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19 years old. Okinawa City ( Koza) 1989. Two months in country.
Literally just off the boat, I walked solo into my first small Mom & Pop- ‘Taishuu shokudou’ (大衆食堂）or “family restaurant” just out Kadena Air Base’s main base Gate: 2. The only English in the house in those days, as in most such shops, bars, cabarets, tea houses, and the like, was the reference “Hey G.I.!”-( or “NO! No G.I!”)- and the name on the billboard: MICKEY. The fare they were serving was posted as photo placards on the wall. You pointed to the one that looked best and whatever it was- they served you. IF they allowed you in.
In those days, often the sight of a tall, gangling G.I. standing uncertainly in the doorway of an Okinawan/ Japanese owned establishment was all too often met with looks of exasperation or consternation. Many an owner or his wife, or even in some cases, a daughter or daughter in law, saying nothing, would simply put a hand on our chests and gently- but firmly- push us back out over the threshold. Then stooping, they closed and locked the sliding door with a loud CLICK- waiting until they were absolutely sure we were gone- before opening again.
Perhaps I was just lucky. Or maybe it was the cascading rain outside and a shop empty of customers, the only hesitation I ever experienced at Mickey beyond the first time I paused outside their door, was deciding upon each visit wether I was going to have a succulent chicken and egg donburi topped with yakitori sauce that day – or crispy fried cutlet “katsu” swimming in a deep bowl of velvety, rich pork curry. The owner was a widowed mother of two half-grown children. While it took a good many visits to warm up to each other, I began to feel like I had found the right door.
Forged friendships, joining the customer loyalty league through the years, and several English translated placards later, Mickey had become my go-to place- a place I could call my own…but I didn’t stop there.
In yet other places over the island, and later up and down the country, I would slowly earn welcome acceptance and forge new friendships. I felt I had earned a ‘key’ that I would henceforth carry with me through the years. Many a foreigner to these shores has experienced similar. Who knew that first cautious step across the threshold or under a noren, a hanging cloth curtain at the entrance to an ‘open’ shop, of the first shop we ever got bold enough to step into would be a key to other doors, an entrance to other paths? It is for this reason—with affection—I mention Mickey.
In years to come, it was to such places I went again and again ..and again- eventually carrying that ‘key’ to Osaka.
Silver in Twilight
Ever heard the term, ‘Silvers’? This term, though occasionally called into question due to its appropriateness in certain debatable application, is generally one of affection. It is a ‘convenient’ way to refer to our aging class of Japanese citizens. Perhaps noted for silver hair, as well as a salute to their twilight years.
One of the most astounding aspects of Japan’s elderly population, in particular, is that it is both fast-growing and has one of the highest life expectancies equating to a larger elderly population and one of the oldest worldwide. They are also considered to be the hardest working generation borne of hard times, paving the way for younger generations to have things “better”. A good many of them have been creating, preparing and serving us our food for more than half a century through the advent of small, often what-you-see-is-what-you- get restaurants made for the blue collar and common man and woman : ‘Taishuu’-shokudou’、(大衆食堂), roughly translated to ‘public dining room’ yet commonly go by the more flattering term, ‘family restaurant’.
As Japanese population is aging, we’ve lost a lot of friends and seen a lot of these mom and pop Taishuu-shokudou, Izakaya, and Kissa-cafes fall out from their long time place of prominence on the grand scene. To quote a friend and advisor on ‘all things food and drink in Osaka and elsewhere’, Tatsuya Inaoka tells us this about these:
“We call such a place “Taishuu Shokudou” but it is more commonly referred to as simply “Shokudou”. In some cases they might be called “Teishokuya” but these come with the distinction of serving combination sets (complete with soup, pickles, a side or two, and a salad). Either way, such a place is (owned and) managed by a mama and papa, cheap, friendly, but not stylish (lol). (A place mostly) for blue collars and families who(work and)live downtown. Everybody can feel a certain nostalgia there. I love such a Shokudou!”
Some of us might pass an aging shokudou with almost rubbery food samples on display, discoloured, dusty, having sat in their sunlit window for years and think, “What in the world is THAT place still doing here?” Ever wonder that?
But did you know a great many of these post war Mom and Pop shop owners in their day- and their day spanned nine decades– were some of the BEST cooks Japan has EVER known?
From post war and little or no food. Then post war reconstruction. The slow climb during the years the masses of the working class put this country back on the rails. Through the light at the end of the tunnel: a thriving economy. Into the bubble years and beyond, these small mom and pop shokudou had access to quality food, fruits and vegetables, condiments, sauces, spices, herbs, juices, drinks. All were at the hands of these professionals.
