and Katrina Kanetani (one of Australia's top pastry chefs), it's a classy cafe by day, Downtown; three nights a week, the couple serve a Japanese-inspired six-course degustation upstairs at their award-winning restaurant, Uptown.
Then there are the hip new kids on the block: Izakaya Yu in Mullumbimby and Doma in the sleepy hamlet of Federal, 30 minutes from Byron. Both owned and run by former O-Sushi chefs, they opened on the same day in September 2012.
Doma in particular is a local favourite. The food isn't traditional Japanese, rather it's "Japanese country-style", says Takayuki Kuramoto, a Tokyo-trained chef and one of Doma's owners. "This is the country [around Federal] so our miso soup is very country-style; also the sushi, the hand-rolled, cone-shaped one – we call it temaki – is very home-style."
What started as a trickle of Japanese surfers attracted by Byron Bay's endless-summer lifestyle has become a wave of Japanese honeymooners, students and working holiday makers – particularly since Gold Coast airport opened to international flights (the first low-cost long-haul airline, Air Asia X, began flying to the Gold Coast in 2007).
Now the demographic is changing again, says Emiko Yasumoto. "There are lots more Japanese couples, and families, particularly since the tsunami in northern Japan [in 2011]." They come to northern NSW for a healthier lifestyle, she says, and a more relaxed education system than in Japan. "My generation was very strict, the younger generation wants a freer life."
As a result, there are now more ways to experience Japanese culture in northern NSW than ever. One of the newest is Sasara Designs, which opened in December and sells clothes handmade in Japan from vintage silk, linen and cotton kimonos.
"We don't wear kimonos in daily life [in Japan] any more," says Akane Hand, Sasara's owner, who fell in love with the area as a student 13 years ago and recently returned with her American husband. "So my mother started making clothes and accessories out of them. Now we can still wear at least a part of a kimono."
The store is a little island of Japanese calm. Shamisen (Japanese lute) music plays from an iPhone. Hand-written signs explain the origins and meanings of other items for sale such as black ninja boots and indigo farmers' outfits.
Sasara also seems right at home in an area that values sustainability: in addition to its "recycled" kimonos, there are ceramic dishes, packets of organic green tea, reusable furoshiki wrapping cloths. "Byron culture reminds me of old Japan," Hand says. "There are lots of vintage shops, op shops and the farmers market – it's a little bit like the countryside and not too busy. It's a more natural lifestyle."
There's another Japanese gift shop in Bangalow, Little Peach, which sells everything from Japanese homewares and origami paper to collectible kokeshi dolls and clothes made locally from Japanese fabrics. There are Japanese quilting and sewing workshops run by Lismore-based Jane McDonald, who has noticed "a definite increase" in interest in Japanese culture in recent years.
You can even stay at a Japanese-style boutique hotel on the outskirts of Byron. Azabu opened in 1999, but its new owners, Australian-Japanese couple Richard and Hiromi Todd, have dialled up the konnichiwa this year with cherry blossom bed linen, shoji screens and pretty yukata instead of bathrobes. They're planning to add a Zen garden, Japanese spa treatments and a Japanese sculpture walk in the surrounding hoop pine forest.
"People love the Japanese touches," says Richard Todd, a surfer and filmmaker who attributes the interest in all things Japanese to increasing numbers of Australian surfers visiting Japan to snowboard and ski and becoming more open to the food, culture and architecture.
The feeling is mutual for Takayuki Kuramoto, of Doma, who recently made his first trip back to Tokyo in six years. "I took the subways, it was very crowded, everyone's mind was busy and my mind was busy as well. It wasn't bad, I didn't hate it, but I came back here and I thought, this is my home. I feel free here."
O-Sushi: 90-96 Jonson St, Woolworths Plaza, Byron Bay, is open from 11am daily. See osushi.com.au.
Town: 33 Byron St, Bangalow: Downtown, the café, is open 7.45am-3pm; Uptown, the restaurant, is open from 7pm Thursday-Saturday. See townbangalow.com.
Doma: 3-6 Albert St, Federal, is open 7.30am-2.30pm weekdays, 7.30am-3pm weekends. Call (02) 6688 4711
Freewave Sushi: 62 Ballina St, Lennox Head, is open 8am-4pm daily and re-opens for dinner weekends from September. Call (02) 6687 7129
Emiko's sushi van visits community markets in Byron Bay, The Channon, Mullumbimby and Bangalow. See byron-bay.com.
Azabu Boutique Accommodation and Spa, 317 Skinners Shoot Road, Byron Bay, has rooms from $200 a night including breakfast. See azabu.com.au.
Little Peach, 17 Byron St, Bangalow. Call (02) 6687 1415.
Sasara Designs, 30 Middleton St, Byron Bay. See Sasara on facebook.
Gowings Food Wealth Health offers private and public cooking classes in Byron Bay and city locations from $195. See foodhealthwealth.com.
BeBe Bold runs Japanese textile workshops at its Lismore studio. Call (02) 6621 9188 or see bebebold.com.
The writer travelled at her own expense.