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The French Restaurant that Defined a Tokyo Neighborhood

More than any other eatery, the French bakery, café and restaurant Kokeshiya has defined the image of Nishi-Ogikubo in the postwar era. Kokeshiya was founded by Oishi Soichiro in 1947, while he was still a student at Waseda University. The cafe occupied a two-story wooden building that was once a clothing store run by Oishi’s deceased parents and had survived the wartime bombing.  The legends surrounding it are numerous. In the early postwar period, it was the first place many residents in the neighborhood ate with a knife and fork, tasted western food or purchased a Christmas cake. Later it would be the first place many high school graduates would visit when they received their first salary from a job. In recent years, it is a favorite locale for large group meetings, ranging from birthday celebrations, to company meetings, to funeral dinners. Youngsters play for their grandparents at piano recitals in the Kokeshiya annex, continuing to create memories associated with this neighborhood institution.


Kokeshiya is most famously associated with a group of scholars, artists, actors and other intellectuals who began gathering on the second floor of the building, even before it opened to the public as a café. When it began meeting in 1947, this remarkable intellectual salon was called Kokeshi Society, named after a traditional Japanese wooden doll (kokeshi) placed in the corner of the meeting space. The salon members hoped to avail themselves of the new open atmosphere of democracy to revive Japanese culture. Talks were held on topics that ranged from the popular music to esoteric academic subjects. After the café took the name of Kokeshiya from the society in 1949, the group members renamed themselves the Calvados Society after the apple brandy that is featured in Erich Maria Remarque’s novel Arch of Triumph. The name signified their cultural aspirations more than an achievable reality. In late 1940s Tokyo, very few could actually afford to drink real imported Calvados. They drank instead cheap black-market kasutori shochu.


Kokeshiya’s original connection to French culture thus started with the society members.  The founder of the Calvados society Ishiguro Keishichi had travelled to France in 1925 to popularize judo. In Paris, he also began publishing a weekly Japanese newspaper “Paris Weekly” and became one of the central figures in the Japanese community, organizing meetings among the artists, diplomats, artists, actors, and sporting figures in the prewar Parisian Japanese community. After the war, he moved to his wife’s hometown Nishiogi. There he met Oishi, beginning their long-lasting symbiotic relationship. Inspired by his Paris life, Ishiguro became the first head of the Calvados Society. Many of the early participants were also returnees from France. Members included entrepreneurs, manga artists, professors, writers, critics, directors, musicians, and their female companions (since most, though not all, of the principle cultural figures were male). Many intellectuals already lived along the Chuo Line in western Tokyo, so the location was not inconvenient (Oishi 2015, 10-13).


The image of Nishiogi as a town of intellectuals with a taste for used books, late night drinking, and western dining owes much to Kokeshiya and the famed meetings of the Calvados Society, which from 1949 to 1983 featured not only speeches, art exhibits and academic discussions but also rowdy parties, including, in the 1960s, striptease performances and modernist fashion shows. By the 1980s meetings had decreased to one party every year, and with the original members dead or aging, the society was disbanded.


Inspired by its Francophile regulars, Kokeshiya opened a French bakery in 1951 and a French restaurant in 1953. The wife of the French studies scholar Komatsu Kiyoshi, Komatsu Taeko, worked as a consultant to Oishi, designing the first dishes and menu. Having lived for years in France, her guiding principle was that the restaurant should not serve hotel-style cuisine, but rather things one would eat in a home. To this day the most famous dishes are items inspired by her interpretation of French home cooking, including beef bourguignon, pot-au-feu, curry, and onion gratin soup (Oishi 2015, 24). Other restaurant owners in the neighborhood have described this menu as “yoshoku” (Japanese western food) rather than “French,” but the restaurant advertises itself as serving traditional “Cuisine Francaise.”


Positioned close to the south exit of Nishiogi Station, the current Kokeshiya is a slender six-story modern building built in the 1960s. The bottom floor has a bakery, the second floor is a café, while the third and fourth floors are home to a traditional white table cloth French restaurant. The kitchens and meeting rooms occupy the upper floors. Around the corner behind the main building there is a much bigger annex, with a family style casual western restaurant on the first floor, and a large event space on the second floor. This is the only large commercial meeting space in the neighborhood, and is a popular event space because of its proximity to the station. The Calvados Society is long gone and the founder Oishi passed away in 2007, but Kokeshiya remains an important Nishiogi symbol.


