A Whole Family Creates a “Good Place” in Nishiogi
As chain izakaya steadily gain market share in Tokyo, many small izakaya in Nishi-Ogikubo are still individually owned. Most are concentrated in the lively commercial district around Nishiogi station. Beyond this compact area of noisy taverns, however, the scenery abruptly changes to a quiet residential neighborhood. On the edge of this transition zone, there is a droll facade brightly striped in pastel purple and green. At first glance, it looks like a sweets parlor. While we were standing outside looking, one of the staff came out with a smile and gave us the menu for the izakaya Iitoco, whose name literally means “a good place.” It's a good place created by a whole family.
Iitoco is headed by Natsuki Goto and everyone calls her Nachan. Nachan cooks and her father Kazuo, mother, and her younger sister help out by serving the customers. When everyone is there, Iitoco feels like a family kitchen. When opening Iitoco six-years ago, Nachan wanted her store to be a small restaurant that serves home-style dishes to the customers. “I was imagining this place to be like a small diner,” said Nachan, “a small restaurant where some little old lady is cooking. I wanted to open a place that is small, like a place in the countryside in a foreign movie.”
The hefty six-page menu is filled with hand-drawn images and descriptions of food items. All of the recipes are Nachan originals. Nachan likes to drink, she explained, and all of the recipe’s ideas are inspired by different foods that she created to pair well with different drinks she tries out at home. “When I was cooking at home, I thought of different recipe ideas,” she said. “I am very motivated to create recipes that people can’t eat anywhere else, and I don’t want to give up on that.”
Coming up with an original menu is not an easy task. When making new recipes, she thinks about the seasonal food, compatibility with the alcoholic beverage, and arranges the menu according to her impressions of customer preferences. "I think really hard," she said. "I like vegetables so when I go to local vegetable shops, I will be like, “There is a lot of corn for a very cheap price. How can I cook this?”. and I will simulate in my head if I should deep fry, sauté, or fry it. And then I go home and try cooking it. I will serve the ones that taste good. For example, we have this dish called pizza spring roll. We don't have an oven to make pizza but I knew there are some people in Izakaya who want to eat pizza. Even though we don't have an oven, we do have equipment for deep frying food so I thought of deep-fried pizza which made me have an idea to make pizza spring rolls.”
When looking at Iitoco’s menu, the customers can see the effort and ingenuity Nachan puts into making the recipes. Many of the dishes listed on the menu cannot be found in any other Izakaya. Dishes such as eggplants and bacon’s mozzarella cheese, basil udon, sweet soy sauce flavored deep-fried bitter gourd, and pork and wood ear mushroom with fried eggs were all created by Nachan. Before or after her shift at Iitoco, Nachan reflects upon the customers' tastes, she said. One of the most popular dishes is hamburger steak. The hamburger steak is about the size of a fist and filled with melted cheese and oozing natural gravy. “I came up with the recipe for hamburger steak when I was cooking at home when I was thinking up something that goes well with my drinks,” Nachan explained. “All the recipes I think of go well with both drinks and white rice. As I mentioned earlier, I don't really care about the genre. I want to try everything.”
Since each customer has different favorites, Nachan prepares dishes that are not categorized by standard culinary genre. Nachan’s father Kazuo, who often serves the customers, chimed in. “We have a wide variety of alcoholic beverages such as Japanese sake, beer, whiskey, shochu, and wine,” he said. “We are not categorized as a certain type of cuisine, so there is a wide variety of dishes. Customers can drink their favorite alcoholic beverages with their favorite food. I will say most of the dishes are home-style cooking. We serve Western, Chinese, Thai, and a little bit of European, such as garlic shrimp. We have pasta, but we also have yakisoba and udon. We don't have any items that can be found in other restaurants. Nachan is very talented at cooking, so her concept in running the restaurant is that she wants to serve a wide range of her original dishes.”
Nachan also makes dishes that children will like, she said, because many kids also come to the izakaya.
