MSG might have a bad name these days, but the cute little panda that guides visitors through the Ajinomoto MSG Factory Tour sure does make an adorable case for the seasoning.
The origins of Ajinomoto go back to the late 19th century, their Kawasaki factory having been established in 1914 when they were known as S. Suzuki & Co. Ltd. Nine years later the company and its factory got smacked hard, along with most of the region around Tokyo, by the Great Kantō Earthquake. Not wasting much time, they soon rebuilt into a food and chemical giant, starting with their early seaweed-based seasoning, adding soy sauce in the 1930s, pharmaceutical amino acids, and by the 1960s creating and packaging Ajinomoto – their monosodium glutamate namesake – and have since sold millions and millions of cute little panda bottles filled with MSG.
Ajinomoto makes all kinds of food additives, quick-fix meals and aspartame (they are the world’s biggest maker of the chemically sweet stuff, controlling around 40 percent of the market). But it’s probably their MSG that is best known, and what brings visitors to the Kawasaki factory for a tour. There is a 360-degree immersive movie experience, a diorama and museum of factory history, a peek inside the fermentation tanks (yum!), and finally, an opportunity to make and taste your own MSG seasoning.
Aji-no-moto translates to “essence of taste,” the motto ultimately adopted for the company name. The stuff seems to work, and the tour offers a taste test to prove it with a “before-and-after” slurp of miso soup. What MSG adds to food is what is known as “umami,” or the fifth taste. Whether or not it adds the “MSG headache,” well – the albino panda isn’t talking.
Know Before You Go
By train, take the Keikyu Daishi Line to Suzukicho Station, a quick walk from there - follow the red panda tracks