We interviewed the current manager, Mr. Tsuyoshi Kawakami, who has worked at Kokeshiya for 40 years. He started with a bit of the founding history. "At the time, Mr. Keiichi Ishiguro, President of the Calvados' Association, lived in the neighborhood and took a liking to the young man. Oishi told him, ‘my relatives want me to open a shop and I am thinking of opening a café, what do you think?’” The older man agreed to taste his coffee for him. “At first, it was ‘no good, no good, no good.’ Then finally it was, ‘this is okay.’ So, he [Oishi] was able to open the shop.”


When we looked at a photo of the Calvados Society from those days we were surprised to see that Oishi is still wearing his Waseda University uniform. He was still a student.


This was a time when French food outside of hotels was extremely rare. Not only was French fare unusual, but at this time you could say that Kokeshiya was the only real restaurant in the neighborhood, Kawakami said.


“At the time, there were not many places you could eat with a knife and a fork, because people ate with chopsticks. There were just set-meal eateries around here, serving rice, miso soup or broth. A fork and knife were rare. So quite a few of our customers are third generation, or second generation, and many of them used a knife and a fork for the first time here at Kokeshiya. So, eating here is an important memory for many of them. That’s why we always keep curry, the stew and the pot-au-feu on the menu.”


Although Japan was as a whole very poor at the time, Suginami Ward, of which Nishi-Ogikubo is a part, was one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. Still, for many people eating at a French restaurant was an exceptional event, and one that some longed for, Kawakami said.


“Back then when a student graduated from the Municipal Nishiko High School, and they started working and got their first salary, there were many who would say, ‘I definitely will eat at Kokeshiya.’ Or people would come by Kokeshiya and see the famous intellectuals eating and drinking there, and they would say, ‘I see that famous teacher there, so I also want to go.’”

The dishes were designed under the supervision of Ms. Komatsu, but chefs still had to be hired and trained, Kawakami explained. At first most of them came from hotels, but later there were many from cooking schools. Many people started working in the restaurant right out of middle school. There was no place to try out such dishes, so for many of them, Kokeshiya was the only exposure they had to French cooking. Some of them came in this way, and after many years worked their way up to head chef.”


Because it is near the station and has a large meeting hall, as well as several smaller meeting rooms, Kokeshiya is a popular spot for gatherings, Kawakami explained. Birthday celebrations are common, he said, including old people celebrating a ninetieth birthday and gamely eating with a knife and fork. Families living in Suginami District have met for the second or third generation here, and people can associate memories with a common place: "eating in a restaurant for the first time," "eating beef stew for a birthday party," a “cake that I bought the first time I received salary.”


Not everything about Kokeshiya is traditional. There are also new items on the menu. For example, on the menu this month is Iberican pork, which the chef wanted to try out.


Kokeshiya has also become famous for its Morning Market, which has been held now for 38 years in the parking lot of the annex the second Sunday of every month. This is a lively event where hundreds of customers drink wine and eat French food on an extended version of the restaurant terrace. “Of course, it is inexpensive,” Kawakami said. “And because of this it has become more and more well-known. Now, a huge number of people will come. Young people will come in a group and share a bottle of wine. Usually when people are drinking in the morning, people will think, ‘Hey, what’s up with that person?’ But at the Morning market it is okay.”


Customer service is a cardinal principle, and Kokeshiya has always delivered food to people’s homes, Kawakami said, offering the example of an elderly woman who can no longer get to the restaurant but wants a French onion soup sent to her home. The restaurant even conducts classes in table manners for the neighborhood children, organized together with the Japanese Tourism and Restaurant Association.


Kokeshiya will soon be entering its eighth decade of business in Nishiogi. Rather than thinking of it as simply a French restaurant, we can consider it a social space that through the medium of French cuisine has fostered a variety of connections to the community. (James Farrer Feb. 17, 2017)


Oishi, Yoshiko (大石よしこ) 2015. Karubadosu no Kai: Mureikou no Osake ni Tsudou カルヴァドスの会:無礼講の酒に集う[The Calvados Society: Meeting for a Drink without Formalities].  Tokyo: Hakushu Arts.

Nishiogiology Kokeshiya
Nishi-Ogikubo Kokeshiya
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