The earthenware plates Nachan uses for her food also are all unique. Some of them are shaped like a glass bottle, and others like a fish with details of fish scales. These plates are unique because Nachan’s mother handmade them for Iitoco.
“My wife does pottery and likes to make plates,” Kazuo said. “A lot of the plates here are made by her. This is her hobby so when my daughter said she wanted to open a restaurant, my wife said she wanted to make original plates for the restaurant.”
Nachan added, “I will tell her, ‘I want a plate shaped like this,’ and then she will listen to me and make the designs I requested.”
Iitoco’s exterior and interior design were also a family matter. “My mother and I did most of the interior design,” Nachan said. “We would look at catalogs together and be like, ‘Let’s use this as our wallpaper.’ But I would say most of the ideas are from my mother. Like she gave the ideas of using two colors for the wallpaper. I like pastel colors, so I said I want to arrange the interior using those colors. Hearing that, my mother would bring me a lot of ideas and ask me, ‘What about this? Do you like this?’For the sofa here, she searched all over the Internet to find the one that matched my taste.
Nachan’s younger sister also plays a role in the restaurant. “Originally, Nachan is the one who said she wanted to open a restaurant,” Kazuo added. “From then on, my wife and my daughters supported Nachan. They did everything from finding the place to open a restaurant, designing the interior and exterior, and buying furniture. Nachan’s younger sister likes to design, so she designed the menu lists and Iitoco’s logo.”
Nachan said she always dreamed of opening a restaurant since she was a child. She attended high school with a culinary program and learned the fundamentals of cooking. After graduating and working part-time in different restaurants including Japanese izakaya, Thai, and Mediterranean cuisine, she finally opened Iitoco in Nishiogikubo six years ago. Nachan said that she was able to accomplish her dream because of her mom’s support and encouragement. “I remember I wanted to open my own place since I was in elementary school,” Nachan said. “However, when I started working when I was 20 years old so I can open my own restaurant in the future, I realized how bad the economy was. At that time, I gave up since I thought it was unrealistic to make my dream come true. But when my mother started making her pottery, she suddenly asked me, ‘When are you going to do it?’”
Kazuo answered that his wife was excited about Nachan’s dream and was eager for her daughter to open her own place.
“Since my wife started enjoying her free time with her hobbies,” Kazuo said. “I believe she had this feeling where she also wanted to help out the restaurant. So she persistently asked Nachan, ‘When are you opening it?’”
From that point on, Nachan’s family supported her and enabled her dream to come true.
Nachan decided to open her restaurant at Nishiogi because she was attracted to the restaurants in Nishiogi and its atmosphere. She answered that Nishiogi as a community does not care about the training or the background people have and welcomes everybody. “First of all,” Nachan said, “I really enjoy drinking especially along Chuo Line. Along Chuo Line, there are many unique restaurants and it seemed like they are owned by people who enjoy drinking. Especially Nishiogi has many interesting restaurants and has a warm and welcoming atmosphere that anyone can open their own place. Honestly, I think I’m an amateur but I thought I can do my best here. Nishiogi cherishes each individual’s characteristics and personality. It doesn't have that many chain stores either.”
In fact, Kazuo said that he used to live in Nishiogi when he first got married to his wife forty years ago. “Nishiogi has not changed that much since the time I was living here,” he explained. “I think one of the reasons is that Nishiogi hasn’t developed the town to attract corporate businesses. A lot of the restaurants here are owned individually and have a strong sense of hospitality. That hasn't changed since forty years ago. When I came to Nishiogi after forty years, I was like ‘Nishiogi hasn't changed at all. People in Nishiogi are somehow still taking it easy. It’s still a good city.’ So I think it's a good choice.”