If you have ever heard the term “Old Showa taste”, it hails from these generations of cooks who had at their disposal a plethora of condiments like S&B spices and curry powders, HOUSE curry cubes, HIKARI Shokuhin oyster sauce, BULLDOG Tonkatsu sauce, Kyuupi mayonnaise just to name a few.
IKARI “Simple Premium” Worcester sauce is a leading condiment sauce that has, for the last 100 plus years, struck a resonant chord throughout the nation. (Japan started to import Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce in the year of 1900. It did not take long for the country to produce its own version of the sauce. The recipe was generally regarded as far superior and kept a well-guarded secret. Before labeling regulation came along, no one really knew what the ingredients were- but EVERYBODY loved that sauce!).
These Old Showa masters made marvelously addictive creations served upon counters they often crafted themselves more than fifty years ago. They created true Japanese angles on western soul food dishes that are simple yet appetizing. Some things fused are simple yet mind blowing!
Take this unlikely combination right here that created a boom back in the seventies with dishes such as Shabushabu: Citrus flavored soy (Ponzu) and Skippy peanut butter!!
Where are my old-timers? Remember your first time here? Most of us never had curry the way the Japanese serve it with snitzel as the Germans do. Many of us had never tried yakiniku. Eggs with chicken – over rice?? (Topped with green onion and a dash of taka no tsume hot pepper and a peppery dose of sanshou, a limey, zesty pepper that numbs your tongue?) Please!! Give me a crack at THAT! Oyakodon buri (a dish connotating “mother and child” this combines parboiled chicken and egg in Mirin and soy sauce) this dish is still a raving favorite of many!
Not totally Japanese in the sense of traditional fare like tempura, sashimi, nishin soba, kitsune udon, sukiyaki, or sushi, these mom and pop places have always been more about fusion; a very Japanese play on foreign dishes.
Beef strips on rice with garlic shoots, miso soup, and pickles. Pork snitzel on rice swimming in a glorious beef curry sauce. Hashed beef with green peas and rice. Omelette with white OR demi glacé sauce. Dry curry with a raw egg top, middle! Dry curry with a “fuwa-fuwa” covering of scrambled egg omelet , drenched in hot, beef or pork curry roux. Thin cut steak sweetened with soy, sugar, and mirin, stir fried with vegetables and IKARI oyster sauce, plated over a bed of rice with broccoli. Udon with a bonito based curry roux!! Pork snitzel coated in Tonkatsu sauce, omelette, and salad? Wow! None of this was any Japanese food I’d ever heard about!
Anyone remember the old school yakiniku teishoku that came on a plate with rice, and salad with an apple or orange slice on top and the dressing ran in with the yakiniku and it was just ,“Oh, soooo good!”? I do!
For our new comers here coming in from the far reaches, these places are still around! This deserving silver-if not golden- generation of cooks are still not done. It is these we recommend and would hope you don’t miss out- while they are still here doing their thing…why not stroll into their world for a time?
A Few Good Places
While it is sad to say ‘Goodbye’ to those that we have -with their signature dishes, their laughter and hearty service, that “taste” we’ve come to know and love, that yakiniku teishoku, or that chicken katsu curry that only THAT shop made special “just-for-you-“- why not take another look around your area or old ‘beat’ as it were?
Use your apps. Utilize keywords such as “OLD SHOWA LUNCH” to seek out the GOLD nuggets still around- and OPEN! There are even a whole lot of old mom and pops being taken over by a willing younger crowd- one of those I will showcase below.
In the words of a few of my favorite local places down here in Minami, southernmost part of the prefecture once chock full of ‘Old Showa’ places, and now less than a few half dozen, “We haven’t thrown in the towel just yet!”
Kawachinagano is the selected town for this month’s “Who Knew?” installment. It is a stop-off point on the Nankai line famous for its mountainous terrain, backpacking, hiking, trekking, clear flowing water, an old town brewery, and many national treasures. It is both on the road to Koyasan and “off the beaten path” all at the same time! It has a little over twenty shokudou shops. Three of these still doing things the ‘old way’ will be featured below.
あかさか- AKASAKA Cafe & Grill
Akasaka Teishokuya of Kawachinagano set up their shop some fifty-one years ago- as old as yours truly by just a few months! (shhhhh!) When one walks through their door one walks through a rabbit hole to a veritable time capsule unchanged in decades. The owners, a loving couple far into their silver years, stand a vast counter that looks upon a dining room as wide as a full restaurant. If one peers out the window, they can see the framework of the old Mitsubishi factory whose workers once pushed their way to these very tables for lunch. I order the usual, yakiniku teishoku, and I ponder just how many times this recipe was served every month of every year since the day I was born. I mention this to the owner’s wife as she brings me my order. She laughs and tells her husband who comes over with his coffee, a look of nostalgia in his eyes. “We’ve had a good run. Those were good years,” he chuckles as he sits down at a table across from me. She takes her place behind his chair and warns him not to get started as “The young man needs to eat!” I wink at her, wave him on, and take a sip of my soup.