Kazuo said that Iitoco was able to come this far due to Nishiogi’s atmosphere and the customers that come to Iitoco. Nachan added excitingly that every day, she looks forward to interacting with her customers. “What’s really exciting is that many of the customers become regulars, and without thinking about it, I have made a lot of friends,” she said. “There are alot of regulars to liven up the atmosphere of the restaurant. When I’m working, they would ask me to share a drink and we talk about what we want to do in the future, things like that. I really enjoy my time with them.”
Nachan initially wanted to open an izakaya for women like herself, women who enjoy drinking. She made the cute interior design to make them feel comfortable stopping in. However, now, not only young women but a wide variety of customers stop by to drink at Iitoco and many of them become regulars. Some of them come every day, and some have even tried every item on the thick menu. “We have a high rate of customers becoming regulars,” Kazuo said. “They are between their late 20s to early 40s. Many women who live by themselves stop by as well. Even though they come here by themselves, they get along with the restaurant’s atmosphere, become regulars, and make friends with other customers. I think that’s one of the characteristics of Iitoco. Eight people can sit on that round table so eight people can interact and enjoy drinking with each other so people would often think they all came here together. But in reality, they all came here by themselves, became friends with each other, and wait till Nachan finishes her work to drink with her. They will say, like, “good job!” to Nachan and all drink together and go to karaoke. Regulars who become friends with each other here contribute to the atmosphere of Iitoco.”
Similar to Nachan’s family, the regulars support Iitoco. When Kazuo and his wife cannot participate in the morning market that Nishiogikubo has regularly, the regulars volunteers and help the restaurant to participate in the event. Additionally, last year, regulars organized a celebration of the fifth year of Iitoco’s opening. Regulars prepared everything for the anniversary, Natsu explained. Many of the regulars have their own bands, and organized a musical extravaganza. “Last year,” Kazuo said, “it was the fifth year since Iitoco opened and the regulars rented a live house and hosted a festival to celebrate Iitoco’s fifth anniversary. They planned and prepared everything such as designing the illustrations for the pamphlets and composing music for Iitoco.”
For this anniversary event, the regulars and two part-time workers at Iitoco formed a band called 'Iitoco.' They made original songs just for the event, in which they sing about what they love about Iitoco. They even produced a CD. “Iitoco band is made by Iitoco’s regulars,” Kazuo said. “They have four or five original songs and one of the songs is named ‘Hamburger Steak.’ Another song is called ‘Let’s do Good Things’ (a pun on the restaurant’s name)” and they sing to the listeners to go to Iitoco. The band members formed the 'Iitoco band' and made original songs just for us. I realized that we have regulars that are very talented.”
Kazuo said he loves the songs. He often plays the songs during Iitoco’s opening hours and customers can buy the CD for 500 yen.
Nachan told us that she loves her life in Nishiogikubo. Many restaurants and Izakaya in Tokyo have a hard time maintaining their business since young people do not drink as much as they used to or want to work at restaurants. Due to these reasons, Kazuo said that many of the restaurants around Iitoco closed down. Despite these trends, Nachan answered that she cannot think of any hardships with Iitoco since she has the strong support of her family and the regulars. When she needs people to work at her restaurant, she is able to find them easily. At times, the regulars will willingly help out the restaurants and volunteer to work. Children and adults who cannot drink enjoy the atmosphere and their time at Iitoco since, they say, Nachan’s food is good even without drinking. Nachan said people around her give unconditional love and support. Looking at Nachan for the past six years, Kazuo said that she loves her time and life in Iitoco. “Iitoco was able to come this far because of the menu that Nachan makes and the supports from the Nishiogikubo and the regulars,” Kazuo said. “She never complains and always tells me, 'I love my job and I love the restaurant and people that come here. I’m having the best life that anyone can ask for!'” (James Farrer and Mariya Yoshiyama, Feb. 18, 2020)
(Interview by James Farrer and Mariya Yoshiyama, June 11, 2019, transcription and translation by Mariya Yoshiyama, text by Mariya Yoshiyama and James Farrer, Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura, copyright by James Farrer, all rights reserved).