“I married my wife here at 18 and by the time I was 25 we were running our own cafe by day- snack by night. Between 30 and 40 we began buying and running seven different Kissaten-not all at the same time but some at the same time- all serving the best quality coffee we could bargain for. Once the economy started to rise however, so then did the price of rent. We consolidated our interests, closed the places and opened again under one roof here in Kawachinagano.
“We started cooking the dishes that many of the people in the factory across the road could get plenty of stamina from. We didn’t have the highway back then. This main route went right past our shop and was always full of traffic! People at all times of the day stopped in for our food. We were good to the customers, and they were good to us!
“Boom town days then too, they were building a housing area just across the tracks up the hill. But then they build the new highway and that bypassed our shop. After a time the Mitsubishi shop moved to a separate location. It was suddenly dry times indeed.
“We haven’t thrown in the towel just yet!”-Akasaka, Chihaayaguchi, Kawachinagano
“After the main road reversion, we repurposed ourselves as a cafe-restaurant and karaoke (up on the second floor). Cafe for the early morning regulars, lunch and Karaoke for those later in the day. That’s our game to this day. By and large we formed a loyal customer base, all of whom are silvers today or have passed on. Our legacy is having had years’ worth of customers we call ‘friends’! I’d have it that the younger generations see to it to have as much fun as we’ve had!”
CAFE: 花 花 - Hana-Hana
A young couple up town in Chiyoda decided to rescue a shokudo going under for the very reason of not throwing in the towel on a good thing! They have not only taken on this mantra, but the mantle as well. CAFE HANA-HANA (renamed) was originally a long-time old Showa relic that had originally been a Chiyoda Live Restuarant venue complete with a piano around which a custom bar had been built. Originally set up as a Jazz- Classical sort of kissaten-cafe, the original owner had definitely wrapped the cafe around all he had loved, especially his Jyorensan, local regulars.
His son had moved to Suita after marriage, and in time papa followed, selling out to his own son’s best childhood friend- THIS man who promised he could carry the flame. Word from local regulars has it that he has done just that!
The owner of Hana-Hana and his wife have not only continued the original menu as well as the morning special, but they have added their own twist. I can tell you their take on katsu curry rice is enough to make the original Grandfather-owner extremely proud!
Nobody uses the piano these days any more than a prop, but the now proud owner and his wife and partner will never consider getting rid of it! Seven years and going strong, the owner- originally a franchiser with a local donut company of very good repute- said, “We here at Hana-Hana hope to keep this craft alive and serve the neighborhood as best we can with the food they know and love! We are here to stay and carry on.” Music. To. My. Ears.
CASTELLO: Italian Fusion Kissa & Lunch Cafe
Castello is a relic.
An antique. Something to be kept. Heralded. Saluted.
A place to drop into for lunch especially on a whim. It may be cold and rainy outside. It may be sunny and humid. Hot and wet beyond belief. This place seems to employ a chameleon effect to where it is always comfortable even unto the whims of their clientele…. even if that means the place, as in days of old, allows you to ‘smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em’.
“Yes,”the owner and his wife laugh together as she dries out freshly washed ashtrays with a Terry cloth towel, “Not too much here has changed since ‘Old Showa’ …at least we haven’t – and neither have our clientele. We are one place that has pretty much remained the same as our clientele have always been used to. Folks order coffee, a bit to eat, a newspaper, and they enjoy a leisurely time pondering over what they see in print over a respite of smoke. It may be the one reason we might not be what folks expect with the times. Let’s just suffice to say we are what we have always been-stuck in our own time- and satisfied.”
Her husband mostly silent but smiling, ever patient and professional in his craft, winks at me and tosses my dry curry half way to the ceiling in a highly polished wok. Finished with a French style “draped- egg cape” and doused in a curry oil, fragrant, steaming, and utterly delicious, I decide I can take a little smoke.
THIS lovely couple has been doing this together for twenty-two years atop of previous careers. ” We too haven’t thrown in that towel! And why should we? We have a steady line of clientele we know by name, like family, who stop in all the time! In these fast times, what is better than that?”
These folks continue to roll- just as they always have…. always Old Showa.
Thanks for travelling down memory road with us here at Osaka.com! Remember, seek out these old places in the nooks and crannies around where you reside or travel- and thank a Silver for a taste of the old!